Dave MacLeod: from city kid to mountain goat

‘I hated sport. When I started climbing I was physically not a confident climber’

It was geographical happenstance that brought Dave MacLeod to where he is.

He grew up in Glasgow. It was only when he got a bicycle as a teenager and began exploring the outer suburbs of his home city that he made a startling discovery.

The Highlands weren't way up in the North of Scotland. They were right at his doorstep. And so began a lifelong love of mountains and vertical adventures. It began with hill-walking and then winter walking. "To go out into the Scottish mountains and in top proper snow was just brilliant for me."

He started reading about climbing and about rock climbing. Then, one day, MacLeod arrived at Dumbarton Rock, an area synonymous with some of the hardest rock-climbing in Britain.


“I hated sport. When I started climbing I was physically not a confident climber. I felt weak and could not imagine doing harder climbs.

“The thing about climbing is you can try again and again. I learned very early on if you had a systematic approach from figuring out sequences from the ground and decode the sequence you could use your brain.

“Doing that led to strength and confidence. It’s a forgiving sport to get into, but once you do you build up those different range of skills.”

The non-sporty kid has developed into one of the greatest climbers of his generation. In 2006, at the age of 28, he established his reputation by completing a route called Rhapsody at the same Dumbarton Rock crag. He graded its difficulty at E11 or Extreme 11. That was almost the equivalent of Usain Bolt running his 9.58 in Berlin almost a decade ago. For a non-climber, it's like seeing somebody climb up a vertical or overhanding blank wall.

MacLeod is a multidisciplinary climber who has done all forms of climbing at the highest level. That includes bouldering (a close-to-ground climb with technical difficulties); sports-climbing (where the rope can be attached to permanent bolts drilled in the rock); traditional climbing (where the climber places nuts or spring-loaded camming devices into cracks in the rock to break the fall); or free solo climbing (where the climber uses no ropes at all).

He has also done some of the world’s hardest snow and ice full mountaineering, including some of the most notorious North Faces in the Alps (the Eiger) and in Pagagonia (Fitzroy).

Now nearing 40, unlike so many other sports, there is a chance that he has not even reached his peak.

“Bouldering is one of my favourite types of climbing but I was not as good at it because I was not naturally very strong, and I wonder had I enough athleticism.”

He made as a project an impossibly difficult bouldering route called Practice of the Wild in Magic Wood in Switzerland (graded at 8c - yes, that's also a nose-bleed grade).

MacLeod methodically prepared for the climb, going over to try it a few times. He changed his diet and his training and his lifestyle.

“I never subscribed to the idea that you cannot keep improving as you grow older. The battle was not won on the climb. It was reading science papers and figuring how I was going to get into better physical shape. I was in better physical shape at 38 than I was at 28 or I was at 18.”

And he succeeded (watch the video of his climb here).

It led him to make a wider observation about western athletes and other sports. “You can see why they become burned out so young, become weaker and stressed.

“But you can also see that you do not have to do it that way. A lot of climbers have achieved their best levels at older ages

because climbing is not like that. You can go away from it and come back.”

That said, there is one obvious difference between climbing and most other sports, bar perhaps motor racing. It is an extreme sport where there is always the danger of serious injury or even of death. MacLeod has had his own share of injuries, both from training (he is just recovering from a acromioclavicular joint injury in his shoulder) or from falls ( he has broken his ankle three times from falls).

There are physical components that are necessary. For a climber it includes strength (especially finger strength); a low body-weight to strength ration; flexibility; and good core strength.

The latter has become more a feature in recent years. “There are gymnastic drills and exercise to improve core strength. You can get a lot more weight on your feet and apply more power to your lower body (to elevate it on a very steep wall).

That increase in athleticism and fitness has closed the standards gap between men and women. The boom in bouldering walls and climbing walls in cities has also popularised the sport and increased standards.

Like sprinting, you wonder is there a limit to what can be climbed. MacLeod believes there is but says that we are nowhere near that yet.

Unlike other sports, there is an ‘x’ dimension to a climber’s make-up and it is this: there are few other activities where the athlete can die or suffer life-threatening injuries. Preparing mentally is as important as preparing physically.

“The first thing is to be realistic that it can happen. do not kid yourself,” he says. “The worst situation which puts you in danger of falling off is when you panic. That is the number one thing you avoid.

“That comes from surprise. That means you need to put a lot of time into planning for what you do. That is how you avoid trouble

“When you are on the climb you have to be very close to be certain that you will be able to do the climb

“You need to be confident in your physical and mental ability. Physical ability is one thing. Confidence takes a long time to build up. It has taken me years and year and years and decades.

“Despite having lots of falls the interesting thing for me

is that I expected my confidence would be dented. Although I was fearful coming back, the determination to do the climbs again overcome the fear. You want to do the climb so much you have to find a way to get your confidence

“You have to have the motivation to do what you want to do.”

At a higher level, MacLeod does free solo, which is climbing on faces not using ropes. For those he says you have to operate with a big reserve.

“You keep a lot in the the tank in case something goes slightly wrong.

“The absolute rule is that no matter what happens on a solo climb you must never allow yourself panic ever.

“When I have been climbing with a rope on, I have been in situations with the rope where I have been very stressed and panicked because I’m about to fall.

“When in solo you have to stay totally ice cool. The minute you get any sense of panic it becomes dangerous.”

Having climbed throughout the world, MacLeod still retains a huge bias for Scotland because of the sheer variety of climbing and different rock types. He has climbed everywhere there, including the remote island of St Kilda, over 70km out at sea (and uninhabited for 100 years), and of course, he still regularly climbs at Dumbarton Rock, close to where he grew up in Glasgow.

Dave MacLeod will present a lecture on his climbing at the JM Synge Theatre in Trinity College Dublin on Friday, December 15th at 7.30pm. The event is being hosted by the Irish Mountaineering Club.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times