Trip Report
ALMSCLIFF, ARMSCLIFF - A GRITSTONE JEWEL; SOME HISTORY, RECOLLECTIONS AND A TRIP REPORT
Saturday July 13, 2013 1:59am


Almscliff is a remarkable crag, indisputably the queen of Yorkshire gritstone it has an unrivalled concentration of classic routes that are, rich in history – even by British standards. A forcing ground for generations of climbers, a day out on the rough hewn grit of Almscliff rarely disappoints.

It's here somewhere.................
It's here somewhere.................
Credit: Blakey
Credit: Blakey

The crag sits pugnaciously on the skyline South West of Harrogate close to several large towns, and the city of Leeds, it’s bulging walls provide a concentration of adventures, taxing, technical and bold, the routes are best tackled with a confident approach that makes maximum use of momentum. Pausing at the crux, rather than pulling through first time, is never a good move here.

Oooer, there it is..
Oooer, there it is..
Credit: Blakey

The crag has been climbed on for over a hundred years. Climbing in Tweeds and Nails a selection of notable Victorian and Edwardian climbers developed a range of techniques that they then transferred onto the crags of the Lake District, Wales, Scotland and the Alps. And to prove that nothing is new, some of the earliest recorded bouldering took place on the Virgin and Gypsy boulders beneath the crag– Norfolk Jackets and plus fours, being the norm, rather than mats, chalk and beanies.

Claude Benson soloing on the Virgin boulder. The called the Virgin Cli...
Claude Benson soloing on the Virgin boulder. The called the Virgin Climb it is a 'Severe'that pre dates 1912.
Credit: Blakey
Here Benson is climbing on the Matterhorn. The line is now called Matt...
Here Benson is climbing on the Matterhorn. The line is now called Matterhorn Ridge, HVS 5b (5.9)
Credit: Blakey

Though climbed and undoubtedly recorded before hand, the Yorkshire Ramblers Club Guide of 1949 describes the established routes on the Virgin

Virgin.
A magnificent boulder with five recognised routes and several variations.
North Face. A moderately difficult traverse with good pocket holds.
Top Side. Right Corner. A steep and delicate corner climb which may be started on the North or on the East face.
Top Side. Central Face. Severe. To reach a good finishingm hold is necessary to step up boldly on poor holds.
Top Side. Left Corner. Start on the East face and finish up the South face on good holds.
South Face. Stride and Diagonal Route. V.S. From the adjacent boulder take a long stride on to the Virgin. Ascend a few feet and traverse left to sloping ledge. Pass round corner and follow sloping ledge down to left. Step out left and ascend delicately.

It is worth remembering that many of these pioneers were unusually strong – being able to do a one arm pull up was a not unheard of benchmark. Early pioneers such as Cecil Slingsby, Herbert Ingle, Fred Botterill, W Parsons and Claude Frankland explored the crag establishing routes up the obvious wide cracks and chimneys that fracture the crag. As early as the late 1800S Ingle had established a VS route @5.6 imaginatively called the ‘Traditional Climb’ on the South face. By the 1920s Claude Frankland had established several routes at this grade. Protection throughout this period was ‘rudimentary’ and unless there was a handy and significantly large spike or flake, there would be nothing to drape your hemp sling over to make a belay or runner. This remained the case until the advent of nuts, and with hemp rope. A leader fall was largely unthinkable and most ascents would have been solos.

Fred Botterill, an early pioneer, looking dressed for a day on the cra...
Fred Botterill, an early pioneer, looking dressed for a day on the crags.
Credit: Blakey
Claude Frankland, another  ALmsciff devotee Frankland's Green Crack re...
Claude Frankland, another ALmsciff devotee Frankland's Green Crack remains a benchmark VS today.
Credit: Blakey
Cecil Slingsby. Looking at these photo's the Edwardian stiffness makes...
Cecil Slingsby. Looking at these photo's the Edwardian stiffness makes it difficult to comprehend how much fun these blokes were having!
Credit: Blakey

