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Bon Voyage: The World’s Hardest Trad Route? Why No Grade?

James Pearson trad climber bon voyage first ascent hardest trad route

Published on: 08/30/2023

A new YouTube video reveals the mindset behind James Pearson’s  “flow state” on his nails-hard—but ungraded—Bon Voyage.

By Owen Clarke

In February 2023, British climber James Pearson finally took down Bon Voyage in Annot, France. Pearson—one of the world’s leading traditional climbers—has tackled many of the world’s hardest gear routes. This includes Jacopo Larcher’s Tribe (a speculated 5.14d) as well as high-end lines in his native England, like Lexicon and Rhapsody (E11 7a/5.14 R).

The Walk of Life Debacle

He’s undoubtedly a strong climber, but in years past, Pearson was also somewhat controversial. He’s been lambasted by many in the UK scene for an inflated grade on one of his earliest hard FAs, The Walk of Life. Pearson proposed E12 7a (1); the line was eventually sliced down to E9.

This stuffed grade debacle has followed Pearson for years. As a result, it’s perhaps understandable that Pearson declined to grade Bon Voyage, although it took him longer than any other boulder or route in his career. The Brit spent 20 days on the route over two years and took 10 redpoint attempts.

Bon Voyage Process

Released two weeks ago, a new YouTube short from Wild Country attempts to shed some light on Pearson’s process. It documents what was going through his mind as he worked a route that very well could be the hardest trad climb in the world.

YouTube video

So why no grade for such a hard, significant climb? One could assume Pearson just has cold feet, after having been scorned in the past for overinflating a previous FA, and perhaps that is some of it. “It’s 15 years since The Walk of Life. I admit I’m still struggling to separate myself from my past,” he said in a press release shortly after the route. “The idea of giving a grade to Bon Voyage and getting it ‘wrong’ makes me uneasy to say the least.” However, the truth appears a bit more complicated than that.

“A grade proposal should be just that, a proposal,” Pearson continued. “In theory I should simply say what I think, leaving future repeaters 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.”

James Pearson Bon Voyage first ascent Annot France

“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 undergrade 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, [which] doesn’t do anyone any favors.”

“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.”

A New Beginning

What’s perhaps most interesting is the new perspective offered by this new short film, which shows Pearson struggling to balance fatherhood with his ambition to continue pursuing his climbing goals. Pearson and his wife, French climber Caro Ciavaldini, are the parents of two young children, Arthur and ZoZo. In taking time away to bond with them, Pearson said, he developed a new relationship with his sport. “Letting go of climbing feels like the beginning of a new life for me,” he said.

James Pearson family life kid

In effect, it was time away from the wall, time put into other projects, that reinvigorated Pearson’s ambition to go back and tackle Bon Voyage. “The first few hard routes I climbed after becoming a father came as a real surprise,” he said. “I was underprepared, with no expectations… and suddenly, I was on top.” Over the last four years of fatherhood, Pearson noted that he’s climbed some of the hardest routes and boulders in his life, including Bon Voyage. Ironically, it took letting go of his goals to find the flow he needed to achieve them.

So back to that burning question… What is the grade of Bon Voyage? Is it really the world’s hardest trad route? We’ll have to wait for a repeat to find out. Then again, maybe we’ll never know, and maybe that’s the point.


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