ARTICLE: Perfect Partners #4 - James McHaffie and Ben Bransby

by Tom Ripley 07/Dec/2017
This article has been read 5,010 times

In this series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and find out what they really think of one another...


I've often heard James McHaffie described as the dark lord of British climbing. If Caff is the dark lord then Ben Bransby is the court jester. The pair are two of Britain's very best rock climbers, excelling at all disciplines - hard, onsight trad in particular. They've now been climbing together for nearly twenty years and if you read carefully between the lines of this interview, you'll find a few backhanded compliments...

Crux pitch on the Voie Petit - 8b, 182 kb
Crux pitch on the Voie Petit - 8b
© Adam Long, Aug 2009

Caff on Ben

How did you first meet?

Ben came to the Lakes in 1998/9 with Pete Robins. When Pete left Ben spent a week dossing at my house. Jesus he stank. I rarely bathed myself but was having to drop hints about how he was welcome to have a bath.

Did you know Ben by reputation before meeting him?

I knew he was the guy who beat my friend Adam Hocking in the competition scene on a regular basis. Hocking was climbing exceptionally well when he was 14 so I figured he'd be a handy climber.

What was your first impression?

Totally blown away. Not in the love at first sight scenario however - Ben looked much like Penfold from Dangermouse. He had a bit of a 'moonface' with glasses and was pretty short and quiet, at first.

I'd been trad climbing a lot since starting in 1996 and thought I was going pretty well at the time, doing a lot of E5s and some E6s around when I met Ben. My first impression of Ben when I met him was that my limits were his warm ups. In 1999 he would have been one of the top trad climbers in the world and it was ace to see him in action in the Lakes. His effort of nearly onsighting Impact Day when it was graded E9 really was off the scale at the time. Just setting off on it would have been unthinkable at the time, let alone dropping it with a hand on the top of the crag, such a great effort. I remember trying to take it in when I got the phone call off Hock or Wez (Hunter) and I don't think anything I've heard of in rock climbing has impressed me as much since. I guess with the speed of media nowadays you kind of get desensitised to the constant barrage, though.

photo
James McHaffie bouldering (for a change).
© Keith Sharples

What was the first route you climbed together?

I think it was Wild West Show, an E5 at Hodge Close Quarry. I then seconded him up a bold E6 called Final Curtain just to its right. That could be bollocks though, maybe it was something else.

Why do you enjoy climbing with Ben?

It's rare that I feel tall amongst other men but with Ben I get this opportunity. He has a very high tolerance to sarcasm and miserable company. We've generally had similar aspirations over the years. I've a lot of good memories of hanging out with Ben: doing a new route on Eigg; the Voie Petit on the Grand Capucin; both of us doing Careless Torque within 2 minutes of each other; him surprising and scaring me on Parthian Shot; doing routes like End of the affair and White Lines before 10 in the morning, when Ben would have to shoot off to grab May his daughter. I can even vaguely remember everyone dancing on the tables at Ben and Kath's wedding. Don't lend him any books though, I lent him the Death Gate Cycle series 17 years ago and still haven't got them back.

He's also the strongest climber I've climbed with and I trust him as much as anyone. Super solid.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

I always struggle to pinpoint a defining 'moment' or route but the new route on Eigg was our first trip together. It was quite a laugh, back when we were all pretty young. Ben and Adam Long rescued me from a torrid time in Keswick where I'd been labouring for Cumbria Stonework and had been on a number of unsuccessful dates. I'd not seen Ben for a while and he had definitely let himself go over the previous 2 years, whilst finishing off his engineering degree.

Arriving on Eigg: the weather was shit most mornings; Ben was mono syllobic and Adam only interested in birds. Still it was better than heffing rocks, cement and lime for Paddy and Rob. Ben and Adam had been here the year before with a team; they had all gotten ill from the water and left.

The first foray involved Adam trying to aid up. After 4 hours of effort he failed and we were back at the campsite having decided to abseil down the route the day after. I went first on the abseil. The rock is columnar jointing, like a mini version of the Giant's Causeway. It appeared to have a blankish section and this was where half a column came off in my hand, leaving a jug and I shouted up that it was obviously game on.

photo
Ben Bransby in extremis on the first lead attempt, pumped, scared and about to take a big fall.
© Adam Long, Jun 2002

Ben had the first burn at the crux 2nd pitch. This where Adam got the OTE cover shot of him in his JB helmet. There is a jug just above his head but he was too pumped to grab it and took a flyer. We both led it afterwards and for me it was such a highpoint to do a new route with someone I held in the highest regard (I hadn't yet clocked he was a dick).

