Rune Bennike belaying on Millstone quarry, in front of the Hope valley
As you may know, I recently returned from a 6 months stay abroad in London. I moved there in February, just in time to participate in what many have described as the best Scottish Winter in years. As spring rolled and the weather warmed, I kept exploring the trad climbing crags of the country with multiple trips to North Wales, the Peak District, Dorset and other less famous places. According to my logbook, I climbed 68 British routes in those 6 months (though I suspect the actual figure is a bit higher than that).
Some of these routes were mind blowing. Some were amazing, many were good and surprisingly few sucked. Here is, then, my totally subjective list of the 10 best routes in the country. The only rule is that I must have attempted the climb (though not necessarily completed or got a clean ascent).
10. Comes the Dervish (E3 5c), LLanberis
Gareth Leah on the upper section of “Comes the Dervish”
Though I didn’t get to climb it as much as I would want to, my predilection for thin technical climbing made me fall in love with slate right away. Pull my Daisy, on Rainbow Slab, almost made this list but I backed off after a mere 6m (but the onsight is still valid!) so here comes this ultra-classic E3 instead. Unfortunately, Gareth, Adam and I arrived very late in the quarry, and by the time Gareth had grabbed the lead, night was falling, so Adam and I had to settle for (clean) seconding.
The route is long (35-40m), beautifully elegant, pretty sustained and well protected after the initial run-out. IMP/RPs are useful for the start, and afterward it’s only small cams and bomber nuts.
9. Flying Buttress Direct (E1 5b), Stanage
Myself on the crux of “Flying Buttress Direct”, about to panic when I realize just how bad the gear is (photo by John Hopkins)
The main reason this route made the list is because the first time I saw it, I thought there had been a mistake in the guidebook. “There’s no way I can get up that!”.
It is a huge classic, and a crazy overhang/roof overcome by shrewd heel hooks instead of brute force. My first ascent was a true onsight: I evaluated from below the key gear to be a gold camalot. As I came to the crux section and tried to place the cam, I realized it was too big but didn’t have enough stamina to select a smaller piece, so just kept going. A fall would have been 3 to 5m on a big slab, and was a definite possibility, which perhaps explains why I managed to pull through :) I have climbed it a couple more times since and with the proper beta, it is a breeze. I would be happy soloing it.
8. Great Slab (E3 5b), Froggatt
Jon Fullwood bouldering in Curbar, a few yards away from “Great Slab”
My first (and to date only) hard solo. This is a classic Joe Brown route, and it doesn’t have a single piece of gear. The climbing is never desperate, but it has a few tricky moves and finesse is definitely required. I practiced it on top rope a couple of times and the decision of whether to try the solo was in the balance until the last second. I wanted to be sure I was doing it for the right reasons, and not just to impress others or out of a desire to prove something. When I finally went, it was one of my most amazing climbing experiences, a mixture of exhilaration and perfect focus. My movements were smooth and fluid, and there was no hesitation. I am no Alex Honnold, but I am starting to understand why he does what he does.
7. North East Buttress (IV,4), Ben Nevis
Keith Alexander on the 40ft corner, one of the two cruxes of the route
I went there at the beginning of April, and the route was in perfect condition, with good ice on the 40ft corner and a dry mantrap. We used the approach through Glen Nevis and the CMD arete, which in retrospect was a mistake as approaching the Buttress from another angle made route finding on the bottom half fairly tricky. It was otherwise quite a straightforward climb, we simulclimbed all the way to the mantrap, which, much to my own surprise, I led easily, and Keith had no trouble either in the following corner. Both of these difficulties had been hyped to me as death traps and incredibly difficult obstacles, so I was almost disappointed that they didn’t give more of a fight. Still, NEB is a long, interesting and committing way to the summit of the Ben.
6. Vector (E2 5c), Tremadog
Myself at the start of the crux pitch of “Vector”, which goes to the left of the fin on the upper part of the image (photo by Gareth Leah)
My first E2 onsight, and certainly a big adventure. It has three pitches, and I got the crux middle one. Gear was good, climbing thin but doable and I soon found myself above the fin, at the top of the pitch, which is where trouble began: the previous party still wasn’t finished on the last pitch, and the belayer refused to let me come to the belay cave, even though, as we found out later, there was more than enough space for two climbers. He also refused to let me know how long he thought they would be. After a while, I decided to build a hanging belay from where I was, brought Gareth up and then belayed him on the last 2 meters (by then, the A-hole climber had gone). He then built another anchor, belayed me to the cave, then belayed Adam up the middle pitch. By the time Adam had arrived, gear had been exchanged and Gareth had led the remaining pitch, I had been sitting in the cramped cave for more than 2 hours, without warm clothes or shoes which didn’t cut circulation in the toes…
Still, it was good fun, and the route is amazing. Without traffic jams and climbing with only two persons on the rope, it would be much more straightforward!
