Since publication in 1978, Ken Wilson’s definitive climber’s coffee table book and connoisseur’s tick list, Classic Rock has been a source of inspiration and day dreaming.
Fast forward to July 2018 and my phone goes *ping* “Don’t suppose you’re free next week and fancy and adventure?”
Now, I honestly thought I’d outgrown this kind of behaviour but apparently not and I’m not saying I’m easily led but the speed at which I replied and rearranged the rota was nothing short of startling.
“I was kind of hoping you’d say no.”
The Classic Rock Challenge is something I’d known about for a little while and occasionally had day dreamed over one day doing it. The problem is, who with?
The nature of the Challenge means there aren’t many takers for it:
Climb all 15 rock routes that appear in Classic Rock which range from VDiff to Very Severe
Run 50-60km (65 in our case if the GPS is to be believed) to get between said routes
So, you need a runner turned climber or climber turned runner (which is the category we both fall into) and you need a spell of dry enough weather that the high mountain crags will be in good condition. Something the Lakes aren’t known for.
Climb all 15 rock routes that appear in Classic Rock which range from VDiff to Very Severe.
Run 50-60km to get between said routes. Unsupported. Sub 24hrs
As it was, this text arrived in the middle of the longest heatwave on record. A good and a terrible thing. Many gills are dry, tarns low and normally reliable springs are nowhere to be found.
But the rock was dry!
And so, Monday saw us bedding down in the back of Steve’s van on the Walna Scar road and setting the alarm for the despicable time of 1:30am.
The clock doesn’t start until you touch your first route, so we tried to take it easy on the way up to Dow but with the sky already coming light and a sense of anticipation in the air, it was hard to keep our pace in check.
We started on Murray’s Route (Severe) up Dow Crag at 3am. I imagine this is a lovely route, but I couldn’t see much of it since I’d forgotten to charge my headtorch, thus the tone was set.
Moving together with Steve leading off, we made short work of this first route and were soon trotting along the beautiful path below Swirl How.
A steep drop to the Three Shire Stone, up and over Red Tarn and into Langdale to the foot of the never easy direct approach to Gimmer Crag. Here we had a clutch of beautiful routes in the early morning glow; Ash Tree Slabs (VDiff) up into ‘C’ Route (Severe), both of which I’d climbed before but had no memory of!
Then quickly back down to climb Bracket & Slab (Severe) which I may or may not have climbed before as a teenager. From the top of Gimmer, we eventually joined the Bob Graham route over Martcrag Moor and up through Black Crags and so traverse around over rough ground to the base of Bowfell Buttress (VDiff), resplendent in the morning sun. Always a joy, these 100 or so metres of rock floated past.
By now it was already hot (9am), and we knew water was going to be our main issue. Between Bowfell and Scafell there is very little running water, especially now. Luckily for us there was a good flow of clear water in Calf Cove below Great End and we were able to top up.
Over Scafell Pike to Mickledore and along to the base of Lord’s Rake (not half way up it as we needlessly ended up) and the base of the next objective, Jones’ Route (Hard Severe). Long and wandering, this was followed by a hair-raising descent of Deep Gill to then ascend Moss Ghyll Grooves (Mild VS), undeserving of its fierce reputation. From the top of here we descended the old favourite, Broad Stand; an interesting prospect, having never done it in reverse!
Having never climbed the Needle, this was a great excuse to do so and standing looking over Wasdale and the surrounding fells, the fatigue fell away for a moment and it all seemed worthwhile.
Water worries overtook us again until we reached flowing water beneath Pikes Crag on our way to the Corridor Route. Lovely running down here brought us to Sprinkling Tarn and off behind the stretcher box to join the Climber’s Traverse around Gable. By now the beating sun was taking its toll and the rock seemed to reflect the heat doubly.
Our first stop on Gable was Tophet Wall (Hard Severe) another long ago climbed route that I had forgotten. After a 10min shelter in a thin strip of shade we headed up this spectacular and rewarding line. Airy but secure, it is guaranteed to blow the mind of anyone new to the grade.
Feeling particularly frazzled we headed over to the top of Needle Ridge (VDiff) and down-climbed to reach the base of Napes Needle, thus ticking our 9th route and beginning our 10th, Wasdale Crack (Hard Severe). Having never climbed the Needle, this was a great excuse to do so and standing looking over Wasdale and the surrounding fells, the fatigue fell away for a moment and it all seemed worthwhile.
Enough of that.
We now tapped out the lovely, if frustratingly difficult to run, climber’s traverse and up to Beckhead Tarn before scuttling off below Boat How Crags to find the gloriously crystal clear, fresh flowing waters of Black Sail Beck. Never has water tasted sweeter!
By now my legs were shot and it was a long slog out from Cloven Stone to Robinson Cairn and round to Pillar Rock. Here we were met, fresh from a stellar performance at the European Mountain Running Champs in Macedonia, by Chris who gave us some words of encouragement before buggering off home.
