Articles - INTERVIEW: Steve McClure
Steve McClure. Photo: Keith Ladzinski
Andy McCue - Posted on 31 Jan 2012
"I've been cleaning like a bloody maniac," says Steve McClure as he beckons me into his beautiful Sheffield home - the product of many years of his own hard building work. Wandering around the kitchen topless, he's much smaller than you'd imagine from the photos and without an ounce of body fact on his lean, muscular frame, the speckles of grey in the short cropped hair the only thing that hints at him having passed 40 last year. Despite the passing years, however, McClure is still Britain's top sport climber with clear daylight between him and any upcoming, younger pretenders to the crown. He's always been modest about his achievements and at times still seems genuinely surprised to be in the position he's in.
After a long trad apprenticeship on the North York Moors, where he was introduced to climbing by his parents and the Cleveland Mountaineering Club, regular trips to Pembroke and then ticking off E5s in the Peak District while also partying hard and getting boxed at university in Sheffield studying Mechanical Engineering, McClure started hard sport climbing at the Cornice and Rubicon in the mid-1990s and quickly rose through the grades. The first landmark was climbing Jerry Moffatt's Evolution (F8c+) at Raven Tor at the end of 1996, aged 26 and then the first ascent of Mutation (F9a) at the same crag in 1998, But it was the project that escaped Ben Moon, Northern Lights (F9a) at Kilnsey in 2000 that really marked his entrance onto not only the British, but world, stage. Since then the list of UK limestone first ascents alone is incredible - True North (F8c) at Kilnsey, Unjustified (F8c) at Malham, and then his two big ones - Rainshadow (F9a) and the mighty Overshadow (F9a+) at Malham - the latter of which only received its first repeat this year by Adam Ondra. Then throw in a bunch of impressive on-sighting sprees on limestone in Europe and around the world plus some top hard trad repeats, such as John Dunne's Big Issue (E9 6c) and Dave MacLeod's Rhapsody (E11 7a). And, although a family man now with a young daughter and juggling the responsibilities of parenthood with the climbing, route setting, coaching, lectures and writing associated with the day job, he's still going strong, working a new project at Malham that is likely to be harder than Overshadow.
(The route was the platform for Steve McClure's rise to the top - the Ben Moon project Northern Lights (F9a) at Kilnsey. Photo: Keith Sharples)
Why did you make the switch from trad to sport climbing back in the mid-1990s?
I needed a new challenge and a lot of people were into sport climbing around that '95-ish era. It was something totally new. I'd been trad climbing for years, it was all I'd done since I was 15 and suddenly there was this new thing. Also when I was about 20 one of my mates totally mangled himself trad climbing. It was just right in front of my face, like 'smash', bits all over the place and that had a big impact on my trad climbing. It wasn't that I didn't want to trad climb but I didn't want to be in a trad climbing environment.
At the time you made the first ascent of Ben Moon's project Northern Lights at Kilnsey in 2000 you described it as 'my single best climbing moment'. Is that still true?
I almost felt like doing that route was like I'd made it. I knew that it was going to be quite big because it was such a famous route, probably the world's second most famous project, with Realization being the most famous but that hadn't been done then. So when I did Northern Lights it just went totally ballistic. It was a bit overwhelming. It doesn't really bother me or phase me but suddenly every single magazine in the world has got like a front cover or an interview. It was like that route was the platform to build my entire climbing career off which I must admit I feel much in debt to Ben really. If Ben had done it, it probably wouldn't have made much difference to him but it certainly made a big difference to me so that really was a very good starting point.
Was that also the platform for quitting a pretty good engineering job?
I'd been engineering for seven years. My boss said that I could go back after a year, so that was an easy escape really. Also I wasn't packing my job in to try and have a climbing career, it's just that I'd got to a point where I'd just done Northern Lights and I thought I need to explore a bit more my climbing and see what I can do with it. So I took a year off and went to the States for four months and Spain four or five times and just went climbing shitloads. I didn't get any stronger, I didn't do anything any harder but I just covered so much ground, it was absolutely brilliant. I think that was the year I did a hundred F8as in a year. So it was a good year and that's when I realised I didn't want to go back to my old job and I thought maybe there was a chance I could earn a bit of money through climbing.
