James Pearson repeats Prisoners of the Sun (E10) and Olwen (E9)
- Wednesday 16th August 2023
James Pearson has made quick repeats of both Prisoners of the Sun and Olwen at Painted Wall, Rhoscolyn, Anglesey during a recent visit.
James, and his wife Caroline Ciavaldini - jointly OnceUponAClimb, have been “holidaying” in north Wales although both have been very busy at the Painted Wall, Rhoscolyn. We reported earlier this week that Caro had made the third ascent of Olwen – her second-ever E9 and first since having their second child (link to that here). As you’d imagine, James was busy too – firstly, he headpointed Prisoners of the Sun and then made a ground-up ascent, having dropped his flash attempt, at Olwen after Caro made the third ascent.
In an exclusive interview with Climber, James tells us how he made the decision to top-rope the headpoint Prisoner but then tried to flash Olwen using Caro’s beta as well as talking a little about the issues of them both climbing hard with a young family. He’s what he said…
So, another summer visit back to the UK and yet more hard and fast ascents of top trad routes; you seem to have set a trend here.
Ha ha, I guess it could seem like that from an outsider’s perspective, but the truth is that our trips back to the UK in recent years are just to see family and friends. Any climbing we get done whilst we are over here is always a bit of a bonus. This time we’ve been here (in Criccieth) for two weeks, and we’ve been outside climbing three times. I actually consider ourselves really lucky this time, because getting all the stars to align for hard trad in the UK is a challenge at the best of times.
You seem particularly attracted to trad, rather than sport, on these flying visits back to the UK; how come?
It’s no secret that I am a trad climber at heart, yet, I’m the first to admit that I spend most of my climbing time bouldering or sport climbing. Where we live in France, there are hundreds if not thousands of world-class boulders and sport routes, which are so much fun to climb, and great for making sure I stay in pretty good shape. The UK has such an incredible variety of rock types and so many great trad routes, but I hope you’ll forgive me for saying the sport climbing leaves a lot to be desired. I’d have to be pretty daft to come over here and take Caro down to the Tor, she’d probably divorced me!
OK, let’s talk specifics then and dive into your repeats on the Painted Wall. What attracted you to the Painted Wall?
I noticed when Olwen was first reported that it looked like a good contender for a flash attempt. There aren’t many routes that fit into this “hard climbing, but potentially safe enough” category, so I made a mental note for another day. Flash is my favourite style to attempt hard trad at the moment because I feel like I can minimise a lot of the unknown elements that make onsighting trad routes such an epic, but still leave myself with a really good challenge. I really like having a rough idea of what I might expect to find, but still having to freestyle and come up with solutions to unexpected problems on the fly.
The Painted Wall is not too far (compared to the south of France) from where we have been staying in North Wales, and although it’s not usually much of a summer venue, we crossed our fingers for some overcast, windy days. Sadly, the first climbing day was anything but that, so whilst Caro was still trying to figure out some of the other routes on the wall and moaning about how slippery everything felt, I decided to have a look at the only route that didn’t share common ground, James Taylor’s Prisoners of the Sun.
Jim Pope made the first repeats of both Prisoners of the Sun and Olwen; Prisoners he did last summer and Olwen he’s just done. He checked out both on a top rope and then headpointed them. You top-roped Prisoners first but went for a flash attempt on Olwen using Caro’s beta. How did you decide between the two different approaches given that they offer hugely different experiences?
That one was easy… Prisoners just looked too dangerous for me to consider for a flash attempt, especially as a quick holiday tick. The bottom wall (where the majority of the hard climbing is found) is clear leg-breaking territory and with two little kiddies waiting with their grandparents and no mobile signal down at the base it seemed like a really bad idea. I’m really glad I made that decision because the climbing itself is very awkward and easy to fall off, and there were several wet holds that I had to either avoid or learn to pull on in just the right way to avoid spontaneously shooting off! With a bit of practice, everything felt nicely in control, but it’s the type of climbing where the smallest change in body position or the angle that you pull on the holds changes everything.
