Here Pete Robins talks to James McHaffie about his ascent of Indian Face, but also about the countless other hard Trad routes he has knocked off this summer and he tries to draw James out on thorny topics such as grades and insitu pegs... What does James think?
(It's also worth noting that since this article was put together James has been on a few more trad climbing trips, and added even more routes to his tally including an onsight of the stunning looking Dalriada (E7) on the Cobbler. The routes below are only from a couple of months earlier in the summer... Gulp!)
The second incredible spell of stunning weather in north Wales is now behind us. The first spell at the end of May was unfortunately missed by the visiting rabble of German DMM-sponsored hones, including the world-leading star, Alex Megos. They climbed some classic easy routes, and Alex did Wales’ best boulder problem project, but we all hoped Alex and the team would blitz LPT and on-sight Liquid Ambar and The Big Bang. A missed opportunity by us locals perhaps, when next will one of the best climbers in the world visit north Wales?
This second dry spell was hotter and longer – nearly too hot even for Cloggy! But not quite; most notably, Caff, Calum Muskett, and George Ullrich have attacked the Black Cliff with gusto and shattered several long established horror-route reputations on the Final Judgement headwall. But the really big news is their rapid 5th, 6th, and 7th ascents, respectively, of The Indian Face – the most famous traditional climb in the world. I decided to ask Caff some questions about all this and the rest of his trad season so far:
You’ve spent this summer mainly trad climbing and, impressively, you’ve done a stack of really hard and scary routes - some attempted on-sight, and others head-pointed. It’s getting quite hard keeping up Caff! Can you remind us what you’ve done?
Here's a list of what I have done in the last couple of months.
Box of Blood
Craig Dorys, Lleyn Peninsula
Scary and hard at the top, a great effort from Leigh McGinley.
Craig Dorys, Lleyn Peninsula
Good value, thin crux when pumped. Plenty of mid cams handy.
Very good and pretty safe, but pumpy.
Safe but big fallout, brilliant!
Good, soft for E6
Good, probably soft E5
E9 6c (8a+)
Wet with shit pegs first session, but better pegs bashed in after!
4 sessions (two trips)
Pretty safe but long and hard. Done with Ben Bransby.
Margins of the Mind
Checked out the final hard move on abseil, after failing on-sight 1 foot below. Could be hard E8, felt 7c+ for me with a crux last move, 10 foot above a sky-hook and pretty poor RP. If that went...it could be serious.
The Indian Face
Which ascent, considering the style you did it in, was the hardest and why?
I think my first effort on Margins of the Mind felt the pushiest on the comfort zone although on Box of Blood and Bubbly Boson I needed to dig deep. The Indian Face, having assessed most of the hard moves over a couple of hours, felt comparable to on-sighting a serious E7 also. It’s hard to judge which was hardest between the options really. Longhope was hardest physically but failure didn’t hold any 'consequence'.
Everyone’s a bit shocked that The Indian Face had three ascents in three days - crazy! You pissed it, having the audacity to not even top-rope it out right, but this was no surprise to most of us. How about Calum and George, though, hey? Also amazingly quick and nonchalant repeats. How good an effort were these ascents?
I think they are both a great effort. I slept badly and was nervous all day knowing they were going to go there to do it, I can’t think there is another route anywhere I'd be as concerned they were trying. It’s something you've really got to want to do to risk it all on. As it was, Calum had to ask somebody who didn’t know him for a belay! It’s a long time to remain focused knowing any mistake could have dire consequences; no islands of retreat and being scared anywhere on it really isn’t a good option. I was glad I was working the day they went up as the tension at the crag would have been too much for me. Each of us did it with pretty minimal preparation.
Is it the case that the climbing on Indian Face is so easy these days, that it’s like an E5 leader soloing an E3 they’ve top-roped, or is it more the case that the route is as hard as everyone thought it was before these three ascents, and your all just super-hones at the top of your game?
It depends what the E3 is! Not many E5 leaders who seconded Prana or Lubyanka would then solo them, so if they're the E3s, then yeah, it’s comparable. But like any red-point, the more time you put in on it the surer of the outcome you can be.
