Dave MacLeod, 29, of Fort William, Scotland, is the top contender for the title of world’s best all-around climber — not just because he has a fat tick list of top-end grades, but because he has also established first ascents at this high-end level.
In September, MacLeod made a trip to England’s Lakes District to attempt Dave Birkett’s celebrated climbs. Birkett, the other contender for Britain’s boldest climber, has established a slew of hard trad lines (See Breaking News, No. 163), some of which had gone years without a repeat. The speculation among elite climbers of the genre was that these climbs were probably under-rated. The hype didn’t seem to affect MacLeod, however, and he quickly dispatched with three of Birkett’s testpieces, including what is arguably the hardest, If 6 Were 9 (E9 6c).
You do it all, but what is your favorite style of climbing?
Putting up new routes.
What’s the allure of difficult, dangerous trad?
The hardest and most dangerous climbs are the most meaningful, but they come at a cost most rock climbers wouldn’t dare to pay. All climbers find their own balance of cost and reward.
How do you prepare for these routes?
I think about scenarios emerging, the routes I’m trying and why I’m doing them. I like to think I don’t miss many of the cues and clues that inform safe ascents of dangerous routes.
Ever get scared?
All the time. The scariest thing I do is abseil. Descending regularly from trad belays, especially in winter mountaineering situations, is goddamn dangerous. I get it over with as quickly as possible.
Do you ever feel you’re taking it too far?
Yes, a couple of times. But less and less as I keep learning more about where my limits are.
Any close calls?
The grass brushed the hat off my head on a 50-foot headfirst dive some years ago. Close enough, I reckon.
Dave Birkett is Britain’s other celebrated headpointer. You just repeated some of his hardest routes. How do they compare to Rhapsody or other hard trad lines you’ve done?
I found Dave’s hardest route If 6 Was 9 harder than any other trad routes I’ve repeated in the U. K. Rhapsody was a different thing for me, though. I had to spend way longer on that than anything else.
When Dave did If 6 Was 9 in 1992 I think he had broken new ground with a very hard route for that time — way above anything else around. It’s exceptional that he’s managed to keep producing so many really tough and scary routes since then. But Dave really loves rock climbing and he loves the Lakes so much. I think he’s just driven by a love for the lines on the cliffs, nothing more.
Have you climbed in the U.S.?
Not yet, hopefully soon.
Any American climbers you admire?
Dave Graham. I like how open and honest he is. He’s got passion for climbing and thoughts about it and he’s not scared to tell you them. He’s got something to say, you know, something to contribute.
What are your ultimate aspirations as a climber?
I want to feel like I have squeezed every bit of my ability to get up the hardest routes possible, giving everything I have. Much better to surprise yourself with just how far you can go on so little ability and strength, than to surprise yourself with how much you had in reserve doing nothing.
Top Five for MacLeod
(All in Scotland)
BOULDERING: Sanction (V13), Dumbarton Rock (FA). It’s like a horizontal maze of 3-D movement confusion. Beautiful!
SPORT CLIMBING: Metalcore (5.14c), The Anvil (FA). My friend Dave Cubby’ Cuthbertson thought the giant Anvil boulder looked like it had been dropped from outer space into this remote forest in the sea lochs of Argyll. This roof kept us visiting for four years.
TRAD: Rhapsody (E11, or 5.14c X), Dumbarton Rock (FA). Sometimes I’d climb it perfectly and fall off the last move. Other times I felt strong, but I’d just hit a hold a tiny bit the wrong way, and once again I’d be flying down the wall, screaming “TAAAAKE!” [MacLeod took nine 70-foot falls on this route.]
MIXED: The Hurting (XI, or M10 X), Coire an t’Sneachda (FA). Scottish winter climbing is like chess. That’s what I like — you need patience not to move too quickly, even when you are scared.
DRY TOOLING: 2 Fast 2 Furious (M12), Birnam Quarry (second asent). A massive upside-down trip in a cave. What more can I say?