James Pearson began climbing as a teenager on his local gritstone outcrops in the Peak District. I briefly met him at Black Rocks near Matlock, on the 30th of October 2003. He had just climbed, or just fallen off (I can't remember exactly) The Zone at Curbar, which is a hard and bold wall climb protected by sky-hooks. Meeting a climber who was attempting The Zone was no surprise to me, but James was a little different...
"Jesus he looks about 12!" I thought.
James' climbing escalated rapidly and in 2004, after climbing some very hard boulder problems in America, he made a fast ascent of Equilibrium at Burbage, Neil Bentley's E10 arete at the young age of nineteen.
For the next few years James turned his attention to project lines on the grit, climbing the hard blunt arete of The Promise at Burbage and the well known last great project of The Groove at Cratcliffe.
Pearson was already well known for his hard and technical routes on gritstone, but his fame and notoriety rocketed when he hit the world climbing headlines with his first ascent of The Walk of Life on Dyer's Lookout, Devon in 2008. James graded the route E12 7a, which was the hardest proposed grade for a British trad route and would rank the route as one of the very hardest challenges in the world. The route and the grade caused quite a stir, and repeat ascensionists Dave MacLeod, Dave Birkett and more recently Charlie Woodburn have all suggested a down grade to E9 6c.
In February of 2009, James repeated Gerty Berwick (E9 7a / highball Font 8A), the intensely technical gritstone wall climb to the left of The New Statesman at Ilkley. This long standing last-great-problem of gritstone was first climbed by Ryan Pasquill only a month before.
But then James moved away from the UK, relocating to the European climbing paradise of Innsbruck in Austria. In some ways, James dropped off the UK climbing radar.
I caught up with him to find out exactly what he had been up to in the last year and to see if his move to Austria had prompted a change in his life and climbing plans.
So come on then James - what have you been up to in the last year?
I like to look at my last year as a re-design phase. Whilst living in Manchester, my motivation began to go astray and I didn't like the person I was turning into. I felt like I had gone as far as I could on the road I was travelling, I needed new challenges and new goals; to re-define who I was and what life meant for me.
So - what road did you feel you were starting to take in Manchester? And now you've taken a new direction - can you expand on what life does mean for you?
Its quite strange for me to think back to how different my days were, only a short time ago. In Manchester, I was really in a motivation slump, for a whole combination of reasons. It was common for me to spend days at a time doing nothing I consider productive, climbing was becoming a chore, life seemed dull and grey.
Despite the efforts of friends and family, I continued to live this way, slipping deeper and deeper into my own gloomy little world, always finding excuses and blaming external factors, rather than realising and accepting it was a problem with my outlook. Everything was in place for my life to be great, I mean, really great! I had an incredible family, a good girl, a nice house and the opportunity to travel the world doing what I loved – but something just wasn't working!
It was going away on the Road Trip that got the ball rolling again. Sharing my every moment with two of the most motivated people I knew, waking up every day to a beautiful new horizion, and seeing happy smiling faces at every stop along the way, made me breathe again. I remembered what it was about climbing that I loved most – not the movement, or the exercise, but the experiences we live through it, the incredible people we meet along the way and the majestic places we are fortunate enough to see.
Obviously it was a big decision to leave everything I knew behind me, but one that was surprisingly easy to make. I didn't really have too much of a plan, and fully accepted the possibility that maybe everything would come crashing down. Maybe I would be back in a few months, but at least I would know I tried. Since that moment, everything has fallen into place! There have been times when my path became unclear, and times when it became a big dark hole that wanted nothing more than to swallow me up. But I tried to flow, to always look for the positives and evolve through every moment. As I look back, I can see my path clearly, and see how everything that happened simply brought me to where I am today
The Summit Series Roadtrip (April 2009) gave me a unique opportunity to visit all of the major climbing hubs around Europe, back to back, and I was able to get a real feel for each of them. What makes them tick, what the rock is like, the people, the parties, the costs, the girls, the boys... visiting a new place every few days, one after the other, allowed me to look objectively at the big picture and decide on a new place I thought would help to get the most out of me.
