James Pearson makes first ascent of longstanding trad project 'Bon Voyage'

© Raphaël Fourau

James Pearson has made the first ascent of his longstanding trad project in Annot, France.

Bon Voyage, which James began preparing for back in 2021, shares the same start as his 2017 route Le Voyage (8b+) (E10 7a), before moving left across an imposing blank face via a series of shallow pockets, and finishing up a technical arête.

Bon Voyage  © Raphaël Fourau
Bon Voyage
© Raphaël Fourau

Whilst James is yet to propose a grade for the route, it has taken him more time than any of his previous first ascents or repeats - including Neil Gresham's Lexicon (E11 7a) at Pavey Ark, and Jacopo Larcher's Tribe, at Cadarese, Italy, which is believed to be in the region of 9a-9a+. As such, Bon Voyage may well be amongst the hardest trad lines in the world.

James sent us his thoughts on the route, its style, and its difficulty, earlier today:

I found the line in 2021 and have been actively preparing myself for it since then. It felt like quite a step up from other hard trad routes I've tried over the years, but I've really enjoyed the process of developing new skills and strengths to be able to stand a chance.

After the split with Le Voyage, a first boulder problem takes you to a couple of good pockets (the final protection of the route) and a marginal rest. From here there are 20 hard moves to the finishing ledge, almost exclusively on shallow pockets and tiny crimps. The route is definitely run out, with long falls, but you'd be unlucky to hurt yourself providing the protection is well placed.

The route has a run out finish up a technical arête  © Raphaël Fourau
The route has a run out finish up a technical arête
© Raphaël Fourau

Annot has some of the blankest rock I have ever seen and the walls can often be sandy and loose, meaning most of the routes stick to crack systems. Bon Voyage follows a diagonal layer of bullet hard sandstone dotted with tiny pockets... a true miracle of Mother Nature and a reminder why all the years of searching were worth it.

This route took me longer than any other route or boulder I've ever tried. Both in terms of days actively trying it and time preparing myself for it (~20 days over 2 years, and 10 redpoints). Of the 20 days, at least 4 of them were spent brushing holds and trying to understand if the line might be possible. I spent more actual redpoint attempts on this than on Tribe, and all of my other 9a sport routes [and] had to train specifically on a fingerboard to be able to do the moves and link the intense, fingery crux section.

James tackling the traverse on shallow pockets  © Raphaël Fourau
James tackling the traverse on shallow pockets
© Raphaël Fourau

Around the same time I made the first ascent, I climbed a couple of 9a's in a similar length and style. These took me around 4 sessions and 4 to 5 redpoints. These sport routes are both slightly more overhanging with easier moves but worse rests, and shouldn't suit me as well.

But I'm also aware that it's a First Ascent, and they always feel harder than a repeat.

It's slightly off-vertical which is a really difficult angle to grade. The holds are so very small and poor, that the moves feel difficult at first, but can quickly feel much easier as you learn the subtleties of each position.

James on Bon Voyage  © Raphaël Fourau
James on Bon Voyage
© Raphaël Fourau

The route is on pockets, which I believe to be one of my weaknesses. However, the pockets are so shallow (less than half pad) that they are more like crimps (my strength), and because of the sides of the pocket, you can't use your thumb so you are forced to half crimp (my strongest grip type). It leaves me questioning: Did I need to train specifically just to reach an average level, or did I train to make my best strength even stronger? The answer to this question changes everything.

The crux move is very low percentage. I fell many times on this move before passing it - counting significantly towards my number of redpoints, but with a bit more luck I might have passed it sooner. Still, even after passing it I still fell 3 times in the 2nd to last boulder, and almost fell on the final technical arête! It's definitely not a one move wonder.

At the moment I don't feel able to give this route a definite grade, which always sounds funny to me as a grade proposal should be just that, a proposal. In theory I should simply say what I think, leaving future repeater's to give their opinion, and eventually we settle on a consensus. Perhaps I'm more sensitive than the average person but in practice I've seen and felt that it doesn't quite work like that.

Whilst currently ungraded, the route may be one of the hardest trad climbs in the world  © Raphaël Fourau
Whilst currently ungraded, the route may be one of the hardest trad climbs in the world
© Raphaël Fourau

I could go with my gut and remind myself that, at 37, I'm really too old to worry about things like this. I could also under grade it, effectively downgrading it myself before anyone else gets the chance, but this has a tendency to lead to grade stagnation like we've got with trad routes in the UK, and doesn't do anyone any favours. However, both of these options would rely on me having a fixed grade in my head, which for all the above reasons - I simply don't, yet.

Before offering a grade I'd like to try a few more hard sport routes to better gauge my level, and also climb at Annot with other high-level climbers. Hopefully this will give me a better idea.

This post has been read 8,899 times

Return to Latest News

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 27 posts 9 videos

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make UKClimbing the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate UKClimbing then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support - UKC Supporter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

Futuristic stuff from James. You've got to wonder if this route is the culmination of the combination of his modern sport fitness and early grit apprenticeship.

9 Feb

James Pearson’s 37!!!?? Great looking route.

9 Feb

Nice. If its harder than Lexicon, will he dare give it E12?!

9 Feb

God please

9 Feb

Shall we crowdfund a ticket for MacLeod to fly out and downgrade it? 😉

More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email