Steve McClure's Nightmayer

Steve McClure writes about his recent onsight of Steve Mayer's Nightmayer E8 6c on Dinas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass - the first ascent of its kind on this route and a bold one at that...(UKC news report)

When to go for it. That is the question. Damn these no-hands rests. How to know when to set off? Bad rests are good as you just have to crack on. Good rests are bad because you know for sure that whatever grade the route is, unless you've already climbed the hard bit, the full grade of the route is about to hit you!

Steve leaves his 'nest' of gear to tackle the final headwall.  © Keith Sharples
Steve leaves his 'nest' of gear to tackle the final headwall.
© Keith Sharples

Above me it's F8a. F8a is hard, I don't get them all. At this grade I have to be going for it, full commitment. But F8a is a sport grade, usually protected by bolts. This F8a isn't. It's protected by a wire and a skyhook; their placements, size and quality unknown. It looks a very long way to the top, the kind of distance that might be nice to see maybe 5 bolts in, or 6 or 7. But I have a crucial piece of information; people have fallen off up there and not died, not even hurt themselves. It was simply a matter of knowing my boundaries and not stepping over them. As long as I stuck to the plan, and didn't look down, it was just a normal F8a I was going for.

Nightmayer came onto my radar way back when a mini film clip of Nico Favresse popped up of him going for a flash attempt. In the clip he's halfway up the headwall, but makes no moves whatsoever, before apparently letting go and careering almost the full height of the Cromlech to stop just above the deck. So the route was on my radar, but not in a 'One day I'll try this' kind of way, more of a 'That route looks utterly insane'. Nightmayer looked just that, and slotted itself way back in the queue. More recently, with ascents from Emma Twyford, Alex Mason and Angus Kille, and ongoing efforts from Ed Booth and James Taylor, the route has gathered a bit of momentum as both a super hard route, and one of incredible quality. But crucially, the near-death lob from Nico seemed to be a non-essential component. Nightmayer seemed to jump a few places in the queue, and suddenly seemed to find itself at the top.

Maybe it was always going to get there in the end. I'm not young anymore, and if I've learned anything over my large number of years it's that if you save stuff until when the perfect moment comes along, you won't get up very much. This rule is also more and more relevant the older you get, and when a few grey hairs start to appear it's likely you'll have to rush everything in at the last minute as you realise performance, boldness, fitness and flexibility are suddenly on the downturn, gathering momentum and about to avalanche you into total uselessness, which is also roughly the same rate at which you are picking up injuries. But this route was accelerated to queue-top position by a perfect storm of factors; primarily knowing it was clean and dry. Ed and James were trying it. The forecast was good, I had a few days off work, I wasn't injured, I felt pretty fit, I had mates who wanted to go to Wales, Keith Sharples was keen to film…. Oh dear. It's arrived!

The Cromlech has always had a really special place in my heart. As a kid, maybe 8 or 10 years old, I'd pore over the books and magazines. This crag was up there at the top, absolutely crammed with history; the routes were the hardest and the best. At 16 I hitched down from Teeside, stumbled out of a car by the boulders under the weight of my pack and collapsed in the lush green grass beside the trickling river. The Cromlech towered over me, the open-book faces and immense corner so familiar, like I'd been there 100 times already. I rushed up and soloed some easy stuff. It was amazing, all I had ever dreamed it would be. I did all the classics over the years. Left Wall a contender for the best E2 anywhere, Resurrection just brilliant, The Corner, well, a bit thrutchy actually and more like E2, but beat that for a line…. Right Wall and Lord Of The Flies, simply fantastic. These two in particular really stood out, perhaps it was the immensity of history, but they both seem to sum up everything there is to British Climbing. If one had to describe 'traditional climbing' surely these are perfect examples. Both routes are a journey, a lesson in route finding and gear placement. It's about keeping your head and understanding your ability, weighing up risk and knowing boundaries. You don't really get the tick doing these on top-rope – they feel easy!

What exactly is trad climbing? A route protected by traditional protection? A route with a trad grade? Is 'headpointing' traditional climbing? Personally I think of it as a 'style', the way, traditionally, people used to go climbing; setting off for a day out with some good friends and a guide book. Headpointing is a thing in its own right; different. Some routes need to be headpointed; lots of practice before a flawless ascent and a huge buzz of satisfaction.

Maybe Nightmayer should be headpointed. That's what I'd try and do, if I fell off. But here on the ledge I already knew I was gonna give it a shot. I was going up, or coming off. Within reason! I wanted the traditional experience, the full challenge of the wall. I'd done the ground-work, done all those things I tell people to do when I'm coaching; break the route down into sections, give yourself the psychological advantage. Arm yourself with what you can see. Know for sure when you can't fall, but similarly, know when you can! This is important. Draw a line on the rock where you are safe, up to that line you can go full throttle in 'sport mode'; 100% commitment to the climbing.

The first moves are OK, but then it all gets awkward and moves pass by that won't go backwards. My petrol gauge goes red; OK, I know there is something left in the tank.

