Return to Indian Face

© Alun Hughes

In this article, James McHaffie talks about his recent ascent of Indian Face. Despite a near death experience on the wall over a decade prior, when James strayed off route climbing onsight on the E7 Masters' Wall, he was drawn back to this blank slab on Cloggy, making the fastest and least practiced ascent of Indian Face to date. Here he tells his story...

James alone on the upper section of The Indian Face, E9 6c, Clogwyn Du'r Arddu  © Al Hughes
James alone on the upper section of The Indian Face, E9 6c, Clogwyn Du'r Arddu
© Al Hughes

In 1986, Johnny Dawes, one of the world's climbing greats, hit a 'purple patch'; setting routes which can, and do, put some of the best climbers today to the test. Some of these routes are: The Medium, The Quarryman, End of the Affair, Gaia, Fire Escape and perhaps his most famous route, Indian Face.

Each of these routes pushed the boundaries of bold, hard climbing and I've watched some of the best climbers in the world today fail on some of these climbs!

Some people believe trad climbing has not moved on much since then, and with these climbs it's easy to see why, however I think those people live on a different planet to mine. In the 1990s you had characters like Vickers, Sellers, and Bransby showing what being super fit and strong could do for your trad climbing. They were onsighting multiple E7s and the odd E8, with near misses on harder. Glenda Huxter onsighted E7 and the 'Brats' (Leo Houlding and Patch Hammond) pretty much onsighted El Nino on El Cap in 1998.

The 00s arrived and so did the next generation. Ryan Pasquill onsighted multiple gritstone E8s, a tricky medium to do this on. Was this getting done in the 1980s? Lucy Creamer amongst many other climbers continued to push the limits. Now Hazel Findlay is making rapid work of 8th grade trad routes on El Cap, and could give anybody a run for their money on blank corners. Dave MacLeod has climbed a route of 8c on Ben Nevis with poor protection. People are telling me climbing hasn't moved on? Maybe they can get up there to tell me how it compares with the 1980s stuff, in fact don't bother, I'll tell you: it'll be way bloody harder and bolder because standards have moved on. That's a minor part of the British progression bubble. In the 1980s Peter Croft soloed Astroman on a few occasions, and Wolfgang Gullich onsight soloed Separate Reality. Today, Honnold has onsight soloed 5.12d cracks and done things which would give seasoned headpointers nightmares, things which you cannot pin an E grade on.

Clogwyn Du'r Arddu
© Alun Hughes

That being said Indian Face can still send a chill down the spine and deservedly so. Pete Robins and Nic Sellers went and top-roped it years ago and Pete came back saying: "I'd rather play Russian roulette with my life than lead that climb". This is someone who in a single day at the Gritstone edge of Curbar, onsighted End of the Affair, ground-upped Renegade Master having just fallen off the top missing the mats, before climbing a V11 at the end of the day. Pete also fell off the top of Piece of Mind before getting back on and doing it, leaving his partner so psyched out that he went and sat in the car not wanting to climb again that day. Will Perrin once said that: "at what Pete's good at he's one of the best in the world" and I can confirm this. There is no doubt in my mind that if Pete decided he wanted to climb Indian Face he'd walk up it, but it had obviously made an impression on one of the best climbers Britain has ever seen. This climb retains its aura, I can guarantee that.

James on the finishing jugs of The Indian Face, Dawes' 1986 testpiece
© Al Hughes

This July the weather was due to be great for 2 weeks in Wales, a rare treat after last year. On Tuesday 9th July, I set off walking up to Cloggy with two ropes, a rack and a Grigri. At some point the week before I'd decided I was going to go up and try to do Indian Face in a day. Walking up I thought about the interesting characters who had been on, or climbed it, their motivations, efforts and recollections. I planned to try the crux moves on abseil, check the gear, and toothbrush some of the footholds before George Ullrich was to meet me at 14.00 and if I felt prepared...

