Steve McClure climbs 1000th 8a - The Magic Grade Article

© Emma Travers

Having recently ticked his 1000th 8a, Steve McClure writes about what he feels is 'the magic grade'...

8a. THE magic grade. There's something special about the number, it has a certain ring to it and any route with an 8 in the grade is universally recognised as hard. Grade 7s are relatively achievable, but 8a and above is a different story. A dream for many, a reality for few!

On the redpoint of "Let The Tribes Increase". Number 1000, back at Rubicon Wall in The Peak District. Autumn 2023.  © Emma Travers
On the redpoint of "Let The Tribes Increase". Number 1000, back at Rubicon Wall in The Peak District. Autumn 2023.
© Emma Travers

The number eight was always my favourite number, long before it appeared in any kind of climbing grade. There were no E8s, 8as or V8s. I loved the way that the eight character has no beginning or end and is also the infinity symbol when tipped over. The number always stood out and when it entered into route grades in the 1980s, it seemed to represent the absolute cutting edge. The first E8s arrived, but it was sport climbing that exploded into the scene complete with controversy, pink Lycra tights, red-point style, funky haircuts and an entire grading system; the French system, imported to be used exclusively for bolted routes. French grades were cool and outrageous, and attached to insane-looking routes like we'd never seen before: super steep, tiny holds, micro-edges, monos…. 8a was the top sport grade and we looked on in awe; that number burnt into memory as the limit of the best. Even now I still chuckle when my train leaves from platform 8a… 

Today's news and the online social media bombardment makes 8a seem like a warm-up for the kids, but those kids are awesome. 8a requires dedication, motivation, skill and strength. Very few climbers will ever climb 8a. It is, without doubt, the magic grade!

My first 8a is graded 7c+. Hence it wasn't my first 8a. Liqueur De Coco is in the Verdon Gorge, is absolutely nails, has been described as 8a+ for the short and I've been back and re-climbed it and there is no doubt that it would be 8a anywhere else. But it's still 7c+. At 17 years old, a bunch of us hitched around and spent six weeks in that incredible canyon climbing pretty much every day. But liqueur De Coco was different, far harder than any route I'd ever done before and my first sport redpoint experience. Kind of conned into it, belaying a dude who actually wasn't capable of getting up, I watched as he dogged and frigged his way, then I made a few moves in my attempt to top-rope out. Way too hard… but wow! How cool it was, and I could imagine making some progress. I was hooked and a few days later was simply blown away to get the redpoint. When I say redpoint, it was fairly unconventional, placing quickdraws on lead and using double 9mm ropes, but I could tell it had been something special; moving over such insanely hard terrain with outrageous moves right on the limit. And 7c+... that was one hell of a large number!

But of course it wasn't 8a. And it was in fact another 7c+ that was to be the real start of it all for me in terms of sport climbing. Liqueur De Coco had been a real eye opener, but after our Verdon trip I'd come back to the UK and normal service was resumed on the trad. Some five or six years later, dossing in a tiny bedsit, jobless and with time in my hands, it was Mike who took me out to sample the delights of Peak limestone. A long-term mate, younger than me but part of our family gang from my teen years, we'd always got on well and our lives followed a similar curve, gravitating to Sheffield for climbing in the disguise of a university degree.

He was a natural at climbing movement, way better than me, but never took it as far as he could. Somehow he had a car, unusual for a student, and we drove to Rubicon Wall, a destination beyond a cycle ride and too much of a pain to hitch. Skirting along the edge of the river, white walls hung over us with dots of chalk and shining bolts marking the routes and tiny edges the only visible holds. I was so excited! This was a place of big numbers and famous routes, stuff straight from the magazines. It may have been my first visit, but it already felt like a second home.

Bullheart 8b+, The Cornice. 8a number 991.  © Steve McClure
Bullheart 8b+, The Cornice. 8a number 991.
© Steve McClure

A young guy was slumped on the rope belayed by his dad, then swinging out he asked for 'the stick' which he then used to pre-clip his rope another bolt higher. Hanging on this bolt he then fiddled around with various holds before grunting a fair bit but barely making upwards progress. Sometime later back on the ground he offered his rope should I fancy an attempt. Having just done Dragonfly, a classic trad E3, I doubted my chances on this E6 6c* that, even though only double the E grade, was quite clearly exponentially more difficult even if it was safe as houses. Throwing myself into the lead, I performed exactly as expected: totally rubbish. Within seconds I was hanging from the first bolt, flash go blown. And then as if my magic, from my new elevated vantage point, holds appeared where I'd never have found them on lead, and the subtleties of grip position became clear.

