Pearson makes fifth ascent of Lexicon (E11 7a)
- Saturday 18th June 2022
James Pearson, a columnist with Climber Magazine, recently made the fifth ascent of Lexicon; the third this year.
James, along with his wife Caroline Ciavaldini, was on a flying visit to the UK for a birthday party in Scotland and his sister’s wedding in the Lakes. On the Monday of that week James, along with Keith Bradbury, walked into Pavey Ark to try Lexicon. Keith Bradbury abbed down Lexicon first and suggested to James he should try for a flash attempt. James then abbed-in during which he checked out the holds and the gear but didn’t try any moves off the abb rope nor did he top-rope the route as the previous four ascensionist had done.
James explains how the rest of the day went:
“Whilst it clearly looked hard, I thought it might be possible and probably worth an attempt, though with relatively poor conditions I was a little worried about throwing it away. I climbed the upper wall of Impact Day a few times in an effort to better understand how the small edges might feel, then lead up, and down climbed the lower wall of Lexicon, before succumbing to the midges and calling it a day around 9pm.”
The day after conditions were much improved and James and Keith were back once again. Again they abbed-in; again James cleaned the holds, adjusted some tick marks and then got ready for a lead attempt.
James explains how his lead attempt went and how the day continued thereafter:
“Unfortunately I messed up the sequence of the first boulder problem, spending way too much time and energy on the tiny crimps and despite a good fight on the moves above, I fell off about a little lower than where Steve falls in the video clip.
I pulled back on from the mid height gear to try again, finding a better sequence for the 1st boulder and going a move or two higher, but never really feeling solid with Steve’s moves.
3rd try, again pulling on from the gear, I swapped to Neil’s original method and after a good fight I climbed to the top. It was pretty exciting up there at the top of the wall not really knowing what to do, and I came up with a bit of a new sequence on the fly, the now infamous “right hand dead point” seemed a little too spicy. I tried my best to get back on the route from the ground that evening but my tank was empty.”
James returned on the Thursday to go for the lead once again. The weather however had other ideas and he had to abandon any attempt at climbing. Finally, on Friday afternoon – having helped with the wedding preparations in the morning – a window of opportunity opened up and James, with Caroline as belayer, headed back up to Pavey for a ‘last ditch’ attempt.
Despite the lower wall being partially wet James finally tied-in, set off and climbed up to and placed the gear at the base of the headwall. Despite the poor conditions James eventually committed and succeeded in making his ascent – the fifth of the route. Just after he topped out it started to rain again.
The style in which James climbed Lexicon has proved somewhat controversial. James explains his thinking:
“Whilst I hadn’t worked the moves and sequences on Lexicon, I had touched all of the hand holds and measured the distance to various potential footholds. This is clearly far, far away from the holy grail of an “onsight” and probably about as close as you can get to headpointing without actually headpointing. I’m sure it would feel very, very different being up there having no idea about the holds, or even having only seen them in a video and I’m not sure if I’d have managed it or even tried it if that had been the case.”
“I call my first attempt a “flash” because I used the same ethic as when “flashing boulders - Touching holds is ok, imagining positions, ok but don’t do any moves.
When I tried the route I had a good idea of the climbing, but clearly still messed it up and fell off.”
However, James recognises that his own “flash” criteria doesn’t necessarily sit within other climbers definitions saying:
“Some people might think “Flash” doesn’t stretch to inspection hanging on a rope (even if the approach to the base abseils down the route), and perhaps they are right? Maybe I should just call it a really shit headpoint?”
James has used "similar" tactics before when trying hard trad routes down in Pembroke. In September 2014 James did the second ascent of Charlie Woodburn’s 2012 Stennis Ford test-piece, Something's Burning (E9 7a), after an abseil inspection and watching his wife Caroline on the route. Previously, James had tried Muy Caliente (E9 6c), also in Stennis Ford, after watching videos of others climbing the route.
For clarity, James has confirmed how he tried these routes saying:
"My approach on both Something's Burning and Muy Caliente was quite different from Lexicon and even very different from each other. Whilst I did ab down Something’s Burning (once, to get to the belay ledge before climbing next to Caro to look at her placing the crucial wire) this was actually the only way she’d agree to belay me! I didn’t touch any holds. On Muy Calliente I didn’t ab the route at all. That one meant so much to me (I’d been training specifically for 6 months) I wanted it to be as pure as possible."
Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable discussions on-line about the tactics and the definitions used by James. James openly recognises that his views aren’t shared by everyone. Whilst preparing this news report a number of climbers have contacted Climber expressing their views; some in support of James’ position and others very much against it.