5. Cuillin Traverse, Isle of Skye
Ominous view of the Cuillin Ridge shortly before Sgurr Alasdair
This is a legend. 4000m of ascent and descent, an estimated 16 hours required, very exposed for most of the way, and the infamous Scottish weather, all in one package. I went for it in good style: solo, one day, ultra-light (no climbing gear, only 40 meters of 6mm cord, one sling and two carabiners for abseils). I had been monitoring the weather for a while, saw a decent window and hopped on an overnight train from London. I was up on the ridge after the gruesome approach up Ghars Bheinn (the worst scree slope I have ever seen) by first light and made very good time. Weather was good, except for a shower which made the decision to bypass the TD Gap easy. As expected, the real challenge was route finding, but I was having a great time. I soloed the Kings Chimney (easy, but bloody exposed!) and started to relax, thinking I had a third of the route and some of the hardest bits behind me, when disaster struck: I badly rolled my ankle and got myself a sprain. It is actually a recurring injury, and the third time in 18 months I got the same problem. I also knew I soon wouldn’t be able to walk at all, so left the ridge as fast as I could and headed straight down scree slopes back to the campsite, which I reached a couple of hours later. Back in London, I reflected that I had spent more than 45 hours in transit for less than 15 hours on Skye proper… Still, it was worth it and I would do it again (minus the ankle sprain) in a heartbeat!
The Cuillin ridge is in a class of its own and should really be classified as an alpine route. Technical proficiency is less useful than serious mountain skills, including route finding, hydration and most of all, keeping your head together for a long, nerve-wrecking day.
4. Astrid (HVS 5a), Swanage
An unlikely adventure in the Black Zawn, near the lighthouse, and a more serious route than the grade suggests. It is long (30+ meters) and severely overhanging, so much so that one needs to place gear on the abseil in to have a chance to reach the rock. It is then a hanging belay a few meters above the water, with only one way out: up! Since we only had one set of double ropes, we pulled in the abseil lines and were then truly committed! The crux comes early with some awkward moves on greasy rock, but gear is always good. After that, it’s big moves on big jugs with crazy exposure. I kept switching back and forth between terror and exhilaration during the lead.
3. Regent Street (E2 5c), Millstone
Rune Bennike below the crux of “Great North Road”, a few routes further than “Regent Street”
There is no doubt in my mind that this is the finest rock route I have climbed in the country. Though I sadly didn’t get it clean first go (and had no time to try it again), I still feel privileged to have been able to give it a go. It is a long pitch with good protection (the DMM offsets work wonders in the many peg scars), following two finger cracks to the top of the quarry. An initial crux section overcomes a jammed boulder via a hidden jug on the left side, then it’s delicate climbing to a rest ledge, halfway up. The real crux comes higher, with a splitter finger crack which wouldn’t be out of place in Indian Creek. As I can attest after trying everything I could think of, there is no other way than desperate jamming both hands and feet for 5 or 6 very blank meters.
An elegant line on a long pitch of beautiful rock, and a gorgeous view of the Hope valley from the top to boot, this is hard to beat.
2. Raeburn’s Route (IV,4), Stob Coire nan Lochan
Keith Alexander and Karin Helwig below the central buttress of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Raeburn’s route takes a direct line on the center-right of the buttress, then follows a broad ridge to the top.
This started pretty badly. I had had a bad night after an exhausting day up and down the Ben’s North East Buttress, it was pouring down and I wanted nothing more than coffee and dry clothes. Keith and Karin, however, were keen on doing a route, and I begrudgingly followed them to Stob Coire nan Lochan, in Glencoe. Within minutes, of course, the clouds opened and my bad mood subsided. Raeburn’s route has 4 pitches and I somehow ended up with the first one. It wasn’t supposed to be the hardest, but I somehow missed the exit in the initial chimney and kept going into harder and harder ground. The grass was not as frozen as it should have been and there was no ice, so it ended up being very delicate and very runout drytooling for 40 meters. At some point, the rope jammed in a crack and I had to downclimb a tricky section to free it. At another, I banged a piton upside down while hanging from a microscopic hook. It was the hardest, most terrifying and best pitch I have ever climbed.
The rest of the route felt ridiculously easy in comparison, though it was still very good fun. The top section in particular was a succession of exposed but easy boulder problems, with bomber gear just below each difficulty. It would be a perfect introductory pitch to what Scottish climbing is all about.
1. Tower Ridge (IV,3), Ben Nevis
Dave Brown above the Douglas Boulder, on the lower part of Tower Ridge
In retrospect, it was perhaps a mistake for this to be the very first route I ever climbed in the country (and by extension, my first Scottish winter climb), as I knew right away I wouldn’t be able to top that out. It is everything a climb should be: long, committing, elegant, varied and finishing on a significant summit. I also climbed it with a good friend, which was perhaps the most important factor in it being such an amazing experience. I felt everything on this climb: terror, pain (hot aches, ewwww), tiredness, relief but most of all, joy.
You can read a full trip report of the Tower Ridge over there: Scottish Towers.
So this is it, that’s my list. If you have climbed any of these routes, do you agree with my assessment? Or do you have any other to add to my already incredibly long wishlist?