James Pearson dares to rate E12 for Bon Voyage – Why he exposes himself a second time

James Pearson took 10 months to evaluate his most difficult trad route to date: Bon Voyage in Annot. With E12 he chooses the currently highest level on the British scale. Much more exciting than this numerical output are all the personal thoughts, feelings and fears that the British climber associates with this decision - in short, the why.

Anyone who has ever wondered why climbing professionals always struggle with evaluating their first ascents will learn from James Pearson a very detailed and honest answer. The British professional climber and trad specialist made his first ascent of Annot in February Bon Voyage succeeded. James Pearson explains in his own words why he concealed his success for several weeks and was unable to evaluate his line at that time.

Bon Voyage Mono - Raph Fourau
James Pearson: “Bon Voyage – I think it could be E12.” Image: Raph Fourau

«It has been 15 years since I told the world about The Walk of Life, a first ascent I made on the north coast of Devon in the United Kingdom. From front pages and multi-page features in climbing magazines to an intensive segment in the Hotaches Productions film Committed 2 that celebrated everything that made the route so beautiful and terrifying, the message seemed to be everywhere!

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Directly or indirectly, by suggesting the previously unassigned difficulty rating of E12, I have shouted for all to hear that this is the most difficult trad route ever climbed in the world.

James Pearson

Some of you believed me, I know I believed it myself, but there were many in the climbing community who began to ask questions, and rightly so.

I was the poster boy for a new generation of British climbers, celebrated not just for my rock skills but also for my bravery and courage. While I had managed to climb some beautiful and difficult repeats and first ascents on my home crag, the Peak District Gritstone, and considered myself something of a specialist in these short and intensely technical routes, I couldn't see the truth: I was completely inexperienced in almost every other climbing style.

Poster boy for a new generation of British climbers: James Pearson in his younger years. Image: James Pearson Archives
Poster boy for a new generation of British climbers: James Pearson in his younger years. Image: James Pearson Archives

Trad climbing in the UK sets very high standards, from the ethical purity of the hookless approach to the often underrated characteristics of its most famous walls.

When Dave Macleod repeated The Walk Of Life a few months later and explained that he thought the route was E9 rather than the E12 I had suggested, I was more shocked than anyone, and the consequences of that decision would change the course of my life forever change.

James Pearson

15 years later I am a completely different person. I'm a husband, a father, and have climbed hundreds of difficult routes around the world, and yet somehow I'm still the same young man talking over a piece of rock and asking for your approval.

Earlier this year I climbed a route called Bon Voyage. It's a beautiful route on an otherwise blank wall, with a unique sequence and fantastic holds. The climbing was the result of years of hard work and searching, and I feel that Bon Voyage is the most difficult route I have ever climbed, by far.

A lot has been said in the media about the difficulty of Bon Voyage, but very little has come directly from me.

James Pearson
James Pearson in The Walk Of Life, the route for which he received a lot of criticism from the British climbing community with his rating of E12: Image: David Simmonite
James Pearson in The Walk Of Life, the route for which he received a lot of criticism from the British climbing community with his rating of E12: Image: David Simmonite

When I climbed The Walk of Life and told you it was the hardest thing I'd ever done, I really meant it. This was and still is one of the hardest and most harrowing experiences of my life, but I was so caught up in my own ego that at the time I could not separate the concepts of 'MY' and 'THAT'.

To explain it to you better, I would like to try to travel back to 2008 with you...

It would be embarrassing if I didn't think it was so incredible now, but I remember seriously wondering if I was somehow... a little magical! I tried a lot of sports as a child and generally improved quickly.

But climbing was different! I started climbing when I was 16, which is quite late these days, but it immediately felt like I had found my place and things progressed quickly in the first few years.

James Pearson

At 18 I had my first magazine cover and sponsorships, and at 19 I was the youngest Brit to climb V13 and the youngest person to ever climb E10!

I loved the feeling of control and freedom that climbing brought me, but I also loved the positive attention, and I was surrounded by a group of close friends and family who, whether they truly believed it or were just being very nice, were there to help me Reasons said that I was God's gift to climbing.

