When people start discussing the best British climbers, James McHaffie—or ‘Caff’ as he is usually called—will always have a place on the table. Often referred to as the Dark Lord of British Trad (for his sense of humour as much as his climbing style) Caff has a truly astounding track record of hard trad ascents, including onsights of more than 80 E7s and the odd E8 and a tally of over 200 routes graded E7 to E9. He has also shown top form in the arena of hardcore sport climbing, breaking into the magic 9th grade twice, and has proved to be just as effective on big walls, including modern test pieces on El Capitan and the Grand Capucin.
Caff grew up in Keswick in the Lake District and started out climbing classics, such as Troutdale Pinnacle (HS 4a) on Black Crag in Borrowdale and Overhanging Bastion (VS 5a) on Castle Rock, with his father when he was 15.
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.
By his late teens Caff had embraced the outdoor lifestyle fully, splitting his time between working in a climbing shop in Ambleside, instructing and 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 crags. 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 Caff was onsighting E6 and E7 routes with increasing regularity, including the terrifically serious The Bells, The Bells! (E7 6b) at Gogarth. 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.
Caff revelled in the North Wales trad scene and 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 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 (8b+) on Rainbow Slab and establish two new 8b routes of his own: The Serpent Vein and Sauron.
Caff also excelled on the big walls. In 2008 he visited the Tsaranoro Valley in Madagascar and climbed six pitches (including the 8c crux slab) of the 10-pitch Tough Enough and the following year he made a fast ascent of one of the Alps' hardest rock routes, the Voie Petit (8b) on the Grand Capucin in the Mont Blanc Range.
Over the winter of 2009/10 Caff spent three months living in Sheffield and hanging out in the Peak. Highlights of this period included a ground up ascent of the stunning 8A highball, Careless Torque at Stanage and a flash of End of the Affair (E8 6c) at Curbar.
As for sport climbing, Caff had onsighted up to 8a+ but had never spent much time redpointing on limestone. All that changed in 2010 when he turned his attention to the hard sport routes on Lower Pen Trwyn (LPT).
“I made the shift to sport partly because I've done much of the trad stuff near where I live,” says Caff. “To do harder sport offers a quick area of improvement and opens up more great routes.”
Infanticide (8c) 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 (9a) had remained unrepeated for 15 years and 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 raised his game and it soon showed as he redpointed up to the lip of the upper slab on repeated occasions; however, this proved to be the stopping point and repeated psyche-testing failures ensued.
Realising he needed uninterrupted focus to succeed he booked a nine-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 to have climbed 9a.
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 unfinished slate project in Twll Mawr, Dinorwig Quarry. After some consideration Caff suggested a grade of 9a for The Meltdown, making it a contender for the hardest off-vertical pitch in the world. Later in the year he climbed the Pre-Miur Wall (5.13c/d) on El Capitan, Yosemite, with Hazel Findlay and Neil Dyer.
2013 brought a renewed focus on trad climbing and an astonishing roll call of hard ascents. The previous year Caff had made the trip 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 seemed more appropriate.
As 2013 progressed there came a slew of E7 onsights, 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, to name a few. A swift repeat of the unspeakably bold Indian Face (E9 6b/c) at Cloggy was impressive given that Caff didn’t even bother top roping the whole route before going for the lead. He later climbed Margins of the Mind (E8 6c), next to Indian Face, after only checking the crux on abseil.
Also in North Wales he made rapid repeats of Gribin Wall (E8/9 6c) and Rare Lichen (E8/9 6c) on Clogwyn y Tarw, and over at Trearddur Bay, Chicama (E8/9 6c) was given short shrift, too.
Caff also made 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 he 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. Then another trip to Yosemite, this time with Dan McManus, resulted in free ascents of the classic big wall climbs Salathé 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.
In early 2015 Caff demonstrated his fitness with redpoints of Megalopa (8c+) at LPT and Mind Control (8c+) in Oliana. Then, in April with Pete Robins, he made the second ascent of the three-pitch route Coeur de Lion E8 7a at Twll Mawr in North Wales, 28 years after it was first climbed by Johnny Dawes.
