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Interview with James McHaffie


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James McHaffie is a highly talented climber in several disciplines. We asked him a few questions.

Okay, we’ll start with a simple question, although it can be a difficult one to answer: Why do you climb?

I get a huge amount from climbing. Hanging out in stunning landscapes, reading up on the history of some of the climbs, the experiences it offers in both the climbing and social elements linked with it feel remarkable. It can offer a day/s of huge challenge or just be a fun day out. I’ll know I’ll be climbing until my body gives out completely; same as my dad who could hardly walk because of a bad hip, but would still hobble to Black crag to solo Troutdale Pinnacle.

How would you define the state of mind required to tackle a highly exposed route?

Fresh, focused and relaxed all come to mind. It depends whether it is safe or dangerous though. The times I’ve had a hard time or not enjoyed the ‘exposed’ routes have normally been when I’ve felt knackered or lethargic for one reason or another. If you are fresh and excited you’ll normally enjoy how you are climbing regardless of whether you succeed on the climb or not.

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Alongside climbing we understand you also teach climbing. What are your thoughts on the internal and external endurance factors within climbing?

Most of my work over the years has been more skills based than movement based I would have said. Teaching people how to climb better and more safely on trad routes; and in the UK, many climbers (especially from an instructional background) are appalling at sport climbing and what’s involved with things such as red-pointing and tactics. These are elements I’ve done a lot of work in over the last 10-15 years.

Please tell us more about the external and environmental endurance factors. Which role do you think personal and financial factors play?

Financial and personal circumstances can play a huge role on how someone climbs. Having a level of ‘stability’ in both factors makes it easier to stay focused when climbing. If people are worried about family or work, this can obviously affect your focus. That being said, if I’ve had a hard time in either of these 2 areas I’ve often channeled it into energy for climbing. I’m not sure how positive that is!

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How do you think weather and climate affects climbing?

We have some often terrible weather in the UK which isn’t too great for consistency in being able to get out. Having a good knowledge of the weather and which areas stay dry in prevailing conditions helps with days out. For instance in North Wales we usually have south-westerlies which often bring rain, but a 20 minute drive from Bethesda leads you to an area which is usually dry, Pen Trwyn in a rain shadow.

Having a good rack and knowledge of how to use it is important for traditional climbing, which is more gear intensive and has more potential for disaster for the inexperienced climber.

What role do you believe motivation an inspiration play?

I think having a good knowledge of climbing is important if you are working as an instructor or climbing coach. Knowing role models who the person can identify with, and if you are working with children, creating a culture which is positive and getting youths to motivate each other.  Knowing local areas which would be suitable for people to go bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, clubs, holidays, climbing books to inspire people. Inspiration can come from many sources and can help bolster motivation which, let’s face it, varies within everyone over time and is probably the number 1 factor in what achievements people make in any aspect of their lives.

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What aspects of your surroundings are of most importance to you?

 I used to live in the Lake District and now I live in North Wales. Both have lovely mountains, a huge variety of cliffs, and friends right on the doorstep. These aspects are of top importance to me.

How much time do you dedicate to climbing?

I’ll climb about 5 days a week, for the first 10 years I got into it I must have climbed almost every day (used to skive a bit). You can get away with it trad climbing as the difficulties are more mental than physical. If I do a lot more of sport and bouldering I do way less climbing and have to rest loads….rubbish.

How do you build motivation?

The last few years I’ve often written a list of climbs down in the winter. They’ll be a mix of ones I’ll find easy, and some that are desperate. Written goals in anything you do are considerably more likely to succeed than unwritten ones. The more detail you put into how you are going to do them the more likely it is you’ll achieve them. I’ve only done this for a couple of sport climbs which were hard for me.

  I find it a lot easier to build motivation for trad climbs than sport climbs, as trad stuff will often involve going to a new cliff and climbing a new bit of rock, whereas in the UK sport is more limited. To do hard sport routes normally involves going to the same crag again and again, or training again and again, neither of which are the elements related to why I got keen on climbing.

