INTERVIEW: Steve McClure on Strawberries Onsightby Duncan Campbell - UKC & Liam Lonsdale - Marmot UK Jun/2014
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Finally, after thirty years of waiting, numerous attempts from the best of British trad climbing, and a few foreign onsights, Steve McClure has made the first British onsight ascent of Strawberries, E7 6b (UKC News Report).
The race for the first ascent of Peaches (as the unclimbed line of Strawberries was known) began in 1980. Between Ron Fawcett and John Redhead, two of the boldest and most talented climbers of the era with many difficult, dangerous and prominent first ascents to both of their names. After a multi-day siege from both Fawcett and Redhead, and a not inconsiderable amount of air-time clocked up, Ron finally topped out on the Vector headwall having climbed from the bottom to the top of the route in a single push. Ron had done it again making the first ascent of another plum line of British climbing.
However, Ron's ascent was not squeaky-clean, Ron climbed in a yo-yo style leaving his ropes clipped into the highest runners which allowed a top-rope for the lower section of the route. This style was widely accepted at the time, though many climbers did not agree with Ron abseiling down and re-placing his highest runners from a previous day's attempt and clipping his ropes into these runners.
Fast-forward thirty years and the route has had just three onsight ascents from Stefan Glowacz in 1987, Jorg Verhoevan in 2011 and Hansjorg Auer in 2012. Despite these three onsight ascents it hadn't, until now, received a British onsight despite having been attempted by strong British climbers including; James McHaffie, Pete Robins, Hazel Findlay and UKC's Jack Geldard.
Steve McClure is best known for his considerable sport climbing talent, with numerous onsights of 8b+'s including the Verdon classic Tom et Je ris (UKC News Report), and first ascents up to 9a+ with his Malham super-routes Overshadow, 9a+, (UKC Article) and Batman, 9a/+, (UKC news Report). However, Steve is no slouch when it comes to trad climbing having onsighted up to the grade of E8 with ascents of Dawes Rides a Shovelhead, E7/8 6c, Raven Crag and Point Blank, E8 6c, in Stennis Ford (UKC News Report). Steve also made a very quick headpointed ascent of Dave Macleod's Rhapsody, E10/11 7a, at Dumbarton on his third lead attempt (UKC News Report).
When would Strawberries get a British onsight? And from who? Had Steve McClure already tried and failed under the radar years ago?
These questions were answered on Thursday the 12th June when Steve McClure, climbing with Rab Carrington, put his considerable sport climbing fitness and talent to use, making the first British onsight ascent of Strawberries.
For more information about the history of Strawberries, check out this article by UKC Chief Editor Jack Geldard: Strawberries - A British Onsight?
Strawberries is a world class route with a lot of heritage, can you give us a quick run through of how you interpret its history?
Steve: Strawberries is one of the most famous routes in Britain with such a MASSIVE history. When Ron [Fawcett] did the first ascent way back in 1980 it was a big route with a big reputation. Straight away the route was in the spotlight, Ron spent three days on it, climbing in yo-yo style, and eventually pre-placed his equipment from abseil and pre-clipped in his ropes before the actual ascent. He took a lot of grief for this style, but I think the fact that Ron put this route up so many years ago is just incredible, standards back then were completely different and it took someone with incredible vision to even consider trying a route like that. It was a great effort.
You have obviously had the capability to onsight Strawberries for some time, why did you save it?
Steve: When I was 17 and 18 I visited Tremadog a lot and did all the classics, Strawberries was always there, towering over everything like the supreme challenge, but it was way out of my league. Then as I began to get better an ascent became a possibility, but it didn't matter how good I got at climbing, the reputation always seemed to be one step ahead of me, bigger than me. The onsight was the goal, but like everyone else I was saving it for that perfect day, saving it until I felt super strong, though in reality I think I was just making excuses. Then I suddenly realised time was running away. Chatting with a climbing mate we both agreed this really is a "route to do before you die", whatever the style, so it was time to get on with it no matter if I fell or not. Even from that moment it took years to get it together, but I'd stopped saving it now, my time was running out, and I watched as years went by without even getting a chance; too wet, too much work, too injured. I didn't even get to the cliff! I just wanted to do it, even if I fell onsight, what did it really matter compared to never trying?
My new motto is "never save anything". Within reason of course. It comes with age as you suddenly realise your time is running out combined with life becoming exponentially busy. But it's probably a good motto anyway. I have friends who saved everything, trained for the right moment, waited to get strong, and have ended up too injured or too old and missed out on so much.
How did this ascent finally come together?
Steve: Though I'd been wanting to try for years I'd never really pushed, kind of waiting until I just ended up there. I knew I'd try if I was at Tremadog, no matter what (within reason) so I guess I wasn't really pushing to go. Marmot got in touch saying they needed pictures of me for the trade show in Germany and did I have anything in mind, a route I'd like to do; without even thinking I suggested Strawberries and then suddenly I was committed!
So... you're there, standing below Strawberries, before the onsight, what's going through your head?
Steve: I have never been so scared before getting on a route. I mean, the amount of fear I felt before setting off was ridiculous. I was petrified. I had heard people say that is could be around 7b+ French grade, which normally wouldn't even come close to worrying me if it was a sport route, but I was completely nervous. It was actually only when I started climbing that I began to relax. Once I was absorbed in the hard moves; the reputation, the grade debate, the history, it all disappeared and I was totally focussed on what was in front of me.
