Articles - Desert Island Climbs: Sam Whittaker
Sam Whittaker. Photo: David Pickford
David Pickford - Posted on 24 Feb 2011
Today, Sam still finds the time in his busy work schedule as co-director of The Climbing Works wall in Sheffield to travel to some of the world’s most challenging rock climbing areas, which bears witness to his continuing thirst for adventure and undiminishing passion for climbing. These are Sam's most memorable climbs:
Wimberry, Peak District – first ascent in 2003
Dave Pickford: This killer line was one of the last great problems on grit for years. When did you first approach it?
Sam Whittaker: “When I was 18, I headpointed Appointment With Fear [the classic E7 6b to the left], and I immediately realised that it would be awesome to climb the blank wall directly above the start of that route’s traverse. I’d heard that a few people had tried it, but Wimberry was on my doorstep at the time, since I was working for Prana at Saddleworth. The first day I tried the moves, it felt horrendous. I couldn’t even work out how to do it, let alone link anything! I could do the lower section and the last bit, but not the crux in the middle. I left it for a few months, and went bouldering to hone the strength and technique I’d need for those moves. Once I felt I was bouldering as well as I ever had, I went back for another look, and worked out a sequence using a series of pebbles. The moves were incredibly sustained, but at least I could link it together. At that point, I realised I could do it.”
DP: Isn’t that the worst point in the journey towards climbing a hard bold project – the day you realise you will actually try to lead it?
SW: “Undoubtedly! But I got extremely psyched for it, and after a couple of weeks of sleepless nights where I visualised the moves constantly, I went back to it. I had a few more attempts on a top rope, and felt really good. So I just went for it, and did it first go. In terms of being in that special place people call ‘the zone’, it felt pretty wild. I almost couldn’t believe I’d done it when I topped out!”
(Sam Whittaker redpointing the stupendous hanging arete of Acravita (F8a) at Sector Ventanas, Mascun, Rodellar in Spain. Photo: David Pickford)
Tout Pour Le Club (F7c max/F7a+ obl) 350m
Gorges du Taghia, Atlas Mountains, Morocco
SW: Taghia is one of the great climbing areas of the world, and I did this route with Andy Cave on our trip there in 2008. We did it completely on the spur of the moment. We’d walked underneath it the day before, and it looked awesome. It was particularly memorable since we didn’t start climbing until midday - on a 12 pitch route! I managed to onsight the really thin F7c crux slab pitch, and completely surprised myself that I didn’t fall off. So once I’d done this pitch, we just pushed on, carried by the momentum of enthusiasm. Andy also managed to onsight the penultimate pitch and second crux, a gnarly overhanging crack.”
DP: What time did you top out after that, er, not very alpine start?
SW: “It was about eight o’clock in the evening, just as it was going dark, that we reached the final belay. We then abseiled down the entire route without headtorches as the moon was rising over the canyon. When we got down to the base we packed up our gear by moonlight and set off down, but got completely lost trying to find the trail back to base camp. We tried to use the light from the display screen on our digital camera to find the path down! When that failed, we just sat down and waited for rescue from the others. Nic [Sellers] and Harry [Pennels] eventually came up with headtorches and hot mint tea, and we made it safely back to base camp later that night. The whole experience was completely mad and spontaneous, but awesome. And the moral of that story is to always carry a headtorch on a long route!”
(Sam Whittaker engrossed in the steep and demanding climbing of Tout Pour Le Club in Taghia, Morocco. Photo: Sam Whittaker collection)
Preposterous Tales (E2 5b) 70m
Bosherston Head, Pembroke
SW: “This route was memorable in a similar vein to the previous one; our ascent had mildly epic and hilarious qualities. I climbed it on Ben Bransby’s stag weekend, with Jason Pickles, Adam Long , and Harry Pennels.”
DP: This crazy climb has a reputation for being wet and scary, since it climbs into and then out of a huge blowhole cave. What kind of condition was it in when you did it?
SW: “It was completely soaked, the whole thing was covered in water. There was also a big swell running, and it was getting dark! We could just about see the holds on the first pitch that traverses into the cave, but then on the second and third pitches inside the cave we were climbing in virtually complete darkness. We couldn’t see the sea but could hear it, the waves were booming and crashing in the darkness below; and we certainly couldn’t see well enough to place gear. I seem to recall that Adam ended up leading everything, and the three of us simul-climbed out behind all tied to the same rope. We were having a really extreme experience on a route that was originally graded HVS; outings like that are the essence of British sea cliff climbing!”
