Dave Keogh recounts a dizzying schedule of famous routes and high mountain encounters
by Harry McGee
When the recession hit construction in Ireland in 2009, Dave Keogh, who was working in architecture, decided it was as good as time as any to see the world.
He had grown up in Tallaght, and outside work, life revolved around playing football and having a few pints with his friends. At 30, he had a vague feeling he wanted to explore, to go hiking and camping.
Over the next few years, new horizons opened up. He spent 11 months in South America, and went hiking in Patagonia, El Halten, Bolivia and Peru. He moved to Australia, where over the next few years he started indoor bouldering.
Keen to do more, he went on a few solo hikes in the wilderness, in some of most remote areas of New Zealand. On one of those, a seven-day expedition, he needed to access the starting point and end point by boat. In a serious turn of events, his appendix burst on the fourth day of a week in which he had seen only two other human beings. He managed to walk out and had surgery a few days later. It didn’t thwart him!
He kept on upping the ante. There were horizons that were beyond him at that stage. “I climbed as far as I could up Mount Aspiring (2,475 metres) before realising I was out of my depth and need more knowledge, skills and equipment,” he said.
“At this point, mountaineering was coming very interesting for me. I rented an ice axe and climbed Mount Taranaki (a dormant volcano at 2,518 metres). There was snow and ice for the final 200 metres or so and in reaching the summit I felt like I had really achieved something.
“Climbing became the way I needed to experience those places.”
He had lost his job in Ireland but had found his vocation.
And so he arrived home in 2013, after doing some sports climbing in Thailand. His next goal was learning how to become a climber and mountaineer.
“The turning point was travelling . Everything flowed from that. The climbing for me, it fitted totally with where I wanted to go.
“I knew If I followed the climbing path it would take me to amazing places and maybe offer an alternative view on the traditional existence of nine to five which I knew I did not want.”
He wondered, though, how he could take the next steps in climbing in a place as wet and relatively flat as Ireland.
Joining the IMC
Soon afterwards he joined the Irish Mountaineering Club. It is astonishing to think the progress that Dave has made since then. Over the course of six years he has become a highly accomplished climber and Alpine mountaineer, with a really impressive array of classic (and difficult) Alps ascents and North faces, big rock climbing routes, as well as ice climbing epics.
In the early days after joining the club, he learned the essential of traditional climbing from Cillian Russell and Noel Caffrey. He then formed what he calls a “solid partnership” with Cearbhall Daly, who he says was equally keen and time flexible.
The following summer, in 2014, he went on his first Trip to the Alps and his first proper Alpine route, the North Ridge of the Piz Badile.
“It was a slow but steady ascent followed by a long abseil descent that lasted well into the night.
“Unable to locate our stashed bivi kit, we bedded down in grass among the boulders and shivered until sunrise. We made plenty of mistakes but learned loads. This felt like alpinism and I loved it.”.
When Cearbhall returned home, Dave made his own way to Chamonix and teamed up with complete strangers. It made for an impressive tick-list though. There was the Forbes Arête on the Auguille du Chardonnet (a mixed route). He met an Aussie climber, Grant, and they climbed the Contamine Mazeaud and Chere Coulour on the Triangle du Tacul.
“We sensibly backed off he Midi-Plan Traverse in bad conditions when Grant shouted, in a thick Melbourne accent: “There’s no f***ing way I’m going down there mate!
“He was right and we settled for a fund day doing the traverse of Pointes Lachenal.”
He then met “two English chaps” and got invited to do the Frendo Spur, which they did with a bivi. Another adventure followed with a young Scottish climber up his first high alpine rock route, Rebuffat-Baquet, on the south face of the Auguille du Midi. They also did Voie Contamine on Pointes Lachenal.
Scottish Winter Climbing
It was in the Alps that his young Scottish friend explained Scottish winter climbing to him.
“He said ‘It is like alpine climbing without the altitude and glaciers and you go out in shite weather’. Sounded like I need to try that next.
And so that winter he booked into the CIC hut on Ben Nevis for 10 nights. He was joined for the first four days by his Scottish friend Tim Miller; he spend the rest of the time soloing or going out with other parties. It was a valuable experience.
“I learned a little about what makes good and bad conditions to climb in, the importance of navigation and that if you are keen you really can go out in all weather.”
He did Point 5 Gully as only his second Scottish winter route in heavy spindrift. That bears a moment or two of admiration given its reputation. On two other trips with Cearbhall and Tim they knocked off a large number of classic routes including Hadrian’s Wall; Vanishing Gully; Comb Gully: North East Buttress of Ben Nevis; Tower Ridge of Ben Nevis; Crowbery Gully (Buachaillie Etive Mór); The croc (Beinn Udlaidh); White Shark and Left Twin on Aonach Mór.
The following winter saw him return to Scotland for mixed climbing including Lost the Place; Jacknife; Cutlass (Ben Nevis); Savie Slit; The Seam; The Message (Cairngorms); Scabbard Chimney (Stob Coire Nan Lochán).
In really incredible ice-climbing conditions in February he did a number of classic routes on Ben Nevis, Liathach, Coire an t’Sneachda. Those that were brilliant and memorable included The Salmon Leap and Poachers’ Fall as well as Umbrella Falls.
Incorrigible, he returned in April, when the ice was still good, and soloed classic routes over five days including Zero Gully, Sickle, Indicator Wall.
“The highlight was soloing Point 5 Gully, Smiths Route and Observatory Buttress on my last day. I started early and topped out Ben Nevis three times that morning without seeing another person. One of my best days in the mountains.”
