Big News from last week, and widely reported elsewhere on The Internet, was the second ascent of The Hurting (XI,11) in Coire an t-Sneachda by Andy Turner and Phil Dowthwaite on Friday January 28. Andy had attempted the route a few days earlier with Donald King, but he took a small fall at about one-third height so decided to return for a re-match. Andy’s successful ascent is fully described on his blog, which makes for gripping reading. This is the second major repeat of a Dave MacLeod route that Andy has made this season – back in November he repeated The Cathedral (X,11) on The Cobbler.
Dave MacLeod put Scottish winter climbing firmly on the world map in February 2005 with his first winter ascent of The Hurting. This 35m high crack-line slices through the prominent steep triangular wall on the right side of Fiacaill Buttress in Coire an t-Sneachda, and was first climbed in 1991 as a summer E4 6a. The winter ascent was graded a hefty XI,11, making it by far the most difficult winter pitch ever led in Scotland at the time, and in world terms, it was almost certainly one of the hardest mixed routes ever climbed using leader-placed protection.
After inspecting the route on abseil, MacLeod almost flashed the route on his first attempt, but fell off three moves from the top. Scott Muir then top roped the climb, and pointed out to Dave that he had gone the wrong way at the top. Dave returned three days later with Steven Gordon to settle the score. It was a cold windy day and the cracks were verglassed after heavy snow. Dave abseiled down to see where Scott had gone at the top, chopped the verglas out of the crucial gear placements, and then led the route.
Dave described the climbing as tenuous, blind and sustained from the first move to the last, and explained afterwards that The Hurting was “a bit like taking the cruxes of Happy Tyroleans, The Demon, The Duel and Logical Progression, making them harder and stacking them on top of each other and then adding groundfall potential.”
At the time, The Hurting seemed an almost unbelievable achievement. It was a full two grades harder than any previous route – a gap that was unprecedented in the history of Scottish winter climbing. Six years ago, Dave’s prodigious talent was compared to Robin Smith, but even Smith was not climbing two notches higher than his contemporaries, so what set Dave MacLeod so far apart? Writing in the May 2005 issue of Climb magazine, I attempted to explain:
“Perhaps the key reason that allows Dave to climb such difficult routes is that he has adopted a different approach to winter climbing. Dave is always very clear about the style of his ascents, so I’m sure he won’t mind me explaining that whilst the majority of other activists are focusing on doing ascents ground up and on sight, he is concentrating more on the technical difficulty of the climbing. By choosing routes that are short (one pitch in this case), and adopting a modern rock climbing approach to pre-inspection, many of the mountaineering dimensions of the climb can be removed and his energy and skill can be directed towards the physical act of making the moves.
With his ascents of The Cathedral (X,11) last season and now The Hurting, Dave has created another facet of Scottish Winter that previously didn’t exist. Many climbers will continue to pursue the mountaineering approach, and derive great pleasure from making their ascents ground up and on sight, whilst others will now be drawn to shorter and more difficult climbs that require some degree of pre-inspection for success. A key element to this new style is that the routes do not depend on pre-placed gear and the bold and serious element that is synonymous with Scottish winter climbing is preserved.”
Six years on, it is clear that my prediction was rather off the mark and things look rather different. The ground up nature of Scottish winter climbing has been preserved, and Dave did not pursue another facet of Scottish winter climbing, but pushed the traditional envelope. His recent top end ascents – namely Don’t Die of Ignorance and Anubis – have all been climbed in pure ground up style. Andy Turner has now taken The Hurting one step further and made the first ground up ascent. One day (and probably not too far into the future), a talented young climber will rock up to the base of The Hurting and climb it on sight, and the circle will be complete.