Hard to believe that the early 90's represent a high watermark for British sport climbing. Since then, ascents of 8c and harder have been the preserve of a lonely elite whilst the masses consume the convenience food of bouldering and the designer danger of Hard Grit™. Well, not anymore!
This year will be remembered as the year that sport climbing fought back. Ascents of 8c routes reached double digits and again Britain has a route which arguably takes its place amongst the hardest in the world. With 2007 being such an epic year, it has been hard to decide what to include in this review. In previous years climbing several 8b's and the odd 8b+ would have made you stand out. This year you don't make the cut if you didn't climb 8c! Onsights were a bit harder to check up on, but with 8a onsights routine these days, only 8a+ and harder makes the list. For the women, anything 8a and harder is still newsworthy. There's too much action to report to waffle on any more, so here we go with a countdown of the burliest UK climbers of 2007 (well it is sport climbing after all)!
Quelle surprise. Over the last few years Steve has been head, shoulders and a fair amount of torso above everyone else in the UK and this year is no exception. I do have sad news to report though; Steve is suffering from early onset memory loss. When pressed, he claimed not to have done much this year. This is from a man who has made the first ascents of two 8c's, onsighted 8b+ in Terradets, Spain and outclassed the rest of the world by onsighting a dripping wet 8b, at night, whilst on the Petzl Roc Trip in Scalatabel, France. However, one route has Overshadow'ed (ho, ho!) the rest. Steve's magnum opus takes the ludicrously steep headwall above Overnite Sensation at Malham. Steve's route made national headlines for his trademark “bat-hang” rest, but the difficulty of this route cannot be overstated. Imagine 100ft of climbing as steep as The Rasp, with holds the size of Long John's Slab. At a probable 9a+, Overshadow combines world-class quality with world-class difficulty and ensures Steve retains the podium position for 2007.
Then to cap off the year in December in five days climbing over a week at Sella, Spain, at the Water Cave and Wild Side sectors, Steve managed an 8c+, four 8b+'s, two 8b's, two 8a+'s and a bunch of 8a's. The 8c+ and one 8b+ were redpointed, the rest mostly onsighted including the 8b+ routes.
We asked. So what is in store, or planned for Steve McClure in 2008?
"The thing at Kilnsey. Perhaps a look at Rhapsody, though I don't pretend for a minute I'm gonna just go and do it - just a look see...and get fitter and stronger."
Despite seemingly ticking every trad route in the country this year, Dave found time to show that he has the firepower to back up his steady head. He showed his hand early with a February ascent of L'Odi Social, 8c+ in Siurana, a very quick 8c tick in Spain in March and the first ascent in May of Metalcore, 8c+ at the Anvil, Scotland.No roadside crag this - aspirant ascensionists must face an hour's walk in before embracing potential repeated failure at the crag. Metalcore is a stunning roof line which leads into a desperate, dynamic crux. Dave described it as “utterly inspiring for any sport climber”, and if it's got me considering that walk-in, he must be right! Then, in August, Dave found the only sport crag which wasn't under twenty feet of water and pulled off the first ascent of Ring of Steall, 8c+. Probably Scotland's most famous sport route, Ring of Steall was featured on telly as a project of the desperately underrated Dave Cuthbertson and saw off the awesome power of Malcom Smith. Finally, in December we received news that Dave had succeeded on A Muerte, a 9a at Siurana, Spain. What a year!
But what about 2008?
"My plan for 2008 is to wind down my work a bit at the end of the spring so I can go climbing a lot more this summer. I've done loads of work and little climbing for the past couple of years to get myself to a
better position. So hopefully I can start to tip the balance back in favour of climbing again. I don't have any firm plans for routes - it's not really possible to do that in Scotland and not get frustrated. I'll just try hard
on whatever is in good condition."
“Big” Malc Smith
He's back! Malcolm Smith burst onto the world stage as the teenager who had the cheek to crush Ben Moon's Hubble and be back at the climbing wall to brag before breakfast. Then he went to show the world of bouldering who was boss and finally dropped off the radar, as the harsh realities of earning a living took their toll. Well, in 2007 Malcolm made a welcome return to hard sport climbing, and did everything he could to make up for lost time. Big Malc has been on a rampage - repeating Dave MacLeod's 8c+, Metalcore, as well as repeating two 8c's, a brace of 8b+'s and establishing his own 8b+, The Smiddy, at Scotland's crag-du-jour, The Anvil. Malc has ticked a lifetime of hard climbing in a few short months. Can he challenge for the top spot next year?
