Rhapsody - E11 7a

Article by Dave MacLeod
Monday 17th April 2006


Dave MacLeod talks exclusively to
planetFear about his breathtaking
new route at Dumbarton Rock.

Prepare to enter the mind of
the E11 leader...


I have always been thankful that I got involved in a sport where you are free to pursue the activity in whatever way you like. Before I got into climbing I really hated sport, school and just about any discipline which is preoccupied with rules and impositions of one sort or another. It is not the rules themselves which grate; it is just that they tend to drown out the stuff that is actually important; effort, inspiration, creativity, all the reasons why we put our energies into projects in the first place. Everyone is free to live out their personal motivations in their own way, through one common activity.

Wow! Photo courtesy of Steven Gordon (steven.gordon@onetel.net)

Dave MacLeod on Rhapsody, E11 7a
(photos courtesy of Paul Diffley at Hotaches.com)

In completing my new route at Dumbarton Rock I took my own personal interpretation of what climbing can be to its extreme conclusion, with a climb essentially 13 years in the making. When I started out in 1993 I looked at the hardest rock climbs in Scotland and decided I wanted to climb them. In 2000 I reached this milestone with an ascent of Requiem. After that I wondered if I could extend my goals to bring a new level of climbing in Scotland, routes I predicted I could do, but wondered if I could commit to actually making them happen. In 2001 and 2002 I reached the level I thought was possible for me with a series of E9 new routes. I had one more idea behind this, to see if it was possible to climb routes that I initially predicted would be impossible for me. The ‘Requiem direct’ project was the line which came to hand first, so I started to work on it from 2002.

Dave with Rhapsody emerging from the shadows (photo: John Watson)

But for me climbing is not primarily about achieving goals, or even just about enjoying good performance, risk and the mountains. In fact, all these things are secondary to me.

The primary thing that makes me want to climb all the time and do hard routes is to exercise my imagination.

For a good number of climbers, going climbing is about picking a route you think is a possibility for you and trying to onsight it. All the effort, mental and physical, is concentrated into the very short time climbing and then it’s over. The experience is all about what is happening in reality, right now. This is very fulfilling in certain aspects of enjoyment, however, there is little for the imagination to work on. The type of climbing I appreciate the most is when you choose a much harder route, where you have no chance to climb it or even do the moves, even after several attempts. But you feel the holds and the positions, and now the imagination can start to work and the creativity begins. I have spent so much time climbing at Dumbarton Rock as this rock type especially lends itself to enjoying this process. There are lots of shapes and edges to work with, but these are often unfriendly, smooth and not obviously holds. It is definitely possible, just a little more difficult, to experience the same level of creativity with some more basic types of rock like limestone. There is a clear objective; a sequence which will work for your body to climb the line, but there is much mental work (or play?) to be done to reach this end.

Great conditions on the day
of the first ascent!

When I learned this creative, some might even say artistic, process to a higher level and tried some really impossible looking climbs, a whole new level of experience opened up to me. I just didn’t realise there was so much to enjoy and learn in what had initially seemed a fairly simple process for several years. I even started to listen to and read what Johnny Dawes had said about his own climbs and some things made sense! What am I talking about? Well, the basic components of working out moves became only the bare bones of the process, but the finer points of move sequences and mental sequences became much more important. The real change happened when I no longer needed to be on the route to do the working out. I could hold the ‘information’ in my head and work out how to improve the movements any time I felt up to the concentration required. All this climbing was going on in my head when I couldn’t even get to a crag, and when I did go back on the route I had the pleasure of making progress with impossible moves without even having touched the holds! Parallel to this, I became much more aware of all sorts of other psychological themes going on which determine progress or regress; physical and psychological momentum (both in the immediate and long term), the influence of others and my overall importance I put on achieving the route.

The crucial gear
(photo courtesy of Steven Gordon - steven.gordon@onetel.net)

Some of the snapped RPs from failed attempts on Rhapsody.
We’re talking 60-70 foot falls onto 2mm wire!

The Rhapsody project, is the ultimate expression of all these themes for me, it took a lot out of me, all I could possibly give for more than a year, but also gave a lot back. I was fascinated by the whole process, especially the effect of setbacks, when you already stretched as far as you can go. On previous routes, like taking 11 falls on Achemine or ripping the only gear placement on Holdfast, I could just absorb these setbacks and carry on with ‘the plan’. On this route, Rhapsody, setbacks like brushing the belay ledge from 70 feet, ripping off the crux undercut (destroying my 50 days’ work on the sequence) or wrapping the rope around my leg in a fall and injuring myself badly were really hard to bounce back from even after many years’ experience.

But immersement in such an intense experience is not the only concern when climbing, staying alive and healthy is another. In the ‘real world’ of getting to the top, or falling and risking bad things happening, I really had to think hard and question whether the experience was worth it. Maybe it was way too late for that while shaking out halfway up the wall, with the crux right in front of me, but I was still asking questions. I tried to turn it all into a positive by telling myself that if I really didn’t want to be there, I had the ultimate opportunity to get out of the game right here and now, by climbing to the top. I still felt sick with doubt, but I knew it made sense.

The overhanging main face of Dumbarton Rock

I shook, grunted and wobbled my way through the crux moves. It always surprises me how you imagine the climb of your life will occur in a dream-like state of perfection – the reality is it’s still just a cold brutal fight. As I had hoped on many a long night of training over the winter, the instant of pulling over the top melted away all the effort, worry and doubt and left an indescribable buzz. As the one of the locals watching below said, ‘no drug can get you that high!’

I think all climbers should try to do a new route that is hard for them sometime. Climbing new routes is a very different experience from repeating others’ routes. It forces you to be open with yourself about your motivations and abilities and also opens you to the opinions of others. This doesn’t always come easily! If you can’t find an inspiring piece of unclimbed rock at the right grade, take a trip to Scotland, we have plenty.


Route Description:

Rhapsody E11 7a **
Dave MacLeod 9th April 2006

An exceptionally arduous experience in every way. This climb takes the true line of the Requiem crack, following it to the top of the wall. Start up Persistence of Vision to gain the ledge. Climb the main Requiem crack to where it fades and Requiem goes right. Step left (good shake out). Launch directly up the wall, climbing a thin flange to gain better edges in a thin horizontal (avoiding escape left). Traverse desperately right along the horizontal to regain the crack, get established in this (crux) and continue up the crack without respite to the top. F8c/8c+ climbing with the prospect of falling the length of the pitch from the final moves. FA headpointed placing gear on lead.

Notes on the grade:
Obviously this is a remarkable grade. It arises mainly from the physical and technical difficulty of the climb. It’s the hardest link I’ve ever done, so harder than the F8cs and Font 8bs. 8c+? maybe, I haven’t done one so I don’t know. So we’ll say 8c. But it’s also very technical climbing, a very devious sequence. The other aspect is the danger; a 60/70 foot fall from the top moves, sometimes glancing off the belay ledge. The swing in is extremely violent, sprained ankles, badly cut and bruised feet, legs and back and a crushed calf muscle were experienced. If you flipped and hit head first? I think the new grade might be justified as this route will only go if you are a high standard sport climber as well as bold. That sets it apart from previous routes. It’s definitely 2 E grades harder than my E9s and 3 E’s harder than Breathless. Grading hard routes is really just speculating about something where you have very little to go on. If not E11 then E10, repeaters will find out…


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