Pearson and Ciavaldini talk about Harder Faster (E9) and Gaia (E8)
- Sunday 27th December 2020
As previously reported James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini made rare repeats of Harder Faster (E9 7a) and Gaia (E8 6c) on Christmas Eve. Climber can now bring readers an interview with James and Caroline about their ascents of these iconic routes.
As James and Caroline told Climber after their ascents, they both have a historic connection with the Black Rocks testpieces. James had belayed Toby Benham on the second ascent of Harder Faster back in 2003 whilst Gaia, in particular the infamous video of Jean-minh Trin-Thieu falling off Gaia, had been the first thing which Caroline had seen when she googled “trad climbing” just after meeting James for the first time.
James’s third ascent of Harder Faster and Caroline’s third female ascent of Gaia are significant achievements in their own rights. That they were achieved by a husband and wife team and on the same day adds a further nuance, not least because the weather before Christmas had been pretty shocking and both climbers had been ready to attempt their respective routes before only to have to bail-out when conditions forced them to stand-down.
In the following interview with James and Caroline, they share how they worked the routes, kept psyched despite the difficulties caused by the weather and how the actual ascents went on Christmas Eve. We start with a few joint questions and then ask James specifically about Harder Faster and then Caroline about Gaia…
Did you come 'home' with the idea of doing the Black Rock routes or was it a spontaneous decision?
What with Covid and Brexit, we knew we might be stuck in the UK for a while if we came home for Christmas this year. We didn’t have any particular plans, but plenty of dreams for what we might do if the weather turned out to be half decent. On the drive up, Caro said something about wanting to go and look at Gaia, as it was one of the first 'trad' routes she ever saw and despite thinking it was very silly, she had to admit that it was a very pretty bit of rock! I belayed my friend Toby on Harder Faster when he made the second ascent in 2003, and remember it feeling nails, and absolutely terrifying. As Caro wasn’t planning on actually trying Gaia, I thought I’d have a look at Harder Faster as another route I definitely wasn’t planning to try.
The weather has been pretty dire this week whist you’ve been trying these routes; how did you keep your psyche and your heads together when faced with uncertainty and delays?
It has indeed! The hardest part was actually getting on the routes for the first time, and from memory, we were here for almost a week before we actually got out climbing! Even then, we only managed to climb outside once every 2 or 3 days, and when we eventually felt ready to try the route, we had our plans rained off on more than one occasion!
How did you decide who went first? Rock, Paper, Scissors?
Continuing the theme of frustrating weather, Caro was all ready to go for Gaia when it started to snow. She did her best to stay positive and warm, but after 20 minutes of snow showers, the holds were looking very wet and she was pretty chilly! A little later I went back on a rope to check out the state of things up high. Whilst Gaia was still looking a little damp, the top of Harder Faster catches any breeze going and it was almost dry. A few more tries on top-rope warmed me up and I lead it a few minutes later. Caro followed suit with Gaia, also leading it successfully on her 1st try despite the initial boulder problem being much harder for her!
Collectively that’s a pretty stonking day sending! That a super-strong entry for the best 'trad day' of any husband/wife team during the year?
Haha! You can always find something if you add enough qualifying factors. Best trad day for multi-national husband/wife team with baby at the crag, both wearing red jackets and odd socks - for sure.
James talks about Harder Faster
After belaying Toby on his second ascent nearly 17 years ago you said that you “never thought you’d be up there too”. Obviously, a lot has happened during the intervening years; is there anyone fundamental thing that you can point to that has changed or is it just more an evolving attitude to trying routes and see whether they “suit” you?
