Steve McClure should need little introduction. A legend in British climbing, he's established cutting-edge sport routes in the UK, onsighted E8 trad routes, been part of the legendary Petzl Roc Trips, and been cranking since the 80's... all while being part of a family and supposedly 'not strong!' It's all in Steve's book, Beyond Limits.

Do you think there are many ‘characters’ left in UK climbing? For example, Ben and Jerry were a strong duo, Gary Gibson (although he's still bolting away), John Redhead from 80s? Are climbers these days professional and squeaky clean?

The scene now is completely different. Society is different on the whole. The 80’s climbers were all about living on the dole, dossing in caves, hitching everywhere, getting wasted, crazy clothes, and pushing the boundaries of danger as well as physical. The characters matched – with huge personalities that were often pretty off the spectrum. People were not too stressed about towing the line, keeping up appearances. There's no doubt that climbing is way more ‘normal’ these days, but it fits the current society. I’m really stoked to have been around through such a range. But to be fair, it was more fun when Redhead was scrapping with Johnny, Moffat was telling us he was the best, Dunne was fighting with everyone in Sheffield and Seb was out there on stuff he shouldn’t have been out there on.

Steve on Hubble (8c+/9a), Raven Tor. Photo: Ben Pritchard

Is it true you nearly onsighted Mission Impossible (E9/8b) in Ogwen valley, but fell off due to a wet hold (and therefore, very close to an E9 onsight!)

Hard to say how close I got; I think I was close. I felt I did a lot of hard climbing. I’ve onsighted a lot of 8a+ and 8b (and 8b+) routes so know how hard climbing feels, even on trad, especially when the gear is of the ‘place and go’ type. But after falling I bailed, as I was only going to fall off again. Really, I should not have tried at all, as the wet bits were obvious, they just looked high and close to the end of hard climbing and I just thought ‘what the hell – it's bloody miles up to this crag and I’ll probably never get here again – may as well just go for it’.
E9 onsight would be awesome. Not sure I’ll ever manage it though, it’s all about the protection, and there can’t be many E9’s that have a few solid gear placements on the way up. Also as the ‘E’ grade goes up, I think it becomes harder to onsight, relative to the ‘headpoint’. Once you get into E8/9/10 the gear may be utterly specific and totally essential; fine once you’ve rapped the route and figured it all out, but setting off on an F8a+ with a full rack with no idea what’s coming up is a different world. Muy Cualiante in Pembroke is a great example, once E10, now E9, you press on into the death zone in F7c+ terrain, a huge run out moving away from a bomber thread but with absolutely no more protection. At the ‘no fall allowed’ point gear comes, but it’s really fiddly and has to go in right, then another totally bomber cam, but you have to go completely out of sequence to place it. Then the crux which bumps up the difficulty to F8a+/b. Armed with the gear knowledge its actually potentially fairly safe, and would be a gift at E10, but with no knowledge, it could end up being a solo, and would be harder than E10!

Are you still psyched for relatively ‘safe’ trad routes? 

I figured out really early on, like when I was 12 or 13 years old, that climbing for me was all about the movement and the complex challenge combined with pushing your body. It was not about danger. For some people it is; it’s about keeping control in a dangerous place. I fully respect these dudes. Climbing is such a great sport as it comes with so many variables and as such attraction for so many people.
The traditional side is where my roots are, and I’m drawn to ‘the line’ which is often lacking in sport routes. I like the idea of taking on the full challenge too; not just the hand and foot holds, but also protecting the line with what the rock has to offer. So, yes, I’m really psyched for relatively ‘safe’ trad. The difficulty is in finding them, as by nature, gear placements mean holds, which makes routes less hard. Keeping it together on a hard onsight is the ultimate challenge really. The best style is where there are gear placements between hard climbing, and you can get into the climbing, not thinking about gear. What I don’t enjoy is when the entire route is spent looking for gear; fiddling something in knowing its rubbish and then making half a move before fiddling in something else. I want to climb! 

