Climbing the legendary Malham Cove

July 17, 2021 / Posted by Marmot Mountain Europe GmbH

In the North of England, sitting quietly amongst the rolling green fields and moors of The Yorkshire Dales, sits the mighty Malham Cove, a huge cliff of brilliant white limestone with a vertical drop of over 80 meters. And right at the top of this wall of stone, huge bulges and roofs towering way above the grassy meadow below, like a frozen wave threatening to crash down. These have held both the casual tourist and the driven climber in awe for many years. Such is their size, these roofs offer a convenient umbrella that shelters the climbers far below from even the heaviest of downpours, but they are the future of new hard climbing development at the Cove.

A heritage in the history of climbing

Malham Cove has a very long history of climbing, beginning way back in the 1950’s with early forays in the easy angled side walls. Later on, in the 60’s, the aid climbers were drawn to the massive roofs and the blatant challenge of breaching them. But even in the 80’s there were almost no routes anywhere near the central steeper section of the cove. As standards improved routes were climbed up the sheer walls, but it took until 1988 before any routes actually breached the capping roof above. Despite the immense width of the roof, with space for many individual climbs, up to now only three ways through were possible!

A turning point in 2017

In 2017 Neil Gresham bolted and cleaned a potential way through the bulges. A route already existed up to the roof (called L’Obsession, 7c+), but ended where the climbing turned much harder! This extension added a lot of new climbing, and Neil placed 7 bolts and a belay and spent a lot of time working out the moves and cunning sequences. Unfortunately a few holds snapped, making it even harder, and Neil was drawn more into the hard traditional routes, leaving the extension unclimbed.

A great climbing challenge

The extension is really a mega boulder problem, though at over 19 hand movements and a whole bunch of cunning footwork, it’s really rather long. Maybe it feels like a boulder problem compared to the lower wall, or with the switch-up in style from technical plodding to brutal snatching with all heel and toe-hooks. There is a half decent hold midway through the bulge where you can clip, the only bolt you do clip, and in fact it feels pretty spicy skipping 3 bolts through the first section! This part is pretty intense, with wide moves on undercuts and bad feet; snatching the holds with full commitment. Turning the lip is awesome, full heel/toe action with totally crazy moves, leading to some slaps to edges and a final baffling set of moves on vertical rock that you stare at, sure there just has to be an easier way, but there isn’t! That limestone up there is water worn to a zero-friction sheen, getting wet in every shower unlike all the routes below.

Playfully serious – always better together

I was drawn to the difficulty, I knew it was gonna be hard, big numbers had been suggested! I’ve had a few years of not getting stuck into something! I miss that, the obsession into a project, and all that goes with it. I did another route through the roof to the right two years back (must be 30m to the right!) which was amazing, but all happened too quick. This last year (pre-lockdown in 2020) a few people have tried this new project it and were still keen to try; this is what motivated me, at last the chance to try something new with someone else! And this was the best part, going climbing with others, chatting about the moves, the sequences, how to improve. But not once was there any kind of race between us; the win is against the rock, not the person.

Unexpected key to success

Despite the route being incredibly intense and powerful, with dynamic snatches and awkward body positions, they key to success was really in the lower wall, in climbing the existing lower route with precision and efficiency. The rest between the two sections at the top of the lower route is not very good, it’s more of a pause to relax the mind for a moment and prepare for the upcoming difficulties. If at this point you are tired, or stressed, or unfocused, then there is no chance on the brutal moves above. The lower wall is near vertical, requiring accurate footwork on tiny edges, with many moves where just pulling will leave you far more tired than you should be. It’s ironic that the key to the very hard extension should be in the easier section below! However, this suited me fine! Though the upper moves were close to my limit, the lower wall is just my style, perfect for a 50-year-old technician with years of experience.

Yet another amazing addition to Malham cove. One of the best I’ve done, and with the most exposure for sure!

Text & Photos:
Steven McClure

Steve McClure
United Kingdom
July, 2021
The Send