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Infamous UK climbers the “Wide Boyz,” Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, have completed what may very well be their most badass route yet: a 2,500-foot roof crack tracing the underside of a freeway in Devon, England.
The Great Rift (5.13), took “between 60 and 70 pitches” and went down in a four-day push, sleeping in a portaledge hanging under the bridge at night, with ear plugs to block out the noise of traffic rumbling overhead. The route follows the entirety of the freeway bridge, from where it leaves the ground to where it returns to terra firma, and was climbed in team free style. The ascent will appear in Reel Rock 16, coming Spring 2022.
The duo originally latched onto the idea in spring 2021, after being tipped off by a friend on Instagram, who “knew we were looking for something big to get stuck into,” Whittaker said.
It’s far from the first bridge crack the Wide Boyz have climbed, but it’s undoubtedly the toughest and burliest, he said. “It really was primarily kicked off by the pandemic,” Randall told Climbing of The Great Rift. “Pete and I are obsessed with crack climbing. We couldn’t travel, and crack climbing in the UK is terrible, so we had no other options.”
Though the project was catalyzed by the pandemic, Whittaker admitted that the pair “quickly came to realize that these things could be pretty challenging due to the slick concrete, and also the continuous and sustained nature of the cracks. Often there would be very little respite.”
The Great Rift followed a single, linear crack but, surprisingly, varied several inches in size. “The vast majority [of the route] was blue Camalot-size,” said Randall, adding that there were sections of golds, and one “freaking desperate” crux pitch that pinched down to reds. Difficulties ranged from 5.12d to 5.13b—and did not stray for the entire 2,500 feet.
A never-ending concrete splitter smack dab in the middle of the UK may sound tedious, or a cheap imitation of the real thing, but Randall was adamant that its artificial nature didn’t diminish its quality in the slightest. “It’s absolutely incredible,” he said. “I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t good climbing. It wasn’t boring in any way. You’re onsighting every single pitch. You’re totally committed, hanging upside down the entire time. You don’t know the exact size you’re going to get on your pitch. It varies from flares to wider to tighter. You get bits of debris, car bumper, plastic bottles, just about everything shows up in there.”
There was no time to clean and then climb. This would have taken too long, Whittaker said, and by the time they had the crack clean, the constant traffic would have likely dirtied the crack all over again. “We just cleaned it with our bodies as we climbed.”
Bridge climbing in general, both men said, makes for phenomenally good climbing. “It’s utterly unforgiving, in terms of technique,” said Randall. “You can’t cheat your way around it. No laybacks. No crimps. [Bridge cracks] are also quite smooth inside, so they’re fairly good on your skin.”
One major factor that would come as a surprise to the uninitiated bridge crack climber, Randall said, is how violently the incessant overhead traffic shakes the bridge. This was, he admitted, perhaps the biggest single issue the duo faced during their climb.
Of all the bridge cracks they’ve climbed, Randall said they’ve never climbed one that moved nearly as much as The Great Rift. “If you hang there and look at the two edges of the crack, you can see them go from being parallel to not parallel as the bridge is shaking,” he said. “If you look at the Friends inside the crack, they’re rocking inside the crack. It’s moving that much. Sometimes you’ll be hanging off a jam, trying to clip, and suddenly a lorry will go over the top and you’re like, ‘Holy shit the crack just expanded!’ while you’re in the jam.”
While Randall was reluctant to say that this was the last bridge crack he’d ever climb, Whittaker admitted that he felt like he had “closed the chapter on big concrete roof cracks,” at least. “I know what that is like now,” he said. “I have no need to go searching.”
Randall was also extremely impressed with the Reel Rock project. “In terms of stuff I’ve been filmed on over the years, it felt like a very well-filmed, well-managed project. I think it’s going to produce a pretty unique film.”
In addition to the film crew, there were a number of public onlookers as well, including several people who called the police on the climbers. Their initial attempt was actually stymied two days in, when the police pulled them down from the wall. On their second (and final) attempt, they coordinated with the police in advance and received permission to climb unbothered.
But the most time-consuming part of the process, however, was the training. Since discovering the crack nearly a year and a half ago, the duo had to put every ounce of their willpower into training to send it. “Just a few years ago, Pete and I could not have done this,” Randall said. “We just weren’t good enough climbers. [The Great Rift] took us right to the limit of what we’re capable of. This was not a publicity stunt, or just because the line was cool or unique.”
“It was a freaking hard bit of climbing.”
Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie.
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