While discussing with Steve an appropriate climbing celebration for the CMC’s 40th anniversary, the idea came to me of doing 40 routes in a day. Needless to say, Steve was up for this, and after considering a few options, we agreed that the most obvious venue was Stanage. Needing plenty of daylight, the date was set for the 9th June, but when the venture was publicised, a degree of scepticism was expressed amongst club members, particularly in relation to my sedate climbing style, with suggestions that we’d need a good supply of headtorch batteries as it might take several days to complete the 40 routes. Despite this vote of no confidence, we developed our tactics, which included leading in blocks of four routes at a time, using a single rope and a lightweight rack, limiting ourselves to the shorter and lower grade routes, and regular but short breaks for food and drink. I also took some time out to recce the descent routes in advance, so as to ensure a speedy return to the base of the crag.
For a recent retiree, a 5.00 a.m. alarm call isn’t a very pleasant thought, but that’s the time that I got up on the big day. Arriving at Steve’s at the appointed hour of 6.00 a.m. we motored on to Stanage and parked up at the Popular End at 7.15, along with three other vehicles. There were a few figures on top of the crag, but no one else was actually climbing, and we soon discovered why when we entered the kingdom of the moorland midge, i.e. the crag base. Somewhat non-plussed at this unhappy prospect, we took defensive measures that included tucking trouser legs into socks, applying Shirley’s out of date midge repellant (looks a bit like Brylcreme but seems effective), and in my case, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a midge net over it. Steve just pulled up the hood on his jacket, which tended to flop down over his eyes and rather limited his vision, so as I was merely suffering from midge net blurring, it was decided that I lead off at an uncommonly early 7.45 a.m.
Just for the record, the first four routes; Square Buttress Corner (D), Fire Curtain (VD), The Be All
And End All (VD), and The End of All Things (S), were dispatched in a mere 45 minutes. Steve’s turn took us into starred territory with Mantelpiece Buttress (D), but with an evil glint in his eye, he mentioned the “C” word when announcing that Black Chimney (D) would be our 7th route. Thinking quickly, I mentioned that he couldn’t miss out the delectable Monkey Crack (VD), but despite then doing the slippery Small Crack (VD), he wouldn’t be dissuaded from thrusting himself into the innards of Black Chimney (D). I don’t know if was an excess of bratwurst on his recent German holiday, or merely a lack of the lubricating effect of the rain that was falling when we did this route two years ago, but this time Steve got stuck. With the clock ticking away, he thrashed and squirmed until he finally managed to extricate himself, but unfortunately this was in a downwards direction and so he arrived back at base. Things were looking grim, well to be honest, it was me who was looking grim at what was clearly turning into a fool’s errand, but with a slightly more lateral approach he launched off upwards again. With thrusters on full, and leaving me to deal with the ghastly emissions of his excess wind, Steve forged a somewhat noisy path up to the top of the chimney. Not really wishing to follow in his wake, I climbed the chimney on the outside and soon enough we were back at base and it was only 9.30.
My second shift started with another star on Grotto Slab (D), but despite having descended this in the past, I made rather a meal of the upper section. Anatomy (VD) and Physiology (VD *) followed, but with the routes getting longer and a more tricky descent, time was drifting by. The last route of this block, Sociology (S) had a stuck Torque Nut in it, which would have come out with a little effort, but we didn’t have time for extracting crag swag, so I repositioned it, then clipped it and climbed on. By now the sun had come out, which had a subduing effect on the midge, so I abandoned my “demented bee keeper in plus fours” look as we exchanged gear for round four.
Steve was very keen to get on Black Hawk Hell Crack (S 4a ***) but a lycra clad teenager was struggling to make progress on the route (well, what can you expect when you’re dressed like an Eighties throw-back) so to avoid loss of momentum, I deflected him onto Black Hawk Traverse Right (D **), otherwise known as Blizzard Chimney – yes, another chimney. Fortunately this went without incident and soon we were round again to do battle with the Hell Crack, from which the troublesome teenager had been removed. A swift and sure ascent followed as Steve moved into top gear – clearly the previous wind expulsion had done the trick and it was smiles all round on the only three star route of the day. Good though these last two routes were, we needed to keep an eye on the clock and so moved on to slightly shorter fare with Albert’s Amble (HVD) and Straight Chimney (VD). With the day heating up and some longer ascents completed, we had been unable to keep up with our earlier speedy progress, so it was 12.30 as we took our next break. Still, 16 routes in 4 ¾ hours isn’t bad going.
My third shift in the lead started with an ascent of the jaunty little Bee (D *), followed by Balcony Corner (VD) and The Flue (VD). There’s a saying that VS is only VD without the ledges, which I could well believe as I struggled to overcome The Flue’s bulging steepness and suffered my only upping and downing experience of the day. Steve was suitably impressed with the difficulties and although I tried to inject some more pace on the arête of Awl (HVD *), thoughts of time waits for no man were not far away as we completed our twentieth route. It was around this point that we started to flag; it was hot in the sun, the crag was very busy so we couldn’t always get on our route of choice and we were feeling a few aches and pains. Steve had stubbed his toe, which was no fun in his technical Anasazi velcros and later in the day saw him descending with one shoe off. My left knee was aching, which made walking on uneven ground rather troublesome, and we were only half way through the challenge.
