Ben Bransby on Snowballing

05 April, 2013

An avalanche in the Peak District and warnings to walkers about cornices can only mean a lot of snow. Ben Bransby has been making the most of the exceptional late winter conditions with his snowball ascent of Superstition at Burbage North. He sent us this report with some background on the novelty of snowballing.

The first recorded ‘snowballing’ could well be John Allen's 1986 Stanage route Boys Will Be Boys which he climbed above a large snowdrift only to fail at the cornice – he returned in the summer for a complete ascent.

The year the phrase was first used was the winter of 2010 when large snowfalls hit the Peak. The combination of levelling snowdrifts into platforms and the use of bouldering mats led to many highballs and solos becoming boulder problems. After a bit of exploration around the crags a few necky solos were found to have accommodating snowdrifts below them and due to word spreading quickly over the internet they had more ascents in one week than they had seen in the past decade. Shine On (E7) and Cemetery Waits (E6) at Stanage along with Three Blind Mice (E7) and Ai No Corrida (E6) at Burbage North were the real stand-outs from the year. The only notable new addition was Dan Varian climbing a left-hand line to Three Blind Mice named Snow Blind Mice given F7B but likely an E8 if climbed without the drift.

This Easter, as many climbers were considering sunny cragging, a fierce northerly wind hit the UK bringing cold weather and lots of snow with it. Although the amount of snow was not as deep as previous years the strong winds caused massive drifts to form – particularly notable if your work commute took you anywhere near the South Pennines where some roads were blocked for over a week. With roads around the Peak shut many people resorted to foot or ski to approach the crags and the resulting pictures were staggering, it seemed the issue was going to be digging out the routes to find enough rock to climb.

To begin with it was the classics from previous years that saw the attention – with access to and around the crags so hard people put the effort into guaranteed objectives – I arrived at Three Blind Mice to find queues to get on it. Once the roads started to open up Stanage saw the majority of the action. Again Shine On and Cemetery Waits were now highball boulder problems and at a grade achievable for many. Big Air, the highly committing jump across a chasm to catch a pocket, was almost filled in and became, understandably, very popular as did many of the other problems on this block.

Along with Harry ‘9 toez’ Pennells I spent a fun few hours trying to dig out Ulysses and White Wand; the crux on the latter being below the snow. After running laps on the top arĂȘte on White Wand we spotted a line to the right. This became what is probably the first ‘snowball only’ route - Snow Blind Mice may not have been climbed without the drifts but the climbing below the snowline is easy. On 9 is Enuff (F7A+) the move to gain the snowballing start would be very hard and high. A snowless ascent would most certainly be harder technically and bolder.

A line I had my eye on was Miles Gibson’s unrepeated Superstition (E8 7a) at Burbage North. I had watched Dan and Ryan Pasquill try this above the drifts in 2010 and with the platform being even better this year it looked ready for some attention. I spent another few hours – helped by my daughter May (with an incentive of Easter Eggs) adding to the platforms on this block and returned the following day to try the route. The snow on the ground lured me into thinking conditions were good but in reality it was much too warm for me to be able to pull on the tiny holds. With the weather set to warm up I decided I needed an early start the next morning. 7.00am saw three generations of Bransbys approaching the crag through a light mist (my wife was working so I had May with me and my mum along to spot). Conditions were much better and I found my way up to the last move, suddenly a long way above the pads and veering over the edge of the snow platform. I had abseiled down this route a few years previously but had no recollection of the moves (I think I had only managed one on the whole route). A couple of half-hearted goes and instructions to my mum to try and catch me (she claimed it would be better if she stepped out of the way – she could then drive/carry me home rather than us both getting hurt) and I decided to commit although choosing which of the appalling holds to use for my right hand took some time…

Whether this ascent really counts as the second ascent – it was clearly a much safer proposition than leading it – it was great fun taking the opportunity to climb the route in whatever style.

With the sun shining as I write this it will be interesting to see how long the platforms will last and what other routes can get done. There is real interest in the route which started it all – Boys Will Be Boys - it has had a platform but no ascents yet as far I know.