Caff completes Extreme Rock

Posted by Peter Burnside on 08/06/2021
James McHaffie finishes off Extreme Rock. Photo: Alex Messenger

It’s one of the most impressive achievements in British climbing: James McHaffie, BMC Youth and Equity Officer, has ticked the entire list of routes from Ken Wilson’s Extreme Rock book. Let’s find out more.

Most climbers dream of topping out one or two, maybe a handful, of the 180 Extreme Rock routes. listed in Ken Wilson’s book, ranging from E1 5a to E9 6c on trad or 7c to 8b on sport. Of those with the ability to actually climb these routes, few would have dared consider tackling the entire list. But when Caff was given a copy of Extreme Rock he found out that, actually, he’d already done most of them! And not only that, mostly onsight or onsight soloed. It boggles the mind. We got in touch with Caff to ask a few questions:

What was your first Extreme Rock tick?
Bitter Oasis (E4 5c) in Borrowdale. I could see Goat Crag from my school and would skive off to go and solo routes up there; my favourite was Tumbleweed Connection (E2 5c). Bitter Oasis was put up by a climber called Pete Livesey who I respected a lot.

I think I was 16 when I did Bitter Oasis. That was my hardest lead in 1997 and the next year I think I soloed it, so my ability was accelerating and my head in that period for five or six years was in a great spot for doing bold routes.

When did you first hear about Ken’s book?
I kind of vaguely knew about Ken Wilson’s rock compilations. I would have heard about them or seen them but I didn’t give them much thought. I was very into guidebooks back then, to check out the routes that looked really good. But I didn’t have any coffee table books for many years.

Around 2013, my partner at the time, Sophie, and Callum Muskett gave me Extreme Rock as a present. When I looked in the book I realised I had already done a lot of them, nearly all the routes in the Lakes, and the Peak, loads in Wales, and I did Indian Face in 2013 as well. After that, I started doing the odd trip thinking to keep ticking off a few at a time.

What spurred you on to complete the list?
When Ken Wilson passed away in 2016 it gave me a bit of a kick. It goes without saying that Ken was really passionate about climbing in the UK  and that I should try and finish his book as my way to pay homage to him. By this point I didn’t have a ton left to do, between 10 and 20 maybe. But they were hard to access or find in condition, or both like Dubh-loch in Scotland where the routes aren’t exactly easy – dirty E5s and 6s like Flodden (E6 6b), or The Big Lick (E4 5c) and Stone (E5 6a) up on Lewis.

It’s a bit like climbing on Cloggy. If you get a good year, maybe you can climb on it for a month or two, but most of the time you’ll just get a few weeks of clement conditions and you might just be working and miss the opportunity – you need a few things to come together and go your way. Then these remote Scottish crags take longer to drive to, longer to walk in, they’re bigger and dirtier with more run off – some of the routes literally might be too dirty to do! Flodden was only just climbable I think. A bit damp and mossy, if it had been any mossier I don’t think I’d have done it.

Which route was the most epic for you?
I’ve told this story so many times, but it has to be Master’s Wall which I first tried around the year 2000. I’d onsighted The Bells! The Bells! (E7 6b) the week before and done that in like 45 minutes., so I was feeling pretty good.

Master’s Wall got graded E7 in the guidebook and before I set off on it my friend Adam Wilde jokingly asked me if I was going to onsight Indian Face, and I did think about it before deciding to go for the ‘easier’ route. Now they’re both graded E9! I got on it and got high. Where it said there were wires in the guidebook, well, I couldn’t find any. I just put on sky hooks and carried on – then I got stuck. The point that I reached was miles harder than The Bells! The Bells! And more dangerous.         

I couldn’t move left and couldn’t move right. I dropped the ropes to my partner and at this point I’d already spent an hour and a half on the rock, maybe even more. Adam didn’t know the crag very well at this point so it took him ages to run around to the top to chuck a rope back down to me, all my tips were bleeding by this point. It was as close to death as I’ve ever been except maybe on some of those sketchy solos I did when I was younger as well.

Did that experience affect you at all?
Master’s Wall did have an impact on me for a while I guess, but the year after my boldness built back up. It did make me a bit more calculated and a bit less cavalier.

Master’s Wall was really huge – I was climbing well at the time, especially on bold routes, but this thing was miles above anything I’d done yet; it’s a massively under-graded really hard and dangerous route. It changed British climbing history for me. And when I read Jerry’s account of it, that he was climbing well and he fully nearly died on it after checking it out quite a bit, it all fitted into place.

Is it fair to say you onsighted most of them?
Most of them were in the best possible effort I could do. There’s a few E7s in there, The Bells! The Bells!, Master’s Edge (E7 6c), Romantic Reality (E7 6b), I onsighted those three and ground upped Beau Geste (E7 6c). Most of the E5s and 6s were climbed either onsight or ground up, and all the other routes were onsight or onsight soloed, especially if I’d climbed it back in the day when I was doing a lot of soloing.

Indian Face I knew I couldn’t onsight it at that point in time, so I did it one session which was the fastest ascent that it’s received so far. I just abseiled it to play on the moves just once and then led it the same day, so I definitely kept an element of doubt. I was happy with the style for most of them.

Any particular favourite routes?
There are too many good routes in that collection. The Scottish ones are incredible, things like The Naked Ape (E5 6b), but I guess, for me, it’s got to be routes in the Lakes and North Wales – I’ve got close connections there because I’ve lived and spent a lot of time in these places.

I have memories of Bitter Oasis, Lord of the Flies and Cruel Sister (E3 5c) that take me back to my teens, the years when you’re full of confidence and have a profound love of rock climbing. And all of the memories of holidays full of adventure with friends. I reckon I had the best head I’ve ever had in my late teens and early 20s, bold as brass, and the routes meant everything to me at that point.

I’ve done a lot of the Extreme Rocks with Wes Hunter. He’s my friend from school, we started climbing together and we’re still going on trips three decades later. We had a week in the late 90s with Colin Downer. We started at North Stack on Gogarth doing The Cad (E6 6a), and Downer, who was in his 50s and known as Mr Angry, was winding Wes up saying we needed a ladder, and sent him off to find one before he twigged that Downer was joking.

In that week we started on The Cad and did a load of classic routes, some Extreme Rock ticks like Comes the Dervish (E3 5c) and we did Sexual Salami (E5 6b), Cardiac Arete (E4 6a), Central Sadness (E5 6a) on the Slate, Edge of Time (E4 6a), The Moon (E3 5c) at Gogarth South Stack, loads of really good routes, and then we finished on Lord of the Flies last day. We just had a really good week with good friends in amazing landscapes having a great time. A lot of fond memories of doing them with some friends.

What’s next?
I’m hoping to complete Hard Rock next year. I only bought copies of Hard and Classic Rock more recently, and I’ve worked my way through them. I’ve got 30 odd Hard Rocks left and a similar amount of the Classics. I’ll do a few Scotland trips and try and get most of them done this year and then enjoy ticking off the remaining routes next year. It’s quite nice having terrain I can go pretty fast on. I’ll mainly solo the Classics and rope up for a lot of the Hard Rocks.

 


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Anonymous User
09/06/2021
Brilliant - absolutely brilliant uplifting story and superb effort - well done James matey

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