Trying the moves over and over allowed optimum footholds to be isolated and committed to memory. It was absorbing, distilling the climbing down into individual movement unclouded by fear. Within an hour I was good to go and the redpoint sent first shot. Let The Tribes Increase. F7c+. My first real redpoint! I was buzzing, a head full of moves and positions heightened by the physical pleasure of moving at my limit. But I remember clearly it wasn't the limit; I'd climbed it with more in the tank, another grade within reach! 8a had always been for the magazine stars only, something I didn't even dream of. It didn't even register as possible. Like reading about an astronaut landing on the moon, it was something cool that I just wouldn't ever do. Suddenly it wasn't just possible, it was certain — it was just a matter of time!

*Even into the 90s it was common to use UK grades for sport routes, with E6 6c equating to F7c+

Ironically my first grade 8 was not 8a but Zeke The Freak 8b, also at Rubicon Wall. It seemed the crag suited me. Between Tribes and Zeke I tried many an 8a - Raindogs at Malham, Powerplant at The Cornice, some steep stuff abroad - but stuck between a trad climber and a sport climber, I struggled to grasp the radical difference between onsight effort and how much difference a bunch of practice makes. Attempts were usually of the old 'British' style: where after a failed onsight effort, the exhausted climber lowered down and had another go, assuming it should be easy next time but now having forgotten all of the start and also learnt nothing of the crux or what happens after. Hence, I seemed to spend a lot of time falling off and ticking nothing, though once the ball started rolling it went off faster than I could register.

Once I'd seen the light the grades tumbled; a year later I'd climbed 8c+, and after another few years I'd crimped my way up 9a+. [That was with Mutation, Raventor, which I graded 9a, having no real idea of what 9a was supposed to feel like, and also since it was grade '8' number 48, I was hardly experienced to say the least!]

So what drives people to the desperate 8a level? Some climb for the pump and some for the moves. Some climb just to get to the top and others never intend to get there. There are many who will only try 8as or harder; you'd never see them on a 7c+, or even a 7b+. Perhaps a 7a+, but that's only for a warm up. Then it's straight onto the 8s and straight onto the first bolt for a rest. At some fantastic, sun-baked crag, plastered with amazing 35-metre 7c routes, where will they be? In some dark hole trying a grim five-move, no-star route above the toilet.

Vattis in Switzerland. Intense sport climbing on tiny edges! Perfect! 8a number 217.  © Aid Baxter
Vattis in Switzerland. Intense sport climbing on tiny edges! Perfect! 8a number 217.
© Aid Baxter

Whole trips are spent sitting on the rope cursing conditions and fondling tiny edges. How can this be fun? What's the point of it? I guess there's just something about that number. Personally, I think it's just the way it happened, after 7c+ it goes to 8a on the made-up grading scale where a change of number somehow means everything. A made-up scale it may be, but it just so happens the transition between 7 and 8 is absolutely at the right place. Maybe it could have been up or down a little, but 8a is proper hard. To climb one is a real achievement. Today's news and the online social media bombardment makes 8a seem like a warm-up for the kids, but those kids are awesome. 8a requires dedication, motivation, skill and strength. Very few climbers will ever climb 8a. It is, without doubt, the magic grade!

For those who make the grade, the first 8a is likely to be a memorable one. But just in case, it's worth writing it down. Zeke The Freak and associated excitement occupied a fair few pages of my personal climbing diary books. Book number one started on 26/08/95, with Zeke going in on 31/09/95. Since then, 28 years have passed, 23 more books, 998 more routes of 8a and above, each added to the '8 list' in the back pages. Included were 7c+/8a routes that felt like 8a, but not if they felt like 7c+. Downgrades are another story, and I spent a good few days recently checking hundreds of routes and sadly crossing out 8a's that had slipped down a notch. There were more than 20, though of course I'll never know if they dropped a grade because something physically changed, were always 7c+, or have become 7c+ due to knee-pad invention.