If anything, the aura of Indian Face has increased for me, it was more dangerous than I expected it to be. It is indeed a piece of piss by modern standards but it can still give you tired calves by the time you're half way up! The move off the rest for Dawes would have been desperate as I managed to reach an ok crimp with my feet on the ledge. We all had strong reasons for going for it. I've run out of many routes locally to try, and had unfinished business as well as a peaked level of curiosity for Indian Face. Calum hasn’t stopped talking about it since he got into climbing and has his youthful confidence. George is going like a steam train at the moment, on-sighting Shaft of a Dead Man which is 7c with fiddly small gear as the pegs have gone. You don't have to be that good a climber to get up Indian Face but you do have to decide that you’re willing to risk your life to 'tick' a route for probably 20 minutes+. If it becomes more popular with people thinking it’s easy and not giving it the respect it's due, I think it’s a matter of time before somebody dies on it - that’s my prediction.
You’ve referred to some routes you’ve head-pointed with sport grades. You can clearly on-sight E7’s ‘till the cows come home – nobody else comes close to you with this card. But you elect to ‘check out’, in some form or another, harder routes. Do E8 and above grades make sense to you?
I like the UK grading system. I think the harder routes are too hard to have been scrutinised by lots of people apart from the ones which have easier climbing levels and accessibility like The End of the Affair and Gaia, or have good gear like Requiem and Bleed in Hell. For many people who climb them, it'll be their first E8/9 so they have little reference point for how near the mark the grade is. Some E8s play to an on-sight or ground up approach; The End of the Affair because we're all taller than Johnny, Point Blank as it's more or less a clip up and the ones Ryan’s [Pasquill] done which all look like harder propositions! The harder routes I’ve done and ‘checked out’, I could not have on-sighted - the gear was too fiddly and hidden, or the climbing too knacky, etc.
The harder grades don't always portray a clear vision of the risks and the difficulties. For instance, E10 7a would run down the lines from E9 6c and from the super serious grade of E8 6b which should and usually do involve death from a 6b move. Yet you watch people lobbing off E10s and E11s a lot before doing them? Therefore, the risk-factor on many hard (E10+) routes can be a little overstated by the UK grade.
If this was the case, do you think that climber’s choice of routes and styles of ascent would change? Would your ambitions change?
It may well change some climber’s choice of route, partly for reasons stated above. It would possibly reduce the macho side of it a bit although bold routes are likely to retain their reputations. My ambitions wouldn’t change, I just like doing good and often historic routes.
You’ve given Chicama, a sea cliff route which relies on pegs, a trad grade and a sport grade. Is this because, in its present state with recently ‘up-graded’ peg placements, it felt like a clip-up? How do you put a trad grade to this, as the peg placements deteriorate?
If you look at it as a small bit of rock giving pleasure to a handful of people, I'd recommend people rap off and knock some more pegs in before climbing it. But yeah, Chicama is like some of the hard Pembroke routes; a bold clip-up. Even some sport routes may be more serious - your route Tambourine Man is pretty badly bolted Pete!
I strongly believe that pegs have no place on sea cliffs, because they rapidly corrode. The notion that they only fit into natural weaknesses is ridiculous – armed with a drill, a hammer and some glue, a peg will go anywhere, and nobody knows any different! In my mind, abseiling in and bashing a square peg into a round hole is more akin to placing a bolt than the ground-up ethic of placing nuts and cams and slings (I’m not, however, advocating placing bolts on sea cliffs!). But you’re the one out there attempting to repeat most of these routes, on-sight and having to trust the pegs, so what’s your opinion? Is there a problem as you see it, and is there an answer?
I’m really not too arsed about the sea cliff/peg debate. Some routes are reliant on them and would be shit without them. Peg placing on summer climbs is mainly a thing of the past also. Take the Pemroke routes: Souls, From a Distance, Ghost Train; great routes that are mainly thread-reliant but people were rambling on a few years ago about how bad threads were? Routes like Erioca on Pentire are E4 now the key pegs gone which will stop it being an option for lots of people. The Bells, the Bells wouldn't be a route without the peg to aim for and pass as a landmark.
I've had many pegs snap through clipping a Krab in them, some others through falling on them and I've had a thread I'd clipped explode the rock when I fell which bust my ear. I'd made the decision to attempt the climbs and the in-situ gear offered some hope. If it's crap it’s my problem and sea cliff pegs I just use as pointers for where to go. Routes like Subterranean, which is reliant on two pegs, could do with them replaced, mind, as it's serious - I think you should do it Pete!
I don't really know anyone who can be arsed placing pegs nowadays but if people are replacing old ones I think it’s a good effort as I'd probably just read a book being too lazy. I don't really have a strong opinion on it. I think there are more important debates I could have, like what colour T-shirt to wear for work tomorrow?
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