Perfect Partners #5 - Dave MacLeod and Natalie Berry Article

© Dave MacLeod

In this series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and find out what they really think of one another...

Equally determined and equally quiet, Natalie Berry and Dave MacLeod are two of Scotland's most well known climbers. Natalie started climbing at the age of nine. She joined a kids' climbing club in Glasgow, coincidently at the same wall where Dave regularly trained.

Natalie and Dave new-routeing on St Kilda in 2017.  © Dave MacLeod
Natalie and Dave new-routeing on St Kilda in 2017.
© Dave MacLeod

At the time Dave (or Dumby Dave as he was nicknamed back then, due to the amount of time he spent at Dumbarton Rock) was the rising star of Scottish climbing, pushing boundaries across a number of disciplines. Whilst Dave put up hard new route after route across Scotland, Natalie started competing indoors, culminating, in 2007, with a win at the European Youth Series in Slovenia. The pair first properly climbed together in 2014, while making the film Transition with Hot Aches Productions, in which Dave introduces Natalie to trad and winter climbing. Their journey begins with Dave taking a ground fall from an E9 (perhaps not the best role modelling) and finishes with Natalie leading Dalriada E7 6b on the Cobbler.

Dave on Natalie

How did you first meet?

I first met Natalie when we both trained at Glasgow Climbing Centre when I was just starting uni and Natalie was just starting climbing as a young kid. She mainly climbed with her dad though so I didn't know her well until much later on when she decided to start trad climbing and was looking for a bit of help getting the hang of it.

Did you know Natalie by reputation before meeting her?

Since I regularly saw Natalie at my local wall from when she started climbing I watched her progress into an accomplished competition climber. By the time I started climbing with her outdoors, it was much later on when she'd won many national comps and redpointed 8b.

What was your first impression?

Natalie is a quiet person, so in some senses she doesn't give much away as a first impression. However, it doesn't take long to appreciate the thoughtful, focused aspects of her approach to climbing and life in general that you might expect from a serial British lead champion. She tends to just get on with her climbing in a very composed manner with very little outward signs of the pressures of pushing yourself in climbing. I have heard the odd power scream leak out from the crux on occasion, but I've never seen her truly flustered by anything I don't think.

Dave belays Natalie up their first ascent at Beinn Udlaidh, Transition VI 7.   © Hot Aches Productions
Dave belays Natalie up their first ascent at Beinn Udlaidh, Transition VI 7.
© Hot Aches Productions

What was the first route you climbed together?

Aside from messing about on boulders indoors, the first climb was one of Natalie's first trad leads on some classic slab routes in Polldubh, Glen Nevis. After Natalie easily led a couple of routes, I asked if it was okay if I had a go on Hold Fast, Hold True (E10) and promptly decked out and broke my ankle. I was a bit embarrassed about that. Thankfully I think most of our subsequent trad climbing has gone a fair bit better.

Why do you enjoy climbing with Natalie?

Well one reason is because she is up for adventurous trips, with a high degree of uncertainty. We've been to some great places around the highlands and islands climbing new routes in pretty poor weather. Projecting hard new routes in these places does require you to put the need to tick routes to one side and spend time cleaning, waiting for weather and of course failing on the routes. It is surprisingly difficult to find climbers up for these adventures. I love them, but they do come with a large dose of uncertainty and frustration at times.

Dave and Natalie on the first ascent of Old Boy Racer, E8 5b, 7a, 6b on Ruabhal, St Kilda.
© Dark Sky Media

On St Kilda last year we spent four days getting thrown around a tiny sail boat to get there, and then another few waiting out some grim weather before we could climb a single move. But when the sun finally came out Natalie emerged from the tent still totally up for it and we went straight round and dispatched a three pitch E7. Often on these new routing trips, before you get the project in the bag, it can be easy to think "what the hell am I doing here?" But whenever I mention another idea to go to some remote new route project, Natalie is always up for it.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

I think probably Dalriada (E7 6b) on the Cobbler. It was Natalie's lead as I had done the route many years before. It was ridiculously late in the season and Natalie had already had one day on it in late October which didn't work out for various reasons. Amazingly there was another dry and reasonably warm day for the time of year, but I knew it would be really cold up there. I was able to help out because I could remember a fair bit about the route and it was just great to watch her climb it very smoothly. The cloud rolled in as she climbed and it got really cold and a bit damp. She waited a long time on a rest, but it didn't clear and I wondered if that was the opportunity gone for the year. But eventually she just went for it and that was really good to watch. I think she was shivering like mad on the final moves but kept going.

