Favourite places
I am not an especially strong or talented rock climber, but I am fortunate to be a reasonably well-travelled one. That has made me quite opinionated as to where the best places are to climb. Of course experiences can be very subjective; shaped by weather, fitness, psyche, climbing partners, performance and any number of other unpredictable factors. And it is possible to have great climbing days at areas which aren't obviously attractive: dusty sharp limestone in the Arabian desert, graffiti'd quarries in South Wales, vertical jungle in Indonesia, are a few that spring to my mind. But I believe I have covered enough ground - and thought hard enough about what is objectively good - to make some useful recommendations. The list that follows is primarily about two things: the quality of the climbing and the spirit of the place. By the latter I mean something that isn't easy to define but is obvious when you are there ...

This little essay is subtitled 'holy sites on the climbing pilgrimage' because I sometimes feel my traveling has that characteristic. The crags/ cathedrals comparison is a cliché but there is something also in the compulsion of the quest that feels almost religious. In my late teens I had a long list of climbing destinations that I felt I needed to visit. Two decades on I have hustled my way to most of them but the list stays just as long. Perhaps I am shallow, but so far I have found having that context to my life fulfilling and sufficient.

A few words about the UK, the country where I started. Britain has some great climbing, though I think less that is 'world-class' than some Brits believe. In particular, the little gritstone edges of the Peak and Yorkshire are relentlessly hyped, and so well known overseas. Grit is definitely fun to climb. The high friction and scarce holds can require intricate and unique moves, even at low grades. And the crags can be very elegant, like abstract sculpture. But it is hard to ignore their limited height and their urban location; a 15 million population surrounds the little islands of moorland in which the crags survive. To find the best Britain has to offer, I'd instead look to the sea-cliff climbing, which, as far as I can judge, is evolved more here than anywhere else in the world.
South West England is the British sea cliff area with the longest history and greatest variety of climbing. Within range of a 1-2 hour drive are granite, sandstone, shale, volcanic and limestone cliffs with routes across the whole spectrum of grades. The cliffs are rarely visible or easily accessible from land, adding to the challenge of the routes, but also giving non-climbers little idea that climbing takes place. From the perspective of the tourists who flock to the coast paths, climbers arrive, park and - effectively - vanish. This light-hearted holiday / isolated adventure contrast is a perverse element of the area's charm. A good introduction is the remarkably steep and exposed three pitch Doorpost at Bosigran, Severe (5.6). At higher grades my favourite climbs are Darkinbad the Brightdayler at Pentire Head, a masterpiece of face and crack climbing, and the deep water solo traverse Rainbow Bridge, both E4 or E5 (5.11R). more
Across in mainland Europe, the bulk of developed rock-climbing - as opposed to mountain routes - is bolted limestone. Some of these cliffs, like the Verdon or Ceuse, are magnificent (though average limestone sport crags are often scrappy) but the actual climbing lacks soul for me. I sense I'd change my mind if I was a better climber as the best lines on the wildest crag features are desperately hard.
Czech sandstone, in contrast, is a totally involving place to climb at any grade. Peculiar, scary and scarcely documented in English it is much less fashionable than it deserves. Around Adrspach and Teplice, to the north-east of Prague, hundreds of freakishly-shaped towers sprout up to 100m high out of the forest, so rounded and organic that it seems that they grow secretly in the night. Protection is challenging - very spaced ring bolts or dubious jammed knots - and Czechs who have set their expectations there are unfazed by climbing anywhere else in the world. Late summer, when the eccentric Teplice film festival takes place, is the time to go. Letecka cesta on the Milenci (the 'lovers') towers at about E3 (5.10+ R) is the best route I have done here. Several high quality crack pitches lead to a final crux face up to the extraordinary twin summits. more
Lofoten is the other area in Europe that shouldn't be missed, despite its remote location off the northern coast of Norway. Whilst the granite climbing is straightforwardly great and the mountain and ocean scenery inspiring, what really sets Lofoten apart is the ethereal Arctic light. Ending a day's climbing in the glow of the midnight sun is an other-worldly, transcendental experience. Hard to describe, but unforgettable. Though the area is best known for multi-pitch climbs, amongst which the 12 pitch Vestpillaren route, E1/2 (5.10) on the Presten pillar is rightfully the most famous, there is very worthwhile single pitch climbing and bouldering. more
To my mind, the US is probably the best country for climbing. Certainly I know more serious climbers from the UK that have emigrated there than anywhere else. There are so many worthwhile places to visit, yet new areas are still being found and developed. My longer list of the great climbing areas of the world would include Red Rocks in Nevada, Smith Rock in Oregon, The Needles in California and Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. And I'd expect also Yosemite when I finally get organised to climb there. However one area stands above all those:
Utah desert climbing, on the towers at least (which are the reason to be there), is as much about the space around you as the rock itself. These sandstone skyscrapers redefine vertiginous with a multi-dimensional type of exposure beyond anything possible on a normal face. The constant adrenaline drip-feed in turn creates the perfect state of mind for appreciating the primal desert environment. The best climb I have done here is Standing Rock in Monument Basin, E4 (5.11), the quintessential about-to-collapse spire. Just reaching the climb's base after a long 4WD journey and committing abseil in from the basin rim is a superb adventure. more
Elsewhere I have spent more than six months of my life climbing around Australia. Though blessed with slightly less rock variety than the US, the generous expansiveness of Australia's wild places more than compensates:
Arapiles and the Grampians is where first time visitors head for in Australia. If I could only climb in one place, it would be here. The sunshine, textures and, more than anything, perfect colours - intense rock reds and cool green gum trees - create an overwhelming sense of well-being. Highly-featured rock, especially on the sandstone in the Grampians, makes the scope for climbing steep, extreme features at a reasonable standard greater here than anywhere else I have been. Though it is one of the most photographed and publicised climbs on earth, the Kachoong roof, E2 (5.10) is my favourite route at Arapiles: the best combination of outrageous position and easy moves I know. Somewhere amidst the overhanging sport climbs in the Grampians is the best route I have not yet done ....   more