Sum up your partnership in three words.

Taking the piss.

What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

Belaying Ben on Parthian shot is the most scared I've been on his behalf. I'd told Ray Wood on the way over that Ben could climb it easily but would probably bottle it. As it turned out I bottled it. Ben then went for it and spent an interminable time on the final slab move, it was ice cold and I was nervous about having to tell Kath that her husband was now even shorter. I'm sure I've never scared Ben on anything.

photo
Ben Bransby working the final moves of the final pitch.
© James McHaffie

If you could change one thing about Ben what would it be?

I'd make him even shorter so I could laugh at him even more on reachy moves, same as Hazel. On a more serious note I'd like to see him put 10% effort in rather than just 5% to see what he can do.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm going to write a sci-fi next year and I might make Ben one of the characters in it, not to give too much away but he probably won't survive too long in the book. I'm hoping one day he'll remember where he's put the books I lent him and pass them back.

I'm keen to try a couple of Ben's last few Stanage routes with him. We have a trip lined up to the South early next year. Other than some European big walls, I'm keen to get the useless git to the Range West meeting and try a new line in the middle of Mount Sion Central. There is the possibility of us setting up some more trad youth meets at some point too.

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Ben?

Subterranean in the Leap. It was the end of a long day, having done 2 laps on Point Blank, some other E5s and E6s and it was a bit greasy. We should have just gone to the pub.

Has Ben ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

He goes off with others sometimes: Adam Long, Pete Robins. I've not been unduly worried; the chemistry blatantly isn't the same. Who'd want to hang out with those two for long anyway? Boring. Though not as bad as spending time with Calum [Muskett].

What have you learned from climbing with Ben?

That climbing isn't everything. Ben loves climbing and on most occasions he's surprised me at just how fucking good he is at it.

Pitch 10 on the Voie Petit - 8a at 3,700m, 192 kb
Pitch 10 on the Voie Petit - 8a at 3,700m
© Adam Long, Aug 2009

Ben on Caff

How did you first meet?

In the Lakes I think. Pete Robins and I spent a few weeks up in the Lakes one summer in the late '90s. We were staying with Adam Hocking (and his mum who really looked after us). We were 18 or 19. Caff was the awkward, geeky guy who came out with us a few times. I remember one day up at Raven Crag Thirlmere where Caff was pissing up these dirty E5s with his rubbish rack of gear, loads of stuff on the back of his harness and massive boots on. He kept going on about how good me and Pete were, whilst we struggled up neighbouring routes with our state of the art gear and boots (I was sponsored). I ended up spending a week staying with Caff where we had to do our own cooking and stuff rather than having Mrs Hock look after us. We ate a lot of cheese on toast and he lent me the first book in the Wheel of Time series that he was into.

Did you know Caff by reputation before meeting him?

Not really. He was a pretty decent climber back then but he hadn't actually been climbing for anywhere near as long as me. He definitely wasn't as good back then as he is now - I was probably a bit better. Now it's the other way around.

What was your first impression?

Pete, Hock and I were hitting the night spots of Keswick fairly hard (Hocking's influence, honest). Caff was less into that scene. We were busy talking bullshit all the time whilst Caff was quieter and more thoughtful. Climbing wise he was still a bit like a bumbly, just a really good one!

Ben Bransby making a long stretch on the re-ascent of Parthian Shot, E9/10, 86 kb
Ben Bransby making a long stretch on the re-ascent of Parthian Shot, E9/10
© Outcrop Films

What was the first route you climbed together?

Probably something during that summer in the Lakes. I remember seconding him up a new route he did down Borrowdale (Something on Upper Falcon Crag maybe?). He was busy claiming I was better than him but I had a really hard time just getting up this thing behind him. I think it was pretty bold too. I guess that's become a bit of a theme for me when following Caff.

Why do you enjoy climbing with Caff?

He gets shit done and is a very keen, confident, fast climber. We like many of the same crags and types of climbing. Plus he is good enough that I can get him to lead me up routes that are just a bit too hard for me. He always carries the biggest rucksack, and always wants to do another route. Some of these are also the reasons I don't like climbing with him. He is also short like me so I don't get to use the reach excuse and he has a surprisingly good set of morals.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

A lot of the routes I've done with Caff are up there as my most memorable, as they are often really good and hard - being shit scared has a way of sticking in your mind. The Nose on Eigg - such a cool route in an ace place. We both did it but I took a mega lob on my first go, whilst Caff cruised it. We were pretty equal as climbers back then and this might have been the first time he burnt me off (I did it the go after him). Adam Long (who was on a rope taking photos) and I were amazed at how he was chatting to us the whole time he was climbing the pitch. Caff is probably one of the more competitive climbers I know (I think it's one of the reasons he's so good) so I tend to cherish the odd time I've burned him off: Parthian Shot, Superbloc, Roof of Baby Budda - I thought there might be more - that Red problem at the Manchester Depot. (You still owe me a Mars Bar for flashing that Caff).

photo
Ben Bransby high on his re-ascent of Parthian Shot
© Outcrop Films

Sum up your partnership in 3 words?

