No-Bolt Roulette: The Evolution of Headpointing on Peak District Gritstone

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Just a 30-minute drive from the energetic city of Sheffield in the central UK are two regions locals refer to as the “white” and the “dark” Peak Districts—white for the lighter-colored limestone on the many mini-mountain peaks, and dark for the gritstone, which includes the renowned crags of Stanage, Curbar, Burbage, Roaches, and Millstone. Sheffield has long been the place to live and train if you wanted access to the best grit in the country. In no other place in the UK can you find such a high concentration of exceptional routes—over 10,000 gritstone lines recorded in the Peak. With its sculptured arêtes, blank slabs, and pebble-dashed walls, the iconic rock has attracted climbers since the nineteenth century.

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Tom Randall climbing the desperately thin top of The Zone (E9 6c; 5.13b X) as waning winter sunshine signifies a great end to the day at Curbar Edge.

When John Arran set off to Curbar in winter 1998 armed with a mattress, camping mat, and some skyhooks, he had recently watched the film Hard Grit, and was on a mission to see what said medium really felt like. His preparation for The Zone was meticulous and involved placing poor skyhooks at 20 feet, reversing the route, and then jumping off to test said hooks above a thin mattress on the ground. After a tortured night’s sleep and a few final runs on toprope, Arran went on to encounter what is often termed “the zone,” in which an athlete feels a heightened sense of awareness and subsequently experiences an exceptional level of performance. That day, Arran added what became the third route in the UK to carry the E9 grade. Circus performer Toby Benham’s headpoint solo ascent in 2004 with no pads or spotters still stands, however, as one of the most outrageous performances on gritstone.

For the first-timer, Peak grit can be intimidating. The harder climbs often lack adequate protection—or the pro is too low to be of much use, especially on the shorter climbs—and the crag bases can be rocky. On these bold climbs, a calm head is an advantage. Even the easier classics have a brutal feel, as obvious handholds can be scarce and jamming is often the only way to succeed.

In 1885, the 16-year-old James William Puttrell added the country’s first documented route to Wharncliffe Edge in the Peak District, Puttrell’s Progress (Severe 4a; 5.6). Over the next 20 years, he and W.J. Watson, climbing on hemp ropes with no real lead protection, ventured just 10 miles from Sheffield to Stanage Edge, putting up many first ascents. Their most significant addition was Stonnis Crack (Hard Severe 4b; 5.7) at Black Rocks, climbed in 1900, a route that was for some time the hardest of its kind in the Peak—a tremendous achievement given it was climbed ground-up and onsight.

The way modern-day climbers approach the most difficult grit routes—by headpointing them, or rehearsing them on toprope prior to leading them—is very different. In terms of climbing headlines, the Peak District has seen more antics, controversy, and scandal than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and illustrates how gritstone ethics, practices, and standards have shifted over the past half century.

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Pete Whittaker embarking on a sickening runout during the first ascent of The Bigger Picture (E8 6c; 5.12d X) at Ravenstones Edge.

Many years ago, when every household in the Chew Valley burnt coal for heat, the air contained so much sulphurous gas that the green lichen on the north-facing crags grew at a hyper-prolific rate. When Whittaker and his partner ventured to the outer reaches of the valley, they discovered that the routes were plastered in a pelt of fluorescent lichen, and cleaning them with a stiff brush was mandatory. Whittaker also discovered that the key to finding new lines was often simply to walk farther into the wilderness, with the knowledge that most climbers wouldn’t put in this much effort. The route in question climbs a rippled wall to thin moves an uncomfortable 20 feet or so above the only runner—too large of a runout, really, for the piece to catch a fall. What Whittaker needed was a pile of mats to pad out the ledge, but unfortunately, we’d left these in the car, and no one was prepared to make the five-mile walk back. The remoteness of the location and lack of pads were big considerations in grading the route E8.

In order to debate the habits of today’s climber, we need to go back to the 1950s, the era of hobnailed boots and the first nylon ropes, when climbing ground-up was standard; it was also an era when falling was not advisable due to uncomfortable harnesses and the lack of reliable pro. Although first-generation wired nuts were available, there was little faith they would hold. Routes ascended in this style include the awkward Peapod (HVS 5b; 5.10a) at Curbar Edge. When Joe Brown and Don Whillans set siege on the FA in 1951, they climbed with a mindset that falling would land them on the ground. Another Brown classic at Curbar was the brutal offwidth Right Eliminate (E3 5c; 5.11a). Climbed in 1951, this was a phenomenal achievement given that the only protection was a threaded chockstone too low to be of much use.

