Dave MacLeod and Andy Kirkpatrick Talk First Ascents, Mental Strength and the Risks of Extreme Climbing
Inside the minds of the men risking their lives for first ascents...
Your right foot wedged neatly into a small pocket on the wall face, your right hand clinging carefully on to a crimp; a dent in the rock only just about deep enough to accommodate fingertips.
A quick glance down confirms this is no place for vertigo, or most other inherent human emotions for that matter. You might be 50ft above the earth below, you might be 500. At this point, it doesn’t make much of a difference.
There’s something special about going head to head with a rock face; about taking on an immobile, ever-present opponent that has been casting a shadow of inspiration and intimidation since long before you were around to see it.
There’s something even more special about finding a new challenge on the rock, and being the first to pick up the gauntlet and actually give it a go.
Writing the History Books
Dave MacLeod worked his way past the crux of ‘Rhapsody’, the first ascent he had been battling for years on Dumbarton Rock in Scotland, knowing that a final stretch and a formidable grip would soon be all that stood between him and completing the most challenging route in the world at the time – the first to be graded E11 (with 'E' standing for 'Extremely Severe', the toughest grading category in rock climbing).
He had been in that position before, but had slipped and fallen 20 metres below before his belayer could catch him, crashing hard against the rock face in the process. It takes more than determination to get back up and keep trying again. It takes obsession.
After two years of training, trials and frustrating errors, MacLeod would complete the route in April 2006. The applause and cheers of the crew around the Scot were drowned out by the roar of the man himself as he reached the top of the rock.
Completing a line established as one of the most difficult on the planet is one thing. Doing what Dave had done; rejecting the recognised and taking on something completely unprecedented, is another entirely.
“First ascents are different," MacLeod tells Mpora, speaking at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. “It’s a different mindset for sure. You need the inspiration.
“You can’t look in a guide book or see what someone else has done. You have to make it up as you go along and there's something a bit special and a bit creative about that which I really like.
"By default it’s uncertain because no one has done it before. You just don’t know what you’re going to get."
“By definition it’s going to be an adventure. You can’t say ‘well this is how it’s been for everyone else.’ The adventure has that uncertainty. By default it’s uncertain because no one has done it before. You just don’t know what you’re going to get."
He first got into climbing when he was in his mid-teens, getting inspired by the more experienced climbers at Dumbarton Rock, less than an hour away from his Glasgow home.
Unbeknown to him at the time, the route Dave was watching others battle in Dumbarton was ‘Requiem’, the E8-graded climb which for many years was the toughest in Scotland. It would be a long time before he was able to defeat it himself, and even longer before he would acquire the skill to build ‘Rhapsody’ on top of it.
MacLeod insists that mind over body is the mentality needed when approaching a climb of such vigour, though his approach to new challenges will come as a surprise to many, opting to expect failure in certain circumstances rather than gearing up for success.
The climber continued: “You need to work on the route itself when you’re preparing but I also train by going to other routes, as much to build up confidence. [The mental side] is something that in general I’ve been good at.
“Sometimes when I’m going into a climb though, I’ll be thinking ‘obviously I’m going to fail at it. It’s hard’. If I don’t think I have much chance, I don’t worry myself. It hits you harder [if you’re sure you’re going to be able to do it].
“When you’re in your early 20s or teens you can think you’re invincible but I wasn’t really like that. It wasn’t until I got to my late 20s and 30s that I got really good at climbing, when other people maybe start getting less bold and are taking less risks."
"Since those accidents my appetite for pushing myself into risky zones hasn’t really diminished..."
Three surgeries on and it’s safe to say that while Dave may be realistic when assessing his chances, that doesn't stop him from trying to go above and beyond.
“It can be hard to find the right balance," he admits. “I think when you’ve got a lot of experience on your side though you get a fine sense of where the line is, and you know when you shouldn’t cross it – or when it’s worth it, and when you should.
“I’ve had a lot of accidents. Not really horrendous ones but quite bad, and with long recoveries.
