As lockdowns came and went, with a final easing of pandemic restrictions, the special freedom that comes with going climbing was never more appreciated. We checked-in with a few of our climbing team to ask them for their impressions and what special moments stood out for them over that strange period, to finally being able to get back outside with friends and family.
Cuillin Ridge, Isle of Skye
“It was beautifully cold and crisp as I walked through Glenbrittle campsite, the stones crunching beneath my feet as a distant cuckoo broke the morning silence. The Cuillin mountains stood tall and proud, ready to offer themselves up for adventure once again. Did they enjoy their little break, I wondered? A long and peaceful year with a scarcity of climbers scrambling up their spurs and along their mighty ridges; did they miss us?
I walked eagerly up to Coire Ghrunda, captivated as ever by the other-worldly rock formations and piercing blue water of the Lochan. Looking down, I saw a man sat up in his sleeping bag on the shoulder of the coire. Just like me, he was on a little mission, to reignite a part of his soul.
There were long sections where I saw no one, which felt special and intense. Yet on the other hand, it was sheer joy to meet fellow climbers and enjoy that familiar exchange of stories and plans and good wishes.
My legs were tired as I reached Sgurr nan Gillean, the final munro of the ridge! I felt like I had reconnected with a bit of myself and as I sat on the summit looking back along the way I had travelled, I thought about how much there is to look forward to. As life returns towards normal again I vowed to never take for granted the freedom of the hills. And right then, I knew what I craved most of all. To re-join friends at our campsite and share big dinners and tales of our days, with tired bodies and energised souls.”
– Anna Wells
Having made a name for herself on the UK dry-tooling circuit, represented Great Britain at Ice Climbing World Cups, Anna set the female fastest known time for both summer and winter traverses of Skye’s Cuillin Ridge and having climbed 55 of the 82 4000m peaks in the Alps, she is now turning her attention to the high mountains and is certainly one to watch in the field of fast and light alpinism.
The Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland
“I haven’t been climbing that much recently - I’ve had my hands full in other ways. My partner Alexa and I ‘fell’ pregnant when lockdown eased last year. I like the expression ‘fell’ pregnant - for me it implies feelings of letting go and what was meant to be, similar to decking out. A wee surprise for us and one we grabbed with both hands. Rock climbing wasn’t a priority and maybe it never really will be in the same way again, but now something has changed and it’s hard to explain.
Since our good news, I got out climbing the odd time when the lockdowns had eased to chase my little hit list. I decided I’d pick one thing to focus myself and day dream on: a new little line that inspired me in the rolling granite of the Mourne Mountains. It was pretty high up on the list and it coincided with a few things my climbing partner/best friend bumbler wanted to check out too. It was a new route up the side of Lamagan. Quite short, like something on the grit with big grips and a few seams for gear but with an hour and a half up hill. From my first look, I predicted it might take around three sessions to get it done.
Well - that was about two months into Alexa’s pregnancy and now we have our first child. A daughter, Eva. Beautiful, very smiley and a sleeper! And with this news, my expectations have changed. I still haven’t climbed that little wall but my sessions on the route after Eva was born have felt more satisfying and the Mournes have never looked so beautiful.”
– Ricky Bell
Ricky is one of the major stars of the Irish climbing scene and has been since he broke through in the mid-noughties. He has dabbled with most climbing styles but is a trad climber at heart and his track record of over sixty repeats and first ascents in Ireland of routes graded E7 to E9 shows this in spades.
Gardom’s Edge, Derbyshire
“As Molly and I made our way down to the base of Gardom’s, I felt the cold wind drop away and allowed myself a moment of smugness at having picked the right crag for the weather. Conditions at the base were perfect and I’d been getting back into climbing trad after the lockdown-enforced hiatus.
On the first couple of days out after lockdown I’d felt a bit rusty. Having to coordinate my feet and hands at the same time had been a bit of a struggle – after all that time on the Beastmaker I’d almost forgotten I had feet. But it all came back soon enough and I was loving being back out climbing trad.
After bagging my first E2s last year I’d decided I needed to re-build my pyramid. I’d eased in gently and today at Gardom’s I wanted to try a couple of routes that would test me. I was soon tying in at the base of Landsick (E1 5b). The initial part of the route follows a series of cracks which can be jammed, and while hard work, I was doing well. However, the difficulty presented itself to me on the traverse; not being able to see, I had no target to aim for and I didn’t get to hold the rock with my hands first. Not even the ogre-esque power screams I let out were enough on this occasion and I was off, penduluming back around the dragonfly I’d placed at the start of the traverse.
