Desert Island Climbs

Lise Tonelli checking out the bouldering somewhere hot and sunny

I’m not a fan of retrospectives. Releasing an album of greatest hits usually means the artist is over the hill. But a comment from a friend this summer that a climb I’d done recently was definitely on his list of Desert Island Climbs started me thinking. A quick look at the BBC website reveals “Eight tracks, a book and a luxury: what would you take to a desert island? “ with the idea that the “Guests share the soundtrack of their lives.”

Given that it’s now autumn and time to get properly psyched for cragging, here (after careful deliberation) are 8 climbs which are milestones in my climbing career and/or I’d like to think I’d never get bored of climbing them again and again.

 For each route, I’ve added a grade for people who are interested in that sort of thing. More importantly, I’ve added the climbers with whom I did them. Climbing partners are often inextricably linked with the climb. While I wouldn’t expect them all to come to the desert island on a permanent basis, maybe they could pay a brief visit to repeat the experience.

Climb when you’re ready….


  1. Caley boulder circuit, West Yorkshire

Grade: Yorkshire VS

With: Leeds Uni Mountaineering Club

I came to climbing from a background in gymnastics, so bouldering, with its purity of movement and lack of distractions has always been a kinaesthetic delight. I was doing my Ph.D. at Leeds in the early 80’s. Climbing was an underground anarchic activity rather than the mainstream leisure pursuit it is now. It was the era of lycra, 30p maximum off peak bus fare in the Republic of West Yorkshire and Thatcher versus the miners. Bouldering mats weren’t even conceived yet. Standard bouldering kit was a chalk bag and a bar towel, probably a Tetley’s Brewery model nicked from the local pub.

Nick Wood at Caley in the mid 80’s

Natural grit demands a quality of movement and balance rather than just being strong (though strength does help). I’d arrived in Leeds as a strong climber rather than a good one. At the original DR wall in the Phys Ed building, I watched and learned from technical maestros like Tony Mitchell, and then transferred that technique outside. Every Wednesday afternoon I’d head out on the bus to a local grit crag, and Caley was the closest and one of my favourites.

It was (and still is) an ideal venue with a range of problems from easy warm ups through classic Yorkshire VS’s like Permutation Rib through to gnarly highballs like Adrenaline Rush. I’d warm up with some gentle problems above the bus stop and then move on to harder problems or bigger solo ascents as the afternoon wore on and fingers wore out. Just occasionally a solo of High Noon would finish things off, a committing high ball in the no-fall category, before the bus back to town and more Tetleys.



  1. London Wall, Millstone Edge, South Yorkshire

Grade: E5 6a

With: Andy Cave

 Crack climbing is a very special genre. With most climbers starting up these days at indoor walls, it can take time to adjust the use of hands, feet and core to the intricate selection and sequence of jams. When you get it right, a solid fingerlock feels like the best hold in the world, and there’s very few climbs that can beat London Wall for quality in this respect.

A powerful start leads to improving slots and even a rest at mid height before the finish where you have that dilemma: shall I stop to place gear, spending precious time and energy and potentially blocking the best slots or shall I just throw in the best nut and then sprint for the top?

I’ve climbed it many times, especially in the mid 80’s when I would throw laps on it while in training for my first trip to Yosemite (more of that later). Perhaps the most memorable was with Andy Cave. We had just completed the route and were coiling the ropes and looking down into the Embankment bay. In walked a big team of folk who we were due to meet later for a social. Cavey’s eyes narrowed as he singled out a woman neither of us knew. “Who is that girl with the fantastic personalities?” he said. “I have got to get her phone number”. Needless to say, it was his wife to be, Elaine.


  1. Burning Gold, Paradise Wall, Cornwall

Grade: E4 6a
With: Pete Barrass

A desert island has got to be surrounded by sea, right?
Sea cliff climbing in general and British sea cliff climbing in particular holds a very special place in my heart. There’s a sense of commitment as you abseil in. The extra dimension offered by the tide and the sea state makes for a powerful mix. I’ve spent many amazing days in Pembroke, Devon and Cornwall. The rock ranges from sole-ripping limestone of Pembroke to the wild and wacky greenstone of Pentire and Gurnards Head to the pant-filling horrifically loose culm of Blackchurch and the more solid version of the same stuff at Compass Point. It was a tough choice but, in the end, I’ve opted for Cornish granite with its dynamic powerful moves, stunning rock architecture and lovely West Penwith light.