Although aid climbing was rarely practiced in the Peak, climbers in the 1950s used pegs to aid hairline cracks in the quarried edges of Millstone and Lawrencefield. In 1956, Trevor Peck spent four hours on the 75-foot London Wall (A3) at Millstone Edge, banging in specially made ultra-thin pegs. The line waited 20 years before John Allen freed the finger crack at E5 6a (5.12a). As standards increased toward the end of the 1950s, a movement toward clean climbing and freeing routes began. Ironically, though, the very pegs that were used to aid many of the quarried lines were themselves responsible for prying open the hairline cracks, which in turn made them more accommodating of modern gear and the next generation’s fingers.

Toward the end of the 1980s, bolts started to appear in the Peak, but these were restricted to the crackless limestone cliffs. It was always felt that the gritstone had enough cracks and breaks to take removable protection and that adding bolts would destroy the experience. While headpointing was employed in this era, it wasn’t a preferred tactic, especially given that abseiling and toproping before the advent of the modern sit harness were so uncomfortable that it was simply more practical to climb onsight. In fact, way back in the 1950s, even Joe Brown toproped the occasional route before leading it, including Kelly’s Overhang (HVS 5b; 5.10a) at Stanage and the precarious Moyer’s Buttress (E15b; 5.10b) at Gardom’s Edge. And, in the late 1970s, John Allen abseiled routes in order to clean them, and if they were amenable, he tried them ground-up with no toprope practice—with the exception of desperate, unprotected lines like the arête of White Wand (E5 6a; 5.11b R) at Stanage Edge, which he rehearsed before the first ascent.

The biggest scandal of the 1970s involved Ed Drummond’s ascent of the much-feared blank wall of Linden (E6 6b; 5.12a R) at Curbar Edge. He controversially drilled two sky-hook placements to aid the low, hard beginning, whilst he free-climbed the bold and almost as difficult upper section. The consensus was that the route was so ahead of its time that it should have been left unaltered for a better climber—in the event, it would be Mick Fowler, who freed the route in 1976.

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The talented Norwegian Mari Augusta Salvesen guns for the finishing hold on Master’s Edge (E7 6c; 5.12d R/X) at Millstone. 

When climbing superstar Ron Fawcett conquered one of the Peak District’s scariest-looking arêtes in 1983, he raised the bar for British gritstone. The lower, highball section of this beautifully sculpted edge involves an unprotected, crimpy sequence to the sanctuary of two ancient shot holes, which, fortunately, take Aliens or Tricams. The shot holes are historic reminders that the area was once quarried by means of exploding charges. The final section involves a dynamic move in an exposed position. Whilst most people were enjoying their Christmas lunch in 1983, Fawcett made the history books after just a brief abseil inspection, and utilized one of the first-ever Amigo protection devices in the country (a rudimentary cam made by the German company Edelrid that perfectly fit the shot holes). He survived a fall from above the holes and sent the line next go. Equally impressive was the first female ascent, in 1994, by the then 19-year-old Airlie Anderson. Later, when she was confronted in her local pub about the use of a mattress to protect the lower section, Anderson was so outraged that she punched her interlocutor to the floor.

The 1980s saw the emergence of Johnny Dawes, a promoter of ethical standards and a household name in the grit arena. Dawes stood out with his confident, gymnastic style and ability to climb the hardest lines with minimal abseil inspection. Unlike others, he was prepared to take multiple falls onto piles of jacket-stuffed rucksacks (pads didn’t yet exist) rather than succumb to toproping, a practice he often criticized others for. In 1984, Dawes FA’ed the horrendously thin, pebble-dashed slab of Salmon (E7 6c; 5.12c R) at Bamford after repeated 20-foot lobs onto the thin cam placements at half height. Dawes commented that it had one of the best falls on grit—possibly even better than the route itself. Then, in 1984, he onsight free-soloed the FA of the protectionless 27-foot slab of White Water (E6 6c; 5.12c X) at Curbar, taking bigger and bigger falls onto the deck between efforts.

