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Charlie Woodburn making the first ascent of Harder, Faster, his gritstone masterpiece at Black Rocks, England, November 2000
Photo by Neil Gresham
Charlie Woodburn climbing Harder, Faster, his gritstone masterpiece at Black Rocks, England
Photo by Neil Gresham
Charlie Woodburn climbing Harder, Faster, his gritstone masterpiece at Black Rocks, England
Photo by Neil Gresham
Charlie Woodburn climbing Harder, Faster, his gritstone masterpiece at Black Rocks, England
Photo by Neil Gresham

Charlie Woodburn’s gritstone masterpiece Harder, Faster at Black Rocks

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In November 2000 Charlie Woodburn made the first ascent of Harder, Faster at Black Rocks in England. Almost 20 years later, this remains one of the most dangerous and least repeated trad climbs in Great Britain.

Anyone who knows a thing or two about Britain’s gritstone climbing has heard plenty about Gaia at Black Rocks. First ascended by gritstone master Johnny Dawes in 1986, this bold testpiece tackles a shallow hanging groove before breaking out right to the psychological crux. While Gaia is certainly one of Britain’s most notorious E8’s, it avoids the far less famous direct finish which continuous past delicate moves to a mantle at the top, from which a slip would almost certainly result in an utterly dangerous ground fall.

This obvious, worrying line was eventually climbed in November 2000 by Charlie Woodburn who called it Harder, Faster and graded it E9 6c, almost the absolute maximum on gritstone at the time. Despite attention by some of Britain’s foremost climbers, in its night 20-year history the route has seen only one repeat, in 2005 at the hands of the late Lucky Chance (formerly Toby Benham) from Australia. As such the climb stands as one of Britain’s least repeated trad routes - even Neil Bentley’s awe-inspiring Equilibrium has been climbed more often - and this is probably due to the fact that, in general, truly bold trad ascents seem to have lost their appeal. The margin for error is simply too small.

At the time of his ascent Woodburn was belayed by Tim Emmett and, writing after his bold lead, he stated powerfully "As I flow through the sequence of moves, I am only partially aware of what I am doing. My thoughts are hazy, in a self-induced state of obedience. The body leads and the mind follows, always one step behind, always in a state of humble acknowledgement, registering the present as it flows, unaware of future or past, free from the savage responsibility of thought. Fear and thought are synonymous and consequently the most frightening part of the ascent coincides with the only moment of dominance my mind has: the decision to go. Concentration is of the essence, the act of forcibly stupefying the senses and allowing myself to follow the drift of my own body. As I climb, I feel as though I am leaving myself behind, and by giving myself up to the movement of the rock, by concentrating myself into the subtle tensions the moves require, I am able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brings me a measure of peace."

Featured below is an early attempt to repeat the route by Mike Weeks. Just like with Woodburn, the belayer is Tim Emmett. Who this time puts his sprinting skills to excellent use…

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