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ROUTE ONE: DAVE MACLEOD INTERVIEW

Published: The Scotsman, 16 February 2012

IT’S been described as “the most impressive rock climb ever done in Britain” and an athletic achievement on a par with running the first four-minute mile, but Dave MacLeod’s conquest of the Longhope Direct route on St John’s Head, a remote sea cliff on Orkney, began with a deeply un-glamorous act of extreme scrubbing. Before attempting to scale the 343m (1,128ft) high cliff, MacLeod had to remove a broad strip of the tough, green-grey lichen that had built up on the rock face over the millennia in case it caused him to slip and fall. Armed with a wire brush, he spent a full two weeks scraping it off, inch by inch, strand by strand, and all the while dangling precariously from the end of a rope. It was painstaking, energy-sapping work, but for the 33-year-old Glaswegian, the veteran of a series of groundbreaking Scottish climbs over the last decade, it was all part of the experience.

“Most people wouldn’t know that you’ve got all this work to do before you even get onto the climbing,” he says from his home near Spean Bridge, Inverness-shire. “You don’t get much thanks for all that effort, but for me it definitely adds to the satisfaction you feel when you’ve done the route, because you know you’ve really worked for it.”

Longhope Direct was certainly a long-term project for MacLeod. He started planning for it in 2006 and first tried to climb it in the summer of 2009, but it wasn’t until June last year, after a series of failed attempts, that he finally achieved his dream: a faultless ascent completed in a single day, following a three-hour hike and ten hours of continuous climbing.

His remarkable feat was caught on camera by his long-time collaborator Paul Diffley, and the resulting film, The Long Hope, will be screened tomorrow as part of this year’s Fort William Mountain Film Festival. Climbing films tend to be fairly straightforward affairs, typically depicting climbers climbing and not much else, and as a consequence they have only limited mainstream appeal. The Long Hope is more sophisticated, however, adding historical and spiritual dimensions to the action thanks to interviews with some of the select few who have attempted the route in the past.

The first people to try Longhope Direct were Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill in 1970. They were two of the finest climbers of their day, but it took them a wet, cold, and latterly very hungry seven days to get to the top, and even then they were forced to use ropes and gear fixed to the rock in order to move beyond certain sections, notably a crack running up an overhang towards the top of the climb.

It was Hill who e-mailed MacLeod in 2006 to point out that, although the Longhope Direct route had been repeated in the intervening years, that crux section had yet to be climbed without the use of artificial aids. MacLeod realised that the potential was there to achieve something incredible, or, as he puts it in the film, “something really pure” – a free-climb of the complete route, with ropes and gear used for safety only. But was it physically possible?

The biggest problem was the sheer scale of the thing. MacLeod knew that climbing on the lower portion of the cliff was well within his capabilities, but that the section at the top would tax him to “about 90 per cent” of his limit. Nailing that final crux pitch, he estimated, would be the equivalent of “running two marathons and then trying to run a 400m personal best”.

And then there were the random variables that climbing in such a wild location involves, not least the colony of fulmars nesting on the cliff which, unaccustomed to humans encroaching into their territory, would projectile vomit a mixture of bile and partially digested fish at anyone who came near.

“That happened to me many, many times,” MacLeod chuckles. “On the Longhope route you probably have to pass a good couple of hundred birds. You have to go along all these ledges and on each ledge there’s a fulmar about every metre. Sometimes you see them do this thing with their throats where they regurgitate their food and get it ready, but if you take them by surprise they can just puke instantly.”

Pausing for breath beneath the final crux pitch, MacLeod says he didn’t think he had the energy left to complete the climb, and felt “a sinking sense of failure”. But then, realising that he might not get this close to his goal again for another few years, thanks to the vagaries of the Orcadian climate, he took a deep breath and “launched up the pitch for an all-out fight”.

How did it feel when he made it to the top?

“A mixture of complete exhaustion but also a feeling of lightness,” he says. “It’s amazing to realise that something that seemed so impossible for so long is finally done – you can’t take it in straight away. Even when you look back at it after a while you still think ‘How did I manage to do it?’”

