E12 route Bon Voyage sees third ascent

© UKC News

Seb Berthe has made the third ascent of James Pearson's Annot route Bon Voyage (9a), E12.

Seb Berthe has made the third ascent of Bon Voyage  © UKC News
Seb Berthe has made the third ascent of Bon Voyage

The route was first climbed by James Pearson in 2023, and share's the same beginning as his 2017 line Le Voyage (8b+), which Seb flashed in April last year. Seb climbed the route on his eighth session, having first set the goal of climbing the route after briefly trying the moves following his flash of Le Voyage.

Just over a month ago, the route saw its first repeat at the hands of Adam Ondra, who stated that the route 'could be (physically) the hardest route on trad gear in the world'.

Whilst James was initially reluctant to grade the route, he wrote a detailed post in December in which he explored the reasons behind this initial reluctance, before eventually proposing a grade of E12. Whilst Adam did not comment on the E grade, he said that the route 'would be very solid and specific 9a' if it were bolted, and that 'placing gear makes it a little more physically difficult, and adds some extra spice'. 

Seb got in touch with us earlier today to share the details of his ascent:

The notion that on this wall, a route could be freeclimbed on gear, is akin to a magic trick. A big congratulations to the magician James, for having the vision and perseverance to see through his 'Bon Voyage' til the end!

When leaving Le Voyage, there are a few more 'moderate' moves, big moves on good handholds and bad footholds. On the last rest, you need to place the last piece of gear, a little blue Totem cam, which can be quite tricky while climbing, to place in a pocket. From this point, the hard section starts: twelve really intense and complex moves, hard for the fingers, finishing on an amazing arete far left. 

The section itself could probably be graded 8c or 8c+, and it is quite runout. However, as Adam said, it is 'probably safe' with a good belay. Nevertheless, there is a rocky spike, a 'guillotine,' a few meters below the final arete, which is rather intimidating. I believe that a bad fall at the wrong moment, with just a bit too much slack in the system, could likely result in hitting it.

The Process

I spent more or less eight sessions in total on the route. I first tried Bon Voyage in April 2023 for half an hour after my flash ascent of 'Le Voyage', I immediately fell in love with the route, and decided it would be one of my main goals for 2024.

That's why I came back to Annot at the end of February this year, just a few days after Adam Ondra's lightning-fast ascent, with a firm intention to tackle the route! Despite very erratic weather conditions during this trip, I managed to have three sessions on the route. Right from the first session, I pushed myself to lead climb the route to get used to the placement of protections, the falls, and so on.

My progress on the route was quite rapid, and by the third session, I was considering doing the entire difficult section in one go. Unfortunately, I injured my little finger on the key move of the route, a big move to the left from a very small mono-finger hold, a very aggressive and particular move. While attempting to link the section, I felt a sharp pain and a jolt in my hand and forearm... Diagnosis: a small tear or strain of the lumbrical muscles inside the hand. So, this first trip ended abruptly, and it's with frustration and, above all, a strong desire to return that I leave Annot!

Seb on the painful mono move  © UKC News
Seb on the painful mono move

Two weeks later, I'm back in Annot! My finger is a bit better, but I'm not fully healed yet. I can easily climb using four fingers, but I feel pain as soon as my ring finger and little finger are separated. I'm hesitant to jump back into the process so quickly, but the temptation to return to Bon Voyage is too strong: the route haunts me, and the weather for the upcoming days is perfect. A voice inside me tells me that I can try again despite the minor injury, that I could change my method in the crux move, use another finger, and that it should probably be okay for the other moves.

I spend two sessions trying to regain good sensations, recalibrating the movements, and getting used to leading the beginning. To my great surprise, I manage to link the entire difficult section in one lead, albeit with great fear, because the potential fall is not only long but also possibly dangerous, which I find hard to estimate. Then, after a day of rest, I feel ready for some goes 'A muerte!'

