Caro Ciavaldini has made the second female ascent of Le Voyage (8b+), E10 7a, in Annot, France.
The route, first established by Caro's husband James in 2017, has seen ascents from some of the world's best trad climbers, including Jacopo Larcher, Steve McClure, Ignacio Mulero, and Sébastien Berthe. Barbara Zangerl is the only other woman to have climbed the route.
We got in touch with Caro shortly after she made the ascent to ask a few questions:
Hi Caro, and congratulations! Le Voyage is a route that has been on your radar for a while now, and is one that you probably have a lot of memories of other people on it, how does it feel to do it yourself?
Hello Xa! Well, actually the first time I saw Le Voyage was when James was opening it, as I was there with him. This was six years ago, we didn't have any children. I went on top rope on the route when he was doing it, and at the time it felt way too hard for me. Of course the route was brand new, and James had been cautious to brush it only lightly, and it was more sandy and more scary than it is now.
I went back on the route because Maddy Cope, who is my trainer from Lattice, told me that she was working on it. When she said that, she made me realize that I had put a mental barrier on what I could do, and that I should at least reexplore that.
I think I started being serious with Le Voyage once Zoellie was born, my second baby. I have been using this route as my road back to myself as a climber. Zoellie is two years old, so of course, for the first year, I was very far away, but I realized that I could do the movements.
This year I have been training specifically with only that route in my head. In the spring, I also saw Steve McClure do the route super quickly, he tried to convince me that his methods were easier… but he's just so much stronger! So yes, I have seen quite a few people on the route, and that really helps making a route less intimidating.
Roughly how many sessions have you had on Le Voyage?
I have been on it quite a few times really. Last year, maybe five days, maybe even more, but I was really not at the level. This year, I must've gone in the route five days in spring, and maybe six days this fall. It actually doesn't seem that much, but it is a lot more effort with children!
Everyone talks about Le Voyage as a very technically difficult route, which parts of it were the hardest for you?
There are two cruxes, and in the beginning, I was very scared of the first one.
Angus from Strong Mind helped me realize during our sessions that my fear was fear of falling, that I had developed after not leading for a long time when I was pregnant. Actually, it didn't take that long to get over it once Angus was helping me. He made me realize that by scaring myself when I wasn't ready on the first crux, I had associated a negative emotion to the movements, so every time I started this movements, I was scared beforehand. I had to find a way to remove that memory fear.
Then the second crux is a very long 7A+ technical boulder. It is very shouldery for me, and this spring, I could only go on the route for one day, only two times up, and then I needed a full week of rest, because my shoulders were on the verge of breaking! Maddy has helped me train them a lot to be a bit stronger, and this fall I've been able to do two sessions one after the other.
I think what is difficult, especially, if you're a girl, is that you have to use the 'long' boulder method, as you are too short for the 'left' boulder method. This is the way James climbed it originally, and it's six moves where you have to be perfect in terms of foot placement, ankle angle, body position, how much you're pulling… Every time you do a move, it doesn't feel fine, and you just have to keep pushing through anyway.
When we last spoke - after you climbed Olwen E9 - you said that Le Voyage was always on your mind, and that you were focused on Le Voyage when training, what kind of training did you do for it?
A lot of shoulder reinforcement with elastics, a lot of finger training as well (but I had to be very careful because my fingers are not very solid) and some power endurance.
I even did some very specific leg training because you have to pull on some small foothold, pressing really hard, it's quite weird to explain but I definitely never went that specific with my training before!
It was really awesome because as Maddy is working on the route too, she knows every single move, we could exchange methods, or rather, she gave me some of her methods, and she knew exactly what I needed when I was telling her I needed to reinforce my legs. You can't really do better than that in terms of training.
This was a relatively long-term project for you, did it become more stressful than enjoyable at times, and if so, how did you deal with it?
One of my resolutions after baby number two was that I was not going to be as hard on myself as I have been after baby number one. I didn't give myself a timeframe to come back to my best level, and I even allowed myself the possibility that I wouldn't manage to come back.
I think this is really a new version of mental training that I'm using now, mainly because I think it works better. I'm trying to be kind to myself rather than pressuring myself. I think it's really important, to do that, to surround yourself with the right people.
