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John Arran's memorable climbs

The Formative Years

It was all Howie Trillo's fault; were it not for him I may never have climbed at all. He was a teacher at my school when I was thirteen and enlisted a few of his keener pupils for a trip to Staffordshire one weekend. After that there was never any hope of escape, and the obsession was free to grow unchecked.

Another teacher - Ted Lister - took over the mentor's role a couple of years later when Howie was struggling to keep up. Ted had been a great climber in the seventies, repeating many of the country's hardest routes as soon as the magazines reported them, and as a result I quickly began to reassess what I thought may be possible for me. In fact I climbed my first Extreme (which has now been upgraded to E3) partly because I knew he had backed off it only a couple of weeks before!

Eventually, in the eighties, I found myself climbing routes which were generally considered hard, though it took some time before I realised that many of the famous (to me anyway) climbers I read about in the magazines weren't actually climbing any better than I was. By this time I had read a lot about the world class climbing in Yosemite and Colorado, and decided that this was the place for me.

1976 chicken run mod seconded roaches first outdoor climb, thanks to howard trillo
1980 synopsis E3 5c onsight froggatt first extreme  
1984 gnome man's land E5 6b onsight(ish) first ascent stanage climbed after abseil inspection  

The American Adventure

"Sole Fusion" 5.12b Joshua Tree 1987

A three month tour ended up lasting nearly three years, so good was the climbing and so pleasurable was the climate and lifestyle in Boulder, Colorado.

In Yosemite I climbed an early repeat of Phoenix (5.13) and cruised El Cap's West Face, but it was climbing in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon which gave me the most pleasure.

I quickly became proficient in soloing, and would climb for hours on Redgarden Wall up and down routes of 5.9 and 5.10, often onsight, before returning to the ground.

Sometimes I would tandem solo with Derek Hersey and all the while we would be laughing so much it would be easy to forget I was onsighting 5.10+ (E3). But most of the time I would solo alone, ticking off the classics such as Outer Space (5.10 - barefoot!), T2 (5.10) and The Naked Edge (5.11). Perhaps the most memorable experience was onsight soloing the classic scarer Jules Verne (5.11) on a blisteringly hot summer afternoon.

1985 naked edge 5.11 solo eldorado canyon    
1985 jules verne 5.11 onsight solo eldorado canyon   click to read published article
1986 phoenix 5.13a ground-up yosemite    
1987 rough roof 5.12c R first ascent eldorado canyon no falls after abseil inspection to place knifeblade peg  

A Sporting Life

In 1990 climbing competitions were very new and very strange. Waiting in isolation for my turn to compete, I couldn't help but be intimidated by the sight of all the people I recognised from magazines, and it was a real surprise to me when I beat almost all of them, finishing fourth (third Brit). And an even bigger surprise when I learned that this was good enough for me to be selected to go to Vienna to compete as part of the British team.

Although I was never going to be a world-beater, I enjoyed competing internationally for six years and managed occasionally to make World Cup semi-finals. A competition also provided one of my finest climbing moments to date, when I managed to beat the then unstoppable Ian Vickers on my way to winning a national BICC event.

In the early 1990s sportclimbing was new and in vogue. Training principles were poorly understood and the climbs themselves were often poorly equipped, but the scene was vibrant, sociable and enormously supportive. All of which helped in pushing me to achieve ever higher onsight and redpoint grades. The physicality of sportclimbing, and the routereading skills required for hard onsights, would also stand me in very good stead when I finally began to look for challenges outside of sportclimbing and competitions...

1990 bendcrete open international leading comp 4th   olympia, london first ever comp  
1992 bicc national leading comp 1st   undercover rock, bristol    
1993 cauchmar de l'éléphant 8a onsight buoux first 8a onsight  
1993 british team trials 1st   rock face, birmingham    
1993 predator 8b   malham first 8b  
2004 ? 8a onsight gorge du tarn still onsighting 8a eleven years later  

The Trad Revival

"Horizontal Pleasures" E7 6c Pembroke 1996

It was Pembroke which fired my enthusiasm for new routing. I'd been doing more trad climbing for a little while, but when I saw a crack in the huge roof at Trevallen - so obviously climbable but so obviously hard - I couldn't resist having a go. The result ('Horizontal Pleasures') is one of my favourite climbs of all time and surprisingly remains unrepeated to this day.