There seems to have been something of a hiatus between Frankland’s activity and his establishment of Frankland’s Green Crack (VS) in 1919 and the start of the Second World War. But during the war, and in the post war years Arthur Dolphin was the stand out climber, a naturally talented climber with a smooth style he tackled the features that had awaited a stronger, bolder climber, during the war years he established several classic lines; Great Western HVS 5a @ 5.8, Crack of Doom VS 4c 5.6 Demon Wall HVS 5a @5.8, and Birdlime Traverse in 1946, now graded E1 5b @5.9

'ARD' The 'H' is only missing from his initials, but in a flat Yorkshi...
'ARD' The 'H' is only missing from his initials, but in a flat Yorkshire accent it isn't nessecarry. Arthur Rhodes Dolphin.
Credit: FM Blake, from Cumbrian Rock
Dolphin relaxing on the crux of Great Western HVS 5a.
Dolphin relaxing on the crux of Great Western HVS 5a.
Credit: FM Blake from Cumbrian Rock

The photo of him nonchalantly almost horizontal on the crux of Great Western, rope over his shoulder to the ground (a fall here would be very, very nasty) in plimsolls says a lot about his ability. The guidebook description from the period is ‘understated’ in it’s narrative , and grade!

14. Great Western. 40 ft. V.S.
Strenuous and exposed. Rubbers. The vertical corner crack 25 ft. to the right of the Niche, is climbed as a layback for 15 ft. until it is possible to pull out on to the left wall into a diagonal crack (for the feet). Hand traverse left on good holds until a strenuous pull can be made, over a pinnacle, into a recess where it is possible to rest. The overhanging crack above the recess is overcome by hand-jamming.

Described in the current guidebook ‘As the much heralded classic of the crag, and a good, honest knackering fight’ it is recognised as a benchmark HVS 5a (5.8) Great Western’s angle and architecture isn't revealed by the typical ‘front on’ photograph, but when you get below it, at the start it definitely is!

Great Western's steepness is more apparent in this photo. The route fo...
Great Western's steepness is more apparent in this photo. The route follows the line of the rope. Some years after Dolphin established Great Western, Allan Austin climbed through the overhangs below and left of Tim. He fell (a ground fall)from the crack a
Credit: Blakey

Dolphin wasn't much more than a gritstone specialist, he performed well elsewhere, establishing several hard classics in the Lakes; Kipling Groove on Gimmer, so named because it was ‘Ruddy Ard’. Dolphin also top roped Wall of Horrors, remarkable given its difficulty and that he would have been in plimsolls. But never got around to soloing it. Dolphin’s death, falling on an easy ice slope during a descent of the Dent du Geant robbed British climbing of it’s pre-eminent 1940s climber.

Dolphins developments have been described as setting the scene for the next big jump in standards. This came in the unlikely shape of Alan Austin. Born in 1934 Austin’s gritstone Gritstone career began in the 1950s. While he was an unimposing figure, be speckled and preferring to wear several wool jumpers, his routes were the opposite, very bold and unprotected, he soloed two of Dolphin’s top ropes, Notably falling off the crux of Western Front on his first attempt and suffering a very nasty groundfall that knocked him out. After he regained consciousness he gathered himself and did it second go (the drop zone IS awful). He also had the nerve to solo the Wall of Horrors.

Allan Austin
Allan Austin
Credit: RF Allen from Cumbrian Rock
Taken from a well thumbed Mountain 19
Taken from a well thumbed Mountain 19
Credit: Roger Pearson from Mountain 19


As a teenager I pored over the iconic photos of him soloing the route in Mountain Magazine, wondering if I would ever be worthy. Like Dolphin Austin was active in the Lakes and elsewhere. Overall he did 400 new routes on Grit, 200 on Limestone and 100 on volcanic rock. But an unglamorous stickler for detail he became overshadowed by the stars of the next stage of development – a mixture of Glam Rock and Punk was about to unleash it’s talents on the crag.

In 1970, Leeds University commissioned the construction of a climbing wall by Don Robinson. Built in a corridor this early and primitive wall became a catalyst for a string of young, bold and talented climbers.

