The Angry Corrie 73: Apr-Jun 2008 No. 73

E11 - The Hardest Traditional Rock Climb in the World, featuring Dave MacLeod

image from source document

Directed by Paul Diffley, produced by Dave Brown for hot aches productions and square face films, 2006. Main feature 41 minutes, additionals 37 minutes.

ISBN-13 978 1 904207 44 3, ISBN-10 1 904207 44 8. £18.99.

To Hell and Back, made by Triple Echo Productions for BBC Sport Scotland. Broadcast on BBC Two Scotland 24 October 2007, and still available online at (click on Watch, then on the Sport tab).

Review: Perkin Warbeck

REGULAR READERS will know that neither the Ed nor I is much of a dangler. But I at least own a harness and a chalk bag, and thus it is my moniker and not the Ed's at the top of this piece. One writes about Dave MacLeod with some trepidation, as 'the information's unavailable to the mortal man'. And as Dave 'Cubby' Cuthbertson says, he sets 'a new standard in British climbing'.

Rhapsody, MacLeod's two-year epic E11 route on Dumbarton Rock, has been documented on DVD and I bought my copy. The siege approach known as headpointing was such that we see MacLeod wintering on his skirting board, practising from a top-rope, doing one-armed, three-fingered pull-ups and bantering with Mrs MacLeod, the impish Claire. All the on-crag action is played out in front of the Dumbarton youth, who contribute the odd cameo, eg 'I'm not scared of practically anything'. The mystical Shieldinch is not far away.

The difficulty of Rhapsody is best illustrated by the 21-metre fall that MacLeod is repeatedly seen making. His gear appears to be securely placed, so he licks his significant wounds for a week at a time and comes back to take the peel again, eight times in all. For the reader's benefit I researched the protection: a size three Black Diamond Micro Stopper nut. I don't know about you, but the juxtaposition of a 21m fall and the word 'micro' doesn't necessarily do it for me. Of course the viewer knows while watching that MacLeod is ultimately going to succeed, but the drama each time he comes to the crux is not lessened by this knowledge. This is mainly because the fall looks really sore. It's a bit like watching Jackass. Eventually the two years of work on Rhapsody come to fruition and MacLeod poses atop Dumbarton Rock - but we know he's already looking ahead.

And so to Hell's Lum and the so-called Great Climb. I wiped a line through my diary on the weekend of 18/19 August and got in the beer for the live BBC coverage, but the weather forecast didn't inspire. As a side issue, how much licence payers' money was burnt over this gamble with the climate? All was not lost however, as the subsequent (24 August) ascent of To Hell and Back (graded a mere E10) could not have happened without the Great Climb infrastructure. THaB is a different piece from E11 in that the latter was done at MacLeod's own pace, stalking the climb and only performing when conditions were optimal. By contrast, THaB was driven by budgetary considerations and there was no waiting for holds to dry out. Again it all boiled down to a single crux move, but this time it was going to be moist and the gear placement appeared not to be to MacLeod's taste.

The main problem was that if he peeled to his last known good protection, he would hit the ground. Simple as that. So Mrs MacLeod had to be prepared to throw herself into a gully - and shorten the fall - should her man not be held by an ephemeral piece of alloy called a skyhook. Perhaps the programme makers should have had a little explanatory aside at this juncture with an Action Man enacting the putative move. My mate Phil Stacey is normally a refusenik in climbing matters - he thinks it's mad - but he was gripped by this. He didn't get it, though: 'Why did she have to throw herself off?', he asked. My response - 'In case his gear didn't hold' - still didn't allow him to get it. Phil's incomprehension was that someone would risk their life to gear that wasn't driven into the rock with a Black and Decker and made from the sort of chain that Tony Soprano used to sink Big Pussy Bonpensiero.

Both E11 and THaB were fleshed out with domestic-bliss sequences of the MacLeods at home. When I was talking to the only SMC member I know, he expressed an impatience with what he called 'the rock cakes footage', but it's surely vital to know 'where does the power come from', to quote Eric Liddell. The Bruce Lee physique of Mr MacLeod must only be part of the battle.

Anyway, back to the climb. MacLeod's uncertainties over the crux are made manifest. Pity the poor cameraman Dave Brown: safely belayed scant metres from the hold, he has to pronounce on its condition to the anxious climber waiting below. Again, as we might guess, MacLeod surmounts the hold and finds himself on the safer pitch above; but THaB was revelatory for the sheer amount of anxiety displayed by the array of experienced belayers and cameramen.

'There's something really gone wrong up there because I've been with Dave on literally hundreds of routes and I've never heard him do anything like that before' - MacLeod had let out a primal scream. 'That just made me snap; that was pretty horrible' - Claire MacLeod.

'He's coming towards me and if he does not stay on this hold then my friend is gonna die' - Dave Brown.

'Very, very serious' - presenter Dougie Vipond.

'We had almost if you like gotten away with it and I came away with a lot of questions as to whether I'd ever want to be involved in something like that again' - associate producer Mark Diggins.

'There's no doubt about it, that is the most dangerous route I've ever done' - Dave MacLeod.

As a somewhat cheeky comparison, I was descending from the Arran saddle last summer, down the Sannox side. Ludicrously, this is marked as a public footpath: it's a loose steep gully where a slip would certainly mean injury. Progress got so slow that the midges began to accumulate. I began making moves stupidly quickly just to get it over. Similarly, there was a point on the upper part of Hell's Lum where MacLeod was clearly getting eaten alive. He had done the life-or-death move, he was on the easier pitch, but was suffering from what the former had taken out of him. And then he got midged into the bargain. Unlike me, he kept his concentration. What a man.

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