Big Bang F9a, Lower Pen Trwyn © Simon Panton
When people start discussing who the best British climber is, one name comes up time and time again, and that name is James McHaffie, or ‘Caff’ as he is usually referred to.
Caff’s certainly has a startling track record of hard trad onsights and flashes; a 60+ tally of E7/8s climbed in the best possible style and seemingly with the least amount of fuss. He has also climbed a number of routes in the E8/9 level with minimal preparation - often no more than a cursory abseil inspection with the odd pull on to try a sequence out.
He has shown top form in the arena of hardcore sport climbing, breaking into the magic 9th grade twice. And when it comes to big free climbs he has proved to be just as effective, be it on the modern test pieces of El Capitan in Yosemite or on the Grand Capucin in the Mont Blanc Range.
Caff grew up in Keswick in the Lake District, the son of Ray McHaffie, a prolific climber and renowned upland footpath builder. A climbing life might have seemed the obvious choice, but an early fright put him off the idea. In fact Caff did not start until he was 15 years old, when a happenstance visit to a climbing wall stirred him sufficiently to ask his dad to take him out again.
First routes included classics such as Troutdale Pinnacle HS 4a on Black Crag in Borrowdale and Overhanging Bastion VS 5a on Castle Rock. Caff was immediately hooked and dedicated himself to climbing all the two or three star routes in the FRCC guides. Soon enough he was soloing around, ticking off route after route, and working up through the grades on the sharp end of the rope when he could find partners as keen as himself.
Caff embraced the outdoor lifestyle fully, splitting his time between working in a climbing shop in Ambleside, instructing, and of course, going climbing as much as humanly possible. In the Lakes he climbed all the classic test pieces and onsighted routes such as Camouflage E7 6b on Cam Crags, Flattery E7 6b on Flat Crag and De Quincy E7 6b on Bowderstone Crag.
His soloing exploits also reached increasingly impressive levels; in one afternoon in Borrowdale he completed more than 30 extremes, running the not inconsiderable distance between Lower Falcon, Shepherds, Reecastle, Goat Crag, Quayfoot Buttress, Bleakhow and then back to Lower Falcon to finish on Kidnapped E2. The goal was to solo 100 extremes in a day but a bad fall at Kilnsey intervened and the idea was shelved.
Elsewhere in the UK E6 and E7 onsights, such as The Bells, The Bells E7 6b at Gogarth, became an increasingly regular outcome. In 2002 he freed The Nose on the Sgurr of Eigg E8 6c with Ben Bransby and in the autumn of the same year he moved to North Wales to study Environmental Science at Bangor University.
“I didn’t have a car so I used to bike over to Llanberis to meet Pete Robins, Will Perrin and friends to go cragging.”
Mission Impossible E9 6c, Gallt yr Ogof © Ray Wood
Caff revelled in the huge range of hard trad routes that North Wales offered; in frenzied bouts of activity he tore his way through the classic E5s, E6s and E7s. Within a few years he had climbed most of the test pieces at the major venues such as Gogarth, Cloggy and in the Llanberis slate quarries, where he worked his way through the harder sport routes too.
Such was his affinity for the slate medium that Caff went on to make the third ascent of The Very Big and the Very Small F8b+ on Rainbow Slab and establish two new F8bs: The Serpent Vein and Sauron.
Caff also excelled on the big walls. In 2008 he visited Madagascar and climbed 6 pitches (including the F8c crux slab) of Tough Enough, a 380 metre route which was subsequently freed (albeit over a month period) by a French team lead by Arnoud Petit and then climbed in one day by Adam Ondra. In 2009 he made a fast ascent of one of the Alps' hardest rock routes - the Voie Petit F8b on the Grand Capucin in the Mont Blanc Range.
“The top arete on Voie Petit was pretty close to the edge. I slapped through the crux to a poor shakeout crimp beneath an overhang and crack, got one wire in blind and was too tired to place another. I had to climb the crack very quickly; rocking onto the top slab my fingers were uncurling as I got the weight over my foot.”
Although Caff has never focussed too much on headpointing he has dipped into it on occasion. In the early days in the Lakes he did the second ascent of Hellish E8 6c on the Bowderstone Crag and the first ascent of The Ego has Landed E8 6b on Eagle Crag. In 2009 he made the second ascent of Mission Impossible E9 6c on Gallt yr Ogof with minimal preparation.
Over the winter of 2009/10 Caff spent three months living in Sheffield and hanging out in the Peak. Highlights included a ground up ascent of the stunning Font 8A highball, Careless Torque at Stanage and a flash of End of the Affair E8 6c at Curbar.
