Free extract - Beyond Limits by Steve McClure
- Thursday 16th April 2020
One of the best rock climbers in the world, Steve was introduced to climbing by his parents at an early age and rapidly reached an elite standard, but the balance between risk and reward was an ever-present conflict as he desired to climb increasingly bold routes. In this extract from Beyond Limits Steve looks back on his college days when he climbed Magic in the Air, in the North York Moors, his first E5.
I can remember the real starting line, the point when climbing took over – I was fifteen years old, just finished school and off on a six-day walking/climbing/camping trip around the local North York Moors with my best mate, Dave. We’d known each other for years, pretty much since we were born, and his family were good friends with mine. Though we didn’t go to the same school or live that close to each other, our interests were the same, shaped through family experiences in and away from the hills. Slightly older than me, but more chilled, he accepted my drive and we made a great team. Waking up at the base of the cliffs each morning I just wanted to climb. We climbed all day, and, going to sleep I thought about climbing. Back at home I read about climbing. My mum was the Cleveland Mountaineering Club secretary and every month we got Climber and Rambler magazine posted to us for forwarding on to the club base. It was my monthly highlight and the front cover pictures still hang in my gallery of memories, more defined than any childhood photos. I still look back on them occasionally, the editions from 1986 burned into memory forever. Reading the text feels like I’d learnt it by heart, although the turmoil of those years now makes me laugh. Climbing was a confused teenager, just like I was, struggling to move forward and holding on bitterly to narrow-minded opinions. The battles between die-hard traditionalists and the new breed of bolt clipping competition climbers are totally hysterical, but then at the time I looked on wide-eyed as the war raged …
The transformation from dabbling child to full-blown addict seemed monumental, but looking back it was relatively small – before my real starting point I was already at stage four out of five on most people’s scale of climber.
Moving from secondary school in Redcar to sixth form college in Middlesbrough when I was sixteen introduced a whole new bunch of people. At school I was absolutely the only person who had any interest or knowledge whatsoever in climbing, but at college things took a monumental turn for the better with two other real climbers in the same year. Dave was one of them and it seemed a massive stroke of luck that I’d at last have a solid mate at school who was also a climber. There was also Tim, a new character with a stubborn personality who liked to get things done. Driven and psyched he carried me along and together we stepped forward into the climbing world at a pace neither of us expected. Tall, and with a shock of spiky black hair to match his sharp humour, Tim was one of the dudes, instantly high up in the ranking. But college is different to school; the small increase in age provides a huge increase in maturity and the fact that people actually choose to go to college massively influences the type of student. I was still the square guy with the fat lip, but these negative aspects were overruled by the bond of climbing, the general mismatch in our personalities irrelevant. Others joined the gang, Kev, Jon – and particularly Ste from my secondary school, who wouldn’t have given me the time of day back then but now quickly became one of my lifetime best mates. It shows how tricky school life can be. Whilst I shuffled along Ste had carried a top lad status with the right combination of cool ingredients. We barely spoke for five years and then a mutual interest brought us together to make a great team. A relaxed character with a strong desire to travel and explore, he always seemed to be striving for and finding the good things in life. Good ideals to look up to.
As a climber I was the most experienced of the bunch and the best climber by far, giving me a status above spod for the first time ever. When we gathered to plan our Wednesday afternoons out, or a weekend away, I was included in all the plans, even driving the adventures and motivating the others.
Initially everything was local, but I moved up a gear with the climbing on the North York Moors. Old desperates became part of the solo circuit on Tuesday evenings while my parents swapped leads on VSs they’d done a hundred times before. Harder routes became viable. Magic in the Air is a three-star classic from Nick Dixon that had made it into the brilliant Rock Climbing in Britain coffee table book at number 81 out of 100 – it was our Moors representative of hard climbing alongside all the other amazing routes from around the UK and I held the soaring line up the imposing crag of Highcliff with pride, even though I hadn’t done it, or even considered doing it. Now a potential ascent came into view. This huge arête is totally unprotected, but death potential had been avoided by using a side runner at half-height, pre-placed by climbing an adjacent E3. This was apparently justified by the snappy nature of the rock at the top; not that I really ever questioned Nick’s style, Nick was my hero. With my new climbing psyche I was drawn to the route, top-roped it cleanly in the first session and then found myself psyching up for the lead. At sixteen this would be my first E5 and probably a turning point in my climbing. It felt like a big effort and took a couple of consecutive days of practice to feel I was good to go and then some serious co-ordination to get me and Tim in the right place at the right time for my lead attempt. This was no longer part of ‘just happening to be at the crag with my parents’. This was my gig, but at the same time I could clearly see the essential role the belayer played. His confidence in me was crucial, as was mine in him. I may have been leading but this was a team effort.
Dropped off by parents late in the evening near the town of Guisborough, we struggled up through the forest laden with gear, the plan being to camp out and climb the following day. My mind was filled with an unfamiliar state of consciousness, absorbed by the route despite relatively minimal practice. An attempt was now imminent, I’d committed to it. Tim pushed the conversation: ‘Think I might try and top rope Moonflower tomorrow, have you done that one?’
