McClure talks about second ascent of Lexicon and that fall…
- Monday 27th September 2021
With several of Britain’s top headpointers showing an interest, Steve McClure gets the second ascent of Lexicon having endured a c.70+footer off the crux a few days earlier!
Whilst Steve is well-known for his sport climbing he’s very keen on trad climbing too. Having made early repeats of The Big Issue (E9) and Chupacabra (originally E9) in Pembroke in 2008 his break-through trad ascent was the second ascent of Rhapsody (E11) in 2008. Since then Steve has notched up repeats of Choronzon (E10) and Muy Caliente (E9) in 2015, GreatNess Wall (E10) and then on-sighted Nightmayer (E8) in 2019. This year, Steve has added Final Round (E8/9), Olympiad (E10) to his headpointed list and flashed Impact Day (E8) and on-sighted Always the Sun (E7).
When Neil Gresham did the first ascent of Lexicon Steve was ‘on it’ straight away. He’d already had a top-rope session on Neil’s project when he did Impact Day earlier in the summer; clearly that session had whetted Steve’s appetite! Interestingly, Lexicon has attracted the attention of several other hard trad climbers as well as Steve; Craig Matheson, Dave MacLeod, Franco Cookson, Angus Kille and Neil Mawson have all been to have a look.
As previously reported, Steve made the second ascent of Lexicon last week – but only after falling from the crux headwall and taking a massive 70+foot fall. Keith Sharples talks to Steve McClure about the motivations driving his ascent, how he approached it and that fall…
Obviously congrats on not taking the lob the second time; your first lead attempt sounds really ballsy but I suspect you were really just deploying the well-known ‘sneak up and catch it unaware’ tactic - right?
Walking back up to Pavey on the day I actually led it I realised I was in a unique position for me, in that it was the first time I’d ever headed to the crag with the specific intention of going for a scary lead! With other routes of this style I’d ‘tricked’ them into submission; as you say, ‘sneaked up on them’! In most cases, I honestly believe this is what happened, where a ‘just going for a play on the moves’ or ‘to check the gear’ suddenly turned into an actual effort. That tactic avoids any stress. One minute you are just playing around, then suddenly it’s ‘on’….. and then it’s done!! Full respect to those that can endure the stress for days or even weeks; the headpointers; Macleod, Gresham, Dixon, Caff, Hazel, Emma, Seb Grieve and many more.
The day I fell off the route I genuinely didn’t have a plan to go for the lead. But the more I think about this kind of situation and how the day panned out the more I ponder over the ‘sneak-up’ approach. It’s well understood that as humans we react to pressure and stress in different ways. That could be self-induced pressure, or from friends or spectators. How many times have we said ‘oh, I feel tired today, a bit injured, and the conditions are poor too…’ but inwardly think ‘I reckon I’m in here?’ We are trying to reduce the pressure. Basically, if everyone expects failure, then there will be no surprises or disappointment when there is failure. The key is not to convince yourself you’ll fail! So the day I lobbed off the route I was absolutely there to just have a play on the moves. But I knew I’d be keen to try and top-rope it in one go. And I also knew if I managed that link the next step would be a lead. Before even going to the crag I fancied my chances on a clean top-rope, so basically, maybe I was on for a lead all along!
How much time had you spent on the route before going for your first attempt?
Not ages, a couple of short sessions. To put it into perspective the climbing is around F8b+. That’s not SO hard (I’ve on-sighted many at this grade and this is within the ability of many climbers). It’s also very much my style, a slightly overhanging wall with loads of small crimps and technical footwork. Hence to climb the route in one push, ignoring the mental control, is ‘relatively’ straightforward for someone at that level. However, combining the mental control is not straightforward!
Let’s cut to the chase here and talk about that lob. You’re an engineer and we’ve spoken many times about modern gear, ‘grading’ gear placements and assessing potential falls but the fact is that you don’t usually fall off when it really counts. How did you go about assessing the fall situation?
