Rock climbing in Yorkshire

From the gritstone of Lower Wharfedale to the limestone of Malham and beyond, Yorkshire offers a hugely varied range of climbing challenges.

Yorkshire is one of the UK's top destinations for rock climbing, well known for its contrasting rock types, gritstone and limestone. Local climber and guide Ben Barnard explains what's available.

There is more variety to the climbing in Yorkshire than might at first be expected: Single pitch and multi pitch; sport trad and bouldering; roadside and remote crags; routes for the expert and the beginner. When the weather is bad there are indoor walls, and even some great scrambles for those that seek them out.

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There are several climbing areas across Yorkshire: this article focuses on the main gritstone areas of lower Wharfedale and Barden Moor, the limestone of the Yorkshire Dales (notably around Malham) and the more northern gritstone crags of Brimham and Slipstones.

LOWER WHARFDALE
This area is home to three of Yorkshire’s best and best known gritstone crags: Almscliff, Caley and Ilkley.

With quality routes across the grade range, Almscliff - between Otley and Harrogate - has something for everyone. Many of the routes at ‘The Cliff’ have a reputation for being stiff for the grade, with jamming skills and arm strength often being put to the test, but there is a less-thuggish climbing on offer too. The crag is also a premier bouldering venue with many steep and powerful problems.

Almscliff is also a surprisingly good venue for the less serious climber with some fantastic lower grade routes. Kids will love being taken scrambling and exploring the tunnels around the crag.

Caley, just outside Otley, is one of the most accessible crags in the county but is not spoiled by this. The boulders cover a large area and most feel a lot further than their few minutes from the road. A lot of the problems are on technical slabs and walls but there are also steeper problems for those that prefer. Although known primarily as a bouldering venue, Caley has some very good routes on its main crag and larger boulders. The best ones start at about VS here.

Further west, Ilkley is one of Yorkshire most famous crags. The Cow and Calf rocks are well known. The quarry behind them has quality routes in the Severe – E1 range while there is more bouldering up the hill behind these areas. Further on, away from the crowds, is the Rocky Valley; a range of buttresses spread out on the hillside, each worth a visit.
 
The iconic Cow and Calf rocks at Ilkley
With so much to go at and its iconic Yorkshire status, Ilkley is a justifiably popular place and is one of the most popular favourite venues for our climbing courses. Popularity can bring problems, though, and the area around the quarry can suffer from litter – do the crag a favour and take a bag of it home with you.

BARDEN MOOR AND FELL
South of Grassington and just inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Barden Moor and Barden Fell are home to many small crags and a few larger ones. Crookrise is perhaps the biggest and best known of this bunch with routes across the grades, especially for the mid-grade climber who will be able to return here time after time. If you enjoy slabs then Rylstone has to be visited, with top quality routes from Diff upwards. Boulderers will find plenty to go at around here, all of it in such a beautiful moorland setting that the walk ins are arguably part of the attraction!

Note: Barden Moor and Fell are subject to an access agreement between the National Park and the Bolton Abbey Estate. Please adhere to this agreement when visiting the crags: noticeboards at entry points to the fell and moor include information on which areas are open to the public under the terms of the agreement.
Topped out at Ilkley
YORKSHIRE LIMESTONE (1): MALHAM, GORDALE AND KILNSEY
Climbing venues do not get more dramatic than this. The real quality at Malham starts at 6c, so it is not a place for the novice sport climber, but there is a fair amount of easier trad climbing on offer on its outer wings. Just to the east of Malham Cove, Gordale Scar also leans towards the harder climber with a succession of adventurous multi pitch trad routes from E1 to E8, and sport routes mostly from F7a upwards. As with Malham, though, there are some enjoyable trad routes in the lower grades on its outer wings.

And over by the River Wharf a short way further east, Kilnsey Crag is another iconic venue which only really caters for the more experienced climber. Joe Brown viewed Kilnsey as one of the most impressive and dramatic cliffs in the UK. Just driving past is an atmospheric experience. The top route of the crag has to be Mandela (8b+), which takes the line of the classic aid route ‘Kilnsey Main Overhang’ (A2), a route that it was said would never go free.

Malham and Gordale are extremely popular with tourists, so bear this in mind and keep the noise and obstruction to a minimum when climbing here.

YORKSHIRE LIMESTONE (2)
Yorkshire limestone is not all about climbing hard in world-famous venues. There are plenty of smaller crags with much on offer to the low- and mid-grade climber, most of which are worth a visit both for their climbing and for the Dales scenery in which they are set.

Those looking for sport climbing in the lower grades should visit Robin Proctor’s Scar (named after a local man who fell to his death there) above the lovely village of Clapham in the far north of Yorkshire, and Giggleswick South, set in woodland above Settle. If you’re in Settle then Castlebergh Crag overlooking the town couldn’t be more convenient and has pleasant routes from grade F4+ upwards. Castlebergh does not feature in the guidebook but has BMC notice boards giving route information.

Trad climbers have plenty to go at in the Settle area, too. Two favourites of mine, for their locations as much as for their climbing, are Attermire Scar, which has a remote feel and is home to the impressive Victoria cave – one of the oldest known human dwelling places in the UK; and Oxenber Scar, in woodland beneath a limestone pavement.

NORTHERN GRITSTONE CRAGS: BRIMHAM AND SLIPSTONES
Brimham, a few miles northwest of Harrogate, has long been known for both its bouldering and its routes both of which it has in huge quantity and quality, situated on its weirdly sculpted rock dispersed around a large area of woodland owned by the National Trust. Brimham is a popular tourist spot meaning that it can get crowded, but it is such a large area that you can usually find solitude somewhere if you want. If there are non-climbers in your party then Brimham has plenty for them too with woods to explore and rock formations to scramble around. To top things off there is a café in the middle of it all.

Further north, Slipstones is a more remote but increasingly popular mini gritstone edge, home to many problems and micro-routes. There is good bouldering here at all levels but it caters particularly well for the slightly-harder-than-average boulderer.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Angel’s Wall. Caley. HVS 5a

Located on the Sugarloaf boulder beneath the main crag, you could easily walk past this route, but it is one of the best HVSs around. Powerful technical moves lead to an airy finish on good holds over a roof. Often soloed, but not by this author.

2. Fluted Columns. Almscliff. H V Diff

More delicate than many of Almscliff’s offerings and with just enough protection to not be too worrying. This route is always a favourite on our climbing courses, and is something of a rite of passage for new leaders on Yorkshire grit.

3. Anything you can get up at Gordale.

This is such a great place to climb that it almost doesn’t matter what route you’re on. If you’re good enough then choose one of the classic sport routes or multi pitch trad adventures in the main gorge. If like most of us mortals you are not, then Promises Promises at F6a is a very worthwhile climb inside the gorge.

4. The Padder. E1 5b. Eastby Crag

A personal favourite with an exhilarating, committing upper section to test your slab padding, a little further above your gear than you might like.

5. Bob’s Bastard. Font 6a. Caley

This improbable mantelshelf problem is by no means the classic of Caley but there is something uniquely compelling about it – take a look and see what I mean. If you don’t agree then try Low Pebble Wall at the same grade just down the hill.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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Climbing is a year-round activity in Yorkshire.

Gritstone is often said to be at its best on winter days when the cool rock gives the best friction, but it can be equally good on dry days in summer.

Limestone is most often climbed in the summer months, but many of the crags are sheltered and quick drying enough to be good winter venues too. If it has been raining a lot then look for an exposed crag with little drainage. Some of these, such as Almscliff can dry within minutes of a shower on an otherwise dry day. If the hot sun has made the gritstone sweaty then find climbing in the shade, for example at Caley, or head to the limestone. If it’s warm and muggy then choose somewhere that will catch the breeze - perhaps one of the moorland edges. If it’s cold and windy then there are plenty of crags where trees or their aspect often provide shelter, such as Caley and Brimham.

There is little to be done, however, when the rain is set in – Kilnsey’s main overhang and the odd very overhanging boulder problem aside. On these days head to an indoor wall or take yourself out for a walk – perhaps a scramble up through Gordale Scar to pick out some of its famous lines on one of the few days when you might get the gorge to yourself.

Whatever the conditions or the time of year, Yorkshire is worth exploring: the crags and routes in this article are just one person’s suggestions; the rest of the picture is out there to be discovered.

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