That's why I chose to work with Maddy, I will give you an example: she came to visit this summer, and we did some routes together, and I was complaining that I had a lot of internal dialogue. On one route, I fell after working on the dynamic movement, and moaned that it was that dumb internal dialogue again. She gently made me realise that the internal dialogue was OK and that actually falling on that movement was OK too. I don't know if I could've climbed that route any faster but basically, what Maddy was telling me was that there is no point criticising yourself, it's better to look at what you did that was good and try to reproduce the positive elements and integrate more 'good' for the next try.
It's just a nicer way to look at things. I definitely didn't function like that back in the time when I was a competition climber, there was a lot of beating myself up physically and mentally, and I think this is the competition mood to be honest.
So this is new for me, but also much more enjoyable. By choosing Angus as a mental trainer, I think I was reinforcing myself in the same direction. Angus is always very positive, and he helped me reinforce my own positivity. One time, I was describing the movements of the route to him, and he told me that there was a lot of negative emotions when I was describing the movements, whereas I had been so positive when I was talking about the route overall. Together we tried to focus more on all little motivating bits that every movement was also creating. For example, when I had so much fear of falling in the first crux, he told me to try to find a way to enjoy the fear. This is a little bit weird but actually, it makes sense to me, and it really worked.
When did you know you were ready to go for the lead?
I started to go on the lead when I really wasn't ready to lead it. This is James' method. So I took some very big falls. And I got very scared. This is a harsh method but somehow, I still think it works.
Talk us through the successful attempt, any surprises along the way or was it smooth sailing?
It was my second day of climbing, the day before I had fallen on what is maybe the last hard move of the crux. It was really cool because there was James, Arthur, Zozo, but also two movie maker friends and a friend who was climbing and belaying me.
All this team was gently pushing me up, I think they all knew I had a chance to send it, they were delicately motivating me. I had been getting better and better on all the beginning, and the trick is to have as much energy left as possible for the second crux.
I climbed really well, and in the crux, I made zero mistakes. That really doesn't mean I didn't have any internal dialogue, though. At the rest before the second crux, I had a lot going on in my head, as I always have. Some of it was, 'I'm just gonna go fast and fall so it's finished quickly', but I also had more positive thoughts, like feeling the ball of energy that I had prepared for exactly that moment.
I finished the hard section without too much internal dialogue during the hard movement, and when I arrived at the break, I just had the last section which isn't too hard, but you could still really fall on it.
When I was resting, I was again thinking of so many things, worrying that I wasn't recovering enough, worrying that I would over grip, stress, slip, or anything possible. I just tried to focus on the movements and the methods to try to keep my mind busy. I don't know if I've always had that much thinking, I used to avoid bouldery routes because rests have always been hard to handle for that... But I the training I have done this fall made me understand that even if I can't shut the mental dialogue down, I can manage it, and that's enough.
How does it feel to break into E10, and to be one of just a few women - and even fewer mothers - to have climbed the grade?
As usual, grades don't mean much, but this is definitely the hardest trad route I have ever done. It's also the longest project I have worked on, but when you're a parent, everything takes much longer.
I think I'm really proud of myself, because I stuck to it, but also because I found ways to make it enjoyable, 90% of the time, and, when you are a parent, there is so little time, climbing should really just be about fun - and it has been!
How will you be celebrating?
By allowing myself to focus on my kiddos!!! And giving James some time for his climbing.
PS: That is not the subject, but this weekend James will present his talk 'E12, there and back again' at Kendal. It's been a demanding process for him, first to dare do that presentation, and then to prepare it. I think climbing is really not just about climbing… it's about what you learn from it… I am looking forward to hearing about it!
Caro also sent through this longer piece about the experience, in her own words:
I am resting at the middle break, two thirds up Le Voyage. For the very first time, I have passed the second crux, a very long and technical 7A+ boulder, quite a few meters above my last protection, a No. 6 RP. Just before beginning the crux, I heard James, four-year-old Arthur, and two-year-old Zozo cheering me from below.