‘I heard it’s really good, what’s it like for the grade?’
‘Do you think you’ll try and do anything else after Magic if you get it?’
‘If you get it’ – IF. That was still a big question. I’d practised the route a few times, climbed it without a fall, but it was still hard and scary up at the top. The side runner definitely helped and would most likely save a trip to the hospital, but it wasn’t guaranteed and being way out to the side guaranteed at least a full body grating on the rough ironstone intrusions if I fell from any of the hard climbing. We pitched in silence, then unpacked the rest of our bags, mine looking alarmingly empty considering there was supposed to be a bulky sleeping bag still in there, which, of course, I’d forgotten. My mind was too cluttered. I’d also forgotten any kind ofdecent food and so suffered a cold, hungry and uncomfortable night under all the clothes we had. Unsurprisingly I didn’t sleep well and though Tim’s early and well-slept enthusiasm irritated at first it soon rubbed off and I shook out my stiff limbs at the base of the route.
‘Go for it man, you’ll cruise it.’
‘Not maybe, you top-roped it clean on your first day, of course you’ll cruise it.’
Yarding up the adjacent E3 to place the side runner made for a good warm up and felt easy. Confidence boosted, back under the route I eyed the line and shut myself away for a moment, but there was no need to go through the moves again. I’d done that already, many times before. I psyched up, had to take a deep breath and then went for it. It felt like a big step into a world of hard climbing.
In the end it was easy, faultless, almost an anti-climax, the power of focus and the effect of familiarity displayed to me for perhaps the first time. It immediately flung open the doors to what was possible. If this hard E5 felt so easy, what else could I do? What if I could apply that level of focus to on-sight climbing? The whole event was almost confusing (though considerably more exciting than confusing), and with this route there came the next step: the side runner, which was now losing its argument in justification. There was no doubt it would go as a solo. Then Magic in the Air would really be complete: a pure line of impeccable quality, a match for the famous Master’s Edge in the Peak District, but without any man-made holes for protection. But the thought frightened me; I didn’t want to think it. For that day I shook it off, yet it wouldn’t go away, nagging at me weeks later when there was a gap in my consciousness. I knew I could do it, theoretically. I hadn’t fallen off on top rope, hadn’t fallen off on lead, so why would I fall on solo? Next time I visited the crag I looked closer at the dynamics of a solo, mainly the ground at the base of the route and the distance that separated it from droppable moves near the top. It looked hard and the distance far. I started to question why I’d even considered the solo. What was my motivation? Dispensing with the side runner made for a perfect and pure line without doubt, but I’d
already climbed it really. I’d done the moves from ground to top without falling. In fact, come to think of it, why did I even feel I had to lead it? What really was the point of the risk, other than accepting the challenge that others had laid down? But in essence that was it, a challenge wrapped up in the simple and most basic rule of rock climbing: that a route should be led from the ground with the leader placing protection, if there is any, on his way to the top. This route remained tarnished, in a way, with the pre-placed side runner, which was impossible to place on the actual ascent. In a way it could be argued that it hadn’t even been ‘climbed’.
It became clear my motivations for a solo were for a first ascent. I’d already done the route in terms of movement, then accepted the challenge thrown down by the first ascensionists – the next step would be to raise the bar for the future. But in a way this seemed a trivial step and almost derogatory to Nick. It would be an ego-massage, making a microscopic mark in the history of climbing. But this tiny mark was something I craved, a little bit of recognition. My lead ascent would go totally unnoticed in the climbing world, as indeed it should being a mere E5, but a solo would make people sit up and think. They’d see I was good at something.
Tim didn’t think it was a good idea, couldn’t see the point. Neither could the rest of the lads. It was already one of the hardest routes on the Moors and they didn’t want to see me hurt myself for nothing. Anyway there were trips to organise, things to be done and places to go. I was needed for these, to organise and drive the plans, to make them happen. Their sentiments made an impact and I realised that the recognition I sought I’d already achieved. Gone were the insecure school days being at the bottom of the heap. I’d ended up in a good place. I didn’t need to be top dog or a cool dude or the best climber or an E7 soloist. A team player position was just fine, with everyone bringing different things to the table, everyone equal in their own way.
The prize of a solo was clear, but no longer shiny and gold and the consequences of failure shouted to be heard. Leaving the crag I knew deep down I’d never solo it, I didn’t need to, the penalty of failure, though unlikely, far exceeding the glory of success. After all what is success and how is it measured? Everyone has their own set of criteria and I was beginning to understand my own. I’d taken what I wanted from Magic in the Air. It had given me a real challenge, physically difficult and tampering with a level of risk. The process had been intriguing and the actual ascent an enthralling flow of complex movement. I was happy with my performance, happy with my achievement and I felt good about my climbing. It was all I could ask for and summed up everything I’d be looking for in this funny little sport.