A head for heights and respect for the danger
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I WAS amused to hear a BBC presenter go all agog when interviewing Dave Macleod, who has just climbed the amazingly steep St John’s Head cliffs on the Isle of Hoy in Orkney.
The presenter appeared more interested in the fact that Dave can do a one-finger pull-up than the fact that he had just climbed the hardest route on the UK’s highest and most vertical sea-cliff!
Dave is one of Scotland’s truly world class athletes, and if rock climbing was an Olympic sport he would probably be a gold medalist.
But rock climbing is still a bit of a Cinderella sport, although it is probably better understood these days than it was in the past.
Who can forget the performance of Dave and his friend, Tim Emmett, who enthralled viewers last year as they tacked the starkly overhanging cliffs of Stron Ulladale on Harris?
And it was probably a similar broadcast of many years ago that brought rock climbing to the attention of the general public in Britain.
In 1966 Rusty Baillie, Tom Patey and Chris Bonington had made the first ascent of the 450-foot crumbling sandstone pillar that had been severed by the winds and erosive power of the sea from the cliffs of St John’s Head on the Orkney island of Hoy.
Their ascent of The Old Man of Hoy encouraged the late Chris Brasher, at that time head of outside broadcasts with the BBC, to film a climbing extravaganza on the sea stack, with 15 million viewers getting a gull’s eye view of the technicalities of climbing, the interaction between the climbers themselves and the sheer gut-wrenching adventure of climbing vertical rock hundreds of feet above the churning sea.
Even today, a considerable part of the electorate, and sometimes their elected representatives, are quick to criticise the irresponsible and foolhardy selfishness of climbers who, for a variety of reasons, may have required to be rescued from a crag or mountain.
But for every one of those unfortunates there are thousands of rock-climbers who go about their chosen sport in complete safety, for rock-climbing, thanks to modern equipment, is a relatively safe activity.
It’s an activity that can be pursued in a variety of environments, from city centre indoor climbing walls to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.
It was the late Mo Anthoine who coined the phrase ‘feeding the rat’ – not only describing the overwhelming desire to climb, but something deeper and more fundamental than that.
Anthoine’s addiction, like that of so many climbers, is an obsession with risk and adventure, and with the wonderful sensation of wellbeing that follows a climb, as the endorphins surge through the system in a natural high.
But that’s not to say rock-climbing is all roses. Sometimes, just sometimes, we remember that the rose grows from a prickly stem.
Climbing is often wet, cold and uncomfortable, and can involve hanging around, literally, in damp and exposed situations for hours on end.
And sometimes it can be scary, even life-threatening. The element of risk is always there, the prospect of serious injury, or even death, could be the outcome of a simple mistake.
But, as Chris Bonington suggests, it isn’t so much a matter of doing something dangerous, as being master of that danger. In essence, that’s what climbing is all about. It’s about eliminating as much risk as possible, of reducing the odds between you, the climber, and the rock you are attempting to climb, to an acceptable level.
The BBC presenter in question sounded surprised when Dave Macleod suggested he felt quite at home on such steep rock as St John’s Head, but I’ve no doubt Dave had a few alarming moments.
His direct finish to The Long Hope Route on Hoy certainly confirms him as Scotland’s finest rock climber and one of the sport’s most erudite and enthusiastic ambassadors.