The 1989 Stanage VS Challenge
“I’m in trouble Chris."
I hadn’t been “in trouble” on a VS since the late 90’s. However in the late 90’s I didn’t have a wife, two kids, a mortgage and I definitely did not drive a Volvo (even if it is a 4 wheel drive estate, it’s still a Volvo).
I was currently on my 16th VS pitch of the day, it was 14:00 and we were late as we still had 20 left to do. I could really do with not being stuck on a route called Wall Buttress, both hands were only just jammed in the upper offwidth crack and my right foot was jammed solid in the lower crack. The big cam was in the top of my rucksack on the ground. It might as well have been in the boot of the car. I finally felt secure enough to move up to the crap looking holds above, but the right foot wasn’t so sure so had decided to stay behind and was making a good attempt at pulling me off.
“Definitely in trouble Chris."
I’m not sure whose idea it was for this challenge. The 36 starred VS routes from the definitive 1989 Stanage Guide was aticklist on the UKC logbook page made by John Roberts. The only 'rules’ we’d stipulated was that the routes all had to be led and seconded by the same roped team in the same day. No soloing, no roped solos and no moving together. It seemed like a good challenge for us weekend warriors. Chris and I both had full time jobs, mortgages, families and Chris is in the process of planning his imminent marriage in August. I don’t get to climb every week, I enjoy being a dad and life just gets in the way. I lead HVS on a normal day, Chris climbs E1 on a good day and has even been to “The Valley” once, but all things considered we’re just middle of the road climbers who climb for fun.
Of the 36 climbs in the list, between us we had climbed 28 of them before, however it had been so long since I’d done many of them that they would class as un-official on-sights. Some of the buttresses I’d not even been to and some of the climbs I’d never even heard of (See-saw and The Punk). We had decided to start at Stanage End and work back towards the Popular End. We knew most of the climbs at the Popular End so felt like it would be easier to climb routes like Inverted V and Heather Wall towards the end of the day as opposed to trying to on-sight First Sister after 34 routes. Made sense to us.
We left Chris’ car at the Popular End Car Park and drove round to Stanage End and abandoned my car on the verge and began the walk in. I’d never walked in this way before which amazed Chris. A wet walk in past a dead sheep found us at the base of Crab Crawl Arête at 08:10. Our planning up to this point had been somewhat lacking but what did it really need? Ropes, rack, water and food. On the walk in we had decided that block leading would be more efficient, lead 2 second 2; applying big wall tactics to the Grit!
Chris had the first two, First Sister was cheeky at 8:30 in the morning. Cosmic Crack felt very soft for VS but Inaccessible Crack was more like it. 09:54 brought Chris to the top of High Neb Buttress. The next few routes were new to us. The section of Stanage between High Neb and the Causeway just doesn’t seem to get traffic. Titanic felt contrived if truth be known and probably fell into the “done it but probably won’t be done again” pot. Amazing for a three star route.
Chris and I have two different climbing styles that seem to complement each other. Steep/overhanging/powerful but with gear were Chris’s territory, I was better at the bold or run-out routes. Both of us had reasonable skills when it came to jamming.
Central Buttress was a new one to me but was my type of climbing with a technical pull over a bulge followed by a bold slab, 11:00 top out. The next route was on my “routes to intimidate” list; Counts Crack. Put up by Eric Byne in the early 30’s, it is Stanage’s answer to The File and it looked brutal; my lead. A quick tip toe traverse in from the right revealed many things; mainly that I was going to need the spare big cams from the pack and a deep breath. Suitably reloaded I set off up the crack. Chris had been in Yosemite a few months previously, surely this would be better suited to him. What followed was one of my best leads on Stanage ever, solid jams interspersed with lay back moves leading to big holds when you need them. An absolute bobby dazzler of a route. Best of the day so far, 11:30 top out.
