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A Magazine for Sheffield

Climbing: Sheffield's century-old tradition

Those of you who have lived around Sheffield for a while probably already know that the place is infested like no other city in the UK with a strange species of humans called climbers. You notice them in pubs and parks - scruffily dressed, gnarly looking men and women gripping invisible objects in the air as they relive their latest escapades or restlessly bouncing around bars whenever it's raining. You may have also noticed a load of rather top-heavy characters going mad at the front of Sheffield's many techno nights. What you may not be aware of is the fact that Sheffield has been at the centre of worldwide climbing culture for over a century, and that some even consider it to be the birthplace of rock climbing as a sport itself. The Victorians loved to climb around the mountains of The Lake District and North Wales, but it was mostly considered a form of training for gentlemen's expeditions to the Alps. A Sheffield local J W Puttrell changed this in the late 19th Century when, starting in 1885 at Wharncliffe Edge above Stocksbridge in the Don Valley, he began to develop routes on the gritstone edges that litter the hills around Sheffield. An avid adventurer both on cliffs and underground, his is a name you will find over and over in climbing and caving guidebooks detailing the local area. Often climbing alone without a rope, and even when using one devoid of the technologies that have rendered a lot of routes relatively safe in the modern age, Puttrell's outcrop climbing games were full of risk and only the brave could succeed. Many of the deep cracks and chimneys which he scratched his way up in hobnail boots are still physical challenges to today's climbers. The next few decades saw a gradual increase in standards, both in terms of technicality and boldness, with some notable routes such as High Neb Buttress at Stanage and the impressive Suicide Wall at Cratcliffe being put up, but the next leap forwards came with two men from the other side of the Pennines in the 1950s. Joe Brown and Don Whillans were two working class men from Britain who changed the face of climbing from the little crags of Derbyshire right up to the giants of the Himalayas, and there is no place where their legacy is more obvious than on the ribbons of the gritstone edges in the Peak. The proximity of these cliffs to the urban hubs of Sheffield and Manchester meant that days out by bus were feasible, and week in, week out these two men established new routes of unprecedented difficulty all over the area. Some of these routes - originally put up in Woolworth's plimsolls - have given me some of the most intense moments of my climbing life despite modern equipment making them far easier! The 1970s saw another progression, as modern equipment and technical advances opened up routes on the blank walls where climbing was previously impossible. Again it was Sheffield dwellers who spearheaded the rush for new routes, with John Allen (now of student property fame) and Steve Bancroft leading. They were followed by another Yorkshireman, Ron Fawcett, who took standards to the next level with his ascents of routes like Master's Edge at Millstone Edge, officially still within Sheffield's city boundaries. In the generation after Ron, three figures emerged in Sheffield who would go on to change climbing worldwide. Firstly there was Johnny Dawes, a wildchild kinetic genius whose experimentation with movement and mental strength enabled him to put dangerous routes up all over the Peak. Then there were Ben Moon and Jerry Moffatt, whose dedication to doing the hardest of moves meant that by the early 90s the Peak was home to the world's hardest routes and boulder problems. Concurrent with this history of Sheffield being at the cutting edge of the sport was a growth in the numbers of people taking part, and the closeness of the Sheffield scene is one of the things that makes climbing here so special. Sheffield is the UK's centre-point for all things climbing related, and has a climbing population to rival anywhere in the world. With the opening of the Foundry and then the Edge, and more recently the Climbing Works, there are hubs of climbing activity within the city itself, where people of all abilities rub shoulders and socialise, as well as getting their fix of upwards movement on those rare rainy days in our fair city. Since climbing is a friendly, relatively low-key sport, there is no reason to feel nervous about taking your first steps. It is not uncommon for complete beginners to get encouragement from those at the cutting edge of the sport. As a bumbling middle-grade climber, I have had the pleasure of climbing with the aforementioned Ron Fawcett and Johnny Dawes (to name but two) at Sheffield's climbing walls and nearby crags. Far from being aloof, they are just decent guys to have a cuppa with. Imagine a Sunday leaguer having a casual kick-about with Wayne Rooney and you begin to get an idea of how open and friendly a community this is. If you live in the city and haven't had a go yet, then this being Sheffield you probably know someone who can show you the ropes. Ask them to take you along. I'm sure very few climbers would object to sharing their pastime. Alternatively, get down to one of the local walls. All three of them are staffed by people whose passion is climbing, and there are myriad courses at reasonable prices that you can sign up for to learn the basics in a safe environment. It's also a great way to meet people who may just become your first partners when you step outside the wall. For a completely absorbing mental and physical workout, there is little better than climbing. And yet there is so much more to it; whether it's discovering nooks and crannies of our local area you've never known about, finding yourself through fear and exhilaration, or simply losing touch with the humdrum world of work for a while in the strange state of meditation that simple movement induces. There is something to be said for climbing at every level and anyone can enjoy it. Add your little part to Sheffield's centuryold tradition and get involved. )

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