Highlights of a decade: British sport climbing

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 06/03/2020
Steve McClure on Rainman, the UK's first 9b. Photo: Ian Burton

It’s easy to miss the steady rise of performance over the years but, looking back, it becomes clear just how far sport climbing has come. The last decade has featured some truly remarkable performances that will be markers in time for eternity, says Steve McClure.

In 2017, Steve McClure won a seven-year battle with a line at Malham. The result was the first ascent of the UK's first-ever 9b, Rainman. In this article, the BMC Ambassador picks out what he sees as the world's sport climbing highlights from the past decade.

DON'T MISS: The Big Bang goes on tour

Last year, Emma Twyford powered into the history books when she became the first British woman to climb 9a. A BMC TV film about her journey won Best Climbing Film at Kendal Mountain Festival in November last year. Emma, filmmaker David Petts and host Niall Grimes are going on a very special five-date tour this March, which begins in North Wales and ends in London. Check out the dates and venues here: Emma Twyford and The Big Bang: on tour. All proceeds from the events will be going to the BMC's Climate Project.


July 2012: James McHaffie makes the first ascent of The Meltdown on Llanberis slate

The Welsh slate quarries are so atmospheric and the climbing is unique. Johnny Dawes made The Meltdown famous - a wall climb of the highest difficulty with barely enough holds, and relentless difficulty for the full height. I didn’t think it would go. At that time, probably only Caff could have managed it.

Sept 2012: Mina Leslie-Wujastyk redpoints Mecca (8b+) at Raventor

The classic Raventor testpiece. If you can climb hard at ‘The Tor’, you can probably climb hard anywhere! Mina brought female standards up and showed her potential for the future. Then, in 2014, she managed to tick Mecca Extension (8c). She remains one of only a handful of British women who have climbed the grade.

READ: Mina Leslie-Wujastyk steams her way to sport 8c

Mina Leslie-Wujastyk steams her way to 8c. Photo: Jon Clark

Feb 2013: Adam Ondra climbs the world's hardest sport route

The cutting edge of world climbing. Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra spent two years working together to climb La Dura Dura (9b+), the world's hardest climb. We watched as the epic unfolded and they battled against the route. It was another level clearly, the moves looked impossible. And it seemed success was only possible with lots of screaming. Adam was revealed to be absolutely the next generation.

WATCH: Reel Rock presents La Dura Complete

The story of Chris and Adam's collaboration on Dura Dura 9b+

March 2013: Chris Sharma's second ascent of Dura Dura

A fairytale story. As Adam and Chris battled, it was never against each other. Chris had bolted the route but happily attacked it with Adam at his side, with only good feeling when Adam took the first ascent. A perfect example of what the sport of climbing is and should be – human versus the rock. But the perfect ending was that Chris, not deflated, but even more motivated, went on to get the second ascent. A truly inspiring story at the cutting edge.

March 2013: Alex Megos Onsights 9a - Estado Critico at Siurana 

Everyone expected Adam Ondra to be the first to onsight a 9a - then a relative unknown nipped in. But this was only the start of his domination of rock climbing. I wasn’t surprised, I’d seen Alex at a ‘sponsored hero event’ years ago when he was just a young nipper that no-one knew, and he utterly crushed the heroes into the ground. He moved like he was weightless and we watched with our jaws on the floor. There was a whisper spreading: ‘this guy is gonna be big…’

READ: Alex Megos makes Mincemeat of the UK

Alex Megos finally sends Hubble in 2016 after leaving it unfinished years earlier. Photo: Frank Kretschmann

May 2013: Jordan Buys Repeats Rainshadow 9a

Perhaps my best 9a route, which I climbed in 2003. It took 10 years for a Brit to repeat it (Adam Ondra got the second ascent in 2010). I was impressed by Jordan as he is such a down-to-earth British style climber. With a full-time job, he balances sport and trad and all things climbing but still comes away with the prize.