Natalie leading Dalriada E7 6b, as the atmospheric conditions start to roll in.  © Hot Aches Productions
Natalie leading Dalriada E7 6b, as the atmospheric conditions start to roll in.
© Hot Aches Productions

Sum up your partnership in three words.

Relaxed approach adventure.

What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

Ha ha! When I was leading Hold Fast Hold True! I caught a hold badly and knew I would almost certainly fall off the next move. When I did fall I remember arcing out from the wall and looking down and just seeing an almost comedy look of complete surprise and horror on Natalie's face as I started to drop towards the distant mats below. If I hadn't broken my ankle I would have laughed like hell.

If you could change one thing about Natalie what would it be?

Hmmm, perhaps she needs some bigger leg muscles to get into mountain crags faster.

What are your plans for the future?

Well I'm hoping Natalie will be up for joining me for some new routes in a spot I came across not far from my house. It has enough climbing to keep me going for a lifetime, it's in a beautiful place and it has not been touched by climbers so far. I just cleaned a first route there. It's only about E4 but possibly the most out-there E4 I've ever seen. We spent a lot of last year visiting lots of unclimbed trad all over the highlands and islands of Scotland, and I'm keen to just pick up where we left off since there are so many great routes out there.

Dave on the first ascent of Hovis E7 at Elgol on Skye.
© Hot Aches Productions

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Natalie?

The other year we were on Skye at the excellent sandstone sea cliff at Elgol. On the top the sun was quite strong and it was sheltered, so the usually duvet jackets came off and Natalie actually changed into shorts to go down to the climb. We abbed into the start of a superb steep arete E4 called Mother's Pride. This absolutely baltic wind got up and I was starting to shiver before Natalie even got started on the pitch. I was inwardly marveling at her apparently buzzing metabolism since she still hadn't complained of the cold despite being in shorts and T-shirt. I didn't want to make a point of it either since she was about to lead one of her first E4s and all I had to do was hang on the belay.

Such is Natalie's nature, she set off up through the first overhangs without any mention of it, but eventually started to hesitate more and more. But it still took until I could actually see her shivering like mad that she quietly announced she was a bit cold and down climbed. I was all for escaping up the VS we had abseiled down but the gear was still in the route so Natalie passed me the rope ends and I found it a real teeth gritter to get started and lead it myself. In trad climbing I quite strongly don't like to be the first person to say 'let's bail' and I really like that Natalie is apparently the same. But my down jacket was a memorable sanctuary after I shivered my way up the climb.

Has Natalie ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

No, although I was pretty jealous when I saw her pictures from a session on the Voie Petit on the Grand Capucin. She was injured at the time and wasn't able to seriously try it, so perhaps we still still get to climb that one together?

Natalie working the crux pitch of the Voie Petit 8b on the Grand Capucin.  © Klemen Premrl
Natalie working the crux pitch of the Voie Petit 8b on the Grand Capucin.
© Klemen Premrl

What have you learned from climbing with Natalie?

Well I've learned a lot just from watch her very efficient and delicate style on the rock. I've been bouldering far too much and tend to crush routes into submission with far too much brute force and far less finesse. I've also learned to be a bit more relaxed about sending hard routes on trips with Natalie. No matter whether the trip is going really well or really badly she is always totally composed. I get really fired up on climbing trips and that can be good in certain situations, but I sometimes struggle to balance this with a composed approach and so tire myself out too early.

Natalie on Dave

How did you first meet?

We first met when I was very young (10/11 maybe?) at our local wall in Glasgow. Dave was the famous guy who climbed topless on the steep lead wall whilst sporting a beanie and a ponytail. I'm not sure when I first spoke to him, but it was probably in reference to a route I was trying to redpoint. He was quiet like me, so I doubt we spoke much, but ever since our first meeting he was always supportive and offered beta, despite me being a fair bit shorter than him.

