Echo Wall: Dave MacLeod's first ascent of the UK's boldest rock climb
“… psychologically I feel that I want to lead this route now. A fall from the end of the crux is possible for sure. But only if I make an incorrect judgement [when] leaving the shakeout before it. This impending moment is weighing on my mind. Ticking... like a clock. I wouldn’t say I dread it. In fact I look forward to it more than anything. It’s what I am looking for—so I get it...” —Dave MacLeod, July 26, 2008
Two days later, on June 28, Black Diamond athlete Dave MacLeod got what he was looking for when he made the first ascent of Echo Wall, a route he feels is harder than his acclaimed Rhapsody (E11). He posted the following report on his website after his monumental first ascent of one of rock climbing’s hardest headpoints.
On Monday night (July 28th) I led my Echo Wall project. It was for me a perfect climbing day. Folk always ask me how doing a degree in sport science helped me do hard routes, expecting to hear about little details about physical training practice. But the biggest thing I learned was about how disparate the ingredients of a good performance are and how big an effect it has on the rare occasions when they come together at just the right moment. Monday was one of those days for me.
Throughout the spring and early summer, I pounded myself with training to reach a higher base level in my all-round strength and fitness. Once I started tapering in early July, I felt that strength come through. But my body was heavy from putting on a little too much muscle. 3 pounds taken off with a little diet in America (despite the lovely pancakes!) slotted in another piece of the puzzle.
The break from the route in the US brought back the freshness and the fire to be back at the wall spending more time in those beautiful surroundings and reminded me just how badly I wanted to climb this piece of rock. But it also took the edge off my fitness.
Two hard days on the wall immediately off the plane with two gentle rest days afterwards put me in really good physical shape. Then, Kev Shields, a man who ‘knows the score’ when it comes to bold routes and a good person to be around on a scary lead day, was up for a look at some other unclimbed rock beside my project. A day’s worth of clear air broke the cycle of humidity of late, so we walked in on a relaxed morning.
The air was so crisp but it was hot. Kev checked out a big groove, I belayed, time passed. I was waiting for the Katabatic winds of the late evening rolling off the plateau and snowfields just above the route. At 8pm the chill wind gently got going. I waited and waited until the temperature and rock friction was perfect, and at 9pm exactly, all this preparation over months crystallized and I led the route in a dream state of confident execution.
It felt easy, as every hard route I’ve ever done has—the great paradox! As I hoped, my feeling at the start was not “how can I dare to lead this route?”, but “how can I dare not to lead this route?” What an opportunity! All these ingredients coming together to put such a fine climbing experience on a plate in front of me.
There was the question of the last boulder problem. I had fallen there sometimes on the toprope. To fall here on the lead is to leave yourself with only an RP in a finger width flake of suspect rock, with a skyhook stacked on top of the RP as the last barrier between you and a 20 metre fall to the floor.
The only chance of falling would be to continue above the roof knowing you were too tired due to poor conditions or errors. A clear judgement to jump off before it got too late and you got out of range of the gear. I would have done this if I needed to.
I felt that the biggest risk of all would be to stand at the foot of such a great and memorable route (experience) and back out due to fear of injury. My fear of lost opportunity is greater, attraction to the positive experience on offer greater still.
The feeling of climbing the moves on perfect rock, in perfect conditions in the company of Claire and Kev will stay with me all my life for sure. It’s hard for me to describe the feeling of freedom from experiencing that something that had seemed so unreachable could feel so effortless, all that was required was to draw the right ingredients together, piece by piece over time.
My strongest image from the day though was of Claire as Kev and I arrived at the top of the wall, high on Tower Ridge, looking down on Claire—a tiny dot climbing the endless nightmare of scree (Observatory Gully) yet again. Although my name only is on the route description, it was a team ascent.
There are so many things to talk about—Ben Nevis climbing, what to do now, more about the climbing on Echo Wall… But that will do for now. Thanks for all your messages you sent me about this over the past months I really appreciate it!
— Dave MacLeod