Dave Birkett: a name synonymous with hard Lakeland mountain routes and first ascents around the country. A dark horse who has rarely sought media attention, but one whose ascents and commentary on the UK climbing scene have often piqued our interest. A stonemason by trade, frequent sheep-rescuer, motorbike fanatic and new Dad since last year, Dave describes himself - contrary to popular belief - rather nondescriptly as a "weekend warrior."
Having heard little about his climbing for a few years, Dave MacLeod's recent repeat of Birkett's Return of the King brought an inconspicuous blog post by Mr Birkett out of the woodwork in our forums. Tagged onto the end of a post talking primarily about red squirrels and the Chelsea Flower Show, Dave made discreet mention of headpointing To Hell and Back E10 6c at Hell's Lum in Moray - as though the climb had slipped his mind whilst writing.
To find out more, I intended to ask Dave some questions about his past few years of climbing. 40 minutes later, after a highly entertaining discussion about politics, becoming a father, drystone walling, sheep, motorbikes, the TT races and trying to discern which British climber he was on about - "The one who looks like Freddie Mercury!" - I got some insight into his recent climbing and non-climbing endeavours.
With his wild mop of hair, sideburns, love for motorbikes and outspoken opinions on traditional climbing ethics, is Dave Birkett climbing's answer to Guy Martin? Dave's response: "I'm not a big fan of his but my wife thinks that's because we're alike!"
"For some people climbing will just be about the movement and the grade or whatever but it's about the whole day out for me."
*Semi-translated from the original Cumbrian.*
I've done very little climbing recently. I broke me ankle just before Easter and we had a baby last year and I have a few contracts with Natural England which I signed up for so it's absolutely killing me doing these contracts, so tiny bits of climbing really. I've only been out of plaster a short while and as soon as I came out I had to go to the Chelsea Flower Show which set it back a little bit, so climbing's been a little on the back burner and I've also got a couple of houses to build - all of a sudden you get into a corner you can only work your way out of it!
It must have been nearly two years ago that I did Dave MacLeod's To Hell and Back E10 at Hell's Lum. I was keen to do to it because I'd looked at it three times before and it's just one of those that's really fickle with conditions, Spring is fine but you get all snowdrifts on top and when it melts it drips and creates a waterfall, so even when it's dry and not raining the wind will blow up the valley which blows the waterfall onto the wall and makes it all wet. Really fickle. I thought it was one of Dave's better routes when I went and looked at it and I thought if I can do this one rockover move it'll be a go-er. Think I had two years on me own on a shunt going up on a motorbike with friends climbing elsewhere. Two years ago I thought I'd go up, have a few days up there, weather was good and as soon as I went down and practised one move I did it first go. That was good. I think possibly on the harder move or bold bit for Dave Mac I'm taller than him so my feet were on better things. I found the top bit wandered around a bit and basically went up the wall between two E4s, I don't even know if I was in the right place. It was ok, it was more like 'I'd been on it, I should finish it off.' That was the feeling around it really.
"My trad background is if you can climb to it you put gear in it. That's the golden rule of trad climbing really."
Die By The Drop E10, Glen Shian. This English-Scottish divide is hard to talk about. I never even told anybody I did it apart from friends, because of what happened after I did Hold Fast E9 at Whale Rock, Glen Nevis. There's two hard routes on that wall at Glen Shian - if you do the E7 Apophenia you touch the holds on the route beside it, if you do Die by the Drop and get it wrong you get your hands on Apophenia... I thought I can do them both if me skin's good. There's a flake at the bottom you can get a sling over and I was kind of balanced there on Die by the Drop getting a nut key behind on the lead and prized it open. I thought this is just ridiculous, so I put a Rock 3 up on the left which I can do one move to and I thought I know what will happen here: "He's done it with side runners." I thought well it's such a contrived mix up of a route so I thought I'll not bother talking about it because I didn't like the reports when I did Hold Fast E9. If you get the guidebook for Whale Rock, look at the E8 and the E5 to the right. Dave Cuthbertson writes about how you put side runners on the E2 for the E5 and on the E8 you put side runners in the E5 on the left so I only copied that description and they kind of dissed me a bit for it. I thought it was a poor attitude, I thought I can't be assed with that so I'm not telling anybody I've done Die by the Drop. My trad background is if you can climb to it you put gear in it. That's the golden rule of trad climbing really.
