Home > News

Hard New Trad Route But No Grade, Here’s Why

James Pearson has established what is likely one of the world's most difficult gear routes

James Pearson has climbed his long-standing trad project in Annot, France. The route shares the same start as his 2017 first ascent Le Voyage E10. It then climbs an imposing blank face via a series of shallow pockets to finish up a technical arete.

Pearson, one of the world’s most experienced trad climbers, has named his new route Bon Voyage. The complex route certainly sits amongst some of the world’s hardest trad lines, having taken Pearson more time than any of his previous first ascents or repeats. Bon Voyage follows his repeats of other benchmark trad test-pieces in the last two years, such as Tribe and Lexicon E11 7a at Pavey Ark, Langdale, U.K. Below are some thoughts by Pearson about his new route, including why grading it is more complicated than one might think.

James Pearson on Bon Voyage. Photo by Raphaël Fourau

Bon Voyage

I found the line in 2021 and have been actively preparing myself for it since then. It felt like quite a step up from other hard trad routes I’ve tried over the years, but I’ve really enjoyed the process of developing new skills and strengths to be able to stand a chance. After the split with Le Voyage, a first boulder problem takes you to a couple of good pockets (the final protection of the route) and a marginal rest. From here there are 20 hard moves to the finishing ledge, almost exclusively on shallow pockets and tiny crimps. The route is definitely run out, with long falls, but you’d be unlucky to hurt yourself providing the protection is well placed. Annot has some of the blankest rock I have ever seen and the walls can often be sandy and loose, meaning most of the routes stick to crack systems. Bon Voyage follows a diagonal layer of bullet hard sandstone dotted with tiny pockets, a true miracle of Mother Nature and a reminder why all the years of searching were worth it.

This route took me longer than any other route or boulder I’ve ever tried. Both in terms of days actively trying it and time preparing myself for it (~ 20 days over two years and 10 redpoints). I spent more actual redpoint attempts on this than on Tribe, and all of my other 9a sport routes. I had to train specifically on a fingerboard to be able to do the moves and link the intense, fingery crux section.

Around the same time I made the first ascent, I climbed a couple of 9a’s in a similar length and style. These took me around four sessions and four to five redpoints. These sport routes are both slightly more overhanging with easier moves but worse rests, and shouldn’t suit me as well.

But I’m also aware that it’s a first ascent, and they always feel harder than a repeat. Of the 20 days, at least four of them were spent brushing holds and trying to understand if the line might be
possible. It’s slightly off-vertical which is a really difficult angle to grade. The holds are so very small and poor, that the moves feel difficult at first, but can quickly feel much easier as you learn the subtleties of each position.

James Pearson on Bon Voyage. Photo by Raphaël Fourau
James Pearson on Bon Voyage. Photo by Raphaël Fourau

The route is on pockets, which I believe to be one of my weaknesses. However, the pockets are so shallow (less than half pad) that they are more like crimps (my strength), and because of the sides of the pocket, you can’t use your thumb so you are forced to half crimp (my strongest grip type). It leaves me questioning: Did I need to train specifically just to reach an average level, or did I train to make my best strength even stronger? The answer to this question changes everything.

The crux move is very low percentage. I fell many times on this move before passing it – counting significantly towards my number of redpoints, but with a bit more luck I might have passed it sooner. Still, even after passing it I still fell three times in the second to last boulder, and almost fell on the final technical arête. It’s definitely not a one move wonder.

At the moment I don’t feel able to give this route a definite grade, which always sounds funny to me as a grade proposal should be just that, a proposal. In theory I should simply say what I think, leaving future repeater’s to give their opinion, and eventually we settle on a consensus. Perhaps I’m more sensitive than the average person but in practice I’ve seen and felt that it doesn’t quite work like that.

I could go with my gut and remind myself that at 37 I’m really too old to worry about things like this. I could also under grade it, effectively downgrading it myself before anyone else gets the chance, but this has a tendency to lead to grade stagnation like we’ve got with trad routes in the UK, and doesn’t do anyone any favours. However, both of these options would rely on me having a fixed grade in my head, which for all the above reasons – I simply don’t, yet. Before offering a grade I’d like to try a few more hard sport routes to better gauge my level, and also climb at Annot with other high-level climbers. Hopefully this will give me a better idea.

James Pearson on Bon Voyage. Photo by Raphaël Fourau