How to improve your climbing on the Grit

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 19/10/2016
Mina Leslie-Wujastyk climbs Unfamiliar. Photo: Nick Brown.

Following on from our ode to why autumn is awesome for grit, here's part two: top tips for grit climbing and favourite route ideas from pros and locals, including James McHaffie, Libby Peter, Pete Whittaker and James Thacker.

READ part one here: Yeah, but, what've you ever done on grit?

An ode to why autumn is awesome for grit, with insights from and videos of aficionados including Pete Whittaker, James McHaffie, Libby Peter, Johnny Dawes, Adam Ondra and Alex Honnold.

Route choice

Perhaps I'm stating the obvious or being a wimp, but if it's cold out, I'll be hunting out routes that are (a) in the sun, (b) out of the wind and (c) short. That way your fingers might not freeze en-route, and you can warm them up in between.

"Don’t forget to bring your thermos to warm your hands on,” advises mountain instructor Matt Cooper. Great idea. This grit season thing is sounding more feasible already...

However, while I'm going for sun minus wind, for the more psyched, Pete Whittaker argues that it's actually all about the wind speed v temperature equation:

"Everyone thinks it's about freezing temperatures in the depths of winter to get them up their most difficult grit project. While temperature plays a part in the game, it's not the key factor. The best grit conditions I've ever had are when the temperature and wind speed work together. A higher temperature with a greater wind speed can give much better friction then a freezing cold day with no wind at all."

In summary: good luck poring over the angle of crags in guidebooks while working out where the sun will be in the sky at given points, and squinting at the finer details of the weather forecast.

WATCH our trad climbing skills playlist on BMC TV

Grit virgins drop a grade

Before we get carried away with all the autumnal excitement, Mountain Guide Libby Peter has some sobering advice: drop a couple of grades to start with if you're new to the grippy, slopy stuff:

"Climbing on gritstone forces you to use good technique. There’s no point being half-hearted. It’s all or nothing, so it’s either immensely satisfying or cruelly humbling. Grit routes also typically require 100% commitment. Despite the routes being short they’ll be high in value for money."

Cams are your friends

“Be very ready before leaving the ground on the trad routes and take a few cams," adds James McHaffie, who is usually extremely understated, so I'm interpreting that as: be very, very ready, and weigh yourself down with cams. In fact, Libby advises you double up on cam sizes on certain routes, if you can afford to, as "this can be a lifesaver on the uniform cracks". 

In fact, Libby wrote the Official Handbook of the Mountaineer Single Pitch Instructor and Award Schemes, so it's worth hanging off more of her words on this: 

"Although cams were the brainchild of Yosemite style granite crack climbers, they could as easily have been designed with grit in mind. The friction of the rock and uniformity of the cracks is a winning combination.

"If you pay attention to getting the correct size (mid-way in the cam’s expansion range) and alignment of the stem (with the direction you might load it) you’ll have yourself a secure placement."

WATCH: Alex Honnold not bothering with cams at Stanage on BMC TV

Other things you might need

Bouldering mat and down jacket

A mat is a godsend (a) for bouldering to warm up, (b) for keeping your feet clean, (c) as groundfall protection on short routes and (d) most importantly, for sitting on while enjoying said flask of hot beverage. "Climbing hard without warming up is asking for an injury, so get some easy routes in to prepare your body and, when you're resting, don your thickest down jacket," advises Matt.

Rack and rope

Because the routes are usually short, you can often get an idea of the gear you'll need from the ground, and adjust your rack to suit. You don't usually need a long rope. "If it's just the ends of your old ropes that are trashed, then cut them down and keep them as a pair for shorter grit venues," suggests local Mike Dudley.

Skin damage

Back in the 70s, Ken Wilson called those using chalk ‘the powder-puff kids’ and bemoaned that Stanage was starting to look like ‘a blackboard at school’. 

Luckily things have moved on since then, because grit wears out your skin really fast, and dipping regularly in chalk keeps skin dry and so less likely to tear.

Ken would probably turn in his grave, but Libby suggests that if you have delicate hands you might want to tape them up to avoid grit rash in rough-sided cracks. "For some horrific slab routes you may want to consider using tape on your chin, too..." adds Matt.

Trust your feet... but not too much

"Trust the smears. You CAN stand on what you don't think you can," advises local climber Steven Carmichael. However, ground falls are a constant threat on the diminutive cliffs so it’s essential to place gear as soon as you can, and keep on throwing it in whenever you can.

"Cam-eating cracks are commonplace," warns Libby. "If you place a cam too small for the crack it has a greater tendency to ‘walk’ further into the crack. Don’t place cams too deeply in the first place."
"Learn when to commit and when to back off, and if you decide to commit then commit 100%," advises Jacob Phillips, who runs Summit Ascent and is based in Sheffield.

'A typical grit belay'

It’s not unheard of for belayers to be briefed to start running if their leader falls on particularly necky leads. "Although not to be recommended," says Libby, "if this approach is a possibility make sure the first runner is multi-directional (a cam or thread) so it won’t simply rip out."

Check out Kevin Jorgeson and Matt Segal's reaction to what they call a 'typical grit belay' in part one of this series.

Evacuation procedures

"Regular visitors to Snowdonia will know that it's essential to climb in the rain, while climbers from the Peak District know that we have a multitude of excellent cafés and pubs in which to shelter from the rain," says Mountain Guide James Thacker. "Should the conditions improve, nearly all the crags are roadside allowing a second attempt."

Where to start

Niall Grimes has some poetic inspiriation: “Rattling off a dozen tall HVSs on Stanage Popular End; a brutal skirmish with a Curbar crackline; tiptoeing up a flawless Froggatt slab; a big team circuit of Robin Hood’s Stride boulders; rising above the world as you blast up the Roaches’ Great Slab; a heart-in-mouth highball in the Burbage valley; feeling tiny in the middle of a Millstone wall-climb; finally nailing that long-term project on the Plantation boulders; being at peace on a seldom-visited block of Skyline perfection.”


"The Roaches, Staffordshire is a lovely place to start," advises Libby. "Even though it gets busy there is often a mellower feel than at some of the other 3-star crags. Pedestal Route (HVD) is a lovely and a rare two-pitch route with a belay under the roof of Sloth. Valkyrie is VS 4c, and worth every penny of that  another multi-pitch journey that feels far longer than its meterage suggests."


”The midges are almost gone in autumn, the crags are quieter, there's prime friction and mega routes  what more could you want?” says Jacob Phillips"HVS-wise, here's a few 5a ones for you: at Burbage North I'd go for Knight's Move, at Froggatt  Chequers Buttress, at Millstone  Great North Road and at Stanage – Queersville. If I had to choose one as a good first grit HVS then it would be Knight's Move at Burbage North."


"A good day at Stanage, Froggat, Curbar or the Roaches is hard to beat,” says James McHaffie. "If you're fond of E2s go to Cratcliffe where there are some of the best on the grit."


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