Interview: Steve McClure, the second ascent of Lexicon E11 7a and that fall

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 04/10/2021
Steve on Lexicon. Photo: Neil Gresham

On September 4, Neil Gresham made the first ascent of Lexicon at Pavey Ark. Soon after, Steve McClure, who had been itching to get on it, claimed the second ascent... after taking a 70-foot whipper in his stride during his first serious 'look' at the route. This is Steve's second of the grade: he made the third ascent of Dave MacLeod's Rhapsody E11 7a at Dumbarton Rock in 2008. Sarah Stirling interviews.

On September 17, Neil Gresham posted on Instagram:

"THE MOST OUTRAGEOUS THING I’VE EVER WITNESSED in climbing … Yesterday evening, @ste_mcclure found himself 35 feet above his gear, staring at the penultimate move of my new Lakes route, Lexicon E11 7a … and his right foot popped. It was one of those moments when time froze. I clutched the rope in horror as he started plummeting down towards me; yet he didn’t seem to stop. I honestly thought we’d misjudged it and that ‘that was it’. Then just when it seemed that he was going to land on my head, the rope suddenly whipped him into the wall and stopped him about 12ft off the ground. Having slept on it I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before, even in films. Is trad climbing alive in Britain? … err, yes, and thankfully, so is Steve McClure." - @neil.gresham

So what happened? Here's Steve McClure with the full story.

SM: The moment I saw Lexicon I was totally jealous of Neil [Gresham]'s find! I first had a little play on it back in May while Neil was working towards the first ascent. I wasn't jealous because I wanted to do it first, but because I just wanted to try and climb it straight away; it was obviously such a good challenge. So as soon as Neil had made his first ascent I was back...

The rock is lovely: excellent friction and texture. Everyone who climbs on that crag says the same thing. It’s really special. And the climbing is so absorbing. The lower two thirds is maybe F7b, maybe E5 or E6, vertical and really technical on small edges with lots of tiny footholds. Then there is a decent horizontal break to rest and place gear before the headwall.

"The holds are tiny edges and pinches, all the way to the top. Brilliant!"

The hard section is maybe 10 degrees overhanging and absolutely continuous: it really draws you in. Each move is super hard and tenuous, requiring accuracy and commitment. The holds are tiny edges and pinches, all the way to the top. Brilliant!

The ‘maths’ of the route is so compelling, too, with gear at two-thirds height. I love the fact that the whole top section must be just climbed, sprinted, no faffing with gear, full commitment! It’s a gift to have these dimensions, if the ground was much closer or the upper wall much longer the whole thing would have been a non-starter for me. I guess I could work the route for ages to try to create a huge margin but at that level I doubt I could get it to a point where I was really certain I’d absolutely not fall off...


Photo: Neil Gresham

Luckily for me, Neil had put a lot of thought into what would happen if he fell off Lexicon. He’d done drop tests with a rucksack, and even dropped off himself from a fair distance up the headwall. Without his work I’d probably have been a little more confident that it would all work out OK if I fell off. After all, it ‘looks’ well balanced: gear at 14m, the top at 21m… that gives a third of the route as a safety net, right?

But the safety margins absolutely don’t work out like that. It's about the amount of rope in the system and how much it stretches. It's about forces generated in a fall of that length and how much the belayer will be lifted up. Quite obviously there wasn’t much to play with. And fall direction was important too, with the base of the route an open corner with ledges on either side; the gear had to be in the right place to ‘guide’ you into that corner. I was lucky to have Neil's advice to follow...

Neil belayed me on my first serious 'look' at the route. I kind of sneaked up on him. It was all a surprise that day, we were just there for filming Neil. Next thing I was setting off ‘just for a look’, and then I was going for it. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s a big ask. This is no ‘sport’ belay. And not only that, as the climber, it's absolutely crucial to know the belayer is 100% with you and 100% reliable. There is more for them to do than just stand there!

"After all, it ‘looks’ well balanced: gear at 14m, the top at 21m… that gives a third of the route as a safety net, right?"

And then I fell about 70ft. Not a monster really. I was pretty much OK, just a cut and bruised hand. We’d figured this is about what would happen from our maths! However, I came away feeling I’d got the fall just right, landing perfectly in the corner at the base of the route. I’d bounced into the wall front on. But who knows if I’d inverted, got the rope behind my leg, slammed in backwards, had more slack in the system or ripped more gear. It happened in an instant, one second I felt my foot skid, the next I was on the rope. That unnerved me, that I’d had no chance to correct myself in the air.