In 1983, Jerry Moffatt put up the groundbreaking arête Ulysses Bow (E6 6b; 5.12b X) at Stanage, free soloing it after extensive toproping. On this terrifying, 35-foot, square-cut edge, every move is harder than the last. And because there are so few features, laybacking and smearing are the only option—above an appalling landing. Ever the entrepreneur, Moffatt was the first in the UK to get his hands on a pair of Boreal’s sticky-soled Firé boots, and he laybacked the entire arête, a technique that had previously been way too daunting in the slick-soled EBs. “In the funny way of climbing ethics, what you are allowed to do depends on where you are,” wrote Moffatt in his 2009 memoir, Revelations. “On gritstone, toproping was common practice, especially before a first ascent.”

At the same time, local activist Graham Hoey didn’t recall Moffatt’s approach to reflect common attitudes, and thought Moffatt wrong in his assumptions. Hoey, along with Dawes, Simon Nadin, Andy Popp, and Dougie Hall, continued to onsight many cutting-edge lines without toprope practice. Hoey felt he would have been laughed out of Sheffield had he toproped Ulysses Bow the dozens of times that Moffatt did.

Still, climbers had begun to reach a logical endpoint with the onsight style, as the routes got harder, the gear sparser. In 1986, Dawes fell 33 feet from the notorious arête The End of the Affair (E8 6c; 5.12d X) at Curbar during a ground-up attempt. Fortunately, his belayer jumped off the ledge, arresting Dawes in a sweeping fall mere feet above the ground. Eventually, even Dawes succumbed to toprope practice on this horrorshow, with his route name symbolizing the effective barrier that climbers had reached in which it no longer made sense to employ purist ethics.

Throughout the late 1980s, some of the toughest lines on Peak grit continued to go down, including John Dunne’s controversial 1989 headpoint of Parthian Shot (E10 7a; 5.13d R/X) at Burbage South. Dunne believed that the creaking flake at the halfway point of 25 feet would eventually snap if climbers fell onto it from the crux, a desperate rockover onto a slab. Thus his solution was to train for the route’s uniquely steep, bouldery style for over a year and avoid ever testing the flake. However, even after Dunne’s plan paid off, some thought he had toproped the climb too much and didn’t believe that someone of his linebacker stature could climb something so overhanging.

In 2008, the US climber Kevin Jorgeson had the gear pre-placed on Parthian, and then clipped it on his pseudo-ground-up ascent after no toprope practice. Then, in 2011, the Canadian Will Stanhope placed a cam behind the flake that would, when he fell, pry it off, causing an ankle-breaking grounder from 40 feet. The route had become a victim of its own popularity. It’s only had one ascent since, in 2013 by Ben Bransby, who survived a fall onto gear placed behind the remnants of the broken flake. Although the fall was a monster, Bransby escaped unscathed.

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Ex British Indoor junior champion Ed Hamer forgoing the rope on the much-feared smooth arête of Ulysses Bow (E6 6c; 5.12b X), Stanage Edge. 

In 1983, when Jerry Moffatt returned from climbing the hardest routes in the USA, he was the secret owner of the only pair of Boreal Firé boots in the UK. These sticky-soled shoes revolutionized rock climbing. Although the line had been successfully toproped in the older-style EB boots by Graham Hoey, the moves above the rocky landing were so precarious that no one wanted to risk this as a highball solo. In these pre-crashpad days, the Firés gave Jerry the confidence to layback the entire arête, a concept that Hoey hadn’t considered, resorting instead to pulling on crystals. The climbing community reacted in disbelief, but soon word got around about the new boots with magical properties. In the late 1990s, the introduction of bouldering pads transformed this previously feared route into an aspirational tick. It was even climbed above enormous snowdrifts during the harsh winter of 2010.

The year 1998 saw the release of Hard Grit, an iconic film that started a revolution in the way grit routes were tackled, and normalized toproping them to death before the lead. For the first time, the Sheffield climber could study the beta for Meshuga (E9 6c; 5.13a X), Gaia (E9 6c; 5.13a X), and The End of the Affair. Over the next few years, toproping became so accepted that E7s were going down by the dozens and climbers who had previously onsighted E5 were now headpointing E8. However, a few holdouts like Ben Heason, Julian Lines, and Kevin Thaw insisted on onsighting. The following years weren’t without incident, and Thaw in 2002 decked 33 feet from Obsession Fatale (E8 6b; 5.12c X) at the Roaches, landing in hospital with a broken heel.

