Interview: Dave MacLeod on the first winter ascent of Anubis

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Dave MacLeod making the first winter ascent of Anubis, on The Comb on Ben Nevis. Dave made the first ascent in summer, and graded the route E8 - he has not given a grade, as yet, for an ascent in winter.

At the end of February this year Dave MacLeod made the first winter ascent of Anubis, on The Comb on Ben Nevis. Dave had made the first ascent of the route in the summer of 2005 as an E8. His successful winter ascent looks to have significantly raised the bar at the top-end of Scottish winter climbing − and occasioned much debate elsewhere on the web as to the validity of the ascent.

Many thanks to Dave (just back from putting his hard-won skills to the test on bouldering traverses in Bermuda!) for taking the time to do this interview, and many thanks also to Blair Fyffe and Tony Stone for taking the time to ask the questions! So, here goes:

How do you delineate between the grades X, XI and, perhaps, XII? Given you are pretty much the only person to climb routes of such grades. (Although Alan Mullin (depends on the unrepeated Frozen Sorrow) and Andy Turner (depends on what he reckons to The Tempest) may also have climbed one apiece.)

I can’t really delineate them − there are no comparisons from other climbers' routes. So all I have to go on is one feeling harder than another, or judging my climbing standard. So grades of mine for these hard winter lines of recent years might well be wrong. I’m sure that at least some of them are. But although the exact magnitude in grades suggested might be wrong, I think the general hierarchy of their difficulty will probably be right. Until there are more people establishing routes with the same numbers and we repeat each other’s routes, it’s the best that can be done. I was really hoping that someone would get The Hurting repeated this season and shed a bit more light on things. But repeats will happen eventually. I really don’t now what to grade Anubis for the winter ascent. All I know is it’s a lot harder than something like The Tempest. The easy bits of Anubis are harder than the hard bits of The Tempest.

Clearly, after falling off on a mountain crag it’s not feasible to abseil down to collect your gear for each subsequent attempt (in fact you’d have to persuade someone else to avoid pre-inspection, etc). Does leaving progressively more gear in a route reduce the overall difficult of the climb when it’s finally executed?

Yes − more gear on a steep, hard route will make it easier. I’ve only ever fallen off a handful of winter routes, but when I have I generally leave the top piece (or two for a back-up) and take the pieces below out while lowering down. So there is just the highpoint gear in place. On my first try on Anubis I lowered off the gear in the cave before the crux, which is placed from a no-hands rest. On my second try I lowered off a jammed nut in the roof (left after getting some pictures on the route in the summer of 2005). So there was only really one piece in the route that made any difference − and not very much, at that. Apart from a handful of routes (maybe about five, I think?) I’ve ever done in winter I’ve climbed them on-sight and first try.

How much winter-specific training do you do? How big is the cross-over between training for sport climbing and winter climbing?

It depends on what you call specific I guess. Summer trad especially on mountain crags is about as specific regular training as you can get for Scottish winter trad, and I do plenty of that. You can see it works by looking at the strong correlation between regular mountain E6+ onsighters climbing VIII regularly or harder in winter. At various times in the past I’ve done the odd session here and there of dry-tooling on climbing walls. But this autumn, with Anubis in mind I trained 1-3 times a week dry tooling, which definitely made a good difference. I had to scale it back after Christmas because it was a bit too much for my elbows to manage on top of my rock training, but by then I had some gains I could maintain, so it paid off. So there is good cross-over between mountain trad climbing and Scottish winter, and less cross over (but still important for hard routes) from sport climbing and dry tooling. Judging by my own case study, a lot of mountain trad, with a fair dose of sport climbing and tooling thrown in during autumn is the right recipe for hard mixed success when the winter comes.

Given the fickleness of conditions on Scottish winter routes (especially hard ones), do you get frustrated? If so, how do you deal with that?

Yes I certainly get frustrated − and I don’t deal with it very well. It’s not so bad for me because I enjoy bouldering and training indoors too, so they are fun to do when there are no winter conditions. Lack of partners who are keen for the same routes is always a difficult hurdle and I find it one of the most frustrating parts of climbing. But you just have to remind yourself that the Scottish winter game is about being rewarded for patience.

I often think that Scottish winter climbing is perhaps not the best use of my time in my continual struggle (err, kind of) to become a better rock climber, what are your thoughts on this as a high-standard rock climber?

You are probably right. The skills and fitness from winter climbing don’t translate well back to rock climbing on the whole. Occasionally, the composure you learn on long sustained mixed leads can be extremely useful. I remember doing a route called The Walk of Life (E9) in England and thinking to myself near the end of the pitch “what’s keeping me on here, I learned on Ben Nevis in winter!”. But apart from that, winter climbing in excess makes you weak-fingered, heavy, unfit (for steep rock) and too knackered to train. It can be an excellent tonic to revitalise the motivation for climbing though, when it goes well − and nothing happens without motivation!

To paraphrase Ben Moon’s famous comment, would you now say that technical 10 is easy and technical 9 is approaching a rest?