Back then, a few people controlled most of the climbing media, and as long as they liked you, you were generally pretty happy.

James Pearson

Although there were obviously people who didn't like me and what they thought I represented, with my oversized logos and exclusive magazine deals, I never heard of them, they just weren't part of my world.

James Pearson in The Groove. Image: David Simmons
James Pearson in The Groove. Images: David Simmons

2008 was a time when Instagram and social media as we know it today simply didn't exist. As much as I dislike social media today and believe it brings more negativity to the world than it should, there is an upside to having random strangers criticize you on a regular basis - you realize the world is full of different opinions.

While we certainly still have echo chambers in 2023, they are nowhere near as soundproof as the ones I built in 2008!

James Pearson

It was also a very different time in popular culture with a very different set of socially accepted rules. While we often look back nostalgically on past decades, the 2000s were a time when it was okay to publicly humiliate, shame or socially manipulate people... Does anyone remember TV shows like THE BIGGEST LOSER, THE MOMENT OF TRUTH or THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MIRIAM? As much as I wonder if I would have made the same mistakes if I had been born 10 years later, I'm also not sure if I would have been treated the same way?

I don't say any of this looking for sympathy or forgiveness. It took a while, but today I can honestly say that I'm proud of myself and of The Walk of Life, and that the burning, as painful as it was at the time, helped me see things more clearly.

After many tears and self-pity, I had the revelation that 'MY' difficulty level only applies to me and not automatically to 'THE' rest of the world!

James Pearson

After accepting myself, flaws and all, I was able to start planning for a happier future and I moved to Innsbruck, Austria to put myself back together. The idea was simple: train my weaknesses with some of the best sport climbers in the world and become James 2.0! Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as just showing up and taking a sip of coolness, and despite my best efforts, I spent the first 6 months feeling worse the more I tried.

By focusing on sport climbing, my natural weakness, I neglected my strengths in bouldering and trad climbing. Too impatient to give a training regime enough time, I jumped from one protocol to the next, becoming more and more frustrated with myself until sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll took the place of climbing and I lost myself completely.

Two things saved me, Caro and my sponsor, The North Face.

James Pearson
Caro becomes the most important support in James Pearson's life. Image: Archives James Pearson
Caro becomes the most important support in James Pearson's life. Image: Archives James Pearson

Despite my many mistakes, Caro became part of my life. The whole story is of course longer and more complicated, but in essence it taught me not only how not to get pumped after 5 moves, but most importantly that I can be something and someone better. The North Face was understandably fed up with my lack of climbing activity and hedonistic lifestyle, but rather than cutting ties completely at the end of my contract term, they gave me an extra year to get myself back on track. At the time I thought it was outrageous! Now I see it as one of the best things that happened to me.

This year, 2012, I pulled myself together! I climbed my first 9a sport route and attempted to climb an E10 in Pembroke Flash, falling on the very last move, luckily after the whole dangerous part! It was my first time trad climbing in over 3 years, and it was a pretty wild ride seeing how quickly you can progress when you're surrounded by all the right elements. But this trip to Pembroke was about so much more than just performance...

Over the last few years I had been down a very scary path of climbing increasingly dangerous routes because I didn't have the physical capacity to climb anything else.

James Pearson

Having extra fitness not only made more physically difficult routes possible, it also made climbing fun and exciting again, and I can clearly remember this new feeling of curiosity to see if I could rise to the challenge rather than fear that I would fall just because of the pump!

This new approach to trad climbing eventually led me back to Rhapsody in 2014. A route that I had previously criticized to avoid the truth that it was simply too difficult for me!

Rhapsody represented much more than just a difficult route. It was the answer to a question I still didn't really know, and climbing it on a windy October morning felt like the end of a chapter of my life.

I had proven myself to my doubters, but most importantly to myself. The sky seemed to be the limit again and I began the same search I had started all those years before, but instead of looking for THE most difficult route, I searched just according to MINE!

