Dave MacLeod makes the first ascent of Don't Die of Ignorance on Ben Nevis, Scotland
On March 14, 2008, Dave MacLeod made the first ascent, with Joe French, of Don’t Die of Ignorance (XI, 11), making it one of the hardest mixed winter routes in the UK. MacLeod had attempted the eight-pitch line up the Comb Buttress of Ben Nevis numerous times over a three-year span before succeeding ground-up, onsight on his sixth attempt. MacLeod sent us the following email and photos after his benchmark ascent.
On Saturday afternoon I had that gut feeling that Sunday was “the day” that I would have the best possible chance to finally free climb Don’t Die of Ignorance. The weather was doing all the right things (slight thaw with a fine but cold day forecast ahead), I was rested and the challenges of the route were fresh in my mind from Friday’s battles on it with Donald.
I called everyone, but no one could climb with me. Rope solo? Maybe. On a last ditch I text’d Joe French who by chance had a free day and came bouncing round to the house overflowing with enthusiasm at the prospect of a major adventure and the chance to get some awesome footage. Little did he know what he was letting himself in for.
At 6 a.m. the next morning we began our familiar pilgrimage into the north face. By 10 a.m. I was back once again, staring at that grim undercut crack disappearing round the prow into no-man’s land. Just like Friday I desperately struggled to seat my axe in the crux “tin opener.” I screamed to Joe to expect a fall and released my left axe, cutting loose onto one arm. The axe slid and jerked a centimetre. My heart missed a beat and the jolt nearly made me fall, my hand sliding down the upside down axe to the head and rolling onto three fingers. I dynamic match and kung fu allowed one foot to swing onto the wall to the right and up to the peg I got in on Friday. The vertical wall above was climbed in an utterly “go for broke” style, axes ripping, dropping onto one hand and gasping with pump and shrieking for slack. All a bit full on.
But finally, I made it into those upper grooves! Some VII climbing led to a belay and I took in the ropes. It was Joe’s turn to have a gripper. The plan was for Joe to aid as far as he could into the crux and then Jumar one rope to the belay. At the start of the traverse he hooked a cam on the lip of the roof but cut loose violently onto it, his wrist loop tightening and leaving him completely stuffed—about to lose a hand and unable to do anything about it. On the belay, I could do nothing (too much stretch in the rope) but listen to him screaming in pain and fear. Quick thinking and one handed application of the Jumar meant he could at least free the hand and drop into space. Totally gripped up, Joe struggled for nearly two hours to right himself, sort out the rope mess and jug to the belay. Bydon't die of ignorance the time he arrived, I was in a bit of a state myself. I had to half my rack and drop two clothing layers to lose enough weight to get me through the crux pitch. I knew it would mean suffering at the belay. But after three hours I was worried that I’d gone through feeling awful and, despite shivering uncontrollably, I no longer felt cold. The worst thing was seeing Joe’s face when he looked at me! “Dave, mate, your lips are blue!” Joe rubbed my legs furiously as I sorted the ropes and got motoring. We had a lot of climbing still to do in the short time before dark.
But first I had to abseil back down the crux pitch to retrieve all the gear that Joe couldn’t get (he had to untie from the rope that had all the runners on because it went way off to one side and he was unable to swing to it). After another big amazing pitch of neve grooves, the pace got faster still and the next two pitches of V or VI mixed were led with continuous movement and one runner to back up the belay.
In the last of the dim evening light I popped out onto the broad shelf at the very apex of the pyramidal Comb Buttress. I had dreamt of topping out here—it was amazing. But I worried about Joe seconding up. Then something brilliant happened. The clouds opened above me and a bright moon lit up the whole corrie and instantly made the final two pitches a foregone conclusion. What a moment! All that was left was to whoop our way up the neve-encrusted crest of the Comb to the plateau, taking in the unbelievable beauty of the moon, stars and gently lit white cliffs. Is it possible to have a more satisfying or exhilarating top out on a climb?don't die of ignorance