The Best of the Best - Great Western

15th Apr 2010

"The cliff is visited by climbers of exceptional skill and climbing of a somewhat desperate danger is indulged in" (C.E.Benson 1906)

Last week on a sunny but typically windswept Yorkshire day I came up against one of the true Giants of British Rock Climbing, and no it's not young Alex Hughes hanging by her outstretched arms before you rack your brain trying to put a name to the face, (although she most certainly will be someone to look out for in the not too distant future) but the bit of rock she's climbing,  the route known as 'Great Western'.

western frontI guess you could liken Almscliff, the crag where 'Great Western'' can be found to any other sporting arena;  Wembley, Wimbledon, Silverstone or Cardiff Arms Park. A true venue of sporting excellence, of historical doings, a place of battle where dramas unfold and victories are won and lost.

Almscliff is a conspicuous landmark high on the northern ridge of Lower Wharfdale, about 5 miles from Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England. Its a rough gritstone jewel sitting proud amongst a multitude of Yorkshires exceptional small, dark, brooding edges. Described by the climber John Laycock in 1912 "Gritstone clings closely to the skin and to the affections.......Almscliff is one of the best illustrations of this"

And thats why I'm here at Almscliff on a windy thursday afternoon with a supporting cast and my "leading lady" Alex, in the hopes of capturing the essence of the route which embodies what the climbing experience on grit is all about.

For those of you who aren't climbers, the routes are named and graded by the first person who climbs them. 'Great Western' was first climbed in 1943 by the legendry figure Arthur Dolphin and subsequently given the grade of HVS 5a. I could at this point try and explain the British grading system for climbs, essentially it's a grading for severity starting at easy and extending to extreme, where its then sub-divided into an open ended system starting at Extreme 1 or E1 and at the present time of writing extending all the way through to Extreme 12 or E12. I'm not going to try and explain the finer details of the system because even the best climbers still struggle to agree what the grading of these routes actually depends on, needless to say E1 is hard and E12 would be death from the top floor.

Great Western is graded HVS or Hard very severe, its hard but protectable, so a good climber like Alex shouldn't be hurting herself if she fell off.

Star Quality

 As well as getting a name and grade, the good routes get a 'star' rating from one to three.  One star indicates a good route, whereas the three star routes will remain carved in your memory for ever. Well at least that's the theory, so when you buy a guidebook to a particular area the first thing you do is look for all the three star routes in the grade you want to climb at and head off, memorable adventure guaranteed.

So, now you more or less understand the workings of the British grading system just what makes 'Great Western' so special - its quite simple really. In a world of three star classics, 'Great Western' gets "four" yep. Even though there isn't offically a forth star in the system, this single route gets awarded an unprecedented 4. It's the only one in the Yorkshire guidebook, in fact its the only one in any Gritstone guidebook, so its special and hanging from my lofty abseil rope, surveying the scene waiting for Alex to start up the route I had time to remember just why its so special. It's an improbable looking route, climbed at a manageable grade. That's to say even though to most of us the line picking its way up cracks and through roofs looks impossible at the grade its given. But when you actually start to climb up the corner crack with it's superb, easy to place protection and its exposed right to left hand traverse out to the arete and finally the daunting exit crack, you realise if you take each superb element and break them down, what initially seemed impossible now becomes plausible and even enjoyable.

For me taking photos is a bit like climbing 'Great Western' - you start with a goal, an idea for a photo. Is it possible? Maybe it isn't. You break it down and look at the elements and slowly it all starts to make sense, you can see how it might just work. Photography is a bit of a "team" thing, at least the type of photography I do is. Without my subjects my photos wouldn't be possible - without a climber, someone to hold their rope and 'Great Western' my photo wouldn't exist and neither would our "four star" memories.