Honestly, one of the best hard trad routes I’ve ever done!

“Do you have any projects for this year?” Sitting atop the easy angled slab belaying my 10-year-old I answered. The low evening sun was beautifully warm despite mid-February, and I sensed the change of season and the real start of the year; the start of the outdoor year. Normally at this time I’d be thinking ahead, a plan or trip, but recently I’ve just allowed it to unfold. It worked well, surprising me with unexpected directions and places.

“Not really. No hard projects. But actually, ironically, I just read this morning about James Pearson and his new Trad route at Annot. Perhaps the hardest in the world. That could be a thing to look at”

The friendly chap, local to the Conwy area that spread out into the view below, expressed how that surely would be awesome to see. And we chatted for a while before he wished me luck and set off on his way. But in reality, I knew James’s new route would most likely be too hard. However, it had been the description of the original route, Le Voyage, from which the new route (Bon Voyage) shared the first half that had grabbed me. E10 7a, 8b+, one of the absolute finest trad routes James had ever climbed, and hardest (2nd hardest now) in the whole of France. Now this seemed like a far more realistic challenge. And so it grew. This morning I had no plan, suddenly, there seemed to be one. E10 in a trip would be a challenge for sure, possibly to hard, but possibly not. That’s my kind of challenge!

I generally regard myself as a Jack of All Trades (and thus master of none), but one of my better skills is in organising stuff, including trips. And thus began a monster of planning which was perhaps my greatest success ever. I’ll spare the details, but in a nutshell, in a few weeks I’d managed to sort a partner, and then a new partner after the original bailed, coordinate a film team, some budget for them, plan a visit to Petzl, find another partner to fill in some gaps, plus multiple flights, buses, trains, AirBnB’s campsites, tent loans, car hires, work shufflings and even coordinating meeting James at Annot. Perhaps the magic bullet was a chance meeting in Llandudno with Patch Hammond, only a day after meeting the local friendly chap. I’d not seen Patch in years, and amongst a rapid chat, diluted by kids demands for round-about pushes and snack requests I mentioned how Annot might be a cool place. Much to my surprise Patch said he could be keen, though it seemed in one of those ‘I’m actually really quite busy and for sure not committing to anything’ kind of ways. After my initial partner dropped out, everything fell into place when a few weeks later Patch said; “I’m in!”

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I rarely feel exhausted and rarely feel ill. A headache for a day is my usual bad cold. And so I was unimpressed to feel a tad rough about 3 weeks prior to Annot. Annoyingly the cold just got worse, at least allowing time to sort this monster trip. I also injured my right knee, a meniscus tear, gained a few finger tweaks, and a dodgy shoulder. Of course pushing on was the best idea, as I had no intention of losing the gains made since the start of the year. And what of this waffle you say? But I’m just telling a cautionary tale.. one told by many, one that makes sense, but so often overlooked. WOW, how well I’d been going just a week before, feeling 30 years old despite 52; every day packed with stuff; 4 hour boulder sessions followed by 3 hour bike rides followed by back to back 9 hour setting days followed by more and more and more. Surely even more and I’d be even fitter… and then BOOM. Hobbling around I kept it going, picking up a sore wrist too, and then my left knee swelled up making walking desperate. I got dry skin on my face, my nails went bad, sleep was rubbish but I felt like sleeping all the time. I was a wreck, going from 30 to 52 to 95 in a few weeks.

All the Annot planning had incredibly fallen into place, and now I schemed how best to undo it all, as it became painfully obvious everything wasn’t going to turn out well. But with flights booked, everything non-refundable, and folk relying on me, I resigned myself to sunshine recovery with some seated belaying…. First few days I noted an unfamiliar desire to not do much, my standard straight-to-8a approach replaced by a 6b or two at a crag with minimal walk-in as I staggered along, sticks in hand as gallons of snot seemed to come out of my lungs. But the sun and dry air and of course French food was helping. By day 4 a corner had been turned; not out of the woods, but at last some recovery.

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And so the target slipped back into view. First day at Annot was a steady one, with a few surprisingly awesome 6b and 6c trad routes. The start of Le Voyage is actually a 7a+ trad crack (which heads off in a different direction) and so I figured it could be a fitting test and way to open the account. Heck that was hard. I blamed my battered knees, injured shoulder, wrist, fingers, cold and illness but clearly I was just a crap crack climber. With plenty of gear in Le Voyage (others were working it) I made an easy move to a fixed thread where I was well placed to look up at the towering line above. WOW did that look appealing. This was the kind of climb I’m made for, and I could feel the battle within; “come on, your injuries are feeling OK. Carry on for a bit…. NO, just let it be for today, tomorrow will be even better”. Luckily darkness had the final say and I couldn’t really see, so lowered off with an unusually ill-defined level of psyche, not knowing how this route was going to unfold.

