Steve McClure’s Rainman (F9b) – the hardest sport route in the UK
June 5th; 2017
As previously reported, on Sunday June 4th Steve McClure climbed his long-standing Malham super project to give Rainman, his first and the UK’s only, F9b.
Steve McClure on the first ascent of Rainman. Photo Jordan Buys. Jordan dropped CLIMBER a note describing Steve's ascent ... "I could really see Steve just give it that all out effort, as he turned an undercut into a crimp I could hear on the catwalk the groan of rock vs finger nails, the place was just silent watching him do his thing. He went proper slappy for Steve where it joins Bat Route. I was so psyched I nearly unpacked my bag and put my draws back up my route!"
It’s the culmination of several years of effort and it not only crowns Steve’s glittering climbing career but categorically establishes him – if indeed it was ever in any doubt – as the UK’s leading sport climber of the last 20 years. Steve, now aged 46, is the oldest climber ever to have climbed this grade and it puts him firmly back into the top pecking order of the world’s sport climbing elite. It will undoubtedly take a top effort from a world-class climber to repeat Rainman – anyone in any doubt about Steve’s ability to utilise small holds should check-out Chris Sharma’s comments about Mutation – Steve’s still un-repeated F9a at Raven Tor.
Steve’s association with the central, and savagely overhanging, lower tier of Malham dates back to 2003 and his first ascent of Rain Shadow; then the UK’s fourth F9a - fifth now taking Hubble as F9a. Neil Carson’s Big Bang from 1996 and Steve’s own Mutation from 1998 and Northern Lights from 2000 being the earlier routes given F9a. Steve has metaphorically written his name across the central section of Malham: firstly Rain Shadow, then Bat Shadow F8c+ (2010) and then Batman F9a (2013) followed. Steve’s attempts on Rainman started in 2010. After three years of attempts and looking for some success, he switched the starts and used Bat Route as the approach to the headwall. Batman was the resultant F9a. Ever since then Steve has been starting his long term project via Rain Shadow and it is that line that he’s now completed to give Rainman.
Steve on the crucial bulge of Rain Shadow. At Font 8a the bulge was never easy but Steve had to get it down pat to make it feel easy to have enough in the tank to do another F8c+ on top. Photo Keith Sharples
The grade math are simply eye-watering. Raindogs (sans chain grab) is F8a+. From here, the Rain Shadow bulge is Font 8a – some say harder. Past here, and with a F8c+ completed, there’s a skanky and contorted kneebar shake-out. Above lies a whole series of back-to-back boulder problems. Places to clip are limited – shakeouts or rests are entirely absent – until firmly established back in Bat Route. The upper section is also F8c+ in its own right. The whole thing then is two F8c+’s on top of each other with only the marginal shake-out in the kneebar to get any semblance of recovery. Power and power endurance are tested to the max – as is aerobic fitness. Renowned top climbers have perused the upper section of what is now Rainman only to come down to earth shaking their heads in disbelief at the nature of the holds – most of which are said to be miniscule.
As anyone following Steve on social media knows, he’s been getting closer and closer over the last month; repeatedly redpointing up to but falling off attempting to latch an old peg pocket high on the headwall. Suddenly one day in mid-May, he held the pocket for the first time and then did the next few moves. All at the crag fell silent – it was on, history was about to happen! Steve had told his belay posse that he’d never fall off after that. Yet that is exactly what happened next – Steve, our man on a mission - fell! To say he wasn’t pleased would have been an understatement.
It might have broken a lessor man but Steve seemingly brushed it aside and dug deeper. Another two plus weeks of redpoints – some lower and remarkably some even higher – and it was still not in the bag. Pressure was building – time was slipping by. The weather got stupid hot, days on the crag got shifted around but Steve did what Steve’s does best – stayed focused.
Last Friday conditions weren’t great and the odds were against him – again! Another day without the cigar! After a single rest day, Steve was back on Sunday but the opening gambit wasn’t promising. Steve texted his mates back in Sheffield that he was bust; surely not – machines don’t break?! And then a couple of hours later – after a walk over the top of the Cove - he had ‘one more go’ and it was done. The UK had its first F9b! Steve: “I had to scrap my way up it in the end; it was exceptionally close!” Back in 1998 after the first ascent of Mutation he said a butterfly flapped its wings and that kept him on. Nature nearly took the opposite tack on Sunday when – having fought through all the last ‘wont fall of those moves’ - Steve finally made it through onto the contorted rest, duly shook out and sent off up Bat Route to complete the job. Steve explains what nearly happened: “I was doing the very final moves at the top – its about 4b – and a bird flew past me and nearly knocked me off!”
Steve starting the upper hard section of Rainman – itself F8c+. Photo Keith Sharples
Steve has given Rainman F9b. “It’s taken me longer than Overshadow and it harder so I’m going with F9b. If it gets down-graded, that’s ok but it felt like F9b to me!”
CLIMBER has been in touch with Steve for his post-match thoughts…
No doubt you’ve been getting congratulations all today – has it sunk it yet that you just climbed the UK’s hardest sport route and that this particular journey is over?
Not at all. First of all this has been such a personal quest that the grade and rating mean nothing. I guess if I’d been trying a confirmed 9b or whatever that would have been a target, but this was ALL about the route, of finding something truly brilliant and working towards the target. It was so close to my limit. If my limit is 9b, or whatever, that all disappeared. I’d like not to grade it, but you have to, that’s the obligation of the first ascensionist. As for the journey being over, I wonder when that will sink in. As far as I can remember there has been this hard route that I need to keep trying….. but you know how it is, there will of course be another hard route I need to keep trying..
