Phillips and MacLeod talk about What we do in the Shadows
- Friday 8th October 2021
Earlier this week, What we do in the Shadows (E10 7a) at Loch Duntelchaig had its first and second ascents in the same day by Robbie Phillips and Dave MacLeod; the back story is a cracker.
Backtracking a little first to set the scene, Robbie climbed Nosferatu (E8 6c) at Loch Duntelchaig last year after which he started work on the much harder direct version. Dave MacLeod paid a visit and got the second ascent of Nosferatu and then abseiled down the direct and found some holds under the moss. Robbie and Dave then started working on the direct finish and that’s where we pick up on the story.
Robbie started training specifically for the direct but, as is so often the case, progress wasn’t linear as he explained online: “I put a concerted amount of effort into training specifically for it in the Autumn 🍂 and came back a few times in the winter before lockdown 🔐 My Dad passed away end of November, and I had one solo session on the proj a few days after to help clear my mind, and on that trip I fell from the last move!"
“The lockdown, Dad, and family stuff messed my head up a bit, and by the time lockdown ended I just wasn’t in the right headspace to go back to the proj. So I took the summer to try and find myself again with the aim to start again in the Autumn.”
So fast forward to late summer this year and Robbie got back on the horse again: “I started training again, this time following a more strict program that lead slowly into some early Autumn sessions up here. The gains from training were noticeable, but conditions weren’t ideal… I’d need to be patient!” Then he got the break-through he was after. Posting the night before he went for the lead he said: “In the last 2 weeks the temps have dropped and I’ve linked the whole line about 4 or 5 times, and I feel confident in my ability to lead it successfully.”
Accompanied once again by Dave MacLeod, Robbie got the first ascent earlier this week: “It didn’t go down without a fight 🥊 I dropped the last move twice! Turns out the fall is safe 🤪 which is awesome because that makes it an F8c/5.14b trad line with relatively low risk attached! The fall is fairly big, but with a well-placed cam and a good belayer, the fall is soft and straight into space rather than straight into the rock!”
For Robbie What we do in the Shadows has been a year-long mission. Like many climbers, he’s driven by challenges and in his case seemingly the bigger the better. Robbie explained his outlook to Climber on projecting and specifically how he sees What we do in the Shadows stacking up to other hard routes he’s done:
“I have always been driven by improving myself, and climbing hard projects is I guess one way that manifests itself in my climbing. I don't actively look for projects, they just kind of fall in my lap and before I know it, I'm singularly focussed and doing everything I can to prepare myself. But I won't just climb any old thing, I know that I'm driven by aesthetics both in the climb (line and movement) and the place it's in, which when you look at What we do in the Shadows, it makes complete sense - an obvious unclimbed feature in a serenely beautiful and wild Scottish landscape. One thing that really attracted me to this particular climb was that it was so opposing to the style of climbing I'm usually very good at - I am without a doubt an endurance athlete, and long pumpy rock climbs or multi-pitches definitely suit me... but this was a really short power endurance climb, a powerful V7 (Font 7A+) boulder problem leading into an intense fingery V10 (Font 7C+)."
He continued: "Dave and myself suspected it to be around F8c (5.14b) in physical difficulty. But to put this into perspective, after several months of effort (and specific training) in Autumn/Winter 2020, the best I did was fall on the final move! Compare that with doing things like Bat Route (F8c) in a couple of goes, and Cry Freedom (F8c) in a couple of days, and any number of the 40+ F8c or harder sport climbs I've done over the years that never took me longer than a week, What we do in the Shadows for me was harder! I don't think that it is, but it's the most bouldery moves I've ever done on a roped climb, and I suspect it has more in common with a Raven Tor F8c than a pumpy Malham one.”
Robbie also explains to Climber how he plans his preparation, stays focussed and motivated whilst working towards his goals?
“With regards to preparation and motivation, I can talk about this until the cows come home! But I think the two best nuggets I have to share from this recent experience are: 1) Finding the right balance between time on the project and specific training was key! Over the years I feel I have failed to get this balance, but this time I really nailed it! I won't lie, I got some outside support on the training front. I actually went to Buster Martin (Kaizen Coaching) for a bit of a new perspective on things, and I was really happy with how he challenged me and my usual way of doing things. Haha, I think I also challenged him, as my schedule can be a bit mad at times, and finding the right balance for me kept him on his toes, but he was really accommodating to me and I am very keen to work with Buster more on future projects."