As for 7c+ upgrades, I never kept a list of 7c+ so I'll never know if I did some extra 8as either! Many routes didn't even get a name in the books. A dotted line from a borrowed guidebook with the 8a grade is often the only recording. Perhaps due to an unreadable and forgotten bunch of words in Spanish, Greek, Norwegian or Chinese! It didn't matter at the time, I just wrote "???" and the crag, or country if I couldn't even remember the crag. Now I wish I'd noted every one properly.

Trad routes made it into the list too, those with 8a level of difficulty. So Lexicon, Requiem, Muy Caliente, Big Issue and Olympiad amongst others made the grade. That seemed fair enough. Also in the list was multi-pitch, with multiple grade 8 pitches on the same route getting separate entries. Controversial maybe, though in my book doing two grade 8 routes on top of each other with the only rest being hanging in a harness seems like fair game, even if they happen to have the same name! To be fair, those grade 8s didn't actually amount to very many (fewer than 20). Limestone boulder problems that felt like routes and tended to get route grades also got in there: Staminaband, Finest Pedigree. These boulder traverses are often 10 times as long as a typical Peak route!

Gerrymandering by the Right, Costa Blanca. This 45m 8a (number 887) was an onsighted first ascent.  © Rich Mayfield
Gerrymandering by the Right, Costa Blanca. This 45m 8a (number 887) was an onsighted first ascent.
© Rich Mayfield

1000 was never a target. Maybe when I got to about 900 I guessed I'd reach the milestone. It's worth noting that although 1000 8as sounds like a lot, it's absolutely miles off what many others have achieved in a considerably shorter period of time and many wads probably didn't even keep a tally. Dani Andrada had done 4600 last time I asked him! He'd actually had a target of 1000 above 8c, but since he is 'only' at 700, he reckons he might not manage. Adam Ondra has done over 1700, with an absolutely ridiculous 180 routes above 9a! Sticking with numbers, Jack Palmieri has done 100 Font 8s in the space of a year (OK, that's 100, but wow!).

But like the 8a grade itself, 1000 is only a number really. What it is though, is one of those times in life where you actually stop and think about where you are and how you got there. A bit like a 50th birthday, quite a large number, perhaps worth a glass or two of fizz, but not really worth a pat on the back except maybe from yourself. I found myself looking back in my books, remembering amazing routes and experiences from way back. Being perhaps of the slightly geeky type, I found myself sticking numbers into a table. Trends were apparent; Numbers began slowly increasing as expected from 1995, with redpointing the main drive. Then in 2001 as I finished 'standard' employment (40hr/week engineering desk job) the onsight style exploded. In the first few years that followed I barely redpointed anything! But then began to get back into it, excited by hitting the grade 9s (another magic number, though despite being considerably harder, is somehow still not quite so magic!).

My first child came along in 2006 with a major house renovation and child number 2 arrived early 2012. I remember well how babies and climbing don't mix so easily, but it's interesting to see it on a chart. Double kids and an expanding job, more commitments and responsibilities sure have an impact. The impact was that I climbed my hardest route ever, allowing focus on Rainman at Malham Cove for a bunch of years. A massive positive which I'd never have achieved without 'constraints'. After Rainman I literally didn't do anything hard for ages, choosing to plod my way up easier trad, and the odd harder trad. Covid is pretty apparent too, with a fairly obvious flatline, followed by an extremely excited return to normality in the last few years.

Flash and onsight chart.  © Steve McClure
Flash and onsight chart.
© Steve McClure

I reckon I could have easily climbed way more than 1000 8as, but what's apparent is that lots of different stuff happened. If it had been all about ticking I might be up to 2000, but that's the thing with numbers — they tend to keep going. Stuff got in the way of ticking, but stuff that is actually just as important, if not more important than climbing. It's all about the balance. Even the keenest of climbers would not be happy with an entire life of climbing at the sacrifice of everything else. It's good to check in on the balance, and looking back on 28 years of 8as, the balance looks pretty good. But also, the balance between different styles. Most of the climbers I know in the UK spread their time between loads of different styles; sport, trad, DWS, multi-pitch, boulder, scrambling, via-ferrata… It's this balance that is perhaps part of what it is to be a British climber, and I think it is perhaps what I'm most pleased with when looking back. The 1000 8as is cool, but all those easy multi-pitch wanders in the mountains are just as important. And ironically most of the memorable 8a routes I did are actually trad routes!

