Around the Bloc: Roaches Lower Tier
From Climber's regular monthly feature on the best of British bouldering venues
Local climber Andi Turner takes us around one of his favourite spots in Staffordshire.
What a spot! The bouldering circuit within throwing distance of the Don Whillans’s Memorial Hut a.k.a. Rock Hall is a fine piece of evening climbing architecture. The waterlogged spring boulders, larch-covered Lower Tier and the sprinkled out Piece of Mind boulders come together to allow a perfect evening to be had or, in some cases, an escape from the showers or brutal westerlies which can batter the other venues at the crag. However, don’t expect an easy ride, some of the greenest and most seepage-prone problems are also encountered in this area, and the Spring Boulders in particular can at times be ‘at sea’ making ascents matters of heroic endeavour – in a bouldering sense anyway.
It is also worth noting – and this is local knowledge – that at times when it is too cold and wind-blasted to climb on the Lower Tier, that the Upper Tier can be sheltered; this is one of the strange nuances of Staffordshire climbing. Although the first sector encountered is the Spring Boulders, it is perhaps worth going that extra step to begin heading directly to the Lower Tier Boulders.
Lower Tier Boulders
Nestled beneath the slouching larch trees, the Lower Tier presents the boulderer with some of the finest problems Staffordshire has to offer. Undoubtedly, the supreme and most aspired to test pieces sit on the crag itself in the form of Moffatt’s impeccable Inertia Reels Traverse, Dawes’s Inertia Reel and Moon’s Mushin’. The holy trinity of Lower Tier bouldering may not be attainable by 99% of climbers visiting the area, but they’re all worth a look and perhaps mark a place in which to dump your bags before seeking out something a little more tickable. Wandering back down the bank, Slab (V0) Crack (V0-) and The Flake (V0) give a gentle introduction to what is about to come. To thug things up a bit, the Greener Traverse (6b) is much cleaner than it sounds, juggy handholds and marginal smears lead downwards to a cul-de-sac, force one upwards to gritstone heaven or an attempt to move out right to the arête at an improbably reachy Font 7b+ (V8ish).
Suitably warm and ready to rock, the Big Block gives some of The Roaches’ most classic bouldering. Whilst the Upper Tier’s Joe’s Arête stood for many years as The Roaches’ rite of passage, perhaps nowadays Three Pocket Slab (V3) has taken that crown, high enough to keep you thinking and technical enough to cruise when confident, the problem couldn’t have been better geologically designed; pockets and pebble ergonomically spaced to provide you with a seamless sequence. The eastern face is transected by the Undercut Traverse, essentially old-school 5c, and taken straight out of pitch 33 of some Yosemite horror show, it allows you to flex your biceps and see just how poor the rubber on your boots is. The undercut, however, also allows access to the top of the boulder in two main ways. One, in the flying form of Richard Williams’s The Big Dyno a.k.a. The Undercut Dyno a.k.a. Char’s Dyno’ (V7), make sure to watch your chin and the backs of your hands. The other, in the form of Stretch and Mantel (V5) which precariously leads you to a flatty in the middle of the wall where you have to put everything you’ve ever learnt about mantelling into practice. It always feels about E2 to me, but mats and spotters can soon soften this problem.
Snaking away from the boulders, the crag itself offers numerous other attractions. The weatherproof The Gutter (V7) provides numerous eliminates and variations to give time for the shower to pass and the base of the crag rightwards from there also offers some sweet additions worth working out, the area below Smear Test being particularly fruitful. From there the rhododendrons and roots scupper the bouldering potential and some almost-problems exist above Rock Hall until you land back beneath open skies at the Piece of Mind boulders.