That day, I put in a superb effort and fall at the crux from the ground. I feel quite close to sending it. Unfortunately, upon returning to the ground, I notice that I've severely torn my skin due to the crucial hold - that cursed mono-finger pocket - during my attempt, and I have a deep cut. Impossible to try again... So, I decide to take two days off and do everything to heal this wound as quickly as possible.

On March 19, 2024, I return to the crag after two days off. My motivation is at its peak; I'm eager to tackle the climb! My skin has more or less closed up, but I feel it won't hold for long. During warm-up, I test the move on a static rope, but I dare not try too hard as I feel the wound might open up directly. Well, at that moment, I know I might only get one shot. I'll have to give it my all!

Before my attempt, I decide to put strong glue on my skin to protect the injury and prevent it from reopening until later. I'm feeling butterflies in my stomach; I'm stressed. I know it's possible, but I'll have to be good, to surpass myself! My preparation is meticulous; my rack is set up on my harness in detail. I leave nothing to chance and ensure that everything is optimized for my climb.

There are many people at the crag (James Pearson has just arrived to work on a new project nearby), and the atmosphere is fantastic. But as I set off, everyone stops climbing and falls silent to watch my run; the tension is high. I give the last instructions to my belayer, James Taylor, an Englishman who came to work on Le Voyage, and off I go!

I easily and quickly climb the first meters of the climb. I feel good and strong. After a few minutes of climbing, I'm already on the final rest; I make the last gear placement that I've worked on for a long time to execute it as best as possible. When I launch into the section, I am determined and ready to give it my all. The cheers grow louder and louder as I progress through the difficult and committing section.

Seb placing the blue Totem cam  © Soline Kentzel
Seb placing the blue Totem cam
© Soline Kentzel

I'm at the crux now; I place my middle finger in that famous pocket and twist it to fit as best as possible. I can immediately feel all the glue coming off, and the hold attacking my flesh, but there's no time to dwell on it! I launch my body to the left and manage to grab the next hold with just my fingertips. And that's when the real battle begins. I know exactly what I have to do; I am precise in my movements, but I am in agony; with every move, I have to fight. My friends below are literally pushing me with their encouragement!

There, I'm on the arete after a famous retreat during the most 'delicate' movement in terms of commitment. Now I must remain focused, even though I know it's won. I make the last movements, shouting with joy! I did it! The relief and pleasure of reaching the top of this magnificent line overwhelm me.

Thanks to all those who helped and support me with this process: Soline, Jean-Elie, Mathieu (aka Michmich), James, Miguel, my parents Rico and Coco, Magali and Gilles, Tonio Rhode, James Taylor, Franco Cookson, Jacopo Larcher, and all the others… Thank you!

An original film about the whole process and ascent is in preparation, stay tuned! 

The grade

As James and Adam thought, I do believe that Bon Voyage 9a, even though it is a really specific climb and quite hard to grade.
Here is what I thought about the sections and put on Darth Grader: 8a+ (route) - Medium rest - 7A+ - Medium rest - 7C+ - No rest - 7A ⇒ 9a 

As I have no experience in E-grade, I can pronounce on this topic, but I found that the committing and dangerous aspect was truly present in the process.

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26 Mar

What a great writeup.

Although I'm struggling to reconcile "On the last rest, you need to place the last piece of gear, a little blue Totem cam" with the picture of him placing the cam well above his head while the left arm is locked off on a hip-height crimp and the feet are on something invisible. If that's a rest...

Good stuff. Anyone know what the area is like for trad generally? Nice looking crack in the background in the first photo...

26 Mar

Iwas there last year and right out was very good, probably best for E1-E5 cracks. The offwidth you can behind BV is Fan de la Reine (6c).

We asked Steve McClure what he thought of Annot after he climbed Le Voyage, and he was a big fan - his comments at the bottom of the interview:

Thanks folks. Offwidth eh, must be bigger than it looks!

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