What follows is a summary of the excellent detailed history of climbing in the Gorge researched and written by Martin Crocker, author of the Avon and Cheddar:Climbers Club Guide.
‘You’ve got a crag here with all the types of climbing: full traditional climbing; pegged traditional; bolted and sports. You’ve got everything here.’ Frank Cannings: south west pioneer 1960s
The history of climbing in the Avon Gorge might be considered to reflect the history of climbing in the UK as a whole. As gear technology has advanced it has allowed different styles to be taken forward, at the same time enabling standards to rise. Initially the available protection was rudimentary,involving only a rope and a few slings to place over spikes of rock. From the 1960’s to the early 70s pegs were commonly used for protection as runners while climbing on-sight. ‘Aid’ climbing also evolved – involving the use of both pegs and hand-drilled bolts to progress up a face climbed on-sight.
From the mid 1970’s to date the remaining blanker faces were often inspected on abseil before an ascent, mostly to pre-fix protection pegs (or less often bolts) that couldn’t be placed on lead. On occasion – on the hardest and most serious climbs – complex and difficult sequences were worked out and rehearsed in preparation for the lead, a practice later to become known as head -pointing.
The 2004 Climbers Club guide book to the Avon Gorge has 149 pages of listed routes -and they’ve been established by a variety of methods, styles and ethics that reflect this nationwide evolution over a period of more than 80 years.
The Early Days
The Avon Gorge wasn’t recognised as a climbing venue until after the First World War. At that time the sport was centred in the mountains of the UK. Protection was basic and most climbing served only as practice for Alpine expeditions. Graham Balcombe, a contemporary of the mountaineer Colin Kirkus, had a healthy curiosity about the opportunities the area held. He established the first routes: his main legacy is Piton Route, set up in 1936 – with one peg for aid and one for protection.
In the 50’s, after the hiatus of the second world war, interest picked up again following the formation of the University of Bristol Mountaineering Club by Dr L Griffin. The keen leading members, Hugh Banner, Mike Harvey and Barrie Page, established the classic Central Buttress as well as the committing Desperation and Great Central Route – climbing in plimsolls and with well-spaced rudimentary peg runners.
Then, in 1955 Chris Bonington turned up and was drawn to the challenge of Main Wall – putting up Mercavity (using pegs). Over the next few years he returned often, finding his way up his most prestigious line, using only one peg, Malbogies, in 1957. At the same time both Sea Walls and The Amphitheatre were opened up by Mike Rhodes and Derek Walker contributing Morpheus and Stranded respectively
The UBMC had produced their first guide book of Avon Gorge climbs in 1955 and in the publication of the new guide in 1959 guide they rashly declared ‘there is now comparatively little scope for new development’. This was before the days of headpointing and high-tech gear, when aided climbs were de rigueur… How they were to be proved wrong! Bonington’s partner, Mike Thompson (with Barrie Annette) managed, without too much difficulty, to sniff out classic routes like Nightmare, Sleepwalk and Gronk on Sea Walls, and on Main Wall: Depravity, the Old Girdle and Lich Gates.
Annette brought the Gorge into the 60’s with a claim that a climber could wander all over Main Wall at will – and proved it by accomplishing a series of fine climbs including The Corpse, Malambo and Malwhatsit.
Suspension Bridge Buttress then came under scrutiny: Howard Buffy found Howhard: It was the first new route in the area for 9 years, but the Buttress was also scrutinised by new-comer and dedicated climber, Ed Drummond … and his routes came thick and fast. Here, Drummond made his first impact in what was to be a close relationship with the Gorge with the creation of his ‘Clan’ series which included Hell Gates and Earl of Perth. By 1966 his White Elephant, Drang, Last Slip and Spinor were the perhaps the most serious climbs on offer in the south of Britain. Many Drummond routes are now invariably classics but there are some oddities – over 7 days he worked on the 12 pitch traverse, The Equator, the brainchild of his stalwart climbing partner Oliver Hill. There was no real competition to challenge Drummond given his brilliant capacity for route finding and technical ability. In Avon Gorge he had the freedom to ‘invent’ the rules, and – while for the most part courageously leading on sight – he felt it necessary to employ the technique of prior top rope practice on a small number of groundbreaking routes. . His 1968 guidebook wrapped up an extremely productive period in Gorge climbing history.
Not quite eclipsed by Drummond, other enthusiasts quietly continued to make discoveries , including Chris Perry’s and Dave Pearce’s Peryl and Fred Bennett’s Central Eliminate. During this period there was the first recorded instance of a bolt runner being placed for free climbing – on Last Slip (which had shed a block and runner) ‘This terrible blow to climbing morality in fact produced one of the best and technically most difficult routes in the Avon Gorge’, claimed Perry. Pat Littlejohn was a frequent visitor and while making his mark mainly at Cheddar, in 1969 he put up Bilk which had the steepness that he had previously found lacking on the Avon cliffs .
