It adds a bit of adrenaline to a nice day out at the crag, rock climbing in the Peak District, when you turn around to see your buddy and adventure ropesmith, Robbie Phillips, nonchalantly free soloing his way up a Froggat classic, in conditions that could be kindly described as ‘greasy’.
He’s relying on nothing more than the friction between his chalked hands, the rubber of his climbing shoes and the gritstone to keep him alive. It’s a mesmerising spectacle but he doesn’t look rushed or nervous – he’s got this in the (chalk) bag, and he has to believe it.
As Alex Honnold once told me: “It’s not enough to think that you can, you have to absolutely know on a physical and rational level that the free solo you’re attempting is well within your abilities.”
The imposing outline of Chequers Buttress juts out of the crag like a pugilist’s chin, breaking into the sun-struck scene to remind us of our fragility in the face of the face of all of this patient geology. This rock has seen some of the world’s best climbers test – and sometimes break – themselves on its lichen-mottled face.
Fortunately, Robbie makes it up the prow of the 14-metre Buttress unscathed, topping out to brush the loose grit from his palms, which must have rolled like disconcerting marbles under his fingertips.
We are here on a Patagonia experience day and I have been commissioned to gather content for Healthy for Men magazine’s ‘Vertical Bible’ guide to rock climbing. It’s testament to climbing’s new mainstream appeal that a fitness and health mag like HFM (I’m the former Editor) wants to cover outdoor climbing.
Froggat is one of the first crags I learned to climb, at, with the University of East Anglia Climbing Club. As with most of our trips, we’d driven up from the flattest city in the UK in a knackered, rattly minibus for eight hours, armed with my trusty On Peak Rock guidebook and a shaky concept of how to place gear for protection in the crag’s well-worn grooves. And the drive was always worth it…
It’s good to be back, and when you get an invite to go rock climbing in the Peak District with Robbie it’s not something you want to turn down – his infectious enthusiasm for all things stony makes the whole experience even more awesome.
We’ve lucked out with the weather and the crag is glowing in the sunshine. The psyche is up all around, and even extends to Peak District climbing legend (and friend of Patagonia) Jerry Moffatt.
It’s easy to forget that in the ‘80s heyday of British trad climbing, when at one point Jerry was the best in the world, the climbers weren’t bankrolled by athlete sponsorship deals or media endorsements. The man who climbed the world’s first 8a in 1983, spent the summer before living in a cave in the Peaks, training and bin diving for food – proper dirtbag!
He’s here for the first time in donkey’s, and even though he swore off climbing years ago (despite founding Sheffield’s The Foundry climbing wall) he ropes up and showboats his way up a route. He grins like split granite all the way, and it’s a real pleasure to see a genuine climbing legend on the rock again.
Once Jerry is back on the deck, I pick his brains about how to get into, or improve your climbing, and maybe even go rock climbing in the Peak District yourself. (If you want to read his tips, scroll to the end of this piece for a quick peek.)
“The technique of climbing efficiently all stems from the feet. If you place a foot well it won’t slip off, but it also allows you to pivot, which allows you to have greater range of movement through your whole body, to get better reach, and to link moves together to make everything a more efficient flow,” Jerry Moffatt tells me.
The next day we make a quick dash to a Peak District crag, where I second Robbie up the 28m E1 5b ‘God’ at Willersley Castle Rocks crag. It’s almost a roadside spot that the visitors to the nearby castle sometimes stumble upon, although once you’re in amongst the heavy vegetation it feels like climbing in the jungle!
I get to put my footwork to the test and Robbie is right, spending as much time as looking down at your feet, as up at your hands makes me move much more fluidly.
As I follow the natural features and breaks in the rock, to find the smoothest, most flowing path up the route, I’m reminded of Jerry telling me about how outdoor climbing is like a chess game, where you have to unlock the puzzle in front of you to get to the next hold.
Climbing has always been a workout for my mind as much as my body, and for that I’m very grateful…
Photos © Matt Ray, all rights reserved. Thanks to Patagonia for inviting me on their experience day, rock climbing in The Peak District, and to Scarpa for providing their Maestro climbing shoes to climb in.
Want to get to grips with rock climbing? Then here are Jerry Moffat and Robbie Phillips’s top three tips improve your climbing technique, wherever you do it:
“People who climb indoors and then outside find a real love for climbing, and tend to climb a lot longer than people climbing indoors. The point of training inside is to look forward to going up to the Peak District, or North Wales, or the Lake District – that’s your big goal, even if you have a guide,” says Jerry.
“Beginner climbers go up the wall but don’t stop or, if they do, they hold on with both arms, and they don’t think about trying to relax their arms – they climb until their arms explode!” says Robbie.
“I focus on the breathing and, when I get to rests, I always breathe slowly and deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth to get in as much oxygen as possible,” Robbie reveals. “That calms me down before I commit to bold routes.”