Yeah, but, what've you ever done on grit?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 11/10/2016
Katy Whittaker climbs Gaia (E8 6c), Black Rocks, in fading light. Photo: Dave Mason.
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Grit season is upon us. Sarah Stirling offers 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.

Look out for part two of this article, top tips for grit and favourite route ideas from the pros.

What is 'grit season'?

So, some facts for any grit virgins before the grit lovers get misty-eyed about the colours, commitment and cams slipping effortlessly into cracks. Unlike 'deer season' it's not the time of year when you are actually allowed to shoot gritstone climbers. Grit season is autumn, when the weather (might) offer the perfect balance of temperature versus friction to climb this special rock.

Gritstone, you see, is water permeable; that's why it can feel sweaty in summer. Cold improves the friction, but obviously if it's the depths of winter and you can't feel your extremities you've got another excuse on your hands. Spring is OK too, but us climbers are a nature-loving bunch, and autumn has better colours, as Niall Grimes, George Elliot and Pete Whittaker argue poetically below.

What has God got to do with gritstone?

Gritstone is a marmite of the climbing world. A unique rock type, which some call 'God's own rock' and others call very short routes that require an upsetting amount of commitment. It's very grippy, but you have to get used to pulling on slopy holds and trusting your feet rather than relying on nice defined edges. 

James McHaffie describes grit-style thus: “It's pretty much as good as rock gets in terms of quality: it gets you good at moving fast, gymnastically, trusting poor smears and jamming."

"Be warned – few virgin grit climbers make their debut elegantly..."

While there are easy routes, of course, and good spotting and belaying can make it safer (see photo below and Kevin Jorgeson's description of 'a typical grit belay' further down), generally, as Mountain Guide Libby Peter explains: 

"There’s nowhere to hide on grit. It flatters all your strengths but exposes all your weaknesses in three crucial areas – jamming, laybacking and smearing. If you want to learn about climbing cracks, arêtes or slabs there’s no better place to head."


The author being elegantly 'spotted' after slipping on a rainy day...

One of the most famous grit afficionados in history, Johnny Dawes, offers this summary of the style it offers:

"Gritstone climbing is just like tree climbing  just instant and spontaneous enough to interest and intrigue before it becomes tiring or awkward."

Did you know?

A geologist will tell you that gritstone's official pedigree title is Coarse Grained Feldsphatic Sandstone. It's a coarse-textured sandstone, which began life as buried sediment 300 million years ago, got compressed, then burst up from the ground and handily eroded into lovely edges and tors.

"Yeah but what have they ever done on grit?"

Here follow the views of some famous visitors, who've come over to try their hand on British grit:

Alex Honnold, who was over earlier this year and visited his "old friend" Stanage, said he "really likes grit" and his favourite route might be the "super proud line" Harder Faster (E9) but "it was too scary to climb". Its guidebook description reads: "Gaia's direct finish is harder than its parent and from this one you will definitely hit the ground - have no doubts..." Kudos to first ascenscionist Charlie Woodburn.

Alex first came over of course in 2009 as part of the 'Team America' rampage – three of the USA's strongest young climbers pillaging a jaw-dropping range of what Matt Segal called the "scientific and dangerous climbs of the grit". 

It's worth revisiting the video below for a taste of their gnarl. Kevin Jorgeson nearly hits the ground from halfway up Gaia, Matt Segal does hit the ground, and Kevin then explains another joy of climbing hard and short gritstone routes: what they term the 'typical grit belay'. It's hard to hear over what they call the "cold and the wet in England" (looks like a nice day in the Peak to me) so I'll translate:

Kevin: "So we've got two options to prevent Alex hitting the deck. Option 1, I jump off this 15 foot cliff." 
Matt: "The belayer just hucks his meat down the wall..."
Kevin: "Option two is run down the gully..." [laughs in disbelief]
Matt: "Technical..."

What has Adam Ondra ever done on grit?

Well actually he onsighted three E7s one after the other a couple of years ago, after an early morning visit to try Hubble at Raven Tor (8c+/9a). In fact, he presented a slideshow in London, set off with Neil Gresham, got to Hathersage at 3am, went out at 5.30am to spend a couple of hours trying Hubble, and THEN onsighted Master's Edge, Messiah and Balance It Is. He actually doesn't think grit is that unique, either, it reminds him of the sandstone he has at home. Whatevs.

Now for some autumnal poetry:

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love  that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one's very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

So wrote author George Elliot, in 1841. It’s hard to beat, but Niall Grimes offers this more climbery version:

“Gritstone season. Climbers draw themselves up to it like a cat to a warm fire. Long gone is that winter training; gone too the big trips and long leads on our sea cliffs and mountain crags. As the days shorten and the air cools, the thoughts of the climber turn to the chill-handed raspings, the thirty-foot frolics, the heartbeat handjams, the yellow-leafed backdrops and the down-jacketed cosiness.”

And, finally, Pete Whittaker grew up on grit but still can't get enough of it:

“All the other seasons have their perks but autumn is an easy winner for me. Awesome colours in the trees, the nicest temperatures and the best climbing conditions. You can tot up 50 solos in an evening or crank out your latest project. There's nothing better than cool temperatures, a light breeze, friction beneath the fingers, colour in the trees of the plantation and the gritstone glow from the sun setting, while floating up the jugs of Flying Buttress Direct. Crikey I'm getting myself all excited just thinking about it; I mean, it can't get better than that, can it?”



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