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Dave MacLeod: My Journey From Injury to Catalán Witness the Fitness

After blowing out his shoulder, British strongman Dave MacLeod set himself a lofty goal: send Chris Sharma's new-age testpiece Catalán Witness the Fitness, a shouldery roof problem that has been graded variously V15 and V14 by repeaters.

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A few years ago, as I entered my late thirties, I developed a stronger motivation to push my bouldering harder than before. I’m not sure whether I wanted to boulder harder precisely because I was getting to the age where less climbers are breaking into V14 or V15, thus making it a more interesting challenge, or just because I was psyched for specific inspiring lines.

I like taking a scientific approach to climbing hard and so I went very much back to basics to look at where my biases might be and sources of error in my thinking. After a lot of study, I identified diet and nutrition as an increasingly obvious avenue where I may have been following a sub-optimal strategy. The more I looked at the science, the more I thought, “Oh shit, I’ve been doing this wrong.”

I experimented with some radical changes and within a season managed to break into V15 with an ascent of Chris Sharma’s Practice of the Wild in Switzerland. I really love the kind of steep powerful roofs for which that problem is known. On one hand, they are my weakness, because I don’t have as much raw power as other climbers who tend to get up that sort of thing casually. On the other hand, I’m usually good at finding really intricate, weak-man beta. Plus, I’m stubborn: I’ll stick at it and keep the faith that I’ll find other improvements to the beta even when it seems like I’ve been trying for ages.

So all this led to me watching videos of Chris Sharma’s V15 Catalán Witness the Fitness, and wondering if I dare try it. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I don’t love to try things with a very uncertain probability of success. I’d certainly need a long trip away from my family (at least by family man standards!) to give it a shot, and so putting all my eggs in one basket would not make that much sense. I might be better going to a bigger bouldering destination with a greater variety of hard climbs to choose from so I could find something that suited my style.

I ended up on CWTF by pure accident. I was meant to be going sport climbing in Catalunya, but my climbing partner broke her foot running and later found out she needed surgery. Since the trip was booked and imminent, I decided I’d go and look at CWTF, and if it was just too hard, I’d no doubt find another partner for sport climbing.

From my first session on it, I pretty much knew I’d keep trying CWTF regardless of whether I felt I could do it. There is always so much you can do to improve your sequence to transform moves that seemed impossible to fairly steady—you just need to use your imagination a bit. I couldn’t do one move in the crux section at first. I was too stretched out from a foothold to do it the standard way that Sharma and repeaters had done it. I also struggled with the iron cross move in the second part of the climb.

Six months ago I has a ridiculous accident skateboarding with my 6-year-old daughter (she was on the skateboard and she was fine). I tripped while spotting her and landed on my shoulder, rupturing all three ligaments connecting clavicle to scapula. The orthopedic surgeon thought it would be 12 weeks until I could begin climbing again, but with a very carefully designed rehab protocol I was able to reduce this to five weeks. (I’m lucky in that I spent four years of my life researching and writing a book on recovering from climbing injuries.) But starting climbing again, and regaining V14/15 form are two different animals entirely.

I spent all my spare time researching and reading biomedical papers to figure out how to optimise the process. And it seemed to work. By the time I was making links on CWTF I felt really uninhibited jumping between holds with every last percent of effort. There’s no way I can climb V14 without being able to do that.

In the end, it all went better than I had anticipated. Once I made the last few tapering changes in my training, and the last couple of tweaks to my sequences, I basically did it the first try I got past the difficult reachy section that I had struggled with. There is a rest near the end where you can shake out. It’s kind of steep—it was hard to know how long to stay there, hard not to let the anticipation of success creep into my mind with only a handful of not-so-hard moves to go. I spent about a minute there, and just thought, “If I can go from not being able to lift my arm at all to this in six months, I can surely reproduce this effort if I fumble the finishing holds.” So I ended up being pretty relaxed in my mind grunting through the finishing moves.

Also watch

VIDEO: Chris Sharma Sends Catalán Witness the Fitness V15 

VIDEO: Beto Rocasolano Sends Sharma’s Catalan Witness the Fitness (8C/V15)

VIDEO: Nacho Sánchez Sends Catalán Witness the Fitness (V15)