Steve McClure's name is synonymous with hard climbing, particularly sport climbing on the limestone sport crags of the UK. Steve is also no slouch at trad climbing having onsighted up to E8. 2013 was another impressive year with a 9a/+ first ascent and an 8b+ flash.
UKC caught up with Steve to reflect on another year's hard climbing.
Duncan: So 2012 was a year where you were plagued by injury. How did 2013 start for you? No injuries this time round?
Steve: 2012 was a strange year. I'd lost a fair bit of motivation towards the end of 2011, having climbed pretty much everything in the Peak and Yorkshire I was motivated by. I can remember clearly going through the motions indoors in December, with a whole winter ahead and no chance of getting away (with a baby due in February) and thinking 'I just can't be bothered – maybe I should just injure myself and then I'd have a valid excuse'
Be careful what you wish for!! At the start of January I totally injured my middle finger, and then broke my little finger, both while route setting. Then two months later ripped my knee meniscus in a big fall having an awkward landing.
The whole year was out in terms of performance. On the positive side I didn't feel the burning need to climb, with a new baby I could get into that. And with a bust leg and dodgy fingers I could work on my lifetimes ambition of completing a real one arm pull-up. In the end I managed three in a row (straight arm hang in between). Possibly my best effort to date? (Or maybe not, just this week I managed a one armer from a straight hang from the beastmaker bottom rung!)
But by Autumn I was feeling part of me was missing, that I wasn't complete. I'd been ticking over, but not trying hard, and felt the climbing side of my life had fallen away. I went to Argentina on the Petzl Rock trip in November and had the time of my life, onsighting many 8b's and even 8b+. I was so motivated it was incredible, but felt completely free of pressure. Like I'd given up, retired, and then come back in a different zone where I could start again.
Duncan: In the early summer of 2013 you made the first ascent of Batman, 9a/+, at Malham (UKC News Report). How did you prepare for that early on in the year?
Steve: Batman was a really big deal for me. About 4 years ago I'd bolted a direct extension up a blank section of rock just to the left of Bat Route. There are two possible entries into this new section, either from Batroute, 8c, or from Rainshadow, 9a. The harder version involves climbing Rainshadow to past its crux (8c+) and then stepping right into the new extension. The easier version involves climbing through Bat Route to a kneebar rest (8b) and then stepping left into the new extension.
The hard version was the real inspiring line, but to be honest I always figured it was too hard, even now I don't know if I will ever be capable.
The winter of last year I wasn't focussed on either routes, I was just climbing, whatever came along, I'd only just 're-found' hard climbing again after almost a year off. I didn't really train, I didn't want to blow it. But what a season last spring! So dry (not like this one is shaping up). At the start of March everyone was off to Malham and I jumped on the bus; the project was calling for me just as I'd left it.
I tried it for about 10 days in the spring of 2013, but coming back from injury I wasn't fit or strong enough for the hard version. Half way through the season the Bat Route version became the obvious target. It was exactly the right challenge, pushing me right to the limit in terms of physical and mental ability and using up the entire season.
Psychologically it was motivating too. It's a hard route! One of the hardest in the UK for sure. To be able to climb that hard after injury and at 42 years old isn't so bad, even if I do say so myself!
Duncan: Then, later on in the year you headed to the Verdon and made an impressive flash of Tom et Je Ris, 8b+, (UKC News report) the Verdon seems to hold a special place in your heart, how was the trip as a whole?
The Verdon trip was one of the best in my life. Special because it felt so real. Climbing a classic 7b I realised that actually I am a climber through and through. Grades are not the important thing anymore. Maybe they never were. In the old days I used to climb every day, never rest, never fall. It was just about the climbing, a total overwhelming love of climbing. It's easy to lose focus and lose your way, become sidetracked by a desire to perform to your best, getting stuck in the performance tunnel. And maybe its about fitting into what life throws at you. But I realised I am still that climber I've always been. But now with an added dimension.
The Verdon had everything packed into a week, from 8a multi-pitch routes, long easy routes, hard single pitch, walking the gorge, swimming in the lake, eating pastries, chilling in the evening with great mates. The whole package. That's climbing.
Duncan: What have you been up to since going to the Verdon?
