Over 130 pitches of climbing up to E6 6c, 23.6 miles of off-road running between 17 crags and 22hrs 36mins of sweating. Who on Earth would want to climb all the Brown and Whillans routes in East and Western Grit in a day? Sarah Stirling talks to Tom Randall about his monster day out with Pete Whittaker on Tuesday.
The idea for this day out was sparked five years ago, when Tom and Pete climbed all the Brown and Whillans routes on Western Grit in a day; a challenge a few teams had previously tried and failed on. After 10 hours of climbing, they sat down and Pete said, “Can you imagine doing all those from today and linking it into the ones from the Eastern Grit?” Tom replied: “Yeah, but who’s going to actually do that? That’s an absolute monster day out...”
The pair completed the challenge two days ago, and it certainly was a monster:
Crags climbed at: 17
Off-road running in between crags: 23.6 miles
Routes/pitches climbed: 125/132
Solos/leads: 66% solo climbs; 34% lead climbs
Hardest grade: E6 6c
Rack: No nuts, no draws; just Friends 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3 and 3.5 (couple of exceptions)
Food eaten while running or climbing: 6,000 calories in bagels, brioches, chocolate and nuts
Challenge duration: 22 hours 36 minutes
TR: When Pete and I first climbed together we did 550 routes, breaking the record for the most solos done in a day. We realised we had a good partnership then. We’re both very motivated and goal-oriented with complementary personalities. We’re like chalk and cheese, so if one person gets stressed the other can usually help.
Every year, on our birthdays, we climb Master’s Edge (E7 6b) in fancy dress. It’s so fun, we both look forward to it so much every year. I always think everyone should want to do it, but we extend an open invite to our friends and hardly anyone comes. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously. My life would be very different now if I’d not met Pete.
The annual birthday Master's Edge challenge. Photo: Mike Hutton
It’s been extremely entertaining finding someone else who’s up for these kind of days out and is prepared to push the boundaries of what’s possible. We’ve done many other challenges involving speed, endurance or fancy dress together now. It’s that pushing of boundaries that I think led to this challenge: one where we were very, very close to our limits...
Brown and Whillans seemed to seek out the burliest, steepest and most awkward routes on the gritstone edges. Add to this all the running between crags. For the last five hours of the challenge Pete was really suffering with his knees. We both nearly ran an off-road marathon as well as all the climbing, and neither of us are runners.
Climbing challenges are an opportunity to do something a bit silly, a bit crazy, a bit different. I hate treading the path of other people. You learn a lot about yourself and where you can take yourself when doing a challenge like this. I’m a constantly curious person. Touching the borders of what you can do physically and mentally is really illuminating. I enjoy that.
Added to all the climbing and running, we had to avoid getting lost during the seven hours of mostly solo climbing we did in darkness with a head torch. I really like soloing because it takes away all the faff. All you do is think about climbing. It’s like extended bouldering. Bouldering is really good, and it’s like bouldering, but for longer.
There are a limited amount of people who are prepared to suffer, and when you meet one of these you recognise a kindred spirit. Caff (James McHaffie, interview about his 100 Lakes Extremes solos in a day here) is one of them. He's one the most mentally strong people I’ve ever met. He’s so calm and objective and he can really knuckle down. He’s good at suffering.
My wife laminated all the routes for us, before the challenge. She’s a real organising person: pragmatic, good in a panic situation. She thinks I’m mad but is very supportive and really understands me. I couldn’t ask for anything more really! Meanwhile Pete and I spent two weeks recce-ing routes, working out strategy, running sections and practicing approaches.
That's love: Tom's wife Kim organised and laminated all the routes for their challenge
The first route we climbed was pretty worrying. An E6 at midnight: May 35 at Bamford. It felt like we could mess up the whole challenge before we’d even got going. Another lowlight was when the midges came out in full force at the end. And it was dark. And we had to do a really hard route: Crack of Gloom (E2 5c). I had to shout on it a lot.
The best route was Bachelor’s Left Hand (HVS 5b). It’s long, varied and beautiful in an amazing setting at Hen Cloud. It embodies everything good about gritstone climbing.
Swastika II was the worst route of the day. It’s the only route in the guidebook that has the description ‘Rest in peace’, and that’s all you need to know.
The biggest soft touch for me was The Big Crack (E2 5b). It’s a mixture of jamming and a wide upper crack: exactly what I’m good at. It felt so straight-forward. A lot of people have an emotional reaction to offwidth cracks but I love them... Things like Three Pebble Slab I find hard. And everyone wants to give it HVS!
The biggest sandbag was Deadbay Groove. It’s wet, filled with moss and munge, desperate for the grade and covered in bits of dust. The first time I tried it I couldn’t even get up it. It’s such a bastard for E1. There are loads of E3s that are far easier.
When there were 20 routes left, I said to Pete: “I can’t solo at this level any more. I’m really close to my limit.” We’d been going 21 hours. And he didn’t say: “Come on, don’t be a wuss...” We both really understand each other and were laughing at private jokes and telling stupid stories to keep each other going.
The last three hours on the Staffordshire side were really hard, mentally. Things were going really slowly and it was hard to take all the small negatives, like people being on routes, so we’d have to go on and come back. I guess we could have used them as aid points but, you know...
There will definitely be more silly challenges from us as a team in the future. Whatever idea takes our fancy and looks a bit unrealistic. They only work out if we are both equally motivated, though. I never worry that Pete and I will ever goad each other on too much and push it too far. We’re both quite calculating people and we want to stay in the game.
We’ve both been training extremely hard anyway: a whole year of physical preparation for going to America later this month. I have a climbing cellar below my house where we train. Everyone thinks it's full of offwidths but there's loads of different stuff. We want to free a number of big wall routes in El Cap. Classic things like Free Rider and Golden Gate.
We’re always cautious of our own standards, and find it funny that people think we’re good climbers. When we look at these big projects abroad, we say, “Oh, it’s only good people who have done those. Let’s just try one and see how it goes...” We’ve got a list of things we want to do in Yosemite but it’s really determined by how well the first route goes.
More about Tom Randall
Tom and Pete are the famous Wideboyz
In a previous life, Tom worked as a trader in London, but moved to Sheffield to be with his (now) wife, and work as a route-setter at climbing walls. Tom now coaches climbing and part-owns the Climbing Station
“I really miss that job in London. It was exciting. I would sit in my office with 50 other traders and could work whenever I wanted, so I’d come in at 1pm and leave at 4pm. It was quite lucrative but if I had a good month then I’d just go away climbing and spend it all: I’m not really motivated by money.”
Tom is probably most famous for his strange love of offwidth cracks: “After spending time in the States and getting into crack climbing, I felt a draw towards the slightly wider variety; probably because I was so crap at it to start with and also because everyone seemed to shun this style of climbing.”
In 2012, having completed a brutal two-year training regime spent mostly hanging upside-down in Tom’s cellar, Pete and Tom set off to the USA to climb the country’s hardest wide cracks. They established the first ascent of Century Crack, probably the world’s hardest offwidth, in the process. Their quests were, of course, immortalised in the Wide Boyz films.
I'm sure there will be more crazy films to come! Good luck in the USA, Tom and Pete.
READ: More info on Tom Randall's blog.
WATCH: Pete Whittaker Leads Headless Horseman Arête: History in the Making.
WATCH: BMC Ambassador James McHaffie solos White Noise (E3) at Reecastle exclusive to BMC TV. Filmed a few days before his 100 Lakes solos earlier this year.