What is gritstone in climbing

Great adventure on small rocks

Polemics about safety hooks, the rise of the working class in British mountaineering and routes at the limit of the possible in the 1980s: the cliffs in the Peak District reveal over a century of British climbing history.

Cédric Lachat stands at the foot of the route and goes through each move again. Sunk in himself, he performs pantomime movements, his gaze follows the ledge upwards. It stretches smoothly about twenty meters into the air, a sharp line between green-red slabs of rock that are as compact as if they were cast from lead.

The Swiss top climber is one of the most famous routes in the English Peak District: Master's Edge, first climbed in 1983 by British climbing icon Ron Fawcett. Now Lachat wants to repeat the route as part of the Mammut Team Trip 2010. With the aim of paying homage to one of the most extraordinary climbing areas in Europe.

Every move by Lachat will have to be just right, because climbing in the gritstone - dark sandstone - of the Peak District has nothing to do with plaisir climbing. Bolts are frowned upon here to this day, which makes some routes mentally demanding, sometimes hardly securable and objectively dangerous. "Il ne faut pas penser, il faut faire," says the Swiss professional in this context. And that's exactly what he does when attempting the difficult-to-secure Master's Edge: After repeating the individual moves for himself, he takes off his down jacket, ties himself into the rope, takes another deep breath and - starts climbing.

The stars of the gritstone

As early as the end of the 19th century, the British were climbing the sandstone belts in the area between Manchester and Sheffield. However, the gritstone of the Peak District only experienced its first “heydays” after the Second World War. Two developments in particular had led to this: While mountain sports in England had previously been largely reserved for the upper class, the workers in the English industrial cities discovered climbing the nearby rocks for themselves at this time. And: Special climbing shoes, carabiners, slings and nylon ropes were - not least thanks to war material - available all at once and increasingly affordable for wider sections of the population.

The appearance of the working class on the "crags" (the rocks) created a new dynamic within the British climbing scene. Suddenly it was no longer the ladies and gents of the Alpine Club who ensured mountaineering performance, but the representatives of the Valkyrie Mountaineering Club, founded in 1947, which was primarily dedicated to gritstone. Above all, Joe Brown and Don Whillans set new standards, first also in Gritstone, later on the great mountains of the world. Standards so high that the author Ken Wilson describes the two as "the first British climbers since Mummery and Winthrop-Young" to "take on the continent's climbers".

Highlights of the 1980s

After this first blooming period of the post-war period, things became quieter on the cliffs of the Peak District. At least until the 1980s, when young climbers like Johnny Dawes, Ron Fawcett or Jerry Moffatt appeared. They dared to tackle cracks, edges and slabs that were apparently impossible to climb, and climbed their way up to the “Who's who” of British mountaineering forever with spectacular lines in gritstone. On lines that 30 years later are still among the toughest routes in the area. Master's Edge was one of them and has not lost any of its shine to this day.

When Cédric Lachat prepares to climb Ron Fawcett's masterpiece, it becomes quiet. The eyes of his climbing colleagues - including world-class athletes like David Lama and Anna Stöhr - are fixed on him. Everyone knows: the route only offers one securing point in the lower third, two parallel holes for a clamping wedge and a wedge. Your last third is therefore equivalent to an unsecured free solo. Falls are no longer allowed there.

Cédric Lachat appears as calm as a meditating monk while climbing. He lines up train after train. Hugs the smooth rock, sets the only friend and wedge after a few meters, continues climbing, puts your feet on friction, stands up, climbs high above the only securing point. He will later write on his website that he has known what fear is since he climbed in England. Sometimes it doesn't take a steep north face to send showers down the spine of even top climbers. Sometimes a twenty meter high ledge is enough, surrounded by gentle grass hills and stone villages where daffodils bloom and cats doze off in the front gardens.

The fact that the routes in the Peak District are bolt-free to this day is due to the development of climbing in England. The British had always been critical of hooks, and later bolts. Even if not as generalized as is often assumed on the continent, the traditionalist circles such as the Alpine Club (which had previously spoken out against crampons), criticizing the hooks, caused them to be used with reluctance. For example, Joe Brown created the rule for himself not to use “more than two hooks per route” at a time when such hooks were widespread on the continent and were considered a legitimate means of securing.

In some British climbing areas, bolts shine in the rock today. In other areas, the restraint continues to this day, as the Peak District shows: Although bolts could be set in the dark sandstone, not a small plate shimmers in the grit. Instead, frills from wedges and friends dangle from the climbers' belts and sound like a metal chime when they are out and about on the “crags” in the area. A form of security that was accepted early on as a legitimate form of security and is still considered the first choice of security in gritstone to this day.

Popular sport is also flourishing

Despite these forms of security, climbing has not remained a marginal sport in the Peak District. On nice weekends, hundreds of climbers flock to the ledges to indulge in trad climbing - traditional climbing. These are by no means just daring daredevils. On the contrary: big and small, young and old are on the routes. And the old master Johnny Dawes, who accompanies the climbers on the mammoth expedition for a few days, speaks of "fantastically well protected rocks that have brilliant climbing on them". Only the difficult routes require mental strength, because the more difficult the ascent, the more compact the rock, the fewer safety points there are. And Master's Edge is without a doubt one of the latter.

The island's climbers have preserved their very own climbing culture in some places and have secured what is known as adventurous climbing on some rocks. And some of the routes have remained truly adventurous to this day. Even for the world's best climbers at the moment.

"What a fear!"

Although Cédric Lachat says of himself that he does not particularly like this risk, he seems relaxed as he climbs over the last few meters of the ledge onto the ledge. Then he returns to the foot of the wall via the hiking trail, sits down on a stone and slips into his down jacket. That was good, really good. Once more he lets his gaze slide over the edge, only to add with a shake of the head: "Mais quelle peur!"