Outdoor City - Sheffield's Urban Crags

Outdoor City - Sheffield's Urban Crags

We slithered through the snow, back down the muddy path to the road, eager not to miss the bus. The bus never arrived, and the pub was closed, so we waited. Pacing up and down to keep warm in the dark, we eagerly glanced westwards along the road for signs of headlights. Meanwhile, remnants of wet snow by the road refroze. Earlier that day we'd been basking in warmth, Rivelin Edge being notorious as a sheltered suntrap in winter. My partner James had even lead a route in shorts and t-shirt, while I belayed from the snowy base of the crag squinting in the bright winter sun. That warmth seemed a distant memory as, after a long hour waiting, the bus finally arrived, and we hoisted our heavy climbing bags from the dark roadside into the dim yellow light of the bus.

Sheffield is known for its proximity to some of the most famous Peak District crags–Stanage, Burbage, Froggatt and Curbar–set in a romantic position on the edge of heather moorland. But Sheffield has its own, more urban crags within the city limits, the most extensive being Rivelin Edge and Wharnecliffe. As they were accessible from the town by public transport long before car ownership was the norm, these characterful crags form an important part of the history of Sheffield climbing, and offer a distinctly different experience to their Peak District neighbors.

Wharnecliffe in particular saw some of the earliest documented ascents in the area, with the famous Jimmy Puttrell exploring the crag from 1885 onwards and leaving some classic routes which still bear his name today. A long dark edge overlooking the industry of Deepcar and Stocksbridge, the rock here is arguably not technically gritstone at all but rather a course sandstone, and hence the climbing is a little more positive, suiting the as yet unrefined 'grab and pull' style of the time. Proximity to transport infrastructure ensured its popularity in those early years, and at the turn of the 20th Century it was said to be the most popular crag in the area.

Over a century later the crag remains relatively unfashionable, barring a brief period of popularity in 2001 as an outbreak of an infectious disease in livestock shut down most of the more rural crags in the Peak District. But local bouldering activist Jon Fullwood kept retuning sporadically, exploring every ignored corner of the crag, unearthing nuggets of bouldering gold from the dark, fine-grained rock. We found ourselves here again, twenty or so years after I first started leading easy routes here, following a tipoff about some of Jon's latest findings. When we started out the 1989 guidebook was the 'bible'–read and re-read, devoured, absorbed; the kindling that lit our imagination. This time we follow messages on our phones outlining where to find the new problems. It doesn't have the same romance, but it does the job.

Although public transport brought me to Rivelin as a twenty-year-old to learn the craft of trad climbing, today we park up and walk back over the dam, buffeted by the cold north westerly, eager to find some shelter and dry rock. But we're looking for that same experience as that eager beginner; a challenge, to feel the rock under our fingers, enjoy the movement, to stretch ourselves, perhaps a minor victory if we're lucky. Years ago we would have climbed the famous Needle, a 20m tall freestanding pinnacle necessitating abseil descent–a unique treat on gritstone. Later we may have moved onto some of the bolder classics: The Brush Off, Auto da Fa, I'm Back, Exit. But today we're taking in the highball circuit and tackling a few of the harder steeper modern problems. In fading light the final attempts of the day seal success, in time honored fashion.

Heavily laden with pads, tired, we slither down the muddy path back to the road and the dull glow of civilization remains as familiar as ever.


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