Afterwards, it was mixed emotions as I munched my lunch. I was happy with my effort and glad that I’d had the dragonfly to catch me on my first whipper since lockdown. But if I’m honest, there was some frustration that I’d not got it clean, even though I know that sequences like this are when my lack of sight hampers me most.
Clearing my head I jumped on Rhythmic Itch (E1 5b), which was excellent. Managing to climb it clean non-sight without issue rounded off the day, and as I sat on top I reflected on how great it is to be back outside. I’m really looking forward to filling out that pyramid, and hopefully getting a few routes to put on top later this year. I can’t wait.”
– Jesse Dufton
Jesse is a blind climber, suffering from a genetic defect which has affected his eyes since birth. He is best known for his trad climbing, having on-sighted E2 as well as iconic British test pieces such as The Old Man of Hoy and The Sloth, coining the phrase "non-sight" to describe the style of his ascents. He has winter alpine first ascents in Greenland to his name as well as leading ice routes. Jesse is part of the GB paraclimbing team, British champion in his category and currently ranked 4th globally in IFSC competitions.
Joe’s Valley, Utah
“With the easing of social distancing over the last month, life has slowly started to resemble what I remember from before. On a recent trip, I found myself bouldering in Joe’s Valley, which ended up being a highlight of this past year. Bouldering isn’t usually my first choice of climbing, but with the lack of social interaction we’ve all experienced, I was attracted to the social culture that bouldering can provide. The stoke was high, the climbing was world-class, and with an abundance of roadside boulders, I’d never seen so many people come out just to support their friends. Aside from all of this, one moment stuck out the most.
One morning everyone was moving exceptionally slow due to our late session the night before. We made a communal breakfast and drank coffee well into the afternoon. With the sun blazing hot, we all transferred into a friend’s van. Eight people and three dogs packed in, laughing, sharing stories, and providing ample dog pets. This is what I’d been yearning for all year.
This moment is the reason why I live on the road in the first place - to meet people on different paths of life, all in one place for the same reason and having fun doing what we love.”
– Genevive Walker
Genevive didn’t learn to climb until she was at college, but since then her love for the sport has influenced the course of her life, taking her to new places and new people. As recently qualified rock climbing instructor, Genevive is a passionate about sharing climbing with everyone, and using her qualifications and experience to encourage greater diversity in the climbing community.
Chupacabra (E8/9 6c), Pembrokeshire
“This last year has been a weird and testing one. As soon as you could gain some momentum, lockdown would return, and it was always hard to gauge exactly how well, or badly you were doing on the rock.
In Autumn of last year between lockdown two and three I made my yearly pilgrimage to Pembroke and quickly got drawn into the Leap. One route in particular started to pull me in and push me away like a love affair. I knew the reputation of Chupacabra, a big fall and some hard moves.
The first time I tried to lead it I didn’t have my gear totally sussed; I got bad rope drag and the tide was well on its way in. But I climbed the low crux well, breathing lots to keep calm on the beautiful bullet hard orange rock. This bit felt easier to me than the top – I arrived there and hung out for a bit, committed and slipped off. A little frustrated, I pulled to the top quickly so that Caff didn’t get too wet.
I returned soon after to find the route had increased in popularity. This time I was terrified on the run out but kept it together on the top headwall much to my relief. I was proud to get this route done; I wasn’t at my fittest, didn’t have so much trad under my belt and the route has a hard rep. A little reward between the lockdowns.”
– Emma Twyford
Emma is one of the reigning queens of British climbing, best known for being the first woman to break into the ninth grade with her ascent of The Big Bang in North Wales. She has flashed up to E8 and hard E9 headpoints evidence her comfort on the sharp end and sets an impressive bar for modern day British trad.
Moelwyn Bach, Meirionnydd
“When I first came across this crag 20 years ago, I never thought about the new route potential. This year after work one day I went for an explore along the cliff and it started to capture my imagination.
A couple of weeks later I went up with Emma Twyford, Alex and Anna Riley to try a roof crack into an arete. I was going to abseil and clean the top but Alex assured me he’d cleaned it and we should try it ground up. After we’d warmed up I gave it a good go. With an amazing crux ‘cut loose’ over a big roof, you gain sinking pockets for both hands. The left was blocked by dirty pockets and Alex was shouting from below, telling me there was an edge on the right (there wasn’t). After 10 minutes my arms gave up and felt pumped to sin for ages.
I cleaned up the key pockets and Emma led it easily, and after a good rest to mend my busted arms I did it too. It was just an incredibly good and fun route, certainly one of the best E6s in the area and I was chuffed Emma had done the 1st ascent. After that, I did a new arete I’d wondered about for years a bit further left. We both got badly sunburned, my body felt beaten and we went for a cider, buzzing from a great day.
Such a tiny and quite a dirty crag, there was something about it which captured everything I love about climbing.”