Rainshadow (F9a) in 2003 and Overshadow (F9a+) in 2007 at Malham were both long projects. How did you stay motivated over those periods?
Rainshadow was about 20 days and Overshadow was 40. Rainshadow was brilliant. That was a really nice journey. I spread it over a couple of years and there was no pressure. But it's such a good route. I'd got to the point at Malham where I'd done everything I could do but I just loved the venue, so I really enjoyed going there and trying that. It was the first long-term project sport route that I was very relaxed on, where it became a friendly journey. The ones before that, Mutation and Northern Lights were quite stressful because I knew what was coming, I knew that it was a prize, it was a trophy and I wanted to do it and I had a block of time to try and do it in. My whole focus was 'do this route' just get up it. Rainshadow was the entrance into why I redpoint stuff, it was great. Overshadow was exactly the same, it just took longer because of factors around it. With Overshadow I had to put bolts in and clean the rock. I probably spent three or four days the first year just looking at it, didn't really get into the zone. Next year I was here, there and everywhere and had maybe five or six days on it. But then the next year, the third year, I got really psyched for it, really wanted to do it and almost did it in about between 15 and 20 days. But I ran out of year, it just got wet. The following year I had a child and everything was all over the place. That last year took me 10 more days of effort. It changed from a very pleasurable journey to one with a load of different things to work against - knackered because I've had no sleep, too hot in the baking sun or being wet. I did think it might not happen. I'd tried to stop all my work. I knew I couldn't go in the autumn because I was away so if I didn't do it in the spring it was going to be another year. I suddenly felt under my own pressure to do it and everything seemed against me. It was a real torturous battle but I kind of enjoyed it. I felt as though I took the whole redpointing thing to a new place. Redpointing for most people they just perceive it as you've tried a route that is really within your ability, failed to on-sight it but basically you're going to be able to do it, you'll just have to go there a few times. That's why people find it a bit of a dull sport, because you are going to do it. Whereas this was 'I'm not sure this is going to happen, I know I can do it but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do it'. It's hard enough that it's not a given and there were so many factors against me to overcome - it wasn't just turning up and pulling hard. It was a proper challenge, which I've not had since.
(Steve McClure on his Malham masterpiece, Overshadow (F9a+). Photo: Keith Sharples)
Adam Ondra finally made the second ascent of Overshadow this year - are you surprised it's taken so long for someone to come and repeat it?
It's been perfect because the routes have been left long enough to gain a kind of status but had they been left much longer they would just have fallen off the radar as so many routes do. Adam did it perfectly and confirmed all of the grades and had a tussle on Overshadow, which is good for me. He's a level up on everyone else. He's the only climber I've met who seems to be capable of using all of his strengths when he's climbing. He's very tall but he's flexible enough to use his tallness. A lot of tall people can reach between the holds but aren't flexible enough to do all the other stuff whereas he can do them both. And he uses his height incredibly well. He misses out so many hard moves because he can just reach through them but can reach through them and then put his foot up, whereas tall people can't do that normally. So he brings together all of his strengths. That's the reason he's so good.
You finally climbed Ben Moon's Hubble in 2009. How did it feel to nail such an iconic route?
I remember first going on it when I'd barely done anything hard at all, probably 1997/8 just for a look and thinking 'that's way too hard for me'. I think it was only 2008 that I thought I might be able to do it. The reason why it was such a massive tick for me was because it was a route which I'd always thought was too hard for me, not my style, but another reason is that it was very much a benchmark. It's what was left over as a challenge from the previous sport climbing generation. There were a lot of people into sport climbing, then they all finished and there was only me left over and it was what Ben left. It was the challenge. You can go off and do all this other stuff - Mutation and Northern Lights, but this is what we've left you and until you've done this one route you haven't even matched us. I don't think it was quite like that but that's how it felt. The other reason it was so good to do it was when I first started getting into climbing that's when Hubble got done and was very big news at the time, the world's first F8c+. I remember just thinking that's incredible, so amazing. It's like a really important childhood picture and it was always there hanging in the background. I didn't feel I had to do it for anybody else but myself but it just felt if I do that route it's really going to mean a lot. And it did, as much as everything else, it was a really big one, one of the biggest, despite it being one of the shortest.
