Steve McClure has made the seventh repeat of James Pearson's route Le Voyage (8b+), E10 7a, in Annot, France. The route, which James first climbed in 2017, shares the same start as his recent route Bon Voyage, which Steve believes may be the hardest trad route in the world.
Le Voyage follows a discontinuous crack for forty metres up a gently overhanging face. When the crack runs out, a series of pockets takes its place, with just enough gear to make it safe, before another thin crack leads to the top of the cliff.
Upon climbing the route back in 2017, James told UKC that Le Voyage was 'the best new trad route I have ever done', and emphasised that the quality of the route exceeded its grade. It has since seen repeats from some of the best trad climbers in the world, including Jacopo Larcher, Barbara Zangerl, and Siebe Vanhee.
We got in touch with Steve to ask about his experience on Le Voyage, his thoughts on Annot, and whether he's going to take on Bon Voyage next.
Congratulations on the seventh ascent of Le Voyage! How was it?
WOW, seventh ascent! That shows how good the route is to be that popular. It really IS that good. One of the best hard trad routes I've ever done. I had no idea it had so many ascents!
Can you tell us a bit more about the route and its quality? It sounds like a great mixture of styles with, in James' words, 'just, just enough gear'!
It really is a mega route! There is a huge variation in styles that add up to give it a massive feel. It begins with a proper jamming crack, that sort of crack you can make a real mess of and end up exhausted on, with every attempt being totally different! The last move is the hardest, slapping into the big cave. French 7a I heard. Felt all of that and more, but I'm no crack expert!
From the cave it turns into a face route; boulder moves on small crimps and pockets with bad feet, but luckily decent gear; a thread and cam, though they quickly end up looking pretty far away! This section of climbing is really cool, and - as James has described - is a 'miracle of nature', as it links the starting crack to the thin bottomless crack way out left that leads all the way to the top of the cliff. Without this cool pockety boulder sequence the entire route would just not work!
So, you end up at the base of the thin crack and blast up. Some decent holds, but always bad feet so it's pumpy, and the gear is hard to place and fiddly. Generally decent gear, but then you never really know, size 1, 2, and 3 nuts in sandstone, and facing maybe a quite a bit of a lob can be pretty scary! From the top of the crack you could easily fall 10 metres!
The crack goes on for a fair few metres and the end is the crux, with a whole bunch of different options; gastons, crimps, pockets; all rubbish, and all feeling very hard when pumped to bits! If you manage to sketch through the reward is a big jug! But it's not all over, by far! Next section is a steep thin layback, but luckily only about 6b, leading to the heartbreaker finale, a gnarly too-thin-to-jam crack.
I'd heard it was 7c for just this bit. Took me a few goes to figure out that there were a bunch of different sequences that were all really awkward and droppable, but I never really settled on a way that was best and gave up! Luckily there is as much gear as you can place/can handle carrying all the way up! This last section alone would make a really good high quality route!
How big is the cave you can rest in part of the way up, were you able to fully recover in there?
The cave is narrow, but easily big enough to lie down and go to sleep if you want, though you might fall out of you actually fell asleep. Full recovery if you can be bothered to wait. But it's kind of boring lying there looking at a rock wall just above your face. I stayed five minutes and set off still a bit pumped, mainly as I wasn't actually expecting to succeed.
On James and Caro's instagram they described your ascent as featuring 'incredible endurance, despite terrible méthodes' - what 'terrible méthodes' might they be talking about?
I guess I didn't have the route really well wired. I'd done the crack at the bottom in the dark, then next day made two topropes of the route, resting a lot. First go just seeing if it was possible and doing a few moves, second go trying to find an actual sequence and looking at the gear.
That second go was essential, basically after the first go I knew nothing. I can imagine a third go would have led to more efficient methods. The crux was the top of the crack, which after about twenty goes in different ways with different holds, I managed just once, so I definitely needed to put some time in!
So, I imagine James and Caro were watching as I missed better options. Though, to be fair, when I climbed it I executed pretty much exactly what I had planned to do, other than getting insanely pumped and nearly falling off the last move!
I made the headpoint effort straight away on the second day (that's not including doing the crack in the dark, so third day if you like). A rest day would have been useful, but I'm kind of impatient… clearly! Had this been a sport route I'd have for sure gone for a redpoint with 50:50 odds, even with the last move so vague.
So I set off on a 'lets just see' effort, but I'm really aware that on a route like this you have to go on lead to get a feel for the gear, toproping only isn't enough. It's different if it's a dangerous route, but with so many placements in pumpy positions there is a lot to learn!
I'd expected to most likely place a piece and rest on it, but once I got in the flow suddenly I was up eyeing the crux. That psyche kicked in and somehow I hit the small crimp after the crux. But then it all unravelled. You're stood on a decent edge but with an awful crimp, pumped, and getting more pumped, then it's a jump to a sloper and a quick smear up on nothing to slap a massive jug, but I just couldn't get it to work having made the jump to the sloper, dangling and feet just skating. I have no idea how I managed to haul myself to the jug. It most have been the closest to falling I've been for a very long time… And as you know, I seem to be pretty good at only just getting up!
But even after that, the top crack was epic, with multiple up and downs, really pumped, trying to figure out the best method with everyone below shouting up their own completely contradicting advice! Man it was close! But what a buzz. I got this one just right; it's the ultimate buzz when you only just get it. If I'd worked it a few more days maybe it would have felt OK, but I've come away with a real experience, and I reckon the footage Dave Petts filmed for BMC TV will look great!