Terminology behind climbing has evolved over the years; for example, whilst there is a fairly clear understanding of what on-sight and redpoint terms mean in connection with sport climbing, the same perhaps cannot perhaps be said about what a flash is? Boulderers talk about flashing problems but then many/most of the holds can often be seen/touched from the ground so on-sight isn’t applicable for bouldering - just flash and worked. Generally, most people will accept that having knowledge of a route, including the holds and gear on a trad route, having watched either someone else climb it, or a video of someone climbing it, means that your subsequent attempt is a flash. The issue, however, is whether an abseil inspection is within the term or not? Equally, is it allowed whilst abseiling to touch the holds and when does touching become weighing?! It’s not only abseiling that is the issue; what about inspecting a route when lowering off an adjacent route. Or, would it be legitimate, for example, to pull-up a sport route on the quickdraws with your trainers on to inspect the holds and then still claim a flash?
James has commented further on this himself as it relates to trad climbing saying:
“I guess the fundamental problem with putting a label on this style of ascent is that the 3 styles we have , onsight, flash, and headpoint are by nature pretty restrictive. Perhaps we need more sub categories to accurately describe the many possibilities but at the end of the day I’m not sure it’s so important?”
Could it be that James has unwittingly, once again, sparked a discussion which may become climbing’s very own “Brexit” moment – with equal numbers of climbers taking opposing views?! This could very well morph into a discussion that occupies climbers for some considerable time!
Leaving this aside, at least for now, what it interesting is what James was trying to achieve – primarily for his own climbing satisfaction but perhaps also for the evolution of climbing – is to attempt cutting-edge trad routes in a style that is challenging for him.
“I wanted to try the route in a way that pushed me further than a headpoint would have, and feel like it was a step in the “right direction” towards a “better style”. I hesitate to use the word “better” because I actually think there is no “better or worse”, just different.
What’s really cool is that there’s plenty of room for improvement over what I’m trying by future climbers, and I’m excited to see what some of the youngsters might one day be able to do.”
It has always been the case that top-end climbers try to “improve” on the style that others have achieved. Whilst that might be seen to a degree as “one-up-man-ship” this is exactly how the sport has developed over time; arguably perhaps, that is even a fundamental premise of the job of a professional climber!
So whilst James’ “flash” attempt wasn’t successful he did climb the upper wall of Lexicon on his third “attempt” without having rehearsed the moves albeit having the benefit of a thorough pre-inspection. That in itself is pretty impressive and something for which James can take credit for achieving.
Having made the fifth ascent of Lexicon James was full of praise for both Lexicon and Neil’s vision in establish what has become one of the most ascended E11 in the country!
We’ll finish this report with James’ thoughts on the route, the line and the fall:
"I've not done every single hard trad route in England, but it's the best and most fun hard trad route that I've been on here. Rhapsody's [E11 7a] also really fun to climb, the line's not as good and the climbing is in no way pure like on Lexicon. But the fact that Rhapsody's fall has pretty much zero consequences just means it's more of an easy experience to go for, so you can enjoy it a little bit more.
On Lexicon, I thought the fall was safe enough and I thought I could probably fall off from either the very top or very close to the top and probably be fine. But I definitely wouldn't jump off the top like I jumped off the top of Rhapsody. I think it's quite on the line between everything being OK and everything not being OK and whilst I don't really think you'd injure yourself massively on it, even breaking an ankle which is a genuine possibility would just be miserable. It'd be a full on rescue. It's by no means a death route, but you shouldn't underestimate its danger. Just because I managed to climb it without top-roping it or without really practising it doesn't mean that I think it was 100% safe. It's my favourite style of trad, where it's not really a trad route because you place all of the gear in a relatively easy section of climbing in comparison to the head wall. On Lexicon, the lower wall feels kind of like an approach hike to the meat of the route. But when you do get there you've got such good gear now — it definitely seems like it's cleaned up a little bit from when Neil climbed it, but I guess that's just the nature of climbing on mountain routes.
I just can't get over how no one had really spotted it before. It came down to the vision of Neil to really open that thing up. Now I've climbed on it, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that it's already been repeated so many times, because it's a very, very hard route which clearly is still very approachable and such a fun line with such a cool sequence."
Follow James and watch his full ascent of Lexicon by clicking here to go to onceuponaclimb instagram.
Footnote: Report editted after posting to clarify tactics used on Something's Burning and Muy Caliente.