“I’ve found that since those accidents my appetite for being bold and pushing myself into risky zones hasn’t really diminished. I have to put in more work to keep my confidence, but my desire to do it hasn’t diminished."
Words to expect, perhaps, from a man who has been knocked down many times in his bid to achieve the anomalous, and then gotten back up again to finish off the job.
Doing it Yourself
Andy Kirkpatrick has been climbing since he was five years old. He shares the drive and the fixation of MacLeod for the mountains; the pursuit of the unknown and unmatched challenged.
The Stafford-born adventurer has made numerous first ascents, notably in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica in 2014, where amongst other outings he climbed Ulvertanna, on “one of the world’s hardest mountains" – before BASE jumping from the top.
Kirkpatrick has been on numerous winter expeditions, across Greenland, into Patagonia, taken on a 15 day winter ascent of the West face of the Dru, one of the hardest climbs in Europe, and constantly drawn comparisons to the likes of Ranulph Fiennes and the British greats as a consequence.
He’s scaled the infamous El Capitan in Yosemite Valley over 25 times, including a 12-day solo ascent of the Reticent Wall – which at the time was the hardest route ever soloed by a British climber.
Solo climbing is chillingly dangerous; doing it yourself, completely unaided, without the protection of somebody belaying at the bottom. Some climbs can only be achieved solo; some climbs should never be attempted solo. Going alone is a perilous proposition.
“The Reticent Wall was perhaps the longest, hardest big wall on the planet at the time I climbed it [in 2001]," tells Kirkpatrick. “It was soloed in 15 days by Thomas Humar a few years before. Humar was perhaps the gnarliest soloist around.
“It had a very serious reputation for pitches that were unjustifiably dangerous, with long sections of super tenuous climbing including loose rock and ledges. Twenty years later it still has a rep.
“Soloing is not healthy though. Having all that weight on your shoulders can be a blessing and a curse. For me climbing is a very personal thing, but chasing after records is not healthy."
It’s interesting to hear someone who has completed so many acclaimed solo climbs speak so tellingly, but it’s the widespread view in the climbing community, for good reason.
For his part, Dave MacLeod notes that he’s “only done a handful of solo climbs because they’re so dangerous," so why does Kirkpatrick engage on the gruelling solo climbs that he does?
“I think that climbing is all about getting in touch and being true to your animal self – moving, playing, surviving," he says.
“When you're soloing you don’t have to deal with other people’s drama and you can just deal with the climbing, which can be easier too, but climbing with people is much more fun."
Andy is well documented for talking about how his motivations come from the will to push beyond expectation and be the best you can be, rather than chasing measurable firsts or records.
There are few things more personal than being alone on the wall, and Kirkpatrick knows this better than most.
The climber continued: “when you solo a big climb everything belongs to you, the high and the lows, the failure and the success."
“Often starting just feels like a relief! It’s all psychological, especially just starting. There’s just so much doubt and worry and juggling before you begin. It’s far from fun.
"I hung on for a week in pretty terrible weather and got buried alive twice in my tent"
“Trying to solo the Eiger last year was pretty bad. I hung on for a week in pretty terrible weather and got buried alive twice in my tent. I told myself I couldn't go down unless I took one more step up, so I hung on a little too long!
“When you’re defeated by the weather or conditions, it’s actually not so hard though. It’s much easier than when you’re defeated by bad judgement or a simple lack of will."
For both MacLeod and Kirkpatrick of course, it’s unlikely that a lack of will or bad judgement will ever pose too much of a problem.
It takes a particular kind of drive to put down the guide books and set your own course of action, and a very particular skill set to be able to follow through on those plans.
These are men not content with sitting back and doing what many have done before, no matter how challenging; who find themselves fixated on individual goals that are as much personal as they are physical, and struggle to rest until that challenge is complete.
These are men who thrive on self-sufficient battles and refuse to rule out what has been ruled out by others; who do it themselves, and lay the way for the rest to follow.