Interview: Anna Taylor completes first ever self-powered Classic Rock round

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 25/10/2021
Anna takes a break to enjoy the view in Wales during leg 2 of her Classic Rock tour. Photo: Marc Langley
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Earlier this month, Anna Taylor became the first person to complete a self-powered round of every route that features in Classic Rock, the iconic guidebook written by Ken Wilson. Carrying all her kit, Anna, 23, cycled 2,400 kilometres and climbed over 10,000 metres during a journey that lasted 62 days and saw her solo most of the 83 routes. Sarah Stirling interviews, and asks Anna to pick her five must-do routes.

On October 1, Anna wrote on Instagram:

"The end! ⛰🚴‍♀️☔️Well that’s that. Two months ago I set off from Penzance with the intention of linking all of the Classic Rock routes together by bike. I didn’t have a clue how to cycle tour, or how I was going to get all the climbs done if the weather crapped out, but bit by bit I learned, and here we are. So that’s just over 1,500 miles on the bike, and 83 out of 83 climbs (68 of which were solos, either free or with rope), in a mostly continuous round (I did have to duck out for a work trip at one point)."

Anna had to contend with everything that the UK weather could throw at her as she journeyed from southwest England, to Wales, the Peak District and Lake District, and then up to the Scottish Highlands, before finishing on Skye, sliding around on a soggy Cuillin Ridge. This was, she said, "To put it frankly, f**king grim. It wasn’t quite the scenic finale I had in mind, but was quite a fitting ending in the sense that virtually nothing about this trip has ever gone according to plan."

First published in 1978, Ken Wilson’s Classic Rock features 83 of the best rock climbs up to the grade of VS that England, Scotland and Wales have to offer. In a similar fashion to Munro or Wainwright bagging, some climbers make a long term project out of ticking off all of the routes, travelling all over the country to get them done. Initially, Anna Taylor thought that self-powered rounds had been completed before, but discovered early in her journey that she could be the first. 


Anna soloed most of the routes. Photo: Marc Langley

Anna commented: “It was pretty special to solo long pitches on beautiful faces high in the mountains with minimal equipment. The round has taken me to some new and wonderful places – physically and mentally – and I have gained an even greater appreciation of the climbing that’s available on these shores. As for the 83 routes that Ken Wilson collected in Classic Rock, I think I can understand why he chose almost all of them!”

And so, onto the interview:

Has Covid focused your attention on more British challenges?

AT: It’s definitely got me thinking a lot more about what you could come up with to do on UK soil. I think there’s loads of potential if you’re prepared to get a bit creative, and despite the weather the UK is an amazing place, with a hell of a lot of variety for such a small island. In the Classic Rock round alone you get to go on sea cliffs, gritstone outcrops, Lake District mountain crags, and huge Scottish ridges, and I’m keen to do something else along similar lines in the future. That being said I do want to get out of the UK at some point soon, as some of my future climbing plans involve slightly bigger mountains than anything we’ve got here.

Why this challenge?

With the world being in and out of lockdown over the last year or so, it really didn’t seem like the time to be travelling abroad. I wanted to do more of an expedition style trip, but it’s sort of impossible to do something like that in the UK, as compared to the rest of the world even the remotest parts are pretty accessible. A big link-up of some sort seemed like the only option, and as the UK weather is known for being pretty terrible, the Classic Rock round seemed like the best bet, as the climbs were in theory easy enough to tackle even in terrible conditions.

Why self-supported?

Two months would be a long time to try and get a support crew for, and as I was going into towns and villages almost daily, it’s not like it was ever that hard to get my own supplies. The hardest part of being self supported was just carrying all the gear by myself, but I only had what I needed, and as I got fitter that part got easier. I enjoy being self sufficient, and particularly enjoy being up in the mountains alone. It’s not that I don’t like having a partner, but I feel like the whole experience is more intense somehow when you’re on your own, as all the decision making is on your shoulders, and you’ve got no one to rely on but yourself.

Why south to north?

If you do the Classic Rock round south to north you finish on the Cuillin Ridge, which in terms of a grand finale is a pretty good one. That was one of the reasons why I chose to do the trip this way round, but the other was because I wanted to build up the severity of the climbs as I went, rather than jumping straight in at the deep end on the Scottish mountains. Whilst the grades of the climbs do not increase as you journey further north, soloing a 20 metre VS on a sunny Cornish sea cliff is a very different proposition to rope soloing a 400 metre VS in the wind and rain in Scotland. I’m glad I did the round this way in hindsight, as my time in Wales and the Lake District worked very well as an apprenticeship for what was to come.

 


Anna solos a route in Wales. Photo: Marc Langley
 

What were your five favourite routes, and why?

The Devils Slide on Lundy Island - This one was a real highlight, as I got an absolutely beautiful day for it, and I love slabs, so climbing a 100 metre one above the sea was brilliant. The climbing culminates in an airy traverse at the very top of the slide, where you cross it from right to left, and the views looking down from there are something else.

Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands Continuation on Lliwedd - This one was my first experience of being alone on a pretty big cliff (around 300 metres), in poor conditions. The loose quartz band around a third of the way up was soaking wet, and I kept getting swallowed by the mist and losing sight of what was above me. Despite all of this the climb went absolutely perfectly, and to my surprise I managed to get to the top before my friend Marc (who was documenting part of this trip) could walk up! It was a big confidence boost for what was to come, and definitely planted a seed in my mind about wanting to solo on bigger faces.

