Caroline Fink talked to 1980s climbing celebrity Johnny Dawes about climbing on gritstone. Johnny, as one of the best gritstone climbers of all time, you know every inch of gritstone in England’s Peak District. Can you tell us what makes the rock between Manchester and Sheffield so special? Well, you can’t really compare routes in the Peak with other crags. Gritstone is much rougher, compacter and more rounded. This makes the routes really tricky and very technical. Some of them are
“A LITTLE BIT CRAZY”
difficult to protect, which makes them very dangerous. It also makes them a little bit crazy.
Johnny Dawes l Peak District/England
You were the first to climb some of these “slightly crazy” routes at the hardest grades in the 1980s. What does it take
jority of the easier routes on gritstone don’t need bolts. They have
to be successful on gritstone?
wonderful cracks and holes and can be protected with friends, nuts
The way you use your sense of gravity is more important on gritstone
and hexs. This is the way they have always been climbed.
than on other rocks. You can’t simply ensure that you can do the moves by being strong. The security comes from knowing what the
There is a longstanding tradition of climbing on gritstone.
move really is, not from being strong enough to do the move really
Can you tell us a bit more about the history of the area?
easily. I also think that a dynamic style is very important for climbing
Climbing first started here at the end of the 19th century. Things real-
on gritstone. You get to holds which you can just about hang on to,
ly kicked off after the Second World War. People still had old bits of
but where you can’t pull any harder on them to get the next position.
equipment left over, for example ropes, which they used to climb the
So sometimes, you’ve got to “unweight” the body to get some sort
cliffs in the Peak District.
of movement . . . one move is used to do the next one. So I think we took dynoing a little bit further.
And this involved mainly working class men from Sheffield and Manchester?
In descriptions of your climbing, it is often said that you in-
Yes, exactly. This was the exact opposite of most mountaineers at the
vented the “dyno”.
time, who were members of more elitist organisations, such as the
This is a bit of an exaggeration. But it is true that we really helped to
Alpine Club. The 1980s were a further important stage in the devel-
push the boundaries of dynamic climbing in the Peak District in the
opment of the Peak District – it was a second heyday. My generation
basically climbed everything left that was considered “unclimbable”.
Dynos on unbolted rock, sometimes with only marginal protection. Weren’t you ever scared of taking a bad fall? Fear . . . (pauses to consider) . . . it’s not like “fear!” and completely los-
And you weren’t exactly members of the upper class either . . . No, that’s true. We were students and workers. We didn’t have any money. In actual fact, we should probably thank Margaret Thatcher
ing it. It’s more the case that you are completely aware of the situa-
for her neo-liberal, free-market policies of the time. Thanks to her,
tion . . . you work out what to do and then you do it. This doesn’t make
there were no jobs, which meant that we had more time to climb. It
you afraid, it makes you concentrate. You are forced to concentrate
was an amazing time for young climbers in the Peak District; it was a
on climbing your way out of trouble.
really creative period that was full of energy.
Even today, there are no bolts on gritstone anywhere in
What is there left to climb on gritstone today?
the Peak District. Why is this? The rock itself is capable of
There’s really not much left. There is one old quarry with some pos-
sibilities. It has around twelve routes that have never been climbed.
That’s true. It would be perfectly possible to bolt gritstone routes.
They are all really desperate, even on top rope. But if there are
But the rock doesn’t give you a bolt, so it should be left alone. Let’s
climbers out there who are good enough – then they’ll be more than
be honest here: if you climb from the bottom of a cliff to the top, then
welcome here. The routes are just waiting to be climbed.
this is “rock climbing”. If you put bolts in, then its “bolted rock climbing”. Personally, I think that calling it “sport climbing” is just sexing it up really. With the exception of the really dangerous routes, the ma-