So I clearly showed you can fall off it, and no doubt many well suggest it's ‘safe’. And maybe it is. I’m fairly cautious and perhaps I’m dwelling on it too much. The likes of Franco Cookson, Jim Pope and Dave Macleod may look at it and leap off the top for fun, they are way bolder than me. But I’d certainly suggest at least a little caution and a little pondering. Most likely, future ascensionists will treat it with respect and not fall off anyway. 

After the fall I knew I’d have to treat Lexicon with a little more respect. I needed to warm up carefully and efficiently. To practice the gear placement, and to perhaps give it a little more margin! It was good to know I could take that lob, but I wanted to avoid it just as much as on my first effort!

Getting back on the route after the fall was surprisingly OK. The effect on my psyche was kind of neutral! Having now climbed the route I’m actually really psyched to have taken the fall. I feel like I really got the full experience! I showed the system worked, and I tried to take confidence from that, to believe that this route was just good to go. There was no reason why another fall should be worse. But at the same time, it was clear that it wasn't fun! Cuts and bruises were probably likely, and that weighs on the mind when you are about to attack a route close to your limit.

On my next (and successful) try I was belayed by Adrian Nelhams. He has belayed Neil a lot and has been part of the scene up there the last months as he tries Impact Day and Neil tried Lexicon. He’s a totally reliable and experienced guy; that made a difference I’m sure as I threw myself into the final moves!

 

The Lexicon line (Impact Day E8 6c is marked with a dashed line)

 

Neil asked me about the E11 grade before he graded it. He was torn between E10 and E11. I said if he really believed it to be E11, then of course go with it. He has no agenda, he's already so accomplished. The duty of the first ascensionist is to honestly propose a grade based on their experience. This is what Neil has done.

Of course, people will ask my opinion on the E11 grade, like I actually know! I am no expert like MacLeod, though  I'll suggest that it is harder than other E10’s I’ve done. And so it could be E11, or hard E10, but overall, I'm not suggesting it should be downgraded. Of course we may be wrong, it may be E10, but E11 seems a fair place to start.

If the fall was safe but huge, I'd be suggesting E10, (or even E9 if I was feeling 'British' with our culture of downgrading and harsh grading!). But I'm not sure it is safe. True, I lobbed from way up and got away with it, but I think it's just that... I got away with it!

 

 

I’m certainly no expert in the risk-taking field and have a lot to learn. I’ve realised that perhaps the key skill in this kind of climbing is judgement; to know when is the time to try. Too much caution and you’ll never set off, too little and you could die. I have huge respect for the masters of this dicipline; MacLeod, Franco, Caff, Woodburn, Hazel, Emma and many more. I’m very analytical as a climber, and I’m not a really bold climber. I don’t consider I’m taking huge risks. I’d say my main strategy is to analyse the danger and realistically be able to decide if its ‘for me’ or not.

"I’ve been well branded as a sport climber. I’ve had people stop me at the climbing wall and suggest I should try trad climbing because I might like it!"

If I determine the danger is really high, I’ll walk away. My list of proper 'bold' routes is zero! Routes like Harder Faster,'Indian Face, The Bells The Bells and Meshuga just fill me with dread and I have absolutely no drive to do them at all, they don't even register! Though Indian Face I'd love to have (already) climbed. For me, on a personal level, perhaps the most important route in the history of UK climbing.

I’ve been well branded as a sport climber. I’ve had people lecture me and stop me at the climbing wall and suggest I should try trad climbing because I might like it! I’m not remotely bothered by this and find it quite funny, but I consider myself as more of an all-rounder really. I began as a trad climber, and didn’t really sport climb till I was about 24. Since then I’ve mixed it up all the time but hard redpoints grabbed the headlines. I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which the trad ‘experience’ demands so much; especially the British style, with complex gear and ropework. Taking nature’s full challenge is pretty special. 

I’ve been really motivated by trad recently and I think that has been partly due to 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. Some of my best days this year have been on E1s and E2s. 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!

 

WATCH: Steve McClure climb Right Wall (E5) on Dinas Cromlech

WATCH: Steve McClure talk trad climbing on the BMC international meet

WATCH: Steve McClure climbs E10: Choronzon, Pembroke

WATCH: Steve McClure climbs Britain's hardest climb: Rainman 9b

WATCH: Steve McClure climbs three 8a+s at three crags, cycling between them!


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