The Leeds Uni Wall
The Leeds Uni Wall
Credit: The Interweb

John Syrett, Pete Livesy, Al Manson, Mike Hammill and Ken Wood, Ron Fawcett and others were all either users of or influenced by what the wall precipitated. Almscliff being the preeminent Gritstone crag understandably drew a lot of attention with these notables pushing the bar higher and setting standards for the next generation again to brush aside. It was this groups exploits who as a youngster I read about, avidly in each publication of Mountain, or the parochial ‘Crags’, and it was their reputations and routes that you measured yourself against.

I first visited the Almscliff in 1972, as a keen sixteen year old on a club trip from Newcastle. I remember the crag was very intimidating, for sure the most striking outcrop I had seen; steep, bulging, brooding and exotic. Far more ‘in your face’ than the sandstone of Northumberland, everything here looked very, very unforgiving. Back then commercial nuts were still pretty inadequate and I didn’t even own any EB’s. It was and still is a crag that sorts out the men from the boys.

Indeed it was here that I was introduced to EBs. Up until then I had been climbing either in alpine boots, or plimsolls, typically climbing at about ‘Severe’ level (that’s probably around 5.4), I was loaned a pair of EBs by a kind local, I thrashed my way up several burly VSs, and was given a guided tour of the crag. Desperate looking lines were pointed out in hushed tones, and the adventures of heroes such as Austin and Dolphin discussed in a suitably awed manner. It all seamed unassailably difficult. Still I was converted by the footwear, and when I got home I rapidly sold my road bike for £16 .00 (a small fortune then) bought a pair of EBs and never looked back.

My next encounter with the crag was four years later in 1976, a lot had happened in British climbing in the intervening four years, climbing walls had emerged – some more sophisticated than others. At the very least they allowed exercise to continue through the winter and even this had a profound effect. The Leeds University wall in particular became a forcing ground from which a formidable array of talent emerged, Pete Livesy, Steve Bancroft, Al Manson , Pete Kitson, Alex MacIntyre and John Syrett all used the wall and demonstrated the improvements possible with what was a very basic (if intensive) training routine.

But living in Newcastle we were somewhat isolated, and in the early days had little idea of how hard our routes in Northumberland were. We were a small cadre of climbers following on the heels of two talented local activists; John Earl and Bob Hutchinson (Bob sadly died in an accident in the Lakes). Bob and John were adept at psychological warfare and radically undergraded their routes, one Austrailia Crack was graded HVS (5.8) when in reality it was (and is) closer to 12.b. As we in the following group didn’t know any better, we (or at least I certainly) concluded that routes graded XS elsewhere must have to be superhuman…….

In particular John Syrett’s ability and contribution was legendary, reinforced by the cover photo of Mountain 28, which showed him heel hooking his way around the Encore roof.

Credit: Don't Know

His repeat of Wall of Horrors broke the spell many of those routes held over mere mortals, and precipitated more repeats of all the harder gritstone routes became more commonplace. Syrett’s standard dropped off somewhat following a nasty accident to his hand, his life became increasingly complicated with periods of depression. Tragically he was later to fall one night into the void of Malham Cove. With no witnesses the Coroner declared a Death by Misadventure.

So in November 1976 I returned in the company of Bob Smith, another Geordie, having adopted the training regimes of the day, we were fighting fit and full of shit! We were both busily competing, (along with several others), for what seemed at the time to be the last great lines in our own sandstone crags in Northumberland. I was at the time working on a chemical plant and Bob as a ‘Roofer’. I was on strike and with a fine November day forecast, Bob agreed to bunk off and we decided on a trip to Almscliff.

Much had been reported in Mountain and other climbing rags and we were keen to see how it compared with what we were doing in our ‘County’. We were big fish in a small pond (or so we thought) – would we be like ducks out of water…

What followed was one of the best day’s cragging I‘ve ever had, conditions were perfect, bright, cold and dry and we had the crag to ourselves – apart from a fleeting visit by Ray Jardine – and I presume Mark Valance who pootled about a bit then left (I had just purchased at great expense a No 3 Friend).

We started off with Western Front, a classic Arthur Dolphin HVS, @5.8, then Bob led Western Front an XS 5c @10.c (None of the complicated E grades back then).

