Malham Cove is a national landmark, and popular throughout the year with walkers, and bird watchers who flock to watch the resident Peregrines terrorise the local bird population. Climbers are also a free spectacle, with binoculars often trained on our aerial antics.
The cove itself is the site of an ancient waterfall; years of wear from water have eaten away at the rock to leave a solid overhanging cliff in the shape of a giant horseshoe. Miraculously, whilst the walls in the centre of the cliff have been washed smooth by water, there remain two conveniently spaced ledges - though with the current practice of extending pitches, some Malham activists must look at those ledges with a little frustration!
Nowadays the waterfall that formed the crag as we see it has all but gone. There remains a stream flowing from the base, but what must have been an incredible cascade, is now a stubborn damp streak on The Groove f8a+ and a plethora of brilliant routes. Ironically, Malham’s central walls have become a good wet-weather venue, with many routes protected from even the heaviest rain by massive overhangs that have only occasionally been breached.
As a former bolt-aid climbing venue, Malham activists never really had any moral doubts as to whether bolts could be used, and so the quality of the bolting has always been very high, though it has not strayed onto the wings, where there are a number of excellent traditionally protected routes that make the crag well worth a visit even if you never intend to clip a bolt in your life.
The central, lower wall has a concentration of sport routes ranging from hard to very hard. The most popular of these is the warm-up of choice: Consenting Adults f7a. The use of the term ‘warm-up’ in the same sentence as ‘f7a’ should give a good indication as to the high standard of this part of the crag, though in truth, on the far ends of the wall are much easier warm-ups.
On the far left hand-end is the amenable Fawcett classic Yosemite Wall f7a+ which follows a rare natural line, and actually has some good holds. Originally climbed on an assortment of in situ gear, the route has now been completely bolted, though it is not uncommon to see a clutch of wires being taken to plug a few gaps.
Most of the lower wall is the realm of the super hero, most of the climbing action here is carried out with a clip-stick; if you hang around long enough, you might actually get to see someone climb a route. Here, routes are not actually that steep by sport climbing standards, but the holds are small, and often face entirely the wrong way. The roof that caps the lower wall is only breached by a few routes, the latest weighing in at f9a - and with several, much harder lines to go yet.
The upper wall is not dissimilar to the lower wall, it comes complete with a challenging roof/handy rain protector, and some excellent, well bolted routes. Here, the standard is, in general, lower, and one of the best routes, Obsession, weighs in at a very reasonable (for Malham) f7b+, just to the right, and a little harder, is Herbie at f7c+.
The top terrace and the wings on either side of the Cove are the domain of the trad routes. Any argument that crags can’t have bolt routes and trad routes side by side may find Malham a difficult case study, as it seems to work perfectly well. Malham is often overlooked as a trad climbing destination, but there are some brilliant routes to do, with good protection, solid rock, and an incredible situation. The right wing, is certainly the best area for a day’s trad climbing.
Curiously, in terms of standards, Malham has often been half a step behind its neigbours, with many of its hardest routes being the second of their grade in the country, whilst Cry Freedom was one of the hardest routes in the country - if not the world, it was Mecca over at Raven Tor that got there first. Whilst Malham typically gets the top grades a little later than the others, there’s no taking away its status as having had more cutting edge routes throughout its history than anywhere else in Britain.
Malham – The Cauldron of Controversy
As well as being the scene of many groundbreaking routes, controversy has never been far away; it is as if the walls of the cove trap it in with sunlight, perhaps it is the fact that bolts never really caused much of a stir that climbers have had to look elsewhere for their fix?
It was here way back in 1988 that a young lad from Bradford stuck his neck out by grading his new route f8b - The Maximum was subsequently downgraded to f7c+ - and launched John Dunne’s career as a high profile climber. However, it wasn’t long before Dunne got his f8b tick with his ascent of the now-classic Magnetic Fields.
Dunne was far from the only climber pushing standards off the catwalk, and Mark Leach’s Cry Freedom took the cutting edge to f8b+ where it remained until 1992 when a fair haired youth named Nic Sellers, encouraged by his mentor Mick Ryan, placed a sika hold on a project which he eventually redpointed and named Justified and Ancient f8c. The incident caused instant controversy, and ultimately, Tony Mitchell took up the challenge, the following year he hacked off the hold and left the route as Unjustified - grade unchanged.
Also in 1992, Rachel Farmer redpointed Raindogs f8a to become the first British woman to climb that magic grade. For British women, redpointing f8a remains a highly significant achievement even thirteen years later.
When in 1995, John Dunne returned to the British sport climbing scene, it was to climb the roof above Obsession; graded f9a, Total Eclipse was sure to set the cat amongst the pigeons. Jerry Moffatt got on the route and pulled off what he considered to be a crucial hold - soon after, Dunne returned to the route and declared it unchanged. Its status as the UK’s first 9a still hangs in controversy, and the route remains unrepeated to date.
The latest Malham super-route is Steve McClure’s extension to Raindogs - Rainshadow. One of what will no doubt be several routes to cross the desperate roof, Rainshadow is certainly a state of the art British sport route.
Recommended Routes - Baaaaaa
Extreme Rock Ticks
Essential Info for Visitors
Malham Cove is a short walk from the village of Malham in Yorkshire. The village itself is well geared up for tourists, with plenty of accommodation from campsites, bunk houses through to B&Bs. There are two pubs and a small shop.
Plenty of further info is available at www.malhamdale.org.uk.
You will need a full trad rack for the trad routes on the wings. A clip stick is well worth bringing if you have redpointing on your mind.
Northern Limestone by Rockfax is the most up-to-date book.
The Top 20 Crags in England and Wales,
as chosen by Adrian Berry
1. St. Govan's
1. Birch Quarry (spoof!)
3. Landing Craft Bay, Lundy
5. Dinas Cromlech
6. Gogarth Bay
7. Malham Cove
11. Huntsman's Leap
12. High Tor
13. Clogwyn Du'r Arddu
14. Mother Carey's Kitchen
18. Lower Sharpnose
19. Pen Trwyn
20. Llanberis Slate