Why trad climbing makes you a geek

“This is just a Diff, it should be really easy!” – I was furiously thinking to myself, as I scrambled around for somewhere, anywhere, to put in a piece of protection for my climb up. But apart from the wide cracks, into which I couldn’t even jam my (admittedly tiny) hands, there was nowhere that I could see with the naked eye to place my metal pieces of gear…was I supposed to solo this thing??

It amazed me how different I felt trad leading in Stanage, Derbyshire, compared to my first ever trad lead in the Wye Valley. There, I led a VDiff and moved quickly onto a Severe without any problems.

Severe is the next level up from Hard-Very-Difficult, or HVD for short. Trad climbing grades go from Moderate to escalating Extreme grades, denoted by the letter E with numbers from 1 to 11, which is explained in detail here by Rockfax.

You can read about my impressions of my first trad leading experience here.

The reason for such a difference in the way I felt this time around compared to the Wye Valley became apparent pretty quickly: the type of rock. In the Wye, we climbed on limestone, while Stanage is popular for its abrasive gritstone.

‘But surely rock is just rock?’, I hear you say.

Well, that is exactly what I thought before I really got into climbing. When friends with a bit more outdoor experience would talk passionately about the differences between limestone and grit, and complain about how hard it is to climb on sandstone, I admit I thought they were a little boring, and ever so slightly mental.

It suddenly became all-important when I finally made the proper transition to outdoor climbing, and my addiction to the sport flourished.

Watch a video of my first ever trad climbing experience here.

The UK, for its small size, is home to a very diverse range of rock types, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in Wales, which is home to everything from fairy-tale slate quarries to limestone sea cliffs, from granite to rhyolite.

The diversity of rock types in this country means one weekend I find myself slipping off polished limestone footholds in the Wye Valley, and the next I’m scraping the skin off my knuckles in the abrasive gritstone cracks in the Peak District.

It also means very different approaches to the art of trad climbing, as different rock types are best suited to different types of gear.

Which one do I go for...?
Which one do I go for…?

In general, I found my first go at trad leading on limestone in the Wye Valley far easier than our latest trip to Stanage, where the easiest route felt alarmingly unprotected.

In the Wye, I had great fun playing around on a 63 metre VDiff multi-pitch. In Stanage, I thought I was going to fall off and die on an 8 metre long Diff route. (Although I did eventually man up, and led an 18 metre HS 4b, but that took every little bit of courage I had!)

As I have previously written, trad is all about feeling safe and confident, and Stanage tested my faith in myself to a far greater extent than my first limestone leads, and more than once I wanted to just come down off the rock face and call it a day.

I think it partly comes down to the fact that I found it far easier to place protection into the limestone rocks in the Wye, with lots of useful cracks in the rock that are just perfect for nuts and hexes (you can see one of those in the picture below).

A beautifully placed hex, even if I say so myself.
A beautifully placed hex, even if I say so myself.

The gritstone in Stanage, on the other hand, is famous for its large and wide-mouthed cracks which are just perfect for cams – a much more expensive piece of gear, which we are for now lacking in out trad rack (partly due to its cost), and which is tougher to use.

Cams are popular in the US for that exact reason – the rock in many parts of the country lends itself really well to camming devices. However, it takes a bit more experience to place these pieces of gear correctly.

Cams are an active type of protection, which can move around inside the crack as it gets loaded, and therefore jam and get stuck. The advantage of nuts and hexes, traditionally preferred in the UK, is that they are cheaper and much less likely to get jammed. That’s our British style, always choose simplicity.

We really did think we could get away with not owning any cams in the lower grades, but the trip to Stanage suggests otherwise, so we will have more expenses coming our way before long. I guess me and my climbing partner Valentina have our birthday and Christmas wish list sorted for years to come!

A special thanks goes to Tamsin for the amazing photos she took of the trip – check out her portfolio here, she really is a wonderfully talented photographer.

She has also written a guest blog about her experience, so check it out too.

Thanks also to  Wild Country for our set of quickdraws and to Sterling for our super-light and super-colourful rope! (Fusion Nano 9.2mm Dry in bright purple, if you were wondering)

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