And then, once we’ve settled on Cornwall, which route? There are dozens of candidates: Bow Wall, Dream/Liberator and Atlantic Ocean Wall to name just 3. I’ve picked out Burning Gold in the end. It’s away from some of the classic honey pots and takes a bit of finding. Once found, the fun starts with seabirds going on the attack as you gear up on the ledge. Best swing a large hex round your head to ward them off.

The one time I’ve climbed it, it was on my first big climbing road trip with Pete. A whirlwind drive round the highlights of Swanage and Berry Head then moved to Cornwall and a bizarre encounter in Penzance Youth Hostel with a knife obsessive who had been sectioned once because he thought he was King Arthur. Pete dealt admirably with this excellent example of someone at the far end of the spectrum of humanity. He (Pete – not King Arthur ) has gone on to become one of my best friends. We’ve climbed trad and sport all over Europe and supported each other through some tough times.   We’ve also skied some fairly steep lines during the decade we’ve known each other, including the Godmother of All Couloirs in Lyngen.
Desert Island Ski Descents – now there’s a thought…

What topped off our ascent of Burning Gold was the arrival of some seals in the zawn below as we were sorting the rope and rack on the hanging stance in the middle of the route. We could see them through the crystal water and occasionally hear them as they put their heads out of the sea, gazed with curiosity at us and barked before diving fluidly to disappear into the Atlantic. Magic.


  1. Astroman, Washington Column, Yosemite

Grade: 5.11c

With: Jerry Hadwin

 I’ve been to Yosemite three times. The latter two visits were focused on big walls, but there’s a bit too much suffering on these for a desert island. I want to sleep in my beach hammock every night, not a portaledge with Andy Kirkpatrick snoring alongside me.

For the first trip in ’86, Jerry and I were concentrating on the free climbing, and there is perhaps no better example of the quality of Yosemite granite than Astroman. It was brought to the attention of the British climbing scene when Pete Livesey and Ron Fawcett made an ascent in 1977. I started climbing in 1978 and, having bought some back issues of Crags magazine, was captivated by what was dubbed “Only the Best Route in the World”.

With 6 of its 14 pitches weighing at 5.11 and another 5 at 5.10, it’s got sustained difficulty. And variety too: a boulder problem crack pitch that felt like E4 6b, the famous Enduro corner, a full rope length of laybacking and jamming, and of course the infamous Harding Slot, rated at 5.9 and the only pitch where I took a fall.

I’d quite happily do Astroman over and over again (as long as I could have a rest day afterwards).


  1. Psychedelic Wall, Ben Nevis

Grade: VI 5

With: Darren Sheppard

 I started off this piece with just rock routes in mind, but winter climbing forms an integral part of my makeup as a climber and a bit off suffering is probably no bad thing on a desert island. My first thought was for something in the Northern Corries where I was at the forefront of developing dry-tooling in Scotland. Though in truth, there’s nothing dry about any activity in Scotland. Let’s call it scratching/climbing pure rock routes with axes and crampons and watch the traditionalists get worked up.

But then again, I’ve spent way more time on the West coast for many reasons, and IMO the winter climbing on Ben Nevis is world class. When the north face is coated in refrozen snow/ice, known in the trade as “plastic fantastic”, you can go just about anywhere and get yourself into some very scary situations at the same time. One memorable day in the 80’s, I did Smith’s Route with Paul Allison and, at the top, concluded that the ice was so good that having a rope on was pointless. I dropped down Tower Gully, soloed Zero and, halfway up, saw a mate on Orion Face. Shouting across, he confirmed the conditions were equally stonking there. Having topped out on Zero, I dropped down again and soloed Orion, catching my mate up just before the crux traverse. “You really know how to spoil someone’s day”, he sighed, as I carefully moved past them.

With all those choices to go at, I wondered what I should choose, and eventually opted for Psychedelic Wall, high on the Indicator Wall of the Ben. Two reasons were behind this:

  1. I’ve done a shedload of Scottish classics in guide mode with my longest standing client Darren. It’s been such a pleasure ticking off the big classics with him like the Point, Centre Post on Meagaidh and Raeburn’s on Lochnagar.
  2. I’ve got a half decent photo taken by Darren that really shows the Ben at its best:

Perfect plastic, tied off screws and reasonably believable belays with mist floating about for plenty of ambience. A good Scottish winter day takes some beating.