As a trad climber, I don’t consider myself bold, more ‘analytical’. I’m pretty good at separating rational fear from irrational; to know for example that on a sport route or above good gear I can fall and be OK. This is critical for the state of mind required to push physically to the limit. In many cases analysis can be done almost instantly and a margin of error applied; like ‘I’ve just placed a bomber size 8 nut and there’s a 5 out of 5 cam just below, I’m 20m off the deck above a clean fall and the next gear is just a metre away’. But in some cases, a deeper analysis is required when the margins are pushed. Take a 21-metre route for example with protection at 14m; this is Lexicon pretty much exactly! First glance says it’s a route of thirds and if you lob off right at the top you should still have a whole third of the height of the route before you hit the ground. Surely that’s easily enough to account for stretch. But let’s look at it more carefully. What is more important is ‘amount of rope in play’. A fall from the top gives us obviously 21m of rope. But this is obviously going to stretch. Consider that most ropes will stretch up to somewhere around 10% just under the (static) weight of the climber but up to 40% in the most severe fall. So how much stretch will we get in our fall? Don’t know. Shall we guess 25%? Well 25% of 21m is about 5m so we now have 26m of rope. Our gear is at 14m, and a simple sum shows that we will end up 2m from the deck… and maybe our feet one metre from the deck. Though there are some estimations, it's VERY clear that it’s going to be tight, and no matter how you fudge it, it's not going to get any better. And this does not account for any slack in the system, a moving belayer, gear coming out, tightening knots etc.
OK, so were you surprised to take the lob off Lexicon; secondly, how did the fall work out?
Yes, I was surprised to fall off! I’d top-roped it in one. It felt hard, but there was a margin there, but I was ‘pretty sure’ I’d do it. I balanced that margin with the seriousness of the fall and my judgement was that it was good to go. On the positive side, you could say I judged it just right! I left it till the last moment of the day; it was then, or maybe never! On lead it felt harder, the weight of the rope, some drag, over-gripping I guess! The fall was a real whipper. It happened in an instant, one second I felt my foot skid, the next I was on the rope. That unnerved me; I had no chance to correct myself in the air. There is a lot of rope out to tangle in and I’d hit the wall as I bounced on the rope. A cut and bruised hand was all I suffered, but to invert or slam backwards would be bad! And it was close. As close as we’d figured, which in a way was good to see. I ended up about 3m above the deck having bounced up on the rope from only a metre or so. I ripped a cam. There is a collection of gear that together should be fine, the problem is it’s spaced along a horizontal break and difficult to equalize.
Knowing you, it was never in doubt that – despite taking that lob – you’d go back to finish the job off. How much did it pray on your mind over the weekend though and did you change your game plan at all and how do you feel about it now?
I didn’t change my game plan, because I’d not had a plan before. But from the moment I left the crag AFTER the fall, I knew I’d have to treat it with respect. I needed to warm up carefully and efficiently. To practice the gear placement, and to perhaps give it a little more margin!
Having now climbed the route I’m actually really psyched to have taken the fall. I feel like I really got the full experience! So often we go through the process on routes like this, preparing for the ‘what-ifs’ and they never get tested; the movement is executed perfectly and we walk away and forget about it. But I got to really deep dive into the fall logistics. Both myself and Neil had done the work; Neil more so with rucksack drop tests and even some fall tests himself. I’d taken a real test and showed the system worked, and I tried to take confidence from that, to believe that this route was just good to go… ‘I lobbed off once and it was fine and surely it will be again’.
But if anything the fall had showed how close it was. It had to go well, the gear placed correctly, the belayer totally on the ball, a ground anchor essential, and to fall like a cat. But most pressing was that I still had a meter to go, on moves equally as hard. That’s potentially two more metres of fall.
We’ve spoken many times about going into ‘sport mode’ when climbing hard trad routes. You did that on routes like Chorozon and GreatNess Wall which you’d top-roped and even on Nightmayer which you did on-sight. Lexicon is clearly not a sport route but it must have ‘demanded’ that approach as well?
I’ve often talked about ‘sport mode’, and this refers to a state of mind, not the protection of the climb. The beauty of sport climbing is that we can push ourselves to the absolute physical (and mental) limits without being hindered by fear. Fear will have a HUGE impact on performance, and when we are trying routes at our limit there is simply no chance of success if we are scared. The key is to either control and minimize the fear, or to calculate you are safe and really believe it. With careful analysis most of my trad routes I felt were safe….though that’s maybe a bit of a relative term. But the key was that I was able to adopt that while climbing and climb to my physical limit. Lexicon felt different in that I couldn’t assume safety. There was a cut-off point on the route where I knew I’d be climbing into risk. I had this unlikely idea that if I reached that point and felt bad I could just drop off and take a ‘safe’ whipper. And who knows, maybe I actually could have done that… but in reality I’m not sure. Once you start on a route like that you are just going, it’s a sprint. I actually knew it wasn’t going so well; it was slightly warm, and I passed my cut-off point knowing my margin was now really tight. The last moves were insanely close. It’s hard for me to articulate how close they were. Neil belayed me on my lob, and was right next to me with a camera as I wildly snatched at the finishing holds… I think I’ve given him more than his fair share of fear, probably way more than he got on the route!