How has family life and having a daughter changed/affected your approach to climbing?
Having a kid puts things into perspective. It's all you've got. You've got a lot of stuff but that's all you've got. They do eat up shitloads of time, and take so much effort and cost a bit but they're definitely worth it. It's changed my focus. Before Amelie came along I was doing more on-sight trad stuff and I was obviously going away more for my on-sight sport but the time constraints make it a lot harder to do now so that's part of the reason I do a lot more redpointing because it fits in very well. It's maybe one of the reasons why long-term projects are quite appealing and quite satisfying because they are very much an escape, very local, very absorbing and they take you away into a new place and it's a very easy place to get to, the redpoint world.
You've admitted before you don't like training - why?
Occasionally I'll get motivated for it but ultimately I'm not psyched for training at all. I don't like a lot of hard effort. I'm quite lazy I suppose. I don't mind training when it doesn't feel like training. I went to the Climbing Works recently, they've got a really good circuit board and I got really psyched to try and do all the circuits. There was an 8c+ circuit that nobody had done before so I was trying really hard to do. People would argue that is training but I wasn't training I was going there because I was massively psyched to climb I suppose. But after doing that to then go and do loads of campussing and press-ups and stuff I just find that really hard work. I've had little forays into it but I've never put enough time and effort to make a difference. A few years ago I was doing lots of weighted pull-ups and stuff. I was doing 15 kilos, 10 pull-ups on the minute and I couldn't quite do it for the fifth rep. I still never managed 50 after four weeks so I was just like 'well what's the point?' and it didn't make any difference to my climbing either. It's too late now for me anyway. If I slog my guts out for ages and train like a maniac all I'm going to do is miss out on going climbing and I might possibly, maybe, climb something marginally harder but maybe not. I still put a lot of effort in, don't get me wrong. And I'm on the go all the time but to up the amount of stuff that I do in order to get better I think the gains I'd make would be small but most importantly I'd probably be totally injured in about a day and at my age now that's the thing you're fighting against.
Why hasn't Britain produced any other top sport climbers at your level in the last couple of decades?
Fashion has affected things massively. The hard grit era came along and pulled a lot of the sport climbers into hard grit. But I don't think there was anybody at that time that would have got up to my standard. The top players were Neil Bentley, Seb Grieve and Rob Barker, people like that, so I was already a few grades ahead of those guys anyway. Then the bouldering thing came along. So, to a certain extent, trends and fashion have taken people more away from sport climbing and left me to have the complete run of the mill. Even now I feel as though I'm still climbing at a harder level than pretty much everybody else, it's bizarre really.
(Still going strong - Steve McClure working his latest Malham project earlier this year, which he claims is harder than Overshadow. Photo: Ian Burton)
Tell us about your new Malham project.
It's something I got myself involved in just because I knew that I'd got much more climbing left in me and I need to be motivated. There's three projects I've got at Malham at the moment, two of which I've not even got involved with and one I've tried a bit this spring. And it's hard. It goes up Raindogs, over the crux of Rainshadow and then just blasts straight up via quite a hard section of climbing. I don't know how hard it is but it's pretty hard, so it's a proper power endurance route. I think it's harder than Overshadow but I'm not sure whether Ondra will agree. Just because there's a section of climbing right at the end that I know he can reach past because he went on it when he lowered down from Bat Route, he looked at the holds. Even for someone who can miss out the crux it's still going to be F9a+ though and it feels like it could be a notch up for me.
Rock and Ice magazine once called you the 'world's strongest nobody'...
World's strongest is obviously totally wrong. 'World's weakest somebody' might be closer. First of all I'm world's strongest nothing, that's for sure. But on the flipside I think I've managed to create a reasonably high profile for somebody who is actually not that strong a climber. In Britain I've had the total run of the mill and become really top profile whereas if I was living abroad I would not be that special really. I've had a really lucky position that there isn't anybody else to put me in my place. I've done alright for myself in that respect. But 'world's strongest'? No, far from that. I'd get my arse kicked by pretty much anybody if it comes down to strength. But luckily it's not all down to strength - otherwise I'd be rubbish!
THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE OCTOBER 2011 ISSUE OF CLIMBER MAGAZINE