Steve flashing Dawes Rides a Shovel Head (E8 6c). Photo: Kieth Sharples

Do the Petzl Roc trips stand out?

These trips were a golden age. I fluked it, right place at the right time! Petzl have to be one of the best brands to be supported by. As a kid, Petzl was THE brand making the stuff we all wanted….to get it for free… well… and then to be invited along on these trips... They really know how to do an event!
I remember the top Petzl dude, the marketing manager on one of the trips, just as he set up for one of the famous wild parties saying ‘I expect you guys (Petzl athletes) to stay up all night on the dance floor, and then be up at 9am cranking on the hardest routes’. And he absolutely meant it too, not in a nasty way, but what is important was for the athletes to have personalities and to mix with the public, to be real and approachable as well as top climbers. The mix of athletes says it all, there were few who were a stereotypical pure athlete. All the Roc trips were brilliant, the highlight to the year. China was massive, Mexico, Argentina, Turkey, Red River, The Gunks, France, Canada… but Kalymnos was probably my favourite. I wrote a whole chapter in my Autobiography about the trips, I could probably write a whole book on them.

Thinking about Rainman, your recent 9b sport route at Malham - how did you feel in the weeks and months after your ascent? Sated and content, but also missing something?

I get asked this a bit, was asked it last week at a talk I did at the Orange House in Spain. There's certainly something missing, but not in a bad way. I’d catch myself smiling and just feeling incredibly satisfied. I felt I had achieved everything I needed to achieve, on a personal level. But what I have missed since then is the drive to absolutely be my best. In the thick of it I’d be out at Malham all day on a Monday, 9am-11pm, then do an hours finger board session when I got back 11.30 – 12.30. Up at 6.30am next day to route set in Hull, then on the way home hit the Foundry 8pm-10pm. Rest next day with coaching, and then repeat. There was never any question about the intensity. But now, there is no way I’d train like that – I just couldn't be arsed! I don’t feel much weaker – but a little weaker, and that feels actually like a lot! The feeling of being at your peak is special. Though I guess this can’t last long, or anyone would fall apart.

Do you think you’ve got another Rainman-style effort in you? It sounded special to find that absolute limit of ‘just about’ possible (in your words). Do you think you’ll try to repeat this, if another route and the circumstances allow? Or, do you think you could try a harder route?

Tricky one – I think you don’t look for these things, they find you! I absolutely loved the process of pushing my limit. This route was a totally new experience for me and one that most people will never have; to really find the limit. A project that takes 5 days, or 10, or 20 may feel like the limit. It did for me before. I said after Rainshadow (20 days) that I’d never climb harder, then after Overshadow (42 days) there was no way I could go better. But Rainman was another level up. Maybe I could go harder! But I’m not looking for the next personal level. I’m interested in stuff that will push me and motivate me to be my best; stuff that leaves me pondering at night and while standing in a queue; ‘what do I need to do to get this route’. This I find interesting. If the answer is ‘just try again and you’ll probably do it’ then it’s not as absorbing.

Steve at Malham, where's he's established routes like Overshadow (9a) and Rainman (9b).

You famously say you’re ‘not that strong,’ so what’s the secret? (Technique and movement efficiency, perhaps - finding the easiest way relative to the difficulties?)

I’m not strong, never have been. Relative that is. I’m supposed to have climbed 9b, and a few at 9a+, as well as up to Font 8b+. The guys climbing this level are WAY stronger than me. In fact I’d be pretty sure I’m the weakest guy to climb this level by far. Apparently, after testing I came I at an 8c max redpointer. So I’m not weak (8c is hard still), but just relatively. But ‘strength’ is of course not just physical, though that’s what we usually think of. There's mental strength of course, and technical ability. I’d say each 3 components are equal: physical, technical, mental. There are many climbers who are not strong technically or mentally, they are judged to be amazing by physical ability, but then fall short when it comes to the crunch. We completely underestimate the value of mind and technique, especially now when training is becoming the thing, and actually just being strong is more impressive than actual climbing. If you look on Facebook or Instagram there are tons of pictures of people hanging off boards by half a finger.