And then Tony Willmott came along: only 19 years old and highly motivated, he had exceptional ability on aid climbs and was a genius when it came to free climbing. From 1969 he made huge in-roads – including Think Pink, Steppenwolf and Magic Theatre. His Avon career culminated in Central Wall – grade 6a and the first E4 in Avon.
Perhaps inspired by Willmott’s extremism, Drummond once again stepped up to the mark, developing the first free climb on Exploding Galaxy Wall – The Haystack. He produced yet another guidebook in 1972: much needed due to the developments over the period. This was a period of extreme interest in the Gorge with new routes created in many of the areas: Yellow Edge on Exploding Galaxy wall; The Cancerous Tropic on New Quarry; Quick Flash on Sea Walls and In Search of a Fair Lady on The Amphitheatre.
There were then a few years of relative calm until 1976 when Arnis Strapcans appeared on the scene – he brought energy and a focus towards eliminating aid on sight – free climbing had been given the ethical thumbs up. His main achievements were to rid Main Wall Eliminate of all its aid save one point and launch into the incomparable Atmosfears.
He was joined in the crusade inevitably by Richard (‘Nipper’) Harrison, a forceful Avon-bred climber who tidied up Kanz and Peryl among others, and who also established two more classics – Ladder of Desire and Mirage.
The 70s slipped into the 80’s all the while the Gorge enjoying the attention of many high calibre climbers: Andy Hall, with his controversial rehearsal methods (Slender Norris still has one of the Gorge’s hardest moves – probably 6c), as well as Steve Findlay, Steve Monks, Chris King and Gordon Jenkin. All of them increased the number of ‘first free ascents’ and after Monks had cleaned up Strapcan’s Atmosfears he declared it as ‘one of the most serious leads in the gorge’.
The free climbing drive pinnacled with Harrison’s impressive free ascentof Pink Ginsane. And in the same year Hall, using his top roping methodology, he led the run-out face of Lost Illusions with just 2 peg runners (prior top roping was still frowned upon at this time so Hall kept quiet about it despite it now being recognised as one of the earliest E7’s in the country).
In 1983 Upper Wall became a focus for ambitious climbers with a penchant for 6b climbing – Martin Corbett’s Tour De France and Duncan Critchleys’ Unknown Pleasure being two fine examples of bold leading. It was in this year that Martin Crocker’s interest turned once again to the Avon Gorge (as well as to Cheddar Gorge) – the realisation of a long relationship was heralded by The Trembling and The Thin Air. And it was also at this time that the short hard faces on Sea Walls were plundered – but not without some determination: some were very bold routes (Midnight Express) but others relied on solitary protection bolts, like Dick Broomhead’s Gold Star. Once again this highlighted the melting pot of area ethics– limited bolting was generally not considered inappropriate; and some said it encouraged an ethic of on-sighting rather than headpointing.
So Crocker continued to stamp his enthusiasm across the gorge’s ‘poorly protected and sometimes poor rock’ (CC Guide) including the hallmark ‘Polar Reaches’ – achieved through repeated falls rather than top roping. Meanwhile other familiar names continued their work: the partnership of Harrison and Jenkin added a host of difficult lines including Superstition; Broomhead unearthed Hymac and Dark Crystal , while Damien Carroll and Dave Viggers found 45 Degrees in the Shade the biggest free roof at Avon.
Then in the mid to late 80’s came the youngsters who hunted out and conquered more hard lines. Sprited by the nihilism of Peter Hughes (Hands Up Who Wants To Die says it all), there was also the soloing achievement of Lost Atoms by Phil Windall; while Crispin Waddy made many, often unrecognised, repeats, as well as following in the footsteps of Windall with some high grade soloing (Low Profile). Headpointing, while discouraged, continued and enabled Cloggy and grit luminary Nick Dixon to openup the desperate testpiece The Enchanted Gordon.
Gordon Jenkin pursued his aim of filling in the gaps and reviewed The Amphitheatre and Main Wall (Crossing the Dateline). He was a key part of the active Crocker- Matt Ward-Jenkin team who turned their attention to New Quarry and saw its potential for a new style of climbing that was becoming increasingly popular – sport climbing with bolts. The results made the crag quickly become very popular, if only for a time.
With the odd bolt or not, adventurous routes were still to be discovered, and by 1990 the inclination to push the limits had become such that E5 climbing was becoming the norm. Guy Percival and Danny Brooks dug out some short sharp technical problems on Unknown Buttress, and John Alcock found Product of an Unsound Mind in New Quarry.
In 1992 the publication of the Climber’s Club guide book was welcomed by all. It announced (with echoes of past announcements) that ‘almost every square metre of rock is uncovered and explored’ … ‘almost’ being the important adverb here.
There followed a period when the art of soloing (after top roping) took prominence and climbers including Mark Turnbull and Mike Weeks pulled off a handful of first solo ascents (e.g. The Quiet Mind – Turnbull). And once Main Wall had re opened in 1994 after a three year closure, Crocker and Jenkin were there to continue the square metre coverage. After some hard work at Sea Walls Crocker eventually won over Academic and announced it to be Avon’s first French 8a. It was followed four years later by outsider’s Ian Vickers’ Prince – a small yet perfect French grade 8a+/8b.