A quick romp over to the Plantation to Fern Crack. Sadly both Fern Crack and Wall End Slab were bird banned. Gutted. We decided to climb two other starred VS’s in their place and carry on.
The wind was really picking up by this point and my traverse on Fairy Steps felt more exposed than normal with ropes flying wildly off behind me.
See-saw was next and brought about the first cock-up of the day. Though our planning had been limited, it had been decided that we would need rope, rack, food and water. Whilst routing around in my pack it became embarrassingly obvious that I had left my food box on the back seat of my car, FAIL. The full length of all the routes together is 492m, The Nose of El Capitan is 880m in length and people take 5 days to do that. I was trying to do it on 2ltrs of water and a chocolate croissant. Gallantly Chris shared out his food and we kept on going, nothing else we could do.
Valhalla, Pegasus Wall and Paradise Wall passed with relative ease. 13:45 put me at the bottom of Wall Buttress. This route has never been VS, not ever. It’s absolutely brutal. It took me 20 minutes to climb it and it was a fight for every foot of the way. How I didn’t fall is quite beyond me, I think gravity must have been turned off for those 20 minutes.
After that I needed 10 minutes to recharge my batteries. We quested over to the Cleft Wing and had 20 minutes for lunch. Neither of us had done either of the Cleft wing routes before and they looked quite intimidating. I opted for the Superdirect whilst Chris took on the 5b ‘fall across the gap’ variant. Wedged into the back of the ‘V’ Groove, the guidebook says to ‘take a breath’ before heading out on the hand traverse. I needed more than one.
Chris was up again on The Punk, a Steve Bancroft route from the 70’s. I’d never even heard of it, probably only gets a handful of ascents a year. The wind was howling by this point, Chris pulled off a superb lead on this one and I was thankful for the rope from above as I traversed round the nose above Shine On.
We had passed halfway and were heading into home territory. It was 17:00 by the time I was belaying on top of The Nose. Time was getting away from us fast, we still had 16 routes to go! We shared the last of the Pork Pies.
Step ladder Crack fell to a bit of a fight, I could tell I was getting tired. Hell Crack had a waterfall coming down it, it was just not climbable. We looked at each other, was the challenge falling apart. Was I a broken man? Chris took hold of the rope and gave me the look, THE GAME WAS STILL ON. He raced up Louisiana Rib and Mississippi Buttress Direct. He even placed 3 wires on MBD, Chris never places wires on a route, they are only for belays!
The next route on the list was the route we had feared all day, Via Roof Route. How was this ever VS, upgraded to HVS 5b. If you said it was E1 5c I would not have complained, not when it was route 24 of the day anyway. Chris set off up the bold opening crack, not his normal forte, and then launched through the roof. Best lead of the day, not sure if I could have managed it.
Twin Chimneys Buttress was dispatched by me but time was now really against us – 19:01 at the top. I was beginning to flag, my body was just not moving as fast as I wanted it to. Next up was the last on-sight for me, Robin Hood’s Cave Innominate. The direct up to the crack looked desperate and not possible in my current condition, the tip toe traverse in from the right didn’t look much better. A fall at any point would have been painful. I’d broken my leg last winter due mainly to tiredness, my family would not be impressed if I returned again from a climbing trip with an injury. I’d been climbing for nearly 25 yrs without injury, 1 broken leg caused by complete stupidity and now it plays on my mind. Be off with you memory, you are not the boss of me. I’ve soloed Point Five Gully and Traversed the Matterhorn in winter, this route is not getting the better of me – it’s only VS.
As I sit up in the cave bringing Chris up, I know the challenge is over for me now. The further bird bans had taken the wind out of my sails. We finish up Hargreaves Original Route at 20:05. 12 hrs of solid climbing, 27 routes climbed and 396m of ground covered.
The challenge was uncompleted, defeated by bird bans and lack of a suitable lunch. We will be back later in the summer. We have a few methodology changes in mind, but we’ll leave you to work out your own tactics…