Can you still do a one-armer? 

Yes, on my left, occasionally on my right if my dodgy shoulder is not so dodgy. I managed 3 once, in a row, straight armed in between. That’s my record. But it didn’t make me climb any harder! I can hang off the beastmaker 2000 bottom middle rung with extra 8kg, though I feel this is not actually very impressive at all. Didn’t Megos manage this with 32kg extra?!!

Can you 1-5-9?

Actually, one of my training goals, if not my only training goal, is to manage 1-4-7, which I have never managed - ever. This is pretty shoddy really, but perhaps the ultimate example of how physical strength is not everything. I would bet my house that all other 9a climbers can at least do 1-4-7 (probably 1-5-9. Static!)

What’s harder: 9b or dieting?

Dieting! I tried a diet for January. Not a lose-weight diet, a ‘let’s see if I feel healthy’ diet. And I did. I gave up alcohol, refined sugar, wheat, gluten and dairy. I felt leaner and lighter and faster and had better energy levels and really happy with my ‘digestion’ overall. But I was bored, and craved chocolate and cheese and basically wished the month away. Then within days of eating the usual I felt rubbish. It was absolutely obvious that I should continue to give up all that stuff, and yet I totally failed, and gradually got used to it all again. So I guess I ‘tolerate’ any effects. But the conclusion I reached was that willpower is hard to find. I always figured I had strong willpower. Maybe it’s all about the motivation; if I was ramping up to a 9b I’d be giving it everything, but in the middle of winter, with nothing really on the horizon other than an occasional training session followed by a boring dinner and no beer, well, it was dull. But I now have respect for those that really go for it; those that lose 10 kg just to look better, those that give up smoking, drinking. It's bloody hard work!

What do you think of the state of UK climbing now? Obviously it’s changed, but are you encouraged by the new breed?

Climbing is an ever changing animal that will follow its own path. It can’t be predicted; who’d have seen it coming 20 years ago, the way climbing is these days. It’s now so diverse, with new elements taken from other sports. It’s different to when I was younger, of course. Now there is more of a focus on strength, power and bouldering. I guess many of the older generation feel left behind as we just can’t keep up. There are some who resent the new styles of leaping around on big blobs which are so different to setting off on an onsight of London Wall. But the older skills and techniques are still there, we just have more stuff to do now. My only gripe would be if rock climbing stars and ‘rock climbing’ itself was viewed as the indoor parkour style, and those classic routes and the guys climbing them were just completely forgotten about.
This is a way off, though. The cutting edge of indoor climbing and competitions is regular news and appears to be the main event, but there are WAY more climbers out there who are psyched by a day at Stanage or up in the Lakes, and impressed more by the efforts of Jim Pope who recently made a fast headpoint of Appointment with Death at Wimberry, or Ben Moon on Evolution, or the efforts of Maddy, Ryan, Buster etc., all out on real rock having their own adventure.

Which routes are you most proud of? Onsight or Redpoint?

That’s a big question. To narrow it down, I guess it would be Strawberries at Tremadog; a route that had such an impact on me as a kid, THE hardest around, it filled all the magazines at an age when I was so psyched on climbing. But of course, back then it was absolutely not possible for me or even a dream. To end up getting the first Brit onsight was amazing, though that’s not important – just to have onsighted a route of such personal importance was a highlighter to what an incredible journey I’ve been on.

Then of course, the cliché, but Rainman is up there as a redpoint, of course it is. In a similar way, in that this was the first and only route I never thought I’d do, and I was completely happy with that. I guess I knew there was a chance, but really, odds were that I’d fail. But it wasn’t failing, it was learning on a whole new level, really able to target and monitor weaknesses and progress. But as a bonus, this climb is just amazing; the best line, the best rock, so much variation and also completely my style. It was a gift. To climb this is a lifetime highlight.

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Steve is sponsored by Petzl, Five Ten, Marmot, RockCity, and is a BMC Ambassador.