The Sloth: The Roaches HVS 5a/b - by Duncan Bourne

Head out of Leek along the A53 and you will see the Roaches dominating the skyline like a recumbent sleeping dragon, guarding the gateway to the Peak district.  Generations of walkers and climbers have been drawn to explore the rugged gritstone scales of this slumbering giant rising from its nest of ancient, twisted pines and larch and I am no different. Countless times I have trudged the steep path to Rock Hall, an half-house half-castle edifice built into the very rock. Once occupied by the scarily eccentric “Doug”, self styled King of the Roaches, whose garden bristled with cheery signs saying things like “Trespassers will be shot!” and “This could be you so watch it!” hung round the chest of stuffed scarecrow hanging by its neck. These days it functions as a charming bunkhouse for weekend Londoners, its reputation tamed.

From Rock Hall I would follow the path up through the pines to a set of stone steps and climb steeply through the lower gritstone crags to the exposed Upper Tier. Here it was that my eyes were always drawn to the great overhang that dominates the main section of the crag and, snaking up through it, the single widening crack that forms “The Sloth”. To me the Sloth had always been more than just a climb, it was THE Sloth, a climb symbolic of dead 'ard routes. True it's only HVS (Hard Very Severe), a middling grade in the climbing world these days, and there are far harder more exposed routes around. But, when I started climbing, we would walk up to the Roaches glance at Valkyrie, on the lower tier, and think "maybe next year". Then mount the steps onto the upper tier and gaze up at that imposing roof and someone would say, "fancy Sloth?" Much along the same lines as someone saying, "do you fancy wrestling rabid crocodiles?" It was a joke, only hard nuts climbed Sloth, there was no way that I ever could. But still I looked at it and thought wouldn't it be great. 

So here I was, years later, trudging up to tackle something that I still considered scary, even though I now regularly climbed harder grades.

There was a stiff breeze blowing and I wondered if it would be too windy, a reprieve? Hopefully? No the base of the crag was sheltered and there was my Nemesis, aloof and intimidating amidst the crowd of Outward bound groups that top roped around it. I strode forward, claimed my spot and warmed up. I bouldered a little and found the friction excellent.

Putting off the moment? Oh well time to go for it. I used double ropes and quickly climbed up to the Pedestal block where I placed my first runner in a thin crack. I looked at the roof stretching dark above me and the exposure hit me with cold sweat and an attack of “disco leg”. I rested a few moments to calm myself then I moved up and clipped the wire of an abandoned piece of gear jammed into the block overhead. Tentatively I tried the first of the creaking flakes, felt OK but boy was it a long way down! I placed a friend half in the crack and moved back down to the pedestal.

More calming exercises followed. Back up I went and moved further out, an upside down spider along the fragile seeming flakes of rock. Placing a quadcam 3.5 in a suitable hole, I hung there a moment then moved cautiously onward. With gravity pulling at me I hooked my feet into the horizontal flake and hooked a Hex 8 into a wide crack where the rock moved from the horizontal overhang into the merely vertical. No backing out now. With a pounding heart I pulled quickly round the lip, trying not to swing free as I did so, and squirmed quickly into the widening crack above, with a moment of panic as my nut key caught on the rock temporarily halting my progress. Then it was over. It felt weird to romp up that last upper crack, where I had gazed with awe at so many climbers in the past. It seemed like I had crossed over some personal threshold and achieved something I had once thought impossible.

So now when I visit the Roaches and someone says, jokingly, "Do you fancy Sloth?" I can reply, "Naa done it!"