2016 and back to the Alps
That summer of 2016, he returned to the Alps. After soloing the Frendo Spur, he did his first ascent of Mount Blanc by the classic Kuffner Ridge.
“I teamed up with a new partner, Misha Nepogodieve, and we went on to have our best Alpine trip to date.”
In an eight day weather window they climbed the Gervasutti Pillar; the Walker Spur over two days; and the Bonatti-Oggionie Route over three days. That route starts from the Italian side and involved a bivi at the Eccles Hut and another on Pic Lois Amedee at 4,469m (amazingly high). They then finished up on to the summit of Mont Blanc.
The winter of 2016-2017 made for a poor season in Scotland. That summer saw another good summer trip to the Alps. With ‘Scottish’ Tim Miller he did the classic North Face rout Comici-Dimai on Tre Cima and then Don Quixote on the south face of Marmolada.
He travelled on to Chamonix to meet up with Anni Huovinen (his partner) and Niall Hederman.
“I climbed Arete du Diable Traverse with Niall who thoroughly loved his one-night stay in the shit shack. Exactly the type of five-star accommodation he’s accustomed to.
“I drove down to the Ecrins with Anni for our first visit. We completed the traverse of La Meije which included a bivi below the Promontoire Refuge at the start and a stay in the Aigle hut at the finish. A beautiful long classic mountaineering route.
“Anni wasn’t long in the Alps at this point so it was a strong effort on her part,” he said. “We drove over to Cervinia and climbed Pollux followed by a traverse of the Breithorns. “
Anni flew home to Finland and Dave was joined by Misha for the following three weeks. They climbed teh 32-pitch West Ridge of the Salbitschijen and an ascent of the classic north face Cassin route on the Piz Badile.
“The Cassin was particularly enjoyable as we were fast for once. We also had the most spectacular camp-spot overlooking the North Face. here we waited an extra day for settled weather and had front row seats as a storm hit and turned the face to a waterfall.”
Another memorable, if not enjoyable, climb was the South Pillar of Barre des Ecrins.
“I can’t say we enjoyed it much. It proved to b a 25-hour ordeal of lose rock and lots of time were spent off route. We bailed from 20 pitches up the Cordier Pillar.”
Another amazing Scottish season
And then, finally last winter, he had his best Scottish winter season to date. he teamed up with Tim Oliver who was working towards his British Mountain Guide application and was very keen to see new venues. They were jointed by CIC hut warden Robin Clothier as they headed to the northwest of Scotland.
“We made a couple of second ascents but the highlight was undoubtedly catching the very ephemeral Direct Nose Route on Sgurr an Fhidhleir in reasonable conditions.
“That climb felt like a real team effort and made the four-hour approach and 18-and-a-half hour day well worth the effort. Tim put in a fine lead by head-torch high up on the crux pitch.”
And so the dizzying array of Scottish routes continued: Sgorr Ruadh, Beinn Eighe, Hell’s Lum, Lochnagar, Cúl Mór, Cúl Beag. the standout rout was Taliballan on Stob Coire an Laoigh.
“Gargoyle Wall on Ben Nevis was significant as I remember seeing it on my first trip and thinking how incredible and intimidating it looked.”
The trip was not without incident. He took a 25-metre tumble on the Citadel on the Shetlerstone in the Loch Avon Basin.
“I went off-route on the third pitch and while lowering back to the line my anchor failed and the previous pieces (bulldog and piton) ripped out leaving me back at the belay. Luckily one piece held and I was relatively unscathed. It was a long and lonely walk out.”
He then went to Austria where Anni had recently completed her level one BASI ski certification in a resort called See and was going to work the rest of the season there. Dave started ice climbing and did some amazing routes including his first W16 multi-pitche ice routes.
He himself had improved his skiing and, with Misha, he did the firs ski-in ski-off North Face Route, which was the Terray-Rebuffat route on Auguille des Pelerins.
It almost ended badly after I performed an Olympic style ski jump over a hidden boulder on the descent from the climb by headtorch.”
His judgement on his own climbing
And so how does he sum up his own climbing prowess? He gives a characteristically modest assessment.
“Physically I am not gifted. I do not feel talented as a climber. I don’t think I have an edge on people either. But in a away that has allowed me embrace the different aspects.
“I’m not fearless. There are things that intimidate you and all the rest of it. I can probably deal with it and remain calm.”
He spends a lot of time climbing but still manages to work. He did a masters degree in sustainable architecture, encompassing energy and retrofitting. The company he works with gives him a lot of flexibility to arrange trips. He has taken his laptop with him to allow him work remotely when he needs to.
Nowadays, he and Anni climb a lot together. She has only been in the IMC for three years, and climbing for about the same timespan. She has done some incredible climbing in that time and is comfortable on all terrains.
They spent the summer of 2018 on a UK road-trip visiting venues such as the Lake District, Cornwall & Devon before driving to the Alps.
Summer 2019 was spent in Lofoten, having driven there from Helsinki. They had a fantastic trip with highlights being Vestpillaren & Himmlem Kan Vente on Presten and a 24 hour car-to-car adventure climbing Vestveggan (West face) & Vesteggan (West Ridge) on the national mountain, Stetind. They were joined by Imc’ers Dave Craig & Síle Daly on that trip.
Where next in the post Covid-19 world? He loves Scottish climbing and the Alps. He has a plan to go to Alaska at some stage and do some of the bigger hard routes over there.
What’s unmistakable are the incredible peaks and feats. Not bad for a guy who used a nut and a hex for the first time only seven years ago.