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On September 4, Neil Gresham grabbed the first ascent of Lexicon (E11 7a) at Pavey Ark in the UK’s Lake District. The route, which can roughly be translated to 5.14 with an 80-foot fall potential, was his first of the grade.
Gresham is no stranger to cutting edge ascents, having climbed Rise and Shine (WI 7) in Kandersteg, Switzerland, established Sabotage (8c+/ 5.14c) in Malham, UK, and repeated several E9s and 10s, but Lexicon required a new level of commitment. “Lexicon enabled me to amalgamate everything I’ve learnt in 40 years of climbing,” Gresham wrote to Climbing in an email.
The route was certainly no cake walk. Aside from the sustained and low-percentage 5.14 climbing, Lexicon had an unmistakable fear factor: biff it on any one of the final four moves—the crux, of course—and face an 80-foot fall with a violent swing into the wall below.
Gresham badly wanted to climb the route, but he knew it would require all of his focus and skill. “If I was expecting the trad climbing equivalent of an Olympic gold then I wasn’t going to achieve it with the approach of a keen amateur,” Gresham told UK Climbing. “I would need to give everything.”
Lexicon was the first time Gresham allowed his mental health to take a front seat while projecting. He spoke with his lifelong friend and mental health guru, Charlie Woodburn, about how his state of mind and climbing performance are inextricably linked. “When I look back, it’s so obvious that I didn’t climb well during the periods of high stress, and in some cases these periods also correlated with injuries,” Gresham said.
Gresham prioritized his mental health in several ways; he took slow, steady runs with good music and followed them with long stretching sessions; he began cold water swimming and cut back on sugary foods and caffeine; and he practiced several basic “brain training drills” to reinforce positive thinking. “Hard training can be a source of stress in itself and it’s easy to tell yourself that the harder, climbing-based sessions are ticking the box for mental health,” he said. “Whereas the truth is that they may not be, especially if you’re pushing to the next level.”
Gresham was sure to take his physical strength to new heights, too. He started with the usual suspects—hangboarding with specificity and replicating Lexicon’s crux sequences in the bouldering gym—before testing out a new training method: ballet. Gresham’s mother is a trained ballet dancer and has always exhibited the athletic benefits of the craft. And so when he struggled on two crucial high steps (one being the very last crux move) on Lexicon, he enlisted the help of Rosie Mackley, a professional ballet dancer and tutor.
“I am a firm believer that you’re never too old to try new things and that you have to think outside the box if you’re really going to progress,” Gresham said. “And the result was that I returned to the route and smashed both those moves.”
He also adopted a winner’s mindsight, having been properly inspired while watching this summer’s Olympics. “I found it really useful to hear how many of the gold medalists visualized themselves winning time and again,” he said. In other words, Gresham wanted to cultivate an attitude, and a belief, where he “couldn’t possibly lose.”
A razor-thin margin for error
With training personal bests set, new flexibility standards achieved, and a healthy mental outlook, Gresham had one last obstacle to manage: the unquestionably dangerous nature of the route. So Gresham and his climbing partner, Adrian Nelhams, hiked into the crag with ropes and protection—but no desire to send.
Gresham knew his last good bit of gear would be a nest of small cams roughly two-thirds of the way up the 80-foot wall; given its high crux, and severe runout, he tested the falls, first with a heavy pack, dropping it and seeing if the gear held, then subbing himself in as the tester. His longest lob was four moves from the top, depositing him only 20 feet off the deck, which felt like the cut-off point for him. Any higher, Gresham said, and he would be in a very real and dangerous position. Needless to say, if the nest ripped, there’d be no margin at all.
Steve McClure, who began trying the route shortly after Gresham sent, actually took that fearsome whipper two moves from the very top. “It was the biggest fall I’ve ever witnessed and utterly terrifying from a belayer’s perspective,” Gresham said. “I thought he wasn’t going to stop and, just as it seemed he was going to land on my head, he whipped into the wall.”
After falling more than sixty feet, McClure landed a mere 12 feet off the deck, the very definition of a close call, and says he is grateful to have had that experience. “So often we go through the process on routes like this, preparing for the ‘what-ifs’ and they never get tested; the movement is executed perfectly and we walk away and forget about it,” he wrote to Climbing.
But McClure realized something. “It had to go well: the gear placed correctly, the belayer totally on the ball, a ground anchor essential, and to fall like a cat.” Perhaps most pressing, on McClure’s mind, anyway, was the remaining three feet of climbing—causing six more feet of airtime—on an already hair-splitting ground fall. (Spoiler alert: after taking the fall, McClure, being McClure, tied in again and sent.)
“[The U.K. has] a culture of being very cautious of grading,” McClure said. He believes it has led to a grade plateau in the area, where strong, bold climbers are unwilling to grade their nails-hard new routes appropriately. In fact, when McClure began discussing the grade with Climbing he quickly defended why it should not be downgraded. The climbing is hard, the fall is long and potentially dangerous, and Gresham’s long career of bold climbing gives him an educated perspective of which to grade from. Then, McClure added, “It’s a shame that I have to even include that comment, like some kind of pre-apology to the armchair critics.”
Gresham shared a similar sentiment, especially following McClure’s massive whipper off the route. “A few commented that perhaps the route wasn’t as hard, or scary, because Steve didn’t hurt himself. Those people are, of course, welcome to go and see for themselves!”
Gresham’s ascent of Lexicon, and the stomach-churning footage of McClure’s fall, will premiere at the Brit Rock Film Tour, October 22-24. Tickets to the online screening can be found here.
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