Saturday, May 17, 2008

Shoveling to Glory

This year, it seems, the shovel is the essential tool of the elite free-climber. First came Beth Rodden, who had to clear many feet of snow from the top and bottom of her new route Meltdown (5.14) in Yosemite Valley before she could redpoint it. And now here's Dave MacLeod, chipping away at what he calls the Snowpatch of Truth, on top of the Echo Wall, a crag of volcanic rock high on Ben Nevis, Britain's highest peak. MacLeod has been preparing for years to attempt a very poorly protected and desperately hard prow on the wall, and this spring he felt physically and mentally ready. The weather in Scotland has been unusually good. Just one problem: The Echo Wall is more than 3,000 feet above sea level, on the flanks of the Ben's Tower Ridge, which means for most of the year it's more likely territory for ice climbing than for a rock route. And a huge patch of snow on top of the cliff was melting in the warm spring air and pouring water over MacLeod's route.

Thus the shovel. Last week MacLeod spent four days straight shoveling snow and ice, four to five hours each day. That's after hiking a couple of hours from the valley floor and then soloing up much of Tower Ridge. By this week the route was mostly dry, and he could begin to work on the moves after a year away. The problem was he'd been beating up his body so much by shoveling that he didn't have much time or energy left for training—and this route is expected to be as hard as 5.14+, with potentially lethal falls in spots. On his blog after one shoveling session, MacLeod wrote, "So now it's after midnight but I have to make up my daily volume of climbing on the fingerboard. I'm not totally sure there is another way around this. I'm glad I've been doing so many long and physical days, though—it's really reminded me how much the body can respond to deal with whatever you ask of it. I feel good. So, after another cup of tea, I'll do my hangs, get some sleep, and head back into the north face in the morning. Thank god for iPod is all I can say."

I wrote a feature profile of MacLeod for Climbing last year and spent much time probing the origins and depths of his climbing obsession. But this project may top all previous excesses. I've been covering climbing news for a long time, but I've never seen an effort quite like this, and I really hope the good weather continues and MacLeod gets the chance to finish this one off.

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