How to avoid being Sandbagged by Guidebooks

How to avoid being Sandbagged by Guidebooks

Sandbagged. (adjective) A sandbagged route is one whose grade belies its difficulty; an under graded route.

I went on a trip to North Wales in mid-September.  While there I had a day trad climbing in Holyhead, another weaving in and out of small holes in Denorwic’s Slate Quarries and then a couple days in the mountains.  This post is about a route in Holyhead, Breaking the Barrier, and how not to be caught out by guidebook. 

Climbing the infamous Snakes and Ladders chain in Denorwic Quarry

When we left Llanberis, the road was wet, and the mountains looked wetter.  The forecast was better towards the coast and as we approached the town, it started looking drier.  This was short lived because as we drove up towards Holyhead Mountain, we entered the cloud, and everything was wet.  However, we were not to be deterred.

The approach to the crag in less than favourable conditions

We kick started our day by climbing 2 wet Severe climbs: Stairs and Teenage Kicks.

Jay climbing ‘Teenage Kicks’

Feeling suitably warmed up and remarkably, the rock was drying nicely, we set our sights on harder climbs.  Jay wanted to on-sight King Bee Crack HVS 5a.  These details are not for this post but to cut a long story short, he took a monster fall on the crux and broke one of my half ropes. 

Now back to the point of this post, how not to get sandbagged by a guidebook. I was eyeing up Breaking the Barrier.  The description in the guide gives this heart-warming introduction, “A great route up an impeccable slab, and one that is recommended for…. breaking the E1 barrier!” 

One of our group had climbed the route before me and as I was tying into the ropes, she handed me a rack of micro wires and said “you’ll need these.”  In general, for a first E1, you do not want it to be protected by micro wires.  Micro wires require extra care when placing to ensure they are bomber and the belayer must be avoid letting you fall statically onto the wires as they are more likely to fail. In my opinion, your first E1 should be safe and have obvious holds.

Stood at the bottom of the route with a handful of micros I accepted the feedback and got on the route.  The 5/6 metres of the route to the large triangular foot ledge had next to no protection, some could have been found but it would be likely only to play the part of slow down gear.  From the triangular ledge, there was a good slot for a micro wire which I backed up with a shallower than I would have liked, micro cam. 

After several delicate and thin moves, I reached another micro wire slot.  This continued until over half height where I place a purple Wild Country Cam.  After a thin traverse, the climbing eases up the wall to the top.

The route is sensational with excellent moves on thin crimps and edges.  A delightful climb up the long and fabulously positioned slab.  It is highly worth its 3 stars but a first E1? I think not. 

The route was sensational but not suitable for the aforementioned grade

Guidebooks are essential pieces of climbing equipment as they give a topo of the route, grade, and a brief description.  My advice is not to take guides as gospel as they can be misleading, I have learnt the hard way on several occasions. 

To avoid getting sandbagged by the route, other options are available to find information:

1.            Have a good look at the route, does it look how you expected?  Can you spot potential gear placements from the ground? This does not always work as the proposed placement may be too shallow or a flared crack but it is good to have ideas.

 2.           Check the route feedback on UKC, often other climbers will give helpful feedback. Here are some comments on UKC for Breaking the Barrier:

“UKC please note, it is a’n enjoyable route if you climb E1/E2 but not a good one for your first breakthrough into the extreme grade for sure !”

“Our guidebook said this would be a good route to break the E1 barrier, which we took as an indicative that it maybe be an easy one, or at least accessible in the grade. Having done a fair amount of E1’s before, we both agreed this was a total sandbag!!!!, with scarce to no gear for the first 5 meters, which also turn out to be the hardest!!”

“Fantastic route. Reasonably sustained with quality moves throughout. Found the gear reasonably hard work which may not suit for a first E1 lead but felt safe using small wires.”

3.            If you are in doubt look for other people at the crag and ask if they’ve climbed your intended route.  Climbers are always happy to relive tales of triumph or woe. 

4.            Be careful, make sure you have the skills and the knowledge to be attempting a harder grade.  Jumping grades too quickly could put you into a difficult and potentially dangerous position.

Always read guidebooks with a degree of suspicion.   It is better to know what you are up against but importantly, get out there, get climbing, have fun and do it safely.

Cleaning up after a good day of climbing

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