Earlier this year two Peak District climbers, Steve McClure and Haydn Jones, set off to see if they could climb eight 8a routes on eight different Peak District crags, travelling between on foot and bicycle. Niall Grimes and filmmaker Ben Pritchard tagged along to see if they could achieve this monumental feat.
I would love to climb 8a. I long to climb 8a. I’ve climbed most of my life and still I look at 8a in the far distance and still dream of it.
8a. The magic grade of sport climbing. No longer reserved for the best of the best but still, if you are going to climb it you either have be really good or put a ton of time in. Very few climbers will climb 8a and it remains a gold-standard measure of skill and commitment to the sport. It’s basically the Mount Everest of climbing.
Amongst the many forms of 8a – long ones, short ones, skinny ones and bald ones – Peak District 8as rank among the meaner end of a pumpy spectrum. This is because of their boulder and unforgiving nature demanding fingery, itchy climbing on tiny wee sharp holds. Ouch! I hear you say. And you’d be right.
WATCH: Flail in the Dale | Eight 8a's in day on BMC TV
Steve McClure is the owner of Britain’s gnarliest set of fingers and has curled them round the UK’s smallest holds to create its hardest climbs and has done so for, like, forever. So far ahead is he that, even today, gold medals are awarded for success on climbs he did over 20 years ago. He’s very handy. And quite footy. And even a bit army. He eats 8a for breakfast and they pass through him undigested like bran.
I read back there in the summer on his Instagram that he had hatched a plan. A plan to spend a day doing eight 8a routes on eight different Peak District crags, cycling between them mostly in eighth gear. He would set off from Sheffield at 8am and try to be finished by 8pm. Amazing. All the 8s! I asked could I come along and watch and we could make a film of it and he said Yes. Woop woop! I set my alarm for 8 minutes to 8, trying to keep in the spirit.
Myself and filmmaker Ben Pritchard met him at Rubicon Wall next morning where Steve and Hayden Jones were swinging their arms as warm up. We got chatting and I discovered that Haydn was doing the challenge as well.
Not that I was surprised, but I was surprised. I knew Haydn a little and while I was sure he was capable of curling out a few mid-8s, I didn’t have him in the same league as Steve and didn’t fancy his chances. I told him so. But then wondered was there another reason to bring Haydn.
Back in the days of Empire, British explorers would travel to far distant lands in the name of science and discovery. Often they would come across, in some jungle or arid plain, an exotic and never-before-seen species of bear or gorilla or snake. They would shoot the animal dead then prop the beast’s corpse against a rock or on a chair and photograph it. But to give scientific legitimacy there would need to be something else in the photo to award scale to the specimen. A geology hammer, for example, was a common choice.
Was Haydn the geology hammer, propped up against Steve’s might to reveal his true scale as a climber? Who would wilt and flail while Steve swanned onwards, beatifically offering words of encouragement?
Is that how it turned out? Is that how it went? Well what followed was one of the most impressive day's climbing I have ever seen and the pair of them trollied their way along the banks of the River Wye, between Water-cum-Jolly and Chee Dale. 8 followed 8 followed 8 followed 8 followed 8. They display was eye watering and from the word Go my arms were wailing and my fingertips were weeping in sympathy.
From a personal point of view it was inspiring. Going back to my unfulfilled 8a dreams, it was a privilege to see so many done, right before my eyes. And the bad news is this; seeing climbers like these two doing them, climbers of the highest caliber (for a geology hammer), and seeing how well they still had to move, how masterfully they still had to climb, how hard they still had to try, I must admit, it nudged my thought of climbing anything at this level further into the distance. These things looked hard. One of these things in a lifetime is hard. Eight in a day…?
And what a day. Steve is an incredible climber and the precision and power he has is marshalled into the front line by the fact that he also gives everything he’s got at all times. When it comes to getting his fingers around a little hold, ‘no one’s getting out of the boat’.
But Hayden, I had to admit as the day went on, is no geology hammer. Or if he is he is pretty adept at smashing limestone 8s to pieces. As the day went on and the tally went up, I was ever more wowed by his spirit. In terms of climbing, Steve was a little inch ahead. But this in a way meant Haydn had to climb even better, try even harder and, clearly, work to stay more focused and positive.
His efforts made the whole thing even more impressive. Even on the second climb, Haydn fell near the top. There followed a pressured, too-short rest, before he had to get back in the ring and try to fire off a climb at his limit. Indeed, several times the routes had him on the ropes, the result being that the number of 8s he had to climb was a lot more than eight. Jeepers creepers!
So how did the day go? Did the pair succeed? What climbs did they do? You can check them out here. Then have a look at the film and see.
JOIN THE BMC: save 25% on your first year's membership
The BMC works for climbers like you. Benefits include:
Access to BMC Travel Insurance
Register for Mountain Training award schemes
£15 million worldwide Combined Liability insurance
£10,000 Personal Accident insurance
Find out more about BMC membership benefits
WATCH: 'What's so great about the BMC' on BMC TV