How does Le Voyage compare to other tough trad lines you've done recently, like Lexicon?
Good question. So recent trad lines of a similar grade, things like Lexicon, GreatNess Wall, Olympiad, are all so different. All actually fairly similar in difficulty overall, but it shows how awesomely varied our sport is.
Lexicon is the one people will like to make a comparison with. I'd say they actually feel very similar to succeed on. My time investment was similar. But Lexicon is certainly more dangerous, and it's more my style!
Did you do much trad climbing in preparation for this trip?
Absolutely zero! My last hard (hard) trad route was Lexicon, how crazy is that! So basically no preparation whatsoever. Last year trad just didn't work out, I got psyched on tufas and had an amazing year.
But despite this being a trad route, it needs to be climbed in 'sport style'; you need to attack and rely heavily on efficient movement and endurance. I'd got a bunch of that.
However, I got a useful lesson before coming out. Everything went pear shaped about a month ago when I injured my meniscus, which led to me injuring the meniscus in my other knee too (by protecting the injured one!) I also got a nasty cold; nearly 4 weeks it lasted. Everything seemed to crumble, finger tweaks, feeling knackered, injured. But the take home lesson from that is I should have just chilled out and let myself recover, instead of trying to push on. Sometimes it pays to rest up. I'd felt amazing beforehand, putting in massive days every day for months; hard indoor sessions for 4 hours followed by 3 hour bike rides and back to back full route setting days. I basically wore myself out.
Luckily I pulled it round just in time, though the crux of the route was still perhaps the walk in, which was a real hobble!
Who are you climbing with out in Annot?
I'm climbing with Patch Hammond, legendary climber and owner of the Stronghold walls in London. As you know climbing is a real partnership, and to be way up there above gear, about to fall off, knowing your partner has your back is really important! He is really good on this style too so it's been awesome to bounce ideas around. He is a real technician and for this place, the perfect partner to point out how to do a move better!
Is there anyone else out there working on Le Voyage/Bon Voyage?
As you can imagine, Le Voyage is getting a lot of attention! There are a number of folk here trying the route, and some Brits making trips over too. As for Bon Voyage, a really strong guy called Ignacio [Mulero] is working it. Impressive to watch!
Have you taken a look at Bon Voyage? How does it compare to Le Voyage?
I had the pleasure of James giving me a blow-by-blow account of the route when we were side by side on an abseil. I got to see every hold and move in close detail. It looks absolutely nails! Just a different level to anything I've seen. The route is trad, it has only trad gear. It's generally good but pretty spaced to say the least. You won't die and risk of injury is 'fairly low' but there will be big falls, providing the gear is placed well. The last moves will be very spicy indeed.
But what is clear is the difficulty. As a sport route it is very hard indeed, like 9a hard. Tiny poor holds, awful feet. Very impressive. If it's not E12 (or more) I'll be very surprised!
Any plans to give it a go?
Funnily enough my inspiration for a visit to Annot was from Bon Voyage. Hearing about the route was inspiring, and then I was reminded about Le Voyage, and so the focus became to try Le Voyage and then 'look' at potentially the hardest trad route in the world.
And, to be honest, I think that 'look' will be as far as it goes. It's really hard.
I can imagine I could start to make some progress but I've enough experience to know instantly what is gonna take a long time, like we are talking many days, multiple trips. And it may still be just too hard for me, an unfamiliar rock type and at that grade, it is likely to be right on the limit or above for me.
In addition, and James would be in agreement, it's got a few very reachy moves. The rock type is such that there is a hold, or nothing. I could see I'd really struggle a lot.
It was a real experience to be shown the route. It was a privilege being shown something of great importance. I got a guided tour of potentially the hardest trad route in the world. How cool is that! Huge respect to James. This is a big one!
What about Annot more generally, have you been before? What's it like there?
I've heard of Annot for years, but knew nothing about it, other than it was sandstone, with some cracks and a bit of sport. I'd not been drawn to it, never even considered it.
WOW, what a place. It's beautiful, like a giant Fontainbleau but with fantastic views. The blocks are the size of blocks of flats with sport and trad side by side. As you crunch your way between the areas through brown dry leaves on winding paths, with constant surprises with every turn, it feels like a really special place! We've done amazing sport 8a's, fantastic trad E3 and E4, sport 6b's. Cracks, slabs, overhangs, pockets, crimps. I'm amazed it's not more on the map. It's certainly on my map now!
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Amazing looking place. Geology looks like geos, but it's obviously inland.
I love Steve's attitude. Reading between the lines it seems like Bon Voyage may well be virtually impossible for someone of Steve's height, but instead of playing the height card, he graciously declares that it's just very very hard so he'd be unlikely to have much success.
Well done, Steve, both on getting up Le Voyage with what sounded like ridiculously minimal practice, and on being so gracious.
Great to see James' redemption arc complete with a probable e12! I hope it gets a repeat at some point and bravo Steve.
Steve manages to come across as genuinely modest and honest in this article, all to often modesty seems false in these kind of reports.
52 and still one of the leading lights in British climbing is one hell of an achievement. Inspiring to me and proves I should have no excuses not to get fit again as I approach my late 30s.
I know I'm childish, but I really cant believe this sentence got left in after an edit. "I had the pleasure of James giving me a blow-by-blow account of the route when we were side by side on an abseil"