Besides breaking box office records, Free Solo, the white- knuckle film documentary about the only ropeless ascent of 3,000ft El Capitan ever made by a rock climber, has another distinction. Alex Honnold’s solo ascent of California’s flagship rockface has packed cinemas around the world with audiences gripped by the unfolding drama in front of them. But indications show his derring-do exploits above the Yosemite Valley are also helping to make climbing even more popular – and nowhere more so than in God’s Own Country.
Someone who could not be more delighted is Sheffield climber Steve McClure, 48, who is widely regarded as one of the world’s best sport climbers. He is also a British Mountaineering Council (BMC) ambassador, acting as a role model to inspire young climbers. “My remit includes encouraging families to spend more time in the great outdoors and away from TV and tablet screens,” he says.
“It comes naturally. I’m a climber, but basically I’m an outdoors person. I love the movement of climbing, but most of all I just enjoy being in the great outdoors. It could be walking, climbing, cycling and swimming, or even just relaxing and taking in the views.”
He too has been gripped by Free Solo. “It’s about the consequences of failure,” says Steve. “The funny thing is, when we solo, the consequences are pretty much the same whether 1,000ft up or just 40ft.”
Data from the BMC suggest there are around 100,000 climbers in Britain, and that last year at least five million people visited the UK’s indoor climbing walls. Rock climbing and bouldering will make their debut at the 2020 Olympics – auguring yet another boost.
Straw polls of visitors to Stanage Edge and Brimham Rocks show more beginners arriving to grapple with gritstone than usual, their curiosity perhaps piqued by the movie.
Steve reckons Yorkshire climbers are spoilt for choice. Gritstone crags as rough as millstones proliferate, accelerating the heartbeat of climbers everywhere. Limestone cliffs are part of the Dales scenery too, white as cricket ground sight screens, with greys and blues added.
For hilltop climbers who prefer terra firma, there are always the Three Peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside.
Steve’s favourite UK stamping ground is Malham Cove, a “sport climbing” honeypot. “Stamping” is really the wrong word, considering the delicate footwork that sport climbing demands.
Sport climbing is a style of rock climbing very different from the classic traditional climbing, and scales blank faces impossible to climb using traditional methods – as pioneered in a very primitive fashion by Edward Whymper who first climbed the Matterhorn in Queen Victoria’s reign.
It involves the mountaineers being roped up together and ascending one at a time. Whymper’s Matterhorn technique was so rudimentary a climber fell, dragging compatriots down to their deaths.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the situation has changed. “Sport climbing is vastly different from traditional climbing,” says Steve. “Though the rock faces have handholds and footholds, even if they can be minute, the nature of the bulging rock offers no cracks or holes for natural protection.”
“The rock, say, on Malham Cove’s face is bullet-hard and aggressively overhanging. The answer to scaling these walls is using stainless steel expansion bolts placed in the rock at intervals and left in situ.
“The bolts are not used to pull on, but for protection, should the climber fall. Climbers clip their ropes through karabiners which are clipped to bolts. Result? Bomb-proof anchors!”
He extols the “wonderful” cove’s Catwalk – a curving ledge of bone-white limestone, stretching around the cove as it towers above visitors picnicking and strolling below.
From the Catwalk, sport climbs from the hardest to the easiest lead upwards, each route having its own line of bolts glinting invitingly overhead.
At the top of each particular route, leaders are then lowered back down to the Catwalk. While a climber is ascending, his or her companion is managing their rope through a “belay device”.
Should a climber fall then it is the belay device (clipped to the belayer’s climbing harness) that locks up and prevents the rope slipping through any further. This stops the falling climber in mid flight.
There are some spectacular falls, some huge, but the rope is designed for these, and stretches to take the impact out of the fall. “Everyone on the Catwalk is there for everyone else,” says Steve. “Like a family, even if you’re never met that person before.”
He mentions a Malham classic: Yosemite Wall. “It’s one of the original sport climbs, and follows an overhanging corner-cum-groove up the face of the cove,” he adds.
“It looks utterly impregnable – like the face of El Capitan. Many climbers spend a lifetime aspiring to scale Yosemite Wall.”
Steve should know. Sport routes he has created rocket their way up through the ceilings above. His climb called Rainman from 2016 is outrageously hard and is the first and only route in the UK to be graded 9B.
“Sounds corny,” he says. “But Rainman is my perfect route. It’s the biggest, hardest way up the cliff. I spotted the line years ago. It looked so amazingly far-out I wondered if it would ever go free. Never dreamt I would be the one to do it.”
Gordale Scar and Kilnsey Crag are Yorkshire’s other great sport climbing venues. “Kilnsey is an incredible crag,” says Steve. “You can see the huge overhang, it looks like the cliff will fall over. And then you see people climbing on it. It looks impossible. The crag is also like an umbrella – no matter how much it rains, you’ll always be dry at the base of the crag.”
No wonder cars queue while travelling past as passengers snap mobile phone photos.
How Steve discovered sport climbing is a poignant story. “I’d had a few years out after a nasty accident,” he says. “It had made me realise traditional climbing could be dangerous.
“I discovered sport climbing while in Thailand. It was an eye-opener. Climbing off a beautiful sandy beach, a bar nearby, a sparkling sea to swim in, a great scene of people and crucially the bolted style of sport climbing is risk-free.”
Steve is from Saltburn in Cleveland originally, so rocky outcrops on the North York Moors were literally outside his back door. He started climbed very young, and his parents Tom and Jean are still active members of the Cleveland Mountain Club (Jean being an honorary member).
He remembers landing on his back after a fall and being scolded by his mum – as the rope burned his brother’s hands while he was trying to hold the rope. Tom and Jean McClure feared he was like the proverbial cat with nine lives.
“Moving to Sheffield back in 1989 was pivotal,” he says. “Sheffield had all the best climbers.”
Steve met his partner, Victoria, on their university course, studying mechanical engineering.
“Vic,” he says, “was not a climber, but she was an outdoor person, the kind of person who really appreciates wild places. This common appreciation forms a special bond between people.
“Malham Cove is such a beautiful place. I’ve been there so many times not only to climb, but to walk around with Vic and the children, Harry, 7, and Amelie, 12.
“After a day climbing here you feel like you’ve cleared your mind of any stresses. You go home feeling like you’ve really been somewhere.”