Located high on Ben Nevis, on one of the most inaccessible pieces of rock in the UK, the route Echo Wall is no fast-food takeaway, but a full three course meal experience. Although MacLeod has offered no grade for his creation, it is clear that just the task of capturing this route on camera is a feat worth E9 in itself!
The film documents the obsession of Dave MacLeod and his struggle to find, train for and finally climb one of the most important routes in recent British climbing history. On another level it also documents what it takes to operate at the highest standard of rock climbing. The simple fact that Claire and Dave MacLeod have chosen to make and sell their own film shows the diverse skill set needed to succeed as a full time climber in today's media hungry market.
It kicks off with Dave's preparation for the big lead, which includes desperate Scottish bouldering and a solo ascent of a hard sport route in Spain. In this early stage of the film I found the pacing quite slow, but what kept me interested was a few visual treats, such as amazing aerial views of a snow-covered Ben Nevis. I would have preferred more 'mountain vista' and a shortened edit of the build-up footage.
The Spanish section was my least favourite chapter, but did show the moves and climbing nicely and gave an indication of the superb physical condition of MacLeod – his bouldering strength and razor-sharp technique made the F8c route look more like a ballet routine.
The film cuts back to Scotland and after a little more bouldering and interview footage we get down to business – Echo Wall.
MacLeod, although not a natural showman, is obviously at ease with his wife behind the camera, and in some short interview sections this intimacy really shows through. A few lines from MacLeod feel like real gems of insight in to his obsession and let his likeable and honest character shine through the screen. I engaged with his revelation that he found the prospect of leading the route extremely scary, and that this fact simply meant he was ready for the lead. He'd acknowledged he was ready and couldn't put it off any longer, hence becoming scared. A few interview scenes do seem a little awkward, and for me that added to the realism of the film and showed that really, even though he's cruising all these hard routes, Dave MacLeod is a little nervous and shy, and talking about real danger with your wife is always going to be a unique and difficult experience.
Some parts of the film, particularly the indoor footage, including an interview with Jimmy Marshall and a scene showing Dave making a knee pad, are slightly marred due to a technical error with the sound; an audible buzz detracts from the speech. But despite the wasp-nest sound track, the scenes are engaging in other, subtle ways. The end of the knee pad scene, with Dave showing his book collection, brought a smile to my face.
These little windows in to the MacLeod family's life make it easy to forgive them the odd technical slip-up, and if you're not looking and listening hard, then the film doesn't shout 'amateur' too loud, but it doesn't shout 'Hollywood' either.
The action on the route itself shows the stunning line and makes it completely obvious that the route is desperate and serious. With the flat light of the north face and the complex nature of the rock, it is impossible to tell just how horrendous the situation is, but the commentary from MacLeod at this point in the film really makes it interesting, and puts in to context just how time consuming and epic his journey to this point has been.
Being a nerdy climber I would have enjoyed an extra on the DVD with some close-ups of the protection and holds – perhaps a short 'climbers cut' of the actual ascent, so I could live, breathe and feel Echo Wall from the safety of my armchair, but the feature film is better for the lack of those details, if anything there is just too much footage and the film in general is too long.
The tension does build to the final lead, but real edge-of-the-seat drama is missing, as it seems a foregone conclusion that Dave will crush the route. His preparation has been documented fully and he carries off perhaps the hardest lead of his life with his usual surgical precision, never putting a foot wrong (thankfully!). We know that MacLeod is just so good, so calculated and so clinical, that we never doubt his judgement or his ability.
In short – the film is good and is an important document of an amazing climb. From a production point of view, it could be edited more sharply, and doesn't have quite the rhythm to make it an all time classic. However, it's an impressive film-making début from the MacLeods, and is a 'must see' for those obsessed with British trad climbing. It gives an honest feel for what it takes to succeed on one of the hardest trad routes in the world, buried in one of the most beautiful, but inhospitable nooks of the British Isles.
With a shorter cut, some colour balancing and sound editing and perhaps fewer of the peripheral climbs surrounding the ascent, they could have a bit of all-time-classic climbing footage on their hands.