At the turn of the millennium and into the Aughties, crashpads appeared, opening certain climbs as highballs, such as Dan Varian and Ned Feehally’s 2008 repeat of Ron Fawcett’s 50-foot slab Toy Boy (E7 7a; 5.13c X) at Froggatt above a huge stack of pads. Ascents like this generated a stir in the media, and many thought the E grade should be replaced with an H (highball grade). As another example, the unprotected Fawcett arête at Stanage Edge, Careless Torque (E6 7a; 5.13d), soon became recognized as a benchmark Font 8a—a 23-Foot V11.

In 2010, a succession of snowstorms hit the UK, and for the first time climbers tried some of the Peak’s hardest lines above deep snow. An industrious Sheffield crew carved out platforms reaching a third of the way up the routes. That winter, Dave Mason made a “snowball” onsight of the 35-foot arête Simba’s Pride (E8 6c; 5.13a X) at Burbage South. Previously, the appalling landing had made only headpointing an option.

Whilst the likes of Dan Varian, Ned Feehally, and Michele Caminati pursued the highball-above-pads approach, a new wave of talented individuals stripped the Peak District of some of the “last great problems.” 

In the 2010s, the duo of Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker employed headpointing and pre-inspection to open cutting-edge new routes, often obliged to do so by the fact these virgin climbs tackled north-facing walls encrusted with green lichen and loose rock.

In 2014, Whittaker made the first ascent of the Roaches’ last great problem, a 33-foot arête that had been eyed by many of the country’s best. Most of the moves are on crimpy pebbles, all of which are droppable according to Whittaker; a fall from the top would have landed him in the trees below after hitting a ledge. He christened the arête Sleepy Hollow (E10 7a; 5.14b X), one of only a handful of UK climbs to get E10, the other two standouts being Whittaker’s own Barron Greenback Direct (E10 7a; 5.14b X) and Neil Bentley’s Equilibrium (E10 7a; 5.14b X).

As the history of Peak District gritstone shows, the most contentious drivers of increased standards have been each successive generation’s willingness to tamper with the sport’s ethical boundaries. Headpointing has played a massive role in this, and is clearly here to stay. Whilst the majority of images in this article show cutting-edge routes being climbed in this modern headpoint style, a few show easier lines being onsighted. In today’s world, any style goes, though the community remains as free as ever to judge the tactics employed.

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Pete Whittaker digging deep on the outrageous hanging prow of Baron Greenback Direct (E10 7a; 5.14a R/X), Wimberry, during the first ascent. 

After climbing Appointment with Fear (E7 6b; 5.12c R) in 2012, Whittaker cast his eyes on this unclimbed mega-prow to its left. However, rumors of finger-snapping V13 moves quickly put him off, as he was no boulderer and the rock looked blank. Returning the following years, he was shocked to find both holds and three practice aid bolts from the 1960s. After playing on a rope during snow and wind, Whittaker reckoned the climbing was more like French 8b (5.13d), but there was a dilemma: None of the holds near the bolts were big enough to clip from. So he devised a cunning system in which he hung off bigger holds low down and clipped all three bolts using a homemade stiff quickdraw made from a bamboo cane found in Tom Randall’s garden. He also equalized the top two bolts with a sling to reduce the force on either one during a potential fall. Whittaker did take a fall on his first attempt, and although the ancient bolts held, it was impossible to say whether they would hold future falls. And, since the Peak District now has a strict no-bolting policy, Whittaker felt it inappropriate to replace them. Whittaker later commented that the route would probably be E9 if the bolts were good and E12 if they didn’t exist. In either case, if the bolts failed it would be massively bad news.

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Adam Bailles moving into the no-fall zone on the treacherous The Promise (E9 6c; 5.13b X), Burbage North.

After a youthful James Pearson conquered this line in 2007, it became one of the most controversial routes on grit. On the day of the ascent, Pearson chose not to pad out the horrific landing but instead placed a dubious-looking Slider nut. He sent the route after figuring out a complex sequence, offering a grade of E10 7a and saying that The Promise felt harder than Equilibrium (E10 7a; 5.14b X), which he’d repeated. Pearson’s FA was tarnished somewhat when a visiting Kevin Jorgeson made light work of the line and discovered an easier sequence on the second ascent in 2008. In Jorgeson’s opinion, E8 6c (5.13c R) was more realistic, though he admitted to using pads to pack out the gap between the ankle-breaking boulders. The news travelled fast, and a team of three local climbers attempted it armed with six pads and a ladder to cover the hole. They all succeeded, having used the Slider for protection as Jorgeson had done, but with the additional security offered by an even bigger stack of pads below. Meanwhile, the confidence in the Slider soared as climbers took multiple falls onto it that year, and upon his repeat in 2008, Ben Bransby suggested E7 7a (5.13c R). Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the placement blew during a ground-up ascent, by Jordan Buys in 2012. Buys missed the pads and fell down the hole, but merely tore his jeans. The Promise is now recognised as a Font 7c/V9 highball since Michele Caminati’s 2012 ground-up ascent above multiple pads.