Productive, inspiring, infuriating.

What is the most scared you've been when climbing together?

Probably Parthian Shot for me. I got a bit of a wobbler doing the foot swap on the top slab. I made it look so sketchy that Caff didn't have a second go. Caff doesn't show fear that much. I'm sure he does get scared but he seems to deal with it really well - he doesn't panic or shake wildly. I think once he makes the decision to commit to something he commits 100% and doesn't let the consequences affect how he climbs. If he stops apologising it means it's hard.

If you could change one thing about Caff what would it be?

Not actually much as a climbing partner. I can be a bit too easy going with my climbing - happy to go anywhere and happy to spend 90% of the time climbing a bit below my limit. Caff is the opposite. He always has a plan and always likes to climb hard. Just by being with him adds a grade or two to my climbing as I feel I have to step it up. If I climbed with him all the time I would want a break and do some easy routes, but as I climb with other folk a bunch too it's cool going out with Caff. I like that even though I can't make it out as much as I used too he still phones up and invites me places all the time. I'd prefer it if he walked a bit slower and didn't lie about the approach times to crags (1 hour from the jetty to Skye Wall anyone? (Other than Birkett!))

What are your plans for the future?

I need to climb somewhere other than Stanage a bunch before I next go away with Caff or the burn off will be so complete and I might get removed from his list. Talking about some Alpine rock things next summer. I'm going to get Caff along to help with my final few ticks at Stanage. He can cajole me up Flight of Ideas and find a short person's sequence on Marvellous.

photo
Ben Bransby high on a ground-up attempt at Parthian Shot.
© Pete Robins Collection

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Caff?

I didn't particularly love the Longhope route when we were climbing it. I got some bird shit/grit in my eye on pitch one and it started throbbing really bad. I was paranoid about rubbing it as it might make it worse or I could knock out my contact lenses and be blind. It was cold, dirty, loose, with birds vomiting on us, and some really hard climbing up high on it. These are all the things that made it such a great route after we had done it! To be honest I enjoy most types of climbing and having Caff along as a 'get out of jail free' card for if it gets too tough helps keep the pressure off.

Has Caff ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

Yes. Thank god. Caff would be too much for one partner to handle so rotating through people is the best way. Muir/Pre Muir on El Cap: I was meant to be going out there with Caff but I woke up, one morning, a couple of weeks before going, with really severe vertigo and couldn't get out of bed for a week. Caff went and did it with Hazel (Findlay) and Ding Dong (Neil Dyer). It looked really mega. Divided Years looked ace, Ry (Ryan Pasquill) was out with Caff doing that one. Again Caff had invited me along but I couldn't make it for some reason. I'll try and make it out there with Pete (Robins) some time and take a bunch of lobs off it. There are loads of E6/7/8s that Caff has done that I've not (often forcing Soph - Caff's wife - to second him). He wouldn't think of it as cheating as it wasn't a big deal for him, it didn't mean anything.

Caff taking the lob off Parthian Shot, 82 kb
Caff taking the lob off Parthian Shot
© Outcrop Films

What have you learned from climbing with Caff?

Place loads of runners before you run it out. Don't let grade or reputation keep you off a route. One person's crimpy jug is another person's nano hoist. "Little bit fiddly/wiggy gear" is Caff speak for really shit pro. And judging by how often he sandbags me I obviously haven't learned how to translate, "Yeah you should go for it Ben, you'll be fine/piss it".

Forums ( Read more )

Staff Picks

Nov 2012

thumb In this article and in the next one coming early next week, professional mountain photographer Jon Griffith of Alpine Exposures... Read more

What's Hot Right Now

20 Nov 2017

thumb A bouldering competition in Rennes, France was recently organised around the theme of reusing and repurposing objects and... Read more

Top Spot: Climbing Destination

Mar 2011

thumb Guidebook author David Flanagan gives us an overview of the bouldering in Ireland: "You can climb fierce, steep, powerful... Read more