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Dave MacLeod versus Dave Birkett

27-Feb-2012
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DAVE NO. 1

On a perfect June day with skylarks chorusing about the snuff-dry volcanic rock, we are the only party on England's finest, tallest cliff. High above on Scafell, a wiry figure with a bottle-brush mop of hair is climbing an overhanging 5.13 X arete, his ropes sailing into fresh air to land 20 feet clear of the base.

"Bit o' slack, please, as I cut loose over this overhang -- and, er, watch me like a hawk, eh?" is all Dave Birkett says as he starts a mazy, technical sequence up the prow. I can't quite believe he'd just trust a complete stranger like me to hold the ropes on something like this. He climbs steadily upward with controlled precision, each foothold carefully keyed with a toe, each handhold gripped with firm intent. Birkett is now gecko-ing up 30 feet above his last wire. But he dispatches the climb, Death Arete, with economy of effort and no dramatics, just careful, purposeful movement. It's a smooth and almost Zen-like performance, giving no indication that this man has just climbed one of the most serious traditional climbs in the world.

Birkett, 39, is the elite backwoodsman of U.K. climbing, performing modern miracles in a distinctly unfashionable traditional mountain setting. His predilection for his home Lake District's high mountain rock is out of tune with modern trends -- it's a venue associated in many young climbers' minds with the tweedy Victorian origins of the sport, and situated a world away from the  epicenters of Peak gritstone or Welsh crags.

"I love it up here", Birkett says when asked why he continually makes the calf-sapping 2,000-foot hike to the base of Lakeland's loftiest crag. "I'm happiest when I'm hanging around on a rope in the clouds -- which is where I started, I suppose, waiting in the mist for Granddad while rounding up sheep."

Reclining on a tump of grass, he looks the very picture of a man at peace with the world, almost blending into the Cumbrian landscape with his nut-brown outdoor worker's perma-tan and his amiable border collie, Jess, by his side; a passing walker would probably assume him to be the fell shepherd he almost became. "I was raised on my grandfather's hill farm in Langdale. He had four daughters and I think it was kind of assumed I'd take over when he retired," he reminisces, "but when I got into my teens I discovered climbing and that, pretty much, was the end of that."

And in his wild and remote home fells, with no roadside audience to shout encouragement, and often reduced to practicing moves alone on a shunt, Birkett has blasted traditional grades sky-high. But he insists that's not the main motivation driving his climbing.

"Modern climbing seems to be so numbers oriented," he says. "So many folk out there have no feel for an aesthetic line."

This sentiment, although heartfelt, nevertheless sounds comically ironic given Birkett's climbing achievements over the last few years, in which Big Numbers feature rather prominently. Although long ignored or little-known by the climbing media, Birkett was one of the pioneers of modern Extreme Trad, ushering in the era of the E9 grade to Lakeland with his ascent of If Six was Nine (E9 6c/5.13 X) on Thirlmere's Lower Iron Crag as long ago as 1992. The futuristic line recently received its one and only repeat, 16 years later.

A stream of Nines followed Birkett's first foray into the grade: Impact Day (E9 6c/5.13 X) lies on the remote and exposed mountain crag of Pavey Ark, while Talbot Horizon (E9 6c/5.13 X), Welcome to the Cruel World (E9 7a/5.14 X), Just Another Lonely Day (E9 6c/5.13 X) and The Return of the King (E9 6c/5.13 X) all grace the peerless but fearsome rock architecture of Scafell.

Birkett's E8s and E9s all follow beautifully sculpted pieces of mountain rock. The slender and overhanging Death Arete provides an airy and bewilderingly exposed contrast to the gloomy chasm of Deep Gill over which it towers. In the very early morning light of mid-summer the arete, catching some ephemeral illumination that creates a dramatic chiaroscuro, reveals an intricate series of tiny crimps and slopers that only Birkett recognized as a climb. But, as in all his recent routes, the beauty comes with menace; Birkett's lines are deadly serious undertakings. It's a feature that further distinguishes his achievements from those reported from other outcrops: There are no roadside emergency services, crew of spotters or mounds of bouldering mats here. It helps explain why so few have taken up their challenge.

