Wanting more information and images of the route, we caught up with Dave whilst he was still on Hoy and he managed to answer our 12 questions from his telephone.
We also got hold of Paul Diffley from Hotaches and twisted his arm to send us some video still shots of the climb. Paul has a film coming out later about this route that will premier at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival this coming November (more info at the base of the article).
Yes Oliver Hill who along with Ed Drummond did the first ascent with some aid in 1970 emailed me in 2006 right after I did Rhapsody to let me know about the challenge of freeing the headwall crack pitch. I remembered reading John Arran and Dave Turnbull's article about their free version but obviously didn't appreciate that the section they avoided was the most striking feature of the cliff from a climber's point of view. Their article made it sound like a mind boggling adventure, which it is. It's funny that Oliver emailed then because the overhanging headwall does actually look quite like Rhapsody but in such a finely positioned perch above all those pitches below.
I had about 8 trips to Hoy, mostly just for a couple of days each. It's only 3.5 hours drive and two ferries from my place so it's not so far. I'd go up with a weather window and have a massive day walking in with all my kit and have an 8 hour session on the rope cleaning and trying moves. The next day I'd have a shorter session and after that I'd generally feel completely wasted and just wanted to go home! It took a lot of cleaning, maybe 8 days to get it ready for a free ascent. But it's well worth it. That pitch is one of the most amazing pitches of climbing I've ever been on.
That's a good question because at face value you might think a description of the character of the route could hardly sound worse. A long approach, hundreds of vomiting fulmars everywhere on the cliff, loose, soft rock and vegetation in places and much of it covered in thick slimy or hairy lichen. All the lower pitches are like winter climbing; enjoyable in a suffering kind of way. But the crux pitch is amazing, really great climbing in the most mind blowing situation you will find on British rock. So I was inspired by the route and appalled at the same time. But I don't tend to let projects go if I think I have a chance of doing them so I kept at it until I had all the ingredients in place.
Well basically you have to be able to cruise 8b+ on trad because you have to do it right at the end of the route after 450m of climbing when you're pretty tired and covered in fishy vomit and dirt and generally a bit gripped up. It also has all the usual difficulties of getting it in condition too. Then there's the challenge of getting a partner who is both up to the job and keen. You should try describing it to a potential climbing partner and watching their face. Not many folk say "sure, that sounds great, I'm up for it". It would be fine if it was an E7 or something and you knew you'd come back after one trip with it in the bag. Not many folk would want to get involved with a multi-trip epic on St John's Head.
It's an intermittent thin crack feature, so the gear is mostly ok with some good runouts. It's a 65m pitch and it's a little bouldery crux followed by a shake out one after the other. At each shake out you have a chance to worry about the next little crux and contemplate the weather, wait and effort of doing all the travelling and pitches to get back here for your next chance. Or that's how I thought it would go. In the event I was so tired I was sure I would fall off the next crux so I just went for broke and slapped my way through with no hesitation. It seemed to work in my favour. I can't remember being so disinhibited in my movement on a trad route maybe ever.
8b+ so I suppose that could be E10ish for that pitch. It's at least a full grade harder than routes like Muy Caliente, or any of the other routes I've repeated, If six was nine, Indian Face etc. But the pitch isn't as hard as Rhapsody. Doing the whole route in a day is obviously a very different story. I was trying to think if it's a harder overall challenge than Rhapsody and perhaps it is. It's very hard to tell though because they are very different. I'd still say it's a good jump above any of the trad routes I've been on apart from Rhapsody and definitely Echo Wall. But who knows what grade the route should get. If you bivvied on it, it would be E10. But doing it in one push in a day adds a good bit, for me at least.
13 camalots, 5 wires, 4 quickdraws and 6 slings. Slimming the rack down was a really important part of getting it set to do it in the day. I knew I just wouldn't get up the crux pitch if I'd been climbing for 14 hours and carrying a massive rack. The only way for me was to do it in full 70 metre pitches placing really spaced gear extended with long slings. It would be no problem on hard rock, but the lower pitches the rock is really sandy and soft. You climb very differently when you are 30 odd feet out from a cam in a sandy break on soft holds and sandy smears. I found it hard not to grip hard and use energy I needed to keep for the top pitch.
There's no way it was a foregone conclusion!!! For sure I felt like I'd trained enough to earn the right to have a chance. But so much rides on your shot at it with a good partner in good conditions. Having Andy Turner with me on the route was superb. It's a cliff where someone really solid and who understands what's needed to make it happen helps a lot with your confidence. I still felt I was too tired to manage the crux pitch but it seemed that the realisation of impending massive failure was enough to dig into some reserves.
It's always a strange time completing projects like this. I'm having two days rest and already feel like I'm getting fat and need to get back to training quick.
Big thanks to Dave MacLeod and Paul Diffley.
More info on Paul's forthcoming film: 'The Long Hope'
'The Long Hope', 2011, HD, Dir. Paul Diffley
The story behind the hardest sea cliff climb in the world
St John's Head on the island of Hoy is a wild and remote 1000-foot sea cliff. It was first climbed in 1970 by climber and poet Edwin Drummond. Drummond, together with Oliver Hill, took 7 days to climb the cliff, sleeping on ledges and in hammocks on the way.
Now, 40 years later, Scotland's top climber, Dave MacLeod, is setting out to climb the cliff in a single day, finishing with a new desperately hard final pitch up the headwall. This new route will rate as the hardest climb of its type in the country.
MacLeod's historic new climb will be captured close-up with the latest HD cameras and contrasted with the challenge of Drummond's first ascent though interviews and archive material.
The film will also follow Ed Drummond, now in his late sixties and suffering from Parkinson's disease, as he makes a pilgrimage back to St John's Head to look upon the route one last time.
The film is supported by Mountain Equipment, Black Diamond and Stoats Porridge.
Paul Diffley intends to premier the film at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival, on the evening of Friday 18 November with Dave MacLeod, Andy Turner (and maybe others...) in attendance.
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