Did you know Dave by reputation before meeting him?

Yes, he was known as 'Dumby Dave', which I remember my Mum finding offensive. I had to explain the etymology of the 'Dumby' part to assure her that I wasn't being mean! I often saw him outside his then house cutting the privets as I passed on the train at Westerton station on the way into town.

What was your first impression?

I suppose my first impression was influenced by the films and magazines I'd seen Dave climbing in. I was very shy as a kid (still am) so when we first interacted it was probably with a nudge from my Dad. I remember thinking he didn't seem as intimidating as he looked on climbs (think grimaces and powerscreams) and he was similarly quiet. I thought it was 'cool' that he was also from Bearsden and that he went to the 'rival' secondary school to the one I would be going to. G61 as a postcode didn't have the same ring to it as S7, but I was weirdly proud of growing up in the same place as a famous climber, even if he was doing scary outdoor stuff that I didn't really understand or have much interest in at that point.

What was the first route you climbed together?

Apart from some coloured routes and problems at the wall all those years ago, the first route we climbed together outside was Tip Toe HS at Polldubh Crag, Glen Nevis, one of my first trad leads in 2014. Dave gave me some advice on placing gear and I lead the route with a wonky helmet and a bright yellow t-shirt borrowed from Dave. I faffed about with the placements and set up a belay at the top, by which time Dave had soloed up the line in his approach shoes! We then went on to do Storm HVS, with me doing an E1 variant as I went off-route. My placements were passable, and it was the start of quite an eventful day in Glen Nevis…

Dave keeping up with his training on board the Dodo's Delight, en route to St Kilda.  © Dark Sky Media
Dave keeping up with his training on board the Dodo's Delight, en route to St Kilda.
© Dark Sky Media

Why do you enjoy climbing with Dave?

Dave is the most focused and obsessive climber I've ever met and he elevates your own focus and effort in a way that doesn't feel forced. I've certainly gone out of my comfort zone while climbing with him on a few occasions, but it was always on ground that was within my capabilities and at points where I needed a bit of encouragement to go on. He is calmly reassuring and a very reliable partner. Dave's ability to know when to go for a hard new route and how to go about it appears to be second nature to him; it must come from the years of establishing new routes and repeating hard lines. I also appreciate Dave's cerebral approach to all things climbing and training, with his knowledge of sport science, nutrition, filmmaking and technique and tactics always providing food for thought and lively discussion. Dave is also not scared of political debate and will speak his mind on issues he feels strongly about. He's not your typical sponsored pro who just climbs and posts on social media – I'm not against that, but it's nice to see someone so well-rounded as a person performing at a high level and being an ambassador to the climbing community.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

This is an interesting question, since I've climbed with Dave in many different disciplines and most of them have been new to me at the time and on routes that pushed my limit, so they've all been memorable in unique ways.

Trad-wise, Dalriada on The Cobbler is an obvious one, and I put a lot of my success on that day down to Dave's help and encouragement. The weather turned when I was halfway up the route as mist rolled in. I was safe on a ledge but had to leave it to get through the crux. There was a lot of pressure to complete it on that particular day, since it was mid-October and it would soon be snowing up there. What's more, I was being filmed and had dragged three people up a big hill to climb it! Fortunately I was very relaxed and everything fell into place. Shivering on top in the mist and cold and being high-fived by Dave (having donated all of his extra warm clothes to me) was very memorable.

Natalie leading the top snow slope pitch of Pink Panther on Ben Nevis.  © Hot Aches Productions
Natalie leading the top snow slope pitch of Pink Panther on Ben Nevis.
© Hot Aches Productions

Scottish Winter: I enjoyed our day on Ben Nevis, doing Pink Panther. Dave has a habit of asking me if I'd like to lead the top pitch, so I knew what was going to happen. He had led the technical ice pitch and there remained a steep (to me, anyway) snow slope to the summit above. I'm not keen on ascending slopes and there was just one point of protection in an icy block about 1/3 of the way up. The ground was easy enough, so I just kept plodding. My crampon slipped in soft snow just before the summit, which was 'exciting'. I beach-whaled over the top on a beautiful sunny day in April. It was the last day of climbing for Dave before he went for ankle surgery, and I think it was a nice way to end a difficult chapter for him.