– James McHaffie
James McHaffie—or ‘Caff’ as he is usually called—is often referred to as the Dark Lord of British Trad (for his sense of humour as much as his climbing style). Caff has a truly astounding track record of hard trad ascents, including onsights of more than 80 E7s and the odd E8 and a tally of over 200 routes graded E7 to E9. In May 2021 Caff became the first person to complete all climbs in Extreme Rock.
Pigeon’s Cave, Llandudno
“Over the last year, as lockdowns have come and gone, when climbing has been acceptable, I’ve been trying to avoid travelling far to climb. This has meant getting to know the north coast and Llandudno area a lot better and visiting many new (to me) and some esoteric venues.
I first went to Pigeon’s Cave around ten or fifteen years ago and tried the most popular route, Stiff Upper Lip, and thought it was cruxy and damp. I gave Pigeon’s Cave another chance and evenings spent there have been a major highlight of the last year for me. It’s in a stunning location – in a tiny, hidden cove above a pebbled beach. The conditions are tricky but on a cool, sunny evening with a breeze it’s an amazing place to be and climb. It’s also very popular with seals and this spring it was common to find 40+ seals on the beach – best to give it a miss when this is the case…
It turned out Stiff Upper Lip wasn’t too bad in decent conditions and I eventually did the awesome extension via some wild dyno sequence. I also did Follow the Prof, Koo Koo and lost a race to do Crack of Dawn whilst it was briefly dry! There’re quite a few more great looking routes to do and, if I get in shape, Dark Energy is the line of the crag and would be one to try.”
– Dan McManus
Dan is one of the unsung heroes of the British trad scene. His onsight approach to hard trad embodies the aspirations of British climbing culture, and has resulted in onsight and ground-up ascents up to E8. Dan’s love of trad climbing has led him to make multiple free ascents of the most famous big wall of them all: El Capitan.
Byzantium, Craig Dorys
“Mick Lovatt and I walked the track leading from the Cilan National Trust carpark, toward the coastal path running along the top of Craig Dorys. The track was rutted and uneven, and once it turned left and headed across the edge of the moorland, became boggy. After months of staring through the window out over the yard with its limited view of the sky, the vista opened up now, dazzling. A stonechat flew from wooden fencepost to fencepost, its black head separated from its reddy-brown body by a vicar’s dog collar. Nearing the top of the crag, the sparkling blue sea was topped with the occasional white crest and the view hit me hard. The smell of salt caught on a westerly. The sense of loss that had built over the months of lockdown increased; but here I was now, stood in the open, basked in the cool spring sun, looking back at Dorys.
Mick and I dumped our bags at the top of Byzantium Wall and after setting the abseil rope, descended to the warm rock at the base of the climb. Byzantium Wall was a favourite, one of my much loved and often climbed. A close friend to be missed in times of separation and never taken for granted. I stepped from the ground. The rock was warm and as orange as the stonechat’s chest.
Byzantium is, perhaps, more well-trodden than most here, but care still has to be taken; this is Dorys after all, and if you become a tad too comfortable or arrogant, you may get a quick reminder that not everything in life is certain. The wobbly rock and lack of protection wasn’t too concerning though, because I knew the climb well, but only after several pieces of gear were between myself and the ground did I relax. I moved left and into the centre of the wall where forty vertical metres more of orange, white quartz scabs and horizontal breaks waited. Some of the breaks are deep and dark and cold; some are sun bleached and dry. I smiled as I met each break, pulling my nose over the edge to smell the damp and look for a cam placement. Occasionally between the breaks, there is a tricky move to be made, but I knew there was another positive and deep horizontal crack above where a rest could be taken and another cam placed. I turned and looked out to sea. Not far above the waves, a gannet was rising after an explosion into the depths, its large black tipped wings flapped hard, feathers dripped salt water.
The crux of Byzantium is near the top, so it’s never over till it’s over; but once it was over, I set the belay and took in the ropes as Mick began to climb. Sitting on the top and looking out to the sea, I hoped this Covid shot-across-the-bows was a lesson learnt, but I doubted the human race would learn, so for now, I would just sit and belay, and take the time to enjoy the view.”
– Nick Bullock
Nick’s list of hard trad ascents, new rock routes, ice climbs, Scottish winter ascents and high-alpine expeditions set him as one of Britain’s most accomplished climbers. In 2012, Nick’s first book, Echoes, received widespread acclaim and was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize and the Mountain and Wilderness Literature category at the 2013 Banff Mountain Book Festival. In 2018 his second book, Tides, was again nominated for the Boardman Tasker Prize and won the Mountain Literature (non-fiction) category in the Banff Mountain Book Festival.