==

"Too hard and too bold," says Paul Cornforth, a frequent partner of Birkett's and one of the U.K.'s best climbers in the 1980s." Nobody wants to push the boat out like that, do they? Not at the moment, anyway. Despite the rise in standards [on sport climbs and bouldering], you need a different mental approach to do routes like his. You need to be happy in the mountains and you need to have a huge desire to do them. Otherwise you'll probably die."

A measure of Birkett's outrageous ability to keep it together was his bravura performance during the hot summer of 2003 when he onsighted James McHaffie's exhaustingly overhanging Fear of Failure (E8 6c/5.13 X) on Dove Crag in the eastern Lake District. The sustained 200-foot route, dubbed harrowing by one local activist, Steve Crowe, takes a frighteningly exposed line across a sweeping wall of shadowed rock with little respite for the arms and with a crux of strenuous pinch grips. Although pushed to the limit, Birkett contrived a painful knee-bar rest that enabled him to recover below the crux after sorting out the crucial gear. This almost overlooked achievement remains the only true E8 onsight achieved to date and possibly the hardest traditional onsight in the world.

It takes a vast inner stillness even to contemplate such a feat.

Birkett, brought up in a traditional northern English culture where "showing off" is nearly as much of a sin as wasting food or money, remains resolutely insouciant about his climbing and undemonstrative in its execution.

"I don't think I could ever get to the top of something and shout, Yeah!' I just haven't got that in me," Birkett says. "It's all kind of calm, that energy's working inward, making it nice and smooth." He climbs all routes, of whatever grade, the same way.

When the climbing filmmaker Alastair Lee asked Birkett whether he liked belayers to support him by shouting encouragement, Birkett replied, "I think I'd ask to get lowered off, and then I'd have to punch 'em!"

In a sport dominated by urban-dwellers, Birkett is also unusual for being a genuine man of the country. With his pick-up truck and unabashed penchant for old-school country music (Jolene' has got to be one of the best songs of all time!), Birkett appears the very epitome of modern rural Britain. He would easily merge into the milling crowds at the Cumberland Agricultural Show with his craggy, angular face and large, callused stonemason's hands, but might possibly look a little out of place at a bouldering competition wearing his rubber boots. Birkett's nickname among his urban climbing friends used to be Hillbilly.

He remains essentially an amateur, living with his South African-born wife, Mary Jenner, in a tiny rented cottage close to where he was raised, and generating the bulk of his income from his full-time job of building and farm-contracting work. Ironically, thanks to all the people who want their holiday homes doing up, this is probably the first time in me life I've actually earned some decent money, he says, but no matter how hard I work I'm never going to be able to afford a house in the Lakes. I'm probably going to be in my local authority rented house to the end of my days, but it could be worse. Birkett has long operated without any commercial imperative or audience.

One of the things he hasn't got, what with not being sponsored until recently, says local climber Stephen Reid, is pressure to do these routes. It's up to him, he can please himself.

Birkett's era of anonymity finally changed after he was shadowed by the filmmakers Alastair Lee and David Halsted for the biopic Set in Stone. Exhibiting both the breathtakingly serious routes Birkett climbs, and the beauty of the Lake District landscapes in which they are set, it has garnered numerous awards at mountain film festivals in the U.K. and overseas.

"Birkett," Lee says, "has the wisdom and serenity of somebody twice his age, yet the strength and sheer athleticism of somebody half his age."

Lee illustrates Birkett's laid-back approach by describing the night before his ascent of The Return of the King, a 5.13 X featuring super-strenuous crimps and overhanging wall climbing with don't-even-think-about-it protection.

Dave had been up till late the night before insisting on having a final pint before leaving the pub at midnight, says Lee. Then he was up at 6 making bacon butties for everyone before he burnt everyone off on the walk up to the hill. Lee rolls his eyes as he describes Birkett's warm-up: Just climbing up the first 20 feet of the route and down again. Then he just said: Right, let's get on with it.' There wasn't an energy drink or power gel in sight.