Moss Ghyll Grooves on Scafell - I’d simul-climbed this one once before with a friend, and thought that it would make a scary solo, as if it’s been raining the crack normally followed on the crux pitch gets soaked, and you’re better off doing an alternative line up a slab which I think gets about E1. This was the case when I did it on the round, but it was just the crack that was wet from showers the day before, and the rest of the route was thankfully bone dry. I actually enjoyed it a lot more than the first time round, and found it easier, which was a nice surprise as it was at the end of a long day. In hindsight I think my time in Wales really improved my solo climbing, and I started to reap the rewards in the Lakes.

The Long Climb on Ben Nevis - I never wanted to solo this originally, as I had heard one too many tales about loose rock and hard route finding, but by the time I made it out of Glen Coe I already had The Chasm behind me, and doubted that it could be much worse. It’s a long route (funnily enough) at around 420 metres, and I rope solo’d the lot, as it was very misty and I wasn’t up for getting lost without being attached to something. Because of this it took a good while, but I really loved the whole experience, and found myself wishing when I got to the top that there was a few more pitches left to do!

The Chasm on Buachaille Etive Mor - This climb was both a total horror show, and one of my favourites for the same reasons. Two pitches below the top you find yourself in a cave called the Devil’s Cauldron. Escape from here means ascending a steep, wet chimney, with a tiny little second cave halfway up that all the water from above (if it’s been raining), gets funnelled into. It had been raining, and I have a vivid memory of trying to claw gear placements out of muddy cracks whilst being unable to look up thanks to the flood. I topped out covered in muck and absolutely soaked, but it was pretty satisfying to have managed it. Out of the three gullies involved in the round (the other two being Great Gully and Clachaig Gully), The Chasm, to me at least, felt like the hardest by far.


Anna has a break from cycling to check messages. Photo: Marc Langley

Tell us about the decision to complete the round by bike? Was it an environmental or a fun consideration?

I wanted the trip to feel more like a proper expedition than just a climbing holiday, and because of this I wanted the getting to the crags to be part of the challenge. I’d always been curious about cycle touring, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s very environmentally friendly.

I gather you’re new to cycle touring? How did you like it?

I really liked it. The first week was hell as the weight of all the climbing equipment and camping gear on the bike made it super heavy, and going up hills felt like torture, but after a couple of weeks my body seemed to settle into a rhythm, and from then on it was okay. It’s really nice having everything you need with you on your bike. It’s definitely something I will do again in the future.

Can you tell us what was in your panniers? Do you have a kit list?

The full kit list is way too long to include, as there’s loads of random little things that had to come along, but a condensed version would be something like:

  • Sleeping system - tent, sleeping bag, thermarest.
  • Cooking stuff and food - stove, lighters, basic food supplies and the all important coffee.
  • Clothes - everything you would need for a rainy UK trip. Lots of Gore-tex and waterproofs, a down jacket, many layers and cycling clothes.
  • Climbing gear - I took 40 metres of 7mm rope and a small rack for whenever I had to rope solo, plus shoes and chalk.

Anna Taylor in action on Sron na Ciche on Skye. Photo: Neil Gresham

 

You met some challenging weather, didn't you?!

The weather was probably the most challenging part of the trip. The first week was great, but the day I arrived in Wales it started raining, and it didn’t stop until I left and headed for the Peak District. I would never normally climb solo in the rain, but waiting it out just wasn’t an option if I wanted to finish the trip before October. Because of this I found myself high up on sopping wet crags day after day, with no rope and often little idea of where I was going, as if the mist descended then route finding became tricky.

There were a few slightly sketchy moments, but on the whole I don’t think I ever crossed the line into totally unjustifiable risk, despite the bad conditions. I had my fair share of rain up in Scotland too, but by that point I had learned how to operate in it, and just about enjoyed the final two days up on Skye, during which I think the rain stopped for collectively around ten minutes. On easier routes you can actually get away with quite a lot on wet rock, it’s just the lichen that turns into ice and needs to be avoided!

Best bit?

Either climbing the Devil’s Slide, emerging from The Chasm after my battle with it, or being halfway up The Long Climb, surrounded by mist and feeling like I was the only person in the world.

Worst bit?

Probably the descent from Clachaig Gully. I’d been warned that the path down was treacherous, but I’m usually pretty nimble on dodgy ground, so hadn’t worried too much beforehand. It’s very loose, and it was raining as I came down, so the rocks were slippy and had a tendency to crumble unexpectedly. As I’d already been all the way up I was tired and just wanted to make camp for the night, but the path seemed to go on forever. I doubt I’ll ever end up climbing Clachaig again, but if I do I’m finding an alternative way down!

 

Anna’s trip was sponsored by Berghaus, which supplied her with the latest performance outdoor kit and arranged for photographers to document the round.

 

READ: Anna Taylor's spree of hard trad

 

WATCH Neil Gresham asks Anna: how do you know when the moment is right to climb a bold trad route?

 

WATCH Why We Climb on BMCTV:


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