Britain’s best climber, Dave MacLeod (who may not be British much longer if Scotland secedes) has become the first person to free climb one of the toughest sea cliffs in the world – 1,128ft St John’s Head on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkneys, the highest vertical sea cliff in the UK.
The difficult and dangerous 1,128 ft sea cliff – St John’s Head
The sea cliff was first climbed in 1970 by climber and poet Ed Drummond together with Oliver Hill. They took 7 days to climb it, sleeping on ledges and in hammocks along the way. Now, 40 years later, Dave MacLeod, set out, successfully, to climb the cliff in a single day; this included a 3-hour hike to the bottom and then a gruelling 10-hour ascent, culminating in a 200 ft section of “very sustained overhanging wall”.
MacLeod is virtually unknown outside the extreme climbing circle, but within this field he is thought of as a first-class athlete equivalent to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Chris Hoy. He has been climbing for more than half his life, beginning on Dumbarton Rock and going on to pioneer some of the hardest climbs in the world.
MacLeod’s steady establishment of new routes on Scotland’s mountains has earned him the right to give each particular route a grade and a name. So the world’s first E11, which MacLeod put up on Dumbarton Rock in 2006, is called Rhapsody. An even more difficult route on Ben Nevis in 2008 is called Echo Wall. Rather controversially, he declined to assign it a grade, arguing: “To have a moment like this in your life is so much more important than the number attached to the climb.”
MacLeod spent around two years apiece attempting Rhapsody and Echo Wall supported all the way by his wife, Claire. She accompanies him on many of his climbs, often filming his ascents which makes it tough for her when Dave is quoted saying “You absolutely must be prepared for the possibility of dying on a climb.” But Claire reasons that she would rather be with him than sitting at home fearful of what he might be doing. “He wouldn’t be the person I’m with if he wasn’t like that,” she says. “And I wouldn’t like being the person that stopped somebody doing something they love. So I accept it.”
“There’s nothing more real than your life. It’s just high stakes, isn’t it? You never get more out of yourself other than when you absolutely must get that next hold or you’re going to die,” he says.
Macleod’s strength is that he thinks his way up a rock before he climbs it. He abseils down from the top, getting to know every possible hold and then works out the correct sequence in which to put them. “The more dangerous the rock climb,” he once blogged, “the more we have to understand the rock so we can stay alive.”
But he denies that it’ all about adrenaline. “Though the rush is part of it, it’s definitely more than that. It’s hard to describe. Risk brings out the best in all aspects of your performance. You move better, you climb better, you make stronger decisions under that psychological pressure. And you can’t create that pressure in any other way. There’s no substitute for mortal risk.”
MacLeod is certainly one of the most accomplished all-round climbers in the world today. While he rarely free solo climbs, he has completed solo climbs up to grade 8c. He has also established impressive credentials in mixed climbing with ice axes and crampons and has established the hardest traditional mixed climbing route in the world, “The Hurting” in Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairngorms. The route has been repeated twice and has a Scottish winter grade of XI,11 (M10+) with hard, technical climbing over very poor protection.
Dave MacLeod climbing The Hurting in the Cairngorms
Dave MacLeod defends climbing in Britain against more traditional, albeit just as difficult, sports climbing in countries where the sun tends to make a habit of shining dependably throughout the day! “When I wake up in the morning on a sport trip, I pretty much know what’s going to happen. If I’m feeling strong, I’ll onsight some good routes and get a tiny bit further on the redpoints. I’ll enjoy every minute of it. It’s predictably enjoyable. When I wake up for a hard trad day in Scotland I think “what is going to happen today?” If I do the route, I’ll love it. If I fall, I’ll probably love that too after the event. If I just get caught in an atlantic storm and spend the day marvelling the forces of nature, I’ll love that too. It’s unpredictably enjoyable.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it?
feature photo courtesy of © Paul Diffley, Apr 2006 & Hot Aches Productions