==

As to the future, Birkett still has plenty of hard lines in the pipeline. "I'm not into average' new routes," he says. "I want them all to be good quality lines." But one may yet elude him. As he confessed in Set in Stone, "There's one line on Scafell which is an awesome feature, but it's probably just too hard -- it's the next level, F9a/b French grade (V14/15) with no gear -- and I'm 39. I ain't going to get there -- which is a shame, really."

Two hundred miles to the north of Cumbria, in an equally unfashionable Scottish cragscape, lives a man who might well get there.

DAVE NO. 2

This is the other Dave who is setting the U.K.'s extreme trad scene on fire. Until recently Dave MacLeod was an unknown Scottish climber with no car or driver's license who also channeled his energy into climbing on his local cliffs. Unlike Birkett's home patch, however, this was no beauteous national park, but the heavily griffitied urban cliff of Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic plug of steep basalt situated in the penumbra of rust-belt towns north of Glasgow. It's a historically important place nonetheless, for its role as the capital of the former Dark Age Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde and the point of departure for France of the six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots -- and now as the location of the world's first, and thus far only, E11 (5.14c R/X): Rhapsody, climbed last year by MacLeod after a two-year siege.

Rhapsody initially follows the overhanging crack line of the established E8 6b (5.13b) Requiem, itself a mind-blower. But two-thirds of the way up the face, when a climber's forearms are already screaming, MacLeod's groundbreaking route powers onto overhanging, unprotectable face climbing on tiny crimps and sidepulls. The pursuit of this prize, which obsessed MacLeod for over a year, was captured with the cameras of Paul Diffley and Dave Brown from Edinburgh and resulted in the film E11, which has rapidly become an international climbing film cult classic. This is in no small part due to the repeated series of truly monster lobs which MacLeod took from the finishing holds of the route, 70-foot plummets onto an RP microwire that occasionally broke -- leading to even bigger plummets. By the time he was through, MacLeod had clocked 500 feet of airtime and had suffered numerous, fortunately minor, injuries, although on more than one occasion he came close to slamming hard headfirst into the cliff when his legs caught in the ropes. In many ways, in terms of tactics and degrees of difficulty, this was a top-end sport climb -- without the safety of sport-climbing protection.

"I've no shortage of trying in me," MacLeod says with a grin, when asked if he was ever discouraged by repeatedly failing on the very last move. A short, almost slight-looking individual with a mop of unruly lank black hair and a disarmingly permanent smile plastered across his pale, boyish face, MacLeod shares the laid-back diffidence of his English counterpart Dave Birkett. But this similarly hides a steely determination to finish a job, no matter how difficult, once started.

"Basically I knew I had something special on my hands. So it was worth going all out and nailing it no matter what. At Dumbarton I had developed technique that suited the rock type extremely well from climbing there for over a decade. And once I realized it was a possibility for me to complete it and realized how it would compare to other trad routes around, it was obvious that I had to really, really go for it. If I did it, I would have a complete expression of everything I want out of climbing." Rhapsody remains unrepeated -- as do all of MacLeod's other top-end first ascents.

Dumbie,' as its aficionados call Dumbarton Rock, seems an unlikely place for an ascent of world significance. The cliffs are invariably overrun by Wee Neds: school-dodging underage drinkers. As a local teenager in the early 1990s, MacLeod too became an almost constant feature of the place, but he was attracted only to its climbing.

Against this gritty background MacLeod, usually climbing alone (no one else in his working-class Glasgow family or from school had any interest in climbing), bagged some of Dumbarton's trickiest boulder problems, and he had soon mastered V12. Boulders didn't hold him for long, though; armed with his newly honed technical skills, and a belayer at last, he headpointed formerly toprope-only routes in the area at E7 6c (5.13 X), before breaking out into the Highland mountains for the first repeats of some of the hardest routes. One was Femme Fatale (E8 6c/5.13a X), lying in the shadow of Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis, a route that had lain unrepeated since 1984.

==

The angle of trajectory steepened when MacLeod became a full-time student of sports physiology at Glasgow University. Between studies he began adding new E8s and, in 2001, Scotland's first E9, Achemine (E9 7a/5.13d R), back at Dumbarton.