Having top-roped Prisoners did the headpoint feel something of a formality? Also, Jim said after his second ascent that he felt he’d had an E8 6c experience rather than the E10 7a it was given by the first ascensionist James Taylor. The question we’re asking really is what grade do you think it is and why?
It’s very rare that I climb dangerous routes these days (ones where I know the fall will have serious consequences), and when I do, I need to make sure that everything goes smoothly. You can achieve this to a certain extent through repeated practice, but there is nothing better than simply being stronger than the route requires. Once I had figured out the sequence I wanted to use, I never fell on any of my top rope attempts, including the ones where I climbed both up and down the route, pausing for several seconds on each hold. Having said that, I chose not to lead the route on my first day. Despite being confident I wouldn’t fall, I knew I would climb better after sleeping on it and processing the whole experience. I was quite tired, physically and mentally at the end of the first day, and I didn’t want to feel like I had to fight to keep enough control whilst climbing, I wanted it to flow.
I don’t really feel I can talk about Jim’s repeat of the route because I’ve not spoken to him personally. Climbing it so quickly is very impressive, and perhaps he genuinely believed that it was safe enough to fall. However, after having climbed it myself, I’d just like to say that the idea you could fall off that bottom wall, and “just land on the grassy ledge” seems a bit bonkers to me! All sorts of strange things can happen when you fall, and sometimes you get very lucky, but in my experience, most of the time it’s always a shock just how quick gravity works and how hard the floor feels. Human bodies are really fragile, and it’s best not to test them too much - a lesson that is sadly usually learnt the hard way!
Let’s talk about Olwen next then. That starts up a quasi-sport route Easel-EE before attacking the headwall direct. Olwen was reported as having some pretty ‘big air’ opportunities from off the higher crux and you’ll have seen that from Caro’s ascent. So how did your flash attempt go?
It wasn’t the best flash attempt I’ve ever given a hard route, but it wasn’t too bad and I really can’t be disappointed with how it finished. I made a bit of a mistake just after Olwen leaves the climbing shared with Easel-EE, and from that point on it was a constant battle with pump and greasy holds. The rests in the route are reasonable, but you never really have two good handholds or good handholds and good feet, so recovering takes a long time. It was a constant balancing act between hanging on long enough to get something back, and feeling the holds get greasier and greasier as the chalk and sea spooge worked their magic!
I almost backed off from the middle of the lower (potentially dangerous) runout, but eventually made it through to the underthings and good gear that mark the beginning of the upper wall and crux of the route. I had a really good fight, using mostly Caroline’s beta, but having to freestyle a couple of moves that just didn’t quite fit me. I stuck the final hard move with a giant scream, but I was so boxed I fell trying to sort my feet out. It might technically be the last really hard move on the route, but the route is definitely not over at this point. There are still two moves to go before you get to the really good holds, and I think I would’ve surely fallen here, even if I had gotten my feet into position. Actually, on my next attempt, I was about as close as I could get to falling on these very moves.
I had such a good fight on the route that I’m not even disappointed about failing to flash it so close to the end. Obviously, it sweetens the situation to have done it next go, and ground-up ascents of E9 are always nice, but I’ll remember the feelings on that top wall, giving it everything I had.
It must be very satisfying for you to see Caro smashing out the hard grades again.
It’s been a long road for Caro to come back after her second pregnancy, actually, I don’t think she was ever fully “recovered” from Arthur. This time she’s been taking it slow in an effort to avoid some of the silly injuries she had a few years ago from pushing herself too hard, and even like that, it’s been far from smooth sailing.
In addition to the physical hurdles, mentally it's been really tough for her, not necessarily wondering if she can still do it, but if she still wants to do it, and if she “should” still do it? This is not the place for an in-depth discussion on the psychology of parents and sport/passion/risk-taking, but society makes it so that the weight of doing what’s right for your kids is definitely harder to bear for Caro than it is for me.
In the days before her lead she had a few moments when she questioned her place trying a route like this, but once she’d settled on the idea it was lovely to watch her find herself, focus, and climb almost flawlessly!
Have you got enough time this trip for any more projects?
We’ve got a week left which if we are lucky means a day or two out on the rock. There are routes all over the UK that I’d love to try, so let’s see where we end up…