The hard gritstone season has just started with a bang: last weekend, Katy Whittaker climbed Gaia (E8) and two days ago Nathan Lee cruised up Knocking on Heaven’s Door (E8). Our man on the ground, Dave Mason, catches up with them to talk climbing, first female ascents and cricket.
I heard a rumor that the gritstone climbing season officially started earlier this week. Waking up on Monday morning to blue skies and a crisp autumnal chill in the air, I tend to agree. It’s time to don those thermals, dig out the wooly hat and get the old thermos washed out.
Some might say it’s late for the serious grit season to start, but with a torrential amount of rain over the past months, the weather has been far from desirable for rock climbing of any type.
However two individuals that may argue with that are Katy Whittaker and Nathan Lee. This gruesome twosome have been out on the grit at every opportunity. Wetness and warmth haven’t dampened their psyche and there’s a real spirit between the two of them. Banter bounces back and forth, and a healthy competiveness spurs them on; Nathan is even trying to keep up with Katy when down the wall!
Nathan (20) has made a name for himself over the past couple of years for head-pointing some of the hardest routes our gritstone crags have to offer. A month ago he made the first ascent of Unknown Stones (E9 6c) at Wimberry; two weeks ago he climbed Meshuga (E9 6c); two days ago he cruised his way up Knocking on Heaven’s Door (E8 6c).
Katy, it feels like, has been around forever, which is strange, given she is just 24. From bouldering competitions to sport and trad climbing, she is one of the best climbers in the country and there’s nowhere she feels more at home than on gritstone. Over the past month, she’s climbed Paralogism (E7 6c), The Bad and The Beautiful (E7 6b) and, in her most satisfying moment to date, Gaia (E8 6c).
It was time to ask them a few questions.
Q. How did you both start climbing?
Katy: My parents, mum is very keen! We did a lot of climbing as youngsters in the Peak, at the wall and on various holidays. I don't remember starting really.
Nathan: I started out trad climbing in the Lakes after my GSCEs. After that, I got hooked on bouldering and spent many sessions up on the local Curbar boulders.
Q. A lot of children nowadays just seem to climb indoors. Do you think it’s good for them to get out on the rocks if it is accessible? Is trad climbing a good introduction to climbing outside?
Katy: I think it teaches a really good style of climbing and movement. However this needs to be done on easier routes first before going straight into the hard stuff. You have to have respect for the grit routes as they aren't very forgiving!
Nathan: I seem to remember some fuss on ukclimbing.com about Jim Pope when he did some E6s last year. I think it’s great, but people must remember to be as calculated as they can be in their approach. Wearing a helmet is a good idea, and being able to say no is very important, as hard as that can be sometimes.
Q. Would you like to see more women out crushing hard grit?
Katy: There are lots of women out there crushing grit but everyone is just doing their own thing. There are obviously way less women out there climbing than men, so when you narrow it right down into a specific area like hard grit there are never going to be loads of women doing it.
I don't think we need to make a big deal out of it; it is how it is. I personally don't think first female ascents are a big deal, especially on grit. I don't want to be noticed for climbing something just because I’m a girl. I compare myself with the guys I climb with and want to climb just as hard.
Nathan: Hell yeah!
Q. What is your best climbing experience?
Katy: Gaia! I remember seeing it for the first time years and years ago and thinking it was the best line on grit. It climbs so well and the gear is in the perfect place. I knew I had to climb it at some point. I’ve had various top ropes on it over the past few years but never had the bottle to lead it. Every winter it niggled in the back of my mind and I tried to ignore it by doing other things.
This year, I decided I was going to commit and do it or at least try! I’ve been out on the grit at every opportunity and done a bit of head-pointing to try and get myself into the right mindset. I can't think of another climb that has taken up so much of my thoughts and scared me for so long. It’s so weird wanting to do a route so much but never knowing if you will be brave enough to do it. I always remember Lisa sitting on top doing a little cheer, so I did the same.
Nathan: End of the Affair because it represented a level of climbing I never thought I would reach. I've definitely climbed better routes, but that one was special. It’s also a stunning piece of rock. (He can see it from his bathroom window at home, so that’s got to be special!)
Q. Who inspires you?
Katy: Johnny Dawes for sure, his technique and movement on rock is incredible but I am mainly inspired by the people I climb with. I really feed off their psyche and motivation and I love climbing with people who are enthusiastic. I think it reflects in my ability and successes when I have partners like this.
Nathan: Mainly my Dad for getting me involved and belaying me on countless occasions and like Katy I tend to be inspired by people I see first-hand, so many of the people I climb with now could be included in that.
Q. Nathan didn’t start climbing till he was 16 and from what he tells me he was a pretty nifty bowler until then. Who is the best bowler in the world past or present?
Katy: I know nothing about cricket!
Nathan: Brett Lee. Rapid and vicious; with a cracking haircut and last name combo.
WATCH: Katy talk about starting climbing on BMC TV:
Thanks to Katy and Nathan. Dave Mason also tried to pin down the elusive Tyler Landman after his shock ascent of Smiling Buttress at the weekend, but he has escaped to Scotland.