In one extraordinary month in 2002, he created both Scotland's second E9, Hold Fast (also the motto of the Clan MacLeod) and the first-ever repeat of a Scottish Winter Grade IX (approximately M8 with lousy gear) -- The Duel in Glen Coe. Soon he was onsighting some of the hardest winter climbs in the U.K. -- and therefore possibly the hardest traditionally protected winter climbs in the world. In 2005 he created the hardest technical climb yet made in the U.K. in winter, the first XI, 11: The Hurting, a one-pitch desperation piece in the Cairngorms' Coire an Lochain, entailing M11 style climbing above extremely poor gear with two crux sections from which groundfall would be probable. The holds are tiny -- sometimes just a tooth of a pick behind crystals in the granite. The route is hard 5.11 in summer.

The nerve and coolness required to pull off such a climb stunned the sometimes insular Scottish winter mountaineering community -- by reputation one of the hardest climbing constituencies in the world to impress. The fact that Macleod also tenaciously made the ascent in a full-blown Cairngorms blizzard only increased their respect. Scottish winter climbing is serious and poorly protected at the best of times, but th weather afflicting the sub-arctic Cairngorms can rival Patagonia in its severity.

MacLeod's ascendance as the new winter master was confirmed this year by his ascent of a multi-pitch XI, 11 on Ben Nevis. It's an achievement without precedent in Scotland. As Dave Brown, co-director of the film E11, who was roped in to second Mac-Leod on the route on a previous attempt, points out: "The prospect of seconding became quite terrifying as I waited. In theory I can climb that sort of difficulty, about M11. The reality, of course, is that Continental mixed climbing is a million miles away from the full-on Scottish experience. An M11, pre-practiced, protected by bolts -- 15 minutes to climb it. This is all quite different from the huge Scottish walk-in, blizzard conditions, onsight climbing, 12 hours on the route."

The Scottish winter grading system involves two numerals: The Roman numeral refers to overall seriousness (in much the same way the British summer trad system employs an adjectival grade), while the Arabic numeral refers to the hardest technical move on the route. At the moment the system runs from I, 1 to (you guessed it) XI, 11.

Amazingly, MacLeod has contrived to achieve all this without the use of a car. I still don't have a driving license but as I couldn't have afforded a car until very recently it probably hasn't made much of a difference, he says. Despite scraping a living as a climbing coach and through some sponsorship deals, MacLeod continues to rely on public transport and hitching lifts -- something that would be almost impossible in England.

"It's one of the reasons I've done very little in the Lake District," he says. "The public transport is rubbish and really expensive." In Scotland, with a semi-autonomous government committed to sustaining rural transport, he can get an early bus from a major city into the Highlands and spend a day working on projects in the mountains. "And I've been amazed how easy it is to hitch even with a bouldering mat -- I've rarely waited more than 15 minutes for a lift."

This frenzy of multi-genre climbing activity led to Mac-Leod appearing on the cover of U.K. climbing magazines and dubbed Britain's best all-rounder. MacLeod has put up Scotland's hardest boulder problem, Pressure (F8b/V13) at Dumbarton, and the hardest sport route, Metalcore (F8c+/5.14c) in the Highlands; and in addition to having made the U.K.'s hardest free solo, Hurlyburly (F8b/5.13d), this year he pulled off what may well be the hardest free solo in the world, Darwin Dixit (F8c/5.14b) at Margalef, Spain.

"I feel sorry for people who specialize," says MacLeod, "because I always see people go through months of down time, low motivation and no climbing. But ultimately it comes down to living in Scotland. If you want to just go out climbing a lot, you have to do what makes sense according to the conditions, which, in this country, have many different faces. Being a specialist in Scotland would be hard on the motivation unless you were very philosophical." MacLeod remains unmoved by indoor climbing and has no interest at all in competitions.

