It’s 6am and we’re moving well. The bubble of light emanating from climbing partner Tom Randall’s headtorch disappears from view above me as he reaches the top of the climb. In the last couple of hours the climbing has become easier and so we’ve temporarily dispensed with our rope and started soloing to save time. Even though Tom’s not far away, his voice is muted as it’s carried off on the breeze. Gradually his chatter crescendos back into earshot as he picks his way down the descent gully next to my route of ascent. The ravine, while technically easy, is green and slippery. Tom speaks optimistically about the next stage of our challenge, and the climbing and running tactics we are going to use to complete it. I try to listen, but remain focused on the slab of rock in front of my face. Then I hear the sound of climbing shoes slipping on greasy rock, a curse, a pause, a terrific thud and an ominous silence.
Over the years, my climbing partner, Tom Randall, and myself have been motivated to challenge ourselves to see what – and how much – we can climb in a single day. At the point when Tom fell we were one quarter of our way into a project to climb – in 24 hours – all 130 routes of Peak District gritstone pioneered by Joe Brown and Don Whillans. The duo were iconic characters in world climbing in the 1950s and 60s. Their names are all over the mountaineering history books from Snowdonia to the European Alps and from the Himalaya to the outcrops of my local area, the Peak District.
Gritstone routes are short in length but their intensity makes up for their duration. I describe the climbing as being technically brutal, and the routes that Brown and Whillans put up here fit this term perfectly. More than a quarter of a century on and their hardest climbs are still held as trophies for today’s generation of climbers. By modern standards the routes are no longer cutting edge. Even so, the climbing technique required to ascend them remains specific. Attempt to climb many of the lines using incorrect techniques and your hands can end up looking like you’ve rubbed a cheese grater over them.
The idea for this climbing project originated from a tamer version of the challenge suggested in one of the local climbing guidebooks. The gauntlet thrown down was to climb all of the Brown and Whillans routes on the western gritstone edges of the Peak District in a single day. There were around 30 climbs to complete on three crags. Even though this challenge was well known, it had never been accomplished. Tom and myself took it upon ourselves to attempt it. We’d previously completed the western gritstone challenge in nine and a half hours.
At the conclusion of the western project, I proposed to Tom the idea of climbing every one of Brown and Whillans’ routes in the Peak District. This would elevate the original challenge from 30 routes on three crags to 130 lines of ascent spread out across 17 crags. We further upped the ante by opting to run between some of the crags. The distance we would cover on foot amounted to some 37 kilometres, much of it cross-country. Given that we had taken more than nine hours to climb just 30 routes, our new challenge seemed unrealistic.
All big tasks can feel overwhelming at the start. We knew that preparation was the key to success. We drew up lists of routes and divided them initially into crags, and then sub-divided them into individual buttresses. Having climbed in the Peak District my whole life, I have a solid understanding of how its crags, roads and footpaths link together. Over time, we drew up a logical and efficient line through the landscape.
As we set out on the challenge, on the stroke of midnight, our hands were wrapped in protective tape, our fingers were white with chalk powder, and our boot rubber had been sweaked clean. (Sweaking involves spitting on the palm of your hand and rubbing the sticky rubber until the sole becomes so clean that it makes a sweaking sound.)
We started at a crag called Bamford Edge as it is home to a route named ‘May 35’, the hardest Brown and Whillans climb in the Peak District. We wanted to attempt this route in the coolest conditions available to obtain the best possible friction from the rock.
The challenge began incredibly well. At the end of each section we discovered that we had gained a few minutes from the allotted time we had allocated to it. Then we arrived at Stanage. This is a crag that Tom and myself know intimately so it came as a shock when we could not find a route named ‘Quietus’. For ten agonising minutes we panicked as to which way to turn. Tom was convinced the buttress lay in one direction. I was certain it was the other way. It turned out that we had run half a kilometre too far. We had to run the extra distance back, which ate into our time still further.
A few more crags passed uneventfully beneath our feet until we reached Burbage South. It was here where Tom fell in the descent gully. When I reached him, I discovered that he had landed on his left hip from the height of a second story window. Suddenly, the seriousness of the challenge hit home. Tom was in pain. The bruising was the diameter of a dinner plate, and a lump was forming under his skin that resembled the size and consistency of a squashed peach.
No matter how motivated you are, you have to be realistic when a climbing situation becomes serious. I talked through the options with Tom and in the end there was no doubt in his mind that he would try to continue. It is a testament to Tom’s character that he was even able to consider moving forward with the challenge.
After 15 hours, 100 routes and 32 kilometres of running, we reached the end of the eastern part of the challenge. By this stage my knees had given out from the amount of rough terrain that I had covered. I’m not much of a runner, and although I had done some in preparation for the challenge I belatedly realised that it had not been enough. Trying to complete a distance that amounted to almost the equivalent of an off-road marathon without enough specific training was taking its toll, especially on the descents. Every time I put downhill pressure through my legs, agonising amounts of pain would knife into the sides of my knees from my inflamed iliotibial bands.
By the time we reached the familiar 30 routes that made up the original western gritstone challenge, my knees had become so bad that I was finding it easier to slide down grassy banks instead of running. As Tom appeared to be struggling with the physical brutality of the climbing routes, we devised a new plan: I would lead the remaining routes and then abseil off each of them. Tom would second the routes and then either use my abseil to descend, or run around to the foot of the crag. Although a slower option than the traditional style of climbing where partners rotate the lead – minimising the exchange of climbing hardware and retying of knots – our ad hoc tactic played to our individual strengths.
With fewer than a dozen routes to go, we experienced one dreadful lack of communication. At about 8pm, I was in the process of lowering Tom to the ground at the end of a route called ‘Valkyrie Direct’. During the descent he had to retrieve a camming device I had placed on my ascent that was stuck in a crack (he had been unable to remove it while seconding the route behind me). Tom arrived at the cam and yelled, ‘OK, stop there’.
I thought Tom had shouted ‘safe’. Accordingly, I took him off belay, and threw my end of the rope down the crag. The rope whistled past Tom, who was perched on a ledge and attempting to extract the stuck cam. Now he found himself stranded on a climb we had judged to be sufficiently difficult to require the use of the rope. Tom had no choice but to gingerly solo down the remaining ten metres of the route to the foot of the crag.
Finally we reached the 130th climb, which Brown and Whillans named ‘The Sloth’. Having started in the dark we had come full circle. Our torches were back on our heads, only this time our muscles and minds were exhausted. The final route involved ascending terrain so steep that it became horizontal. Being an arm-orientated climb, we had to dig deep and let our minds do the work of instructing our depleted muscles to go through the motions of climbing this overhanging route. Ordinarily, The Sloth would not have presented a significant physical challenge to us, but this had been no ordinary day.
As we hauled our broken bodies over the top of The Sloth, joy and relief set in. After 22 hours and 36 minutes we had completed a challenge that on paper had seemed impossible. 130 into 24 does go.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine