The Staffordshire Nose – An Entirely British Day Out
I first came across the Staffordshire Nose Challenge in my early years of climbing together with Pete Whittaker. We’d recently broken the record for the most number of routes climbed in a day (550 soloed) and for some reason we wanted more ways in which to destroy ourselves on a day out. I think it was the experience of climbing with someone and jointly going through the same pains and exhaustion that was somehow bonding. You knew you were suffering, but there was also someone else who you depended on, just a few feet away, feeling exactly the same. After that day out, we spent some time researching other possible challenges and came across the – as yet uncompleted – Staffordshire Nose Challenge.
The rules of this day out were easily defined. You must climb all of the Brown and Whillans Routes on the Roaches, Hencloud and Ramshaw in a day. Thirty two routes in all and most of them graded HVS. It sounded so simple, that we could hardly believe that a number of strong parties had already failed to complete this in a 24hr period. There were tales of partners being carried back down from the crag, E6 leaders flailing on routes many grades below their limit and of course, plenty of blood, sweat and tears. On the face of it, mine and Pete’s first attempt at the challenge in 2009 was surprisingly successful despite the conditions and our usual “disaster-style” professionalism. We’d started the challenge in pouring rain and finished it 9hrs and 56mins later surrounded by clouds of midges. I’m not sure if we lost more blood to the wildlife or to the cracks.
Over the following years there was one individual who continually expressed interest in trying to match (if not beat) mine and Pete’s day out. Andi Turner, the keeper of Western Grit, had enrolled various partners over the years to complete the big day out. Until last year he’d been very close to completion, but with the magic combination of Pete “The Dark Horse” Bridgewood, he convincingly beat our time in July 2012 to bring the time down to 8hrs 41mins. They had chosen to use a combination of solo and roped climbing and certainly upped the ante a little by combining risky strategy with speed. The moment Pete and I saw the news of our time being bettered, we were instantly motivated. This challenge was getting competitive!
Over the past few months, we started to plan a come back. As Eastern Grit boys, we knew our regional pride was at stake and sacrifices would have to be made in order to rise to the challenge. I started doing regular runs in the park each evening and Pete cut down on his cake consumption in preparation for peak performance. We carefully analysed Andi T and Pete B’s speed strategy and realised a day of our own preparation was necessary. We learnt the approaches to the routes, the down climbs and what was the lightest rack that we could risk. Lunch was abandoned in favour of “breakfast bulking”, we wouldn’t build a single belay (just sitting braced behind a boulder was opted for) and we would also choose to solo a number of routes.
Arriving at the Roaches on the day of our big attempt we were already under pressure from outside factors. The forecast for the day was rather poor and we noticed that all of our routes were under “winter conditions” which I classify as grassy, damp or wet. To further complicate factors, my carbo-loading strategy had been a little excessive and I was dashing to the toilet rather frequently. Only Pete’s in depth knowledge and understanding of the rock conditions gave me hope that morning. He put my mind at ease quickly:
“It looks bloody damp, but it’ll be alright. We can put a rope on if it gets too serious.”
The first hour actually went pretty well, with routes like Rhoden, The Mincer, Matinee and The Bulger quickly passing. By Valkyrie Direct though, a weather situation was starting to develop. The crag had become enveloped in a cloud of clag and it started to lightly rain. Just a couple of routes after this Pete had probably one of his boldest leads of his career to consider. Dorothy’s Dilemma, E1 5b sits proudly alongside the other great lines of Brown and Whillans. What it lacks in protection and safety, it makes up for in greenness. As I watched Pete set off in wet shoes and no quickdraws (they were too heavy) I felt apprehensive. He’d climbed bold E9s on grit and flashed multiple E7s, but this looked the real deal. As much as I wanted to laugh that he was going to attempt an E1 at his very limit, I had to be silent as the situation was serious. On topping out with some very sketchy looking climbing he shouted down,
“That was harder and scarier than climbing Meshuga!”
After that experience, we were pleased to be in one piece still and started to realised that we’d really have to knuckle down if we were going to get to the end of the day with a successful result. Fortunately the worsening of conditions was equally matched by an improved resolve. We felt privileged to lead classics like Lightning Crack, Slippery Jim and The Sloth in the soaking wet and each time we topped out it’d had felt like an E5 experience. Each time one of us got to the top a route, the other was congratulating them like they’d onsighted one of their very hardest routes. The game had changed and HVS was very close our limit!
Hencloud was very similar to the Roaches. Perhaps a little greener, but at least it stopped raining for two of the routes. In the midst of soloing Main Crack I did stop and think about the situation. Here we were soloing on top of each other, with wet trousers, wet shoes, wet cracks and the repercussions of a fall ultra-serious, but we were having so much fun. Each top out brought out feelings of mutual understanding. We knew we were cold, hurting and tired, but to go through that with someone else, who’s outcome is 100% depending on your own fortitude is amazing. It makes you so much more positive and brings out the funniness in the misery.
Along the edges of Ramshaw we neared the end of the challenge and the funny side of the day came through stronger and stronger. We were shouting lines from famous Youtube clips about speed climbing at each other constantly. Becoming parodies of our own heroes, we mimicked their actions.
“Pete…..! I can show you 30 places on Ramshaw that you can die!
“Allez, allez, allez!”
“No gear. Don’t Fall!”
We ran across the final section of crag still roped up – our gear jangling on our harnesses – to face the last labour. The viscous Ramshaw Crack. Our time was just 5hrs 35mins to this point and we knew we had the potential to break the record by a fair margin. As I pulled into the wet void above me I felt cooked. I’d nearly fallen off soloing Great Zawn just 20 minutes beforehand and I knew that this route was probably beyond me. As I floundered my way up, the final insult was for my tape glove to split and fall off exposing open wounds on my hand. Ejected from the route, I lay on the ground at Pete’s feet a broken man. I curled up and whimpered.
“I’m so sorry Pete. I can’t do it. I’ve got nothing left.”
Like every great partner and friend, he dragged me to my feet, handed me a belay device and told me that he’d take care of business. Setting off on the crack above me, he gave it everything and threw the all important chicken wing to cross the threshold of success. I knew that once he’d done that move, all it required was for me to second the pitch under the careful guidance of Pete screaming at me and telling me I couldn’t give up. In one final nauseating effort, I jammed every part of my body (learning a chin-jam in the process) and crawled over the top of Ramshaw. We laughed and high-fived like Americans, but underneath it all, we’d had an entirely British day out at the crag. Our time of 5hrs and 53mins reflected complete and utter stubborness and sheer will to not give up in totally unacceptable conditions. I hope that even as I write this, Andi T and Pete B are already preparing to do battle with the Nose again next year.