Steve McClure's Magic Grades: E1

Article by Steve McClure
Monday 21st September 2009

- all photography copyright David Pickford / -

Climbing grades are indecipherable gibberish to non-climbers, but to us, they are a language of common logic in which we are all fluent. All grading systems go from the relatively easy to the near-impossible with lots of steps in between. For myself, and everyone else I have put the question to, there are certain steps that represent real milestones in climbing: these are the 'magic grades'. But what is a magic grade and what does it mean? Is it a long-term goal inspiring climbers to push themselves physically and mentally, or simply something I dreamt up to ramble on about? Both I guess, but then when I was a kid all I ever wanted was to climb E1, then I knew I'd be a real hard climber. The best climbers around had climbed E1, easily, and we respected them like football stars.

Jack Geldard setting out on the second pitch of the superb Suicide Wall at Bosigran. You can find out more about this stunning Cornish E1 at the end of this article.

The British 'E' grade is in fact an abbreviation for the old top grade of 'Extremely Severe' (XS), and extreme sounds well hard. Dabbling with extremes means you have joined the big league, this is where hard climbing starts and expert status is reached. The extreme climber is one who is both strong and skilful and can confidently hold his head up high in the hills. And so at about the age of 13 I dragged myself up some quarried lump and became part of the gang. The route was nothing special, in fact it was pretty rubbish but it didn't matter, it had a number and that number meant everything.

Of course "It's not the grade that counts, it's the climbing". This is what we all know as honest, ethical climbers, just going out and enjoying ourselves. Grades are just to help us on our way, like colours apparently help skiers avoid broken legs. A guide to stop us messing up and getting into places we really shouldn't. You could also say they are a guide to making sure you get scared, stressed and pumped in just the right amounts, if you like that kind of thing. After all, if you're revved up for something hard, the last thing you want is to set off up some 14 pitch V.Diff.

But be honest, grades are more than just a guide. They are the best thing to talk about in the pub, and give us an idea of how hard we are climbing. Part of the enjoyment actually comes from climbing at your limit and constantly improving. Grades in climbing, as with grading and rating systems in other sports, allow us to compare ourselves to how good we were, and how good we want to be. Some climbers - as with all athletes - are competetive with friends or peers. Yet since outdoor climbing is not a competetive sport in the sense of involving opponents, the true measure of any climber's commitment is how competetive they are with themselves.

In his extraordinary short book What I talk About When I Talk About Running, the great Japanese novelist and marathon runner Haruki Murakami writes:

"The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday... The only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be."

Jules Walker enjoys the superlative slab pitch of 'Tourist Trap' (E1 5b) on the sweeping slab at Screda Point, on Devon's Culm Coast. Not all the best E1's to try as your first attempt at the grade are the most famous routes on the popular cliffs. Sometimes they can be found on secluded crags such as Screda Point. 'Tourist Trap' is an ideal first E1 for a proficient slab climber, being technical but well protected with small wires.  

Hitting a new grade is always worth a pat on the back, if only from yourself. It means you have got better, and this is always good for your ego and self-esteem. And that's another good thing about grades, because - even for the world's best climbers - there is always another one just up the scale, tantalising, almost within reach.

As a snooker player, achieving the dream break of 147 must be a bit of an anticlimax in some ways. Once such an objective is achieved, what comes next? 147 in half the time, or perhaps twice in a row? Achieving a lifetime's ambition of climbing E1 is great, because now you can go on to E2. Strangely enough, the number often seems irrelevant anyway, generated in a random number generator, as is the case for gritstone jamming cracks or French limestone slabs. Someone before you, no doubt with far different skills, has climbed your chosen route and declared it to be of a certain difficulty, and thus dictating whether you have a good day or not. Grades are subjective and do not take into account height, weight, finger-size, skin type, or any other excuse you can think of when you've failed on something you shouldn't, or your mate has succeeded on something you haven't!

Anyway, let's get back to the idea of the 'magic grade'. Despite the various grading scales for climbing that exist across the world, us Brits seem to have a few milestones that everyone agrees on. These are the extremes, where apparently proper hard climbing really starts. Here, E1 and E5 stand out way above the others as the benchmarks. And since sport climbing has well and truly adopted the French grading system, 8a and 8b+ have to be included too. All these grades are hard, but then they wouldn't be magic grades if they were easy!

Matt Helliker and Kenton Cool (belaying) on the awesome fourth pitch of Coronation Street (E1 5b) at Cheddar. This pitch is known as the Shield pitch due to the large welded flake that Matt is negotiating here. Recently a part of this feature fell off, making the pitch somewhat harder and more sustained than in the past.

As I mentioned earlier, my first extreme was not a fine route, which is a shame really. It would  be better to remember your groundbreaking day as floating up some top quality line in an incredible position, with fine company, blue skies, amazing views and a pub meal to finish off. So, bearing this in mind, I also remember my first 'real' E1... These are the milestones in climbing, not some 3 move route in a poxy quarry that only you can do because you are 6 foot tall.

