James Pearson: “That was my craziest highball”

James Pearson secures the second repetition of Bernd Zangerl's mega-highball 29 dots in the Valle dell' Orco. Here he reveals why he will remember the visit as a terrible experience.

The British climber and trad specialist James Pearson repeated in Valle dell'Orco the highball 29 dots. The fearsome line was first climbed by Bernd Zangerl in 2015 and has only been repeated once, in 2017 by the Italian climber Gabriele Moroni.

Video: James Pearson climbs the highball 29 dots

Review by James Pearson

Last week Caro and I took the kids to Valle dell'Orco in Italy so Caro could try to climb the famous Green Spit roof crack. I didn't have a specific goal as I was mainly there to take care of the kids and give her as much time as she wanted.

29 Dots: A project that is hard to miss

But I couldn't help but be drawn to an amazing overhanging ledge that just sat in the middle of the main parking lot. This edge is called 29 Dots and was originally climbed by the Austrian bouldering legend Bernd Zangerl in 2015.

For anyone who knows Bernd's resume, when he says: "29 Dots is the proudest, hardest piece of rock I've climbed in this style. “A great moment and a highlight of my bouldering career,” it’s clear that it must be pretty special!

It has only been repeated once by Gabri Moroni, another incredible climber who has bouldered 8C, climbed 9B and won bouldering world cups.

29 Dots is mentioned almost in whispers of disbelief because not only is the line really heavy, but it's also really, really high!

The appearance is deceptive

The videos that you can see online from Bernd and Gabri on the route really don't do it justice! Firstly, they are both filmed from a great distance and directly behind the route, so you can't see the size of the holds or the impressive overhang.

Second, they're both world-class climbers, so they can make eighth-grade bouldering seem like a walk in the park. All of this makes a very impressive rock and some very scary climbing actually look pretty tame.

When I first saw videos of 29 Dots I thought it would be a good way to try it from the bottom up - how wrong I was!

Imposing appearance

When you see the route for the first time you can't help but be impressed. The edge overhangs by a few meters and you can hardly see any holds from the ground. The chances of climbing this amazing route without pitfalls seem very slim.

After an initial session on the route in unseasonably hot weather, the route didn't seem any easier, and although I managed to claw my way up most of the individual moves, they all felt so heavy that I couldn't imagine the strength and fitness to put them together.

The Fontainebleau 8A crux is at 6 meters, which is scary enough, but there is another tough section above that with powerful and uncertain moves.

The route finally ends at 14 meters, which puts things into context: almost the same height as Harder Faster in Black Rocks, one of the boldest and most dangerous routes I've ever done! The only consoling factor for 29 Dots is that the landing site is perfectly flat, which definitely makes the first bouldering section more enjoyable. However, falling from the top will be bad in any case.

«For me, 29 Dots is a solo»

I know there is a lot of ambiguity in the term highball, not to mention that its usage is very subjective, but personally I would say that if you can't fall off something, it's no longer a bouldering problem, and I would Definitely consider 29 Dots as a solo.

If I had done the first ascent I would have given it an E rating, but that's easy for me to say as I grew up in the UK and have a reasonable understanding of this crazy rating scale!

Whether we use an E rating, a sport rating, or a bouldering rating, I think it's important to clarify that this isn't just a highball bouldering problem with an inconsequential easy climb to the top.

In 29 Dots there is difficult climbing at a height where you really can't fall.

The crazy weather we are having these days made us lose more than 20 degrees in two days, and the next time I came back to Orco it was 5 degrees with strong winds. In cooler conditions the pulls now felt much more controllable and I managed to link the crux and then repeat the entire line a few times on the rope.

Numb fingers

Unfortunately, I had serious problems with numb fingers, and although the upper part felt very comfortable in isolation, the tiny "razor blade" edges and arctic conditions drained all life from my fingertips and made the second part of the route seem significantly more difficult than it was should.

I spent a few hours swinging on the rope, improving my sequence with each attempt, but also using up precious skin and energy. I knew the smart choice would be to go home and return another day fresh with a load of pads, but I was sure I could do it and was afraid of wasting these "great" conditions if it were was the last cold snap before summer.