Generally, though, I think our trip to St Kilda stands out as the most fulfilling experience for many reasons. We endured a tough sail across under the watchful eye of Captain Bob Shepton, established two new lines and enjoyed the fantastic scenery and fauna on the island.

Sum up your partnership in three words.

Bearsden Young Team.

What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

The obvious choice would be that same day in Glen Nevis, when we moved on to Whale Rock and Dave decided to attempt Hold Fast Hold True E9 – the one with the ironic name, since most people who try it don't seem to be able to hold on for that long at all. Conditions weren't ideal as clouds rolled in and spitting rain added to Dave's indecision. Would he go for it? I wasn't sure. In what was perhaps the only case of bad judgement that I've seen Dave make, he decided to go for it when I could sense that his head – or heart? – wasn't really in it. He started up the line, having told the cameraman filming the ascent that he may have to grab the static line if he felt insecure. At 8 metres up, Dave looked fatigued and I could tell from the way he set up for the next move that he wasn't going to solidly latch the hold. He shouted 'SHIT!' in a 'this wasn't meant to happen' tone, and started falling to the floor for what seemed like an eternity. I didn't know what to do; it was my first ever trad belay. Fortunately for me Dave hadn't yet placed the 'crucial' first sky hook, so as a belayer I didn't actually have anything to do other than decide whether to try and spot or catch him. Thankfully, I decided against becoming a pancake and watched him hit the boulder mat with a thud. 'Are you OK?' was my unhelpful response. Fortunately the damage was 'only' a chipped ankled and nothing worse, but it certainly opened my eyes to dangerous trad/highballing!

Dave MacLeod and Natalie Berry on the stunning Prozac Link E4 5c, Screaming Geo  © Hot Aches Productions
Dave MacLeod and Natalie Berry on the stunning Prozac Link E4 5c, Screaming Geo
© Hot Aches Productions

I suppose Dave was probably more scared in that instance, though. My first E4 lead was quite scary on Harris: The Prozac Link. I had bailed on the first E2 pitch as it was a bit wet and I got psyched out, so Dave led the first three pitches. The top pitch was the crux E4 section and Dave asked if I wanted to do it. I'd only done a couple of leads up until then on Harris, both above the sea: an E1 and an E2. I got through the crux move easily but then for some reason continued up the crimpy face rather than stepping onto a ramp to finish. The rock was so compact and unsurprisingly there was no gear, so it was quite run-out. I knew I was capable of doing the pitch, but my inexperience made me doubt my judgements on gear in such an exposed position! Belaying Dave on anything hard is arguably scarier, though.

If you could change one thing about Dave what would it be?

I would put bricks in his rucksack to slow him down on walk-ins, since breaking his ankles doesn't seem to have slowed him down at all. I would also encourage him to climb in places other than Scotland to see how he'd get on: it's incredible that he has the drive to find new routes all over Scotland when there are surely many easy ticks for him elsewhere, so I think he could do some impressive stuff in other areas. I would especially like to see him do some hard alpine rock and mixed routes and teach him to ski as I think he would enjoy it and his ankles would be bundled up and protected! Finally, if he'd gone to Bearsden Academy instead of Boclair he might have turned out all right.

What are your plans for the future?

I know Dave is in Spain just now. It would be great to go sport climbing together again, since we have only ever had one day of sport together at Loch Maree crag on some bolted lines, despite my background being in sport climbing! I think he would enjoy some of the sport routes and alpine climbs around Chamonix too, so maybe he'll make a trip over at some point. I'm sure we'll end up doing some more trad in Scotland this year, especially now Dave's bought a boat/dinghy! There is still so much to explore.

Dave and Natalie preparing for a day of sport climbing at Loch Maree. First things first: blow up the boat!  © Dark Sky Media
Dave and Natalie preparing for a day of sport climbing at Loch Maree. First things first: blow up the boat!
© Dark Sky Media

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Dave?

The passage by sailboat from Oban to St Kilda, if that counts! Only joking, but I think Dave found the sail a bit more nauseating than I did, though, because of his seasickness.