The route was White Wall on Cloggy, well and truly E1, a total classic. Having climbed this, you are without doubt an E1 leader. With much young enthusiasm combined with very little common sense, we staggered up to the Black Cliff once the rain had stopped. It was further than we thought, and we were slower than we thought, and we arrived later than we thought. 4pm didn't seem so bad, as it was July and the route was not too long... only 10 pitches. After that walk the swirling mist and spots of rain weren't gonna stop us.

Pitches 3 to 10 were done in pissing rain, and 8 to 10 in the dark and pissing rain. Lucky we didn't take a head torch or the whole experience would have been much less memorable. Summit celebrations were somewhat dampened as we realised the hideous waterfall we'd just slithered up was the easy bit. In pitch black finding your way off the top of Cloggy is not easy, especially when you don't know the way. As a result, after 2 hours we found ourselves in the wrong valley, which we'd never been to before and didn't know how to get out of. Luckily, the chance stumbling across a sign-post took us back to Llanberis village, which as you know, is nowhere near the base of the cliff where we had left our bags. Bugger!

Walking up dressed in rock boots, harness and full rack was very grim, but not as grim as walking back down having failed to find our stuff, and still dressed in the same unsatisfactory attire. It was just too dark and too rainy. How can Wales be so wet? The trudge all the way back up Llanberis pass to our tents at 2 in the morning was also very grim too. But without doubt the worst part of achieving my much desired magic grade was getting up the next day, pulling on my soggy boots and walking all the way down to Llanberis, and then… back up to Cloggy again to get our bags! Ah, the things you do for climbing.

Despite its various trials, the important thing about that experience was no one was hurt, except for my feet. I got my first E1, and I'm not likely to forget it. Anyway, forget I said all that, achieving your magic grade should be a pleasant experience. For the aspiring E1 leaders there are absolutely hundreds of classic lines out there to suit every style and rock type in every corner of the country. Below is a selection of seven routes that are among the very best E1's in the country for starters. These are all ideal for a first extreme lead, that is, not too obscure or remote, or outrageously bold, or requiring weird gear, too long or too short, and of course, they're all totally brilliant. Most importantly though, they're not likely to get downgraded!


The UK's 'Sublime Seven' E1's:

Cemetery Gates, E1 5b, Dinas Cromlech, Llanberis Pass, Wales

OK, so this used to be HVS, but now its E1 and it seems to be sticking at that. That's all the more reason to put it on your list, as it's obviously a soft touch. This stupendous climb has amazing holds, amazing gear and takes in some amazing positions high on the right wall of the Cromlech. The route is best done in one pitch.

Cenotaph Corner, E1 5c, Dinas Cromlech, Llanberis Pass, Wales

This is a route with real history and a route that every British trad climber knows of. In a sense, it the 'the line of all lines' in this country's climbing history and culture. It's good for the real trad climber as pulling just won't do, instead a good dose of bridging and even some thrutching is required. Not a piece of cake, and not the easiest E1, but one of the most memorable. Totally bombproof gear always above your head softens the sting of the technical bridging crux somewhat.

Superdirect, E1 4b, 5b, 5b, Dinas Mot, Lllaberis Pass, Wales

Jack Geldard engrossed in the brilliant, bold climbing on the crux section of The Superdirect

Commanding an amazing position on the other side of the 'Pass directly opposite The Cromlech, The Superdirect is the best climb on Dinas Mot and arguably one of Britain's most exciting E1's. Like Cenotaph Corner and Suicide Wall (see below), it is also quite high in the grade. The main (second) pitch of the route follows a faint seam through the heart of the cliff, and is never desperate, yet a cool head is certainly required. The crux involves several sections of delicate climbing where you must leave good gear some distance behind. This, combined with the stunning position in the centre of one of the best pieces of mountain rock in the UK, lends the route a majestic, airy quality. The tough but better-protected corner on the final pitch is also not to be underestimated.  

Left Unconquerable, E1 5b, Stanage Edge, Peak District, Derbyshire

A full blown meat-and-potatoes gritstone crack: this is another hard E1 but infinitely compelling.

The Arrow, E1 5b, St. Govan's, Pembrokeshire, Wales

A stunning line with sustained difficulties for the entire height of the crag. It follows a crackline all the way packed with monster holds and good gear, but fortunately no (compulsory) hand jams.

Suicide Wall, E1 4b, 5a, 5c, Bosigran, Cornwall

This majestic route is at the upper limit of the E1 grade, and is also among the finest outings at this standard in Britain. The technical but well protected crux comes at the beginning of the third pitch, from where retreat is not completely straightforward. This lends a wonderful sense of adventure to the route as a whole.

Coronation Street, E1 4c, 4b, 5a, 5b, 5b, 4c, Cheddar Gorge, Somerset (see photo above)

Along with Cenotaph Corner, 'The Street' is probably Britain's most widely known and celebrated E1. It follows the major line of weakness up the highest single piece of limestone in the UK, the impending sweep of High Rock in the Cheddar Gorge. The first ascent in 1953 was the focus of the first climbing film footage shot in Britain, and broadcast on live TV. The climb itself fully lives up to its epic reputation and stature, with six pitches which culminate in the incredible, crux fifth pitch, which takes a bottomless, overhanging corner high on the face. An ascent of this route for any aspiring E1 leader will feel like a 'big' climb in every sense.

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