  1. L’Heure des Mamans, Pont Cruz, Haute Savoie

Grade: F7b+

With: Miles Bright

I moved out to France in 2002 on a permanent basis. While I love returning to the UK for the adventure, the fact is that my local climbing when not in the mountains is on bolted limestone. Haute Savoie in general and the Arve Valley in particular have, to put it mildly, a bit of a reputation for sandbag grading. No holiday grades here. If you’ve an ego, leave it at home. The routes are often super sequency with the crux holds well hidden and only obtained dynamically.

The upside of all this is that Haute Savoie sport climbing is hard but, if you put the time in, the quality of movement you get is “haut standing” as we say round here. One of the best is this route, about an hour’s drive from home. Go to St Jeoire, a small Savoyard village a million miles away from the international tourist trauma of Chamonix, get a coffee in the bar in the square, and then walk 10 minutes to the crag.

Warm up first, and then check this route out, which has everything. Slopers, mono pockets, some spectacular bridging and a wild and desperate finish.

You’ll need a good belayer, and Miles B is a perfect example of someone who gives quiet encouragement at just the right time.

He also brings his own espresso kit to the crag. Is caffeine a performance-enhancing drug? Probably.


7. Beyond Good and Evil, Aiguille des Pèlerins North Face, Chamonix

Grade: IV, 5+, R(unout) M6

With: Matt Helliker

Photo: Tim Blakemore

I hesitated as to whether I should put in an alpine route. I did a load of alpinism in the 80’s, especially around Chamonix, but climate change has altered the scene since then. The best alpinism is to be had on big mountain rock routes, but I really would like to have an “alpine” route in the classic sense: snowy and mixed please.

I was really lucky to get a call from the Blond God, Matt Helliker, one afternoon in October 2012. He’d been watching the conditions on Beyond Good and Evil from his kitchen window, and reckoned now was the time. A Chamonix hard classic first climbed by bad boy  Mark Twight and the alpine Ancient Mariner Andy Parkin, it’s remained a test piece and rates as number 95 in Batoux, the modern verson of Rebuffat.

We had ace conditions, with solid if skimpy ice on the lower crux groove, just enough in the easier but run out sections in the middle, and the top… well … Matt pulled very hard and I slipstreamed, on the condition that as we were going to finish in the dark, he would lead the abseils down the Rouse Carrington.

Having started from first bin off the Midi, we eventually got back to the valley at midnight after an amazing adventure. Proper adventure will all the uncertainty and stress but with enough in reserve that we could push very hard indeed.

Again – I’d want a day off after doing that one.

Click here for a full account


8. Rêve de Singes, The Gorge, Giétroz, Switzerland

Grade: 8a

With: Andy Cave, Twid Turner and Martin Burrows-Smith

Although I hinted that I’m not grade fixated at the start of this piece, the fact is that there are certain benchmarks that mean a great deal: my first Scottish V, my first E6. And this: my first 8a. But the main reason it’s in is that, like the Caley boulders, the quality of the movement is so good. If it wasn’t, I’d never have devoted 5 separate days to it spread over 3 months.

I hadn’t even considered the possibility of climbing 8a until I spent a day in the Gorge with Andy Cave working the route, and found all the moves bar one doable. Andy is such a positive guy, and got his redpoint a couple of days after we’d been on it, and my mindset flipped from “8a is no place for you” to “why not give it a go?”

After a couple more sessions, the route was mostly dialled in sections on top rope apart from the crux, and it was only when I got on lead that I found the necessary guns for the key dyno.

Then it was only a matter of time – easy to say that now it’s in the bag. Ha ha!
But quite honestly I’d be happy to go back to it again and again as the climbing was so good.

So, at the end of the day, it all comes back to rock climbing as the fundamental driver. It is, as I was told when I did a learning to lead course at the Brenin aged 18, “the best sport in the world”. And I’d be happy on a desert island with any rock climb.

If I had to pick just one of these, it would be Burning Gold. Trad, sea, granite. It’s a winning combination.


A book and a luxury

Apparently in Desert Island Discs, castaways get these two items.

You can forget any climbing books – I’d rather be doing it than reading about it. And I need something imaginative to get me away from the desert island for a bit. The Bridge by Iain Banks is my choice, flipping between gritty Scotland and a wild imaginary world.

Luxury? – some music!