Blakey seconding Western Front BITD. It was from here that Austin fell...
Blakey seconding Western Front BITD. It was from here that Austin fell to the ground on his first attempt!
Credit: Blakey

I then led Wall of Horrors XS 6a @ 11b/c, Clemitis and Oubliette followed, both around 10.d. We were on a roll now, Bob led Shuffle Crack 10.b then I took on Yellow Wall another high 10, Birdlime Traverse and Black Wall Eliminate fell, as did the hardest of the bunch Big Greeny at 11.c We finished off our leading with Encore 10.c, which is short but as spectacular as the photo indicates. Weary by now we finished off top roping the Ochrist Roof an 11.d. It was some day we had trotted up some of the iconic routes of the day in really good style. We headed home happy and with substantially less skin than we started.

Wall of Horrors in 76. The crux is above the horizontal break some way...
Wall of Horrors in 76. The crux is above the horizontal break some way above my head.
Credit: Blakey
Bob sprinting across Birdlime Traverse
Bob sprinting across Birdlime Traverse
Credit: Blakey
Bob Smith on Birdlime Traverse, a Dolphin classic.
Bob Smith on Birdlime Traverse, a Dolphin classic.
Credit: Blakey

It was of course all made possible by our c*#k headed confidence, and Helly Hansen fleece, which we discovered stuck to the grit like Velcro. Throwing a forearm over a rounded, bald finish resulted in a suprising but very satisfying latch that allowed your fingers and forearms to recover.

It was a remarkable day and like many climbing experiences much of it remains indelibly burnt into my memory. A couple of years later I enlisted in the Army and was based in the South of England for the best part of my service, in that Time a managed one trip back to Almscliff, just after the first Gulf War, stopping off en route to the Lakes I did a damp Wall of Horrors.

Life then got in the way and there were no more visits until this year, a family trip introduced my son Tim to the delights of Gritstone, and we then had to meet up with Loz prior to our trip to Yosemite.

Tim led his first VS (5.6) the Crack of Doom which takes the corner shared by Great Western, but kicks out right by an awkward crack (It was this route that revealed the value of EBs to me back in 1972).

Tim on the Crack of Doom, his first VS LEAD. He is surrounded by a cat...
Tim on the Crack of Doom, his first VS LEAD. He is surrounded by a cats cradle of routes. Nine weave their way through the rock around him. Fantastic architecture and remarkable unmarked given it's been climbed on for well over 60 years.
Credit: Blakey

We did a couple of other classic HVS’s Great Western which is an absolute classic, super steep and juggy.

Great Western, it was starting to get unusually hot for the UK!
Great Western, it was starting to get unusually hot for the UK!
Credit: Blakey

Loz did a good job on Clemitis which was pretty greasy in the 30 degree heat. (Andy Murray was playing in the Wimbledon final in 40 degrees that day). I Led Black Wall Eliminate and we finished off with Loz leading the awkward Shuffle Crack.

Loz pulling through the bulges of Clemitis. One of 'Almscliff Eric's' ...
Loz pulling through the bulges of Clemitis. One of 'Almscliff Eric's' routes, Led in 'Bendy Boots'. I served awhile with Eric who was in the RAF
Credit: Blakey
On a hot day, this is where it gets hard....
On a hot day, this is where it gets hard....
Credit: Blakey
Black Wall Eliminate
Black Wall Eliminate
Credit: Blakey
Loz on Shuffle Crack.
Loz on Shuffle Crack.
Credit: Blakey

Sadly it was just too hot to contemplate the harder stuff, but it’s not going anywhere and the hot weather won’t last long – This is the UK after all.

Driving back we called in at a café to get some cold drinks and as we got in the car the news of Andy Murray's win over Djokovic jumped out of the radio. Oh Perfect Day!

Some acknowledgements are required: The two photos of Benson were taken from John Gill's website, thanks John. Some scans were taken from early Mountain mags. Cumbrian Rock by Trevor Jones and Geoff Milburn and the latest Yorkshire Gritsone Guide are fantastic publications full of historic material. The Slingsby image was taken from the Slingsbys genealogy site. As usual if there are any complaints I'll pull an image. The Yorkshire Mountaineering Club allow the use of the 1949 guide with suitable acknowledgement: Stembridge, H.L. (1949) Almscliff - A Key to Climbs. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 7 Number 25: pp213-227. Leeds: YRC.