I had a near religious belief that this was how it was going to happen, although this has nearly brought me to grief on more than one occasion over the years, but having good faith in the efficacy of one's performance is pretty paramount, with doubt being the number one cause of error in many sports. Now was as good a time as any, as my disposition for the bold has deteriorated over the years and it is not likely to improve. I've done a lot of trad climbs this year and had done Gribin Wall Climb (E9) with Calum Muskett the other morning just before the rain came in. I'd been on it once before after climbing the next-door Rare Lichen (E9) and after a quick re-acquaintance on a rope it went ok. Nick Dixon said he found it as hard as Indian Face so it seemed an opportune time to test this.

When I was much younger I'd planned to try Indian Face ground-up but, being older, not as bold and having a mortgage to pay, it dawned on me it was not going to happen. On the Monday I climbed with Ryan Pasquill and Katy Whittaker in the peak, explaining my plan to try some of the moves before leading it, I think I may have disappointed Ryan. I was looking forward to seeing what the climb was about from the safety of an ab rope, and was also very curious as to where I had got stuck 13 years before, on still one of the closest calls I think I've had despite a great deal of youthful soloing.

In the summer of 2000 I made my first and most eventful visit to The Black Cliff with my friend Adam Wilde. We climbed Vember and back at the base I ran over to some climbers in the White Slab area to borrow their guide for a description of Master's Wall. Booting up at the base of the groove, Adam asked me if I'm going for Indian Face. I'm shocked and actually worried as I did give it some thought for a moment. At this point in time I was ridiculously confident, I'd been soloing for some years and a growth spurt suddenly made many more climbs possible. Wall climbs suited me down to the ground and I didn't expect any problems with this climb. The week before I'd made short work of the E7 The Bells, The Bells at Gogarth and a few days after in the Lake District I'd soloed up Grand Alliance in a few minutes just before it rained. Most of my climbing was without ropes which made the serious climbs feel okay, and I was planning on trying to pay homage to big Ron by trying his '100' in the Lakes and Wales. However Masters' Wall didn't go to plan. Reading the Paul Williams guide now and looking at the picture of Moffat on the route I realise I went badly wrong...

Pulling through the first roof, I move up and after spending a few minutes trying to find a rock 6, I throw a skyhook on and rather than moving up right, which is where Masters Wall goes, I climb about halfway up the groove on Indian Face before reaching right and committing to two or three hard sequences which felt desperate. Getting stood on a 1cm edge 10cm long, I thought I was in but I soon realised I couldn't move right, I daren't move up as although there was something to aim for, if it was not very good I would be dead and the footholds appeared to run out. I tried to escape onto the resting ledge on Indian Face just up to my left, feeling pretty desperate by then. I couldn't.

Climbed out, I untied and dropped the ropes to Adam. What followed was a truly life-changing experience. I'd been on the climb for some time and Adam didn't know the cliff, so it took him a while to throw the two tied together 9mm ropes across the face to me from quite far up to the right. By this time I'd been in the sun for a long time, I'd thrown my rack off to save weight, most of my fingertips were bleeding, I couldn't feel my toes, and my tendons had been screaming for more than 30 minutes. I thought I had seconds to go for 30 minutes, but you do try your best to hold on to life. It's hard to describe those last 30 minutes on that bloody wall, but being tortured before knowing they're going to finish you off is perhaps not too far off the mark. When the rope reached me I struggled to tie a proper knot, I think I got a weird slippery hitch before I sailed 50 foot down right into Vember's drainpipe crack and quickly slid down that until at last the knot held.

In hindsight, I still doubt whether a climb like this is worth the risk.

James McHaffie on the risk involved in climbing The Indian Face - E9 6c

Arriving at the base I was totally blown, Adam was very much the same. I left my rack and my rope at the cliff, I didn't think I'd be climbing again and I wanted to disappear from beneath the jaws, unable to look at the face. The next day me and Adam went down to Cwm Pennant and I had the best tasting egg sandwich I've ever had, and with my feet in the river I was loving it. It took a good month to feel my toes again and over the years when people asked if I was going back for Master's Wall, I knew there was absolutely no way. Seb Grieve went on Indian Face soon after and was good enough to send me back the few skyhooks and poor runners from the climb, his note read "none of it would of held btw", I've still got the note. It put a damper on operation 'upward movement' for a brief time, but it may have saved something worse happening at a later date.

Arriving at Clogwyn Du'r Arddu on Tuesday 9th July, 2013, there was only one other team on the cliff. This 32 year-old is a very different person than the teenager who was there in 2000. Physically supreme by light years, mentally this person is a husk of the young. The teenager was, if possible, more ignorant and extremely fatalistic, thinking it was better to die climbing than of old age or cancer, hated materialism, the thought of any 'office work' was anathema, his faith was climbing and he was willing to risk his life regularly for a laugh, as life seemed too fickle an affair to take seriously and he certainly didn't know what sex was.

The modern me however, was wondering about his career and how to pick up an office job, he knew what it was to 'choke' when soloing things he thought he'd be doing as a grandad, he knew important life matters suffer from taking climbing too seriously. His partner had pointed out how nice the roses looked in their garden that very morning, a sharp contrast to risking your life for one climb put up by a near madman in the 80s.

James McHaffie moving up to the resting foothold on the Cloggy testpiece, The Indian Face, E9 6c  © Al Hughes
James McHaffie moving up to the resting foothold on the Cloggy testpiece, The Indian Face, E9 6c
© Al Hughes

I made a base, and after looking up the starting groove and up the ominous scoop above, I scrambled round to the top and abseiled over. Looking down the crux headwall to the resting foothold, I'm glad I never tried it from the deck even though Redhead would think me someone of low libido. I've never been on a climb with so many 'almost holds' for both hands and feet, where it's easy to get it wrong turning what could be a 5c move into a 6b one. I messed about on this bit, getting a vague method for the step off the rest ledge I was happy with. I went lower and inspected the gear at ¾ height, the 'nest'. I was a little disappointed as Neil Dyer had said he thought there were some okay wires, and Al Hughes had said when Johnny did West Indian Face there were some good bits of protection. I found 1 okay RP, but if not placed perfectly it would pull through and it was hard to judge if it would take a fall. 3 other RP1s near it weren't that inspiring either. I checked the moves and gear lower down, and was slightly appalled. The filed-down rock 6 mentioned in the old guide is not there which is why I didn't find it in 2000. Where I presume it went, a quarter in offset 5 or sideways RP5 may take some bodyweight. Three metres beyond, a 3rd-in sideways rock 7 again possibly takes some bodweight. These 2 bits are your pro until the 'gear' nest at ¾ height, I can only think the gear has changed over the years for Redhead to survive a fall down the groove or else the 'Gods' were truly smiling on him that day. Adam Wainwright's words about it essentially being a solo began to make sense. I checked the trickier moves on the way back up and brushed them feeling nervous knowing it would be my last opportunity that day before a crunch time decision on whether to try it.

At the base, a few friends have come up to the cliff, Evans, Emma, John, Luke, Will and Al Hughes. Asking the time my gut turns as they say it's 13.20, 40 minutes before George arrives when I was hoping for 2 hours to decide. The surety I'd felt before checking the climb was gone and I spent the brief time brooding with myself. The word 'unjustifiable' was in my mind a good deal of the time. My legs had felt a bit wobbly when walking off the top and a foot shake almost anywhere on the climb could be more than likely fatal. I was disappointed I wasn't the 19 year old who told himself if he could physically climb a route, he would climb the route. George arrives and I tell him I've not decided. I get racked up anyway. Al Hughes asks if I could down-climb from a little way up which produces a positive response from me as I think to myself, "I could down climb the whole bloody route so what's the problem?"

