On a Grand Scale - Matlock climber James Pearson
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 August 2019
The North Face/Matty Hong
Ascending Japan’s highest and most treacherous waterfall is just one of the achievements of Matlock-born climbing legend James Pearson. David Marley catches up with him – on a mountain – to discuss cliffs, ravines and waterfalls, and becoming a father for the first time
On the vertiginous jungle peaks of Japan's mountains, an adrenaline-charged and gravity-defying new record has just been set by one of Britain's most courageous climbers.
James Pearson, 33, from Matlock, has become the first English person to scale the ostensibly unattainable 340-metre-high Shomyo Falls, near Tateyama. James's vertical victory, in scrambling up gullies, ravines and sheer-rock faces to reach the pinnacle of Japan's highest and most treacherous waterfall - a mission shirked by almost all of his climbing contemporaries - has set the alpinist world alight as well as anchoring his reputation as a trailblazer for this increasingly popular extreme sport.
Despite the obvious life-threatening dangers of his high-altitude, water-drenched overseas adventure, James remains typically modest and reflective about his ground-breaking achievement. 'It is fair to say that almost all climbers try to avoid wet rocks because of the inherent risk of slipping,' he says. 'But I tend to gravitate naturally to weird and wacky new life experiences.'
He jumped at the chance to travel to Japan to take on the waterfall challenge last year, which was recorded as part of a film being made by the outdoor clothing brand The North Face. 'The opportunity to do this wonderful project, which aimed to expand my horizons and enrich my whole outlook on climbing was incredible - and it was made so much better by having The North Face with me as a partner and sponsor, recording every step of my journey.'
As it was unlike his previous ascents in Japan - up dry and solid rock - James had to learn a new form of climbing known as sawanobori, which involves scaling a mountain river back to its source. 'In the most simple terms: climbing up the side of a giant waterfall,' he smiles. 'I was literally thrown in at the deep end.'
Centuries before sawanobori became a sub-sport of climbing, it was used by people living in rural, mountainous areas of Japan. 'Using rivers, streams and the natural flow of waterfalls has long been an excellent method to travel between destinations,' James explains. 'Rather than tackling a journey through thick, dense jungle vegetation, villagers preferred to use rivers as an effective way of getting from place to place. But as new roads, bridges and railways were built sawanobori became more of a leisure-based activity for Japanese mountaineers and hikers.'
James was determined to immerse himself in Japanese culture and organised a three-week expedition. 'I wanted to approach this crazy form of climbing with an open heart - as well as allowing my mind to dive deep into unchartered climbing techniques that were outside my comfort zone,' he adds.
For the adventure James joined forces with the world-famous climbing athlete Yuji Hirayama and he confesses that it was an incredible experience. 'Yuji is a very talented and open-minded climber. We had so much fun together - and if I could travel back in time and do it all over again, I would leap at the chance.'
He tackled the climb by adopting the Trad (traditional) climbing style - leaving no traces of his movements up the waterfall edges. 'I climbed up, carrying all my protection gear, placing this equipment into crags and holes as I went along,' he explains. 'Naturally this increases the danger and risk but it is the way I prefer to climb. It was an amazing feeling to reach the top of the waterfall - something I will never forget.'
Travelling to the opposite side of the globe to take part in the waterfall climb must have seemed a world away from James's childhood in Matlock, where he attended All Saints primary and then Highfields schools. 'I was raised on Jackson Road in Matlock, just above the Derbyshire County Council offices in the centre of the town,' he explains. He started rock climbing as a teenager and has not looked down or back since.
'As a young person it was incredibly difficult to get involved in the sport,' he recalls. 'But a father of a friend offered to take me climbing - and I quickly realised that it was something I enjoyed and could do well. I am sure the harsh, wet and windy conditions of my early climbs in the Peak District as a teenager helped improve my performance for later life experiences.'
James's natural climbing ability set him above many of those around him and he quickly started to challenge boundaries created by older and more experienced climbers. 'I was not afraid to tackle some of the most demanding climbs in my local area,' he says. 'And I loved every minute of it - I was so lucky to be able to do something I was passionate about.'
By the age of 19 he had conquered 'Equilibrium', a route at Burbage South, near Hathersage. A Peak District climb only previously completed by two 'trad' athletes, and then considered the hardest 'trad' climb in the country. 'I studied the climb, noting handholds and footholds for about a week and then felt ready to give it a go,' he says.
Staggeringly, he scuttled up the rocks in five minutes to complete the challenge without even breaking a sweat. 'For me it's not about the speed of doing the climb it is much more about the technique and the physical difficulty of the challenge.'
But it was in 2008, at the age of 22, that James attracted international attention to his natural climbing talent. On the rugged north Devon coastline, near the town of Bude, he risked life and limb to scale a 45-metre-tall cliff, known as 'The Walk of Life', without any safety protection for the first part of the climb. 'As the rocks are so smooth you are unable to insert any safety gear,' he says. 'So if you fall at this point in the climb you are looking at a long fall onto rocks and serious injury or worse.'