Thus began a new-routing blitz of Pembroke, which has so far resulted in over twenty new climbs of E6 and E7, almost all climbed onsight or ground-up. Though interspersed with hard onsights elsewhere - I particularly enjoyed the adventure terrain of Gogarth or the Lleyn peninsular - it was Pembroke's protectable but committing limestone which yielded many of the best adventures. And the fitness gained from years of sportclimbing proved invaluable in coping with the often alarming and unrelenting steepness. The relative inaccessibility of the Range West military range meant that many big and obvious lines were still untouched, just waiting for a military briefing, a dry weekend and a hefty dose of onsight commitment.

During this time Dave Turnbull talked me into going up to Orkney with him for a rather bigger challenge. Drummond's 7-day epic aid route had defiantly remained unrepeated for 27 years, despite the attentions of such notable climbers as Johnny Dawes and John Dunne. Dave's lead of the 50m green off-width was more than welcome, though it was up to me to overcome many of the route's other diverse difficulties, including working and eventually redpointing the short but very hard technical crux. Four days it took us in all, spread over two trips, but with two new routes on the Old Man of Hoy and a staggeringly good E6/7 onsight new route on Rora Head into the bargain, these two short trips were some of the most successful ever.

1994 the cad (without bolt) E6 onsight gogarth    
1995 horizontal pleasures E7 6c first ascent trevallen, pembroke the start of the pembroke blitz  
1996 enchanted broccoli garden E7 6b onsight gogarth first E7 onsight  
1996 perfectly ridiculous E7 6b onsight first ascent range west, pembroke    
1997 orkneyinga saga E6 6a first free ascent old man of hoy

the first of two great new routes on the old man that year

click to read published article
1997 long hope route E7 6c first free ascent st. john's head, hoy

27 years after drummond's amazing 7-day first ascent (4 days)

article will be online soon
1997 many a mickle makes a muckle E6/7 6b onsight first ascent mucklehouse wall, rora head, hoy maybe the hardest onsight new route in Scotland at the time  
1998 the beautiful south E7 6b first ascent sron ulladale    
1998 lone ranger E5 6a onsight solo first ascent range west, pembroke    
2002 ironman E7 6b first ascent range west, pembroke    

Mind Games on Grit

Photo: Carl Ryan
"Doctor Dolittle" E10 7a Curbar 2001

By the mid 1990s gritstone was in fashion again. Not for twenty years had there been such widespread and fervent interest in the climbing of the ten-metre, nearly holdless and often protectionless blank walls and arêtes of the Peak District's millstone grit. New routes of ground-breaking severity, at bone-breaking heights, were being climbed almost weekly during the winter months.

I too became infected by the new Grit craze, finding and climbing new E7s in short order. But it was not until the release of the video masterpiece 'Hard Grit', with its heart-stoping tension and captivating action sequences, that I felt I wanted to know what climbing really hard grit would feel like. A new blank line, seven days of effort, and five minutes of ultimate concentration and climbing control, and I had succeeded in climbing 'The Zone', at E9 as challenging as any climb in Britain at the time.

There are always blanker walls and harder lines, and I was still in the throes of gritstone headpointing fever, so I found one such large and apparently holdless wall and set to work. Little did I know that almost three years would pass before I finally would succeed on 'Doctor Dolittle', E10 7a and a contender for the hardest route in Britain.

But gritstone is about more than the pursuit of pure difficulty; the short and accessible nature of the routes is perfect for multi-route challenges, and so it was that I set off - in the footsteps of Ron Fawcett, one of the greatest climbers of all time - to climb one hundred Extremes (climbs of E1 or above) in one day and, as an added twist, on one crag. By the end of a very long and exceptionally tiring day I had completed my challenge and developed a huge respect for Ron's solo achievement many years before.