So how did the ascent go?
Steve: Stepping across the slab the crack reared up, but surprisingly stopped well short of my position, the access looked desperate! Tiny RP's sat uneasily and threatened to rip out with any outward force. Struggling to seat them in a strenuous position I backed off to check the quality of my placement on my second rope in the base of Cream. I hadn't expected a hard start. But now the climbing took over and I was immersing in the puzzle, the reputation disappearing behind the challenge. Suddenly I was involved, the entrance to the crack irreversible. Was I ready yet? The question flickered in my mind as I grasped the base of the crack; step back and reconsider, or move up with no return? I was away, running it out in the hope of decent holds as tiny wires swung unnervingly below. The moves felt hard, no footholds, but fingerlocks came and a sigh of relief. Good gear slotted into place. 5 out of 5. As good as a bolt.
From there I could go to the top, if that's what was asked. Breathing hard I relaxed into the route. Chalk inspired confidence, that someone had been here with me recently. Awkward holds required thought and unlocking; up and down I chipped away at a sequence. This was amazing! With no chance of more gear, and a bomber by my feet I was in sport mode; it was all about the climbing, no fear. I was going to the top or I was coming off. Choosing my moment I set off, committed out of the crack. And holds came within reach, better than expected, perhaps the reputation had shrunk their true size, or maybe I was just psyched! Three pulls on positive edges and I was there, the gear below swinging in the distance as good holds brought on the smile.
What do you think makes Strawberries so difficult to onsight?
Steve: There are a lot of factors that make it such a difficult route, placing the gear is a big one. You are on the route, hanging on slippy, sloping holds and you really want to make sure that every piece is perfect; it's really strenuous. It's there in your head that if you fall you will be going a long way so you really want to be sure of your gear. In addition to this, the climbing isn't very obvious. All the holds are there, but piecing them together is the tricky part... I found myself climbing the crack and realising I was wrong handed a couple of times. It's tiring and the longer you hang around, the more exhausted you become. The top section felt easier for me once I was away out of the crack. I am used to taking small holds and pulling on them so it was then that I relaxed and focussed on getting to the top. It's worth saying that the little bit of chalk on the route before I got on it definitely helped. I knew it was clean, and psychologically could form a bond with my imaginary friend, comforted, knowing we were together doing the moves.
If it was completely chalkless it would be even harder, a totally pure 'onsight'. I'll take what I've got though, I am happy with my ascent. People are bound to ask if I had any beta. I knew nothing of the moves or the gear at all. I'd seen a few pictures in the magazines over the years (mainly of people falling off back in the 80's) but these don't give anything away. My only knowledge was what was gained from the guidebook suggesting the route was hard but well protected and moved left at the top of the crack.
If anything my ascent felt harder than onsight! Without any reputation, if I'd just turned up with the description I'd probably have been fairly relaxed, excited about trying a hard but well protected trad route. As it was I was utterly petrified, like entering an arena with a master gladiator with a fight to the death!
How does it feel to have been the first Brit to onsight such an iconic route after so many years?
Steve: It's great. In all honesty though, it doesn't really make a big difference to me. Its not a competition. The reputation of the route alone, combined with me climbing it in the style I did, that's what counts, that's what matters to me. It feels a little overblown to get praise for a route that was onsighted forever ago, and has been climbed onsight by a number of people. But I know how it works, and personally I've been watching out for years for the first British onsight.
With so many strong climbers 'saving' the route, what advice would you give to anyone that has thought about trying it?
Steve: My onsight actually felt relatively straightforward, in comparison to when I repeated the route for the cameras on Saturday. Don't get me wrong, it was still a battle, but in front of the camera I had a monumental battle, only just getting it by the skin of my teeth and slapping for holds I'd taken statically before. I got way more pumped placing more gear that suddenly seemed essential, because I was sure I was going to fall off! I don't know if I would have got the onsight had I waited till the film day. Conditions were way worse despite it looking the same 'weather' on paper, but humidity was through the roof. I admit I did get lucky, everything came together, but it just goes to show that you can't leave these things forever, get on them, try them, forget the reputation, be confident... you never know, you might surprise yourself. I would say that the reputation of the route is actually way bigger than the route itself. It's hard, but it's not that hard. And anyway, now you don't have to worry about missing the first British onsight... but what about the first female onsight...
So just how hard is it? Do you agree with the E7 grade, and what french grade do you think it is?
Yeah I reckon E7 6b, it kind of has to be really. It is probably about 7c with pumpy to place gear, a healthy run-out at the top and the lower gear isn't perfect.
You recently made an onsight ascent of Dalriada, also E7 6b on the Cobbler. How do the routes compare?
Dalriada was easier for sure. But it relies on pegs a lot, and some look sketchy, one had gone, and another you can't clip as its in a strange position. So it leaves just a few to trust your life to. Though pegs have become an integral part of UK climbing they have also become one of our biggest problems. They will eventually snap. They are kind of unfair, as only the first ascentionist knows the score. It could be a total sport route, but then 20 years later is about to become E9, but you only find out when you fall off. Someone is gonna get really hurt...