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Martin Kocsis savoring morning light as he balances up the unprotected arête of Consolation Prize (E5 6a; 5.11c X) at Wimberry. 

On the far outer reaches of the Peak District, Wimberry Rocks stand menacingly above the Dovestone Reservoir. The rippled, lichenous walls here yield some of grit’s most challenging testpieces, with lines up to E10. On the day of Kocsis’s ascent, I watched in awe as mist swirled in from across the valley. At one point, Kocsis vanished from sight, and we questioned whether or not the moisture would render the top section unclimbable. As it lifted, the arête was revealed in its true beauty, glowing in the morning sunshine, the rock still dry. The route’s main difficulties, whilst short lived, occur above a nasty pile of boulders. Thankfully, the bouldery start soon relents, and the exposed but easy upper arête is riddled with pebbles and ripples. No move on the upper section is harder than what you might encounter on a typical 5.10b, but the consequences of failure are unimaginable. As the writer Niall Grimes mentioned in his book Over the Moors, “There is only victory on this route and no prize for second place.”

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Leanne Callagham launching out the intimidating Don Whillans 1953 masterpiece The Sloth (HVS 5a; 5.10a), the Roaches. 

This bulging and wildly exposed crack is visible as soon as you step out of the car. This roof, at over 20 feet long, is enormous even by gritstone standards, though the grip factor is short lived, with enormous holds available along the overhang. On a bitterly cold winter’s day in 1953, Joe Brown and Don Whillans set off on the pedestal slab beneath the big roof just as it started snowing. The operating theory was that it would be dry enough to climb beneath the roof. Whillans succeeded with a large crowd of onlookers gathered below, inquisitive as to how someone could climb such a thing. Still to this day, climbers stand in awe as others surmount the overhanging flake and fight for the summit, dangling strenuously off their arms.

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Dave Mawers laybacking above the trees on a summer-evening ascent of Track of the Cat (E5 6a; 5.11d R), the Roaches. 

The collection of arêtes and slabs scattered along the Roaches’ distant skyline—the “Hard Very Far Skyline Buttress”—is just far enough from the road to keep the crowds at bay. In this wilderness landscape that was once home to imported wallabies that escaped from a nearby zoo during WWII, you’ll find some of the best micro-routes on grit. Whilst Jonny Woodward was working the aptly named Wings of Unreason (E4 6a; 5.11c R), which involved a terrifying dyno from the slab to the top of the crag, he spotted something even better to its left: a steep bulge, technical groove, and exhilarating flyaway arête that, compressed into 40 feet, represented grit at its best. Commitment is required as you embark on the final arête, with the knowledge that only a fast-running belayer may stop you from landing in the trees should you muff the top moves.

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Tom Randall negotiates the crux on the pebble-encrusted Appointment with Death (E9 6c; 5.13c X) at Wimberry during the second ascent.

The year 2003 was an eventful one for Sam Whittaker as he quested up the lonely wall above the traverse of Appointment with Fear (E7 6b; 5.12c X). This was the feared line that Johnny Dawes had eyed up but then ruled out due to the friability of the pebbles. With just a low wire placed in the crack to the right, a fall from the crux would at the very least result in serious injury. On the day of his lead, Sam still hadn’t linked the whole sequence on toprope. But he went for it anyway. Fortunately, the cluster of pebbles that he had to pull on before slapping for a rounded ripple didn’t break, and he lived to climb another day. The route was so dangerous that it had to wait 10 years before a second ascent. When Tom Randall stepped up, he managed to fluff the lower sequence and fell on a pad that just happened to be in the correct place. He, too, eventually succeeded, and would go on to even greater challenges.

Mike Hutton (mikehuttonimages.com) is a UK-based adventure photographer and writer. He specializes in capturing inspiring images of climbers in rarely visited landscapes.