Terrifyingly, his first attempt at the 'Walk of Life' saw him fall over 18 metres from the upper section of the climb after his grip and energy failed. 'This was one of the first difficult climbs on which I lost my grip. The protection I had used was pretty poor - but amazingly it held,' he recalls. 'And I'm still here today.'
James suffered minor cuts and bruises, but on his second attempt a few weeks later he successfully completed the ascent, and with it cemented his reputation as one of the best climbers in the world. 'It was a very difficult experience to live through at the time but it taught me a lot about managing risk. Since then I've been a lot more calculated and cautious with my climbs,' he explains.
Soon afterwards he met his wife, the international professional climber, Caroline Ciavaldini, and over the past nine years they have travelled the planet, taking part in a series of awe-inspiring climbs in some of the most beautiful locations in the world.
'Both Caroline and I do take a lot of risks, but they are calculated risks - and that's why we're so well-known as professional climbers,' James says. 'We've probably only spent a month apart since we met each other, and although a lot of our friends say we're crazy, I think that sharing our joint passion for climbing and doing it together is the most special thing in the world.'
Earlier this year Caroline and James had their first child, Arthur, and nowadays their overseas climbing expeditions need to include a few extra pieces of packing and equipment such as nappies and toys. 'We're now responsible for another human, someone who is totally dependent on us both, so we have to factor Arthur into our risk management planning for everything we do. After all, one little fall, one silly mistake, and that can be it,' he says.
It is with these child care needs in mind that I feel guilty contacting the family for my interview whilst they are on holiday in Corsica, in the Mediterranean. After speaking to the couple's agent I fix a chat with James via the miracles of Facetime mobile technology. Expecting to see James in his hotel room or perhaps by the pool, I am surprised when the call connects and he is perched on the edge of a mountain ledge overlooking the Mediterranean.
'This is James - how are you doing?' came the enthusiastically energetic buzz. 'We've just brought Arthur with us to Corsica in our camper van for his first trip away and he's having great fun playing with his mum at the moment,' he smiles.
After I reply clumsily and say that back in Derbyshire we are impressed and proud of his achievements, he says, 'We're the lucky ones because we lead such an amazingly perfect life - although I am terrified that one day it will all end and I'll have to settle down and do an office job.'
We talk for 30 minutes about his vision and passion for the sport that has been his life for the last 18 years. It very quickly becomes apparent that not only is James super cool, he is also super nice. 'I remember someone once said: "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice" and I try to live my life like that,' he says. 'I aim to be a true citizen of the world and I'm so conscious of the impact humans have on the natural environment.'
James is aware that his overseas climbing expeditions involve lots of air travel. 'We understand that we travel by air more than most and we appreciate the impact of man on our planet,' he says. 'So we are committed to do something about this and we've recently partnered with a company called Mossy Earth that aims to help soak up the carbon we use. They help people and businesses offset their carbon footprint by planting forests and rewilding environmentally and socially impoverished land.'
During our chat it is hard not to stop and pause to reflect that during a number of his climbs James frequently hangs off the edge of rock-faces by nothing more than a single finger- so it is impossible not to ask if he has a religious faith to help him through his many white-knuckle climbing encounters.
'I am not a religious but I am a spiritual person,' he replies. 'I think there's probably something out there but I am not sure what it is. But when I am hanging on top of a cliff, there are many occasions in moments of doubt when I talk to a greater power. But overall, I like to think that I'm in control of my own destiny.'
We drift back to the joys of being a parent, and it's hard not to enquire whether his own parents still worry about him when they read about his latest climbing feats in print or on the internet. 'I think they're quite used to it now,' James says. 'In fact my mum, Jayne, is out with us in Corsica at the moment. Just three years ago she decided to take up climbing, too. When I was a teenager she was never really that interested in the sport, but now she's eager to get involved. She loves spending time with us, looking after Arthur as we climb - it's become a real family endeavour.'
James now lives in the south of France with Caroline and Arthur but he confesses to enjoying a visit to his native Derbyshire and tries to get back to the county at least twice a year. 'I love coming back home,' he smiles. 'Spending time in Matlock is like being in a safe cocoon and my mum just can't help treating me so well. For two weeks I don't have to lift a finger and it's a wonderful feeling to be pampered and cared for.'
Bearing in mind that during his adventures James spends most of his working life perched on the edge of a remote cliff, sleeping in the wilderness and eating some of the most basic foods known to man, I don't think any of us would argue that he doesn't deserve these little treats now and again.
For details of James and Caroline's adventures visit www.onceuponaclimb.co.uk. 'Climbing Beyond: The World's Greatest Rock Climbing Adventures' by James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini, Aurum Press, hc, £20.