Now, balanced on the girdle ledge I assessed my plan. The gear was good at the ledge, as I knew it would be from doing Right Wall and Lord before. Good enough? For a massive fall? Maybe, probably. But how massive? This ledge had looked to be more than half height of the wall, so in theory, by mathematical calculation, the hard polished rocky ground far below would be out of reach even with a tumble right from the very top. That's where I'd placed my line originally, though with this was an absolute worse-case scenario suggesting that maybe I would not die, but even so, was not guaranteed. But now I doubted my plan, in fact it seemed utterly stupid; the top looked very far away. What about rope stretch, what if the gear at the ledge ripped? I put in more gear.

Then prepared. Skyhook at the ready. Quickdraws on the back, two on each side, probably more than enough. A rack of wires 1-5 on the left and 1-8 on the right. Mixture of DMM offsets and normal rocks. A few mini cams too, just in case. The rest of my stuff I abandoned. Clearly big cams and extra quickdraws were not of any value other than weight training. Petzl Helmet on and set, though I'd barely know it was there, just knowing it was there somehow giving me a tad more confidence. Like a car seat belt, now part of every trip and feeling naked without it.

When to go? Actually it was temperature that dictated. After a whole day baking in the sun, now a wind blew and in the shade it was freezing. Shivering I set off, though was I actually cold? At first easy enough. A few gear placements that I don't have but look fiddly anyway. Then it gets harder, but my style. I can keep this going. This is just what I was after; technical, edgy, complex stuff. I'm thinking it's going to be like this all the way. And there's the wire slot, obvious in placement and size. It slots in. How good is it? I'm not totally sure, it looks OK, not a '5 out of 5' in my one – five gear rating scale, more of a three maybe, or a two? It seems a long way back to the ledge already. But actually not as far as I'd have liked, because it was still miles to the top, and I was aware that I hadn't really started. No time to stop. Small chalked holds mark the way but I was expecting something a bit bigger. There seemed to be chalk on stuff that barely qualified as a hold. Footholds run out and movement becomes dynamic; snatching between holds that don't face in the right direction. Shit! This feels like… F8a! For some reason I didn't think it would be quite so hard. I'm absolutely in sport mode but a glance back at the distant wire makes me wonder if I should be. Where were those boundaries again, where was that line on the rock when it was time to assess? There was now no time for anything. A desperate move and I felt I was coming off, just held it, almost resigned to taking flight but feet seemed to stick on edges so small I could barely see them. Another move and another right on the limit and a final stretch for surely a better hold.

It's good. Well, relatively. In-cut. And clearly a skyhook belongs right there. Clipping the hook I breathed. I never imagined I'd be so pleased to use such a marginal bit of equipment balanced on a tiny edge. Now it was all about recovery; those endless laps on the Lattice board feeling suddenly so worthwhile. Above is the top of the crag, just maybe three metres away. There are holds I can see, it looks OK, at least at first. I shake out again. This rest is not the girdle ledge. This is a bad rest, which means it's a good rest right? It's one of those rests where you don't have forever, you are against the clock, monitoring recovery to find the sweet-spot at exactly the moment you start to tire more than recover….. And there it is…

Steve runs it out and teeters up the technical final moves of Nightmayer E8 6c.  © Keith Sharples
Steve runs it out and teeters up the technical final moves of Nightmayer E8 6c.
© Keith Sharples

The first moves are OK, but then it all gets awkward and moves pass by that won't go backwards. My petrol gauge goes red; OK, I know there is something left in the tank. No need to panic, just keep it utterly precise. I get into position for the final move, but I can't reach the top, I'm short by maybe 8 inches. Quick! My body position is wrong, four points of contact and they don't work for this move. A tiny crimp could do it, not chalked, barely a hold; it's going to be a slap. But it could work. I set up to move, then glance at the wire miles away, and the skyhook which looks like it's about to fall off. No. it's too risky; think this out first. What's wrong, what do I need for this move? It's all in the right foot. The petrol gauge starts blinking red, last fumes now, but I can see the problem, and there's the fix: a tiny foothold in the right place. I could stab it up there, but if I miss I'll cartwheel off the wall. No, a better way - left foot back down first to match feet, right foot up, left foot back up again. I've got the height now…Then lunge over…

The final hold is under my hand and I'm safe. For a moment it takes a while to get myself together, feeling elated but all a bit muddled up from the intensity of it all, barely knowing how to clip myself in. Sorting my abseil seems an overly complex affair and bizarrely dangerous. What an experience. It takes a while to sink in, the most obvious observation being that I'd only just got up by the skin of my teeth, though for others on the ground it was the missing of the crucial wire a few metres above where I'd had mine (that I'd not even seen). But what stood out was the big question: When to go for it. It would have been easy to put this route off, waiting for everything to be perfect; cooler, crisper, fitter, stronger, more rested. I'd considered waiting a day for the good next day forecast, but in Llanberis style it changed at the last minute to total drizzle and chucking it down. I guess the answer, once you know you are going to try, is to just make it happen. If you don't get it, it's just a bit of rock after all, if you do, it will be amazing!

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Steve McClure

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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...

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24 Jul

Brilliant! Climbing and writing. I enjoyed that and have sweaty palms just reading your 'inner dialogue'. Sounds like that'll stay in the memory banks for a while!

Looking forward to seeing the video.

24 Jul

Agree - great account of what is clearly a fearsome route.

Interesting comparing the inner dialogue with Andy's on The Bells.

Again, so glad it worked OK in the end.


26 Jul

Really good article!