Another table highlighted one of my weaknesses, which is that I'm physically weak. This is relatively speaking, but one of my regrets is that I never really got stuck in and got strong and climbed harder stuff. Quite clearly, as the evidence shows, I tend to always opt for the easier challenge and the result is a 'pyramid' with a rather broad base. They say that's a good thing, a solid foundation on which to build on. The issue is that the building doesn't really get going. It would have been cool to have a bigger clutch of 9s, even a super hard 9b+ route. It would have been good to be super strong with fingers of iron, gained from dedicated training missions and super motivation. But then it all comes back to the balance. And faced with the option of 10 amazing 8a onsight attempts or one 8c redpoint, I know what I'll choose. So, with that in mind, maybe I don't actually have any regrets after all, though being stronger would be nice! I better crack on with that then…

Steve's 8a and above chart.  © Steve McClure
Steve's 8a and above chart.
© Steve McClure

Various folk asked 'what route are you gonna do for your 1000th, better make it a good one'. I hadn't really considered and I guess I assumed it would be just whatever it happened to be. But that seemed a bit lame, like the guys who get asked what they will do for their 50th birthday and reply 'I'm just gonna stop in and have a pizza, no fanfare'. I considered making it a big number; a 9a somewhere would have been awesome, but I'd probably have got stuck on 999 forever. The answer came to me while talking about how I'd gotten into sport climbing, with that first visit to Rubicon and the route Let The Tribe Increase. Back in 1993 it was 7c+, but now it has been upgraded to 8a after some holds fell off. Of all the routes, this one surely would be perfect.

And it all came together. Great weather was forecast, Niall Grimes was keen to film it, but the real icing on the cake was that Mike got in touch to say he'd be around in a very rare visit from the US. Since moving to Houston 20 years ago, I'd seen him once every other year at most. He'd be in The Peak for a single day. Walking in together I chatted about my plan, my choice of route and the vague memories from way back. "I remember it well," he said "I was belaying you, you got it first redpoint go and I got it next day". Oh my God!!… I'd forgotten it was Mike belaying. This was like a made up story, just too good to be true. Walking in was just like old times from 30 years ago, skirting along the edge of the river with white walls hanging over us, dots of chalk and shining bolts marking the routes, tiny edges the only visible holds. It felt like home; familiar, peaceful, comfortable. 

I went for the 'retro-flash'. Of course I did, knowing I could never actually claim a flash but giving it everything as always. After 30 years it probably felt as near to onsight as it can get! I got close, the final move, but never in my life have I been so un-disappointed to fall off! I wanted this day to go on, to savour it and to enjoy the route. It is Rubicon of course, so enjoyment is limited to brutal crimping on tiny edges with microscopic polished footholds and relentless powerful moves. I got the redpoint first go, just like last time. Number 1000! That's pretty cool, but without doubt the feelings of absolute joy were not due to the number, but that incredible mix of people, place, beauty, movement, the weather, fresh air… all those things that climbing is, all those things we take for granted.

A special day, one of my best ever. The 999 routes before were simply the journey to that point, while the route was an opportunity to look back and be thankful for somehow finding myself in this incredible sport of rock climbing.


On a recent trip to Spain, Steve (53) managed to onsight Queimada, 8b+ in the Chilam Balam cave. On the same day, he also managed to onsight Budo, an 8b, alongside other 8b's and 8a+ and 8a's on the trip.

Watch a video of Steve climbing his 1000th 8a below:

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Steve McClure

Steve McClure is one of the best rock climbers in the world, having climbed the hardest sport route in the UK at 9b, numerous new routes at the grade of 9a and onsighted many at 8b+. Despite being better known for his...

Steve's Athlete Page 43 posts 15 videos

13 Dec, 2023

That's mint, really fun read! I can't believe Zeke was his first 8th grade route, very Steve. I assume he actually did that on the 1st October rather than 31st September (as September's only got 30 days)?

13 Dec, 2023

Brilliant. Well done, Steve.

13 Dec, 2023

I wonder how many E7's and above he's done?

13 Dec, 2023

Great article. 1000 8a routes is mind-boggling, even if he acknowledges others have done a lot more.

13 Dec, 2023

Have I got my maths wrong? Looking at the chart of 8s and above assuming this is what he is referring to…. He’s actually climbed 1658 routes of 8 and above?? Legend!!

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