‘Gritstone’ Climbing: First-Timer Battles Tackles UK’s Unique Climbing Challenge

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After years of dreaming about gritstone climbing, pro Siebe Vahnee finally visited the UK’s hallowed stones. Typical awful weather didn’t stop him from topping some gems and making inroads toward a film project.

Ever wonder what’s up with gritstone climbing? On first contact with England’s bizarre “trad” routes, most climbers ask one of a few (exclamatory) questions:

Is that climbing or bouldering or free soloing, or …?
Why not just bolt it?
How is the weather always so bad?
That gear is awful! Why even bother?

Belgian climber Siebe Vahnee leaned headlong into the grit, seeking head points and answers to those exact questions.

Siebe Vahnee on “End of the Affair,” E8 6c, Derbyshire, England.

Vahnee made the trip in October. He piled up a solid tick list at classic locales like the Peak and Lake Districts despite the continual drizzle. Along the way, filmmaker Andrea Cossu helped him research British trad climbing by — what else? — interviewing colorful grit climbers over beers in pubs.

“This two-and-a-half-week trip in October 2021 resulted in an interesting journey, giving us the full gritstone experience,” Vahnee said. “We had a great amount of gritstone climbing and inspiring encounters. But also; lots of wet rock, beers in the pub and indoor climbing sessions at The Climbing Works and Ben Moon’s schoolroom.”

Spending a rainout at Climbing Works in Sheffield, England.

Thanks to “a proactive attitude and high motivation,” Vahnee sent mega-classics like “Parthian Shot” (E9 6c), “Gaia” (E8 6c), and “Master’s Edge” (E7 6c). To finish each brief, exacting route, he would employ different tactics for protection and scouting.

Let’s back up: What do the previous paragraphs mean?

British Trad Grades and Gritstone Climbing: A Primer

British trad grades are unlike climbing grades anywhere else in the world. The two parts identify two distinct route characteristics. For reference, see this conversion chart, courtesy of Rockfax.

The first letter/number code describes the route’s overall difficulty. That part, called the adjectival grade, consolidates many aspects that influence climbing difficulty.

It considers technical difficulty, exposure, strenuousness, rock quality, and protection quality, among other less tangible factors that could make a climb hard. “E” stands for “extremely severe” and is the top letter category. Currently, E11 is the apogee; only a handful exist.

The second letter/number code measures the difficulty of the route’s hardest move. It’s helpful to think of it as a standard; simply the hardest single move (or moves) anywhere on the route. The so-called technical grade ignores every factor that the adjectival grade considers, except objective athletic difficulty.

It’s also important to note that as the adjectival grade increases relative to the technical grade, the route can be seen as objectively more dangerous. That’s because the technical skill required to do it pales compared to the severity of the danger. Translation: If you’re a less-skilled climber on a higher-severity route, you’re more likely to get in over your head.

“Gaia,” E8 6c. The seriousness of an E8 climb could overwhelm a 6c climber. Conversely, a climber comfortable on E8 terrain should find 6c moves relatively tame.

Refer to this handy writeup by British trad veteran Niall Grimes for a deep dive. E9 6c translates roughly to 5.13 X (where “X” means a leader fall will certainly result in severe or life-threatening injury).

“Master’s Edge,” at E7 6c, is more analogous to 5.13 R (where “R” means protection is far enough apart that a leader fall will likely cause injury).

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Here’s a British trad grade conversion chart. The easiest way to get the hang of it may be to look at Cossu’s shots of Vahnee on route. “Parthian Shot,” for instance, forces the climber to risk a 40-foot ground fall before it yields any gear.

“Parthian Shot,” E9 6c.

“Master’s Edge” is more reasonable, with a decent (if a bit odd) gear nest about 20 feet up.

“Master’s Edge,” E7 6c.

“London Wall” (E5 6a) is an example of a relatively safe route at the grade, with consistent protection in the thin crack.

“London Wall,” E5 6a.

Tactics for Climbing Scary Things With Bad Gear, That Are Also Hard

Vahnee’s tactics reflected the scaled challenges he took on.

He climbed “Parthian Shot” head point style, meaning he scouted the route and practiced the moves on rappel, and then pre-placed gear before trying it from the ground up.

The idea? Familiarize yourself with the route, and be sure that you’re clipping the best gear possible when you arrive at it. Then go for it on lead — with a clear head.

Vahnee flashed the somewhat less severe “Gaia,” meaning he gathered information about the moves before attempting the route ground-up. More confident in his abilities at the grades and overall severity, he on-sighted “Master’s Edge” and “London Wall.”

Vahnee finds plenty of protection in the consistent crack on the “London Wall.”

‘Friends of the Grit’: Upcoming Film for Gritstone Climbing Fan People

Psyched on gritstone climbing and want to know more? Keep a watchful eye out for Siebe Vanhee and Andrea Cossu’s upcoming documentary. Vahnee positions “Friends of the Grit” as a travel documentary, investigative report, and fun-loving barnstorm.

He appears to have performed his journalistic duty to a T. Interview subjects include the Wide Boyz’s Pete Whittaker, “Parthian Shot” first ascensionist John Dunne, and even the legendary Johnny Dawes.

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Vahnee teased the film in a recent press release.

He claims to have found definitive answers to questions like, “Why those strong ethics? Where do they come from? No bolts and no anchors? What is ‘fall theory’? What about this weird grading system?”

He even promises to dig deeper, delving into, “Which mindset is the most effective for climbing on this rock, in this style, without breaking a leg? Why not just climb solo?” And even, in an apparent coup, “Is it really that dangerous?”

With gritstone veteran John Dunne.

Right now, mortals like us will have to guess — or go find out for ourselves. “Friends of the Grit” premieres in spring 2022 on Wild Country and Epic TV‘s YouTube channels. Along with the film, Vahnee promises the full written story of his gritstone climbing tour.

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