==

"My enthusiasm lies with Scottish cliffs in general," says MacLeod. "Grit is OK, but is obviously over-hyped. I like it, but it's just a tiny part of what's on offer. In Scotland there is more in every sense. There is more rock: bigger, higher, more dramatic, wilder. There is also more variety in the rock and the character of the experience. There is opportunity to climb new routes anywhere you go in the country. And if you see someone else at the crag it's a nice wee treat, instead of trying to avoid crowds." To many outsiders (and that includes most English climbers), Scottish climbing evokes a vision of horrendous approach marches across midge-infested bogs, streaming cliffs in obscure corries, and cold mossy rock.

"The best thing about Scottish climbing is the conditions!" MacLeod exclaims in protest. "There is no off-season for rock: you can climb at your limit all through the summer simply because it's that little bit colder -- most of Europe is a write-off for extreme climbing at that time because of the heat, but high up on places like the Ben it's nearly always possible to pull on small slopers."

Last summer, as part of the emerging wider recognition of MacLeod's talent, he was invited to participate in a live outside TV broadcast by the BBC designed to showcase their new High Definition service. The $1 million broadcast was abandoned due to predictably foul Highland weather -- but not MacLeod's project. In a short drier interlude, he climbed the most serious trad mountain route in Britain with To Hell and Back (E10 6c/5.13c X). The 270-foot route climbs a smooth vertical wall and an overhanging granite headwall on the fearsomely wild and remote Hell's Lum, one of the great cliffs in the sub-Arctic wilderness in the Cairngorms. A fall from anywhere on the second half of pitch one is unlikely to be survivable.

Says Dave, "The route overstepped the red line for me, but not in terms of personal danger, just in terms of the cost of dealing with the danger. I want to be a climber pushing my limits. But I don't want to be a climber pushing everyone else's limits as well, even temporarily." Dave was belayed by his worried wife, Claire (the two have been together since school days), who was prepared to throw herself down an ankle-snapping boulder-strewn gully in order to try to reduce the fall factor should he peel from the wet slopers. "She's saved me a couple of times already with this kind of maneuver," says MacLeod. "Claire's one of the best people I know for doing that kind of extreme belaying!"

"I'd quite willingly throw myself down if it saved his life," Claire confirms unhesitatingly. MacLeod pulled the route out of the bag, but only just. Thanks to the appalling weather having soaked the crag for days beforehand, MacLeod, utterly committed to using wet, greasy slopers above the death drop, yelled courage into himself. The reverberations of his shouts of fear echoed down the dripping walls of the sinister Hells Lum, inducing heart-stopping apprehension in his belayer and everyone watching.

As a result, MacLeod described the climb as the scariest day of my life.

"It's the most dangerous lead I've ever done. When I got there I just felt guilty for engaging with this undertaking in the first place. On a personal level it's OK. I'm up for this type of experience, full on as it is. But it's not fair on everyone else for me to be walking around for 10 days consumed in my own ugly world of fear, and blind to other people's needs. I'm massively in their debt, especially Claire's. So my next challenge is to climb something like this or harder, without my personal hell spilling beyond my own head."

Recently, he has moved even deeper into mountain territory, upping sticks and relocating to the West Highlands of Scotland under the shadow of Ben Nevis with Claire. Are we likely to see Rhapsody-style levels of extremity appearing on the big, high cliffs?

"Yes, without a doubt that is the plan!" he says excitedly. "I have done the moves on an unbelievable mountain crag project 1,100 meters up on the Ben. It's much harder than Rhapsody and at one point the climbing is unprotected. That will be my deal from mid-summer onwards. I feel I have the leading head, patience and the logistical skills for it, but I need to be climbing F9a (V14) to manage the physical difficulty. I've still got work to do there."

Beyond their contribution of extreme headpoints, the Brave Daves have done something completely unforeseen. After a decade in which the Peak District gritstone outcrops of England have dominated the hard trad headlines, the center of gravity has been pulled north back up into the mountains by a couple of unflashy working-class climbers. They've taken trad climbing by the scruff of the neck and back to its old mountain roots -- where it's been re-born fitter and fresher than ever.

Colin Wells lives in Hope, a village in the English Peak District. Surrounded by frightening outcrops, he escapes to the mountains to climb frozen choss at every opportunity.

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