"I spent most of the first 6 weeks just training indoors, and then slowly began introducing outdoor projecting on boulders to the mix. Then eventually I started working on the project whilst still training about 25% of the time... when I was trying to make links on the shunt, it became 75% on rock, and then for the last week, it's been all rock with just fingerboard in the mornings to keep me topped up! I feel the balance has resulted in me being in the best physical shape of my life whilst also climbing well on rock - the winning combo!"
“And 2), as for motivation... the only time I lacked it was around February/March 2021. The lockdown in Scotland was still on, I was in a very bad place mentally and had a lot going on in my life. I was strong from training, but couldn't get outdoors, and it basically sent me over the edge... I had to take a break and so just enjoyed fun low stress climbing for most of the summer. This season has been a lot better, I had less stress and was able to focus more fully on the project. As I said to Dave, probably the best I ever felt was the day I linked the climb on a shunt on my own... I was so happy! It was the first day I realised I could do it, and honestly, I'd say I was happier than when I actually did the climb. I think this is a really important thing to acknowledge, as it shows my mindset at the time... I wasn't driven so much by success; I was just enjoying the process and each little win. I haven't always been like this, but I think the last year or so of lockdowns and personal problems have perhaps chilled me out a bit? Or maybe it's just maturing? Who knows... but I believe this approach is both healthier, more fun, and conducive to a higher success rate in the long run.”
And what about having Dave along as his partner-in-crime for What we do in the Shadows? Robbie explains what he looks for in a partner on a project:
“Having someone who is equally as invested as you makes it easier to work a climb often, especially if it's somewhere far away which most of mine are. Climbing in Scotland (and living in Edinburgh), I'm usually driving 4 hours to a project, so it's good to have someone who is keen to go with me, especially when I'm going for burns. Saying that in the last year or so I have done most of my "working" sessions on a shunt, either on my own, or with a friend at the crag such as Dave, but we wouldn't belay each other. I like having friends there to bounce ideas off, especially Dave as he's a flippin' wizard for beta (I thought I was good, but Dave is next level! Also, it's good to have a laugh and drink stupid amounts of tea between burns. But I also really love solo sessions... sometimes I just need that."
"I'll rock up in my van the night before, make dinner, read, then have a nice leisurely start to the morning and saunter up to the crag on my own. Spending the whole day in silence whilst working a hard climb is a really special thing, and I don't hate my own company... I laugh at my own jokes and make a cracking cup of tea, so it's not too bad! When I do climb with someone, I really just like having someone I get along with. I like someone who doesn't take things too seriously, who can enjoy just being there at the crag as well as the actual climbing. Of course, someone who laughs at my bad jokes is also important!"
Finally, Climber asked him about the name. What we do in the Shadows. That suggested to us that there was something of a deeper meaning in there for him?
“The crag theme is monsters, and as it’s the direct finish to Nosferatu, I felt it was in keeping with the theme to name it after my favourite quirky indie vampire film called What we do in the Shadows 🧛♂️ 🍿 🎥 But it’s also a little deeper than that… The last year has been anything but bright… A Global Pandemic 🌎 🦠 thousands dead ☠️ Wild Fires🔥 Societal tension in the western world surrounding race + gender inequality, and Global Climate Change taking its toll on the planet… all of this, and add our own personal problems, of which it feels like I’ve suffered continuously! After losing Dad, I was thrown straight into the deep end of another tricky scenario back home… it felt like life was just throwing me curveballs one after another… and another… and another! The winter was long, hard, and bitterly cold at times… I was mentally and physically broken by the end!"
Commenting further he said: "But hidden under the shadow of a rocky highland outcrop I found some solace from the chaos. In the shadows I could be myself, nobody knew I was there, it was only me and the ghouls of the crag to keep me company. These very short escapes gave me a respite from the daily hell I was living. Even when I was home, I would get away for a couple of hours most days to a cold dank shady corner of the dilapidated barn, where a makeshift woody we built let me feel myself again… even for just a short while, I could pull on some razor small edges and pretend I was making moves on that piece of highland rock 4 hours north of my home. I felt the name “What we do in the Shadows” was a good metaphor for my life throughout the last 10months… a period of intense darkness, but in many ways, protected by the shadows that brought me comfort throughout the most challenging times of my life.”
