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The Longest Day

Ron is a god; I'm convinced of it. I'm going to start a new religion - Fawcettism - and pay homage daily. One hundred extremes no less, all in one day. Had time to nip down into Hathersage for brews as well. I tell you, he's a deity. Not mortal.

We're only up to thirty and the strain's showing already. Fingertips are wearing thin, aches are creeping in, and for the really bad news I've just looked at my watch: 12:50. We've been going nearly five hours! Even if we don’t slow down from fatigue, at this rate we'll end up climbing by moonlight. Shane even admitted to having brought a headtorch just in case, but it's the longest day of the year so I laughed at his pessimism (or is it optimism, hoping to be able to solo extremes in the dark after fifteen hours?) Now I'm wondering whether I should have brought one too.

Photo: John Arran

Shane making fast work of Lady Starlight, E1 5b

We try to pick up the pace, but time disappears in a frantic hack through rampant heather. My masterstroke of genius – appropriating a draft copy of the new guide so we could tick lots of ‘easy’ extremes on which the world has yet to be set loose – suddenly seems less clever as some of these ‘new’ routes have already befriended several years worth of lichen. The badlands either side of High Neb are the worst. We’re trying to use our new draft guide (text only) alongside the old one, which would be fine if they didn’t describe the crag from opposite ends. As it is our brains can’t cope and frustration is setting in. Shane seems unruffled as ever, but I’m getting well hacked off, wondering what the hell we’re doing here when there clearly isn’t a hope in hell of getting the ton up by the end of the day.

But every so often we stumble across a gem, which doesn’t so much lift our spirits as ridicule our woes. A beautiful move or a delightful sequence and we’re all smiles again, knowing that even if we don’t make the distance we’re still finding awesome climbing we otherwise never would have sought out. We both top out on The Graduate, aghast at how much quality could be packed into a few gorgeous moves. Then Headbanger proves at least as good with added exposure. Move over classics, there are new kids in town.

It was two days ago that interest was rekindled by one of Adrian’s online postings, virtually going public with the challenge he knew I’d been avoiding for far too long. I’d always considered it an objective for when I got fitter but, as usual, this had repeatedly and resolutely failed to happen. With work pressures showing little sign of easing the prospect of improving fitness was bleak, so I gave in.

'Oh, bugger it, let’s go for it anyway, what’s the worst that could happen?', I thought, wisely choosing not to answer. Shane, as ever, was game for a challenge, or a laugh, or both.

I lose precious skin failing to clean enough lichen from Spring Plum, and despite the Meninblack buttress then providing a welcome trilogy of quality ticks, we’re back to wasting ourselves again cleaning and bouldering out Runrig. Yes of course we know our repeated attempts are foolish and unjustifiable, but sometimes you just can’t leave a problem alone!

'Let’s push on to Count’s Buttress', Shane suggests, 'we should have lunch and do a recount. I reckon we’re near half way by now.'

'Bloody well better be', I snap, aching from the week’s worth of climbing it feels like we’ve already done, 'I’m twatted and my elbow’s hurting. I can’t believe we’ve got to do at least as many more.'

'And in less time, too', he adds, unhelpfully.

We press on through the heather, glad to have relieved our aching feet of their rubber-soled instruments of torture, and collapse at the foot of a slab which is both steeper and blanker than I recall from my single previous visit, an alarming seventeen years ago! I have memories of only one route – Sleepwalker – and decide that if I can’t do this again I may as well go home now. Happily it passes with only minimal further erosion of the fingertips, and even more happily we’re able to tick off a couple of others while we’re here.

Glad to see more than two routes to go at between hikes, I set about launching up more of the ones I’ve highlighted as possibles in the book, Shane as ever in close pursuit. Pretty soon though I’m thwarted by a reach, which pisses me off as I’m usually just about tall enough (5’8’’) to do things described as harder for the short. Even worse, Shane makes the stretch and completes the route. I dismiss it as a freak and move on to the next, but there I’m stopped by another impossible reach. When the third in a row requires an even longer span I’m wondering if I haven’t shrunk all of a sudden. It’s not until we turn our attention to the classic and fantastic Count’s Buttress that faith in the laws of physics and anatomy is restored and progress is resumed.