It's difficult to choose from the routes we've climbed together, since I've always enjoyed the experience – at least in retrospect! We had a very long day on Messiah VII at Beinn Dorain, which was my first winter route with Dave. I was very slow, and Dave was very patient. I had tangles in the rope, he got hot aches and we topped out in the dark. I remember feeling utterly exhausted at the top as I hadn't eaten or drunk much, and the thought of still having to walk down to the car in a state of fatigue wasn't too appealing at the time. It makes me laugh now as the walk-in is not far at all! On the spectrum of enjoyable to disagreeable, it was probably somewhere in between, but now I remember it fondly!

Has Dave ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

Dave's first alpine route was Paciencia 8a on the North Face of the Eiger with Calum Muskett, and his repeat of Bellavista 8c on the North Face of Cima Ovest alongside his new route Project Fear 8c with Alan Cassidy stand out as some lines I'd like to do if I ever got around to them.

What have you learned from climbing with Dave?

I've learned that you can be a world class climber like Dave without having a huge ego whilst also giving back to the climbing community using other skills – through his scientific knowledge, writing and coaching skills. Dave proves that you can be an all-rounder and excel in many disciplines. He is also proof that injury shouldn't hold you back as much as you think it might – something I have struggled with. I'm not obsessed with climbing like Dave is; I can blow hot and cold about it depending on my state of mind and I think a lot of that stems from my origins as a youth competition climber. I was very focused as a kid and put a lot of time and effort into training, possibly to the detriment of missing out on some other experiences in life and the outdoors. I constantly had specific dates and goals to aim for, and although it made structuring training and motivation easier in some ways, it could be tiring and boring. As an adult I have learned not to take climbing as seriously and to broaden my activities in order to keep up motivation and interest. I've really enjoyed the more adventurous trips with Dave; be it because of the situation or the unknown aspect of new-routeing and his focus and encouragement has taught me to aim a little higher and motivated me to put a bit more time back into training again.

Natalie on Talons Out 8a, Loch Maree crag.  © Dark Sky Media
Natalie on Talons Out 8a, Loch Maree crag.
© Dark Sky Media

I would also partly attribute my increased interest in politics and the wider world to Dave: I remember him asking me about my thoughts on Scottish independence in 2014 when we were driving to Harris. I was apathetic in my response, saying that I'd 'have to look into it more' in my ignorance. I was just finishing university and was engrossed in my own world, but I think I've broadened my scope a lot on the last few years. That instance and subsequent discussions with Dave were likely turning points. I've also learnt that the ketogenic diet wouldn't work for me as a fussy wannabe vegan – Dave drinks pots of double cream and eats slabs of meat. I'll never invite him round for dinner!

Watch a short chapter from 'Transition' featuring Natalie and Dave climbing on Harris:

Dave is sponsored by: Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Mountain Equipment.

Natalie is sponsored by: Mountain Equipment, La Sportiva, Ellis Brigham and Petzl.

Both are also Urban Uprising ambassadors.

About the Interviewer:

Tom Ripley  © Charlie Low
Tom Ripley has been climbing for over fifteen years in both the UK and abroad: personal highlights include an ascent of Denali's Cassin Ridge and first ascents in Patagonia and Peru. Tom is dedicated to sharing his obsession for all types of climbing through his work as a climbing instructor and guide.

Currently, Tom is part way through the British Mountain Guides' rigorous training scheme. And, as a trainee guide, he is qualified to guide and instruct rock climbing and mountaineering throughout the UK.

Whether you are interested in making the transition from indoor climbing to real rock, working towards your first lead climbs, gaining self-rescue skills, or climbing a classic route that has so far eluded you, Tom can help you achieve your goal. Staying safe, patience and adventure are always a priority. He can be contacted through his UKC profile.

People in the wider world of climbing tend to hear about my climbing through the well known films E11 or Echo Wall or my book 9 out of 10 climbers make the same...

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25 Jan, 2018

Lovely article. Is the Cobbler a Munro? I’d have guessed not, but I can’t be bothered to check just now.




Scotland :)



25 Jan, 2018


25 Jan, 2018

You could have a series of 'Perfect Punter Partnerships'.  One person describes the different people they climb with and their tales of crag based inspiration/incompetence. 

25 Jan, 2018

Really nice article. Sounds like a fruitful partnership, and the St Kilda routes in particular look superb.

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