Dave MacLeod and the dark art of Rhapsody
I studied him, sure I did, but I couldn’t see that Dave MacLeod walked peculiarly or sat down carefully or anything else that might indicate he has bigger balls than the rest of us. MacLeod, 29, is an unimposing man: slight frame; triangular face; high forehead; thin, shoulder-length hair. When you first meet him, his overwhelming personality trait seems to be humility, complete with a fine British sense of self-deprecation.
Yet over the past few years, this mild-mannered Scot has displayed a relish for unnerving feats on ice and rock, writing new legends into the history of 800-year-old Clan MacLeod, whose motto is “Hold fast!” In April 2006, MacLeod set the world on fire with his first ascent of Rhapsody, outside Glasgow. It’s the hardest traditional route in the UK, the last bastion of dangerous rock climbing. At E11 7a, Rhapsody requires 5.14c climbing with 70-foot fall potential — MacLeod succeeded only after two years and numerous ankle-smashing rippers. He has free-soloed 5.13d and repeated E-desperates throughout the British Isles. He also has climbed 5.14c sport in Spain and established V13. And, highly unusual for a top rock climber, MacLeod excels at winter climbing: in 2005, he pioneered the hardest winter route in Scotland.
In fact, MacLeod may be the only climber in the world who has done the most difficult boulder problem, sport route, traditional route, and winter climb in his home country. Sure, Scotland is small, but so are Switzerland and Slovenia, each packed with great all-around climbers but none at the top of every game climbers play. And MacLeod isn’t satisfied yet. He wants to complete a world-class route in each of these four disciplines... without leaving his cold, rainy home in northern Europe.
Requiem for a Dream
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine a worse place to develop into a world-class rock climber than Scotland. In this cold country of five million people, there are few great climbers to compete and collaborate with, at least compared to the hot English and Welsh scenes to the south. Although some Scottish crags are big and steep, most are also very damp and very green. The weather is notoriously bad, year-round, and in summer the midges burrow into the ears and eyes, forcing climbers to wear head nets and gloves.
Raised in Glasgow, MacLeod discovered Dumbarton Rock, west of the city, soon after he started climbing, at age 14. A strategic site of fortresses dating back to the Dark Ages, Dumbarton’s reddish-gray cliff rises about 225 feet above an urban wastescape at the junction of the rivers Leven and Clyde, sliced from an overgrown hillside like a glorified roadcut, surrounded by broken glass and rusting industrial debris. On the day I visited, a young guy with a liter of vile, cherry-colored liquor and a fishing rod had built a fire by the rocky beach. Slanting rain dampened the noise of nearby construction.
To many visitors, Dumbarton fails to inspire, but some climbers love it. Although tiny, Dumbarton and nearby Dumbuck pack in about 70 routes, both sport and trad, and more than 150 boulder problems. As a youth, MacLeod was smitten by the overhanging shield of the main headwall and the enormous, graffiti-covered blocks jumbled at its base. He would ride the bus or train for 30 minutes and then walk. Until he got climbing shoes for his 15th birthday, MacLeod bouldered in his sneakers. He fell in love with the technical moves and complex sequences exacted by the basaltic rock — the “precise and perfect” movement of Dumbarton bouldering, which taught him “technical cleverness.” It was all small, square-cut edges and open-handed pinches and blocks, requiring massive body tension and bizarre foot sequences. He spent so much time here — usually alone — that he earned the nickname “Dumby Dave.”
“It was a really good place to learn, because the norm for my climbing was that everything felt really hard — I had to try really hard,” he says.
By age 18, MacLeod no longer lacked climbing partners and had repeated many of Scotland’s and the English Peak District’s hardest climbs, up to V9 and 5.13. He had added a few routes of his own to the short, fierce walls of Dumbarton. Yet the Scot always kept one eye on the soaring crack that splits Dumbarton’s headwall: Requiem (E8 6b, or trad-gear 5.13c), put up by Dave “Cubby” Cuthbertson in 1983. At the time of its FA, this 115-foot finger and hand crack may have been the hardest route in the world. When MacLeod redpointed Requiem in 2000, the first time anyone had placed all the gear on the lead, he was left with a quandary: what next? Dumby Dave had ticked everything at his home crag.
Anyone else might have moved on to greener pastures, but MacLeod’s persistence is legendary. Some might call it obsession.
