If you live in Scotland, last weekend you will have got the chance to watch an epic climbing adventure. Dave Macleod, all round climbing God, and conqueror of currently the hardest route in the UK (Echo Wall, on Ben Nevis – E??), and Tim Emmett, base jumper, climber and general madman, took on the challenge climbing one of the longest and hardest multi pitch routes in the country.
Sron Uladalle is in a remote part of the Isle of Harris, with no road access and even less previous attention from the media. But it was here that the BBC elected to send a whole pack of cameramen with countless £’s of HD equipment to follow our two hero’s as they attempted to beat the crag. Like a military manoeuvre, the filming was planned and plotted and people were positioned in key places to catch every angle of every crimp and jam. Guest pundits, in the form of Cameron McNeish, Stephen Venables, Duncan McCallum and Mark “Garth” Garthwaite were all drafted in and an enthusiastic presenter was plonked in front of the camera to build up excitement. In a moment of what could equally be described as lunacy, as it could innovation, BBC 2 Scotland devoted 5 1/2 hours to live coverage of the climb itself! This is the kind of coverage you would expect from a Grand Prix, or The Ashes or some other major sporting event. It is the kind of attention that you expect climbing to get!
Indeed, a previous attempt to make The Great Climb in 2007 was rained off, leaving a rather embarrassing gap in the schedule. However, this time they had the benefit of one Dave Macleod. Anyone who has followed Dave's blog or watched Echo Wall will realise that he does not take the unplanned route. Dave is meticulous about his preparation (shovelling snow for 7 DAYS just to get a Echo Wall in a dryer state to climb). And so he should, Dave Macleod climbs so far above us mere mortals that, if he doesn’t have everything planned out, the penalty for failing is ….. well, not worth paying!
The outcome of Macleod's planning was the selection of a route that overhung so much that, even in the inevitable torrential rain, the climbers stayed dry and could continue unhindered until the very end of the last pitch – “the best umbrella on Harris” as they put it. Obviously, as the route was so long, and overhung to such a degree, it was all solidly in the E-grades with the hardest pitch (pitch 2) being graded at E9!
So the stage was set for an amazing feat of climbing prowess. Just to add to the tension, a few days previously, Macleod had sustained an slash to his ankle when a rock the size of a breeze block came hurtling past whilst setting up the cameras. In typical understatement his thoughts were “hmm, that’s not good. I’ll probably need a wee trip to the hospital”, but then follows that with “I just had to forget about it … and I just (got down and) got my boots on and starting walking quickly before it started to … hurt a bit more” – mental.
In contrast, Tim Emmett was a positive bundle of enthusiasm and superlatives (lots of “Brilliant!” and “Awesome!”), whooping and grinning all the way. This almost childlike exterior disguises a truly serious climber who did not show himself up in the slightest. In the company of someone who is so much at the top of his game like Macleod, Emmet would have been excused for looking second best but, although he didn’t lead the hardest section, he performed brilliantly throughout, and the contrast in styles between the two was interesting to watch.
All credit to the producers of The Great Climb, very quickly into the programme they get to the climbing proper. It is all too common in niche sports (apologies to any objections to that term!) to faff around interviewing people and showing background montages etc when the sport itself would be far more interesting. So you quickly get to see these two amazing climbers in their element making it all look so damned easy, when most of us would have fallen at the first move (which is E7, 6B by the way)
Anyway, I am not going to give you a blow by blow account of the climb, save to say that there is a fall, some slips, some blood, some barn doors and two very tired climbers by the end of the programme. The similarities between this televisual feast and the the 1967 ascent of The Old Man of Hoy is proof that there is no such thing as a new idea, but lets hope the BBC don’t wait for another 43 years before trying it again.
Of course, if you are not of the Scottish persuasion, like ourselves, you will probably have missed it … well nearly. Get yourself on to the iPlayer and watch it in all it’s 5 1/2 hour glory. There is also rumours of a highlights programme planned for BBC4 – keep your eyes peeled.
NB. images courtesy of BBC, Dave Macleod, and Mountain Equipment (who sponsored the whole thing)