I tried the moves on Harder Faster with Toby a few days before he climbed it, and was gobsmacked at how difficult and easy to fall off it felt. When I belayed him I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be up there on lead and it sickened me! At the time I remember thinking it seemed like the most dangerous route I’d ever tried! Whilst I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve become bolder since those early days on the grit, quite the contrary actually, I would say I’ve become a lot more controlled, with a far deeper understanding of climbing, and my own abilities. I didn’t plan on trying to lead Harder Faster at first, but the more I tried it, the more I knew I could do it. On my second day on the route, I felt ready to lead, but I took a further 2 days to work the moves to perfection, analyse everything I could, and think deeply about whether I really wanted to take the risk. I say risk because there was a risk. Even if I felt like I could top-rope the line every try, pausing for up to 10 seconds on every hold and doing other silly things like taking my feet off on the crux, or missing out good holds, I knew that there are never any guarantees. Even if the risk was only tiny, it was still there… but just like there is a risk I have an accident every time I drive a car. I needed to decide if the reward was worth it.
Did you feel any additional pressure going first on the day?
Nope, I went when I felt ready. Caro was actually ready a little before I was, but it started to snow just after she placed the gear. By the time she waited for it to stop and for the holds to dry, she was really cold, so I hopped on again whilst she ran around on the floor below. I top-roped it a few more times, but at that point knew it was only for getting warm. I knew everything I needed to know about the route and I’d made my decision, all that remained was to do it.
A fall from the headwall of Harder Faster would definitely lead to a ground fall! Did you drop test the fall at all and have a “point of no return” in your head and were you just fully committed?
I’d asked Tom Randall to belay me as he's got plenty of experience with bold trad and is apparently pretty handy when it comes to running - a necessary skill for any belayer on Harder Faster and Gaia. Whilst on Gaia you might be 'ok' from falling even close to the final good hold, but on Harder Faster there is a definite section of hard climbing, perhaps 4 or 5 moves, where even Usain Bolt wouldn’t keep you off the deck! I’d measured the fall with Tom, and we had a good idea of where I would probably be ok, and where I was on my own. When I passed this point Tom knew to stop worrying about running and give me plenty of slack.
You had some 'special' belaying going on. Can you explain what that was and the thinking behind it?
In addition to Tom, Caro also belayed me on a separate rope. Unlike the twin rope setup you sometimes see people use to belay Gaia, with one rope way up to the other side of the crag to control the swing into the arête, I clipped both ropes through the regular gear, in a similar way that you might use double ropes on a normal trad route. I used some very old 2 x 10.5 mm ropes I still had in my parent’s garage in the hope that they would have less stretch than our normal 9mm, as every cm would count in the event of a fall from the top. I also hoped that having two belayers would give me more chance that at least one of them would take in enough rope before I met the floor!
It’s written up as 'real E9' in the BMC guide. It that code for E10 would you say?
Here's where things get complicated… Caro and I both used bouldering pads, and without a doubt, it is a lot safer than climbing the routes without. I’d go as far as to say that if I hadn’t used pads, I wouldn’t have been able to justify trying to lead the route, as I really felt that even if I took the full fall from the top of the route, with pads I might escape with broken bones… without I’d probably be dead! Whilst I’m not sure about Charlie (I doubt it), I know Toby didn’t use pads on his ascent, for ethical reasons. He wanted to have the full 'grit' experience and thought that pads took away from that. Like myself on all of my grit first ascents, whilst he saw pads as a logical choice for safety, he couldn’t understand how to accurately grade the 'danger' of a climb when one of the potential ways to protect it was non-quantifiable.
In simple terms, one old micro pad, or 15 new XXL pads are all just 'pads', yet clearly, they affect the danger by wildly different amounts. The only way to accurately grade the danger is to give it a baseline that everyone can compare their efforts to, even if that baseline seems artificial and unrealistic based on today’s equipment, and that almost every future ascent might not live up to that standard. My experience on Harder Faster was certainly a lot less dangerous than that of Toby, and probably that of Charlie, but I did what I felt necessary and sensible to me, and I had a great time climbing it. I don’t however, feel anywhere near able to comment on the grade.
Can you describe the crucial moves on the headwall?