A Roaches tour de force is Inertia Reel Traverse (V12). This super classic from Jerry Moffatt goes all the way along the sloping shelf and sees few ascents. Andi Turner heel hooks his way along the right-hand section. Photo: David Simmonite
Piece of Mind Boulders
Whilst never quite making a circuit in themselves, these boulders offer the locals some good game and the newcomer a variety of challenges spread between individual lumps of rock. When the midges become too much in the woods, they offer an alternative which is always away from the crowds. Wildy’s Arête offers the usual left, right and sitting options all around V3 to give the first-time visitor something to get their teeth into. Balancing precariously upwards you’ll wonder why you fell off it the first few times and it’ll whet your appetitie for the other problems which surround it. Brash off-widths and lichenous scoops present a fun climbing experience fully in the spirit of gritstone containing next to no holds and a desire to make upward progress being the most important prerequisite to success. Numerous problems exist hereabouts, but it is best left up to you and your team to discover what you find best, but remember, what looks easy here is often quite hard.
The Spring Boulders
Down amongst the sheep and bogs some boulders lie in a moraine of monoliths, etching out the most distant palisade of the crag. These boulders have taken millennia to roll this far in their desperate attempts to escape the gravity of the mother edge. Outside the drystone walls and well into no-man’s land they slowly sink into the peat to be absorbed back into the bosom of The Roaches, escape is futile.
One boulder, the Shothole Boulder, presents my favourite problems amongst the Spring Boulders. The problems are most certainly fine but, in more ways than one, their inaccessibility for maybe 330 days of the year makes the days when you can get to them extra special. Even locals get to have a forgotten flash of problems which they may not have sampled for the past year or two. Mr Nice (V4) and Mr Left (V5) (a.k.a.The Staffordshire Flyer, yes another one) provide two improbable problems with absolutely nothing to do with finger strength and are all down to balance and poise.
The landings are boggy, fall off and you will end up in to your knees, so save the problems for super dry days or during a semi-ice age, even still you’ll feel the unnerving wobbly of the jelly-like earth below you. Skinned Rabbit (V6) and Seconds Out (V1) demonstrate this more than any others on the circuit by saving their difficulties until you are perched precariously on their top-outs from where you will literally swim for your survival or else face drowning in the soggy soup below. Your spotters and pads will not be able to help as your final bubble bursts above the bog.
Thankfully, some slightly friendlier problems exist on the final boulder, The Spring Boulder itself, with a clutch of the finest smearing problems on The Roaches. It used to be simple; start on the left-hand problem and work rightwards until you have no rubber left on your boots, but these days the increased height afforded by stepping off a stacked pad and the decreased friction provided by the polishing of the initial footholds have meant that C3PO (V6) has become the easiest way up the slab by means of a huge step up and a dollop of momentum. Spring Slab (V7) requires a little more teeth-gritting as you force as much friction as you can from a quarter inch of smear and whatever your finger tips can paw on. Boba Fett (V8) allows access to the slab climbing elite hall of fame, but expect to be nipple-pinching pebbles at the same latitude as your toe-tipping smears as you gurn your way upwards. Show your non-climbing mates, it’ll blow their minds.
FACT FILE: ROACHES LOWER TIER
A choice of guidebooks are available: Staffordshire Grit – The Roaches (BMC) and the recently overhauled Peak District Bouldering (Vertebrate Publishing) are the most comprehensive and of great quality; either works well. A selection of problems are also included in Western Grit by Rockfax.
Camping and Accommodation
The nearest campsite is the cheap and cheerful Holmstead Farm underneath Hen Cloud at Upper Hulme (Tel: 01538 300419, website www.roachestearooms.co.uk/camping.html). There's another site on the main road into Leek at Blackshaw Grange, Blackshaw Moor, Leek, ST13 8TL (Tel. 01538 300285) but costs a lot more. For those who crave comfort book out The Mill Cottage, which sleeps up to five people, at Upper Hulme (website: http://www.millcottage.info).
For a brew and cakes a great café is The Roaches Tea Room under Hen Cloud. For the après-boulder pint The Rock Inn is at the start of the road to The Roaches. Alternatively there's The Winking Man and The Traveller’s Rest back along the A53 towards Buxton. They do meals too. The town of Leek to the south and Buxton to the north, are both pretty close and have just about everything you may ever need.