James Pearson repeats Parthian Shot sans side-runners
- Thursday 31st August 2023
James Pearson has repeated Parthian Shot at Burbage South climbing it both direct and without the side-runners in Brooks’ Crack.
Parthian Shot has captivated the Hard Grit community ever since John Dunne made the first ascent back in 1989. Back then, it was one of the hardest gritstone routes around; taking a proud “king line” up the jutting South Burbage prow, it became one of the most inspiring routes on the Grit circuit. Seb Grieve famously made the second ascent in April 1997 taking what many had considered a “death fall” onto small nuts in the renowned “hollow” flake.
Since then, it’s become both a national and international attraction; however, as climbers became both bolder and stronger the ethic was to try it ground-up. Eventually the flake broke when Will Stanhope took the lob off the top; amazingly he walked away to tell the story. Following Stanhope’s spectacular ground-fall, Parthian Shot has been reclimbed – albeit with the use of side-runners. Further breakages have occurred making it even harder.
Generally considered a ‘winter/spring/autumn’ route Jacopo Larcher made an ascent earlier this summer. That re-ignited James Pearson’s interest. Having tried it back-in-the-day but never completed it, James knew only too well what he was letting himself in for before he threw his static down the line. James is wired to probe the boundaries of the accepted norm and once again he’s set himself a stretch target to not only repeat Parthian Shot but to do it in the same original style as John Dunne had done back in 1989 – ie. without side-runners in Brook’s Crack. In this exclusive, in-depth interview, James Pearson – a Climber Magazine columnist – describes his approach to Parthian, the gear and how his ascent went.
Wowzer, grit in August; how about that then?!
When you say it like that it does sound a little crazy, but with the ever more changeable weather we are having, who knows when is going to be hot or cold anymore. In all seriousness, Parthian is a route that doesn’t need the typically chilly conditions associated with Hard Grit. It's long and steep with mainly big holds, and when it’s too cold you quickly loose feeling in your fingers. I’d actually only tried it in winter before (normally we visit the UK for Christmas) and it always felt desperate, so after reading about Jacopo’s ascent in July, I thought I’d go and take a look.
Not only did you climb Parthian ‘direct’ you didn’t place side-runners in Brooks’ Crack. Can you talk us through your thinking?
Before I get into the details of why, just to avoid any confusion, I did not (at least I don’t think I did) climb the same thing Ben Cossey called Nocturnal Emissions. I climbed a different, more direct start to Parthian than Brooks’ Crack, but I used the same lower arete as Dynamics of Change (but on the other side), moving right onto the face to place 2 small Friends, and then making one hard move up to join the original Parthian Shot crimps.
I always assumed that Nocturnal Emissions (and Childs Play the route it was based upon) climbs directly up the slab to join where I placed my first protection, but the truth is I don't really know. I’ve never seen any video or photos of people actually climbing it, only some very vague descriptions, and after checking out the slab on a couple of occasions, I still really don’t understand what you are meant to do. Whilst it is possible to climb only using holds in the slab, they constantly lead you towards the left arête, and it feels very “forced” not to use it. The line up the slab alone would definitely be harder than what I climbed, but it seems a bit daft to me to force a harder, more dangerous route by eliminating obvious holds.
The main reason I wanted to avoid Brooks’ Crack was to remove the possibility of placing the high side runner that everyone has used since the first flake broke in 2011. I could have climbed the crack and placed a friend level with my last hand hold, but then 10cm higher would probably be ok too. What about 10cm more, and 10 cm more. Climbing (trad especially) has enough ambiguous rules, so starting elsewhere helped to keep things clear.
Having repeated many of the hard grit routes Parthian Shot must be one of the last on the list still to do? How long have you been thinking about doing it and how important was it for you to do it in the style you adopted?
I’ve actually got quite a few Hard Grit routes to do and I’m definitely a long way from ticking the film. Parthian has been on my mind since I first tried it (around 2004), but mainly because I was so shocked at how hard it seemed. It’s a very different proposition compared to other grit routes and as a younger climber there is just no way I could have done something like this. Even once I had developed the fitness, I always found the top boulder desperate enough to put me off ever wanting to try it above the terrible looking protection.
When the flake broke and the high side-runner became standard practice, it almost became an easier objective in my mind. Yes, the gear in the flake was even worse than before, but with the extra protection on the right you basically had a “baby bouncer” (2 ropes running through 2 pieces of protection, separated horizontally by a few meters but placed at the same height), and from looking at the video of the fall of Ben, it seemed even safer than before (well, at least during the gold rush days before it broke on Will Stanhope). My approach to trad is fairly simplistic, and I try to play by a basic set of rules. Firstly, always try to match or improve on what has been ethically done before. Then, start on the ground, climb the route, placing gear wherever you climb, and hopefully get to the top. Obviously things are never black or white, (let’s avoid talking about head point vs flash vs on-sight for now), but side runners and pre-placed gear are two things I really try to avoid. I decided that if I wanted to one day lead Parthian Shot, I’d do it like John did all those years ago. Gear in the flake alone, placed on lead, knowing I shouldn’t fall.
