Cleaning for Climbers - Cleaning routes and avoiding rock damage

Author: Stanley Hunter

Guest blog post from Ciaran Tolan

In the UK climbing community, very often you hear ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that’, especially when it comes to maintaining gritstone quality. The #respecttherock campaign by the BMC does go into slightly more detail about what you should do e.g. minimal brushing, wait for dry weather, etc. But what about that climb that gets three stars in your guidebook which is now hopelessly covered in grime, slime and birdlime due to a northerly aspect or dense tree coverage?

Luckily, I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently cleaning up classic routes at Caley and from a bit of reading and a little trial-and-error I’ve come up with a bit of a system for cleaning routes that require a slightly more aggressive approach.

Tools you’ll need:

  • One big fat brush
  • Two small brushes (one stiff bristled, one more like a cheap toothbrush)
  • Gear for making an anchor (rope, cams, slings)
  • Abseiling kit (harness, atc, prussik)
  • Towel
  • Rope protector
  • Nut key


Too good for a rope protector? I’m a frayed knot  


Step One – Conditions

You’re probably dead keen to crack on and start brushing your new project so you can get on and climb it but it’s really important you wait until it has been dry for a few days before you start. This is because gritstone holds moisture under its surface, so you might assume it’s dry because it feels dry to the touch but start brushing and you could cause permanent damage to an historical ascent. If your project is especially dirty, it will retain moisture for far longer. Trust me, it is worth waiting for the lichen or other muck to dry because dry flaky algae coming off with a few swift brushes is much more fun than smearing green slime all over what you are going to climb. In fact, you’re more likely to cement in the grime further by attacking it with a brush when it’s damp.

Why?! No climbing for Rory after arriving to a wet Bridestones - due to erosion Bridestones hasn't been described in recent guidebooks, a fate that hopefully with care other crags can avoid


Step two – Coming in from above

It is much better to start brushing from the top of a climb as the dirt will fall onto the rock below, which is fine, as you need to clean that anyway. If you brush ground-up you will end up knocking lichen and moss onto what you have just cleaned, which means more cleaning and more chance of damaging the rock. Set up an abseil anchor at the top and attach yourself with an ATC and a prussik. If the top of the climb is dirty, lay down at the edge and brush, this is much more comfortable than lowering part-way past the top out and having to rest your knees against the rock. As you lower yourself over the edge put down a rope protector, this not only protects your rope from abrasion, but the rock too.

Step Three – Limited approach

Try not to get carried away and brush off everything living on the rock’s surface. This will accelerate erosion and is not necessary in most cases. Choose your battles wisely, there’s no point spending fifteen minutes cleaning a group of holds that actually won’t help you climb the thing. If you’re cleaning off living matter you might have to settle for getting the bulk of it off on your first day, then coming back to it later when the remainder has fully dried – since it’s living matter it will retain moisture even when the rock is bone dry so by brushing you will release moisture onto the rock. A lot of patience is needed sometimes.

Tips and tricks

  • Remove moss and algae growing above key holds, as any excess water will leak onto the holds even after days of dry weather. It is best to pick the majority of the moss off with your hands then come back when the residual mud has dried and clean this off carefully.
  • When confronted with a permanently damp muddy pocket gently scoop out the mud with a nut key then gather the rest of the muck with a cheap toothbrush, which you can rinse off later.
  • Gear placements need to be as clean as handholds, if your gear slots are wet, they are weak and the rock could break resulting in injury to yourself and the grit. Remember Damp à Damage à Death
  • Don’t pat chalk on freshly brushed holds then leave it overnight, the morning dew will turn the chalk to a paste and it will feel just as bad as before you brushed it
  • Whacking holds with a towel is a great way of cleaning off scrittle without risking damage to the rock
  • Get your mates to climb what you’ve cleaned after you’re done, this will keep traffic high and therefore any essential maintenance will be taken care of so you don’t have to worry about doing another big job on it. Getting them clean is one thing, keeping them clean is quite another.

The author on Marrow Bone Jelly (E7 6c) - not sure you'll get a queue for a solo of this testpiece even when it is freshly cleaned up 


Ultimately cleaning a dirty horror show is a pain in the arse, but people really appreciate it when you put in the effort and it means you open up a rarely-had experience for yourself and for others. Next time you’re stuck for a climbing partner, why not go to your local and clean up the thing everyone avoids because it’s always gopping? You’ve got nothing better to do.


Check out Ciaran's Facebook page Yorkshire Climbing for local crag access, conditions, finding partners and for updates on Ciaran's cleaning at Caley