The inevitable has happened. The unstoppable force of Steve McClure has finally collided with the immovable reputation of Strawberries at Tremadog. Last Thursday, Steve managed the first-ever British onsight of this legendary route. Alex Messenger caught up with him to find out more.
On Thursday 12 June, Britain’s top sport climber and BMC ambassador Steve McClure made the first-ever British onsight of Strawberries (E7 6b) at Tremadog in North Wales.
First climbed by Ron Fawcett in 1980, the route had previously seen only three onsight ascents, all from foreign climbers: Stefan Glowacz in 1987, Jorg Verhoeven in 2011 and Hansjorg Auer in 2012. It was also flashed by Felix Neumarker in 2013 with the gear in place and beta on the crux.
Many of our homegrown top trad climbers, including Pete Robins and James McHaffie, have tried to match this but, until now, no-one had succeeded.
We phoned Steve at home in Sheffield to find out more.
So, Strawberries falls. Was it a long-term goal or a spur-of-the-moment tick?
It was very definitely a goal I’d had for a very long time. Originally it wasn’t an option since it was way, way too hard. Then it became possible that I might be able to onsight it, but the reputation of the route increased faster than the rate at which I was getting better!
I was always saving it for the onsight, but five years ago I realised that if I kept saving it, it was never going to be perfect. So it changed from saving it to really wanting to try it, but as soon as I’d made that decision, life got in the way: work, injuries, weather. Loads of reasons.
Then, last week, Marmot wanted some photos they could use at a trade show and asked if I could think of a route that would make good pics. I replied: Strawberries. And that was it: oh, shit, I’m committed. The weather looked perfect and suddenly I was psyched. It was on.
How did your ascent go?
Well, the original plan was to film and take photos on the Saturday but we went down on Thursday since the weather was so good, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that I was going to try it. Everything had fallen into place: it was clean, there was some chalk on it, a light breeze. I’d been waiting for years, and knew I’d never get a better chance than this.
What did it feel like stepping on to it?
The most scared I’ve ever been. The weight of its reputation was totally harrowing. But as soon as I committed, it was like a normal climb, I was back into the zone.
How did the climbing feel?
I couldn’t get any good gear in at the bottom, so that was unnerving, then there was a really hard move to enter the start. That was a real surprise: damn, this is really hard. So I found myself committing to an irreversible move before I thought I was ready. But then I could see there was some gear higher up, so I sprinted up the crack, facing a pretty big lob.
Then there was a little respite. I found some half-decent holds, and got some DMM cams in, which made a massive difference; I was pretty convinced that they were enough. Then I flipped into sport climbing mode. There’s this mode that as a sport climber you can get into on trad: you know the gear is good, you know there’s no chance of hitting the ground, but you know there’s no more gear. When all those three things come together, you can truly climb.
This is actually quite hard to find on a trad route, since looking for gear really screws it up. But I thought, that’s it, I’m going the whole way. It wasn’t too bad, but it was quite go-ey.
And how did pulling over the top feel?
Amazing. I got that huge buzz you get out of climbing something really good.
Why is it so hard to onsight?
It’s got a huge reputation, and that plays with your head. I was definitely quite nervous and that could screw you up. The crack is quite hard to read and you have to get your hands right. Plus it’s steep. I was lucky though: there was some chalk in the route. Psychologically that always helps, it turns the rock into a route and shows you where to not bother looking for holds. I’m surprised that people say it’s well protected though. It’s pretty spicy really. It’s not a piece of cake.
If anyone fancied a crack, what sport grade would they need to be onsighting to stand a chance?
If you haven’t onsighted F8a, then probably wait until you have.
You’ve just ticked Strawberries. A few weeks ago, you onsighted Dalriada (E7 6b) on the Cobbler. Are you having a trad-climbing renaissance?
As it turns, out, yes, I am. But that’s because things are coming together in a certain way. I’ve never drifted away from trad, but I just happened to have had two very, very good weekends. I feel like that I’ve had some of the best climbing for a very long time. And I’m keen for some more.
You’ve got a super-hard long-term sport-climbing project at Malham – how’s that going?
It’s totally on hold for the summer. You can get some good days up there in the summer, but it’s generally too hot. Rather than driving myself mad, I’ll wait until the autumn.
What’s next – any big plans for the summer?
I’m heading to the Ratikon in Switzerland with Neil Mawson (which is being filmed for BMC TV). I’d like to get down to Pembroke again. Then it’s Ireland in September and the Petzl RocTrip in October. Bring it all on.
Steve McClure is a member of the BMC ambassador team.
Look out for a big feature about Steve, his climbing and his future in the summer issue of Summit magazine. Out next week.
Watch Steve climb Hubble at Raven Tor on BMC TV: