Arguably, Extreme Rock is the ultimate tick list in British rock climbing, comprising of 180 routes within Scotland, Wales and England. The list comes from the routes chosen by the late Ken Wilson and Bernard Newman, to feature in their celebrated and highly sought-after 1987 book of the same name.
Nobody, until now, has climbed every route within its covers. It is a remarkable achievement by James McHaffie, considering the geographical spread of the book, from the Outer Hebrides to Lands End and the span of grades from sport 8b to trad E9: including the serious undertakings of The Indian Face and Master's Wall on Clogwyn D’ur Arddu.
We spoke to McHaffie shortly before he headed over to Raven Tor, from his home in north Wales, for another appointment with his last route on the list, Revelations (8b):
Can you remember your first Extreme Rock routes?
1997 was the year when I did my first Extreme Rock routes, Bitter Oasis in the Lake District and Left Wall in north Wales. Of course back then I had no plan to climb all the routes in that book. I’d only heard about it.
So when did the idea to climb them all take hold?
Around 2012/13 I was given a copy of Extreme Rock as a present and realised I’d done all the ones in the Lake District section. That’s when the thought first crossed my mind of trying to climb them all. The best of British climbing if you like. I properly committed to it when Ken Wilson passed away in 2016 but had no idea how difficult Master’s Wall on Cloggy was going to be.
So tell us about that route?
For me Master’s was the hardest and the one I had the most history with. As a 19 year-old in 2000 I tried to onsight it. You think you’re invincible when you’re that age. It turned into the biggest epic I’d ever had in climbing dangerous routes. I ground to a halt, standing in semi-balance on poor feet with two crimps, facing a ground fall for about two hours. I untied and dropped my ropes so that my belayer, Adam Wilde, could run round to the top and literally drop me a life-line. Two 9mm ropes tied together.
I did Indian Face (E9) in 2013 on the same day as after looking at it on abseil. I returned to Master’s in 2018 and had to lower-off on shit gear on my first attempt where you break right out of Indian Face. After a trip to Scotland to climb Flodden and Cougar I abseiled Master’s again before finally laying my near nemesis to rest. Although graded E7 in the guidebook it felt as hard as Indian Face the way I went and I’m convinced I took the same line as Jerry Moffatt (first ascentionist). [Note: Guidebook description makes the point “… though the exact position at which climbers have moved right has varied.” Read McHaffie’s account on his blog.
Ironic in a way that it has all come down to a safe, short sport route as the remaining challenge?
Yep, luckily it has easy access. I first went on Revelations (8b) at Raven Tor (Derbyshire) in 2009 with Ryan Pasquill when I was doing a lot of bouldering and got close. At the time I wasn’t thinking about Extreme Rock. The crux is low down with a big powerful reach off a poor pocket, over a roof, to a layaway. It has got harder over the years, not just because I’ve got older, but because the pocket has got worse for whatever reason. I tried it a couple of times last year but then it got too warm and the pandemic prevented me travelling over until rcently. It’s a route with a lot of history so not a bad one to finish on.