Then suddenly and surprisingly we’re on a roll. Whatever the book suggests, we climb, and nothing seems too hard. Bastille and Tales of Yankee Power thankfully prove easier than their namesakes, and even the horribly lichenous Spartaciad passes without incident. A bonus is finding the delightful Argus arête and revelling in its obscure charms.


I suppose we knew it had to happen but we’ve managed to avoid just about everyone so far, what with starting at the remote end and picking the dullest weather day for ages.

'Hi', I say to the diligent belayer as I arrive at his buttress, creeping under his ropes in search of our next line. He nods back and I set off up a line close to his partner’s, trying not to make it obvious that I’m finding another way up to where his route goes off right, before launching up the blank-looking arête directly. The book says shorter climbers can demand an E2 tick, and it’s only too obvious why when I arrive at the crux faced with a stretch for a pocket maybe three inches out of tip-toed reach. I’m looking at a level of commitment I usually would find hard to muster, but having been climbing all day I feel in tune with it. A moment’s deliberation later I’m smearing tenuously up the arête to gain the height and the pocket – which turns out to be shit. By now committed, but strangely not worried, I smear and grope higher to another hold higher up the arête, and thus to an easier finish. Only E1, but certainly the hardest route I’ve done all day. In comparison The Archangel – which I’ve only done a couple of times before – disappears in a dream of confidence and delight, and I find myself admitting to a glimmer of renewed hope.

Photo: Arran collection

John contemplating how best to Meddle, E2 5c

Unfortunately this coincides with one of Shane’s low patches and, after chatting for a while with our new-found friends, he skips a couple of routes in the interests of self-preservation, joining me again thereafter as we race on in now more familiar territory.

Half way along the traverse of Nuke the Midges we hear familiar voices. Matt and Adrian have arrived to see how we’re getting on, so I top the route and pause for a chat, grateful for the extra impetus their arrival will have brought to our still distant objective. Shane takes the opportunity to rest by ducking out of Nuke and helping to find the next line, some way further along. I’m relieved the others are here to help out as I sense Shane’s fatigue is growing more acute. His company and motivation has been of enormous psychological help thus far, but we’ve done nearly seventy climbs now and we’re both aware that his level of rock fitness and route familiarity should by rights have scuppered him many hours ago.

Matt helpfully grabs my sack and the guides and runs on ahead, pointing out routes for us to try, which feels like heaven on earth after the ordeals we suffered earlier in the day. Taking the Unconquerables area at a fair clip I feel confidence growing. I know these climbs well and six routes disappear almost without effort. Unfortunately Shane doesn’t share the benefit of familiarity and lags further behind, desperately tired from a whole day of extreme onsighting. Finally, pumped solid at a height of five feet, he concedes the inevitable, retreats and puts his trainers on to preserve what’s left of his health and sanity.

With only a dozen or so more to do I’m on a high. It’ll take a pretty major injury to get in the way now. The biggest plus is knowing there are several dozen ‘favourites’ ahead, meaning I can pick and choose ones my tired arms and fingers still feel up to. Pedlar’s Rib, The Old Dragon and Swings are thus confidently dispatched, and I revel in the new-found freedom to walk on past every line I haven’t done many times before, floating up or down some of my all-time favourites, en route to the ever more certain century tally.

It’s Matt’s idea to finish on the recently promoted Flying Buttress Direct, and it appeals to me as I’ve long had a soft spot for the route, ever since a memorable rucksack and trainers solo many years ago on my way back to Fox House to catch the Sheffield bus. As expected the overhang is a joy, though I’m somewhat perplexed to have forgotten how to do the top-out moves and to have to work them out all over again. After thirteen hours it’s more than just arms that are tired.

Smiles aplenty as contentment warms an otherwise chilly evening, but one thing still niggles. I know we’ve been using an old draft and not the final version of the new guide, and I’m paranoid the odd route we’ve done may since have been down-graded (I know it’s unlikely – grades are one of the few things in life that always go up and never down – but I’m not in a state to think rationally), so I resolve to make certain by doing three more. This comes as no great hardship as I’m in prime familiar territory and there are very few things I enjoy more than soloing routes hereabouts, but I know the cold is less of a delight for the others, and as I indulge myself a short while longer, secretly I wish the evening were warm and balmy, so I might revel in the friendship the crag and I now share.

The very last route is The Tippler, which seems entirely appropriate as we head off to the Broadfield to celebrate. I owe a pint or two of gratitude to Matt, Adrian and especially Shane, whose magnificent tally of 73 routes, almost all for the first time, will remain a triumph of resolve over reason.

