Onsight Frenzy Hits the UK

Posted on: June 6, 2008

Neil Dickson reaches for a crimp on The Hollow Man (E7/8 6b [5.12- X]), Gogarth, North Wales. In May, Dickson led the charge of difficult onsighting, an ethic going out of style in the UK, with three onsight sends of E7 or E8 climbs over five days. [Photo] Alastair Lee / www.posingproductions.com

This May a surge of local and international talent flocked to the United Kingdom's committing testpieces with a regionally uncommon ethic: ground-up, onsight climbing. Headpoint style—toprope practicing that allows the climber to dial moves and gear placements before leading—has become increasingly prevalent on the island, but a few locals continue to push onsight limits. Those furthering the hard-onsight ethic of Johnny Dawes and John Redhead are James McHaffie, Ian Vickers, Pete Robins, Neil Dickson, Dave Birkett, Jack Geldard, Niall McNair, Dan McManus and a handful of others. This spring the bar has been raised, however, by an impressive string of onsights by 22-year-old Dickson.


Over a mere five days at the end of May, Dickson onsighted three routes graded E7 or E8, and nearly flashed a fourth. On the 21st he onsighted the mono-fest Over the Beach (E7 6b [5.12- X]) in Llanberis Pass; on the 24th, in the same area, he slipped from the flat hold at the top of Gravediggers (E8 6c [5.13 R/X]) on his flash attempt, and on his second go he finished the climb for its first ground-up ascent; on the 25th he onsighted Sex and Religion (E7 6c [5.13- R]) and made the first onsight of The Hollow Man (E7/8 6b [5.12- X]) at Gogarth.

One week before, Birkett—who has consistently tested the boundaries of E-grades with wild headpoints (read the May 10, June 20 and July 23, 2007 NewsWires)—completed the first onsight of My Piano (E8 6c [5.13 R]). In 2003, Birkett was likely the first to onsight E8 in the UK with Fear of Failure (E8 6c) at Dove Crag.

Few E8s have been climbed onsight in the UK; the concept is so novel there that Dickson said "the grade boundary between E7 and E8 hasn't yet really been defined or established... whether or not it is E7 or E8 just depends on where we choose to draw the line between the two grades. To me The Hollow Man seems a fairly logical place."

Dave Birkett making the first onsight of My Piano (E8 6c [5.13 R]), Nesscliffe, Shropshire, UK. Though also known for difficult headpoints, Birkett onsighted Fear of Failure (E8 6c) in 2003, likely the first onsight of the E8 grade in the UK. [Photo] Alastair Lee / www.posingproductions.com

For perspective: describing Sex and Religion, whose protection grade suggests is the "safest" of his four recent sends, Dickson said, "The crux is a fair way above a poor peg—if this blows you'd go for miles."

Some have stated that headpointing has skewed traditional grading, especially at the upper end of the spectrum. Many routes are considered much easier and safer to lead after extensive rehearsal, yet grades determined from headpoint ascents are estimated based on the difficulty and "psychological weight" an onsight would have. John Arran suggested that an "H" grading system be developed, leaving E grades for onsighting. After establishing the hard grit testpiece Doctor Dolittle in headpoint style, Arran refused to give it an E grade, suggesting H9 instead.

The most extreme in this cadre of onsight purists have gone far enough to say that a headpoint ascent is "cheating." But onsight climbing at the high level mentioned above is becoming so uncommon in the UK that Alastair Lee's film trailer for On Sight (watch the trailer on Alpinist TV) describes the tactic as novel, "stripping climbing back to the basics."

And though a handful of E10 and E11 climbs have been established by the big names in British headpoint circles—Dave Macleod, James Pearson, Neil Bentley—Dickson contested that "it's very hard to be objective [about the difficulty of a route for an onsight] after you've toproped it... As far as I'm concerned the grades of E8 and E9 are only as yet really speculative."

Sources: Neil Dickson, Jack Geldard, Alastair Lee, www.ukclimbing.com, www.posingproductions.com, www.climbonline.co.uk

Dickson onsighting though monos on Over the Beach (E7 6b [5.12- X]), Llanberis Pass, North Wales. This E7 kicked off Dickson's spree of hard onsights at the end of May. [Photo] Alastair Lee/ www.posingproductions.com

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