North Buttress

Kilnsey is one of our best sport crags, and in fact it would be a really good crag anywhere in the world, even in Spain!

This Article was published in CLIMB 44

British Sport climbing gets bad press. Barely any foreign climbers come here, and those that do are here for the grit. Fair enough really, if you want sport climbing, you go where there’s tons of it, all of amazing quality, in beautiful areas and with guaranteed weather. Tales of constant rain in Britain are exaggerated, but to be honest, not by much! Most foreigners are surprised there is any sport climbing at all and even more amazed that it’s ever dry enough to leave the house. Some know of our limestone, and are generally unimpressed having picked up a random British magazine featuring some scrappy quarry described as a premier venue. But what do they know? We do have some good stuff, maybe just not quite as much. At least we beat Holland.

Kilnsey is one of our best sport crags, and in fact it would be a really good crag anywhere in the world, even in Spain! Kilnsey’s North Buttress has long been heralded as the realm of super hard sport routes. Viewed from the side it’s a massive flat sheet of rock, overhanging by over 20 degrees for its whole height with few obvious large features. Closer inspection reveals distinct lines, small grooves and pockets, though clearly it’s barely possible to link between these features. The first time I heard of Kilnsey was when Mark Leech free climbed the massive roof to give ‘Mandella’, and my first knowledge of the North Buttress was when Ben Moon was battling with the world’s most famous project that was to become ‘Northern Lights’. The first time I saw it I fell over backwards looking at the lines and scuttled off to the side to fail on the easiest routes!
The wall boasts some of the hardest sport climbs in the country, even the routes on the boundaries of the wall will only succumb to a sustained effort. ‘Dominatrix’ on the left at F7c and ‘The Thumb’ on the right at F8a are both hard but brilliant routes. The easiest route on North Buttress is ‘Urgent Action’, a test of power endurance with mostly reasonable holds but climbing that goes on forever, joining ‘The Thumb’ at it’s crux. The hardest move of ‘Urgent Action’ is a massive span between good holds, an all out slap for the short that feels totally unlikely. But sub six foot sixers have done it so you can’t play the short arse card here. However, if you’re gonna fall it will be the last move! Amazingly it was on-sighted by Simon Nadin years ago. This is the initiation for the real action.  To the left is ‘True North’, F8c. The first half is around F8b to a vaguely reasonable hold. Nick Sellers originally ended his redpoint attempts here and called this half route ‘Full Tilt’ which has become rather popular. But it’s only half a route, the upper section is instantly desperate, ferocious crimping on tiny edges leads to big pulls off undercuts, obvious why Nick stopped where he did! Apparently some holds have been shed very recently leading to a possible upgrade. Next is ‘Magnetic North’, F8c+, almost ‘Euro’ in style with the holds being OK but the moves being long. Probably soft for the grade, but this one goes right to the top of the cliff, and the last bulge is a real stopper!  Unrepeated at the moment. Left again is ‘Northern Lights’ at F9a, also unrepeated. Had Ben Moon done this in the mid Ninetys it would have been the hardest route in the world. As it was when I made the first ascent in 2000 it was already ‘just another F9a’. Left again is ‘Progress’, an awesome route from Moffat apparently named after a night club. Very few seem to make any progress on ‘Progress’ so the name can be frustrating. Originally F8c+, then F8c before some holds fell off, now F8c+ again.

A few years ago Steve Dunning climbed the first half of perhaps the last great line at Kilnsey Crag, the obvious wide blank gap between ‘Progress’ and ‘Dominatrix’ standing out due to it’s clear lack of holds! Steve’s route, ‘Northern Exposure’ F8b+ finishes at an obvious hold, perhaps the only real hold on the route, a flat ledge about half the size of a CD case. The extremely crimpy crux is blatant and vicious. A few have repeated the route, and a few have gone away empty handed and none found it less than hard for the grade. Forget it if it’s hot!

The line was originally bolted by Paul Ingham yonks ago but he quickly moved on. Others looked at the pathetic holds, some attempted to support the tiny flakes with glue and someone even took a step further and ‘cleaned out’ some small slots with an ice axe. Steve was unimpressed by this, filled in the slots with resin, and then realized he couldn’t do the route; hence the half height belay! The climbing above halfway stays hard, the top section is harder than the bottom section! Most of the holds are no bigger than the edge of a CD case. Totally continuous, no time to chalk and barely time to clip (miss out at least three). The last few moves are on razor edges leading to a long reach to a good hold at last and a chance for a shake before leading into the awkward final section of Progress (8c+) and of course, as is the norm, a free hanging bat hang rest!

I first tried a few years ago and found it desperate but very much my style and was hooked. It’s pretty much my perfect hard route, a fingery start with a contorted rest no one else will be able to find, followed by a 15 move power endurance crimp ladder with no long moves but a load of complex foot placements. Lovely. The resting point involved sticking my heel on the small hand hold and stacking my other foot on top of my heel, a kind of totally rubbish Bat Hang! It lingered away in the back of my mind during the winter, tapping on my shoulder when I enjoyed indoor bouldering on big holds with powerful moves. Climbers always want it all though, a greedy bunch. I tried to stay focussed on rubbish edges and was pissed off on a trip to Rhodellar in Spain when I didn’t seem to be any good at on-sight climbing for half an hour on massive handles. But that week long trip was all part of the training, honest… I managed to on-sight a few F8bs and came back still good on crimps but also with some stamina. The golden rule of training according to the Bible of Rich Simpson – “change”!

Conditions were perfect at Kilnsey that spring in 2008, perfect for razor edges; freezing, double duvet weather. My memory seemed OK and after just 2 days work I’d managed the project in the obvious two sections Two years had given me time to work out exactly where I was going wrong; twist the knee a little more here, miss that clip out, little finger in the dimple. Amazing how the tiniest of alterations make all the difference. Time to hit the redpoints – it went on my second attempt on day three! I’d originally assumed it to be as hard as Overshadow (9a+), maybe it’s not. maybe I just got lucky. I’d kind of planned this whole spring around trying the line. Clipping the belay was awesome but a strange kind of anticlimax. This was supposed to be hard, pushing me to the edge, breaking me down, taking everything from me for the sake of a piece of rock. I knew I should have trained harder on the pie eating and TV watching and then I’d still be there now. I called the route ‘North Star’, it had to be on the same theme as ‘North’, and I liked the word, no other reason than that. Now…on to the next!