Articles - Gritstone Trad: Cratcliffe Tor.
Lucy Creamer tackles the final strenuous flake of Five Finger Exercise(E2 5c) scene of many wobblers
Like new houses, guidebooks are finding new and ingenious ways of packing more into less space. Smaller windows, lower ceilings, that kind of thing. Not that Cratcliffe needs some sprawling mansion in which to stretch out. It’s not what you might term a big crag, or even a particularly important one.
Two clean and looming walls extend out of Owl Gully in a dramatic ‘V’.To the right is another substantial face about 90ft high with Peter Harding’s 1946 classic Suicide Wall.The crag occupies just six pages in Peak Gritstone East, and there are perhaps a dozen or so routes that deserve close attention, all of them HVS and above.
So why does it mean so much to me?
There are, I think, three reasons.
The first and most obvious is the café at Elton. This is, of course, the greatest café in the world. How do I know that? Because the best café in the world has to be in
You can buy a decent bacon sandwich, too, with gigantic wholemeal cobs and fresh tomatoes. But it is the cakes, which clinch it. Climbing for me is not about grades, or performance. It’s not about competition, even with myself. And I don’t give a stuff about living the dream. For me, climbing is basically an excuse to stuff my face with cake.
I am not alone in this. Wolfgang Güllich famously couldn’t go near a crag without stocking up on kaffee und kuchen and it didn’t do him any harm. Of course, he could get off the ground post-coitus, as it were, whereas I, by force of circumstance, have to wait until after the climbing has finished to get to grips with the main business of the day. And there is a certain moral force to doing it in this order. You suffer, then you get your reward. All I can add is, if you don’t believe me, go there and have a slice of the coffee cake. Then we’ll talk.
The second principle behind Cratcliffe’s advantages is that gritstone routes are alive. They have personalities, some pugnacious, others robust and looming, some welcoming. We give them names, but we’re only naming what’s already there. Each line is a distinct individual, with its own demands and foibles, an overhang here, a rounded break there, an occasional blankness that we find difficult to read. Cratcliffe’s big lines are no exception to that rule.
Heaven knows what this means for those who first climb these living, breathing sculptures. But it’s no coincidence that true gritstone masters are as quirky or rugged as the routes they encounter. Goliath, you feel, was made for Whillans, ditto Sentinel Crack. Watching Dawes pick his way across Braille Trail does not speak of man conquering nature, but two slightly mad people who know each other rather well having a conversation.
So, instead of seeing Cratcliffe as a small crag with some worthwhile routes, let’s rethink it as a draughty old castle filled with magnificent and eccentric characters all of which you wish to meet even though some are frankly terrifying. (No wonder I need the comfort of a tasty sponge after that lot.)
This also feeds into the final appeal of Cratcliffe that admittedly may not have occurred to you. Most descriptions of the crag mention its bucolic charm. True enough, in contrast to many moorland gritstone crags, the ambience is decidedly pastoral. Cows, trees, grass, rolling hills, picnics, long summer evenings. And while Burbage might be suffering under a howling, winter gale, Cratcliffe and its nearby bouldering offer a sheltered alternative. (Rowtor and Eagle Tor are also both increasingly popular venues.)
But Cratcliffe is also hard up against the wilder aspect of
Not that I wish to imply anyone’s been making up stories recently about what goes on at Cratcliffe. There has been far too much speculation about who made the first ascent of Fern Hill, and its near neighbour Boot Hill. Were these routes climbed by Peter Harding and his friends in the 1940s or should Keith Myhill and Tom Proctor still get the nod for their efforts in the 1970s?
The historical tick list
The 1970 Chatsworth Gritstone guide has a pretty close description of Boot Hill credited to Geoff Sutton in 1951, so at the very least one of these routes has a more ancient provenance. Fern Hill could have been climbed in the late 1940s. I did Kelly’s Overhang at Stanage in the spring, which was first led in 1926 and is now graded E1 5c.After that, you might say, anything’s possible.
Fern Hill in particular is characterised by a sharp, technical sequence right at the start, which is far harder than anything else on the climb.You step left out of Owl Gully and find yourself confronted with a sharp splinter of a crux that can spit you off before you’ve had time to adjust. After that it caves in with a series of superb jams and finger locks at around HVS.Despite the disparity, the route makes perfect sense.
Grading is a bit of a headache on Tom Proctor’s 1971 classic Tom Thumb which is also graded E2 5c by many – although I’ve seen it at E3 and even E4 – but is an utterly different experience. The hanging crack that splits its nose is a grim, brutal struggle with an aggressive and recalcitrant thug, Cratcliffe’s very own version of Fight Club. You’ve got to get your hands sorted out, or you’re finished. Lead with the left is my advice.
The right wall of Owl Gully holds another of Cratcliffe’s masterpieces, the wall and leering flake of Five Finger Exercise. It is a source of total bewilderment to me that John Allen didn’t climb this first. He and Steve Bancroft were geniuses, and Allen had the wizard’s touch for grit.He had been at Cratcliffe in 1975 freeing the points of aid from Paul Nunn’s Requiem to give a free route that was considerable harder. Didn’t he see it? Was he so shagged out after Requiem that the final flake put him off?
Andy Edgar dispatched the line in 1976, the year of the endless summer. What most compels me about this route is the notion of Gabe Regan soloing the second ascent on sight. He told John Kirk he thought the climb worth HVS 5a.This story explained a lot for me, not least why I found his Stanage micro route Not To Be Taken Away such a nightmare when it was still graded HVS 5a.Maybe he gave everything HVS 5a.
The boy must have cojones, because up on that flake, with your gear heading south behind you and your arms suddenly doubtful, the human mind – or at least the human HVS mind – could unravel quite quickly. Although for my money the lower sequence, as illustrated by Dave Thomas in Tim Glasby’s photograph, offers more demanding climbing. Sinewy fellow, Regan.
Johnny Allen did climb Reticent Mass Murderer in 1976, a superbly protected exercise in being foxed. Frankly, this is far beyond the limits of a cake-eating journeyman, so I can’t tell you the first thing about this route. But I still feel compelled to give it a go sometime. Chris Craggs has said the route is, in reality, just two moves, but since he could only do the first one he wasn’t going to comment on the grade.
It does make you wonder about Allen though. He was, by his own account, fabulously lazy in an age that spawned the well-oiled machine Ron Fawcett and the honed hordes that followed. Maybe he had trouble taking it all seriously. But then, after he returned in the 1980s, he put up routes like Shirley’s
Since the big lines fell in the 1970s, there have been a couple of excellent hard additions, like Jerry Moffatt’s 1983 E6 Genocide in the Hermit’s Cave Area. Allen’s own E5 The Child’s House breaks out of the first pitch of Suicide Wall. Stretch Limo, climbed as recently as 2001 by
Harding’s 1946 climb must still rank as the best on the crag, perhaps alongside Five Finger Exercise. In the endless discussion that engages sad cakestuffers like myself about which is the finest gritstone route in the world, Suicide Wall has a strong case. Beyond the climbing itself, which is both imposing and engaging, like a big steak after weeks of falafel, the route has the indefinable allure of magnificence that only the very best – Bachelor’s Left-hand or Delstree at Hen Cloud, or the muscular Jester Cracks on Kinder – can claim.
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Find more articles about the Peak District on the features page.