Eye Of The Tiger (F8a) 30m
The Grampians, Australia
SW: “The stupendous sandstone roof of Muline in the ‘Gramps is the epitome of an amazing sport route. It takes an incredible line through a cave ceiling of smooth, dark orange rock, which is shaped like an eye - hence the name. The route is extremely varied, and includes an upside-down section where you have to go feet-first towards the lip. It’s very gymnastic and three dimensional.”
DP: Do sport routes that feature unconventional climbing appeal more to you than the standard ‘crank and lock’ variety?
SW: “Definitely. An imposing feature like this appeals much more to me than connecting dots of chalk on a blank wall. Doing this route kick-started a sport climbing surge for me; it gave me the urge to try hard bolted climbs with powerful natural lines. Coming from a traditional climbing background, the strong lines on Australian sandstone really appealed to me. This route was also special to me because I climbed it on my honeymoon with my wife, Lucinda.”
From Russia With Love (E7 6b) 500m
Ak Su Valley, Kyrgyzstan – first ascent in 2005
SW: “This route was the highlight of an amazing expedition that began with apprehension, due to the unstable political climate in the region. Some members of the team had already dropped out because of this. It turned out to be one of the biggest adventures of my life, and the absolutely awesome climbing experience of this route was the highlight of the whole trip. Dave [Pickford] and I had been eyeing up the line up this towering pillar from base camp, and when the weather window came we climbed it in the best style possible, a single-push onsight flash, with no falls whatsoever. The route was a unique blend of granite climbing, with a dihedral section, an extremely bold crux slab, followed by steep, sustained and varied climbing on the headwall. I’d got the confidence from the bold single pitch routes we’d being doing around base camp to commit to the 12 metre E7 runout across the blind slab on the fifth pitch that proved to be the key to the route. All the skills I’d learnt over the years from climbing on gritstone, and all the bouldering I’d done, and all my big wall free climbing experience, lead up to this one huge lead, in a way. We were in a really remote, dangerous place, and falling off this pitch wasn’t really an option. Ak Su is not a place to have an accident!”
DP: That was clearly one of the highlights of your climbing career, that pitch?
SW: “Yes, it represented everything that’s adventurous and awesome about rock climbing to me, and it brought all my climbing skills together. I really had to bring all the tools out of the box to climb it onsight, first try, and that’s what made it so satisfying.”
(Sam Whittaker seconding the stunning 60 metre dihedral on pitch four of From Russia With Love, Ak Su Valley, Kyrgyzstan. the epic E7 6b slab traverse which formed the crux of the route and was onsight flashed by Sam, camejust above this point. Photo: David Pickford)
Pasta Religion (E6 6c) 500m
Puescanta Norte, Cordillera Huarash, Peru
SW: “This was just my second really challenging route on a big wall. I’d been to the area the year before, but we came back the following year to repeat this route with Nic (Sellers) and Mark ‘Zippy’ (Pretty). Pasta Religion was incredibly memorable because of the adventurous approach as well as the actual climbing. And the top of the route was around 5,600 metres, which felt pretty high to me! The granite on this cliff is arranged in huge vertical columns like columnar basalt. There is a very steep band in the middle section which contains the crux pitches. I lead the first hard (E5) pitch, and then Nic pulled out the stops on the main E6 6c crux pitch, after taking a huge fall when he pulled a hold off. We retreated after this escapade and then jumared back up the next day and finished off the route. To climb fast after the crux pitch myself and Zippy seconded Nic simultaneously on a 9mm rope each, which was pretty exciting! Climbing this amazing wall and having a truly memorable adventure certainly influenced my future climbing trips.”
I’d take a proper sound system and a set of decks, and my record box. Passing ships would then hear me for sure.
The Power Of Climbing by David Jones. When I started climbing this lavishly illustrated tome was hugely inspirational. Having it with me would help me stay psyched to explore the perfect granite boulder field above the beach!
(Sam Whittaker. Photo: David Pickford)
ABOUT SAM WHITTAKER
He started climbing as a teenager on Peak District gritstone, and quickly progressed until he became a leading figure in the ‘hard grit’ revival movement in the late 1990’s, and pioneered one of the most challenging and serious trad routes in the country – Appointment With Death (E9 6c). More recently, after co-founding one of Britain’s most successful climbing walls, The Climbing Works in Sheffield, Sam has been concentrating on pushing his sport climbing standard towards F8c.
This article first appeared in the February 2010 issue of Climber magazine