Increasingly headpointing was becoming the acceptable way to break through on areas where the rock seemed blank. Over several weekends in 1996 Ben Bransby and Alcock used multiple top ropes to piece together a serious traverse on Upper Wall – Level Headed. Three years later Percival, Crocker and new boy on the block, Dave Pickford, used the technique to their advantage, finding edgy routes like Crown of Thorns and Train in the Distance. Crocker also set his sights on routes of his that had relied on single bolt runners and led them bolt free (e.g. his Edgemaster). Pickford proved to be another single-minded climber and over a couple of years amassed an impressive list of on-sight flashes, solos and head-point first ascents. It was left to young talent Adam Mulholland and Alistair Smith to join the mission to eliminate bolt protection (e.g. an on-sight solo of Slapstick by Smith). Most incredible of all was Mulholland’s ascent of Statement of Youth, an intense solo on minute crystals.
Up to the present
So, by the early twenty first century much of the rock in the Gorge had become closely covered with climbs. The following decade has had its moments: James Parrott’s Um Bongo was hard & bold outing; Ali Smith ‘s Crowhurst’s Folly was extreme and there was a resurgence of interest in the art of traversing by Henry Castle with Break Left . Dan Donovan and Steve Findlay continued the exploration of North Wall and Suspension Bridge Buttress (Silk Purse and RedLine). New Quarry had a face lift in 2013 with re bolting of Gordon Jenkin’s lines, bringing in the keen sports climber to the area. And most recently the development of ClimbBristol project, initiated by the local climbing community, has heralded the renaissance of the Gorge as an important and unique climbing venue.
At this point in time,2015, visitors can enjoy the whole sweep of climbing styles: from aided to sport, from soloing to free climbing – the only missing link being a deep water soloing opportunity… if only the quarrymen had left a bit of rock next to the River Avon.
Fragments from The Bristol Climbing Festival July 2014
It’s a stifling hot day summer day. I’m at Bristol’s first ever outdoor climbing festival – the Bristol Climbing Festival – and I’m sitting under an open sided marque under Sea Walls, glad to be out of the sun’s rays. I’m listening to a group of middle aged men share their reminiscences about climbing in the Avon Gorge 40 years or so ago. These were some of the pioneer s of the 1960’s and 70’s. As I listen, I realise that the stories they are telling go beyond the lists of routes and dates. They’re talking about how it felt to be there. Among them are Pat Littlejohn, Barrie Page, Frank Cannings, Oliver Hill, Pete Hill and Mike Thompson.
Here’s some snippets of their banter:
‘You can’t recreate the atmosphere of the time. Today’s climbers can’t know what it’s like to fall on a drilled out nut onto nylon rope. We were all driven – we’d walk for miles to get to a crag. I remember getting a train to somewhere near Dartmoor and walking the rest of the way -11 miles there and back in a day. Routes used to take a long time at the Gorge. We only had 60 feet and 120 feet ropes so it all had to be one in short pitches. We only started to use double ropes in 1963. In the 60’s the routes were all pegs – for aided climbing. We used waist belays and there were people who thought using nuts were cheating.’
‘The area became very popular in the 70’s when the M4 opened. Climbers from London came down here. It was out of fashion in the 80’s – by then ‘adventurous’ climbing meant going to Patagonia, not driving up to the Gorge. That was too easy.’
‘Drugs influenced the culture of climbing in the Gorge in the 60’s to a large extent. It was not unknown for people to roll up a joint before a route.’
‘Women didn’t receive the profile for achievements that they do nowadays. Alison Chadwick in the early 70’s did some great routes.’
‘I remember Mason’s plank walk – he bolted the roof above Dawn Walk slab, and suspended a plank under it. I think to see how many people he could get on it.’
At this time under Main Wall there was a car park, stone built lavatories and tennis courts:
‘We had the Bog Wall Dinners. Rosie Smith was the main mover along with Arnis Strapcans. Everyone got dressed up and we had the stuff for a proper dinner – table, chairs and glasses. It never attracted the attention of the authorities. We used to have a challenge to see who could get to the top of the bog wall wearing dining clothes.’
‘There always used to be someone camping at the back of the tennis courts.’
‘It was a scary place, with little gear and a route a day was enough. I recall a lot of standing around at the bottom of the crag, chatting. I only climbed here for 3 years – I felt I had better stop while I was still around. You’d find yourself padding around on a slab, not knowing where you were going and with no protection.’
‘There’s no climbing like it anywhere else. We only did one or 2 routes a day. Footwork had to be good and you had to have a cool head. You needed to have the bottle. For me it’s not just about the moves, but the whole experience- the fear included – but after a while I did get fed up with having to trust rusty pegs.’
‘Main Wall is just a series of overlapping slabs which is fine if you can stand in balance. Here you have to learn to stand on a slab, not to jam! It’s not easy to find the line. It’s a law unto itself.’