We had an exciting ride back on the motorbike after doing To Hell and Back. Going there on a motorbike with me nephew Will on the back, we did the route, came home coming through Glasgow with the Scottish Hell's Angels in front of us. I had at that time a Triumph Sprint motorbike. I saw these Scottish Hells Angels, didn't know if they were from Glasgow or Kentucky...confusing people on these Harley Davidsons, instant thing was "Right we'll be havin' you!" that type of scenario, that kind of competitiveness. As soon as we went past them about 100mph thinking 'this is great like' to try and overtake the American bikes, England v Scotland...all these stupid games you've got going on in your head, a Porsche flew past us about 120 so I thought 'oh right that's it Will!,' got to about 119/120 and he was getting blown off the back of me bike with a heavy rucksack on, plus he's sticking about a foot above me and hanging on all the time. We chased it all the way down from Glasgow to Carlisle, couldn't overtake it because he'd get blown off the back and I thought the whole day of going up there and back down with that happening was fantastic so it was all about the day out, really.
My shoulder surgery. That was about 3 years ago. I'm 48 now and it does feel like I'm...at the end of the day I'm a stonemason by trade and I'm a weekend climber even though I climb a hell of a lot or have done it does feel like at this moment in time my body's getting a little bit older and having a little baby and having to build a house I've got to concentrate on getting through work which is more important at the moment. I was hoping to do the Bob Graham this summer with me cousin but with breaking me ankle I've scuppered that really.
"Not many people have climbed a death route yet in Britain which is 8c climbing."
I've never really gone out my entire life to climb the hardest routes. I want to do the best routes and you can look around at the routes I've done, Skye Wall E8, quality. Best routes in Britain. When I went and did the first ascent of Once Upon a Time in the South West E9 6c at Dyer's Lookout, after I did The Walk of Life E9 6c I thought bloody hell why doesn't anyone do the other route because it's such an obvious fantastic line of the crag. I think quality has always been the best. I've always told anyone I meet, the best trad route in Britain is Just Another Lonely Day E9 6c on Scafell because it's a beautiful line and the other one up there is Welcome to the Cruel World E9 7a. The other one Return of the King E9 6c was an Adam Hocking project then he gave up and I went for a look. Al Lee had got in touch about making a film, I thought if we go up and he follows us up I might be keen to do something with him. I went up and toproped it and thought I'd give that one E8 compared to the other ones. After a few pints that evening I went to do it the day after and God it felt like the living end! Plus my skin was sore so I thought bloody hell, maybe E9. I thought it was the easier one of the two.
All the others go right to the top, Return of the King finishes halfway up the wall and the others are inspirational lines. It's a lifetime's work up there really. For some people climbing will just be about the movement and the grade or whatever but it's about the whole day out for me.
I think these routes there are kind of accessible even though they're mountain routes. Adam Hocking did Return of the King in 2011. There is gear in that one, there's a couple there that are a bit more dangerous and one that's a bit harder but all these mountain crags, if you get a good spell of weather they're OK to get to, but I'd have thought the Welcome to the Cruel World crack line would have had a second ascent by now as it's had a lot of people looking at it over the years, Vickers, Parry, and Craig Matheson spent a lot of time on it and he's a strong lad. Yeah it'd be good to see...who are those crack climbers...the offwidth fellas - the one who looks like Freddie Mercury, what's he called? (Ed:Tom Randall) Saw him down in Devon said he was gonna come and do it. It's a crack but climbs nothing like a crack. I was interested to see what he thought. Biggest unseconded route in the Lakes. He does look a bit like Freddie Mercury doesn't he? Well he looks a lot more like Freddie Mercury than his partner in crime doesn't he? (Ed: Pete Whittaker...)
I've climbed many routes that have been graded E10 or harder but I still don't believe I have climbed E10. Routes and grades are all over the place and even my own are. When I first started climbing, a trad background not sport climbing, when you did Zoolook at Malham that was E7, so E7 = 8a, then if you do Supercool at Gordale - it wasn't given 8a+, it was given E8. So these were the crossovers of how hard these routes had to be. So then E7 if it's bold it might get 7c+, but E7 had to be 8a climbing. Things like... I gave Dawes Rides a Shovelhead E7 on Raven Crag because I thought it was a bit bold but about 7c+, routes on Hell's Wall were about 8a but they got E7 and some of them which were a bit more scary got E8. So then on that count you're having to climb in my mind 8c+/8c to be doing an E10. So I thought I've been and looked at a few that were meant to be E10 that haven't been, so I don't know. Not many people have climbed a death route yet in Britain which is 8c climbing. Ones I've looked at haven't been and I know there's a couple I have looked at and not done but they're 8a/8a+. Still a big number is E10, when you use those guidelines which actually show that by being bold and only 8a, you're only E7/E8ish there aren't you.