James and the kids were hiding before, maybe because James was hoping to give me more space to focus, as Zozo constantly asks for me today. But right before the crux, I wanted them to be there. Being a mum is disturbing for your climbing, but at the same time, they are my people.
I also look straight up at Raph, who is hanging on a static... He is here today as he was supposed to film James on Bon Voyage, his latest hard route, and has made the most of it to film my attempt. Carl and Antoine are here too, belaying and taking more video from below. Carl made some light jokes as I was putting my climbing shoes on, and I was super aware that he was trying, and succeeding, to create just the right mood for me. It does really matter to me to have these people here today. I can feel them gently pushing me up.
I have done the hardest by far, and it has taken me two years to be where I am today. two years to get back from baby number two, with the constant help of Maddie Cope and Lattice. Getting pregnant, people say, isn't an injury... I would say it's way worse for your climbing than any pulley (I had two) or other climber's injury.
Le Voyage finishes with a last easy section on fairly bad rock and a final crack around 7b+, from which you would hate yourself if you fell... yet you could. I am resting and trying to channel my internal dialogue. I have what it takes, but I need to climb well. Emotions are always there... fear of failing, fear of breaking a hold, and failing, fear of over-gripping, of slipping... My brain won't stop, just like it did at the rest before the crux. It's been so long since I was last trying so hard that I don't know what I was doing to sort that before being a mum. Did I always have all this internal dialogue?
Le Voyage is my longest project ever. Two years. But at the same time, as a climbing parent, you have to take things differently. You don't get many attempts on a climbing day... technically, I only get one at the minute when Zoellie snoozes. We have belayed on lead with her in the back in a baby carrier when she was smaller, but that wouldn't work now. You check the weather forecast all the time, but you still have to balance your goals with the family's life. You need so much more patience, but you are also so much more patient because that's what babies teach you.
Family life gives you more rhythm, and that has been good for training. I have had to train so much just to get back to my former level... then reinforce my shoulders because Le Voyage is so demanding. I have even done some specific leg training. I have never been as specific. But I don't think I have been obsessive. I can't. Because I am still a mum. First? I don't know... for sure maybe sometimes I have been stealing some time from my children for my training. I am somewhat selfish. But it's made me very happy to create that space for my climbing. It has made me be Caroline again.
Guilt, mum's guilt, is also on the menu in my internal dialogue. And after months of that, I had taken the decision to find a mental trainer. The last time I had one, I was a World Cup competition climber. I had then considered for years that I was self-sufficient, but for this route, I have realized that asking people's (the right people) help will just make me stronger. Angus from Strong Mind has helped me listen, accept, and channel all this internal dialogue. I had a lot of fear of falling, and we sorted that, so fast. I still have the dialogue, but rather than freaking out when my brain begins, I listen, I sort, and I use what is useful. Mindfulness, that's the word.
Most of all, Maddie, Angus, but also Carl and James have helped me enjoy the whole process. It is only all worth it if I enjoy it all, even the doubts. Sometimes it's 'type two fun,' as the Brits say... When I was terrified of falling on the first crux, that's type three fun. I didn't enjoy it when it happened, nor when I visualised it. I only managed to enjoy it when I actually removed the emotion from my visualisation. I just left the sensation of the movements, tried to be blank, or even better, enjoy the fear, and that was it. It clicked, and suddenly I could be in my climbing and enjoy most of it.
At some point, I begin climbing again. Not that it feels perfect, just, I can't procrastinate forever. Somehow, I am executing the last movements just right, and I know that for the last two movements, I must just enjoy it all.
I have finished Le Voyage, my hardest trad route ever. When I first went up it five years ago, I couldn't even do all the movements, and I was aware that this technical, bouldery style wasn't my best point. I had no children at the time, James had just opened the route, and it seemed unattainable. I only began thinking of it after Zozo was born. I really love to see that my mental limits have changed. My patience has increased. Time to be proud of myself.
Thanks a lot to Maddie and Lattice for the training, Angus for the mental training, Carl for the belaying and friendship, James for everything, my children for their patience, Marie for babysitting, Emmanuelle for the physio, The North Face and Respire performance for the NSP program, La Sportiva, Wild country, Sunn and Glorify, and all my people who push me up every day!