Steve McClure makes quick trip up Le Voyage at Annot
On 23/03/2023 at Annot in France British rock climber Steve McClure made a fast repeat of 'Le Voyage', the difficult trad climb first ascended by James Pearson in 2017.
British rock climber Steve McClure has nailed another trad testpiece with his fast repeat of Le Voyage, the sandstone E10 at Annot in France first ascended by James Pearson in 2017. The 40m line boasts the equivalent of 8b+ climbing past shallow pockets and flared cracks and is protected by a number of small cams and wires that prove difficult to place on lead. Last Thursday McClure sent the route which, until this year, was described as the hardest trad climb in the country. The line that now takes this accolade is Pearson’s Bon Voyage which shares the same start but, as McClure explains, is in a different league altogether.
Steve, give us your first impressione of Annot
Really impressed! I'd heard of the place but it just had never ended up on my radar. It’s magical in so many ways. There is a huge variation in styles of climbing, everything from easy slabs to steep overhanging walls. Arêtes, cracks, crimps, pockets, chimneys... just about everything, of all grades. And the mix of sport, trad and boulder is fairly unique in such proximity. One thing we really noted was that every route we did was awesome. So like, at a 'normal' sport crag you might do a few easy routes to warm up, which are basically easier versions of what your target. Our warm up routes would be trad 6b+, or a 7a+ corner, things like that, routes that were so good and stood out as some of the best routes of the day! Combined with this is the beautiful scenery, the majestic views, the vibe of being in like a giant Fontainebleau. It’s really quite special indeed, and for those like me who have heard about it, but have never been, I'd say: pay it a visit.
What attracted you to this route and when?
That was funny… I noted James Pearson’s new mega route Bon Voyage from just a month or two ago and was super impressed. Reading about it of course it mentions Le Voyage, and how Le Voyage is amazing and E10, 8b+, how it has enough gear etc. It was that route that grabbed me. I was also interested to see 'potentially' the hardest trad route in the world, of course, but realistically I knew that would be only a 'look' as opposed to any kind of actual trying! I know my place, and a route that takes James over 20 days to do I don't turn up and even make a dint in it! So this was perfect. I’d get three awesome bonuses: see the new mega route, try Le Voyage, and actually visit Annot too.
How much and how did you work it?
In the end Le Voyage was a fairly fast voyage! The first day we were there late and others were on the route. I managed to just climb the 7a+ crack right at the bottom in the dark. This was a fairly big effort to say the least! It’s hard down there, well, more awkward. Maybe for a crack climber it’s really easy, but I'm for sure no crack climber! On the next day I jugged up a fixed line, put in a toprope and had a play on the moves. That takes a while... its over 40m long! It felt HARD, and the gear was going to take a while to work out; potentially a reasonable amount, but fiddly and small and pumpy to place. A few hours later I had another toprope with lots and lots of rests, looking at the gear and moves. There were a few sections that felt really hard, and I found about 4 different ways to do the crux, though I only managed each method once… just!
The first thing next day I decided to get on the lead. I know from experience that a trad route like this needs lead attempts to know how it feels on lead; placing gear is such a big part of it... body position, hold choice while placing, which side of harness to rack etc. I also knew that if this was a sport route I would have given it a redpoint... maybe 50/50 odds, even with the crux after all the hard climbing still so vague, it would still be worth an effort. I love it like that, I love going for it when I genuinely don't know the outcome, when I really am going to battle. So I set off kind of trying, kind of on a learning go, kind of expecting to be resting on some gear, but kind of trying my best to see....
You hadn’t tried it much
It still amazes me just how much information can be absorbed in just a few goes. My first go on toprope was awful, the second was better but seemed to need more work, but then this next go on lead was perfect, executed without delay and with precision! It was awesome! Such a feeling. I still really believe the key to fast redpoints is the ability to 'micro-onsight', to deal with subtle changes to the plan. Suddenly I was at the crux, still a bit unsure of even which method to go for...
You also almost fell off the top…
I mention I like to go for an effort when I don't know the outcome, and of late I seem to have only just scraped my way up a lot of ascents. I reckon this was the closest. I really gave it my all on the crux and was shocked to make it to a tiny crimp, thinking 'oh wow, I've done it!'. But there are another few moves to a jug, moves I'd not really considered as they are not hard, but they are a bit powerful and snatchy and suddenly I was scrabbling around and very quickly realised I was about to fall off the very last move to the jug. No idea how I managed to get that move!
Were you worried about the fall?
At that point I guess I'm a good distance above a small wire, maybe 2 meters above it, with the next piece a few meters below that. Its going be a big fall, but I'd done the 'risk assessment' before setting off and decided that I was safe at all points. It's then crucial to keep that thought, to not let fear creep in. You have to do the assessment properly and believe it. Hence I didn't have a second of fear, no… a lot of panic maybe!! But not of fear of danger. And I needed 100% of my fading reserves to succeed, any fear and I'd have been totally off!
You described this as one of the best in the world…
It really is very good! Of course there are brilliant traditional routes out there, routes that I think are just as good, maybe even better. But as the difficulty increases it becomes harder and harder to find the quality, simply because it is so hard to find hard routes with enough protection to be safe or even reasonable, as protection usually means holds. This route is really special because it is really hard, and really continuous, and has enough gear. It really is one of the best for sure!
What about Bon Voyage, the obvious next step?
The next step is not obviously Bon Voyage! That’s hardly a "step" if you think about it... well, maybe a VERY large step. I guess most people would think that's the step, but then I'd say to them, "what's the next step after climbing 8b+... 9a??" Bon Voyage is a totally different league. It's similar in terms of protection level, with enough to make it “safe”, but large falls are guaranteed, and only onto one piece really from the last moves! I had the privilege and pleasure of James showing me the new route. Its hard! A series of very hard and very reachy moves between bad holds! I can see that for me I would struggle. For sure I am a bit short and although I don't like to use that excuse really, sometimes it’s just fact. But realistically this isn't the sort of challenge I'm after right now, it's just too hard!! Maybe if it was local to me it might. But when I'm away from home, which isn't that often with work and family, I just want to climb amazing stuff, and there is so much amazing stuff to do, and at 52 years old.... I've got to get as much done as I can! Le Voyage was totally perfect, in and out pretty quick, done in a trip and a mega experience. The next obvious step for me is another challenge just like that. However I am aware, from experience, that if the right really hard project comes along, then suddenly you are sucked in…
Steve McClure thanks: Petzl, Marmot, steve-mcclure.com