The hardest climb in the UK just got harder. This Sunday, Steve McClure finally climbed his seven-year mega-project at Malham, Rainman, to give the UK its first-ever 9b.
The route, at Malham Cove in Yorkshire, climbs up the classic Raindogs (8a) then climbs the bulge into Rainshadow (9a). After the crux of Rainshadow, which moves left onto better holds, Rainman blasts pretty much straight up to eventually join Bat Route. It does link existing routes but there’s a bunch of new climbing.
We spoke to a very happy and very tired Steve McClure the morning after, as he was adjusting to his new 9b status.
There are two types of climbing. You might think there is sport, trad, boulder and competition. But in my view, the two real differences are: first go or have tried before. Do you have to work it all out, or do you know exactly what’s coming?
There is a huge difference between the two types. However, though the onsight can only apply to a single go, once you commit to a longer journey, that journey can be immense – from an hour to a lifetime. It can become everything.
I can’t believe how long I’ve been trying it. I first had a look at it in 2010, and over the years it’s gained pace. In the first year, I spent three or four days on it, then a few more the next. It gradually gained momentum until 2013 when I was putting in 20 days a year on it. I had other climbing plans, but this route was my sole UK hard redpoint target.
It felt just out of reach. That’s something special and quite hard to find. I could sense that it was within reach… but only just.
WATCH: Steve McClure projecting Rainman on BMC TV
There are two ways to climb something that’s out of reach. You either raise your physical and mental game or you try and find easier sequences to climb the route more efficiently. For this route, I had to push both to the limit.
When it’s at the limit of your reach, everything is so borderline. Last year I felt that I was pretty close: only four or five moves out of reach. But I didn’t realise that meant that I was nowhere near. This year, I made some micro adjustments to the way I climbed it – such as a different twist of the knee here, a thumb alteration there – everything helped to tweak my efficiency.
I won’t climb any harder, I’m sure of it. It’s taken that long to get an efficient sequence – years of staring at the moves, lying in bed and thinking about the best way to climb it. And then you redpoint from the ground, trying the new sequence and the sequence proves imperfect or your core tension goes.
I needed really specific gains. For example, I needed more strength in my calf to use a knee bar well, so at the end of each session I’d just hang there, in that knee bar, trying to strengthen my calf.
There was one moment when I knew I could do it. The top part involves a difficult stab to an old peg pocket, it’s really hard to get. I knew if I got it and held that, it was game on. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I got it and got to the last hard move. Then two weeks ago I fell off the very last move that you could fall off. The door was open.
Mentally, it became really hard work. Until then, we’d had perfect climbing conditions in March through May. But two weeks ago, after I fell off the last move, it warmed up and I thought, that’s it. I’ve blown it. I kept heading up there, but it really felt like the Malham season had finished. I thought now I have to wait all summer to try it again in the autumn or next spring. That was hard to take. I did think, what the hell am I doing? But my friend Simon Lee said to me, “This is it Steve. This will be your defining moment, the highlight of your climbing life.” I think he’s probably right.
I’d give it 9b for the mental challenge. It was a real strain on the brain, I haven’t felt that since doing Overshadow.
You’re constantly putting yourself ahead, but my partner and kids have been amazing. We have to make some last-minute changes to plans so that I could nip up to Malham if conditions were good. Rock City have also been super supportive. I routeset there, and they’ve let me drop work or pick up extra work at a moment’s notice to fit around the route.
I think it’s 9b. That’s what I’m tentatively giving it. A few years ago, I climbed 9a+ and I said that I didn’t think I’d ever climb 9b. But this is another level up. After a route has been around a while, and lots of people have climbed something, the grade is clear, but on a new route it’s tough. It’s impossible to always get it right. There are variations in sequence and body type that effect how a person thinks.
When grading all you can do is go off previous experience. Adam Ondra thought that Overshadow was a hard 9a+ and I’m sure this is definitely harder. I could be wrong, but this feels like the next level for me. So far I’ve not got any wrong yet (though plenty still need a repeat!)
I won’t ever climb 9b+. Come on, get real! The 9b+ club is for the few, and I know they’re all better than I am. I’m a 46-year-old dad who can barely do 20 pull-ups in a row. I know that I can’t climb at the very, very top level.
I’d love Ondra to repeat it. He’s a purist, he really values climbing rather than numbers, so I’m sure he’ll be attracted by such a challenge on a quality crag. I know he’s keen on the line, and he’s mentioned that he’d like to try it after me.
It’s been an awesome journey. Something on this scale makes you try to be your very best. You know you need 100%. I’ve been working hard and training hard. With a goal to focus on, and knowing what it needs you will put in the effort, you keep going to make the gains. And that drive doesn’t come from wanting to cruise E4s and eat ice cream.
On big projects, you form a close relationship with the route, the crag and the team. Onsight climbing is amazing: nice trips to beautiful places, climbing new routes in all styles. I love the adventure and the movement. However, ultimately they will disappear from my memory, but this experience is seared in. I’ll look back in 20 years and remember every move, and the final move to the belay.
What did it feel like to finish it? Quite full-on. I was pretty emotional and gave Simon a big hug.
I’m calling it Rainman. I think that fits. This route has taken a stupid amount of time and effort, some people would think it madness. Maybe it is, in a way.
I’m not finished with Malham yet. I’ve got a very cool bolted project on the upper tier, probably 8c+. Maybe I’ll try Rainshadow again, there are a few people on it and it looks great. The idea of turning left into good holds at the junction rather than right into razor edges seems rather appealing!
Steve is a member of the BMC ambassador team.
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