Climbing limit redpoints means going through the mangle and making sacrifices. Can you give us a flavour of what your game plan has been and what you’ve put on hold to get this route done?
You said that right! Maybe you don’t even realize it but so much gets planned around it. I guess I made a lifestyle choice a long time ago with becoming a self-employed ‘climber’ with route setting and coaching and talks and stuff, but that gives me flexibility. The past few years have been the same, but this year I was already planning my diary from the start of April: It would be Monday Malham, Tuesday setting, followed by training, Wednesday training, Thursday admin or coaching, Friday Malham. Saturday and Sunday Family. I factored out any double day setting and ditched anything on Sunday or Thursday that could be tiring. Easter holidays were planned around potential visits – I took the kids there on the way to visit my folks and parked them at the base with some books while I got my fix! My bank balance nose dives, and I’m aware I’m doing pretty much nothing other than one thing. I’m scratching around to find belayers and constantly at war with the family shuffling dates and commitments. And that was just the start, normally come the end of May its game over, I’d planned it that way this year, ending at the start of the half term holiday, but this year with such a high point I went on a mission, ditching work, dropping holidays, persuading family we didn’t want to go away camping… it’s a good job my family are supportive! But also some of my work places too; Rockcity have been great.
Can you describe the moment it went from a project to ‘game-on’ in your mind.
There was not one moment, but it kind of built up. I found tiny bits of micro beta, so subtle, but making a difference. They added up, and suddenly I realized that on redpoint, unlike before where I knew there was no chance, now there was a chance I could make it into the final stages. There is a move ,a stab to a pocket, its quite a reach and an accuracy thing. Sticking that allows entrance to the last hard section of 7 hand moves. Last year I never stuck it, and never felt like I was going to, despite being right there. This year I knew I was gonna stick it, but what would happen next? Then I found myself at the last hard move. I knew then it ‘should’ go, that I was capable. But it wasn’t that easy, and took another 4 or 5 visits, which doesn’t sound a lot, but it felt it!
You’ve been so close on a number of occasions over the last few weeks has it been difficult to maintain the focus and belief; ‘eyes on the prize’ and all that?
Belief has been hard. Harder than I thought it would be. I’ve been here before, a lot of times, but somehow this felt different. I fell off the top of Northern Lights 10 times over 5 days, The crux swing of Mutation maybe 20 times, Overshadow a lot of times. But I think with those routes I felt I had time. They’d not been right on the limit. I guess I knew I’d do them, it was just when. With Rainman I felt like a window had opened that perhaps I’d never get back, years roll away from you. I’m 46. Was this the chance? I didn’t even expect the chance to ever arrive. It caught me by surprise and I could hardly believe it was happening. The season slipped through my fingers as continuous great conditions tumbled into high humidity and soaring temperatures. I fell from the last move, but then fell from a move after that I never thought I’d drop! Then another 4 times I fell from the ‘old’ last move. It was mentally straining knowing I had to be 100% to get up there to be in that zone of success or failure. A zone which is maybe only 5 moves long, that’s where it will be decided, but to get there required full commitment. The resting, the warm up, the prep. Then Raindogs, climbed smoothly. And then a bridged rest at the top of Raindogs, shaking arms and mentally getting it together. Raindogs is 8a, it’s never easy! The Font 8a crux bulge weighs on the mind. I dropped that many times, and if you drop it you are nowhere, and you’ve burned a go. You get 3 goes a day, if you are lucky! Through that and it’s into a poor kneebar. I’m guessing some people may not even bother with it. Again a short while to prepare, then you’re into 8c+, it has to be perfect, and at last we’re in that zone where you’ll find out what happens.
You’ve been going to Malham twice a week since early March. How do you manage to stay ‘on-it’ for so long and pull through whilst many climbers burn out and suffer from the de-training effect and have to go back to training and start over?
Simple, I was never strong in the first place so not much to loose… Maybe, however, I’ve been running a day on, hard setting day followed by training, an easy day, rest day, then another hard day, then 2 off, with one of those probably with a 20 mile off road ride. It’s not tons, but if the hard days are really hard, then that’s enough to maintain, just. I didn’t feel much drop, but nothing got noticeably easier in isolation. Just slicker, faster, more efficient.
You spent at least one day recently doing laps on the crucial Font 8a boulder problem on Rainshadow. That must have helped with recruitment for that section and the other harder sections of the route. Did you do any other specific links to help build specific recruitment?
I think it helped more mentally than physically, that I could do that section repeatedly. I worked on links at the start, but moved into RP a while back. I felt I was learning so much on RP that I’d not found on links, things tire differently, what you think is the sequence may not work for reasons you’d not expect; tired core, not having the toe power, tired legs, no bounce or accuracy. Most of my beta changes were found on RP. However, I made sure I put in the links time on the upper section, as if you don’t, you never actually do that bit of the climbing!
Although you’ve said previously that you had nothing to prove and that this was a project that you were doing for yourself how important/helpful has it been to you to get support from others – both physically and from on-line followers?
It’s been a massive solo journey, but at the same time I have felt support, people willing me on, and it’s made me feel incredibly appreciative. But at the same time I’ve really enjoyed how ‘pure’ this felt as a journey. I had nothing to prove at all, I didn’t even know I could do it and openly said I may not ever succeed. I never played with the grade. It was all for me (that sounds selfish). But I felt I’d found what was simply perfect!!
You’ve been at the forefront of UK sport climbing for all but 20 years during which time you’ve taken the game in the UK from F9a to F9b - what else do you want to get done?
All I want is to just keep up this pace. This sport. It’s a gift.
Thanks for the thoughts Steve. A full interview with Steve will appear in the September/October issue of CLIMBER.