An Essential Bristolian Trad Climb: The Piton Route

An Essential Bristolian Trad Climb: The Piton Route

The Piton Route, in the Main Area of Avon Gorge is a long-standing classic route. The Piton Route is a revered Classic UK Rock Tick, first climbed in 1936 by Graham Balcombe.  It has 3 big budget pitches involving a hair-raising traverse on glassy feet under the looming overhang.  It is a test for both lead and second and has been home to many an epic.  The route is an essential must tick, for anyone climbing in Avon Gorge. 

The Route

Stood at the bottom of Exhibition Slab, the overhang traverse can be see above

The route is split into 3 pitches, 20m 4c, 14m 4a & 24m 4b.  An unroped scramble leads to the starting belay on top of Exhibition Slab.   From the belay the first pitch includes a series of hair-raising moves that traverse under the looming overhang, all on alarmingly glassy holds.  The following 2 pitches are packed full of interesting climbing and feel substantially more secure after surpassing the confidence testing traverse. 

To access the route, it is possible to park on the road above by Clifton Down and walk down via some of the climber’s paths. There is 1 parking space at the base of the crag, but it is a very busy road and often difficult to pull into.  Alternatively, park a few minutes down the road under Sea Walls where there is space for 20 cars and then walk back down towards the Main Wall. 

The most up to date guide for the area is Martin Crocker’s Avon Gorge, A Climber’ Club Guide. 

The Climb – Round 1

Walking past the Main Wall in Avon Gorge to the starting slab

In January, I had my first trad fall.  I climbed the wrong route and fell on Central Eliminate E1 when trying to get back to the Piton Route.    On a brisk January morning, Ian and I headed to the start, at the top of Exhibition Slab.  The first pitch, a 4c, was comfortably within my ability.  The route starts by moving left from the belay and into a corner crack.  I misread this and started by climbing above the belay.  It started to feel like I was off route, but I could see pitons above, and assuming it was the right route, I kept climbing. 

I climbed over a protruding ledge to a second ledge and at this point, I knew I was off route.  On my left, I was level with the main overhang, which the first pitch traverses under.  Not good.  The last placements were 2 pitons, just below my feet.  I traversed to the left of the wall so I could see what to do next.

In a flash, I had lost my balance and I slipped back off the wall and fell past the protection.  As the rope came tight, I was dragged back across the slab.  Once stopped, I nervously looked up, grateful the protection had held.  It was time to get back down to the belay.  I climbed back up to the last protection.  I swapped the draws for some tat and an old carabiner and then downclimbed back to the top of Exhibition Slab. 

Back at the ledge, I regained the correct route and traversed left to the corner.  I quickly climbed this to its top.  From here there is a bold step across to reach the polished slab.  I struggled to commit to this move, the holds were uninspiring, and my nerves were fried. It started to lightly drizzle and that was it, I was out.  I climbed back to the belay, then we climbed down the slab and took the long demoralising walk back up to the top. 

I spent the following week thinking about this mistake.  Why had I read the route wrong?  Why had I moved up instead of left to the corner?  Why did I back off when back on the route?  Why I had made such an avoidable mistake?

This was my first trad fall and was a big kick to my confidence.  I needed to overcome the negative impact of making a stupid and avoidable mistake; get back on the route.

Falling on a slab isn’t much fun

The Climb – Round 2

Pitch 1 – 18m 4c.  A week later, Ian and I were once again, stood atop of the Exhibition Slab.  I have never felt as apprehensive for a climb before, anxious from the last time.  I set off, traversing to the corner then climbing to its top.  I clipped the piton, and then made the reachy, balancy moves onto the main slab under the overhang.  My heart was beating fast, hands sweaty and my legs were feeling shaky.  Once established under the overhang I clipped the next piton and then rested on the best available holds for a couple minutes to calm my nerves. I had passed the last point that I backed off before.  The rest of the traverse is on slippery, polished feet but having collected myself, I moved left, exiting the overhang, and then climbed up to the belay stance above.

Pitch 2 – 15m 4a.  It was due to be Ian’s lead.  When he arrived at the belay stance, breathing heavy, he asked if I could lead.  The traverse of the first pitch is just as daunting for the lead as it is the second.  The swing potential for a falling second is severe and this had obviously taken its toll on Ian’s nerves.

After the first pitch I was really hoping not to lead but so be it.  Behind the left of the belay there is a narrow slab which is home to the monodigit move, as described in Martin Crocker’s Avon Gorge guide, as the ‘obstetrician’s move’.  The protection was adequate, and the climbing was enjoyable, even with this move.  After this the going was easy up to the large ash tree belay.

Pitch 3 – 24m 4b.  Ian’s nerves were as fried as mine had been the week before.  The traverse had rattled him, so I was back on lead again.  I stepped left of the tree and towards the backwall.  This is described as strenuous but after the hair-raising traverse, I found this pitch enjoyable, plenty of good moves and enough gear to keep it safe.  I climbed past the first borehole, then slightly left to the next and finally to a large iron spike.  I threaded this with a sling and then ran it out to the top.  There was likely to be protection, but it was not very good.  I climbed quickly and confidently, feeling great again. Before I knew it, I was atop of the main wall stood looking at a guy with a large camera photographing the Peregrine Falcons that fly over the Gorge.

After belaying Ian to the top, we had done it.  We had climbed the classic Piton Route and I had overcome a huge mental block.A valuable, and obvious, lesson was learnt.  Read the route, be careful and not overconfident.  I was lucky with my mistake, it was avoidable, and I should not have made it.  Falling can really dent your confidence, as it did mine, but do not let it detract you from climbing.  In my case, I knew it was my own error, get back and do it right. 

Exhausted and elated at the top of the gorge (I asked the bird watcher to take a snap)

The Piton Route is brilliant.  It is diverse and testing.  It will continue to host many an epic and test climbing partnerships. The top of the cliff is well earnt for every member of a team.  A real must climb in Bristol.

Misty morning from the top of the Gorge
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