I think the quote was “isn’t that hard anymore”, as opposed to “easy”. If so, the short answer is probably yes. But I suspect there is a lot more variation in what people are giving tech 9 and 10, that you get in rock climbing. And it’s weird, but I find that anything on mixed harder than about VII,7 feels pretty damn hard. In winter I’ve found that my hardest four or five grades all feel pretty arduous to climb, with the difference between them largely coming down to how much effort and battle you are prepared to bring to the lead.

There was a bit of discussion on such forums as UKClimbing about whether the route was in suitable winter condition. Were these a useful way to discuss winter climbing ethics, or a bunch of people with boring desk jobs who were jealous of your ascent?

Although these forums are always rife with very uninformed and highly biased or divisive opinions or comments, they are still useful enough. I shake my head when people think about the presence of hoar/rime frosting as making a difference to routes getting scratched. It’s easy for people to sit back and say Anubis doesn’t look like a winter route when their idea of a winter route is a grade V gully that fills with ice or even a VII that's off-vertical and gets snowed up readily. Hey − Anubis has an E8 roof at the start and overhangs about 10 metres in the first 35. It’s different terrain from normal Scottish winter routes. Sure it occasionally gets a cosmetic dusting of rime − and I was lucky enough to find it in that condition on my first two tries after big northerly storms. Apart from a few metres on the roof it was snowed up on anything that would ever have held snow and the cracks were encased in ice. The ice made it harder than if it had been dry but rimed − in that case I could have placed cams in the crack. As it happened, I ended up getting my only ice-hook in the thin ice and then just doing a long run-out up the final crack for the last 10 metres of the pitch (harder than The Tempest), but with no protection. I was totally happy with the condition of the route. There’s not much more I can say, really.

How many attempts did the route take you, and at what point did you think “actually, I can do this”?

It took four attempts over three days. One attempt I slipped off on the initial wall about 9 metres up, started again immediately − and did it. I didn’t think I could actually do it until I was about 4 metres from the belay on the successful attempt. It just felt desperate the whole time, to me. You might ask “well if that’s true, why would you even try in the first place?”, but that is really what I’m looking for in climbing. I’ve done plenty of routes, I’m looking to try ones that look possible for someone − but probably not me!

What M grade do you think the route is worth?

It’s been 5 years since I’ve done any M-graded routes, but it feels a couple of grades harder than The Tempest − which gets M9, and a couple of grades harder than Logical Progression − which originally got M10, but that was before the M grades tightened up a bit. It’s definitely harder than Too Fast Too Furious − which gets M12, but that's easier because it’s bolted, so you can really relax... I don’t know, in the region of M11, give or take a grade.

Has there been much interest in the route from overseas. Do you think that in the next few years some euro-wad alpinist or dry-tooling jedi will come over specifically to try it, in the same the way that Sonnie Trotter did with Rhapsody?

Not really − I don’t think there is that much interest, in general, in hard traditionally-protected mixed climbing without pre-practice. Then again, there are always a handful of people out there... Sonnie doing Rhapsody is a good example − very few people in the world climb E9 or harder on trad, but it only takes one psyched individual from the few to come and get these routes repeated. It’s a good effort when people do. I should do it more myself. I’m not really sure if there are other routes like Anubis out there? I’d be quite keen to find some of my own in other countries.

What is your next Ben Nevis project?

I need to do a bit of sniffing about at the projects, but I’m keen on the big overhanging wall on the north face of Castle Ridge. You see it in profile from both the CIC and from near the Distillery in Fort William. About 50 metres height of it stays more or less permanently dry, so it must be as steep as it looks. I’ve not been up to look at the lines, though. There are several other brilliant routes I want to do up there when I get the chance. There are a lot of projects elsewhere, though, too... I’ll see where the mood takes me in the summer.

Your climbing − as a sustained interaction with a particular place/environment − seems far-removed from the globetrotting exploits of contemporary boulderers, for example. For many people climbing is, in a sense, synonymous with travel; climbers often talk about travel as one of the factors motivating them to “go” climbing. Do you have any intention to apply your winter-climbing skills in any other countries, or is this simply not a fuctional aspect of your engagment with climbing and your climbing as your means of engagement with the world around you?

Well there are two aspects to it really − firstly, I love the variety, landscapes and style of Scottish climbing. I can’t get enough of it to be honest, so at most times of year it’s very hard to drag yourself away. But also for the last few years a big priority for me was having a house as a base to live in Scotland. So I just didn’t have the money to travel a lot without sacrificing the time needed to stay fit at several climbing disciplines. If it changes in the future I’ll be travelling a bit more. But there is way too much to do in all the styles and rock types near home to be a permanent globetrotter. 

I heard that on your first attempt on Anubis it took you a while to get off the ground. Did you find it demoralising struggling on the summer 5c bit when you had 6b or 6c climbing higher up? Were you tempted to sack it then, or were you always confident that it was worth persevering with?

It certainly made a dent in how I rated my chances of getting anywhere at the time. But It wasn’t unexpected. In summer that bit is steep 5c on big slopey pinches, so I knew it could be impossible. Conversely, the crux - although on a big roof - does have a very thin crack, which is useless for fingers, but enough for a few hooks with tools. It was that section that sparked the idea to try it in winter during my original ascent in 2005. I’m not sure I’ve ever formally “sacked” a project.

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