Steve McClure talks about his first ascent of the Nesscliffe ‘headwall project’

May 28th; 2019

Yesterday, Steve McClure sent the first ascent of the infamous Nesscliffe ‘headwall project’ to give GreatNess Wall (E10 7a).

Steve McClure starting out on the crucial headwall. Video grab Keith Sharples

Show a master crimper and execution specialist like Steve McClure a line of tiny crimps and well… the rest will be history! It was only Steve’s third visit to Nesscliffe yesterday and the day didn’t start well as it had rained hard for all the drive over from Sheffield. However, once at Nesscliffe he had a quick play on it again on a top-rope was then then soon off for the lead; not dissimilar to a laser-guided ordnance unit locked onto the target!

Nick Dixon first checked out the so-called headwall project a while back as he explained: “I first tried the headwall project about six years ago and it took occasional raps down the wall with Ed [Booth] and others to piece together a way to climb the headwall via the up, traverse right and up again version.” Others checked out the open project as well however, Nick again: “During that time other good climber people had a look at it like Ed [Booth], James Pearson , Dave Birkett and several others.” Latterly, James ‘Caff’ Machaffie has spent some time on the project and came painfully close recently but spectacularly fell from the final hard move and then fell virtually the entire length of the cliff before slamming into the wall and smashing his helmut in the process.

So how did the ‘headwall project’ come to Steve’s attention and how did his first visit go: “The Nesscliffe Project - as it became known, has been on the radar for quite a few years now. Nick Dixon first mentioned it to me a number of years ago, suggesting it was 'my style', but also a true last great problem. I was very keen last spring, but total winter became total summer overnight and how time flies. This year I've been psyched for a look. Finding people to go with from Sheffield proved tricky! Nesscliffe is a true undiscovered gem for many UK climbers. It really is quite brilliant, and yet many of us have hardly heard of it, brushing off a visit to another time and simply passed by on the way to somewhere else. Eventually I ended up there by myself playing on the line with a self-belay device.”

Steve describes the route: “The route really is a cracker! Beginning with brilliant E6 (F7a+) climbing on pockets and side-pulls for 10 meters, with good DMM dragon cams for protection. Quickly a horizontal break is reached, with excellent gear. Then it's time to step up a few gears! The 7m wall above kicks in straight away, wandering left and right with relentless moves on barely useable holds, each move small snatches between tiny crimps, with feet on sloping sandy nubbins. Though the crux is 'relatively low' and will only result in a 10m fall, but the long and intense sequence after that culminates in a desperate rock-over stretch on a foothold the size of half a marble, facing an awkward fall down almost the full height of the wall.”

So what about the crux then? Above the break, the headwall itself is slightly off vertical yet it’s been said that the crux isn’t far off being Font 8a. Steve’s famous Malham route Rainshadow also has a Font 8a crux but that climbs round a massive bulge. We asked Steve to compare the crux on the headwall project to something more appropriate; something on grit perhaps? Also how did the beta come together? "The upper wall could be font 8a, harder and similar to Walk on By. As a whole route it might be sport 8c, with the ‘easy’ wall below making just that bit of difference to how the forearms feel on lead!

"In terms of style, this was exactly what I was after - very hard climbing in a bold position, but without having to enter into the death zone (in theory!). I figured most of it out pretty quick, with many of the holds still chalked. Nick Dixon, being local and hearing I was there, appeared to fill me in with the crux beta. Straight away it felt possible, though for that day as the sun began to bake the wall and the temperatures soared I knew it would have to wait, but the seed was firmly planted: this was something I was very keen to try, regardless of whether it was a first, 2nd, 3rd or whatever ascent.

"Squeezing between work commitments, warm weather and lack of partners I managed to fit in a day a week ago, but it was raining when we arrived and pretty humid. I threw myself at it. Falling from the crux, and then next go somehow getting through but slipping off higher. It was a big fall, harder than I expected; only very minor injuries: impact with my palm and heel, and a sore back, but probably best I fell there, as in retrospect, considering the conditions, I’d have been off the last move!