And as if that wasn't arduous enough an even more madcap challenge awaited. Together with Shane Ohly we each succeeded in our objective of climbing over 500 routes in one eighteen-hour day, setting records for both the number of routes and the total length of climbing achieved within 24 hours.

1998 monotheism E7 6b first ascent gardoms first hard grit route  
1998 crack and slab E7 7a first ascent curbar    
1998 the zone E9 6c first ascent curbar first E9 click to read published article
2001 100 extremes in a day   55 of them onsight stanage a single-crag version of ron's historic grand day out click to read published article
2001 doctor dolittle E10 first ascent curbar guidebook grade - unwilling to guess an onsight grade i proposed H9  
2003 536 routes in a day     peak district 4897m of climbing  

The Intrepid Explorer

"Pega" E6 6b First Free Ascent Iran 2001

Climbing 1200ft seacliffs over four days in Scotland had whet my appetite for big walls and big challenges, and they don't come much bigger than the thousand-metre granite towers of Kyrgyzstan.

After three days of hard on-sight free climbing and rope fixing, Anne and I set off at 3am to finish what looked set to be the most challenging trad rock route in the valley and one of the hardest in the whole of Asia. Despite an enforced bivouac in a storm just a few metres from the summit, we returned fired with enthusiasm for more exotic adventures.

A brief sojourn in Iran kept the flame alive, but work commitments prevented another major expedition until early in 2002 when we discovered the joys of Venezuelan tepuis.

Climbing immediately behind the top aid-climbing team of José Pereyra and Timmy O'Neill, we managed to either onsight or headpoint all 25 pitches of the 700m jungle tower called Cerro Autana. With climbing up to E7 6c, and taking us twelve days on the wall, it was certainly the hardest climb Anne and I had done as a team, and despite its inaccessible jungle location it appears also to be one of the hardest trad-protected big-wall free climbs in existence.

With so many towers and so much good rock to go at, we returned a year later and climbed another new tepui tower, this time just as a three and with no aid-climbing assistance. Despite the slightly easier (E6) climbing, the fact that we managed all of the 21 pitches onsight with no falls, and that we placed not a single bolt or peg on the entire route, made this climb every bit as satisfying.

But nothing could compare with Angel Falls - the granddaddy of tepui big walls. We tried it in 2002 and again in 2003, but not until 2005 did we manage to assemble the best team with the best equipment and an unshakeable conviction that this time it would go free. The main 1000m wall had been climbed only once before, and it is testimony to its difficulty and inacessibility that this A4 aid route is still unrepeated after 15 years. Our free line covered much of the same first half as the aid line but then headed off into virgin territory to finish within a stone's throw of the falls' glistening spout. In all nine E7 pitches were climbed, five onsight. Two of these fell to me, one being pitch 29 of the route's 31 pitches and climbed on the seventeenth consecutive day of climbing effort. Such an adventure is going to be hard to follow!

1999 the philosopher's stone E6 6b onsight first ascent ak su valley, kyrgyzstan 25 pitches all onsight (4 days) click to read published article
2001 pega E6 6b onsight first free ascent iran iran's hardest trad route  
2002 cerro autana sw face E7 6c first ascent venezuela venezuela's hardest free route: 25 pitches mostly E4 and above (12 days) click to read published article
2003 holey moses E7 6b first ascent sinai, egypt egypt's hardest route click to read published article
2003 acopántepui E6 6b onsight first ascent venezuela 21 pitches all onsight with no fixed gear (6 days) click to read published article
2004 'heart of cow' and 'mimi shan' peaks E4 5c onsight first ascents western sichuan, china first ascents of one major and one subsiduary peak, both around 5000m, by technical rock routes  
2005 rainbow jambaia E7 6b first ascent angel falls, venezuela first free ascent of the main angel falls amphitheatre wall by a substantially new line. its 30 pitches included nine E7s and took the seven-person team nineteen days to climb