Weekend Warm-Up: Friends of the Grit Embrace ‘High-Stakes’ Climbing

In just a few decades, rock climbing’s diversity of styles has exploded in tandem with its popularity.

That diversity leads to some complex questions: What does it mean to respect the ethics of a specific crag? How do local climbing cultures develop and how can we protect them?

Those questions lie at the heart of this charming documentary, which follows Belgian badass Siebe Vanhee as he explores one of the UK’s most iconic climbing destinations: the Peak District.

This crag’s high concentration of quality gritstone, a coarse form of sandstone, makes it one of the most unique places to climb anywhere in the world. It’s also “high stakes” here, Vanhee says in the film, with a bold style that would scare the bejeezus out of most climbers.

Yet the film repeatedly returns to the same theme: British climbers like how they do things. By avoiding the use of bolts, they save the rock — and the climbing culture it created — for every future rockhound.

“It’s a really good atmosphere here,” Vanhee said. “I’m really surprised about the dryness of the British about running out. They’re all looking at the ground like ‘you might fall there, you might fall here, you might break your leg.’…It’s like a whole other level, I was thinking like, taking other climbers here, they would just hallucinate — like me.”


Siebe Vanhee climbs “Master’s Edge,” a 6c route. Photo: EpicTV

Gritstone climbers waxing poetic

Vanhee makes it clear that he’s as interested in learning from local climbers as ticking off killer lines.

To that end, he assembles a who’s-who of British climbing, including Pete Whittaker, Sam Whittaker, John Dunne, Ben Heason, and others.

So what’s the big deal about Peak District gritstone when the walls aren’t that big?

For starters, Sam Whittaker said, there’s a “lifetime supply of climbing,” with a mix of both bouldering and trad routes. You don’t need much time to have a productive session, he added, and it’s only 15 minutes from nearby Sheffield.

Every route is “like a sprint, with one or two marginal pieces of gear,” Whittaker said.

“It’s quite short rocks,” he said. “But the style of the climbing packs it all in. So even though they are short, 10 metres, 15 metres, the climbing is so involved.”

For UK climbing veteran John Dunne, it’s all about the movement and the “amazing climbing features”.

“And that’s what gritstone does provide,” he said.


Vanhee spent time with multiple local climbers to learn the ethics of the area. Photo: EpicTV

A flash-filled climbing trip

For all his self-deprecations about the danger of the routes, Vanhee quickly makes short work of many of them.

He flashes “Gaia”, an E8 6c that offers one of the crag’s most famous routes. Later, he flashes “Beau Geste”, an E7 6c with an incredible view of the rolling British countryside.

There’s also his onsight of “Master’s Edge”, an E7 6c route that follows a wicked, 18m arete. Vanhee climbs in the standard local style, using only two pieces wedged in pockets about halfway up for protection.

That leads to a discussion of Britain’s E grading system, which stands for “extreme” and differs from many other grading systems by weighing the route’s danger as well as its difficulty.

But despite the danger associated with the Peak District, the short, bolt-less walls offer flexibility and creativity for the climbers who come here.

“If you place gear, it’s not much,” Vanhee said. “It’s a rare balance between soloing, protected climbing, bouldering, falling on pads. In the end, it’s just a climb and you choose how you want to do it.”

No matter what climbers do for protection, the ethic remains: leave the rock alone so that anyone else can have the same experience, Dunne said.

“And that I think is what’s amazing,” he said. “We’ve resisted the temptation to put bolts on gritstone…and to sanitize it. And I think we’re in a really healthy place now that people respect that tradition, that bold ethic.”

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.