Up until I think probably the pregnancy and having a baby climbing was my main desire. I've always had good enthusiasm and been a massive weekend warrior and I've always been my own boss, so actually if I'm inspired to do something I generally like to see it through, work or climbing related. I've always been naturally fit and strong and naturally gifted but that's probably going to start slowing down I think, I've actually had a few injuries in the past couple of years.
When I started climbing obviously I knew about my grandfather and I thought I'll probably go the same way as him. I might just stop talking about climbing. People piss you off and you drift into other things. He was very quiet about his achievements and all his best stories are nothing really to do with climbing, but then you meet people who knew him and they're like, he's a legend! So when he first started climbing you could work all the way through your grandfather's roots and it'd give you a good grounding in quality really and experience but then you need people to leapfrog you through your climbing and me cousin who works with us, he's at that kind of stage where I was. OK, you can go indoor or sport or trad climbing but it's a long road is being a trad climber with a lot to learn, but you need people to leapfrog you through. Bill was one of these guys. I'm better than these other people now but I was instantly better than him, he took me places, showed me things and he had all these stepping stones to push me up.
Possibly deep down I was a much better person when I realised I was massively competitive. I'm not going to deny that I'm massively competitive, if I've got a chance I wanna win. You get like 'oh, I am the best climber in the Lakes' and then you kind of go 'oh right, I'll go and see what other routes around the country are like' and abroad I suppose. But then you get the next generation coming through, the next generation coming through after me in the Lakes when they were young lads was James McHaffie, Leo Houlding and Adam Hocking, they try and keep you at your game even longer! Then you're like actually, we'll not let them take over yet. You get all these little things to spur you on and having a good group of people to climb with...I wouldn't say it's 'friendly' competitive, but you are and that's certainly dying in the trad climbing circles as there's not that many people doing as much, certainly on that scale. So it's possibly harder now for the youngsters, you've got to work hard to find people to climb with anyway, but I don't think they'll have as easy a road as I've had.
I think as you get older, you seem to almost take on this kind of guardian role where you want to look after where you live and protect it and you feel a part of it. Not just with the climbing, I was up at Scafell last weekend putting a rope up at Broad Stand because me cousin was doing the Bob Graham and even with me broken ankle I've still been going up getting sheep off the crags for farmers and I love it, but yeah climbing-wise I'll be luckily if I reach the heights that I have here again and there's one or two things which I'm certainly attracted to do but I don't think I'll do. Five years ago I thought there might still be a chance but I imagine it's going to be a year or so before I get the time to really commit to it and then I'll be nearly 50 and I'm sure that then the commitments outside of climbing will be even greater.
I didn't do a single winter route last year. There were no winter conditions in the Lakes last winter and I had so much work on which was also delayed by all the rain, meaning that we didn't make any trips to Scotland. In previous years I've just done classics in the Lakes when conditions have been good, haven't been winter climbing in Scotland for a while.
"That whole excitement and energy about doing Once Upon a Time in the South West was fantastic and the craving for that to come into me life again, you're looking for something like that."
I've not had a chance to find out yet whether having May has affected my approach to taking risks. We did a lot more bouldering last year than usual because we were taking May with us and bouldering is a lot easier with a baby. I won't know until I get involved with another dangerous route.
I think for the last ten years I just needed to see something and if I see it...classic example is when we went down to do Walk of Life and it's amazing that you're there and the sun moves round later on and shows you this runnel in the middle of the wall and it's just like my fucking good God is that an awesome line. To do the Walk of Life all I was thinking about was 'I've gotta get back down there!' and as soon as the weather got decent and I got through commitments it was next Spring and I went down on the motorbike, stayed in a tent and I was so paranoid someone else would see this obviously as the guidebook came out. That whole excitement and energy about doing it was fantastic and the craving for that to come into me life again, you're looking for something like that. I'm not really bothered about wishy-washy routes. Skye Wall E8 6b was the same. A friend told me about Skye Wall and a couple of times we went into that valley, into Coruisk looking for it and it's like fuck me, I'm looking for a 300ft blank wall with this mile high route and then you stand at the bottom of the wall and you can't even believe how awesome it is. It's just like ...wow...I'm getting giddy and excited just thinking about it again. So if it's a quality route you're kind of excited about it and that's possibly one of the reasons I went back to Hell's Lum because I thought that first pitch on To Hell and Back, if you get it right it's probably the cleanest line Dave's done.
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