Open any Scottish guidebook and one name will be credited with some of the hardest lines, typically in hard-to-get-to corners of Scotland, far off the radar of other new-routers. Dave MacLeod is synonymous with Scottish first ascents and significant repeats.
As a shy teenager, Dave honed his skills at his local crag Dumbarton Rock near Glasgow, occasionally climbing with university friends, but typically exploring alone. Dave set himself the lofty goal of climbing Requiem E8 6c – the hardest trad route in Scotland at the time – and began working ticking his way through the classics. When the guidebook started to fill with ink, Dave looked at the blank spaces in-between existing routes and found his niche: spotting, cleaning and climbing new lines that had eluded the vision and abilities of others.
Dave has dedicated the last 25 years to pioneering in every aspect of climbing, with an emphasis on developing Scottish destinations. In 2006, his first ascent of Rhapsody E11 7a at Dumbarton Rock attracted global attention as the hardest trad route in the world at the time. Two years later, Rhapsody's status was superseded as Dave established Echo Wall E11 7a on Ben Nevis. 8B+ boulder first ascents, sport route first ascents up to 9a and new Scottish mixed routes up to XI,11 (M9+/M10) were subsequently added to his list.
Despite some debilitating injuries in the last few years - mostly accidental in origin - Dave maintains that he is a better climber now than he was in his 20s. His recent ticklist is testament to this: Practice of the Wild 8C (2016), Mind Riot E10 7a (FA, 2019) and his latest achievement, making the third ascent of the Scottish testpiece Hunger 9a at The Anvil after failing on the route over a decade ago.
In operating at the highest level across four disciplines of climbing, Dave is arguably the best all-round climber in the world, whose credentials are the result of an intense, self-proclaimed obsession with the sport. A new film Undiscovered by Dark Sky Media explores Dave's motivation for new-routing, and showcases some of Scotland's lesser-known climbing destinations. From a dank cave in Arisaig to an untouched glen and a voyage to the wilds of St Kilda, 40 miles into the North Atlantic Ocean, these places collectively offer many lifetimes of climbing potential. I sent Dave some questions about his passion for new routing ahead of the film's premiere at Kendal Mountain Festival next week.
You often say that you're a far fitter and stronger climber now than you were in your 20s, but how has your psychological approach evolved over the years, especially after the birth of your daughter? I suppose there are psychological benefits to knowing you're stronger, too! You talk about 'feeling fearful' being an essential part of getting into battle mode - do you feel more fear now than you did in your youth?
I don't think much has changed either with age or fatherhood. Perhaps you just double down a little on the same tactics you were using anyway to manage risk, but I don't feel any different. In a way, having a sense of more to lose just helps you focus more on the risk management that helps you do the routes safely anyway. The feeling of being well prepared for trad can make you bolder. And you are right that feeling physically stronger or fitter can also make you more confident too. The recoveries from my previous accidents in trad were long and painful experiences, so I'm pretty cautious to go for something if there is a real risk of breaking myself. It's just a balance overall. There are many inputs and overall I'd say my level of accepted risk has probably changed little.
You spend a lot of time on your own when cleaning and working new routes. When it comes to the lead, does the presence of another person change things?
I don't think it changes things much. It does make it a bit more exciting because you know you have the chance to get a lead done and that's what you've been working towards. And it's just nice to be on the hill with friends whether on hard or easy routes.
In Undiscovered, you say that you could climb new routes within a 25 mile radius of your house for the rest of your life. Why do you think Scotland is so underrated/untapped when it comes to new route potential?
First and foremost it's because Scotland is just full of rocks. Secondly, the Highlands are quite empty of people generally. There aren't big population centres right near the mountains. Glasgow, where I'm from, is close to the edge of the mountains but still not in them. Now that I observe my daughter and her peers growing up with the mountains right there in full view every day, they are simply much more part of everyday life. It's hard not to get involved in something to do with mountains. Perhaps trad climbing is a little out of fashion at the moment as well. And finally I sometimes wonder if people generally are still getting used to how to use the internet as a tool. It can be easy to think if something is not readily available online (such as people pointing out the potential for new routes) then it doesn't exist. To do a lot of good new routes you have to get out into the mountains and explore.
Glen Pean - which features in Undiscovered - is filled with new routing potential. Can you tell us a bit about the place?