As a kid, MacLeod was nearly thrown out of school several times for skipping classes. “I was interested in the subjects and wanted to learn, but the environment was a complete waste of time,” he says. He instead poured his intense focus into other activities: before he started climbing, Mac-Leod loved making model planes, though he quickly tired of simple plastic kits and started building his own planes out of wood, with functioning controls. MacLeod also dabbled in sculpture, attracted by the notion of form. However, once he discovered Dumbarton, his focus shifted to unlocking lithic puzzles. “I remember staring at problems for hours, trying to work out how to climb them,” he says. Dumbarton may have seemed climbed out to most, but they just hadn’t studied it like MacLeod had.
“The next challenge was not hard to find,” MacLeod later wrote in an article. “The obvious step forward was to leave behind the safety of one of [the] crack lines and take on one of the great sheets of smooth wall in between.”
Chemin de Fer, another Cubby climb, took an E5 6a crack (roughly 5.12a) up the left side of Dumbarton’s rearing, diamond-shaped headwall. Where Chemin de Fer bent left after 120 feet, MacLeod determined to forge up and right for 40 unprotected feet. The result, in 2001, was Achemine (E9 6c, or runout 5.13d). He took the massive lob from the route 11 times before succeeding. It was the first E9 in Scotland.
Rhapsody - I
After succeeding on Achemine and then free soloing a 5.13d sport route called Hurlyburly (Scotland; 2003), the Scottish hardman felt ready to tackle Requiem’s direct finish, a swath of blank rock rising to the very apex of the Dumbarton headwall. The climbing was technically and physically harder than any he’d done, bolted or otherwise, but he wasn’t too worried about the monster fall — MacLeod had yet even to do the moves on toprope. In 2004, he managed to do all but two moves of the extension. “Then, in February 2005, I did the moves and decided I was going to get serious and try it properly,” he says. The line that would become Rhapsody required a 14-move V11, on tiny crimps, atop a 5.13d. “It took a long time to be able to climb the moves when pumped,” MacLeod says.
A long time is an understatement. Dumbarton Rock was MacLeod’s “office” for 2005. In 2003, he had moved to a tiny flat in Dumbarton with his wife, Claire, and from its windows could see Rhapsody, a five-minute walk away. He would climb four days a week on the route, most of the time alone, self-belayed on a fixed line, as if he were still a teenager exploring the boulders beneath. Finally, in fall 2005, MacLeod linked the direct finish to Requiem on a toprope. “Now I’ve got to f—kin’ lead it,” he said, hanging at the anchors.
The last protection in the Requiem crack (a #3 Black Diamond Micro Stopper) goes in about 35 feet below the hold he would try to grab at the top. If he fell from this lunge, MacLeod would plunge at least 65 feet. He was not naïve about the danger. MacLeod once had fallen 30 feet to the ground off an English gritstone route, badly breaking his ankle after a pebble snapped; he spent three months on crutches and still finds it awkward to walk or run on certain surfaces.
When I met MacLeod in February, he’d just bought his first car but — at age 28 — still didn’t have a driver’s license. Nevertheless, he had managed to get around. By the time his battle with Rhapsody was in full pitch, he’d climbed 5.14b sport routes in Europe and begun ticking some of the hardest traditional testpieces down south, in England and Wales. His experiences convinced him that Rhapsody might indeed be a big leap forward.
In September 2005, MacLeod traveled to England’s Lake District to attempt Breathless, a short climb with the lofty grade of E10 7a — supposedly 5.14a above bad gear. First climbed in 2000 by John Dunne, it had been repeated only once. Dunne called it “probably the hardest traditional route in the world.” MacLeod repeated the climb on his third day of effort, placing all the gear on the lead, including a skyhook held in place with putty. Despite the crappy pro, he said it felt easier than his E9s in Scotland, with technical climbing no harder than 5.13. He later repeated two other E10 routes (Divided Years, in Ireland; and Blind Vision, on English grit), downgrading both.
Meanwhile, Dumby Dave kept bouldering and getting stronger and stronger. In 2005, he established Pressure (V13) and Perfect Crime (V13) at Dumbarton, and also repeated the Scottish strongman Malcolm Smith’s Super Size Me, also V13. Dave Brown, one of the E11 filmmakers, said MacLeod spent 100 days working on Pressure. “The character trait I see more strongly in MacLeod compared to other top climbers is tenacity,” Brown says. “Where most others would give up and move on, he seems to really enjoy the process of working out and refining hard moves, perhaps even more than finally completing the climb itself.” MacLeod says he gained some of this tenaciousness from winter climbing, an oft-ignored discipline among the killer elite. “In Scottish winter climbing,” he says, “the main thing is to hang in there. To not give up. There probably will be a way.”
