Kendal 2023 - E12? There and back again with James Pearson

© Raphaël Fourau

When James Pearson climbed Prisoners of the Sun (E10 7a) earlier in the year, he was the route's third ascensionist.

James Pearson on Prisoners of the Sun, E10 7a  © David Simmonite / Once Upon A Climb
James Pearson on Prisoners of the Sun, E10 7a
© David Simmonite / Once Upon A Climb

The two previous ascentionists had offered quite different opinions on the grade of the route, with one proposing E10 7a, and the other suggesting E8 6c.

Intrigued to hear James' opinion, I asked him what he thought. James offered no numbers, but instead gave a detailed answer as to why working out the difficulty of a route is no easy task:

'I know better than most how certain routes can feel like the living end to some, and a relative walk in the park to others. There are so many things at play when working on first ascents that the best any of us can do is offer an honest opinion' he said.

'Different bodies, skill sets, and past experiences are just a few of the elements that can massively influence the feel of a route. After reading about James Taylor's journey to make the first ascent I can totally see why he proposed E10 - because that's what it felt like to him'.

'I can also understand why Jim Pope said he'd had an "E8" experience, as based on the time it took him, compared to other routes he'd done, that's what it felt like to him. Neither of them are "right" or "wrong" because they are subjective opinions'. 

'Perhaps James got sucked into a "bad" sequence from trying it alone, or there was a move that just didn't suit him? Perhaps Jim didn't realise just how in shape he was after a fairly successful world championships? The "truth" - for want of a better word - is probably somewhere in the middle, but at the end of the day I try to look past all of this and just climb things that are cool'.

James on Bon Voyage, tackling the traverse on shallow pockets  © Raphaël Fourau
James on Bon Voyage, tackling the traverse on shallow pockets
© Raphaël Fourau

James' measured and analytical response is hardly surprising, given his past experiences. As he said himself when he climbed Bon Voyage (9a) earlier this year - 'in theory I should simply say what I think... but in practice I've seen and felt that it doesn't quite work like that'.

For those that don't already know, in 2008 James made the first ascent of The Walk of Life (E9 6c), a thin and precarious forty-eight metre slab at Dyers Lookout in Devon.

James Pearson on The Walk Of Life E9
© Dave Simmonite

After making the first ascent, James proposed the ground-breaking grade of E12, only for an injured Dave MacLeod to come along, make a quick repeat, and propose E9.

James' futuristic proposal, and the route's swift downgrade, contributed towards him becoming an early victim of what would now be called cancel culture. Not long after, he left the UK 'in pursuit of personal transformation'.

In subsequent years, James' ascents have confirmed that whilst the grading of his youth may have been misguided on occasion, his climbing ability has always been, and continues to be, beyond doubt.

Repeats of the Dave MacLeod's Rhapsody (E11 7a), Neil Gresham's Lexicon (E11 7a), and Jacopo Larcher's ~E11 9a-9a+ route Tribe, as well as first ascents of the ~E11 Power Ranger and the ungraded/dare-we-say-E12 route Bon Voyage (9a) make James more experienced than any other climber in the world on routes above E10.

James Pearson repeating Rhapsody, E11 7a  © Chris Prescott/Hot Aches Productions
James Pearson repeating Rhapsody, E11 7a
© Chris Prescott/Hot Aches Productions

James Pearson making the second ascent of Tribe, E11  © Pietro Porro
James Pearson making the second ascent of Tribe, E11
© Pietro Porro

So, fifteen years later, do spectres of The Walk of Life still follow James, or have they been bidden Bon Voyage?

Only James himself can say...

Join him on Sunday 19th November, where he'll be talking about both routes, as well as the hard trad and self-discovery that came in between.

Kendal Mountain Festival 2023

E12? There and back again with James Pearson - Sunday 19th November 4:00 pm.

Fifteen years ago, James Pearson sent shockwaves through the climbing world when he gave his route The Walk of Life the grade of E12, the first of its kind. While the route and its subsequent downgrade need little introduction, the fall-out remains one of the most prominent examples of cancel culture in the history of British climbing.

After leaving the UK in pursuit of personal transformation, James now resides in the South of France with his wife, professional climber Caroline Ciavaldini, and their two young children. After numerous impressive first ascents and repeats around the world, including the iconic Rhapsody (E11), and the currently ungraded Tribe (generally accepted to be the world's hardest trad route), few people would argue that James still has anything left to prove; except, that is, perhaps James himself.

At one of his first talks at Kendal since The Walk of Life, join James on a fifteen-year journey of hard trad and self discovery, leading up to his latest route, Bon Voyage, and the question we all want to know… 


James has gone from climbing near his family home in the Peak District of England to exploring walls and mountains in exotic locations around the globe everywhere from Tazmania to Thailand. His first venture into rock...

James's Athlete Page 32 posts 11 videos

2 Nov, 2023

He wasn't cancelled. He was rightly vilified for being a plonker - 3 E-grades off. He decided to bugger off for a bit and calm his ego. This idea that he was cancelled is for the birds.

2 Nov, 2023

I don't like the way you've put it, but I also thought that referring to it as an early example of "cancel culture" was a bit of a stretch.

2 Nov, 2023

Yes, it's a strange phrase to use. He made a genuine mistake - youthful exuberance maybe - and was given a rough ride for it. That's hardly even rare, let alone unforgiveable. But I don't remember any 'cancelling' or any suggestion that he wasn't free to argue his case as he wished.

Rephrasing past events using the norms and language of today is never a great idea.

2 Nov, 2023

I think everyone who's done both Once Upon a Time in the South West (E9 6c) and The Walk of Life (E9 6c) found the latter harder. Remember reading somewhere that someone thought it was towards the harder end of e9.

It's also hard to grade things that are different style to what you've done before. Etc etc. He got it wrong but i don't think you can say it's right to vilify anyone - for climbing anyway

3 Nov, 2023

I love this: ‘Towards the harder end of e9.’ I venture to suggest that c. 99% of climbers wouldn’t have a clue what this would be like. I certainly haven’t. :)

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