I pulled out the few precious pads we had in the van, telling myself I would just boulder the first few moves to see how I felt, but I already knew I was already committed. I set everything up, moving the pads a little to the left, a little to the right, trying to imagine the possible trajectory of a fall from the Crux.

I wasn't worried about the pads for the top section because as I said a fall from up there would be bad and so shouldn't be considered.

A shot across the bow

I climbed from the crux to the top one more time to warm up my fingertips, came down, untied and headed out. I mastered the first few strokes, feeling the tiny handles cut into my skin and feeling the excitement of starting another adventure. Everything felt really good, really solid, then suddenly I felt tired and fell off the key train!

You know it's a long fall when you have time to think "I hope this will be okay"!

Luckily, I landed right in the middle of the pads, rolled onto my butt, and got back up, feeling a little shaken and mostly a little shocked that I had crashed in the first place. Instead of taking this as the red flag it should have been, I suspected that my last top rope attempt just before the lead was probably a little too much and had probably fatigued me.

Hard on the limit

After a half hour break, including two children's bathroom stops to mentally get myself back on the ground, I felt ready to try again. Hoping to be less fatigued on the hard lower pulls, I decided to skip the warm-up lap on the route itself and tried to prepare my fingers for the punishment to come by simply pulling aggressively on the first few holds !

I feel so stupid for what I'm writing now. This is not my first time, I know that I have problems with numb fingers and that a few pulls on sharp grips are never enough to prevent them from going numb. I had been struggling with numb fingers in the upper section all day, so there was no logical reason why it should suddenly improve.

The idea of ​​being solo on that upper wall without any feeling in my fingers was pretty scary, but for some reason I refused to acknowledge all of these warnings and carried on anyway.

The lack of a top rope warm-up definitely gave me a little more energy, and I held the key hold at seven meters, albeit with a lot less wiggle room than I would have liked. At this point it is possible to shake off two very small but positive ledges while preparing for the next section.

But I knew if I did that I would definitely go numb, so I decided to beat the numbness to the top of the route and climb straight into the second crux.

As soon as I grabbed the first left handle, I knew something was wrong. I couldn't really feel the specific tips under my fingers and had to use a lot more force to get my feet into position.

The next move is, in my opinion, the most dangerous move on the route, and although significantly easier than the lower moves, it is still about a 7A+ boulder, with the feet up and to the side facing the hands on two side holds.

Potential fall from a bad position

While falling from the lower crux is not recommended, it is at least a straight fall from an upright position onto the mats. The second crux, although only five feet higher, is from a completely different body position and would likely result in you falling sideways off the mats, possibly onto your back!

I spent much of my remaining energy trying to control this train and came way too close to my limits than I would have liked.

From this point on, the climbing gets a little easier with each successive move, and I never really had a chance of falling from up there. Unsurprisingly, with little feeling in your fingers, you waste a lot of energy over-controlling every groin, and I found myself in the hellish position of being both pumped and numb, getting worse by the second.

Trains that were supposed to be slightly static trains became dynamic trains, and for the first time in many years I found myself thinking about what it would be like to fall from here!

No room for negative thoughts

If I can take anything positive away from this whole experience, it is that I managed to stay calm when everything around me was going wrong. Fear and panic have no place on a dangerous route, and I pushed those thoughts away as quickly as they appeared.

It may sound cliché, but at that point the only thing that mattered was getting to the top, and luckily, even though I made a very poor decision that day, after hundreds of risky climbs, my subconscious knew what to do do was.

Daring routes like this are usually a beautiful experience where I climb in a bubble of peace and calm, only to feel proud and happy at the top. Unfortunately this time I had none of that, just fear and discomfort, then sadness and shame.

I arrived at the top in silence, berating myself for putting my family downstairs in such a terrible position. Then I packed the van and drove home.

I'm not sharing this to shock, or as an attempt to make 29 points seem even more frightening. The route is what it is, it doesn't need me to make it big, and my experience with it is mine alone.

I guess I tell this story in part because I'm sad to have wasted the opportunity for something truly special, and if it hadn't been for my lack of patience, it could have been another wonderful traditional experience, walking the fine line between risk and Danger to go. But mostly I want to warn other climbers to always respect the rock and pay attention to the signs. I got away with this one, but I didn't have to.

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Credits: Cover picture James Pearson

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