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Hard Grit Repeats by James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini

© Dark Sky Media

James Pearson made the third ascent of Harder Faster E9 7a at  Black Rocks, Derbyshire on 24 December. The bold line was first climbed by Charlie Woodburn in 2000 and the first repeat came in 2003 by the late Australian climber Toby Benham. Shortly after James' ascent, his wife Caroline Ciavaldini made the third female ascent of the classic original line Gaia E8 6c, which trends rightwards from the break instead of finishing direct up the pinnacle.

James Pearson on the third ascent of Harder, Faster E9 7a.   © Dark Sky Media
James Pearson on the third ascent of Harder, Faster E9 7a.
© Dark Sky Media

Having become parents two years ago, the day marked a significant return to hard trad for the couple, in addition to James' second ascent of Tribe - a contender for the world's hardest trad route - in October (UKC News).

Mike Weeks made a determined attempt at Harder, Faster in 2001, but retreted just prior to "the point of no return" and took a spectacular fall trying to reverse back down from the headwall. Toby Benham made the second ascent on Christmas Day in 2003, belayed by James. Returning to climb the line himself - especially as a father - was unexpected for James.

He commented:

'When I belayed Toby Benham (who later became known as Lucky Chance) on Harder, Faster 17 years ago on Christmas Day, I never thought that I'd one day be up there too. At the time it really seemed like the ultimate hard grit test piece; desperate, uncontrollable climbing with no illusions about the ground fall awaiting you! 17 years later it seems odd that now, as a father, I felt intrigued enough to go back and check it out. Rain, snow and subzero temperatures tested our commitment, but finally, it all fell into place and just like Toby, I could feel the peace and serenity high up there on those slopers.'

The Johnny Dawes 1986 testpiece Gaia has seen numerous ascents but only two female climbers had ticked the line
previously: American climber Lisa Rands in 2005 and Britain's Katy Whittaker in 2013.

Caroline Ciavaldini on the third female ascent of Gaia E8 6c.  © Dark Sky Media
Caroline Ciavaldini on the third female ascent of Gaia E8 6c.
© Dark Sky Media

Caroline commented:

'After meeting James, the very first trad route that I saw when I Googled trad climbing was Gaia and specifically the video of Jean-Minh Trin-Thieu falling off and smashing his leg! At that moment I remember deciding that trad climbing was stupid! Still, regardless, in that same moment, Gaia became a very emblematic route for me, and whatever the reasons, I'm super happy to have had the chance to climb it today, and to experience for myself some of that real spicy magic that is hard grit.'

On returning to bold trad and full fitness after the birth of their son Arthur in 2018, Caroline commented:

'Arthur is nearly 2 now, and we are both back on top form. It hasn't been an easy challenge, but I recently did an 8c route in St Leger and an 8b multi pitch in the Verdon, while James has repeated Tribe and some other 9a routes this year. Of course we still hadn't been back on dangerous routes like Harder, Faster and Gaia, and to be honest, we didn't especially plan to do so when we came to the UK. But I wanted to go on Gaia just to touch those holds again, never daring to imagine leading it. James accompanied me by getting on Harder, Faster, and quite soon, the game changed subtly from a simple play to the idea of a lead.'

The pair haven't set themselves limits simply because they became parents. Caroline explained:

'There is a very good reason for that: we have both come to realise that if we have to be careful and caring, we still have to live life as role models for our baby: if taking a little bit of risk, while controlling it, brings a lot of fun, then we believe it is justifiable. Just like we want our baby to feel free to scramble, jump off rocks, play in trees, and do all the things that kids have always done and should do.

'So, getting back to hard trad, for James, felt like returning to his first love, while I think to me, it is a next level of skill in my education as a trad climber. I will keep these routes to the bare minimum though, as I believe that the danger lies in repetition and habit, but I will keep on allowing myself to go for it if it feels important and fun.'

James' last hard grit ascent was back in 2009 when he climbed The End of the Affair E8 6c at Curbar onsight, before he moved to France with Caroline. He told UKC:

'To be honest, I thought I'd finished with this style of climbing, and whilst I'm not against taking risks in climbing, I like to know that I can control them as much as possible. The slopey holds and friction smears typically found on gritstone dont fit as well with this idea as the more positive edges you might encounter on limestone or granite, and so most of my recent bold trad has been away from the Peak District.'

The reasons behind his decision to attempt such a bold route are not clear-cut to James. He explained:

'I'm not really sure how and why I recently found myself up there on those infamous slopers on the sharp end. Cynics might say it was a desire to show myself that I was still capable, whereas I'd be more inclined to say it was a curiosity to understand how all that I've learnt over the last 10 years about dealing with performance pressure, might translate to the ultimate style of hard trad! Whatever the reason, the journey to get there was in no way pre-determined. I started to try the route as something to do whilst Caro played on Gaia, and little by little I felt myself falling back into old habits, whilst constantly being aware that as a father things were now very different!'

Managing risk has become an even more important skill for the couple since becoming parents. James continued:

'I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't feel like I took a risk to climb Harder, Faster, but I can say that I did everything I could to plan and prepare myself in the best way, to be as certain as is humanly possible that I wouldn't fall when it mattered. We take risks all the time in life in many different forms, from driving to the crag, to Arthur riding his bike down a hill, and I feel like it's better to understand and manage them, than to blindly avoid them. Climbing Harder, Faster brought back so many feelings and emotions from my early years as a climber, and now with years of experience in other styles of climbing, I can finally appreciate how unique and powerful an experience it is! In all the years, all the styles, and all the other hard routes I've done, there is nothing that comes close to the moment of pure serenity I feel when climbing a route like this!'


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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...

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Caroline's early climbing exploits were in the competition world where she had several years of excellents results. She later moved into sport climbing and eventually hard trad. She has made numerous difficult ascents...

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28 Dec, 2020

Incredible what Caroline has achieved after child birth!

28 Dec, 2020

Harder, Faster is one of those routes that I always looked at in my first guidebook (with no aspirations whatsoever, I should hasten to add) with my mind boggling. Pretty cool to see it get done. Also, my excuses about parenthood stopping me from climbing committing trad seem to have been shat on somewhat..

28 Dec, 2020

Its funny how things go round in one big circle sometimes. I was at Black Rocks ages ago, about 2000, farting about on some bits. A precocious youth of about 14 was working the start of Curving arete and took repeated long tumbling falls down the gap. Each time returning as undaunted as he was uninjured. Envying his indestructability and chuckling at his optimism I left. As I left I heard him mutter to his mate while looking up at Gaia "yeah I'll work that next" and I thought 'Pffffffft...good luck with that kiddo'.

No prizes for guessing who that precocious youth was.

28 Dec, 2020

Without wishing to hijack the news report we've got a film on the way in the new year about Caro and James' life as parents called 'New Life'. It's due to be released on the 8th March (via The North Face's YouTube channel)

28 Dec, 2020

Great to see James Person on hard grit again, full circle! He dropped off the radar here for a few years but he's done some seriously impressive non grit stuff in Austria and Italy and other places.

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