Dr Death, alias Mark Garthwaite, has an image to match his name tall, tough
and uncompromising but it is this attitude and determination to push limits
that has made him one of Scotlandís top all round climbers, as Jo George
The mean looking, towering figure with shaven head and wickedly baggy demins, is that of climber and doctor, Mark Garthwaite. Previously known as the mysterious Doctor Death, he is now more commonly referred to as Garth. Now 37, for most of his adult life, Garth has had to fit climbing around his demanding medical career. Despite sometimes feeling "knackered" and "restricted" by his work as a GP, to the onlooker, his achievements in climbing show little hint of this.
As with many of Scotland's leading climbers, he is both strong on rock and in winter. In summer Garth has on-sighted E6's (red pointed E7); cranked 7b+ sport climbs onsight, red-pointed 7c+ and has bouldered up to Font 7c. In winter he's flashed Scottish grade VIII,8 & continental M and has red-pointed X,11 (M10), with his somewhat controversial ascent of Scotland's first "sport style" winter climb, Logical Progression.
I caught up with Garth in his spacious, Victorian flat in Glasgow's West End, where he stays with girlfriend, Tracy Harrison (herself a former member of the British Climbing Team) and Tracy's children. It's a busy and buzzing household and while cats leapt onto me, doorbells rang and children clattered and chattered noisily, I questioned Garth to find out more about his climbing and persona.
In the beginning
Garth was first introduced to rock climbing whilst in the Scouts. Soon after, he and some like-minded youths began sneaking off to their local crag, Louden Hill, armed with a clothesline, big boots and a sling to top-rope the climbs there. In the early days his local crags became the suburban Dumbarton Rock and the more rural Craigmore, both located on the outskirts of Glasgow. With the Scouts he was able to venture further afield to Glen Nevis and Glencoe but with limited rock close to home, Garth doesn't recall progressing that quickly.
He and friends often thought about the bigger routes in the mountains but felt intimidated by them - "we didn't know how good you had to be before you could go onto these things so we always put it off, assuming we weren't good enough". When they did eventually venture into the mountains, Garth realised he was quite able and began to work his way through the classics - though admits he still found the reputation of various routes quite intimidating.
A mix of work and pleasure
Since qualifying as a doctor in 1986, Garth often struggled to juggle a life between work and climbing. However, making space for his passion, in 1991 he decided to take a career break and went rock climbing full-time for six months on the west coast of the US. Whilst working as a GP in Australia in 1993/94 for a year, he managed another two road trips, each lasting three months and later another three months in the US again.
To combat the problem of finding time to climb, working as a locum seemed the ideal solution, so starting in 1997, for the next three years he did just that. This left him with about six months a year to play with, much of which was spent on rock climbing trips, interspersed with a few shorter ice climbing trips. But for now, Garth is back to working full time and runs a drug service in west Dumbartonshire. His lack of climbing opportunities frustrates him at times but he says, "I temper that frustration with the knowledge that I'm getting older and probably couldn't climb full time anyway - without getting injured".
Garth's climbing interests tend to follow the seasons - from early spring he will begin bouldering, perhaps with a few sport trips down to Yorkshire. By summer his focus turns to mountain routes and sea cliffs. Autumn will see some more bouldering, a trip or two abroad and then his attention turns to the winter season of ice and mixed climbing. When I asked which area of climbing he enjoyed the most, trad climbs came the answer. "Bouldering provides you with an instant hit which doesn't seem long lasting. If you go winter climbing, the sense of satisfaction seems to last quite a long time. However, cragging gives me the most consistent pleasure. Big walls and mountain routes I find enjoyable but wouldn't want to do that all the time. The days I've had in Pembroke were the best days. It's that style of climbing, single pitch, on-sight tradding that I relish most. Mostly I try to push my limit - doing things that test you are definitely more pleasurable. Within your limit, it's pleasant but I don't get that real instant enjoyment or achievement".