48-year-old BMC Ambassador, Steve McClure, has made the first ascent of what has become an infamous project at Nesscliffe. The route has been looked at by plenty of strong climbers, including James Pearson, Dave Birkett and James McHaffie. Steve named it GreatNess Wall and suggested a grade of E10 7a. In this interview he describes the moment when he almost took a whipper...
SM: I first visited Nesscliffe about eight years ago and was blown away by how impressive it is. I cursed myself for being one of the masses who heard about it and never actually managed to get there, always passing by on the way to other cliffs!
I wish Nesscliffe was 10 minutes from where I live! It has really impressive lines: corners, aretes, faces. The climbing is really interesting and technical: the big features are not the only feature like on some rock types, there are many pockets, edges, crimps, side-pulls, slopers...
About 18 months ago Nick Dixon mentioned this Nesscliffe project to me - he reckoned it was just what I was after. Nick is an old friend of mine. He was my hero way back when we both lived in the NYM; he was cutting edge when I was a young nipper of 12 years old. Since then we've been in contact about making it happen.
After tasting the quality I was psyched. I really wanted to get stuck into what was clearly going to be a fantastic challenge and exactly the kind of challenge I am looking for - really hard, technical, spicy, but not death!
Here is what Nick Dixon says about the Nesscliffe project, which best describes the history:
“I first tried the headwall project about six years ago and it took occasional raps down the wall with Ed [Booth] and others to piece together a way to climb the headwall via the up, traverse right and up again version. During that time other good climber people had a look at it like Ed Booth, James Pearson, Dave Birkett and several others.”
“For the last three years it has been a realistic project for me but possibly just a bit too hard I think when adding-in the easier climbing up to get into it. I’ve probably had about 30 occasions on it on the top rope. During that time it has of course been just one of many projects I’ve been working on most of which I’ve done but this one has become a bit stubborn and I think that is due to its difficulty and need for pretty perfect connies. My highpoint on it is really four times I have top roped the actual headwall part (from standing in the break) including all the crux.”
The interest in this route has probably come from Caff taking such a massive fall off it. If it had not been for that everyone would be like, "Oh - not heard of that before, looks pretty good, but surely it can't be E10 with such good gear..." Caff has tried the project on and off for a few seasons, but hurt his wrist and had to back off for a while.
WATCH: Caff taking a whipper off GreatNess Wall:
I'd cleared it with Caff that I was OK to try for a lead. An open project, but I knew he was keen. But to be honest I didn't think I had much chance. I'd been on it in 'normal' May-time conditions and really struggled: it needs cool and wind. With half-term away with the kids, then loads of work in June I was expecting to have to wait till autumn.
Nick Dixon described the route as 'a whole lot of 6c moves to gain only about 6m of height' - and that's a fair description! You move a bunch left, punch out a few hard moves, move back right, up via the desperate crux, which is super hard in less than good conditions. Then a traverse right again on lots of rubbish sloping edges to the final hard stretch to the finishing hold. Though even that 'finishing hold' is not huge! From the break it's 21 hand moves from leaving the break, with plenty of sketchy feet shuffling! Some moves are maybe only 6a, most are 6b, the crux is pretty tough!
I first tried the route two or three weeks ago on a shunt on the way to the BMC international meet, and was instantly grabbed by it. I could tell this was something that personally I was really attracted to. The rock type, the moves, the style, the risk (not too risky!). I had another visit to figure it all out and from there I knew I was on for a lead.
It's a real balancing act - to know when to try - balancing risk against margin of success. It's so clear in sport climbing - it's safe - just go when there is a chance. But with headpointing the margins have to be bigger! Who sets off on a death route knowing it's 50/50 they will fall?
I'd convinced myself the fall was not so bad. Caff had taken the biggest lob. It was clearly not a fairground ride. There was real potential for injury. Still, it was probably OK. The balance of acceptable risk is the game we all play on trad routes all the time no matter what the level.
The ascent was almost perfect - I did little wrong, but was startled by fatigue that set in. I messed up a move low down, fixed it, but that maybe cost me some energy. And while traversing I had to dig in a little more than I expected - the moves felt harder, the feet less precise. But at the same time it was essential to keep total focus. As each move is hard, there isn't space to be worrying about falling.
I hit the final move in the wrong order - my right foot suddenly seemed to be slipping, so it had to be moved before the left. It sounds like no big deal but it just set me up for the final hard stretch a little bit more out of sorts, and I only just made it to the finishing hold. I stopped short by a few inches, expecting to fall off and having a moment of fear, then got the hold.
I had a moment of relief, only to realise I didn't actually have it well enough and was about to fall off. Somehow I managed to creep my fingers over the edge. In fact I still don't know how I manged this - I really was off there. It seemed I went through a really cool experience in a single second - so close to the edge!
Yes, my laces are untied in the Instagram photo! I don't ever tie up my laces, those 5.10 fit my feet so well I don't need to. It makes no difference. Maybe if there is a really full on heel hook - which there certainly was not in this case. just think how much time I've saved over the years not tying laces!
I'm known as a sport climber, though my background is trad and I love that just as much. It's just that I've done harder sport.
I'm not motivated by real danger, in fact very much turned off by it. Many of the hard trad routes are really dangerous - just by default - no holds = no gear! These are some of the more 'hard but safe' routes that I've been drawn towards: Choronzon, Muy Caliante, Big Issue, Rhapsody, Requiem...
I don't think GreatNess is my hardest trad route. But then personally, I consider my 'trad' experiences as the ones I do onsight or flashed. But that's a whole other issue to chat about another time and is for each person to consider. There are excellent headpointers with big numbers, and excellent onsighters. Personally, I'd suggest Caff is by far the best traditional climber ever seen in the UK.
What's next for me? Some onsights on trad - the ones with some gear...
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