Yes. Glen Pean is out in the west of Lochaber, in quite a remote spot between Loch Arkaig and Loch Morar. It's a lovely glen with great scenery and just a tonne of climbing to be done. The rock is largely compact, so there are a lot of really hard and bold routes to do, as in thousands of them. There are also hundreds of boulders and many to be done at a very high standard of difficulty. I think a world class boulderer would have a field day here. There are some amazing lines that look like V15 or harder. The first few times I went there I didn't do any climbing because I was just a bit overwhelmed and just ran about trying to look at it all. But there is just too much to see in one visit. I've now done a handful of climbs and will keep going there. I've been pretty focused this year on Mind Riot and also on Hunger 9a, so I've not been able to get to Pean. But for sure you'll see a lot of pictures and video of new routes from me there in coming years!
Some people might view new routing as a kind of territorial, egotistical act. I've never got the impression that this is why you do new routes! How do you view it? Is there a difference between travelling to a foreign place and making first ascents, and doing new routes at home (I'm thinking Blåmann, Dolomites) in your opinion?
Wow that would be an awfully cynical way of looking at new routing! I see it more like a creative exercise - contributing an appreciation of the rocks and mountains in the form of a climb on them. I just like exploring lots of cliffs and exploring inevitably means doing new routes in climbing. At Binnein Shuas recently I was lucky that Iain Small took some initiative and was opening new routes as well. I really enjoyed repeating them. If nothing else, it was nice to get a break from having to do days of hard graft to clean them. Actually, seeing how much work Iain had put in helped me to see how much work I put into cleaning new routes. I wouldn't say there is much difference between new routing at home or abroad, except obviously the local climbing ethics tend to be a bit different in different places.
You've talked about the element of 'the unknown' being a major part of the attraction of new routing; the uncertainty of whether a climb might be possible. What else do you look for when scoping out new routes?
I guess I like to see a nice line and nice holds. Mind Riot E10 has some really nice holds and moves. For hard projects specifically, I like developing a kind of affinity with a place for the period you are going there trying the project. If the route is hard enough to force you to spend a lot of time there, you get much stronger memories and notice much more about the details of a place. Not just the rock climbing, but everything about the mountain. On Binnein Shuas I enjoyed seeing how it is relatively protected from rain by being surrounded by higher mountains, munching large quantities of blaeberries growing on the terrace at the top of the route, watching some beautiful sunsets looking west down Glen Spean and sometimes just hanging out at the top of the route drinking tea and watching waves on the loch below late into the evening.
In Undiscovered we travelled to St Kilda on Bob Shepton's boat. How did the sailing and the remoteness add to the new-routing experience? There's a lot of emphasis in modern adventure climbing on flying to exotic, far away places. Do you think with a general increase in climate crisis awareness, adventures closer to home will become more appealing to climbers?
You touch on a very important point and one I think climbers are going to need to take heed on over the coming years. Ultimately are we going to burn fossilised rainforests to go climbing? It's a fantastically fun thing to do, but until we figure out a way of making planes run on something other than ancient rainforests, it's not cool. I'm certainly weaning myself off flying and saving for an EV myself. Yes, I think for these reasons, adventures closer to home will start to make more sense on many levels. One important point I have made in my vlog is that an easy way to achieve this is to make home next to the climbing! It makes everything so much harder if you want to live the life of a climber on one hand, but live in a concrete jungle hundreds of miles from a cliff on the other. It's easier than it ever was to make a life in the mountains, no matter what your career. Just taking my own local area of the Highlands as an example - the local economy here is crying out for skilled people of all types.
I also like the idea of longer, less frequent trips. On all my trips in recent years I've driven to the alps and stayed for a month or two rather than flying places. Many friends locally get the train to the Alps. I think if we stand back and look at the way we live life in the West and realise how that's going to have to change; the whole idea of working ridiculous hours for a few precious weeks of holiday a year, in which you have to use every spare second travelling by plane to somewhere with guaranteed sunshine, doesn't seem an optimal way to go. I really hope more climbers will not be afraid to move to the mountains and enjoy all the great climbing right on the doorstep.
Yes, remoteness is one of the nice things about going trad climbing and mountaineering. Again though, it's not necessary to go halfway around the world to find it. Just abseiling over the edge of a sea-cliff in an otherwise popular place gives you a feeling of remoteness. Even in the most popular spots in the UK mountains like the Lakes or Glen Coe, within walking distance from a car park rammed with tourists you can find somewhere where you'll almost never see another person. And if you do it's probably a friend you know through climbing!
Kendal Mountain Festival 2019
Kendal Mountain Festival (14th-17th November) is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 19 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.
EVENT: FILM PREMIERE - UNDISCOVERED PRESENTED BY MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT
The film follows Dave as he travels to some of the remotest, most scenic corners of Scotland, culminating in a voyage to the remote island archipelago of St Kilda on board Bob Shepton's yacht Dodo's Delight. Dave will be joined on stage following the premiere by Captain Bob, Natalie Berry and filmmaker Chris Prescott for a Q&A session.
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