INTERVIEW/IMAGES: MacLeod on Long Hope Route

As reported earlier last month, Dave MacLeod has completed yet another 'mega-project' in Scotland. His free and direct version of The Long Hope Route on St. John's Head, Hoy, features F8b+ standard climbing on traditional gear with run-outs and some sandy and loose rock.

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).

Dave MacLeod digging deep on the E10/11 crux pitch of The Long Hope Route, 150 kb
Dave MacLeod digging deep on the E10/11 crux pitch of The Long Hope Route
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

Dave MacLeod - Interview:

  1. Someone tipped you off about the route right? Who and when was that?

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.

Ed Drummond, back on Hoy several decades after making the epic first ascent of The Long Hope Route, 190 kb
Ed Drummond, back on Hoy several decades after making the epic first ascent of The Long Hope Route
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

  1. How many times have you been up there over all?

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.

  1. And to make all that effort, it really must have captured you? What was it about the route that was so compelling?

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.

MacLeod with acres of exposure on what must be one of the most quintessentially British cutting edge routes in the world, 193 kb
MacLeod with acres of exposure on what must be one of the most quintessentially British cutting edge routes in the world
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

  1. What are the main difficulties of actually climbing this route?

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.

  1. What is the climbing/rock/gear like on the head wall?

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.

MacLeod pulling hard with the intermittent crack of the headwall clearly visible by his face., 152 kb
MacLeod pulling hard with the intermittent crack of the headwall clearly visible by his face.
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

  1. What grade would you rate this pitch in isolation?

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.

  1. What rack did you take on the route?

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.

Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner looking up at the hulking sandstone epic of St John's Head, 201 kb
Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner looking up at the hulking sandstone epic of St John's Head
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

  1. How does it rate in difficulty against your other routes?
Could be slightly easier than Echo Wall because that is such a serious route. But for me at least it's harder than something like Rhapsody and another level than something like Muy Caliente or Indian Face. I was looking at the hardest multipitch routes around just now. I'm not sure if any have pitches at that level that aren't either close to the ground, or protected by fixed gear. So for me it's definitely up there with the hardest trad routes around right now. I don't think it will be for long though. I can totally see how with good tactics and training you could do something a lot harder.
  1. If you had the chance to do something differently on your ascent of the route or in the build up - what would it be and why?
I couldn't really train strength in 2009 or 10 because of niggling injuries so I was pretty much limited to trad routes with relatively steady climbing. So I don't think I was really strong enough for it then. A good winter of bouldering has definitely helped me get stronger again and hence I had enough to get through those cruxes when feeling pretty tired.
  1. And was there a crucial thing that went your way, that unlocked the key? Or was the route pretty much a foregone conclusion?

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.

Andy Turner, all round good egg, was Dave's partner on the route., 121 kb
Andy Turner, all round good egg, was Dave's partner on the route.
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

  1. Do you have any other major Scottish projects on the boil at the moment?
Do you really need to ask? It's just a question of choosing between them. I wouldn't mind something with a little less walking and fulmars next.
  1. Do you see Scotland as an endless source for your climbing ambitions, or will you be heading overseas to tick some bigger/famous/hard/classic stuff? Will you be going back to Hoy?
Scotland is endless for potential and I really enjoy my routine of writing when the weather is poor and going outside to climb when it's nice. In the past few years I've spent a month or two per year sport climbing abroad because it's what I'm really starved of in Scotland. There are great sport routes here but I've done most of them. I do have a very hard sport project here that I'd like to put some time into. I also have some plans for foreign trips to climb trad coming up and no doubt I'll find some great new routes to go at.

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.

Dave MacLeod after finishing the route - already getting fat???, 218 kb
Dave MacLeod after finishing the route - already getting fat???
© Paul Diffley / Hotaches Productions

Big thanks to Dave MacLeod and Paul Diffley.

The Long Hope Route Direct E10 6c - Topo
© Photo: Mark Reeves, Topo: Jack Geldard

Dave MacLeod is sponsored by GORE-TEX , Scarpa , Black Diamond and Mountain Equipment as well as Stoat's Porridge!

Hotaches Banner, 20 kbMore 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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