MacLeod’s hardest route yet in the genre is a climb called The Hurting, in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorm Mountains. In summer, the route is a dead-vertical E4 6a (hard 5.11). Before his first attempt, Mac-Leod rappelled the line, weighing whether to break Scottish tradition by headpointing it. (Almost all Scottish winter routes are climbed from the ground up.) But after seeing the route up close and belaying Scott Muir on an attempt, he decided to try on lead. His successful attempt came in classic Scottish conditions; it was blowing a hooly, and MacLeod climbed in full Gore-Tex with his hood up in a futile attempt to keep out the spindrift. He graded The Hurting XI, 11 — roughly M9 or M10 with death-fall potential. A year later, MacLeod onsighted the first ascent of an 280-foot IX, 9 in the southern Highlands, the hardest onsight of a new winter route in Scottish history, and called it Defenders of the Faith.
Soon after MacLeod broke the key hold on Rhapsody, the Scottish winter arrived. The determined Scot decided to spend the winter of 2005-06 training, postponing any attempt to lead the route for the next six-odd months.
One might think you’d train endlessly in a climbing gym — away from the elements — for such a route, but MacLeod doesn’t like the gym. Mostly, he trained on the boulders at Dumbarton, working projects, running laps on circuits. On “rest days,” he’d do an hour of pull-ups and lockoffs on the simplest of wooden fingerboards, a single strip about a foot wide and half an inch thick, mounted above a doorjamb, or he’d trek into the mountains for some winter action.
As spring approached, MacLeod, fit as ever, had devoted more than 70 days to Rhapsody and was getting close. He’d learned a new sequence on the crux in November and linked the full line again on toprope in March. But the route was getting inside his head; he’d become lost in a world of his own creation. In the E11 film, Claire says of this period, “You can tell [Dave’s] not really talking to you. He’s going through moves in his head, and he’s just kind of glazing over. Every waking moment, almost every sleeping moment. ... It takes over my life, as well as his.”
Claire and Dave MacLeod first met when they went to see the same band in high school; he was 16, and she was 15. By early 2006, they had been together for a dozen years, married for five, but they had never faced a challenge like Rhapsody. Their tiny flat, says Claire, filled with “unbearable tension.” She was the breadwinner, commuting into Glasgow to a job she didn’t much like. And though Dumbarton wasn’t a slum, it wasn’t pretty — more Trainspotting than Highlander. (Claire had to choke down a laugh when the visiting Canadian Sonnie Trotter described it as “charming.”) She had deferred creature comforts and the prospect of having children for her husband’s climbing — all for this little slice of Dumbarton Rock.
Last winter, MacLeod traveled to Spain and redpointed L’Odi Social (5.14c), which convinced him that Rhapsody had world-class technical difficulty to match its daunting runouts. Sonnie Trotter visited Dumbarton twice last spring and made good progress on toprope before rain drove him away. He blogged that Rhapsody was “a magnificent route, hard, bold, and beautiful. I saw the video they made last year, and [Dave] makes the crux look like piss, when in reality it’s nasty hard, brick hard.” Trotter said he’d be back.
Rhapsody brought MacLeod worldwide fame and some measure of financial success. His sponsorships have improved, and he has a busy lecturing and writing schedule. He holds a degree in sport science, which has helped him build a steady coaching business. MacLeod often works late into the night, writing articles, working on training plans for clients, and maintaining three separate websites. Yet all this success hasn’t tempted him to move closer to climbing’s mainstream. Rather, the opposite. In June, he and Claire bought a tiny house outside Fort William, at the base of Ben Nevis, in the soggy, buggy western Highlands. As soon as they set up house, it rained for three weeks.
Digging deeper into the Scottish hills in search of unlikely gold, MacLeod is moving ever closer to completing a world-class route in each of his four disciplines. He’s already done it on traditional winter and rock routes. And, before he moved, he came very close to completing one of his last great bouldering projects at Dumbarton: a link of the 30-move roof traverse of Perfect Crime (V12) into Sanction, a V13 he established earlier this year. This winter, he’ll be commuting back to finish it off. V12 endurance into V13 power — world class.
Last spring, MacLeod climbed Metalcore, Scotland’s first sport 5.14c, and soon eclipsed it with another new route that had nearly been climbed way back in 1992 by his old mentor, Cuthbertson, the man who first climbed Requiem. The 80-foot route, Ring of Steall, is right in MacLeod’s backyard of Glen Nevis; after 10 years of poking around on it, MacLeod redpointed the climb in early August, calling it 5.14c. Malcolm Smith reportedly thinks 5.14d.