Remarkably however, that wasn’t the end of the story as Dave MacLeod, having belayed Robbie on his successful first ascent, could then take a shot at repeating the route. Dave outlined his position online:
“I was there to belay Robbie and get fit on the moves myself. After I gave myself acute tennis elbow a couple of months ago, I've done essentially no training to speak of until a week ago. Just trying to stay in as good shape as possible by doing bold but 'easy' mountain trad and fairly strict keto most days. Last autumn when we were trying this project, I was in good shape and linked it a dozen times. Now that Robbie had literally just topped out on the FA, it was open for me to finally try, but I wasn't ready ARRGGH! A wee footwork tweak on my last top-rope go had made the difference I needed and so found myself standing on top in the sunshine. WTF!? It’s been a couple of years since I did Mind Riot on Shuas since I've tried such a hard trad route and very satisfying for it to go down faster than expected.”
Dave is renowned for his projects and his thoughts having “shared” the journey with Robbie were revealing:
“Delighted for @robbiephillips_ today for finally climbing his project at Duntelchaig, What we do in the shadows (E10 7a). As you can see, matching the finishing jug was a great moment with a big release of delight and satisfaction. It is not easy committing yourself to a project this hard. Success is uncertain, if not outright improbable. Progress can go forwards, but can easily go backwards again with injuries, conditions, bad luck, broken holds, life commitments, and countless other things that are not always under your control."
“I have enjoyed this type of climbing for a long time and very familiar with the long periods of struggle and uncertainty. When I say 'enjoy', it is a strange form of enjoyment, a bit like the enjoyment of the pain of hard training or the cold of the winter mountains. It's an acquired taste and I don't know so many climbers who take on such hard projects as Robbie's, that require long periods of training and a really solid commitment to push through to the finish line. To be clear, I've seen plenty of climbers try hard routes for many attempts. But the difference with professional climbers comes down to the level of determination to keep stepping out of your comfort zone and this is how they convert tries into success, in the end."
“For this reason, I've not observed that many climbers go through the whole process from start to finish - struggling to do individual moves, dealing with logistics, worrying about falls and consequences, finding time to keep trying and then ultimately bringing it all together in a fine athletic performance. It was great to watch.”
Climber asked Dave how satisfying has it been to be involved with Robbie on What we do in the Shadows throughout the project process?
“Yes, it was very unusual to me to try the project with Robbie. I first went to the crag to repeat his E8 on the same wall. I'd seen a video he’d posted of trying the direct, with a huge dyno to finish. After I did the E8 I abbed down the direct to have a look and spotted a gaston crimp on the left (well, it was under a blob of moss) and mentioned to Robbie that it might be a more possible way to go. That’s what got us started trying it together. I thought the route was brilliant and was really enjoying trying it. It was weird for me because I was in good shape and could have done it last year. Robbie kindly recommended I just went for it but I’d already decided in my own mind I’d wait for him to do it first since he found it. It was very interesting for me to see how different our strengths were. Robbie makes the burly lower part look so easy. It’s not the crux, but it’s important to do this bit easily to save energy. I got on better on the small crimps on the crux, and Robbie was unsure how to do the last move, eventually settling on a big jump for the top that I do in three moves on small edges! Robbie had obviously put a lot of work into preparing for trying it this season and was looking extremely strong on it."
“I get on just fine trying hard routes on my own and I have a good routine for it. Aside from just good company to try it with Robbie, the main good thing was to see how psyched Robbie was for the project, which makes me feel a bit less weird for getting really excited and focused on new route projects. I don’t regularly spend that much time with other professional athletes so don’t get to see others who have the ‘disease’ of being pretty driven.”
Dave’s been suffering from tennis elbow problems again recently but he certainly made the most of his ‘no pressure’ attempt on the route after Robbie had made the first ascent: “Yes I was just recovering from an injury and not in as good shape as I’d like, but that’s not always necessary. Good enough to get to the top is good enough! It was really nice, and unexpected, for us both to do it on the same day. So I was certainly going to give it my best shot to make that happen. The last 18 months has not been a great period for either of us I think. So a really good climbing day is a nice reminder that things can go great again.”
And finally, what did he think about the difficulty of What we do in the Shadows: “I can only think of two trad routes I’ve tried or done that have harder climbing, Rhapsody and Mind Riot. This route is roadside, short and safe, if a bit runout, so I’m sure there will be other climbers keen to get on it. It will suit folk who are strong.”