Once you leave the line of Gaia, or more correctly, once Gaia leaves Harder Faster, you have a couple of strangely physical moves on fairly good holds, before setting up for the looooonnnnggg reach to the top slopers. Your right hand is on an ok flat side-pull, your left foot on a vertical edgy spear, and you reach all the way up until your left foot is on the very tip of its toe, to get the first terrible left-hand sloper. There is a slightly better section further back, but you have to risk your foot popping to get it. Once you feel solid enough, you bring your right foot onto a big flat smear and take off your left foot to put more weight on your right. Blindly match with your right hand next to your left on an even worse sloper, turn your hips, place your left into a good small pocket and make the final crux move up to a slightly better sloper for your left. In isolation, this sloper is also bad, but compared to the two that came before, it feels like a jug! Compose yourself, place your feet, and make the last dynamic pop and mantle to get stood up in the slab and salvation!
How did your ascent go on the day? Any issues at all?
On the lead, everything felt better than perfect, with the exception of a lot of rope drag caused by my attempts to keep the gear extensions as short as possible! Even with this horrible drag, I felt so solid on the route that I could pull up some slack in the middle of the crux to give myself enough freedom for the little dynamic mantle at the top. I climbed the route in less than 1 minute, and during the climb, I felt nothing but peace. Pure serenity, a total detachment from reality. It’s been many years since I felt that from climbing, and it made me remember why I loved dangerous routes like this, all those years ago.
Have you any more grit projects on your 'to-do' list before you head back to France?
The only route I definitely had on my list to do was Captain Invincible, but after finally getting out to try it today, I think it’s one I’ll have to wait for warmer conditions… my fingers were like ice!
Caroline talks about Gaia
You said that originally you thought “trad climbing was stupid”. What would you say changed your mind?
Maybe I became stupid too?! You could say that, or you could say that I have realised that a little bit of risk makes life a lot more fun. On the other side of the spectrum, life would be extremely dull if you refused risk; you wouldn’t be allowed to have a treehouse as a kid for a start! I guess also I didn’t see where the fun was in putting yourself in a dangerous situation, where now I can see that the risk in such situation is one that you control, quite the opposite of Russian roulette.
You’re only the third women ever to lead Gaia; significantly, you’re the first-ever mum! Having Arthur clearly hasn’t diminished your drive for hard, and in this case dangerous, routes at all?
It is very weird but actually, I may be a little bit bolder than I used to be! Not that I am very bold at all, I look three times before crossing a road and I refused to stand on the top of Gaia for a picture because it seemed like a useless risk...
But raising Arthur has made me reflect a lot on what life is about; as a parent, you are a role model. James and I want to raise Arthur to fully enjoy life, and that means that we want him to have a treehouse if he wants to, to learn to ride a bike and to jump off stones. Parenting is often scary, and I often find myself clenching my teeth hoping that he will not fall badly… But I need to give him a chance to enjoy all the fun out there, so I brace myself, and in the process, I realise that some controlled risk is acceptable if it brings a lot of fun!
What was the hardest part of Gaia for you and did your ascent go according to the plan you had in your head?
The bottom crux is very difficult if you are short, and I took a long while to figure out my method. I still don’t manage this section every time, but it's safe to fall there. Then there is the top dangerous section. I worked it all for a few days on a top rope or a static, alternating with James, and settled on a method for the top where I right palm to get my feet off the groove then match hands on the sloper, send my leg far right into a toe hook on the arête, and lock my left arm to reach the arête with my hand. That section has to be extremely controlled as you shall not fall there, so I practised it a lot. Then I visualised every night, of course, to know instinctively every move, and I added unexpected emotions, visions - so I had to control them while visualising. The lead went exactly as planned, and I think this is the only acceptable way when you are a trad mum. I cannot justify hurting myself for my baby, and I only committed because I knew I would control myself.
Would you say this is the spiciest trad route you’ve done?
I don’t think this is the most dangerous climb I have ever done. I definitely have taken more risks on first ascents on adventurous terrain, like in Ethiopia earlier this year. In this case, the danger came from the bad quality of the rock. On Gaia, I was really in control of the movements, the only danger would have come from me potentially losing my cool in the crucial section. So I visualised, prepared, and got ready to master any emotion that could ever pop.