Steve: Ironically after the Verdon my year fizzled out! After the Verdon it was straight into School holidays and I barely climbed for 7 weeks, then threw myself into Autumn only for it to simply not work out. Conditions at Malham were useless, it getting wet really quickly, the Peak was not much better, and I ended up with a load of work. Though I was super motivated, the climbing didn't quite come together – its like that – life; can't expect to be always landing butter side up.
Duncan: What was THE route of the last for you?
Steve: Tom Et Je Ris for sure. A route I held with the highest of regard and a privilege to be even able to try. To flash this is one of my personal lifetime's achievements. Its not the hardest, but grade is irrelevant. It was the perfect challenge; huge history and beauty demanding the highest respect, and a high level of difficulty that took all of my skills to conquer.
Duncan: What about the year ahead, any plans?
Steve: I never have a definite target, for a start I don't like the pressure, and at the same time I'm realistic about how a year can pan out, with so many things affecting plans. These days I'm just so motivated to get out and climb, it almost sounds corny. I have a trip to the Ratikon planned for July, there is a massive Petzl Rock trip planned for the autumn, and I'm keen again for some British Trad. Also, of course there is the UK sport. I have an 8c+ project at Malham I hope dries out. And the BIG one – I'll be on it again. This big project that I'd named the 'easy-easy project' is massively motivating because I can't do it! That's the whole point! If I knew all I had to do was just turn up and bash my head for a while it wouldn't make me raise my game. I need to move to the next level. On a route like this, at this time in my life, the journey is way more important than the ending, no matter how it turns out...
Duncan: Sounds like you have a decent year ahead if all goes well! You mentioned you are keen for British Trad again, as you came from a trad-climbing background, what is your relationship with trad?
Steve: I have always been a traditional climber deep down, where 'traditional' perhaps means 'whole package'. And the more I think about it, the most important thing of all is the outdoors, simply getting out there. Climbing is a vehicle. A big route in The Lakes is all about so many things, after a day out you're riding high on the adventure, the scenery, the fresh air, the walk in; so may things. I'm as keen on the package as I have ever been, but it's really about fitting it all in. I'm busy these days. And yes, how much time I devote to outdoor adventures is dependant on project status. I'm massively motivated for hard sport when I am in that zone, and know the trad can fit in whenever. Trad isn't about hard numbers for me, so it can be done whenever, even when I'm 60.
Duncan: Do you think as you have done so much sport climbing in recent years your interest in trad climbing will increase in the future?
Steve: No doubt, it has increased a lot over the last few years already , but so has my levels of other life stuff. Two kids and mountain trad climbing don't add up very well. But as they get older I'll be keen to follow them up E2's.
Duncan: For a long time you have been on your own flying the flag for hard british sport climbing, but now British sport seems to have a bright future, with James McHaffie climbing two 9a's, Jordan Buys repeating your Rainshadow, plus Buster Martin climbing 8c at 16. Do these ascents motivate you more?
Steve: I'm absolutely doing it all for myself, just as I always have been. You have to remember I jumped into sport as everyone jumped out! I was out of touch and un-cool (no change there then) as the country got into bouldering and hard grit. However, I'm really psyched that more hard stuff is getting done, it's motivating for me. At the indoor wall, or in fact anywhere other than on the limestone cliffs, I get utterly schooled by lots of climbers and it's really motivating, to see real strength and skill. It makes me want to get better. This should be happening on the limestone too, once the top players really get going. There is no doubt they will kick my ass. But it won't feel like that, I know my place in the world; I've just been lucky, in the right place at the right time to make a career from the sport. Watching Jordan on Rainshadow was awesome, so much stronger than myself in so many areas. I went home psyched to get better!!
Duncan: Where do you see your own climbing going in the future?? Is there an aspect of climbing you feel you haven't focussed on that you would like to?
Steve: Without a glass ball I'm not sure, but if I was to take a guess it would be multi-pitch sport, the longer more adventurous stuff like in the mountains. This kind of climbing brings everything together for me, the whole package, with the extra bonus of being able to push to the limit on the sport in an adventure environment. Grades don't need to be hard, in fact maybe even not so hard – I'd be looking for onsights, so maybe 8a/8a+. I'll be looking for fine days out and a challenge rather than a number.
Last year Marmot released a series of videos in which their athetes selected their favourite routes at their favourite crags, you can watch Steve's Malham selection below: