Second Ascent of Lexicon E11 7a by Steve McClure

© Neil Gresham

Just two weeks after Neil Gresham claimed the first ascent of a long-term project on Pavey Ark (UKC News), Steve McClure has repeated Lexicon E11 7a, taking a 70ft whipper in the process during an earlier attempt.

Steve committing to the final moves on Lexicon.   © Neil Gresham
Steve committing to the final moves on Lexicon.
© Neil Gresham

In 2008, Steve made the third ascent of Dave MacLeod's Rhapsody E11 7a at Dumbarton Rock. Lexicon is his second of the grade. 

Steve had dabbled in the moves while Neil was working the line. He told UKC: 

"When I first really tried Lexicon I was immediately drawn in. It's such a great route. The rock is perfect, the position amazing, the moves intense and continuous. It made no difference what grade it was, and I'm certain Neil felt the same."

Commenting on the suggested grade of E11 7a, Steve explained: 

"Neil asked me about the E11 grade. I said if he really believed it, then of course go with it. He has no agenda, he's already so accomplished. The duty of the first ascensionist is to honestly propose a grade based on their experience. This is what Neil has done. 

"And of course people will ask my opinion, like I actually know! And so I'll suggest that it is harder than Choronzon, GreatNess Wall, and Olympiad (E10). But note, these are absolutely not confirmed! I'd also suggest that it is physically a little easier than Rhapsody (E11), but with a more worrying fall. Admittedly the first few moves of Lexicon are (I think) considerably harder for the short (that includes me!), which may make a difference. But overall, I'm not suggesting it should be downgraded. Of course we may be wrong.. and its a shame that I'd feel I have to even include that comment, like some kind of pre-apology to the armchair critics.

"If the fall was safe, I'd be suggesting E10, or even E9 if I was feeling 'British'. But I'm not sure it is. True, I lobbed from way up and got away with it, but I think it's just that... I got away with it!"

Steve wrote a short account of his scary fall and the following successful attempt:

Feeling the sharp crystals of the sloper bite into my skin, I released my left hand and stretched upwards towards the tiny wafer edge. Driving down hard through my left foot the move felt harder than expected, harder than on top-rope, but within 'margin'. Fingers nestled into the wafer, trying to find that best fit to get the most out of a 5mm crimp. Then foot out right, onto the smear… get it weighted. Move the body upwards a little and then hold it, tensing everything, a full-body core test. Release the right hand to reach out for a tiny pocket. This felt hard, but again, within margin, but now only just. I just need to keep pushing, the top is just a metre away, the next moves I've done before and not dropped.

Then suddenly my foot blew, I kind of felt it skit over the rough surface, catching me by surprise and kind of mid-move. I almost held it….then felt the rush of air and in a split second was sat on the rope, a white faced Neil to greet me, almost within touching distance. I'd expected to know I was falling, to have time to think, but the speed of it unnerved me even further; like it happened in an instant, or maybe I'd simply blocked it from my mind. A quick check revealed all was well, a dull ache from my wrist was not going to be serious and the blood oozing from the back of my hand was just a flesh wound… relatively minor compared to….? Well, compared to being smashed to bits on the ledges.

The system had worked. There had been careful analysis and much pondering; measuring of distances, fiddling with gear, drop tests with rucksacks and even test falls by Neil. An imaginary jury of 11 voted 6 to 5; 'We think you might be OK'. I'd ended up on the right side of 'might'. But rather than adding confidence to the system, this lob simply confirmed the 'might' as opposed to the 'You will be OK'. A cam had ripped, and in one of Neil's test falls he broke a cross-loaded carabiner. And I was horrified to discover my kit had been loaded really badly, leaving my fall on just one three-way-loaded crab! The fall had been huge, and the impact forces high. A 'soft' catch would be nice, but a tied-down belayer essential. I'd hit the rope hard, my feet just a metre above Neil, and bounced upwards and back into the wall to settle a few metres above the ledges; without the ground anchor I'd have crashed straight into Neil. It became clear that, basically, bar the minor hand wound, my fall had been as good as it gets.


A post shared by Neil Gresham (@neil.gresham)


Walking back up to Pavey a few days later it struck me that I was in a unique position. Unique to me that is. Unique in that this was the first time I'd ever headed to the crag with the specific intention of going for a scary lead! With every other route of this style I'd 'tricked' it into submission; with the day's plan being to just have a play, to look at the moves or maybe to check the gear… and then it had sneaked up on me and suddenly I was up there running it out.

I pondered if this was a hidden strategy; where I actually knew I was on for a lead but pretended I didn't to avoid any stress, or if the lead genuinely wasn't part of the plan. I settled on the latter. Though today there was no pretence! There was nothing else to be done. I felt a huge respect for those where this is more normal, the headpointers: Macleod, Gresham, Dixon, Findlay, Twyford, Grieve and many more. I'd swerved it, but now it weighed on me. I wasn't very good at it.

I hung back as the others stomped their way up the ghyll, an hour's grind to 750m but for them no worries about conserving energy. My legs bucked, and I cursed the weight of my bag and pondered what useless junk I'd carelessly packed. That fall! A huge vote of confidence and a monumental dose of fear, both battling with each other.

Someone said, 'After taking that lob, now you really know you can go for it. Use it in your favour to get psyched'. I tried to sit on that side of the fence; absolutely, that fall is fine, it's just a sport route with a few bolts missing. But will more gear rip? What if the belayer has more slack out? But more importantly, what if I fall off even higher? The moves after I fell are just as hard. Five more hand movements, all intricate requiring absolute precision. I tried to block it, and hide from the pressure, informing everyone my wrist was still a bit sore (genuinely) and that it was a bit warm (genuinely) in the hope of turning today into a genuine 'working day' with the potential to sneak up on it later.

But that was never going to work, and I found myself settling into the process; the warming up, fitting around the others who were climbing, checking the gear again, practising the placements, pulling some hard moves for recruitment. And then uncoiling the ropes, racking up, putting on shoes, chalking up. Even setting off I was still not committed; I was still 'just having a look', with the option of getting off at any time.

Finally I hovered at the break and stared upwards…and downwards, remaining as best I could in the moment, monitoring the pump in my arms. Analysis told me it was warmer than I'd like it to be and I ran through the conflicts; how much I wanted this, how bad the fall was likely to be, my chances of success, and even future chances. Should that count? Should that even be a thing? To want it now when perhaps it's not perfect, would I get another chance even this year… and actually, is it ever perfect, is this actually as good as it gets?

Like stood on the railway platform beside a departing train. The driver is asking 'Are you getting on sir, or would you like to wait for the next one?'. I'm wavering, the doors will be closing soon, I can't decide… Then, at the last moment I step on board, knowing I'm in for the ride, no stops 'til the final destination!

Steve making the first repeat of Lexicon E11 7a.   © Neil Gresham
Steve making the first repeat of Lexicon E11 7a.
© Neil Gresham

First moves go well, the difficulty crux for me, though much easier for the taller. Perhaps that helps, psychologically. Long stretches take me quickly away from the protection and into the crozzly crimps. I feel their sharpness, but am aware of a lack of bite. I want to chalk but instead glance at my tips between moves to check their status; they are dry, thank god, but even so, those holds don't feel as good. But they feel good enough. I'm on track. Long stretch for that wafer and again I nestle tips into their individual placements. Foot out towards the smear, this time an extra moment to seat it, I don't want it to blow again. Tense my whole body, stretch to the pocket. It's feeling hard again.

On toprope I never dropped this section, but was always acutely aware that the clock was ticking, that I had to move fast and efficiently before the alarm went off. Now, suddenly that clock appeared, but speeded up, the alarm about to go off. The next small crimp felt rounded, all sharpness somehow blunted. A long stretch into a sloper, normally with grip, I'd been so certain these moves would be OK. My fingers moved, I was losing traction, like hot tyres pushed to their limit in a sharp bend, sliding and about to catastrophically skid.

A long move out right stood before me, the 20mm side-pull slot beckoning. This move should be almost static, right foot flagged behind for balance and dragging the sloper to reach the slot with just a little 'udge'. But now the system of forces and body positions collapsed as I lunged wildly at the slot, my right foot swinging out into space in an attempt to pendulum my body inwards. All attention focused on the slot, my entire world concentrated on a 20 x 50mm shape of rock. I made a funny little squeak, or some other kind of noise, some kind of reaction as I only just caught the edge, the tips of my fingers surprised to be engaged.

Steve reaches the break before the headwall on Lexicon.  © Neil Gresham
Steve reaches the break before the headwall on Lexicon.
© Neil Gresham

In that moment I honestly thought I was off. Another four intricate body movements required complete focus, but then the finishing jugs came, and the smiles and relief. But for a while I was honestly not sure I'd succeeded. That move to the slot, and 0.01 seconds of being so sure I was off had been so intense as to equal the feeling of success as I sat safely on the finishing ledge. It took a while to sink in, to be able to absorb the relief, to reach over for fist bumps with Neil and Franco and to breathe huge lungfuls of that beautiful Lakeland air.

But very clearly there was some little old guy, sat on my shoulder, a guy who I'd seen before but not really heard much from. But this time he spoke clearly and with meaning…. 'Just what the F*** do you think you are doing?'…..A few days later, and he's still there. Guess I've got a fair bit to learn!

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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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23 Sep, 2021

Wow! Steve's status as climbing legend has just been even further reinforced. What an amazing effort to take that fall and go back to despatch the route. Hats off to both him and Neil on such a stunning route.

23 Sep, 2021

Gresham: "Is trad climbing alive in Britain? …err, yes, and thankfully, so is Steve McClure. 😳😳"

Awesome effort

23 Sep, 2021

Another great bit of writing by Steve.

Is there a video of the fall?

23 Sep, 2021

Well done Mr McClure! Does anyone know how the other 'Big Mac' is doing on it? Has he had to return to his northern kingdom empty handed, or is his border reiving of Cumbrian routes ongoing?

23 Sep, 2021

Excellent read, well done! Once that quality of description takes you to the rock, like Steve, you're strapped in for the ride. Best article I've read on here for a while..

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