James McHaffie edging his way up on the fifth ascent of The Indian Face  © John Orr
James McHaffie edging his way up on the fifth ascent of The Indian Face
© John Orr
Technical, bold climbing on The Indian Face, typical style of the 1980s and especially the Dawes...  © John Orr
Technical, bold climbing on The Indian Face, typical style of the 1980s and especially the Dawes...
© John Orr

James McHaffie Top Trump I still had not decided whether to try it, but I set off up the groove quickly anyhow. Stepping left through the first overlap, I climb poorly and 5 metres beyond I plug in the second shit runner, stand on my heels for a minute to rest my toes and have a word with myself. Letting being scared affect your performance on this climb is a poor idea, but telling your body that is easier said than done. I thought briefly about down-climbing, but thought I could still slip off and end up on the ground from 15 metres. I figured it was safest to carry on. I climb the groove a bit differently to how I did playing on my Grigri and plugging in the 'nest' of gear, I grab the rest foothold 4 metres beyond and get stood on it. I blue-tack two poor skyhooks on to the rock and rest for 5 or 10 minutes. I know that it's all about the next move for me as beyond that the climbing eases enough that it would feel just like soloing an E4 back in the day. I committed to it with a slightly different foot sequence than I'd tried and went to the top fast before any day-terrors could set in. It admittedly felt good latching the finishing jug and although I'm uncertain if it's worth the risk at least it means I can 'tick' Extreme Rock now. George follows up easily and Calum afterwards.

I'd rather play Russian roulette with my life than lead that climb

Pete Robins talking about The Indian Face - E9 6c

The Indian Face is a true head game with relatively steady climbing (by modern standards), but with the seriousness impeding your performance. There are lots of sections that it'd be easy to mess up and get scared on. If you were as short as Johnny Dawes, the move off the rest ledge would be extremely hard and even more dangerous as you couldn't reach the better crimps without an extra move on poor footholds, really impressive.

A few days later, I was leading a group on Tryfan and knew both Calum and George were going up with the intention of doing the climb. Calum couldn't find anyone to belay him and Dan Parkes, who had just climbed Great Wall, got asked to belay him. Thinking it was just to top rope he went up, but when Calum started pulling the rope, asked: "you mean to lead it!?!?". I was nervous that day thinking about going to tell Calum's parents if something went wrong. When I got a text, I was relieved and when I didn't get a text about George after 2 hours I got nervous again. I was glad when the day was over and, in hindsight, I still doubt about whether a climb like this is worth the risk. I'll have a vaguely positive outlook on it, but if anything had happened to Cal or George, I would have essentially been abetting a tragedy and how close it came is anyone's guess.

Indian Face deserves to retain its aura. Even after climbing it, knowing friends intended to go up the same week made me sleep badly on their behalf. It's E8 6b to a foot ledge at 30 metres. You do an easy 6c move which leads into more 6a/b for 5 more metres. A slip anywhere on it is likely to be the end. There are not many routes I can think of which have such catastrophic implications all the way up unless you are soloing.

Be warned.

James is a full time climbing instructor and coach. You can book him via his website.

James's Athlete Page 20 posts 1 video

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9 Sep, 2013
Very good – never seen JM writing before, but evidently he can do it. Strange how rare it is to find a truly inarticulate climber, compared to say footballers. So is this filed-down 6 wire that should be present, but isn’t, the one good piece of gear Masters was always supposed to have, then? jcm
9 Sep, 2013
Oh yea, btw, what ever happened to Patch Hammond? You don't hear about him any more. (and btw I don't think Ryan P did exactly 'onsight multiple grit E8s', did he? If you want to get fussy about what 'onsight' means, I'm not sure he's done any.) jcm
9 Sep, 2013
Harrowing, honest and compelling. A good read.
9 Sep, 2013
Best thing I've read in ages, feel physically sick! A truly harrowing read, closest I think I want to get to this route!
9 Sep, 2013
Dave Macleod almost gave the impression that the crucial bits of gear were OK, but then I've got this hunch that he's probably one of the most skilful placers of climbing gear on this planet.
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