BD athlete Dave MacLeod makes first free ascent of 500-meter Long Hope Route on St John's Head, Scotland
Black Diamond athlete Dave MacLeod recently made the first free ascent of the 500-meter Long Hope Route on the Orkney Islands' St. John's Head, a massive sea cliff in northern Scotland. Battling weather, vomiting fulmars and runout terrain, MacLeod made numerous trips to the windy, rain-hammered coast before finally succeeding to free the line, all trad with no fixed gear. Congratulations to MacLeod on another amazing climb at the highest of E grades. Below is the report MacLeod posted on his blog, along with photos taken by Matt Pycroft.
The Long Hope Route was first climbed as an aid route by Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill in 1970. After climbing it yesterday I have a doubly renewed respect for the boldness of climbers of that period. To venture up that cliff without cams, taking the steepest line possible was a hardcore effort. They spent 7 days climbing the route, sleeping in hammocks or in the big sandstone breaks with the fulmars. Dawes and Dunne both had a look at freeing it, albeit briefly. It was the adventure trad master John Arran, and sea cliff guru Dave Turnbull who really went for the free ascent. Over two days, they freed the lower pitches with a bivy in between and then bailed off left. A few months later, they returned, abseiling from the summit of the stack to their highpoint and climbing four more pitches to the top across another two days.
But they considered Drummond’s A2 crack pitch up the centre of the overhanging headwall too hard for free climbing, which it really was given that they were climbing ground up and the pitch was going to be in the region of E10 in itself. So they climbed the big grooves to the left, traversing back in after a couple of pitches to climb the last 8 metres of the crack, which was the crux of their version which went at E7 6c after lots of tries.
Oliver Hill emailed me in 2006 pointing out that the crack pitch of the original line was still there to be freed and would make a super hard trad route that seemed like a logical progression from the single pitch E10s and E11s of the past few years. Most of the world’s hardest multipitch routes with climbing of 8b or above are essentially sport routes, protected by bolts, insitu pegs or trad with bolts wherever there isn’t good gear available. Oliver thought I should bolt the Longhope route, to make it realistic. But I wasn’t really worried about having a drawn out epic trying to climb it. My idea was to have a super hard long route that was bold, loose, birdy, hard to climb in a day - as pure as possible. That’s absolutely what Scottish sea cliff climbing is about.
So a drawn out epic was exactly what I had. Lots of driving back and forth to Orkney, many days of cleaning the headwall pitch and trying the moves and a two attempts from the ground, climbing the lower pitches on sight with Michael Tweedley and Donald King.
This time, I took the full weight of pressure and organised a proper trip with Andy Turner to climb it with, and a team to help us capture it on film and photos (Claire MacLeod, Paul Diffley, Lukasz Warzecha, Matt Pycroft, Guy Heaton and Mariam Pousa). It’s quite scary bringing a team of people to watch you fall off a large rock for two weeks. I’m super appreciative of the help that was offered from Mountain Equipment, Black Diamond, and Stoats with the trip.
[The crawl traverse on pitch 2.]
Climbing it in a day was the big deal for the difficulty of the route. I knew the crux pitch,65 metres long and around 8b+ish with some long runouts would feel about 90% of my limit. But could I climb the 400 odd metres below without losing 10% of the strength in my arms. When I got to the guillotine belay before the big pitch, the answer felt like most definitely NO! I was knackered. If the pitch was 8a+ or even 8b on trad, it would be fine. But I knew it was hard enough that it just wouldn’t work if I didn’t have the energy to pull down on those wee edges.
As I brought Andy up I could feel a sinking sense of failure on the route and the huge waste of opportunity. I started to wonder if the odd missed training session here and there would have made the difference? Should I not have eaten this or that? The chance to be on this route, in good conditions, with a good partner is so special. As I get older I sense more and more strongly all the time that life moves on, opportunities pass - for good. Just to have opportunity is such a gift. Wasting half chances is just not on.
[On the crux pitch with the cameras rolling.]
With this in mind and swallowing a lot of nerves, I launched up the pitch for an all out fight with no inhibitions or hesitation. On the final crux before joining John Arran’s E7 section, All I could see was the outline of the jug above me. I grabbed it and screamed with utter relief. All that was needed was to use a bit of experience to hold it together and scrap my way through The E7 part, the final roofs and the final fulmars to the summit.
Today I’m eating cake in Stromness. Time to take Freida for a walk along the high street.
[Looking down the Vile Crack pitch.]
[Andy approaching the fulmar puke ledge ledge after pitch 1. Note the vomit splat bottom left, which went via my trousers.]