Come the summer Caff was in full trad mode, and by the end of the year had climbed—onsight or ground-up—25 routes graded E6 to E8, including Divided years (E8 6c) in the Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland; Extinction (E8 6c) at Gogarth and Nowt but a Fleein’ Thing (E8 6c) at Wasdale Screes in Cumbria. Caff also had what he called a “good day” in Yorkshire onsighting Supercool (8a+), Cave Route Left-hand (7c+), Dogpoint (7c+), and then a warm down repeat of Mescalito (7c+).
2016 was equally busy with first ascents and hard trad onsights. In the first half of the year Caff established The Gravity Wave (E8 6c) at Trearddur Bay, Dark Religion (E9 7a) on Dinas Mot (a contender for hardest trad route in Wales) and House of Talons (E9 6c) on Dinas Cromlech (protected by an array of 12 skyhooks and little else). He also onsighted John Dunne's The Great Escape (E8 6b, 6c, 6b)at Cioch na-h-oige on the Isle of Arran.
In the summer, amid the turmoil of the Brexit vote, Caff and Dan McManus established the politically named Divided Britain (E7 6c) on the famously adventurous Gogarth South Stack. (The following January Caff put up another pertinently named route: Nightmare Inauguration (E8 6b) at Porth Dafarch).
Caff finished off 2016 by establishing a new highball arête named Devil's Blade (8A/+) at the back of Cwm Idwal and by repeating the bold and rarely trafficked Skye Wall (E8 6B) on Coir’ Uisg Buttress on the Isle of Skye and adding a new line, Skye Fall (E6 6b).
2017 and 2018 were a continuation of the same theme. Back on the Isle of Skye in May Caff and Dan Varian established a new 130m 3-pitch E9 (6b, 6b/c, 6b) called Moonrise Kingdom, again on Coir’ Uisg Buttress. The following month Caff made the first ascent of The Cumbrian Face (E8 7a) at Cloggy and in August sent The Big Issue (E9 6c) at Pembroke.
In May 2018 Caff established three new lines in the Llanberis Pass, The Trouble Bird (E5 6b), The Sorry Face (E7 6c) and Youtopia (E8 6c) and also found time to tick Once Upon a Time in the South West (E9 6c) and The Walk of Life (E9 6c) at Dyer’s Lookout in Devon. Later that same month Caff visited Northern Ireland and ticked the hardest route at Fairhead, Ricky Bell’s Rathlin Effect, a 70-metre-long pitch that Caff describes as the best pitch he’s ever climbed and well worth the E9 grade.
But it was July of 2018 and his ascent of Master’s Wall (E7 6b) that surely stands out for James McHaffie. Eighteen years after a terrifying experience as a ballsy 18-year-old when he became stuck on the face during his onsight attempt and had to wait nearly two hours to be rescued, Caff was persuaded to return to the wall that nearly claimed him as he drew closer to completing Ken Wilson’s Extreme Rock ticklist of 180 routes, on which Master’s features. After bailing on a dodgy skyhook and an RP two weeks before Caff subsequently put the route to bed and expects to finish Extreme Rock by the end of 2019.
Despite his incredible climbing résumé 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 MIA-qualified instructor at Plas y Brenin for seven years before working as an instructor for other providers, and nowadays still dabbles in the odd Mountain Leader training or assessment and rock climbing guiding. However, most of his work schedule is taken up by his position as the BMC Youth and Equity Officer, helping give youngsters from urban areas more climbing and outdoor opportunities.
“It’s pretty varied work which ranges from writing articles, flapping with loads of excel spreadsheets and running fundraisers, to course directing the climbing weekends,” says Caff. “Shout out to any volunteers who give their time to help, I really appreciate people giving their time to help.”
Caff is also is also active in terms of climate advocacy, writing articles for the BMC and on his personal blog to inform people on climate change. He also continues to choose relevant route names for his new lines, including Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the Invisible Girl.
“We are now in an even worse position with greenhouse gas emissions having increased considerably and it still hardly registers in peoples’ minds as something they should be concerned with,” says Caff. “I’ve tried to highlight the seriousness of the problem and that people can and should be doing something about it.”
When he’s not climbing the Dark Lord can be seen fell running in Snowdonia or giving it his all on the dancefloor. Alongside physical fitness Caff is invested in his brain health and emotional well-being, enjoying activities like reading, crosswords, chess and heckling friends "as much as he can get away with."