Credit: Blakey

Have fun!

Steve

  Trip Report Views: 1,437
Blakey
About the Author
Blakey is a trad climber from Newcastle UK.

Comments
Did you like this Trip Report? Got something to say? Don't hold back...
Comment on this Trip Report
steveA

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
  Jul 13, 2013 - 06:34am PT
Blakey,

Great TR!

Your TR brought back fond recollections of a visit I took there with the Leeds guys back in 1970.

I was hanging out with John Porter, Alex MacIntyre, ( we called him dirty Alex), and a few others. I still miss those roadside breakfast stops with the greasy sausage and eggs.

I still keep in touch with John Porter, who lives in the Lakes.
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
  Jul 13, 2013 - 06:34am PT
hey there say, blakey... wow, i just LOVE THIS!!!

really great wonderful share, thank you so very much!!!

i know some gals that know of the lake district that you mentioned, they don't climb, though...

and i know a gal and her husband from yorkshire, so this makes this all the more fun...

love all the scenery, too, and the history pic...
not all the photos have loaded for me, yet... (dial up)...

and, i really LOVE that neat WALL in the first pic!

thanks again for this fun share!!!

god bless and many more happy climbing trips to you!
:)
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
  Jul 13, 2013 - 06:45am PT
hey there say, blakey... wow, i just LOVE THIS!!!

really great wonderful share, thank you so very much!!!

i know some gals that know of the lake district that you mentioned, they don't climb, though...

and i know a gal and her husband from yorkshire, so this makes this all the more fun...

love all the scenery, too, and the history pic...
not all the photos have loaded for me, yet... (dial up)...

and, i really LOVE that neat WALL in the first pic!

thanks again for this fun share!!!

god bless and many more happy climbing trips to you!
:)
Reeotch

climber
4 Corners Area
  Jul 13, 2013 - 08:38am PT
Thanks a lot for that little Gritstone primer.

Such tremendous history on such tiny crags . . .
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Jul 13, 2013 - 09:50am PT
Bravo! Thanks for the great history. Britain has such rich climbing lore.
Deekaid

climber
  Jul 13, 2013 - 11:47am PT
Excellent, thanks for the effort. This is why I continue to lurk.
Kalimon

Social climber
Ridgway, CO
  Jul 13, 2013 - 11:49am PT
Beautiful report . . . thanks for keeping climbing history alive.
guido

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
  Jul 13, 2013 - 11:56am PT
Blakey-Now you've done it! a new standard on ST for historical meandering. Awesome report and maybe Micronut can learn a thing or two from you. Thanks for all the effort to put this together.
StahlBro

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
  Jul 13, 2013 - 12:04pm PT
This is great stuff!

Cheers
crunch

Social climber
CO
  Jul 13, 2013 - 02:04pm PT
Really well put together. Thanks!

Never did climb at Almscliff.

But climbed with John Syrett quite a bit when he lived in Newscastle. Catlike, fearless, tenacious, one of the best climbers I've ever seen moving on rock; off the rock charming, fun, intelligent, caring (women would be all over him) but deep, hard to read, distant.

He loved strong lines, cracks of all widths and had spent some time in Yosemite, missed the place.

It was almost as if everything in climbing had come to him so easily, so quickly, so early .... then, a few years later, when a new generation of even stronger climbers emerged, and he injured his hand, and started getting a bit older (he hated seeing the first gray hairs and would carefully and deliberately pull them out).... then what?

Anyway, a great collection of images and stories, thanks again!

Crusher
tinker b

climber
the commonwealth
  Jul 13, 2013 - 02:17pm PT
this is awesome! i am currently in south harris-northern scotland, but in a few weeks time i will be biking through england, ready to meet the gritstone. this was an assume history lesson before i get there. thank you.
joynne
Blakey

Trad climber
Sierra Vista
Author's Reply  Jul 13, 2013 - 04:15pm PT
Hi Crunch,

Have we met? I bouldered with Syrett on a couple of occasions, up at Bowden and in the Dene, when the latter was still usable. Unfortuntely I don't remember that much about the encounters. The latest Yorkshire Gritsone guide does contain quite a bit about him. a tortured soul at the end.