Just to add to the physical burden, Steve’s next three routes were all chimneys. Irrespective of grade, chimneys invariably extract a physical price, and the first two, Right Twin Chimney (VD **) and Left Twin Chimney (D **) were the longest routes of the day. On Left Twin especially, I was finding it difficult to summon the energy to make the moves, which didn’t bode well for getting to 40 routes. It didn’t help that it was now really hot, especially at the base of the crag, and the only respite was at the crag top where you caught the easterly breeze – advantage to the leader there. Still, we plodded on to Fairy Chimney (D), which boasts a protruding rib that can be passed on its right or left, and having previously tackled the right-hand variant and found it to be about VS, I strongly urged Steve to keep left, which he did, and I was relieved to find it much easier. Fairy Castle Crack (D) completed that set of four, but we’d stopped looking at the clock as it was getting to be rather depressing. It was around this time that I noticed that Steve’s neck had turned bright pink. Upon enquiring it turned out that Steve’s advance planning hadn’t allowed for all eventualities; midges I already knew about, but it appeared that the sun was another. An application of my much favoured Lundy sun cream seemed stem the spread of the pink glow and so we carried on.
Looking for short, easier routes led me into the dreaded chimney territory with Narrowing Chimney (D) and Little Tower Chimney (HD), both of which required taking a big lungfull of air then holding your breath while racing through the final moves to avoid sucking in the cloud of midges that were massing in the dark recesses just below the crag top. Not much fun, but at least the breeze on top was keeping them pinned below. Deciding that I’d had enough of dark and narrow places, I switched to more open climbing on Beads (S) and Trinket (S), both of which offered good open climbing.
Steve’s fourth shift started with Turf Crack (VD *) and it’s fair to say that he was making much heavier weather of the crux moves than he had when we did this route in 2015. The fact that we were now on route number 29, which was beyond the most that either of us had previously climbed in a day, plus the heat and the attentions of the midges, were all conspiring to make the final run in anything but easy. Eventually Turf Crack was despatched so we moved on to Verandah Crack Left (VD) and Verandah Crack Right (D), which, with his passion for anything involving cracks, I would have expected Steve to despatch with ease, but they again proved to be a struggle, with Steve looking like a tired man, which of course I’d become about ten routes earlier. Corner Crack (D) made for an easier finale to that set, but I was a bit disappointed that Steve had chosen that one as I’d quite fancied an easy lead on it myself.
In fact, Steve did me a favour, because the next obvious route was Recess Rib (VD) which provided more open climbing between horizontal breaks, which is very much my style. Reenergised, I proceeded onto Top Block Rock (S) which provides similar but slightly more difficult climbing, and yes, the top block certainly does rock. My last leading of the day came with The Nays (D) and, almost appropriately, Jon’s Route (S 4a), both of which were very enjoyable, but the midge net had to be kept close to hand as the beasts were livening up again, much to Steve’s dismay as he belayed at the bottom.
With the end in sight and the sun dropping in the sky, Steve started his final set with Ramsgate, which at S 4b offered the highest technical grade of the day, but felt much easier than some of the other offerings that we’d sampled, which just goes to prove that grades don’t tell you all you need to know about the difficulty of a climb. The nautical ports theme was maintained with Newhaven (HD), where Steve had a bit of both bother getting a wire in and exclaimed “ah, you might have some trouble with that – it’s dropped down a bit”. Arriving at the wire, I just looked at it and it dropped out – I think it must have been caught on a piece of grass and little else. Steve’s second and top wire was also loose and wobbly so I started to feel concerned that delirium was setting in. In fact, the penultimate route convinced me that it was me who was having a bad dream when we arrived at the foot of Palermo (VD). I’m sure there’s nothing to rival this ugly vertical off-width fissure in Sicily’s capital, so can’t imagine where it got its name from, nor could I understand Steve’s inclination to get on it at this stage of proceedings, but get on it he did, then got stuck in it, then writhed around a bit, then udged and struggled with sweat pouring down his face. This finally confirmed that Steve had lost control of his mental faculties and were it not for the fact that he was reasonably welI buried in the cleft, I would have been expecting his imminent arrival back at the base of the crag at any moment. However, with a herculean effort he hauled himself up the fissure, making the most inelegant, full body contact top-out seen that day, if not possibly ever. At least he was up, but due to this area having a slightly lower elevation than the moor behind, there was no breeze, so he was consigned to belaying in a cloud of midges. Having watched Steve’s performance with grave concern, I’d figured out a less strenuous approach to the problem and was able to quickly release him from his infernal belay stance. However, the next and final route; Pal Joey (VD) landed him in exactly the same spot, but at least this time the climbing was a delight on a lay-away flake crack.
At 9.00 p.m. with the job done, we took our gear up to the top of the crag for a final sort out, where it turned out that another anomaly in Steve’s preparations was bringing only 1 ½ litres of fluid, compared to my 2 ½. No wonder he was looking frazzled towards the end. Still, he’d shown character in the face of adversity and never complained. We chose to walk out along the cliff top to get the benefit of the breeze and called in at a Coop for additional water supplies to help with rehydration. Possibly a bit late for Steve as he had to stop the car twice to get out and walk off some bad leg cramps. On the face of it, the 40 @ 40 had all the makings of a brilliant day with dry and sunny weather on the country’s finest gritstone crag, but factor in an easterly air flow providing no relief from the very high temperatures and creating a haven for the midge when the sun wasn’t out, meant that 13 ¼ hours of climbing felt like quite a chore, so we’ll mark it up as a memorable day, but not a great one. And as for 50 @ 50 in ten years time, well I think we’ll pass the baton to some younger and fitter climbers for that one!