Can you describe how you worked Parthian?
Since I’d already been on the route several times before, there was no need to wonder if I should try to flash, or ground-up the route. I started by warming up on the top boulder, which felt harder than I hoped it would (I'd only ever tried these moves in mid-winter before, and a bit of extra friction really helps), but it forced me to figure out some tiny details to make it as easy as possible. After this I began by making longer and longer links, lowering a move or two down each time and climbing back up to the top. I like this inverted red-pointing because you end up climbing the upper moves over and over again, learning to climb them a little more tired every time. By the time I got down to the bottom, I was feeling pretty confident about linking the whole thing. Caro gave me a belay on a top rope and I linked it without placing the gear. Next go I top-roped it stopping to place the gear, and fell on the top. I told myself I was just tired from the rest of the session, but the truth is that placing the gear is significantly harder than climbing with pre-placed protection.
The next day I had a spare hour so I headed out to Parthian on my own. There was a really strong wind blowing onto the crag, and I managed to link the whole route a couple of times on a static. I actually prefer working routes on a static because it's a bit harder than top roping. You need to pull through slack, undo knots one handed, and generally faff around, so when I know I can climb a route like this, I know I have enough margin to justify the risk. I decided that if the weather gods gave me another good day, I’d give it a go, and they did.
As you say, since Will Stanhope fell and broke the flake it’s been commonplace to use side-runners in Brooks’ Crack as a backup. Can you describe how good, or bad, the gear on the flake is now? For example, what are the pieces and how good are the placements on a ‘bomber-to-shocker’ scale?
Regarding the danger of Parthian Shot, it’s actually a really hard one to judge. The wires themselves are not too bad, and a couple of them are quite deep, but the flake is undeniably hollow (you can really hear it when you tug on the gear), and since the wires are all pretty small it’s hard to say exactly what will happen when you take a big fall and it expands.
I placed 4 pieces; a no.1 and no.2 ball nut, and 2 3/4 rocks. I clipped these in two pairs on separate ropes to spread the load, and each of the individual pieces can take bodyweight. I usually grade my gear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 struggling to stay in even under its own weight, and 10 being equalised Friends in perfect rock. I felt the collection of pieces the way I placed them might be worth a 6. I have a feeling that the nest would probably hold a fall, but I can see how it could fail, especially if the pieces are rushed in on lead. Generally, I’d suggest not testing them, as even if they can hold a fall, maybe even a few, given enough abuse it will probably fail again. How many falls this might take is anyone’s guess? All I can hope is that people take a little more care with themselves and the route than they did in the early 2000’s. Perhaps at the end of the day the side-runner is actually a good idea?
Doing it without the side-runners in Brooks’ Crack must have an impact on the grade therefore? What grade did it feel like doing it in the style you adopted?
Avoiding Brooks’ Crack and the high side runner definitely makes it a little harder, both mentally and physically, but how much it impacts the grade I can’t really say. That must sound funny from one of the team behind eGrader, but remember that eGrader is only a calculator, and if you don’t have the right data to input, it's not going to help you much.
Before the most recent (2023) breakage, people said that Parthian was around F8a+ to top rope, and F8b to place the gear. Looking at the fall from Ben’s Video, I’d say it was a stiff 2 on the eGrader D-Point scale, and so F8b and D2 would see it just scraping into E10. The most recent hold breakage however has done quite a lot to change the difficulty of the route. Instead of making a static move up to a decent undercut, you now have to dyno from the two crimps just to get into the flake. The good hold at the base of the flake from where you could shake and place some of the gear is now a one handed (good) sloper, so it’s a lot harder to rest here and generally more pumpy to place the first few pieces. I actually placed the majority of the gear from the upper part of the flake (which broke in 2011). This is far from being a restful position, but you can better see what you are placing. I've not climbed the route with the side runner so it’s impossible to compare, but I imagine I’d be a little quicker placing the gear in the flake knowing I had a really good backup. I really spent a lot of time making sure each piece was perfect.
All this means that when you set up for the big slap from the flake to the slopers above (now a very hard move since the breakage in 2011), you are already pretty tired. Success in the route for me really came down to having the capacity to relax and recover enough on these slopers to have enough juice for the crux, and obviously not panicking on the rock-over and final slab.
Doing Parthian Shot to finish off our summer trip must be very satisfying? Back to France now presumably?
Yeah, we’re already on our way back. It’s a long way to come with young kids but we had a really great time and I’m already looking forward to the next one.