We asked Malcolm what his plans are for 2008?
"I'm still very keen. I think my main motivation for this year is onsight sport climbing. I've onsighted some 8a+ routes before but I'd love to do an 8b, not sure how realistic that is but I live in hope! The Anvil has a couple of hard projects left to do if I can make myself get up there enough. It would be amazing to consistently onsight 8a sport routes, Steve McClure style. Living in Scotland it's hard to get a lot of experience at onsighting, the only thing to do is to get super fit indoors and climb the routes with mistakes and probably over-pulling on the holds!"
Paul who? Watch this space, you're going to hear a lot more about Paul Smitton over the next few years. Paul is 22 and from Clitheroe in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire and started climbing ten years ago with his dad, Rob. This year, Paul has set the Peak District alight with a series of inspiring ascents at that crucible of hard climbing, Raven Tor. Not content with a very rapid ascent of Mecca, 8b+, Paul jumped two grades and followed up with an ascent of the desperate link-up of the Staminaband traverse into the viciously crimpy Pump up the Power. Initially given 9a, this link has settled at a very stiff 8c+! Still not content, Paul has recently made very casual repeats of Hooligan and Mecca Extension, two very different 8c's. Impressively, Paul has made a mockery of the idea that sport climbing is all about hard work, achieving all this in an extremely easy-going style. I dread to think what he'll achieve if he really applies himself!
One of the great things about sport climbing is the shared joy at the crag when someone succeeds on a project. Whether they've been trying the route for days or years it's fantastic to share in someone's personal triumph. One person who's had more than his fair share of such triumphs is Stewart Watson. Stewart is based in Austria over the summer, and has taken advantage of all that great sport climbing, ticking Gondor, 8c, at Niederthai, as well as two 8b+'s and a whole host of 8b's. He also managed to onsight 8a+ this year and narrowly missed out joining the elite 9a club. If only he'd applied his talents in the UK more, he might have made a higher spot on my list! On a personal note, I was overjoyed to succeed on Make it Funky, 8c, after three long years of suffering. Also, I feel an urge to mention the wacky world of Deep Water Soloing, which is sort of sport climbing, but with more boats. It's been a great year for Deep Water Soloing too; the first 8a+ DWS reached these shores with not one, but two, strong and foolhardy souls making the breakthrough. To climb a grade most people struggle to redpoint with no ropes, no pre-practise and the prospect of a salty enema if you fail is a major effort, so hats off to Neil Gresham, with Cutlass, at Berry Head, and the shy and retiring, yet enormously talented Gavin Symmonds, with Windowchrome at Lulworth. But if soloing 8a+ is worth a mention, imagine doing it onsight! Well, Rob Sutton did just that, with a casual onsight of Carlos Checa in Mallorca.
Sport Climbing - not for girls?
It has been a relatively quiet year for the British women, but the overall story is the same as for the men; more and more women are climbing at a higher and higher level. Perhaps the reason there hasn't been more news this year is that our leading protagonists have been focussing (with some success) on other activities. Karin Magog and Lucy Creamer have been excelling on the trad, but haven't exactly been idle on the sport. Karin snatched a brace of 8a+ ascents whilst on holiday at Terradets, Spain, whilst Lucy went (literally) one better, ticking three 8a+'s at St. Leger in France! These quick 8a+ ascents show that both Karin and Lucy are capable of much harder feats, should they choose to focus their efforts...
Two of our other leading ladies have also eschewed hard redpointing this year, this time for the delights of child-rearing! Whilst pregnancy prevented both Dalvinder Sohdi and Jenny Woodward from leading anything too hard, they have invented a new form of ascent. The pair have been racking up PTR (pregnant top rope) ascents of many of Yorkshire's classics, including an impressive PTR of L'Obsession, 7c+, at Malham by Jenny when she was 5 months pregnant!