Drummond evidently feels the same way about his attempt to climb Longhope Direct back in 1970. Now suffering from Parkinson’s, he cuts a poignant figure in the film as he walks slowly and shakily across windswept moors towards the edge of the cliff he scaled in his youth.

“I can’t believe we were so adventurous,” he says, kneeling at the cliff edge and looking down. “It was such an act of faith to go up that face. Where did that strength come from?”

For MacLeod, the strength to complete some of the most difficult climbs in the history of the sport comes from a highly rigorous training programme. In 2006, while preparing to take on the route that made his name, Rhapsody on Dumbarton Rock, he used to do innumerable pull-ups on the door frames in his Dumbarton flat to improve the strength in his arms and fingers.

These days, living out in the country with his wife, Claire, and their one year-old daughter, he practises every day on the custom-made climbing wall he’s installed in his house. Does he take fewer risks now he’s got a family?

“No, I don’t think so,” he says. “I think over all the years I’ve been climbing I’ve been trying to do things really safely. There have only really been a handful of times in my life when I’ve thought, ‘I only just got away with that’. I like to feel that I’m on top of the danger aspect at all times. Ultimately, you can’t change who you are. Doing these things is definitely not something I could just stop – not without major psychological upset, anyway.”

MacLeod has climbed all over the world, but his most iconic ascents have all been in Scotland, from Rhapsody in 2006 to Echo Wall on Ben Nevis in 2008 to a route called The Usual Suspects on an overhanging cliff called Sron Ulladail on Harris in 2009. His assault on the latter was broadcast live on BBC Scotland.

“There are amazing, amazing climbs all over the UK,” he says. “I could easily spend my whole life climbing within 30 miles of my house, and on new routes, too, if I wanted to.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t have some travel plans up his sleeve, however. “Last year I was in Arctic Norway and I did a new route on a big wall there in the summer,” he says. “That was fantastic, I really enjoyed that, so I might go on a trip in that direction again this year. Or I might go to the Faroe Islands. They’ve got some sea cliffs that are absolutely massive.”

Apparently the fulmars over there get pretty big too.

ROCK STAR – MACLEOD’S TOP FIVE CLIMBS

THE HURTING, 2005
COIRE AN-T SNEACHDA, CAIRNGORMS
It only measures 35m from top to bottom, but as its name suggests The Hurting is a serious undertaking, requiring delicate placement of ice axes and crampons into ultra-fine cracks in a sheer granite face. MacLeod climbed it in a storm.

RHAPSODY, 2006
DUMBARTON ROCK
l MacLeod’s most famous ascent. Before Rhapsody, the hardest internationally accepted grade for traditional rock climbs was E10. (Traditional climbs are where climbers place all the safety gear needed to protect against falls themselves, rather than using pre-existing gear.) After four years of trying, MacLeod caused a sensation in the climbing world by completing this impossible-seeming route up Dumbarton Rock and grading it “a tentative E11”. The route has since been completed by at least two other climbers but there have been no calls for it to be downgraded, suggesting his initial assessment of the difficulty level was correct. Subject of the film E11 by Paul Diffley.

LONGHOPE DIRECT, 2011
ST JOHN’S HEAD, ORKNEY
l Described as “the hardest sea cliff climb in the world,” MacLeod’s ascent of the Longhope Direct route in June 2011 cemented his status as one of the greatest climbers alive today.

ECHO WALL, 2008
BEN NEVIS
l An extreme route on Ben Nevis that took MacLeod two years to plan and complete. Although he declared it even harder than Rhapsody, he decided to leave it ungraded to avoid causing the kind of controversy that surrounded his Rhapsody climb.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS, 2010
SRON ULADAIL, ISLE OF HARRIS
l Although not quite as technically demanding as some of his other climbs, MacLeod’s ascent of the overhanging 600ft cliff face of Sron Ulladale on Harris was broadcast live on BBC2. MacLeod injured his ankle when a breezeblock-sized piece of rock fell on him during a training session, but he and climbing partner Tim Emmet still completed the climb in six hours.

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