James Pearson
A capital comes full circle: James Pearson climbs Rhapsody. Image: Chris Prescott
A capital comes full circle: James Pearson climbs Rhapsody. Image: Chris Prescott

When it comes to climbing, trad is what I keep coming back to. It's what I dream of and what makes me work hard to improve year after year. As many of you would probably agree, Trad is intense and complex. It tests your mental strength and your logistics, and there's nothing like it, nothing as complete. However, trad is also slow and often cumbersome and rarely pushes you to your physical limits.

I know that if I want to give myself the best chance of achieving the things I dream of, I ironically have to spend most of my time focusing on other styles of climbing just to be ready for my next trad route be when the stars align correctly. Perhaps that is the foundation of all true love - the ability to accept and look beyond the flaws.

When I climbed some of my hardest grit routes back in the day, I could never top rope them cleanly. I relied on a magical feeling that appeared whenever I was in danger, that not only made me stay calm and hyperfocused, but also made me feel physically stronger and more precise.

Today I still have that feeling and I don't know a calmer moment than when I'm leading a difficult trad route. But if the route is really dangerous, I now also make sure that there is virtually no chance that I will actually fall.

James Pearson
Have children and still want to climb bold trad routes? In Harder Faster, James Pearson shows that it can be done - with all the consequences. Image: Chris Prescott
Have children and still want to climb bold trad routes? In Harder Faster, James Pearson shows that it can be done - with all the consequences. Image: Chris Prescott

If we take Harder Faster as an example, a route I climbed in 2019 with a 2-year-old child at the base of the crag, it is also a route that I considered indefensible in 2004 when my friend Toby made the second ascent has.

Deciding to climb it in 2019 may seem like I've somehow become braver or stupider, but in reality I've simply become better prepared and more patient and calculated.

James Pearson

The downside is how much the extra preparation for climbing such routes is now costing my family life. In the 2 weeks I spent on it, I was distracted and distant, focused only on the route, the movements, the weather and everything in between. To justify the risk, everything had to be perfect, which takes a lot of time and energy, even outside of the climbing itself.

There is a certain irony in that the effort to keep my family... whole is actually driving us apart! Maybe now that I have toddlers I should hang up my trad shoes and stop finding obscure ways to justify fundamentally indefensible things?

Something a lot of people don't know about me is that despite my ability to deal with serious injury or worse, when it comes to pure pressure to perform, I can be my own worst enemy.

James Pearson

When the consequences of failure were simply that I would have to try again, I often collapsed under the weight of my own expectations. As much as I love the process of developing new routes, both trad and sport, climbing has often been about navigating that stress cycle long enough to pull myself up on the thing.

The funny thing is that after completing a project and feeling the relief of clipping the diverter, one kind of purgatory was simply replaced by another that I actually found much worse - the rating!

James Pearson

I haven't always hated reviews. I used to quite enjoy the process of evaluating my first ascents by associating a rigid alphanumeric system with a human experience on the rock. But Walk of Life showed me how easy it was to get things “wrong,” and also how the community’s reaction can feel far beyond the actual “mistake.”

It actually makes me smile when I say these words... "Wrong"... and "Error", in the context of reviews that are essentially based on a climber's opinion and feelings. How can our feelings be “wrong”? How can we have made a “mistake” when all we have done has been to be honest about how a committal felt to us?

It may surprise people to hear that I still use a very similar rating system to the one I used to rate Walk of Life, one where I take into account how long the ascent took compared to other ascents I've done have. Believe it or not, I'm not selling a bear here, but truly believe it's a solid way to evaluate a climb as long as you have experience to support the style.

Self-development requires constant work, and if I'm not careful, I find myself slipping back into my selfish ways of the past, especially when I'm working on something really difficult. I often tell people that climbing makes me a better person, but that's not entirely true.

Climbing makes me happy, but it can also turn me into a monster.

James Pearson
The Promise. Image: David Simmons
The Promise. Image: David Simmons

Maybe if I were truly selfless I should consider quitting, but if I actually did that I'm pretty sure I'd be a terrible person to be with. Like most things in life, it's a balance we have to find. It's not easy, and all we can do is try.

For a long time I carried a grudge against the climbing community in the UK because of the way I thought I was treated.