I chose Innsbruck for many reasons, but the mainly for how I felt when I first woke up in the morning and looked out of the window. Home is somewhere very important, and I wanted to be somewhere that inspired me each second of every day. My apartment is nice, a modern conversion of an old building very near to the town centre. I was very lucky to find such a sweet place, but even more lucky to find the people I live with – two of the sweetest girls, both from Luxembourg, and both called Anne. My girlfriend (more on her later) also lives with me for most of the time I am in Innsbruck, which is bliss. We train or climb on the rock together during the day, and in the evening return home to cook and relax or meet with friends in town.
Any differences in climbing and training between living there and living in Sheffeld/Peak District?
The difference is astronomical, and not only related to climbing. My quality of life in Austria is so much higher than back in the UK, with the main difference being that crime is almost non-existent. I can walk anywhere, at anytime of the day and not have to worry – not something I could do living next to Moss Side. The weather is also a huge improvement, but let's face it, it's not too hard beat England in that respect. I finally live in a country that has seasons; in Winter I can be skiing 10min from my house, and in summer it is regularaly 30+ degrees!
In terms of climbing – the difference is simple... The good guys and girls take things seriously! They work hard to make the most of their talents, help each other reach their respective potentials, which raises the overall level of the scene. People feel good, are confident about their success, which raises the level yet again and the whole cycle repeats. It is a very positive and friendly scene – very refreshing!
The UK is full of naturally very strong climbers, the problem seems we just dont know what to do with them. Take my friend Simon for example. He could happily campus on mono's, but couldn't climb harder than 7c – the two obviously don't correlate; he was missing the guidance and coaching to turn his ridiculous strength into a less ridiculous performance on the rock.
Sure, some of the strong guys work out a little for themselves, and a few of them make an impact at an international level, but it is minimal compared to the what "could, and should have been". UK climbing has all the ingredients to be a force to be reckoned with and lead the way like it once did! But the recipe isn't working, times have changed, other countries have moved on. We need to change the way we do things, nurture the raw talent we are fortunate to have - to help them be the best they can be.
As fun as it is, excelling at drinking beer and dancing to techno don't carry as much respect as they once did. Shame really, as we would probably still be undefeated champions ;)
Has the change in scene changed your climbing aspirations or ambitions?
Completely – I realised that the key to being successful is based upon how much you are prepared to work. Training is hard, there are no magic pills, no quick fixes, but if you believe in your goal enough to embrace the pain and suffering you will experience along the way, then almost anything is possible.
Before I visited Tivoli (the climbing gym) for the first time, I was expecting something incredible, something out of this world where miracles happened and dreams came true. The truth actually couldn't be more different – the gym is way smaller than a lot of UK walls, the structure is nothing special and there are no performance enhancing drugs in the drinking fountains. What makes Tivoli special, and by that I mean a world class training venue, is the mentality of the owners and users, especially the approach of the manager Reini Scherer.
Check out the Tivoli Climbing Wall Here
The worlds best Sport climbers train at Tivoli, and the world's best need hard hard routes to train on. Routes in the gym go up to around 8c+/9a, in a variety of styles, through a variety of terrain, and it is dismaying to see the ease of which certain locals run laps on these monsters! We have the opportunity and potential in the UK to have amazing facilities for all types of training, it's just the mindset that needs a little work.
Innsbruck allows me to work on many different styles of climbing, all based from one comfy location. Some of the best "all-rounders" I have ever seen live here; people like Jorg Verhoeven, David Lama, Hansjorg Auer, and of course Gerhard Horhager make up a large part of my current inspiration. Excelling at everything from lead competitions, to alpine big-walls; these guys are the real deal – this is definitely a direction I see myself moving in the future.
I see you have mentioned in your blog (or somewhere) that you are working on your sport climbing to then use the fitness for your trad projects. OK - so how's the sport climbing going then? Any big ticks or improvements? Where have you been climbing?
Bolt clipping has always been the weakest aspect of my climbing – not surprising coming from a background of only bouldering and trad grit. For years I felt like it was holding me back, and I even tried to work on it during a few points, but quickly giving up due to lack of noticeable improvement compared to effort invested.