Having photographed and filming you close-up on your successful ascents of Rhapsody in 2008 and then GreatNess Wall and Nightmayer in 2019 I recognise the look of utter relief on your face in Neil’s image of you standing on top of Lexicon having topped out. They must be unforgettable memories that stay with you forever?
The question as to why we would put ourselves through things like this is a hard one to answer. There is no doubt that the feeling of success is just fantastic, but is it worth the risk and stress? Is the ‘very good’ feeling I’d get from topping out on an E5 but without any stress or danger a considerably better balance? Well, probably, and in most cases yes. But there is something about taking yourself right to the limit, the closer you go, exponentially the more you get out of it. I’m not sure it's relief that I feel, maybe it is in part, but it’s more like ‘wow, I really had to give it everything there and I absolutely got the best of myself’. This feeling is something we can all get, regardless of ability or grade. That’s the beauty of climbing.
Let’s talk next about ‘lessons from the edge’ – so-called ‘take-home points’. As climbers, we all analyse what we do and what we achieve – sometimes obsessively - and pretty much every route we do we learn a little. Big routes though can teach us a lot; what’s been the big takeaway point from Lexicon for you?
I’m no expert in the hard headpointing game, but it strikes me that the most important skill is judgment. As climbers performing on the rock we need a ton of skills and strengths to get us up a rockface, from finger strength to footwork to determination. Judgement in deciding just when to climb is not really part of the game in most cases. Often in traditional climbing, especially on-sight style, we constantly risk-assess the situation and judge if it’s OK to keep going. But with the hard and scary headpoint style, all the risk-assessment is already done from the ground. The key now is in the judgement….when to go, based on the risk assessment. This may sound obvious but I think it's key. For hard routes, to always remain on the side of caution will probably result in never stepping off the ground. The mix of conditions, state of body and mind and potential opportunities rarely combine in a perfect manner. But of course, to rush is maybe a route to disaster. I’m extremely impressed by the likes of MacLeod who can judge, ‘now is the time’ so precisely such that he gets tons of hard routes done, but leaves just that little bit of margin should things go wrong.
For routes where a fall will result in death, then the judgement is in when you are sure you won’t fall. But for a route like this, where you ‘can’ fall off, it almost gets more complicated. It’s about working out what happens in a fall and then balancing that with the likelihood of success.
You’ve been in some very good company preparing for and then trying Lexicon. That’s a little unusual for you perhaps in the sense that you are usually trying your routes on your own. Have you enjoyed it, and given the other guys up on Pavey looking at Lexicon do you think we’ll see more ascents in the near future?
I love trying routes on my own, out there, maybe in the mountains or on the sea-cliffs in the fresh air, playing on the moves, figuring it all out. But it’s been so much fun with a scene at Pavey. I feel absolutely privileged to have been in the right place at the right time with a good weather window and a gap in work. I can’t underestimate how much the extra psyche, my confidence in the belayers, their confidence in me and all the info from Neil must have helped. Watching Dave MacLeod, Franco and Neil Mawson on it too was great. Absolutely no competition whatsoever. Armchair critics seem to think there is some kind of rivalry but really, there isn’t! I’d put money Dave will repeat it soon, and watching him was a huge treat for me, like watching a real master. So clearly he knows what he is doing, the way he approaches the route, checks the gear, analyses the fall. He’ll know exactly when to go for this. It seems the UK trad scene is really alive at the moment, even if the press isn’t reporting so much. Hazel, Emma, Caff, MacLeod, Randal, Matheson, Angus, Pope and many many more are out there at the cutting edge. The comp scene has really taken the limelight for a while but the trad scene is shining brightly.
You seem to have been doing more trad and less sport recently; any reason for that and what’s next for you?
I guess what we all do depends on what motivates us. I’ve been really motivated by trad recently and I think that comes off the back of CV19. During lockdown I craved more than anything being out in the wild places, I craved this way more than climbing! And so it was just so lovely to be back out, to be in Pembroke by the sea, or up in the mountains in The Lakes and North Wales. I wanted to be there as much as I could, and so was drawn to the routes in those areas. And they don’t have to be hard. But routes such as Lexicon and Olympiad just grabbed me, in particular Lexicon which I just immediately wanted to try. There are a ton of routes I’d like to get stuck into now. With sport climbing, I was feeling like I was running out of really motivating lines, but with trad I feel like I’ve barely started!
Both Neil's first ascent of Lexicon and Steve's second ascent was filmed by Alastair Lee/Posing Productions and will feature in the forthcoming Brit Rock Tour.