Pete Whittaker on Headless Horseman Arete: the interview and exclusive video

Posted by Niall Grimes on 17/12/2013
Pete Whittaker on Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Andi Turner.

Has this been the best gritstone season ever? Quite possibly. The last couple of months of 2013 has seen the boys and girls applying themselves more than ever before to Peak gritstone to produce endless cutting edge headpoints and flashes of the big routes of the last two decades.

But scour the guides, look at the edges, and those with the vision will see what is still to be done. Pete Whittaker's vision seems better than anyone's at the minute and the latest thing he has seen off is the amazing Headless Horseman Arête at the Roaches. We sent fellow gritstoner David Mason to find out how it went (and see the video below).

The number of ‘great-unclimbed lines’ on gritstone is dwindling. They are succumbing to the drive for the new, the bold, and the unknown. Earlier this year Pete Whittaker had climbed one of these, the imposing prow at Wimberry, Baron Greenback. A summer of training commenced for a trip, with fellow ‘crack addict’ Tom Randall, to Squamish to try Cobra Crack. Arriving back to the UK victorious Pete needed something else to get his teeth stuck into.

Ask any Roaches local what is the greatest unclimbed line in Staffordshire and they’ll tell you. The blunt, undercut nose and flying arête that sits above Rock Hall cottage and below the nondescript E1, Headless Horseman, is the stuff of legend. Over the decades, the ‘Headless Horseman Arête’ project had seen off attempts from Simon Nadin, Justin Critchlow, Sam Whittaker, Andi Turner and Ryan Pasquill to name a few. These great climbers had made little impact on the line, even on top rope; combine this difficulty with the scant protection that the line offered and it was obviously going to be a tall order.

Well, thanks to Pete it is unclimbed no more. It took him just six sessions to unlock a sequence of poor pinches and papulous pebbles to turn the unclimbed into the climbed, giving gritstone another top quality, cutting edge route.

Here is what Pete had to say for himself:

David: Another one of the last great climbs on gritstone has succumbed. So how did it feel?
Pete: I am well pleased to have done it. Thin, technical climbing and subtle body positions; it’s a great piece of climbing. It felt desperate until I learnt the body positions. The day I actually climbed it, it didn't feel that difficult, but this is always the way with these things and then you doubt yourself that it was actually difficult at all!

David: How long had you been trying the project for?
Pete: I haven't tried it all that much. I abbed down it one weekend; saw holds and decided to put some time into it. It looked like there would be numerous ways of climbing it but figuring the best sequence was tricky. The individual moves are hard but not too bad, but the difficulty really kicked in when I started to link them together. As with all gritstone climbs condition played their part. There is one particular pinch hold on the arête that requires the stickiest of conditions. It can’t just be cold as that face sits in the sun, so a bit of wind is essential. I tried it twice in good conditions, managed it in one on top rope and then went for the lead. On my first lead attempt I fell due to rope drag and landed in a rhododendron bush; good job they’re springy!

David: What appealed to you about the line? Was it simply because it hadn't been climbed?
Pete: I definitely like unclimbed lines and new routes. I like the challenge of working my own sequences out and not just following what everyone else has done. I knew it would be hard and that excites me, I don't want to go out for an easy time, I want to challenge myself.

David: Any names yet? Grade speculations?
Pete: I have called it Sleepy Hollow and compared to other E9s I have climbed it’s definitely harder.

David: How does it compare to your other first ascents? Dynamics of Change at Burbage South? Baron Greenback at Wimberry?
Pete: It definitely has some of the hardest individual moves that I have done on gritstone but it’s difficult to know how hard it is compared to Baron Greenback as they are complete different. The Baron requires burl, brawn and power endurance whereas Sleepy Hollow requires more faith, friction and subtle body positioning.

David: What's next for the winter?
Pete: I have another project, which is going well but it’s a tricky one that requires a bit more strength. Training time!

David: You recently took the 'hot seat' at the Peak Rock launch evening. How was that?
Pete: Very strange.

David: What post send treat did you give yourself?
Pete: Some cookies I found in my pocket from a while ago, although I would have eaten them whether I had done it or not. They did taste a bit funny though!

Interview by David Mason

WATCH BMC TV: Pete Whittaker on Headless Horseman Arête

Watch this and many more climbing films on BMC TV.


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