Finally, we have two new entrants to the exclusive 8a club: Katie Whittaker cruised her way up the bouldery Out of My Tree, 8a, at Raven Tor, whilst Lucy Ellis enjoyed well deserved success on Raindogs, perhaps the benchmark 8a, at Malham. The latter route also saw a long awaited ascent from Alison Martindale this year.
Never Too Old
In May Keith Sharples, the well known Peak climber and photographer redpointed the Austrian Oak, an 8b sport climb at Malham Cove in North Yorkshire first climbed by John Dunne in 1988. Whilst some may think that hard sport climbing is a young climbers pursuit, Keith is 50 years old and his ascent follows the 8a redpoints of New Age Traveller by the evergreen 59 year olds, Al Austin and Rab Carrington (now 60).
All the world's a stage...
...and all the men and women merely players. But back in the 1990's we were the best players, so how do the events of British sport climbers stack up against their international counterparts this year? Well, except for Steve McClure, we've all got a looong way to go. Just how far is shown by the fact that 19 ascents of 9a or harder were registered with 8a.nu in 2007, and 10 ascents of 8c or harder by women. Staggeringly, the Basque powerhouse Paxti Usobiaga onsighted his 22nd route of 8b+ or harder this year with the grand finale coming in December: from the UKClimbing.com News page,
"Paxti Usobiaga had perhaps the best week sport climbing ever when he redpointed two 9a+'s and a 8c+/9a and onsights of 8b, 8c, 8b+. Soon after on the 9th December, taking only five tries, he made the first ascent of a Daniel Andrada project, Fuck the system, at Santa Linya with a proposed a grade of 9a. Patxi Usobiaga has now onsighted several 8c's, the first in October 2005 with Gaua at Lezain and his second, Pata Negra at Rodellar in 2006.
Then on Tuesday, 11th of December he achieved a world first, an onsight of an 8c+ with the first ascent of a project Bizi Euskaraz at Etxauri, a crag in the Navarra region of Spain."
Whilst the brilliantly named Geoffray De Flaugergues showed most Brits up by onsighting two 8a+'s in a weeks holiday in Spain. Geoffray is 12 years old. That's not mentioning 17-year old Charlotte Durif onsighting two 8b's in a week, Ethan Pringle climbing six 8b's or harder onsight and one 8c+ in five days and the 16-year old Spaniard, Eric Lopez climbing two 9a's in a day. As if all that wasn't enough, Chris Sharma took deep water soloing to the next level with Es Pontas, in Mallorca, which may well be 9a+!
So, clearly we Brits have a lot of hard work to do. But do not despair! Steve McClure continues to show the way, and an ever increasing pack of strong young things are creeping up on the world standard. So - fix up that fingerboard and deadhang in front of the TV. Campus all winter and lap circuits all spring. The routes are waiting and all it takes to reach the top is strength, talent and, with any luck, a dry summer!
About the author
Stuart Littlefair is a talented sport climber, boulderer and astrophysicist. He claims he used to be part of an organisation called the Sheffield Mafia. He's also a talented photographer. He is married to Jules, also a climber and they live in Sheffield. You can read more about Stuart and view his photography at his profile at UKClimbing.com, midgets of the world unite and at www.darkpeakimages.co.uk
New Bolts For Old
Whilst sport climbing is relatively safe it does depend on good bolts. Many individuals work hard to replace old bolts and most areas now have a bolt fund. If you sport climb in a particular area consider donating to that area's bolt fund - see the BMC link below and a future FAQ at UKClimbing.com.
Big news this year was the BMC Better Bolts Campaign. The BMC has purchased several thousand bolts, at a cost of £10,000 and are donating the hardware to various bolt funds around the country. More details at www.thebmc.co.uk/access
What is a bolt fund?
From the BMC website: "Bolt funds are set up by groups of committed climbers, with a passion for the climbing in their area. These volunteers raise funds for the purchase of bolts, and then do the hard and sometimes dirty work of using them to equip routes. Some funds have been involved in equipping new routes, whilst others have been established solely for replacing old bolts on existing routes."
More on bolts at the BMC website: ww.thebmc.co.uk
Check the Regional Access Database for the latest about access at the cliffs you plan to visit: www.thebmc.co.uk