Over the last 30 years sport climbing standards have changed dramatically in the UK. Arguably there has been steady improvement at the top level, which I agree with. But, the standard of UK climbing should be measured by the level at which the majority of the top guns are consistently climbing, with reference to the rest of the world. By that measure, British sport climbing standards reached a peak either in the early 90s with Hubble, or the late 90s with Mutation. Only in the last 5 years or so has there been a resurgence, and I don’t think it’s reached its peak yet.
The 80s and early 90s were the golden era of British sport climbing (sport climbing by Brits, for clarity…). From 8a in 1984 with Statement of Youth (or Requiem in 83), Revelations in the same year, to Zeke in 87, Mecca in 88, Cry Freedom in 88, to Liquid Ambar (1st June 1990), finally culminating with Ben Moon’s Hubble on the 14th June 1990, the first 9a in the world. Malc did Hubble as one of his first ever sport routes in 1992, and did Cry Freedom in a day. Throw in ascents of Le Rage, Spectre, Are you Ready?, Agincourt, Le Minimum and Maginot line, plus the outrageous onsight and flash (and 2nd go, for those of you that care) record from the likes of Sellers, Vickers and Nadin, and you’ve got a list of achievements which would leave all us youths and the blokes (and ladies) at UKC wondering why we thought we were good.
After Jerry did Evo, Ben (temporarily) and Co shifted their focus towards bouldering, so hard British sport climbing became dominated by Steve (not)weak McClure, though there were occasional other notable ascents. The aforementioned not-weak man produced Mutation (1998), Northern Lights (2000), Rainshadow (2003), Overshadow (2007), North Star (2008), and repeated Hubble (2009). Not to mention a host of horrendously hard link ups and traverses, plus repeats of just about every upper 8 outside of Wales, and hard onsights home and abroad. Other than this, the Quill, Sellers and Malc repeated Evo, Dunning and Malc (and possibly Johnny G) repeated Hubble, Neil Carson FA’d the Big Bang in 96, Dunning FA’d Tonto in 2006, and Macleod did A Muerte in 2007.
So the noughties clearly hosted some hard ascents and amazing progress, but whilst Steve was out crushing that shit, the chasing back died off almost entirely. Everyone got stuck into bouldering and headpointing. In fact, the standard of the chasing pack dropped back to standards which were set in the mid-80s, whilst rest of the world (okay, not everywhere) continued to improve in line with the top level i.e. 9a became relatively commonplace (check out this site if you want to see just how common: http://tinyurl.com/9a-list).
Since 2007 or so there has been a resurgence, but it’s only since 2010/11 that the hard 90s routes have had repeats. When I started climbing it was rare to see people on 8b’s or harder, and you’d probably heard of those people too. Now, I never go to the crag without seeing someone on an 8b (usually an 8c). There’s almost always queues on the likes of Mecca, Bat Route, and even Rainshadow, nowadays. Repeats of 8c and 8c+ both at home and abroad isn’t uncommon now, and 8b+ elicits no more than a cursory bat of an eyelash from your mum, and even then it would be patronizing.
But we didn’t stop there. There are currently at least 6 climbers operating at least at 9a in the UK (plus Bolger), but that could be as many as 12 depending on what you class as 9a and whether or not you think the others have still got the minerals. Ascents of 8c+ aren’t that rare anymore – I can think of 15 or 16 people who have climbed 8c+ and are still capable of it, and another couple who have climbed 8c/+. Coupled with Steve’s progression to at least 9a+ then I’d say we’ve made pretty good progress from the golden years. The numbers: one 9a+ climber, one 9a/+ climber, at least 5 9a climbers (but maybe 10), one 8c+/9a climber, at least another 15 at 8c+ and who knows how many at 8c, 2 of whom are female (alright, one of them is getting back into it after injury).
I’ll be amazed if this year turns out to be the peak of the progression, and I really hope it’s not. At least 4 of the above 8c+ climbers (that I know) are capable of climbing 9a (or harder) in the next couple years, but probably sooner. There are probably more that I don’t know well enough to guess at their potential, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the guys on the 9a list climbed 9a+ too. Plus the almost inevitable progression of a load of the current 8c climbers (both male and female), and, hopefully, Steve will get his Easy Easy proj at Malham – possibly a level of difficulty matched only by 6 other people in the world, on a rope at least.
So ‘we’ might not have moved on from the golden era in the sense that the then standard is still cutting edge (excluding Steve) now, but we’re pretty much back to where Ben and Co left us off 20 odd years ago. So to paraphrase Tyler Durden, I see so much potential, let’s not see it squandered. It’s time to move things on and give Steve some help! Go and get on something that you’re worried you’ll fail on. Why the fuck not? Get rich in experience, and go find out what you’re made of. Be ambitious everyone.