With sport climbing and bouldering on the table, has MacLeod put “death routes” on the back shelf? In June, he abandoned an attempt on the Indian Face (E9 6c), the world-famous headpoint route in Wales. Claire said he’d been psyching up for Indian Face for six months. MacLeod quickly toproped the route without falls and felt certain he could lead it, but then he walked away, saying he just wasn’t inspired. Were his big balls still intact? Did abandoning Indian Face mean that his days of bold climbing might be over?
“Not at all — it was the opposite actually,” he said. “I think if I had felt in my gut that ‘I’m not really enjoying the climbing on the route, but I’m going to do it anyway,’ then I wouldn’t really be in control.” He says that caving into expectations of what he should do or of simply ticking “important” routes goes against his mojo of climbing best on lines that inspire him.
In August, inspired by a wandering line of deadpoints and crimpers on overhanging granite, MacLeod pulled off “the most dangerous lead I’ve ever done,” the 115-foot To Hell and Back (E10 6c, or 5.13c X), at Hell’s Lum, in Scotland. But of all the inspirational climbs in Scotland, the ultimate may be an unclimbed rock line on Ben Nevis, the epicenter of British mountaineering.
This mega-project takes on a 225-foot, square-cut arête on a massive volcanic buttress, beginning with about 50 feet of unprotected, overhanging 5.13. At a small roof, Dumby Dave will build a nest of pro for the crux: 30 feet of fingery 5.14c. Then comes a shakeout on good edges, where he’ll place a “pretend runner” — a skyhook — and go for crux two: 5.13c on more little edges. “If you fall here, you’re basically going 20 to 25 meters to the ground,” he says. Above, the route eases to E6 (solid 5.12), but it’s still a long way to the top. MacLeod has explored the line on toprope about 10 times and has done all the moves, but he is “still absolutely nowhere near linking big sections.” The route is E11 in the making — maybe harder — and it’s high on Britain’s highest mountain.
Who knows how long the Ben Nevis super-route might take him? The Scottish weather — bad enough at Dumbarton — is exponentially worse several thousand feet up the Ben. The rock-climbing season lasts only 10 weeks. To do this climb, MacLeod would have to be in peak form and have recently dialed the moves, and then he’d have to catch a spell of dry, warm weather.
“At the moment, I can’t imagine climbing it,” MacLeod says. “But I imagine someone will climb it someday, and I know I’ll give it a bloody good shot.”
Although Senior Contributing Editor (and Climbing Online Editor) Dougald MacDonald has visited Scotland five times, he’s completed only one rock climb.
Photo by Claire MacLeod — davemacleod.com
The Four Sides of Dave MacLeod — First Ascents (and Repeats) from the Razor’s Edge:
- Rhapsody (E11 7a): Dumbarton Rock, Scotland; 5.14c on thin wires, 70-foot-fall potential, V11 crux on poor face holds
- To Hell and Back (E10 6c): Hell’s Lum, Scotland; 5.13c with ground-fall potential from the crux, at 80 feet
- Blind Vision (E10 7a/b): Froggatt Edge, England; V12/V13 boulder problem to marginally protected 5.13 headwall; MacLeod second ascent
- Achemine (E9 7a): Dumbarton Rock, Scotland; 5.12 crack climb to 40 feet of unprotected 5.13d face
- Holdfast (E9 7a): Glen Nevis, Scotland; 5.14- with unprotected crux at 18 feet
- Ring of Steall (5.14c): Glen Nevis, Scotland; hyper-technical crux; might be 5.14d
- Metalcore (5.14c): Anvil Crag, Scotland; huge roof; Scotland’s first 5.14c
- L’Odi Social (5.14c): Siurana, Spain; limestone stamina; repeat
- Sanction (V13): Dumbarton Rock, Scotland; highly technical power problem, completed in early 2007
- Pressure (V13): Dumbarton Rock, Scotland; 45-foot roof
- Perfect Crime (V13): Dumbarton Rock, Scotland; 80-foot roof with 30 hard moves
- The Hurting (XI, 11): Coire an t’Sneachda, Scotland; vertical M9/M10 with very poor protection placed on lead
- The Cathedral (X, 11): The Cobbler, Scotland; 100-foot roof crack with pro placed on lead
- Good Training for Something (M12-): Bolted drytooling route at Birnam Quarry, Scotland; FA by Will Gadd