James McHaffie: dark lord of British climbing reveals his 2015 ticklist

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 08/02/2016
James McHaffie on Coeur de Lion E8 7a. Photo: Ray Wood
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The under-the-radar climbing wad reveals what he actually climbed last year, what motivates him, and what his plans and goals are for the future: including climbs as well as a career change.

I’ve been climbing since about 1995. Dad took me out once with my sisters when I was very young and we did a new route called Family Outing on Woden's Face. It had definitely been done before. I think I cried and didn’t like it. It wasn’t until I was a lot older and went to the wall where a girl I fancied was going down that I really liked it. Then I started heading out with dad and up loads of classics.

There are many reasons why I climb. I certainly see it as more than a sport. Climbing trad onsight is what I was brought up on. If I fall, I lower off, pull the ropes and give it another go, same as when I first started climbing and same as most people do from what I’ve seen. 

Ground-up is still massively harder than headpointing a route. If you’ve not abbed or checked a route you’re going into the unknown. It can be painfully inefficient, dirty, lichenous, and dangerous. But as soon as I’ve abbed something, put some chalk on holds and checked where protection goes then the main cause of error is gone: the doubt.

I climbed about 16 E7 and E8s last year. Some stand-out ones were The Flying Dutchman, Couer de Lion and Divided Years but there weren’t any rubbish ones from what I remember.

In total I've climbed about 115-120 routes graded E7 to E9.

There is a lot of variety within climbing and also a lot of history. I get motivated from reading through guidebooks, looking for esoteric places to go and looking at pictures thinking how great it would be to be in that position. It's also good motivation to make a varied list of routes to climb each year.

There were a few highlights to my last year. One was doing Coeur de Lion (E8 7a) with Pete Robins. It was a warm evening and we could have easily been shut down at lots of points but we topped out in the evening light and went to the pub with Ray Wood for a pizza. It felt like when I first moved to Wales in 2003; great weather, friends and loads going on.

The second highlight was the day I onsighted Supercool (an 8a+ in North Yorkshire) and a few other routes; it felt like I just couldn’t put a foot wrong. I still felt fresh at the end of the day. Although Simon Nadin did it in the early 1990s it’s still pretty tricky to do in Britain. 

The third highlight was a road trip with Dan Mcmanus at the end of September, when we did loads of great British climbing. I climbed for over 15 days in a row, starting on two sport routes I wanted to do, The Beast (8c) and Brutal (8b+) on the Diamond, then headed over to the grit, then Pembroke, Lundy, before finishing on routes like Profit of Doom (E4 at Curbar) on the grit in perfect weather. It was just a great trip and good crack.

The lowlight of my year was a day at Kilnsey. I’d been training and had led a ML assessment a day or so before and didn’t realise how tired I was. I’d wanted to have a go at onsighting Urgent Action (8a+) and couldn’t do two moves from tiredness, in fact I couldn’t really sport climb that day although I did scratch my way up Claws (E5 6a). It was the worst day of the year as I was in good shape when rested. Big-ups to Nadin.

I’d not been keen on sport climbing since 2012, when I climbed the Big Bang in 2011 and the Meltdown in 2012, both of which were a lot harder than any sport routes I’d done before, at 9a. I guess I dedicated myself to trad again after that as it's better I think for motivation. You generally go somewhere new and it involves an adventure and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been a body-nazi, there is always something new and cool to do.

A trip to Spain last year reignited my keenness for sport, though. I was terrible at the start of the month but built it up, climbing the brilliant Sin Perdon (8b+), Falconeti (8b+) and then Mind Control (8c+) on the last day of the trip.

I didn’t get as stuck into UK sport as I wanted when I got back as I went tradding again, but the best route I did over here was Bransby's Diamond 8c, The Beast, on that road trip. I was going to bolt this line but Ben and Sam Whittaker raided it. It could be the best 8c in Britain and would certainly be in the top few, climbing the brilliant 8b The Brute before tackling a stunning 8a+ headwall. It's really steep all the way on perfect rock.  But conditions down there are fickle: fairplay to Robins and Ben.

The BMC does a lot of work I appreciate. I enjoy having a lot of freedom in the mountains and being able to climb where I like, which is partly due to their work.

I've just started doing a bit of work in Manchester for the BMC. I saw the Youth and Partnership Officer post and really liked the ethos of it. The role aims to help get youths from urban areas into climbing and the outdoors by setting up partnerships, sourcing funding, and so on. I think climbing has an incredible amount to offer and I was keen to set up some more youth meets. The contract is for 14 months and I’m keen to do as much as I can in that time.

My precise goals at the moment are firstly to do my job at the BMC well, as it has a lot of potential for helping people out. I’m off to Arran with a team at the end of May to try John Dunne's route The Great Escape (E8 6a, 6c). But before I go I’d like to do Rainshadow at Malham (9a). I did it with one rest in 2011 relatively quickly but that was the fittest I’ve been so I need to regain some form.

After that I’m undecided on projects. I was going to do the Welsh 100 starting on Gogarth and finishing on Vember at Cloggy. If I don’t do that I’ll have a trip to Scotland extreme rock ticking. I’ll see how I’m feeling in the summer.


MEET: Our Ambassador Team

WATCH: BMC Ambassador James McHaffie on BMC TV

WATCH: BMC ambassador James McHaffie taking a fall from the Headwall Pitch of Salathé Wall on BMC TV

WATCH: Mary-Ann Ochota in Great Walks: Catbells on BMC TV

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