Even facing dreary English conditions, no set training schedule, seepy local crags, all-day routesetting sessions to make ends meet, raising a 20-month-old daughter, DIY house-dismantling projects, coaching, and writing, "Strong" Steve McClure still sets world standards. McClure, 37, has onsighted 5.14a hanging the draws, as part of his 330 5.13b-or-harder onsights, and FA'ed four unrepeated 9a-on-beyond (5.14d) climbs in England, including Overshadow, at Malham Cove in Yorkshire. McClure is a true working-class hero, calculated and humble about his instinctual talent. With his lean, wiry frame, McClure may not be the strongest climber, but he has fierce determination and the mind of an engineer, breaking each move down to find the perfect, most precise and efficient position. A native of Brotton, in northeastern England, McClure has been climbing for 30-odd years.
Here, Climbing presents the full interview with McClure, which was excerpted for Perspective in our April 2008 issue.
When did it all begin?Both my folks were keen climbers so there was no getting away from it. We were in the rock environment right from the start. I dabbled in and out as kids do probably from when I was about 5 or 6, one day keen, the next preferring to build dens or crawl through small holes.
How did you get the nickname Strong Steve?At first people thought I was strong because I could hang on little holds, but as time went by the name was dropped when it became obvious that I am actually piss weak! No joke, relative to the wads I’m feeble, not sure how I get up anything!
What are you looking for in a route? Purity of line and absorption in the climbing. It doesn’t have to be hard.
What is your form of training?Mainly just climbing outdoors in loads of different styles. I don’t think I’ve really ‘trained’ at all, in the sense of putting together a plan to actually get stronger and fitter in an efficient manner. Climbing is a tough sport. For most types of sport, people train for their event allowing a run-up and proper training period; in climbing our event is every day! And to make it worse, we want our PB in the 100m one day and the marathon the next!
What inspires you? People who give it everything. That doesn’t have to be in climbing — it could be anything. People who can devote their lives to their passion. I meet climbers who train so hard, watch what they eat, give up all work to climb every day, don’t party…it makes me want to try so much harder.
What are some interesting differences between the UK and USA? You guys think all the Brits are crazy and that all our climbing is dangerous. In reality we aren’t so bold compared to other countries — plenty of bouldering stuff the Americans are doing is pretty dangerous, and the trad stuff is also off the wall. I wish the world would remember we do have great sport climbing too, and that it doesn’t always rain!
How important is grading, really? In the world of climbing, grading is utterly essential — everyone relies on it, really. It’s cool to say that grades don’t matter and it’s the climbing that counts. For sure that’s true, but people like to test themselves and get the sort of test they want. Used as a guide, grades are great. Grades become a problem when they become the point of climbing, when the grade becomes bigger than the climb itself. It doesn’t necessarily matter how hard a route is but sometimes it’s nice to know how hard other people think it is.
Three 9a first ascents in England – has anyone else put any time into these routes? What does it take to succeed on a hardest sport climb in a country where the weather is stacked against you?Of my 9’s, the only one that has been seriously tried is Northern Lights, by Ben Moon and Malcolm Smith before I did it. At the moment no one is interested — bouldering is king in Britain these days.
Hard sport climbing is tough work, one of the hardest disciplines. Once a project becomes long term there are so many things stacked against you: weather, conditions, keeping in shape, injury, getting climbing partners…. Even if you get a good run of weather for a whole season you’re only talking 12 weeks or so. Maybe with work you’ll manage a day a week; knock off a few for being out of shape or hung over, and a few more because of life stuff, and suddenly your window for a whole year looks pretty small.
Being on one route that ends up taking YEARS isn’t for everyone! But there’s something special about pushing yourself right out there, trying something you think you might not actually be able to do. I couldn’t let that be the only part of the game. In fact, I never saw myself getting involved, but big projects are a great experience. They motivate me to become a better climber.
Who embodies climbing, as a person?Lynn Hill, she IS climbing. She has devoted her life to it. She is brilliant at every style; she’s pushed all the boundaries. She can be a ‘lifer’ living in the dirt or a pro with the sponsors. When was/is climbing's greatest moment?First ascent of Everest. Lynn Hill on the Nose. Sharma on Realization. There are many great moments, the best defined by the conquering of a challenge that has defeated many. Have you ever had a climbing partner die on you?Very nearly. A best mate landed in a heap next to me after ripping all his kit. He was well bashed up, blood all over and bones sticking out. It looked very unlikely, indeed. He’s made a full recovery now, but that shook me up, made my climbing go in a different direction even. You realize you aren’t invincible, but more, you realize how important life is. Life has a lot of risks, and everyone draws their own line. My line moved a bit after that. Where was your favorite sunset viewed from a cliff?Every now and again you have ‘a moment’ when everything comes together; the whole world around you fits together perfectly. I can climb for a whole year for just a few instances of this. They stay with me forever afterwards. One of my best climbing experiences this year happened in about half a second, a single move--the crux of an 8c+ I had worked two different ways and then planned on one method. It was a really explosive move and part way through I switched plans. I felt like a computer instantly analyzing data and calculating exactly the best course of action. Amazing how such an instant in time can affect you so much. A few years ago in Sardinia on a 10-pitch route, I led up the eighth, 7a pitch. The climbing was amazing; perfect rock, perfect holds and friction, not too hard. The sun was setting out to sea and there was a complete cloud inversion only just below my feet with it following me up as I moved. The whole thing was burning red like an immense fire, constantly changing shape and reaching up to my ankles. Footwork, power, or tenacity – what makes for a good climber?A good climber is one who can use all the rock offers in the most efficient manner. Footwork, power and tenacity are all essential, but they’re nothing without control. Best quote from another climber?“I went for the crux, the motion startling me like a car unexpectedly in gear in a crowded parking lot. I swarm through the roundness of the bulge to a crank on a brittle spike for a cluster of three crystals on the right; each finger crucial and separate like the keys for a piano chord…..” Johnny Dawes describing his ascent of Indian Face, the first E9 in the UK and one of the most important ascents in British climbing history. He has a way of putting into words what we can only feel but never describe. What are you up to now?Climbing has been a massive journey for me moving through so many different styles with what I am most psyched for, depending on where I am with my life. Right now I am motivated to be physically and mentally the best I can be. But time is a massive constraint, I have a hyper kid, a ton of different jobs, a house that is falling apart, and a social life I don't want to miss out on! Hard sport also fits in well; it’s a quick fix, really. I think a lot of people, and even climbing itself, are heading the same way. There are fewer 'lifers,' people are so busy all the time. I'm cool, though, because I know it'll come around. In awhile I'll be plodding up 10-pitch 5.11's with no care for fingertip pull-ups and power-endurance training. I reckon I'll climb till I drop.