Finally I felt like I could ignore it no longer, and decided something needed to be done. Last year, I started to "train" my endurance more and more, but still found progress frustratingly slow, and my level frustratingly poor (its not hard to feel shitty when you watch Adam cruising 9a's), often returning to bouldering for a hit of well needed endorphins.
This up and down cycle continued until just a couple of months ago, when I mentioned to my girlfriend, Caroline, about my "training". Caro has been competing in the lead world cup for almost 10 years, so knows a thing or two about clipping bolts. She replied something like "Training, err, what training? What you have been doing is just playing. If you wanted to train, you should have told me before, but it's going to be hard work, boring and painful, are you ready?"
So we started working, and guess what; it is just as boring, just as painful, but works just as well as she said. I'm a few months into my new life and motivation has never been so high! I've been learning to relax onto my shoulders, drop my knees, and if you look really hard, you might even catch me using the odd knee bar – who would have thought it!
Caro is the perfect partner for me. We come from almost opposite worlds, with opposite styles, opposite strengths and weaknesses, so we come together very well. She has so much knowledge when it comes to training and getting the most out of your body. For her, climbing is all about efficiency – something that was an alien concept for me until not so long ago. My style has evolved from thuggy and snatchy towards flowy and delicate – basically I'm becoming a French fag, but hey, if it works, I say embrace it!
We have been only working on onsighting and flashing routes, which is another style of climbing I had very little experience in. On the other hand, this is what Caro does best; she really seems to flow up the rock like she has climbed the routes several times before. I try to watch, try to learn, and then try to emulate – usually resulting in me sketching and shaking my way up the routes, feet slipping, cutting loose, and generally making life difficult for myself. Still, it's nice to feel an improvement almost every day, the only way is up.
What was your top sport grade before you moved out there? I heard you had done Mecca (F8b+) - anything else? And do you feel you are improving?
I climbed Mecca many years ago during one of my brief attempts at gaining some fitness I mentioned earlier. It took me a few days work, but I quite enjoyed the process and was excited to do something a little harder. Unfortunately, I got stuck into some boulder project somewhere else, and lost what little fitness I had found, and Mecca remained my high point on bolts until moving out to Austria.
It was only recently that I tried something a little harder than my regular on-sights, resulting in me climbing an incredible 8c called Love 2.0 - genuinely one of the best routes I have climbed (I know everyone says this about hard routes they have recently climbed). This experience reminded me of how efficient the red-point process can be – quickly moving from finding individual moves hard, to making big links and finally finishing the job.
Since then I have climbed a few more 8c's on the limestone in the South of France (my second home), with the highlight being an ascent of Joncasares, a very bouldery 8c, climbed on my first try.
I'm psyched again for working some hard projects, and have already started to experiment with a few lines in nearby Arco, which will be coming into prime conditions over the winter months. I'd like to move on to a new number grade by early next year, which might be a case of making plans on the moon, but its sure worth a try. I'm going to continue with on-sighting as my main priority, but begin to introduce more power and power endurance sessions which should provide just the kick up the arse my body needs.
So could you give us a brief run down of your training schedule? What are you doing now that is different to before, and how often/hard do you train?
Caro and I train together roughly 5 days per week, usually with some other sort of non-climbing exercise on the other two. We try to split out time 50/50 between indoors and out – indoor is usually much more efficient, but it's very important for me to keep my motivation high by actually climbing outside, otherwise climbing becomes just exercise.
When we are "working", we mainly do exercises related to long boulder circuits. These are anywhere from 20 to 60+ moves long, with the difficulty, amount of rest, and number of repetitions changing in line with our specific goals.
At the moment I am still in the early days of my "new direction" and so we are still working on the basics – Long Endurance. This is not simply about fitness in my forearms, but changing the way I climb. Learning to move fluidly and efficiently, making the best use of rests, but most of all relaxing and staying relaxed in both the body and mind. It's quite amazing how pumpy a moment of panic can be!
Would it be fair to say that in the past you have excelled at short, super hard and technical things (like grit and boulder problems) but not operated at the same level on endurance routes? Or is that not the case?
I think it more than fair, in fact I wouldn't hold it against you to go as far as calling me a "one trick pony". I have certainly done longer routes in the past, but these have been far away what comes naturally to me – something that became painfully obvious with routes like "The Walk Of Life".
It's clear to me now that one of the reasons this route felt so hard for me was it just didn't suit my style – I found the mental side of it very difficult to deal with, which had a direct influence on the physical aspect, resulting in me having the biggest fight of my life. Others have obviously had wildly different experiences on the route, which is both interesting and inspiring for me. I'm never surprised at how much of climbing is in the head – 100% according to Patxi
Do you think you will revisit the Walk of Life (on top rope or whatever) to see if it feels different now the spell has been broken? Or have you fully moved on from that route now?
During the last moments of my ascent of TWOL, I took the opportunity to pause for a few minutes simply to look around and soak up the atmosphere. I told myself I would never come back to this wall and so should make the most of what little time remained – I did, and left happy, never planning to return. Until you asked me this question, I hadn't thought about this again – and now, with everything being a little different, things aren't quite so clear.
I guess if I happened to ever find myself stood above this cliff, with an ab-line already in place and a little time on my hands, it would be difficult to resist having another look at the line, just for old-time's sake. However, I have no burning desire to return specifically to England just to check it out. The past is only memories, the future just dreams, what defines us is here and now.
And any word on the trad projects? Or are they all top secret?
With good rock in England becoming more and more scarce, I think it pays to keep any aces you might be lucky enough to have well and truly up your sleeve. However, there is more good rock in Europe than you can shake a stick at, and I have many cool lines at the tops of mountains just waiting for the right amount of fitness and motivation for walking up the big hills. I'm going to be climbing a lot more with Hansjorg Auer in the near future who I'm sure has plenty of crazy ideas...
Excellent news there James. Good luck with those projects. Anywhere particular in mind with Hansjorg? He seems to be a big wall guru, and his solo ascent of the Fish route was one of those "NO WAY - I Can't Believe it!!" moments for me, I was blown away. Are you two heading up some huge alpine rock walls?
No plans in particular, just some interesting ideas floating about. The Fish was BIG!!! I only go high off the floor if I'm firmly attached to something ;-)
Future trips/expeditions - could you give us a quick run down on what you have planned next?
My next big expedition is at the end of November to the Ennedi Desert in Chad. The plan is to develop some big trad lines on the desert towers and arches, but as with all the places you only have photos to work from, who knows what we will actually find. I'll be travelling with good friends from The North Face USA so I'm sure we will have a blast whatever happens – provided no one gets kidnapped or killed. After this its back to the UK for Christmas where I might take a sneaky look at a line I have my eye on, and then I'm hoping to lead an expedition to the highlands of Vietnam in early 2011. Its going to be a busy future.
Good luck out in Chad - sounds crazy.
Yeah, It is certainly going to be exciting. First priority, stay alive. Second, climb something cool J - but seriously, despite all the warnings from the FCO, we took lots of advice and decided it was viable. Obviously we need to be respectful and cautions, but we are quite far away from any hotspots, and so anything bad would be much more unlucky than expected.
And - judging by the time of year you are returning to the UK, I am going to make a wild stab in the dark and suggest you have a gritstone project in mind. Using my huge knowledge -ahem- of remaining grit projects, I recommend a brush, a good duvet jacket and a few hand warmers, it gets bloody cold up at Wimberry at that time of year!! ;-) ...Am I right?!...
Grit is a good guess, but I've no plans to head back up that particular big hill anytime soon. I took the body I found last year under Miles's new route to be an omen! [Editor's Note: James found a dead body underneath the crag at Wimberry in 2009]
Fantastic talking to you James, it's great to see you busting out 8c's in quick time and also to see a young Brit making his way in the Austrian training circles.
I'm looking forward to hearing more about you and Hansjorg and your big adventures as well as seeing what technical desperates you can find on the grit. If you ever need a belay at Tivoli - let me know!
VIDEO: James Pearson - Progression - 8c
A big thank you goes to Dave Simmonite for this video and several of the photographs that accompany this article.
You can keep up to date with James, as well as see a stunning gallery of photos, all on his brand new website: www.realbigpimp.in