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.
Since the book was published some of the routes have changed due to rockfall and are even described as no longer climbable?
Cougar on Creag an Dubh Loch was one of those and I was worried about it as essentially a whole pitch had disappeared. But I reclimbed it in 2018 with Ferdia Earle. Originally an E3 it’s now an E6 with a 6b move. Megaton on Syke was another but it was fine, just a bit loose. I’d done Return of the Natives in Pembroke before that fell down.
Controlled Burning on the island of Lundy was a close-call. Originally E3 5c, a couple of rockfalls have dramatically affected the lower half. Tony Stone had done it shortly before I tried it in September 2018 and said the start was a bit pokey. He wasn’t wrong. A hold broke and a piece of gear ripped putting me on the deck among the boulders. I came away with a gammy wrist but it could have been a lot worse. I went back in 2019 and was glad to put that one behind me. It’d now be an E7 for an onsight read article.
What if anyone asks ‘what has he ever done on grit?’
Well, there are some great gritstone routes in there like Beau Geste (E7), London Wall (E5) and Profit of Doom (E5). Linden (E6) at Curbar was tough. But a stand-out memory was onsighting the brilliant arete of Master’s Edge (E7).
Anything else that was particularly memorable?
The Naked Ape (E5) at the Dubh Loch meant a lot to me as it was put up by Lake District activist and the exceptional climber, Pete Whillance. Most of the routes in the book are as good as anything in the UK. If I had to take any out I’d say Mythical Monster and Quiet Waters in Huntsman’s Leap aren’t that great. Heart of the Sun at Baggy Point is a bit dirty and loose while Controlled Burning wouldn’t be missed.
2018 was the year I broke the back of the task. The weather was good and I was freelancing so had more time for the big ones in Scotland like Kingpin (E3) high up on Bidean nam Bian, Stairway to Heaven (E4) on Skye, The Big Lick (E4) on Harris, Flodden (E6) on Creag an Dubh Loch and Master’s Wall of course back in Wales. A couple of trips up north in 2019 with my partner Emma finished off the Scottish ones with Megaton (E4), The Clearances (E4), Unicorn (E1) and Scansor (E2).