Well, the clue is in the name. You can’t really start out on this climb unaware that some bit of rock is going to wobble when you hold on to it. However, some of the wobbly rocks are more obvious than others and the guidebook doesn’t mention the most important of them.
Wobblestone Crack is a fairly short climb at the gritstone edge of Burbage North, just outside of Hathersage in the Peak District. In my guidebook it gets a V Diff grade and one out of three stars. Its described as a “lovely route up the obvious crack in the front of the buttress, with a thought-provoking start” (Burbage, Millstone and Beyond, ed. David Simmonite, British Mountaineering Council, 2005, pg. 29). It’s a pretty short description and Rockfax doesn’t go into more detail. It says of Wobblestone Crack that it’s the “crack with the wobbling stones” and that it “eases with height.” It also gives Wobblestone Crack one star, but a slightly harder grade (Hard V Diff) and adds in a technical grade (4a).
The start is a bit of a challenge for the grade and requires some boldness. The “thought-provoking” aspect partly comes from working out how to climb it and partly from being conscious that if you come off you may hit some slabs before bouncing down a series of rock steps. It’s when you are above these first few moves, searching for a good, solid, comforting hold to wrap your hand around, that you find a rock that wobbles back and forth. After a couple more moves up the climb, this rock goes from being perfectly situated for a hand hold to being perfectly situationed to be a (still wobbling) foot hold. It’s slightly frustrating, but not using this hold just adds to the challenge of what is a really enjoyable climb. It’s also a climb that somehow manages to squeeze in some more wobbling stones before the top.
At the top, and a couple of steps back from the edge, are a pair of horizontal cracks in the rock that look perfect for anchors. They form a slight V shape directly back from Wobblestone Crack and have the polished, scuffed surfaces that show that they have been repeatedly trusted by climbers who have wedged Rocks or Nuts into them. I was going to be the next climber to trust these placements for my anchors until I stepped onto the section of rock between the two cracks and the rock wobbled. It wobbled only very slightly, almost imperceptibly, but enough to make me think it potentially unsafe and to find other anchors. Later in the day I wondered if wedging Rocks on either side of this wobbly rock might actually have secured this rock enough for it to stay still and provide acceptable anchors. However, I feel pretty uncomfortable about the idea of having to secure a gear placement before being able to use it. I’d much rather have something that is naturally solid.
Something else that makes me feel uncomfortable is that these anchors look like they had been used many times before to anchor other climbers and these climbers may not have realised what the rock is free-standing and wobbly and not a solid part of the crag. I wonder (depending on how they had set the anchors up) whether they had unwittingly made themselves unsafe.
There is no warning in the guidebook about this wobbling rock. This isn’t surprising as climbing guidebooks very rarely give any information about the anchors available (or not) at the top of a crag or the end of a pitch. It’s left to the skill of the individual climber to identify suitable anchors. To an extent, this is how it should be as the need to solve problems and apply a variety of skills (such as finding suitable gear placements and appropriately placing gear in them) is one of the things that makes climbing so interesting and fun. It might take away some of the enjoyment and some of the sense of discovery if climbing guidebooks gave long descriptions of potential gear placements on trad climbs. However, I do think that climbing guidebooks should flag potential hazards on climbs, including potentially unsafe anchors.
I’d also like to see climbing guidebooks occasionally give information on the nature of anchors on a climb. I’ve done quite a few climbs (particularly on gritstone edges) where I’ve got to the top and really struggled to find a pair of good anchors. If I had read in the guidebook that anchors were scarce before starting the climb, then I might have saved myself some hassle and not committed to climbing it. Good anchors are just too important for the safety of both climbers.
There is scope for climbing guidebooks to include these sort of details without becoming like encyclopaedias. The writers could just removed a lot of detail that doesn’t actually help climbers get to and up climbs and which has started to make up more of the content of these books over the last few years. The trend for climbing guidebooks to include colour maps and colour, photo topos has really helped with route finding, but this trend has also come with other information that seen climbing guidebooks start to resemble travel guides. Many now include large numbers of colour photos of the location, histories of climbing in the area, lists of the dates of the first ascents of all the routes and interviews with famous people (including their recommendations for local attractions). For example, my copy of Burbage, Millstone and Beyond has 23 pages on first ascents. I don’t need this information. I want climbing guidebooks that are more like roads maps with directions, not travel guides. I want climbing guides that warn me about wobbling rocks and dodgy anchors.