Ray Mchaffie

Lakeland climber and path builder

Thursday 22 December 2005 01:00

Ray McHaffie, rock climber and footpath builder: born Carlisle 3 April 1936; married 1968 Margaret Richardson (one son, two daughters); died Keswick, Cumbria 14 December 2005.

Shepherd's caff, the climbers' hangout in an outbuilding at High Lodore Farm, in the Lake District, is going to be a quieter place without " Borrowdale Mac". Above the farm is Ray McHaffie's kingdom, Shepherd's Crag, one of the most popular climbing grounds in Britain, and by the café benches is where McHaffie, in recent years, would hold court.

If not there, he would probably be at the foot of the crag itself, a stocky figure delivering a continuous stream of advice and ribaldry to some hapless climber part-way up the cliff face. There was seldom any doubt that McHaffie could do the route himself with ease ­ in fact he might well have pioneered it.

The credit "R. McHaffie" stands against some 250 routes in the Borrowdale guide of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, a record of first ascents that is likely to remain unequalled, given the finite nature of the basic resource. However, one of the most photographed of his climbs was not of a first ascent but of a repeat of the Shepherd's classic Little Chamonix, done for a bet wearing boxing gloves and rollerskates ­ a stunt few would dare emulate on 230ft of polished cliff at any grade.

Meanwhile, in his day job as the leader of an upland footpath repair gang, McHaffie left his mark on the Lake District as the builder of miles of " paved" trails across the fells. With his Borrowdale team, he also spent two weeks camping at the summit of Scafell Pike (3,206ft) as they rebuilt the stone cairn on the highest point of England.

Ray McHaffie's name is synonymous with Borrowdale, not in the sense of the Romantic artists and poets who regarded the valley's crags and waterfalls as the epitome of the "sublime", but in the down-to-earth way of a native, though he wasn't actually one of them. McHaffie grew up further north in Cumbria, on Raffles, a housing estate in Carlisle with a tough reputation, and left school at 14, working first as a painter and decorator and then for 14 years in a timber yard. Home life was hard and he was brought up mainly by his grandmother. She died when Ray was 16 and for a while he slept rough in a doorway behind a café in Keswick.

In the 1950s, McHaffie's life was poised between climbing and gang violence. He became the leader of a gang of Teddy boys bent on trouble around the pubs and dance halls of Carlisle. A fight cost him the use of his left eye, though in consolation the axe-inflicted injury spared him National Service.

He discovered climbing thanks to the fellwalker's bus, which ran on Sundays from Carlisle to Seatoller in Borrowdale, and another injury ­ a gashed foot, which meant that instead of a fell-top hike he went for a wander wearing a hob-nailed boot on his good foot and a slipper on the stitched foot. By chance, he passed Kern Knotts crag where, knowing nothing of its status or reputation, he soloed the 70ft Crack (graded Very Severe) and down-climbed the easier Chimney (Difficult):

I didn't know I'd done a rock climb till on the way home I saw a photo of the Crack in Abrahams' shop window. My mates didn't believe I'd done it so I went back next Sunday and showed them.

McHaffie settled in Keswick in 1965 and three years later married Margaret Richardson. He did some guiding and climbing instruction but, with a family to support, got a regular job with the river authority, and then for 20 years headed the Borrowdale footpath team, working for the National Trust.

McHaffie took a craftsman's pride in a well-engineered path. Ultimately, though, path repair was an income for him, while his real passion was new routing on the crags of Borrowdale. In this, he followed an earlier prolific pioneer of the valley, Bentley Beetham, with an appetite for literally unearthing steep rock. Climbers refer to this practice somewhat genteelly as "gardening" while horrified conservationists nowadays seem to regard it as ecological vandalism. McHaffie would doubtless have had a lot to say in his defence ­ not for nothing did he earn the title "the Jaws of Borrowdale".

Enthusiasm for the new and novel sometimes exceeded his discernment of a quality line. None the less, McHaffie's 40-year haul of new routes includes a handful of real belters, notably The Niche, a 175ft extreme (E2) on Falcon Crag, climbed with Adrian Liddell in 1962. Thirty years later, he played a leading part in the opening of Sergeant Crag Slabs, putting up the excellent Lakeland Cragsman (HVS) and seconding Colin Downer on Aphasia (E2) regarded as one of the best slab pitches in the Lake District.

Later routes took on a certain grim drollery with names such as Age Concern, Waiting for God and Dust to Dust, yet, despite the onset of Parkinson's disease and a dodgy hip, McHaffie continued climbing and bicycling until early this summer.

Stephen Goodwin

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