Although it’s a trad route Steve approached the lead yesterday almost as a sport route using a single rope, no skyhooks and a belayer with a GriGri. Steve explained his thinking for that: “In terms of a ‘headpoint’ this is perfect for me. I took the engineers approach; the gear is at 2/3 height. Hence even the longest fall should avoid a ground fall. It’s plum vertical with nothing to hit. The gear is bomber, a solid thread. Hence a single rope works just fine; belayed on a Petzl Grigri, this increases confidence (how easy is it to hold such a hard fall on a friction plate – something you don’t want on your mind!). There is nothing to place after the break – 100% climbing, full commitment. In terms of focus I treated it like a sport route. It’s the only way.”

We asked Steve about how he approaches executing a long complex and hard sequence like that whilst facing a 50-60 foot fall? “With a lead like this there is no room for hesitation. Though it’s only vertical, fatigue kicks in. And there is no escape, once leaving the break you are fully committed; there is no traversing off, having a quick shake on a good hold or reversing a move or two. You are going up or you are coming off. The first moves went well, the crux also OK, the snatchy traverse back right too, but quickly I was surprised by fatigue; my feet didn’t feel solid, body tension wavered. I was making moves knowing my feet could ping, but focusing entirely on getting each hand hold exactly right. The last crimp out left I held perfectly but my feet were wrong forcing a quick improvisation. Then back in sequence, left foot high on the tiny edge and begin the stretch for the finishing hold. On a rope I’d never dropped this move, but it required full stretch from toe to tip and solid tension in between. I knew this, and pushed into it, only to stop short a few inches, my body maybe in a slight curve as opposed to the essential straight line. A momentary panic, and an adrenaline fuelled extra press on the crimp got my fingers tickling the edge and an absolute heart stopper when I absolutely believed I was about to fall, before a final udge to three flat inches of flat sandstone and the final meter of easy climbing. This was as close as it gets! Making for the ultimate experience!”

Almost as soon as Steve had finished Nick Dixon walked up to the crag. Steve explained that he and Nick went back a long way: Full of adrenaline all I could do was blurt out my thanks to Ed and Adam Booth for the catch, and to Nick who first mentioned this line and had just arrived. To those in the know, Nick is the dude at Nesscliffe, with a raft of the hardest first ascents. But his CV is extraordinary, with hard bold routes all over the country. Personally we have a deeper connection, both from the North East originally; he was the top climber in the area when I was a kid. My absolute hero I aspired to all his routes. And he saw some potential in me – even giving me my first piece of gear, a ‘moac’ on white rope. And here we were again, back on sandstone, discussing the hardest lines!

Steve and Nick talked about the grade of the headwall project afterwards – agreeing on E10 and 7a. Finally, we asked Steve where he saw this route sitting relative to other hard trad routes he’d done? “This new line, GreatNess Wall, is the hardest at Nesscliffe. It’s probably E10 7a. Always hard to grade with accuracy. I’m no expert – I’m just a sport climber right…. but in comparison to things like The Big Issue, Choronzon, Rhapsody, and Muy Caliente it probably stacks up to something like that.”

So was Nick still keen on the headwall himself? Yeah hell, it seems: “For the last three years it has been a realistic project for me but possibly just a bit too hard I think when adding-in the easier climbing up to get into it. I’ve probably had about 30 occasions on it on the top rope. During that time it has of course been just one of many projects I’ve been working on most of which I’ve done but this one has become a bit stubborn and I think that is due to its difficulty and need for pretty perfect connies. My highpoint on it is really four times I have top roped the actual headwall part (from standing in the break) including all the crux.”  

So how psyched is he that others have been working the project then: “Caff started work on the project about 18 months ago and I could see he was way stronger than me on it. I have taken pleasure in this and whilst continuing to try it myself I have tried to support Caff in his ascent too. Caff and I had quite different sequences on it and he came really really close to a send about three weeks ago taking a massive lob. I spoke to Steve about the project about a year ago and I think Caff had spoken to him about it more recently encouraging him to have a go.

"I have not finished with it yet but probably will never lead it from the ground, it’s great to have projects that are just a bit too hard for you. I’m sure that in the autumn Caff will be back and do it easily.”

And does Nick have other projects? “I still have lots of projects at Nesscliffe and other crags in the area and secretly Shropshire is becoming a bit of a mecca for hard-core sandstone climbing. Massive congratulations to Steve, inspiring work. Awesome. I am really pleased that Ness now hosts one of the UK’s top difficulty trad routes. Mega.”

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