The File (VS), Higgar Tor, Peak District - UK Classics
- Wednesday 2nd October 2019
One of the best crack climbs on gritstone described by Ian Smith.
ROUTE: The File (VS 4c)
LOCATION: Higgar Tor, Peak District.
FIRST ASCENT: D Whillans, J Brown, N Allen Nov. 1956
The centrepiece of Higgar Tor, the Leaning Block, is one of the most visually striking of all gritstone crags, overhanging by around four metres in 12m of vertical. Visible from miles around, particularly from the roads to and from Hathersage and Sheffield, its dramatic face contains a plethora of top-end, three-star classics up to E6. The original route of the face, the Brown/Whillans masterpiece of The Rasp (E2 5b) has been described as 'one of the best routes on gritstone' and there are more modern offerings from the likes of Ed Drummond, Jonny Woodward and Ben Moon. These are amongst some of the most physically demanding, though fairly safe, routes on gritstone. Given the rise in standards and fitness some of these are within the reach of any number of climbers but still see few ascents, but what's at Higgar for the VS climber? Actually one of the very best of grit VSs and this UK Classic, The File.
Despite the visibility of Higgar Tor, it's not actually that popular a crag, most visitors nowadays seem to be boulderers enjoying the brilliant problems of both Higgar and Carl Wark. This is partly to do with weather, the crag can catch all the wind and rain and feel very cold even on a warm day but catch it right and it's a really delightful spot. It also benefits from a very easy walk-in, around 10 minutes depending on where you can park. However, it does tend to be a 'destination' crag, rather than an all-day venue, climbers tend to visit for specific routes, or if only a half-day is available, or even mixing it in with some routes on nearby Burbage North and South. For the VS climber this is probably the best approach as The File is the classic route but there are few other routes at the grade. There are some on the left-hand area but they are not in the same class and, oddly, given that they are on a merely vertical section of rock they feel tricky for the grade. I don't know why they feel so deceptive, to this writer, but The Rat's Tail and The Reamer (both VS 4c) and The Riffler and The Cotter (HVS 5a) all feel much harder than they look from below. Do give them a go though, there is some good climbing to be had and they pack a lot of action into such short routes.
Stephen Coughlan climbing The File (VS 4c), Higgar Tor, Peak District. Photo: David Simmonite
The File is the obvious and compelling crack just around the corner of the right-hand edge of the Leaning Block and is a product of the Brown/Whillans partnership, although Whillans was the leader on this one; the first ascents list records Nat Allen as also being on the first ascent. Nat, though not the best climber in the Rock & Ice Club, was one of its most popular characters and became known as the 'memory man' of the club as he would often remember the details of first ascents that the climbers themselves had forgotten, vital to generations of Peak guidebook writers wanting to preserve historical details. He also made the first ascents of two of the best and most popular of Froggatt Severes, Allen's Slab and Green Gut. The File is typical of a great Whillans route, being direct and uncompromising, get it right and it's fine, get it wrong and it will bite back. As was not unusual at the time, it had been named before its first ascent, having been christened 'The Vicious Crack' quite an apt moniker for some. This name didn't last and so The File joined the themed route names of The Rasp and Surform (HVS 5b) reflecting the coarse, sharp and aggressive nature of Higgar Tor rock and particularly the cracks.
The File has long been regarded as one of the great tests of a climber's hand jamming technique. I suppose it might be possible to climb it without being able to jam but it certainly wouldn't be VS that way. Watch out though, it's not a route on which to learn jamming, do that elsewhere, maybe Millstone or Stanage, for if you get it wrong on this one, blood will flow. Get it right and it's a joy with the jams locking in perfectly and long reaches possible between each hand placement. It's mostly climbed using the vertical crack but there are some horizontal breaks for a change or from which to place protection. You would be very unlucky to hurt yourself were you to fall off this one as even with nuts it's well-protected and with cams, well, it will swallow as many as you can carry and/or be bothered to place.
For some people jamming is regarded as a bit of a 'dark art', which is a shame it's not, it's just a technique that can be learned just like any other climbing skill, although it can take a bit longer to master. That good technique is vital at Higgar as the rock is so coarse it's the only way to see you through undamaged. I once did the route with a group of friends, one of whom was fairly new to climbing, but was determined to join in. By the top of the route he was regretting that decision as the blood poured from the backs of his hands, needless to say, he gave up climbing immediately. But don't let that put you off, if you are confident with your jamming then The File is simply, in the words of the guidebook Burbage, Millstone and Beyond, 'One of the classic cracks of the Peak'.