READ: Jordan Buys climbs Rainshadow: interview

Jordan Buys climbing Power Ranger at Malham, 2009

June 2015: Ben Moon climbs Rainshadow 9a

Those who climbed in the late 80s and into the 90s will know that Ben was the star. He was and still is my hero, cutting the way with the hardest ascents and the latest training. After a break for a few years, he returned to climb his hardest route just a day before his 49th birthday. This is inspirational for those older climbers and maybe those that have let it slip. As Ben himself said ‘It’s all down to motivation’.

READ: Return of the king: Ben Moon climbs 9a: 25 years after his first

Ben Moon climbing Rainshadow 9a. Photo: Steve Lewis / moonclimbing.com

Feb 2017: Margo Hayes repeats La Rambla, 9a+

I tried Rambla for a day years ago, and it felt nails. I didn’t think I could do it unless someone moved it to the UK, or I moved to Spain. And Margo crushed it, clearly showing female standards had stepped right up. But with Margo, it was obviously just the start (and it was for her!), and suddenly we were all aware of a step change. One minute female climbers seemed way off the 9s, next minute they were all over them!

READ: Margo Hayes: secrets to climbing 9a+

Margo Hayes. Photo: George Bruce Wilson

Sept 2017: Adam Ondra climbs World's first 9c – Silence

In any sport, development at the cutting edge gets slower as the limits are reached. Dura Dura 9b+ looked impossible - 9c seemed a way off. But Adam was the man for the job; the absolute ultimate climbing machine, bringing together not just physical performance and genetics, but a drive, determination and love of the sport so essential for pushing the limits. In the history of climbing I’ve never met anyone else that is such a natural born climber.

READ: Adam Ondra climbs 9c: how do British climbers measure up?

Adam had been working this route for four years. Photo: Pavel Blazek

Oct 2017: First Female 9b by Angy Eiter

As Margo worked her way through 9a+ routes, Angy raised the bar further to 9b. In a sport where, in the past men had been ahead in grades, the playing field was now drawing level.

June 2018: Pete Dawson climbs Rainshadow

Though Pete’s ascent was not an early repeat, it was fast, with little time and effort, and compared to my ascent it clearly showed a rise in standards. But this route is a great example of how we have moved forward, from my ascent in 2003, to Adam’s in 2010, Jordan’s in 2013 and then a steady stream as the route becomes a relative trade route with a number of ascents from the likes of Stu Littlefair, Ben Moon, Will Bosi, Ryan Pasquil, and Buster Martin.

READ: Interview: Pete Dawson ticks Hubble 9a

Pete Dawson on Hubble 9a. Photo: Jonathan Bean

Sept 2019: Emma Twyford on The Big Bang 9a

The Big Bang was the first 9a in the UK but that does not make it the easiest. Far from it. But her story is the inspiration; a true British climber, an all-rounder, with E9 trad routes under her belt, too. Balancing full-time route-setting, she pushed on for season after season, battling away for her personal reward. As a climber who has been on a few of these journeys, the multi-year affairs, I can really relate. Emma pushed female standards into 9a, but for her it was all about the journey.

READ: Emma Twyford becomes first British woman to break 9a barrier

Emma Twyford climbing Big Bang (9a). Photo: Marc Langley

Nov 2019: First Ley 9a+ by Buster Martin

I got in touch with Buster in mid-November to ask him how his year had been and he replied to say ‘2019 is not over yet…’ a week later he cracked First Ley. The first Brit to climb this grade abroad, and the second Brit to manage a 9a+ anywhere. If you have looked at this from the floor you’ll be amazed. There is no chance I could ever climb this. A brutal indicator of the next generation of power and strength.

READ: Interview: Buster Martin, second Brit to climb 9a+

Buster on First Ley. Photo: Henry Kinman


Who could have seen the rise, and who can say what the next ten years will bring!


WATCH: Steve McClure projecting Rainman on BMC TV:


WATCH: Adam Ondra tries Rainman 9b, Britain's hardest climb:


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