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Words with Steve McClure on Hard British Trad and Whippers

He's known for difficult trad sends and 5.15 first ascents, and visited Squamish for the Petzl rock trip in 2005 where he climbed the Grand Wall with Chris Sharma

Top U.K. climber Steve McClure recently made the second ascent of Lexicon E11 7a at Pavey Ark, which was first climbed by Neil Gresham at the end of summer.

Gresham said in an interview that he started projecting the heady line in October 2020. About the grade, he noted, “If you look at the breakdown of Lexicon (8b+ with 80-foot fall potential from a last move crux and the promise of a hard strike) compared to most E9s and E10s, then on paper it looks like an E11, but not compared to all of them! There are always hard anomalies at each grade, which skew things.”

McClure started climbing at a young age, and in 1998 made the first ascent of Mutation at Raven Tor, his first 5.14d and second of the grade in the U.K. He followed it up with the first ascent of Northern Lights 5.14d in Kilnsey in 2000 and the first ascent of Rainshadow 5.14d in Malham Cove in 2003. In 2007, he made the first ascent Overshadow, which was confirmed by Adam Ondra to be 5.15a. And then in 2017, he climbed a long-term project with Rainman in Malham Cove and graded it 5.15b, the only route of that difficulty in the U.K.

We touched base with McClure about Lexicon, trad climbing and whippers below.

For Canadian readers, is there a Yosemite Decimal System equivalent for E11 7a? The UK grading system is famous around the world for being impossible to understand! But for us Brits it makes total sense. I don’t think I’ve got enough space to explain it here, and actually it’s more of a thing that we gradually learn. Lexicon is probably 5.14a R. Though I’m not too familiar with your system, especially the ‘R’ and ‘X’.

You said that Rhapsody is more difficult than Lexicon, but because of the dangerous fall it bumps up the E grade? Rhapsody is one of the most famous trad routes in the U.K., first ascent by Dave MacLeod. It’s pretty hard, I think it gets maybe 5.14bR. Both routes feature long run-outs with sustained climbing all the way to the last move, and potential for serious injury if there are any mistakes in the ‘system’ (ripping gear, snapping gear, too much slack, poor belay). Of course, this is the case for ALL trad routes, but it’s all about the potential for things to happen. With Lexicon the fall distance, amount of rope in the system and the potential to slam back into the wall, not to mention the position of the ground all make for quite the mathematical conundrum! It’s pretty tight. With Rhapsody there is way more space to fall into, the ground is miles away and a soft catch is no problem.

You took a big whipper on Lexicon, what gear caught you, and how big was it? I fell about 70 feet. Not a monster, really. I was pretty much O.K., just a cut and bruised hand. We’d figured this is about what would happen from our math. There may be even more scope to make it safer, now that I showed it can be done. However, I came away feeling I’d got the fall just right, landing perfectly in the corner at the base of the route with ledges on each side. I’d bounced into the wall front on. But who knows if I’d inverted, got the rope behind my leg, slammed in backwards, had more slack in the system or ripped more gear (just being heavier would not help, I’m less than nine stone [57 kg]). The gear is overall not bad, a bunch of it across a horizontal break. The main issue is the good bits are too far to the side, and falling on these would swing you into ledges. The gear in the right place ripped out, but the next pieces held. If these had come out (shallow micro cam) then it might have been different.

I heard the whipper and send was filmed? Where can climbers expect to see that film? I was up there that day mainly to help Alistair Lee get some extra footage of Neil Gresham for his film. This short film ‘The Climb Of My Life’ is out on the Oct. 21 as part of the BritRock Tour in the UK. Between belays, I had a play on the route, managed to do a self-belay no fall top-rope (climbing with a GriGri on toprope) and so there was only one step left; go for a lead. To be honest, I was a bit greedy, I was pushing it; I needed more practice and a better margin. Obviously, it made sense for Alistair to point his camera at me too, while I threw myself at it!

What’s your biggest whipper to date? And has a big fall every scared you from pushing run-outs for an amount of time? I’ve taken some pretty big lobs. My record is on a hugely overhanging 60-metre sport route in Greece, where, after an easy section near the top with no bolts, I drew level with the next bolt and pulled through a load of slack while hanging out from a stalactite… then the stalactite snapped, and I ended up falling about 40 metres. But that was actually quite awesome, it made no difference to my head. However, way back when I was about 17 years old, I took an 80ft free-fall onto the ground due to a belay error. And I also, on a different trip, I was belaying a good friend who ripped his gear and landed on the deck beside me. Both these incidents were pretty epic, involving helicopter rescue, serious injury and long recovery. These did affect my climbing for years, potentially guiding me into sport climbing, and potentially into my entire career. So maybe they were a good thing??

What’s the climbing/rock on Lexicon like? The moment I saw Lexicon I was totally drawn in! I first had a little play on it while Neil was working on it towards the first accent. I was jealous of Neil’s find. Not because I wanted to do it first, but because I just wanted to try and climb it straight away. So as soon as Neil had made his first ascent I was back. The rock is lovely, excellent friction and texture. Everyone who climbs on that crag says the same thing. It’s really special. And the climbing is so absorbing. The lower 2/3 is about 5.12, vertical and really technical on small edges with lots of tiny footholds. Then there is a decent horizontal break to rest and place gear before the headwall. The hard section is maybe 10 degrees overhanging and absolutely continuous; it draws you in, each move is super hard and tenuous, requiring accuracy and commitment. The holds are tiny edges and pinches, all the way to the top. Brilliant!

Do you approach every hard route with the same strategy, or is it case by case? Absolutely case by case. I’m certainly no expert in this field and have a lot to learn. I’ve realized that perhaps the key skill in this kind of climbing is judgment; to know when is the time to try. Too much caution and you’ll never set off, too little, and you could die. I’m very analytical as a climber, and I’m not a really bold climber. I’d say my main strategy is to analyze the danger and realistically be able to decide if its ‘for me’ or not. If I determine the danger is really high, I’ll walk away.

Who are some young UK crusher right now? We have an excellent scene in the UK, really varied, with top dudes across all areas; comps, bouldering, sport and trad. Will Bosi is awesomely strong and talented, Molly Thompson Smith too. Hazel Findlay you’ll know, and also Emma Twyford. For the hard trad stuff, there are some young dudes like Jim Pope who could well shake up the scene!

Are there any limit-pushing projects that might go down before the year is over? I was thinking so, I had my eye on a few, but in true British Style I think the weather may stop play. Plus, I’ve got a solid month of work to get through. Once we hit November, it’s kind of game over, though the grit comes totally into view. I’ve not dabbled with hard grit at all, never had the psyche for it. Most of the hard stuff is pretty ‘deathy’ so kind of off my radar….

And lastly, are there any Canadian routes that you’d like to try one day? I need another trip back to Squamish. I was there many years ago for the Petzl rock trip, but the weather was rubbish. I was holed up for weeks after the trip by myself in the rain and ended up walking in the forests alone on big multi-day hikes (bloody hell, I got scared when a bear followed me, and camping in the forest was just petrifying!). There are so many routes I’d like to do around there. Nothing in particular, but I just loved the climbing, the rock and the scene. Climbing the Grand Wall with Sharma was one of my most fun days out ever, such a great route, snatched between rainstorms and with beautiful blue skies.

Steve McClure climbing GreatNess Wall E10 7a