Steve
crunch

Social climber
CO
  Jul 13, 2013 - 04:43pm PT
Hi Steve. We may have met, briefly, I don't recall.

Back then I was just Steve Bartlett; the pre-Crusher days. Lived in Newcastle from 1976-1980, at the university there. Climbed mostly with the university climbing club. Locals wisely stayed away from us gumbies.

I've lived in the US since 1982.

Still visit Adge Last (d'you know him?) from time to time. Got to know Karl Telfer and his crew.

I put in my time at Jesmond Dene, back in the day. And Causey Quarry. This would be me:

The Dangler, Causey
The Dangler, Causey
Credit: crunch

The Dangler
The Dangler
Credit: crunch
Blakey

Trad climber
Sierra Vista
Author's Reply  Jul 13, 2013 - 04:59pm PT
Crunch,

I was at my most active in the 'County' over that period, but within the NMC group, Bob & Tommy Smith, John Earl, Bob Hutchinson and Paul Stewart etc.

I left in 1980 and didn't return until 2004 - mind you it was a bit like I'd been away for a long weekend!

I see Karl occasionally, but I'm not one much for the indoor scene, (which is very active) I know Adge by name, but don't think I've met him. Mind you I only recently met up with local legend Gorgeous George!

Best,

Steve
johntp

Trad climber
socal
  Jul 13, 2013 - 06:01pm PT
Holy Crap! I thought the routes at Joshua Tree were short...........
crunch

Social climber
CO
  Jul 13, 2013 - 06:13pm PT
Holy Crap! I thought the routes at Joshua Tree were short...........

Ya know, Layton Kor told me a story of a comment he once made like that, about Don Whillans, to Don's wife, Audrey.

Apparently, she didn't miss a beat, replied, "Yeah, but boy, he makes up for it, doesn't he!"

Layton loved that story.
Blakey

Trad climber
Sierra Vista
Author's Reply  Jul 14, 2013 - 12:23pm PT
Definitely short, but foot for foot, they can like Whillans, pack an unforgiving punch.

Steve
micronut

Trad climber
Fresno/Clovis, ca
  Jul 14, 2013 - 03:38pm PT
Bloody splendid report mate! Thank you for your time, energy and diligence in putting this together. Way cool.

Scott
Rick A

climber
Boulder, Colorado
  Jul 14, 2013 - 03:51pm PT
Thanks for a fascinating report, which provides insight into the pre-history of modern climbing. Dolphin and Austin were way ahead of their time, like John Gill was here.

And thanks for the translation of grades and terms. Now I finally know what a “plimsole” is!

Here are a couple of photos of the same routes from my trip to Britain in the summer of 1977, where Gib, Rob, and I stayed with the talented Al Manson. He showed us the Leeds climbing wall on a rainy day and I had no idea it was purpose-built. I thought it was just a brick corridor in the university gym.

These are from my first day there, when I led Wall of Horrors and Nicky Stokes led Western Front.

Credit: Rick A

This shows the angle better.

Credit: Rick A

Soloing Great Western.

Credit: Rick A


While the routes are indeed very short, they are very memorable, and I can still recall the sequence of Wall of Horrors pretty well. With the bucolic location, perfect rock for climbing, and long climbing history, Almscliff should be on every climber’s list.

Blakey and I recently climbed together when my wife and I toured the Lake District.

Great Langdale Valley below.
Great Langdale Valley below.
Credit: Rick A


Steve is on his way to Yosemite any day now, so look for him and his mate in the valley.
RyanD

climber
Squamish
  Jul 14, 2013 - 09:08pm PT
Awesome, would love to feel the grit someday. Very good TR, history, photos & a great story. Not to mention others comments & contributions. Thanks.
Darwin

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Jul 14, 2013 - 11:37pm PT
Tony and I just loved going over there and climbing on grit, but we were way over around Stanage/Bamford.


http://www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread.php?topic_id=396501&msg=979960#msg979960


oh, and I have a total weakness for real ale.
Did you like this Trip Report? Got something to say? Don't hold back...
Comment on this Trip Report
Go