Brought up in Keswick, James ‘Caff’ McHaffie has an approach to climbing typical of many Lake District legends – understated, no nonsense, but exceptionally impressive. How impressive? – well his UK trad ticklist includes onsights of over 80 routes of E7 or harder, plus ascents of ten different E9s. Amongst those are a single day repeat of the iconic Indian Face , his new Llanberis Pass additions House of Talons (protected by 12 skyhooks) and Dark Religion (felt by his second Calum Muskett to be E10) and his recent multi-pitch on Skye, Moonrise Kingdom, which includes the potential of a 30m fall from the crux run out. But James is no one trick pony, having twice redpointed sport 9as and climbed some of the UK’s most testing highball boulders. His overseas ticklist is equally gobsmacking with major big wall free climbs to his name in Yosemite, Madagascar and the Alps. But perhaps his most impressive achievements have been in the unforgiving arena of soloing – with his ascent of 100 Lake District extremes in a single day felt by many as one the finest achievements in British climbing history. We caught up with James to find out more about his Lakes upbringing and his recent new routes.
Your dad was a big character in the Lakes climbing scene, was climbing a natural part of your upbringing?
He was a big character. He really liked talking to people, telling stories about climbing and adventures in the 1960s and 70s, he used to give slide shows in the Moot Hall in Keswick on walking and climbing in the Lakes. He really loved the Lakes. He took me on some easier routes and scrambles when I was younger, but climbing just didn’t interest me when I was younger, I used to think dad was weird for going down Borrowdale all the time. It was great having a parent who climbed when I got into it when I was 15. He couldn’t drive but we used to bike out everywhere and do routes in Borrowdale and Thirlmere, looking back he was pretty nails as his body was pretty fucked. He’d always done physical work, building footpaths, walling as well as climbing on his days off, he needed a hip replacement for quite a while and had developed a bit of Parkinson’s down an arm, he would struggle to walk in 2003 but would still bike down the valley to solo Troutdale Pinnacle. We’d go out whatever the weather. It was mainly over a period of 2 years or so in 1996-7 then we climbed less together. I regret not seeing more of him in the last few years, I was living in Wales and to be honest a bit on my arse financially which limited getting back to the Lakes as much as I would have liked. I expected him to be around for a lot longer as well. He always liked to hear about what I’d been up to. We went up Hedera (Ivy) Grooves on Lower Falcon with my sister Jennifer on a nice evening and mum must have come out to get pictures, it was good crack and was one of my last times with him.
In your teenage years soloing was a very big part of your climbing – why was that do you think?
I’d agreed to meet Adam Hocking at Lower Falcon and he must have forgotten. I was really keen to climb, so slowly went up a VS called Spin Up. It felt weird, climbing without a rope, at first but after a few routes I loved it. You could do so many routes so fast and it necessarily made you develop good technique, fitness and confidence. It’s a rural area and was before mobiles so finding partners wasn’t always easy either. It gave me a great grounding for serious leads as the dangerous bits on E5s didn’t feel too bad when compared even to soloing E2s like Saxon and Vertigo. I was quite a bit of a loner when I was younger so it seemed to suit me, I’m a bit more sociable nowadays.
What was your mindset then and has it changed since?
Everyone changes! My mindset when younger was pretty out there. I told myself that if I could physically do something I should do it. In the 90s in the Lakes any route I’d not soloed was a candidate to do as when soloing it felt like doing a completely different climb.
You can read the full article in Issue 140 of Climb on sale now