As for sport climbing, Caff has onsighted up to F8a+ but had never spent much time redpointing on the limestone. All that changed in 2010 when he turned his attention towards the hard sport routes on Lower Pen Trwyn.
“I made the shift to sport partly because I've done much of the trad stuff near where I live. To do harder sport offers a quick area of improvement and opens up more great routes.”
Meltdown F9a, Twll Mawr, Dinorwig slate quarries © Ray Wood
Infanticide F8c fell quickly during the summer of 2010, but it was the heinous extension above that had really captured Caff’s imagination. Neil Carson’s route, Big Bang F9a had remained unrepeated for 15 years – it was certainly one of the outstanding challenges in North Wales.
After a hard winter season of training he returned to LPT in 2011 and began the battle of his life. Caff had seriously raised his game and it soon showed as he redpointed up to the lip of the upper slab on repeated occasions. This proved to be the stopping point and repeated psyche-testing failures ensued.
Realising he needed uninterrupted focus to succeed he booked a 9 day stint off work. Success came unexpectedly on the first day; Caff had broken the spell of Carson’s route and was now part of a very select group of British climbers who had climbed F9a.
With fitness levels at an all time high he was then rewarded with a remarkable day at Malham where he made a single session ascent of both Predator F8b and Unjustified F8b+/c. And then a few days later he onsighted Dawes Rides the Shovelhead (originally given E8 6c, but Caff thought only E7) on Raven Crag in Langdale.
Throughout 2012 Caff continued his mission to take on the biggest challenges around. In the spring he ‘warmed up’ by making the first ascent of the Tower of Midnight E8 6c on Cyrn Las in the Llanberis Pass. Then in July he completed the first ascent of Johnny Dawes’ infamous slate project in Twll Mawr, Dinorwig Quarry. After some consideration Caff has suggested a grade of F9a for The Meltdown, making it a contender for the hardest off vertical pitch in the world.
He then climbed the Pre-Muir Wall 5.13c/d on El Capitan in Yosemite with Hazel Findlay and Neil Dyer.
2013 brought a renewed focus upon trad climbing and an astonishing roll call of hard ascents. The previous year Caff had made the trip up to Hoy in Scotland and managed to repeat the crux pitch of Dave MacLeod’s Longhope, originally given E11 7a. Bad weather prevented a full ascent of this nine pitch route but he returned in 2013 with Ben Bransby for a successful full ascent, commenting that a grade of E9 7a (F8b R) seemed more appropriate.
Throughout the year there was a slew of onsighted E7s (for example: Box of Blood E7 6b/c and Harmony E7 6c on Craig Dorys, and Night Flight E7 6c and Bubbly Boson E7 6b in Pembroke). A swift repeat of the unspeakably bold Indian Face E9 6b/c on Cloggy was impressive for the lack of preparation (Caff didn’t even bother top roping the whole route before the going for the lead), but other ascents showed remarkable ability and coolness.
Satan's Scream E8 6c, Red Wall Promontory, Gogarth © Ray Wood
He came very close to onsighting Margins of the Mind E8 6c (after checking the crux on abseil he came back and led it) and, also in North Wales, he made rapid repeats of Gribin Wall E8/9 6c and Rare Lichen E8/9 6c on Clogwyn y Tarw, while over at Trearddur Bay, Chicama E8/9 6c was given short shrift too.
Caff also climbed some superb first ascents in North Wales, including The Ambassador E8 7a on Milestone Buttress, Tick’s Groove E6 6b in the Dinorwig Quarries and the desperate Satan’s Scream E8 6c on Red Wall at Gogarth.
In 2014 Caff continued in a similarly impressive vein, onsighting numerous E7s, including three in one day at Greenham Common in Pembroke and two in a day on Dove crag in the Lakes (Dusk Till Dawn and Bucket Dynasty). A trip to Yosemite with Dan McManus saw free ascents of the classic big wall climbs, Salathe Wall 5.13b and El Nino 5.13c.
In June Caff returned to the Lakes to take on the previously abandoned challenge of soloing 100 extremes in a day. He completed this remarkable achievement in less than twenty hours and still made it to the pub in Keswick for last orders. This was a lifetime’s ambition realised and a deeply personal journey which reconnected him with his Lakeland roots.
Despite his incredible track record Caff is not a full time climber – he has always juggled work commitments with time at the crag and trips away. He worked as an instructor at Plas y Brenin for seven years but now does freelance guiding, and ML courses for Llanberis based guide, Phil George.
“Wales is certainly home for me for the next few years. It's a great place to be and there are always lots of keen people about."