Feeling a long way from anywhere, we wasted a lot of time trying to find the start of the routes and soon dehydration and fatigue were taking their toll on morale. But in the nick of time, Steve found a tell-tale boulder and we were away. Questing through grooves and chimneys and onto sun baked fins of rock, we made our way up Rib & Slab Climb (Hard Severe), back down the descent gully and up New West Climb (VDiff) to then carry on up to the summit of Pillar and the (much better) run back to eventually join Moses’ Trod and so round to below Brandreth, over to Grey Knotts and the top of Gillercomb.
Here the day truly slid from the sublime into the ridiculous and on into the farcical, as we paced up and down the base of the crag trying to find the most climbed, most famous, most photographed rock route in the Lakes.
By now the light was fading in the valleys and the downclimb of Gillercombe Buttress (Severe) held an air of seriousness as I didn’t fancy joining the obliterated sheep among the scree below. From here a quad–jarring trot down to Seathwaite and a challenge of a new kind; 7km of tarmac between us and our penultimate route.
There is a special place I find myself in moments like these, detached from proceedings, aloof from the pain and discomfort and fatigue. Like being in an executive box at a boxing match but instead of Foreman Vs Ali, it’s Me Vs Myself.
We trotted at what felt like a healthy pace but was in fact what would normally be considered a worrying crawl.
Eventually we reached the turn off for Black Crag and began the tropically warm approach. By now it was completely dark in the valley and I was forced to stick as close to Steve as possible to keep at least some of the path ahead in view.
At times like these, without realising you had asked it to, the universe delivers, and, in this instance, it came in the form of two headtorches descending towards us. “Alright James”.
Now bear in mind it is now 11:30pm, we had been moving since 2am, we had run out of food an hour ago and our water was all but gone, it is easy to imagine the mind might play tricks.
But, no; thanks to stuck ropes and a late start, two friends were only just now descending from the crag. I explained the situation and without hesitation, Josh (hero that he is) proffered his own light, knowing what completing the challenge would mean (he has since gone on to complete the challenge himself with Pete Rigby in an amazing 18hrs 59mins, possible the fastest pairs time). With thanks we continued up to the crag and (eventually) reached the base. Once I slumped to the ground to put on my rock boots for the second to last time I was struggling to get back up. Lack of sleep was making me drowsy and the thirst was beginning to make me dizzy. But as ever, the climbing was a welcome break and always seemed to perk us up. I last climbed Troutdale Pinnacle (Severe) around 15 years ago and even now my recollection of it is still fuzzy but I do know it has to be one of the most outrageous climbs of its grade in the country.
A tottering descent back to the base and then onto the road before the final 800m shuffle to the final crag of the day, Shepherd’s.
Here the day truly slid from the sublime into the ridiculous and on into the farcical, as we paced up and down the base of the crag trying to find the most climbed, most famous, most photographed rock route in the Lakes. Unfortunately, neither of us had ever done it, it was pitch black and we had been awake for nearly 24hrs but after a moment of clarity and a half-recognised bit of nearby route, we zeroed in on Little Chamonix (VDiff).
Like Troutdale Pinnacle, this offers wild positions for the grade and I flailed my way up the polished rock in a manner which made me glad it was dark.
And that was it, done.
As ever with things like this, there was no whooping or hollering from the top and I would love to say it was us being mindful of the late hour and peaceful valley but that’s not true. While I wouldn’t call it an anti-climax, it is more just a sense of relief that it is done. A quiet breath to take it all in.
There followed a very slow walk back to our second car, left a lifetime ago down by the lake. And with it, many deep gulps of water and coke. Plus numerous eccles cakes. A quick rinse in the still–warm Derwent Water then we crawled into our sleeping bags in the back of the car and took all of 4 seconds to fall asleep.
Ultra 12 Rucksack
8ft Dyneema Sling
3 x Quickdraws
3 x Extendable quickdraws
3 Screwgate carabiners
Size 1 & 2 DMM Torque Nuts
30m 8mm Rope
Emergency foil bag
Photocopies of topos (Ssshh, don’t tell anyone!)
2 x Cheese Sandwiches
2 x Boiled Egg
2 x Snickers
2 x Clif Bar
2 x Clif Bloks
4 x Clif Gel Shots
2 x 60g Honey Roast Peanut
- Recce routes if you can, we lost hours on this.
- Scope out your water sources
- Take plenty of food, I don’t normally eat a lot on long runs, but the broken nature of the running and length of time out meant I ate every bit that I took and was left hungry
- Check your headtorch batteries
- It is preferable to go over Pillar and descend to the routes from above
- Gels were a life saver, especially caffeine ones
- Make sure you have descriptions and photo topos
- We moved together on all the routes except Needle Ridge which we soloed
- We used Italian hitches to save on weight of belay device
- We wore rock shoes for all the routes, the confidence they give was worth the time taken to put them on
- Wear comfortable running shoes, worth it for the road section
- A 12 litre bag wasn’t quite big enough, 15 or even 20 would have been more comfortable
- Moss Ghyll Grooves isn’t that bad, Tophet Wall is stiff.
- We drunk about 6l of water each
- We left a car in Borrowdale and drove round to Walna Scar Road, slept in that one to start off and slept in the one in Borrowdale to finish. Be sure to leave yourself goodies in the glovebox of car no. 2.