  I’ll often look at pictures of great climbs I’ve not done, chat to people who are keen for trying it, feed off their enthusiasm and get a trip organised. I find the variety pretty critical for motivation as well. If you’ve been doing loads of trad it can feel great to dump the ropes n racks and just go bouldering for a while to have a break and not get scared.

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Could you please explain how you think technical, tactical, psychological and physical factors influence climbers as they learn, train and get coached?

What’s your point of view on this?

In the new coaching scheme which has started the last few years in the UK, TTPP is an important part of the scheme. The more novice the climber, the more likely it is that Technical skills will be the necessary element as they need critical safety skills and to learn climbing moves which obviously links in with the physical side. Going on from novice learning to not being afraid of falling is important, along with route reading; beyond that, tactics such as rest periods before red-points. Some of these will blur between the elements but it gives coaches areas they can work on with people.

Which area do you believe you’ve developed the most?

Probably psychological and technical. To a degree physical on the technical endurance end, as I’ve done a lot of trad stuff, possibly a thousand routes of E5 or harder, many of which require hanging on like a mannequin in awkward positions whilst not getting too tired. I know a lot about tactics but generally let myself down with it, usually by not resting enough, and also because however knackered I am and however shit the conditions I’ll normally try the route. I’ll see it just as training as if you are on a big route sometimes, you will be knackered and conditions poor, but it’s meant I’ve put in some piss poor efforts now and then!

How do you psychologically train to face your projects?

Most of the trad on-sights I’ve done I’ve just been really excited to try the climb, sometimes days beforehand, setting off on it is usually a release of mental energy, the outcome doesn’t really matter as long as I don’t totally cock it up.  The hardest sport climbs I’ve done, Meltdown and Big Bang, I took really seriously (which I normally try to avoid). I wrote down when I could try them, the days leading up to them when it would be good to train before and after work, have 2 rest days before an attempt, eat little before the day. The more mental energy I put into it the bigger the mark of respect to the route and the quicker the improvements came as well.

 With the motivation for doing something which literally will feel impossible when you first look at it, I’ve found I have to make a promise to myself to do ‘everything’ I can to get them done. Committing to getting up at 6.00 to train before work and again after is easier said than done, but the gains are rapid and when you are making gains the psychology of putting the effort in is much easier.

 For the Meltdown I put a lot of pressure on myself to try my best to get it done, or to at least get a good high point. I’d already invested time in it in 2007 and wasn’t happy with my effort, I knew I could get a lot higher. I also knew it would be one of the hardest slab pitches in the world, Johnny Dawes’ book had just come out, and the new Slate guidebook, both of which shouted it out as a great project. I was really worried about other people getting keen and giving it ago. I thought the climbing was amazing.

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What do you think about climbing being an Olympic sport in 2020?

I haven’t any thoughts about it though. I think it only affects a small number of people, about 20 worldwide? To compete well in the competitions requires remarkable commitment and specificity nowadays.

 I’m more concerned with opening up opportunities for youths from less advantaged backgrounds in climbing and the outdoors.

 What do you think about having to compete in three categories: difficulty, bouldering and speed?

It sounds a bit bizarre to me. A boulder competition into a lead competition I can see the logic, but I think the speed comp should be separate.

Finally, How do you organise your days off?

I normally try and destroy myself for days when I am working/resting. If I’m not physically knackered then I hate resting. That being said I can get immersed in a good book for a few days. When I was younger I knew absolutely nothing about resting. It wasn’t until 2011 when I repeated Big Bang I realised I couldn’t attempt it seriously without 2 full rest days. This is something I wish I’d understood ten years earlier, but I guess I didn’t start sport climbing much until 2010. I always try and eat super healthy the day before an attempt, fruit, fish salad, that sort of thing.

Thank you James!

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