Sabotage: Neil Gresham puts up a new 8c+ at Malham

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 20/10/2016
Sabotage. Photo: Ian Parnell

"It was great to finish in true British style. Slumped down in pouring rain in disbelief that I wasn’t going to have to put myself through it any more." Neil Gresham offers beta for his new route at Malham, training tips, insights into the Malham catwalk scene, and explains why he thinks sport climbing is the hardest form of climbing.

Sabotage is an extension to Predator (8b), a 1987 John Dunne classic, which tantalisingly finished three-quarters of the way up the wall under a bulge. Steve McClure first tried filling in the glaringly obvious gap but then went back to his 9b project, so Neil Gresham stepped up to blow the gathering dust from the bolts he'd left, and managed to tick his first 8c+ FA in the process.

NG: Malham has got to be the best sport crag in the UK and is perhaps the one that’s seen the most attention from top international climbers throughout the years. Or, at least, they make the pilgrimage to Raventor and then move on to Malham in disgust.

It’s an impressive geological feature – a giant sweeping, amphitheatre with rare limestone pavement formations on top. On a busy day it’s like a circus, with climbers strutting their stuff on the infamous catwalk ledge while tourists gawp; but on a quiet midweek afternoon with crisp conditions there’s nowhere quite like it.  

The climbing is inherently desperate at Malham and the grades are meaningless. Onsighting may as well be prohibited as the holds are camouflaged and you need a microscope to see most of the footholds. Everyone apart from Adam Ondra gets shut down on first acquaintance.

It took me something like thirty total sessions to work this new route. Three last year, a dozen in the spring and a dozen in the autumn. I did Predator a total of 48 times and never dropped it during the whole campaign. This has to be one of the saddest climbing records, although that said, it would be good to know how many times Steve’s done Raindogs!


Photo: Ian Parnell

The line was a glaringly obvious gap that needed attention. Steve McClure decided to take a look after we discussed it during a coaching trip in Kalymnos, but he ended up switching to his 9b project above Raindogs and it was left to gather dust.

I think other people were deterred from trying the line because there was a move Steve McClure couldn’t do. But it turned out that this was purely because the rock was poor in one small section. I found another way just to the left where it was more solid and the moves seemed to flow better.

There’s an awkward, cramped rest in a back-and-foot position next to the chains of Predator then you’re straight into the bulge with some burly undercutting on good holds. You extend for a depressingly useless left-hand tufa pinch, slap into a small right-hand undercut by your nose, then slap again for a second, wide, flared left-hand pinch, which is probably even worse than the first one.

Hang this (or fall off a million times as I did) and then snatch for a good right-hand blocky pinch. It’s not over after that as there are a few tricky moves on the headwall, which you could blow if you panic, like I did when I first got there.

I’m really not sure about the grade. It felt considerably harder than any of the 8cs I’ve been on, but this could just be because I was wearing ‘first ascent spectacles’. It’s so easy to get tunnel vision and think that things are harder than they actually are.

"The night before I did it, Steve McClure had a dream that he found a hands-off rest in the middle of the crux, which downgraded the moves to Font 6c!"

Fortunately it didn’t come true! I know it’s a cliché but the grade is totally unimportant to me as it’s such a special route.

It was great to finish in true British style, grappling with handfuls of mud and ivy! I can barely recall clipping the chains as I was so focused, but topping out on the girdle ledge was comical. I slumped down in pouring rain in total disbelief as it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t going to have to put myself through it any more.

Sport climbing is the hardest form of climbing, isn’t it? Onsights are over in minutes. Whether on trad or sport, you’re either successful or wiping the slate and moving onto the next one. But with redpoints, you’re stuck with them forever until you slay them. It can be an ugly business and even Ben Moon, one of the world’s best, threw the towel in and took a decade-long sabbatical.

That said, Deep Water Soloing in Pembroke is my favourite style of climbing. It combines all the best adventurous and atmospheric elements of trad with the best physical and aesthetic elements of sport climbing. The quality is simply off the scale. 

I have a project at Kilnsey next, but I don’t know what grade it is. Climbing 9a isn’t an objective for me but if the Kilnsey route turns out to be that grade then I guess that’s what I’ll have to try and do. But first I'm focussing on time with my family and then something very different, maybe some Scottish winter.

Some training tips: most climbers know all about specific training  building replica problems and training the hand-grips you need and so on. The key is not to do this too early, and to build a base of general fitness and strength first, before you start doing the specific stuff.

The really interesting part is cycling your nutrition with training phases and performance phases. We could get technical here but it all boils down to the old axiom of training heavy and climbing light. This doesn’t mean starving yourself between redpoints as you’ll burn out, but there are some sophisticated modern ‘low-carb’ strategies, which enable you to maintain a low weight, whilst sustaining energy levels and promoting recovery.

If you’re naturally very light then you don’t have to worry about this, but I’m not so I do!​

Neil Gresham is sponsored by La Sportiva, Petzl, Julbo, Osprey and Sherpa. He has recently produced a fingerboarding app, ‘hangboardguru’, which is available on iTunes.

WATCH: A day out at Malham with Steve McClure on BMC TV


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