The Climber Who Hunts The Unknown
Many of the world’s hardest climbing routes are within a five minute walk to a road, but James Pearson, and his wife Caroline Ciavaldini, have been known to trek into the untracked African wilderness with a pair of binoculars, searching the horizon’s rocky crags for signs of the world’s most perfect climb...
James Pearson made his name as a young climber in the Peak District, pioneering hard ‘trad’ routes on his local crags – at the time these were some of the boldest, hardest climbs in the world, featuring apparently hold-free slabs and exposed arrettes. And traditional climbing ethics meant bolting the rock, or using crash mats, were no go, so whole sections of these short but punchy climbs were known as ‘no fall zones’. One slip was all that separated you from a career, and probably life-ending injury.
This high-stakes crucible produced some outstanding first ascents, including ‘The Groove’ but the pressure on Pearson to keep raising not just his level, but that of climbing itself, mounted to the point where he almost felt trapped by past success. He needed something new to help him rediscover that most pure sensation of climbing in The Zone.
Since then he and his pro-climber wife Caroline Ciavaldini have used their skills to discover and climb remote expanses of rock, previously untouched by modern climbers, in places as diverse as South Africa, the Philippines, and even the Faroe Islands, in a quest to find the ‘perfect hard line’.
That moment when everything else disappears and it’s just you and the rock is both rare, and addictive
Q: What has turning climbing into an exploration and adventure told you about yourself?
A: ‘Spending days, or weeks out there in damp forests or dry deserts teaches you a lot about yourself, and what you are really hoping to find. I’ve had to learn to be more patient, and more realistic with my goals. It’s important not to confuse “dreams” with “goals”. When we talk about dreams we’re allowed to be as crazy as we like.’
Q: How does it feel to climb a line like that when you’re in The Zone?
A: ‘My favourite thing about climbing a hard trad route is getting in The Zone. That moment when everything else disappears and it’s just you and the rock is both rare, and addictive. When I climbed Muy Caliente (E10) I climbed with an iPod, for the first time, playing a mix that had the perfect build up during the easy section of the climb to get to a rest, and then suddenly the beat drops. I thought: “OK when it drops that’s when I go from the rest into the next, hard part of the climb.” That way I didn’t have to think about: “Am I tired, am I pumped, is this the right time to go?” I had no control, I was just following the music.’
‘The beat dropped, I set off and I was just lost in the thing, just flowing. Even now talking about it I get goose bumps because I can remember being lost in that moment and it’s just amazing – there’s nothing else that exists.’
Q: Is there a sense that with climbing you can bring new discovery to places that are known, that are already on the map?
A: ‘Because climbing a new line is about your own interpretation of the rock, you can make new discoveries in a place where people have been climbing for years and years. It’s always nice to go somewhere completely new and open the first routes on a cliff, but not everybody has that chance, and certainly not all the time. If you look hard enough, on even the most developed cliffs out there you can still find something new.’
Q: Has exploring for climbing brought you a greater understanding of how people interact with their landscapes?
A: ‘The more you travel, the more you realise how many different versions of reality there are out there. Travelling is the easiest way to open your eyes to the diversity of the world, because you are often thrown right into a completely new and unknown situation. Whilst it is possible to explore new things next to your home, it’s harder to see things from a different point of view.’
Q: Which route have you discovered that’s been the closest to perfection?
A: ‘All of the new routes I’ve opened have their qualities and faults. For the last 10 years I’ve been searching for my dream line, with a very fixed idea of what it might be. I’ve come close to finding it on a few occasions, but nothing has ever been quite right. Moving forward from this point I’m going to try to be a little more relaxed with my criteria. If you’re too focused straight ahead you risk passing by many amazing things.’
James Pearson is sponsored by The North Face, La Sportiva and Wild Country. Visit onceuponaclimb.co.uk for his and Caroline Ciavaldini’s latest adventures