Oh, and before time tints the memories with a rosy hue, let me say now that Ron remains a god. The gritstone archangel, all alone, nearly twenty years ago. And even though the routes he chose will have been very familiar, their grades were orders of magnitude higher than the easiest extremes the crag was today able to provide for us. Hats off to him.

The tick list:

1 Slight Second E1 5b
53 Sithee E1 5b
2 Incursion E1 5b
54 Stumpy E1 5a
3 Incursion Direct E1 6a
55 Basil Half-tail E1 5c
4 Physician's Wall E1 6a
56 Tom-cat Slab E1 5b
5 New York, New York * E1 6a
57 Tales of Yankee Power E1 5c
6 Gameo E2 5b
58 Bastille E1 5b
7 Rimmington Place E2 5c
59 Argus E2 5b
8 Monad E1 6a
60 Spartaciad E1 5b
9 Vaccine Traverse E2 5b
61 Wall End Slab Direct E2 5b
10 Germ E2 6b
62 Pure, White and Deadly E2 5c
11 Bamboozled * E1 5c
63 Mate E1 5b
12 Overhung E1 5c
64 Death and Night and Blood E1 5b
13 Progressive Wall E2 5c
65 I Never Said it was Any Good E1 5b
14 Scratch Arete E1 5c
66 The Archangel E4 5b
15 Vena Cave-in E3 5c
67 Leaps and Bounds E1 5b
16 Wild and Woolly E1 5b
68 Living at the Speed * E1 5b
17 Keep it in the Family E1 5b
69 Cinturato E1 5b
18 Seranata E1 5b
70 Esso Extra E1 5b
19 Hardly Hyperkeratosis E2 5c
71 Tower Face Direct E2 5b
20 Th'ickle Buttress * E1 5c
72 Nuke the Midges E1 5c
21 The Other Effect * E1 5c
73 Walking the Whippet E3 5b
22 Cheeky Little Number E1 5b
74 Crossover E2 5c
23 The Cracks Between E1 5b
75 Passover E2 5c
24 Lady Starlight * E1 5c
76 Billiard Buttress Direct E2 5c
25 Meddle E2 5c
77 Pot Black E2 5b
26 Three Calm Men E1 5b
78 Millsom's Minion E1 5b
27 Overflow E1 5b
79 Elephant in the Doghouse E1 5b
28 Sogines E1 5b
80 Men Only E1 5c
29 Cent * E1 5b
81 Namenlos * E1 5a
30 Teenage Lobotomy * E1 5a
82 The Left Unconquerable E1 5b
31 Marie Celeste E1 5b
83 Monday Blue E2 5b
32 Gypsy Moth E1 5b
84 The Vogon E1 5b
33 Headbanger E1 5c
85 Curving Chimney Left Arete E2 5b
34 Beast of Endcliffe E2 5c
86 Curving Buttress Direct Finish E3 5b
35 Anniversary Arete E1 5b
87 Curving Buttress E2 5b
36 Pertinacious E2 5b
88 On a Wing and a Prayer E1 5c
37 Blown Away E2 5c
89 Pedlar's Rib E1 5c
38 Blown Drie E1 5b
90 The Old Dragon E2 5b
39 Full Blown Finish E2 5b
91 Swings E1 5c
40 The Graduate E1 5c
92 Another Game of Bowls Sir Walter? E1 5b
41 Meninblack E2 5b
93 Saliva E1 5b
42 Waiting for M.I.B. E3 5b
94 Ashes E3 5c
43 What I've Done E1 5b
95 The New Mississippi Variant E1 5b
44 Runrig E2 5c
96 Morrison's Redoubt E1 5b
45 Insomniac E1 5c
97 Desperation E1 5c
46 Nightmare Slab E1 5b
98 Easter Rib E1 5b
47 Sleepwalker E2 6a
99 Well Right E2 5c
48 Counterfeit E2 5b
100 Flying Buttress Direct E1 5b
49 Count's Buttress R.H. Finish E1 5b
101 Kirkus's Corner E1 5b
50 Count's Buttress E1 5b
102 Censor E3 5c
51 Mop Up E1 5c
103 The Tippler E1 5b
52 Hairless Art * E1 5c

* top ten soft touches!

This article, by John Arran, first appeared in the December 2001 issue of On The Edge magazine.