James Pearson

It seemed cruel in proportion to everything, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I often thought of the UK as my hypothetical ex, someone I loved and hated at the same time, and the more I would do to win her back, the more she would run away! It took a long time to process my feelings and find peace with myself.

The early 2000s were a very different time than today and I think we have come a long way as a community in terms of tolerance and inclusion, but we still have a long way to go.

While we may be less inclined to publicly embarrass people than we were in the era of those terrible TV shows, there's still a lot of it in private, especially behind the anonymity of the Internet.

James Pearson

I know I'm not going to change the world on this topic, but I would love it if everyone reading this could just think a little more about how we treat each other and realize that our words carry significant meaning can have, even if we don't take them seriously.

Form curve still shows above: James Pearson in the repeat of Tribe. Image: Pietro Porro
Form curve still shows above: James Pearson in the repeat of Tribe. Image: Pietro Porro

Becoming a father in 2018 could have been the end of professional climbing, but step by step Caro and I found our way back, not only regaining the form we had lost, but also figuring out many of the issues that had held me back for years. Having young children to care for and significantly less time than before seemed to ease the pressure, and everything I accomplished became an unexpected bonus.

I used to be the biggest conditions snob, but climbing with kids forced me to climb things when I could instead of whenever I would have liked, and showed me that many of the barriers we find are actually our own .

James Pearson

My hardest boulder and sport routes ever and a quick climb of Tribe, a contender for the world's hardest trad route at the time, suggested I was ready for something new. I knew firsthand from years of searching that finding a heavy trad project is easier said than done, and letting go of control put me right back where I needed to be. Without the luxury of traveling wherever and whenever we wanted, I found the line that would become Bon Voyage in Annot in the south of France, right next to one of my older first ascents, literally right under my nose was hidden.

The entire process of climbing the route was the most enjoyable of my climbing life because instead of just focusing and stressing on the final climb, I tried to just enjoy every day.

James Pearson

I found myself in a peaceful, almost meditative routine, enjoying the regularity of activity as I watched the seasons change and my children grow. I'd be lying if I said I never worried about the weather, my skin, or my pinching fingers, but every time I caught myself slipping, I quickly managed to get myself out of that hole to pull out and return to enjoy the present.

I tried the route over and over again for two years and one day I climbed it, the hardest route I've ever done and perhaps the hardest I'll ever do.

I didn't tell anyone for a few weeks, partly because I needed time alone to process my feelings and partly because I knew what questions would come my way if I did.

James Pearson
James Pearson: “I tried Bon Voyage off and on for two years and one day I climbed it, the hardest route I have ever done and perhaps the hardest route I will ever do.” Image: Raph Fourau
James Pearson: “I tried Bon Voyage off and on for two years and one day I climbed it, the hardest route I have ever done and perhaps the hardest route I will ever do.” Image: Raph Fourau

Climbing news in 2023 seems very reductive to me, generally consisting of climber name, route name and grade, and I was hoping for more for Bon Voyage since the process behind it had meant so much. Also, for the first time in my life, I felt truly incapable of giving a review.

I analyzed every part of the route, broke it down into manageable pieces and tried to re-engineer those parts to give myself a review. Both these specific calculations and my initial gut feeling all pointed to the same number, but that number scared me so much that I just couldn't bring myself to commit.

After quick ascents of a few 9a sport routes, I knew I was in the best shape of my life. I thought Bon Voyage's style would suit me well and I knew I had to train specifically to have any chance.

However, I also knew all too well the difficulties of first ascents and the potential reaction of the British climbing community should I make another “mistake”!

James Pearson

I know that I am not the same climber, not even the same person, that I was 15 years ago. I realize that A+B probably equals C, and I know that at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is that I had so much fun climbing an amazing rock!

I know all these things, but the past still haunts me. It's been a long, hard struggle to get here, and if I've learned anything in the 15 years since the Walk of Life, it's that it will probably never be over. I also know that a life spent doing something you love is an incredible gift and I will never stop fighting for it.

I'm at a point where I realize I have to be brave and I have to put my feelings out there even if there is a chance of getting hurt...

James Pearson

Bon Voyage – I think it might be E12.

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Credits: Cover picture Raph Fourau

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