Back first thing next day. Another day of lovely sunshine and crisp dry air. Even the walk up was not so bad; slowly but surely, with many thanks offered to Patch who carried all the heavy stuff. Dave and Grace were on hand too, and with film cameras at the ready they were here to make a mini destination article for BMCTV as well as capture any action that might happen to occur. In the light of day Le Voyage made its presence felt; amongst all the vast walls and huge features and the overall scale of Annot, Le Voyage stands above everything. Its BIG, like 40m, the line is captivating, the rock beautiful. I began, on top-rope of course, glad of all the in-situ gear, not only to pull on, but also to get a feel for the risk. Its trad this route, kind of similar to something you’d find in Britain, with cracks and pockets and edges, protected by a whole bunch of wires, small cams, a bit of tat; and the odd run-out here and there. But instantly I could see this was not really dangerous, so long as the gear was placed well, and all the gear was placed. I say ‘not dangerous’, but of course it still could be, and flopping around on the crux I was aware the wires below were only sizes 1 and 2 and 3 plus the odd tiny dragonfly cam. Not much between a vey hard move and the ground!

And to be fair, that hard move was proving to be very hard! Up to that point I’d been in luck, tricky climbing but kind of 2D, lots of small foot holds, no really high steps and no knee-drops! Also my perfect angle of about 5-10 degrees overhanging with small holds and a chunk of power endurance being key. But the crux was nails, with an assortment of crap holds all at the wrong angle and all a bit too far apart! I tried loads of ways and gave up, which was OK, this was a first look. Second top-rope was better, taking it in bite sized chunks and committing to memory, and actually noting where the gear went, how it went in, and the size. I love this part of the process; playing with the amazing trad gear we have these days and exploring options. Finding something is so rewarding, and can be a mental game changer. One minute you’re thinking ‘Hmmm, this is gonna be scary, I’m not sure I’m up to this’, then you find a cunning cam or secret bomber wire and there is a flutter of ‘game on’! About 4 meters below the crux is a solid number 1 wire, but that’s a long way and its not a big wire! Then 2 meters below is an OK number 3. Pumpy to place, but in my plan this one had to go in, no skipping it to save energy, that would leave me psychologically too stressed. So that part of the plan was committed. For me, these details are the key. I make all the decisions before I leave the ground, that way there is nothing left to decide on the route. That wire was gonna be essential as it seemed the chance of falling was rather high, with the crux not easing no matter how many options I tried. In the end it was a matter of staring it down. Loads of possibilities; I plugged for a ‘my style’ approach of two hard very crimpy pulls that initially looked impossible. It was a process of ‘I want to do it this way, so lets see if I can make it work’. Initially it didn’t work, but with different foot positions, optimising reach off tiny edges and a bit of momentum I finally managed. Only once mind you, but I could see it would be the way. That was a huge mental step. The route now became ‘possible’ and I left it at that, happy with the progress.

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Next day a rest day was needed for both Patch and I, but somehow we were at the cliff, warming up on quality E3’s. One of the real beauties of Annot is the low grade routes are mega. Normally a warm-up is a quickly forgotten version of your sport target, here the warm-ups would qualify as an excellent day in their own right! Patch got involved with an 8a, and I pondered a plan. I needed more time on Le Voyage, but could feel a familiar tapping on my shoulder… basically I figured I had a chance to headpoint all the way up to the crux. The gear was roughly memorised, the hard moves done at least once and the easier ones I’d probably fudge through. So, if that’s the case, then maybe its was worth a shot? If it was a sport route I’d give myself 50:50 odds and definitely go for it. That tapping on my shoulder, it had been there for quite a few of my recent ascents, those skin-of-teeth efforts where I landed only just on the right side of my absolute limit. All my experience told me a little more work would seal the deal, and yet with even the slightest sniff of a chance I’m tying in the sharp end. Impatience? Possibly. Though I think more the challenge of the uncertain outcome. The real buzz is in attacking the route when the chances are slim, not when they are stacked in my favour. Of course there is a balance, for me an onsight of Le Voyage would have been out of the question, and a flash pretty much impossible unless another ‘me’ worked out all the beta. But now I’d gained enough to have a sliver of a chance, and if it worked out the buzz would be the best it could be. No ‘it felt easy in the end’ or ‘what was all the fuss about’, To get Le Voyage first lead effort would be the absolute best I could manage, the hardest possible way for me to climb it, absolutely optimising the challenge to offer the biggest reward.

But all this is waffle really, and I’d still only done the crux once. It seemed worth a shot as if I got there, there could be a chance, but I convinced myself I absolutely needed a ‘lead go’ anyway to understand how a lead feels. Hanging around placing wires is very different to just unclipping bits of gear on top-rope. This was highlighted in the bottom crack which certainly felt harder than in the dark, almost spitting me off, but in a way helping, as I now dropped my odds of success to zero and thoroughly placed this effort into the ‘working go’ box. Sitting in the resting slot I chatted with folk below. Today there was a real atmosphere; Patch full of humour as always, Dave and Grace with a camera, a bunch of waddage visiting climbers also working Le Voyage, and also James and Caro. I could feel the vibe, and I could feel how positive it was, especially from James and Caro. Sometimes people, I guess in any and every sport, can be a tad competitive, or at least self-occupied, but James was just so into me trying his route, he wanted me to feel the buzz he’d felt. And as I pushed on into the hard climbing I forgot all about my odds of success, I was just giving it my best, enthused by the shouts from below. Suddenly I was at the crux. I’d been so focused on the moves and gear my position caught me off-guard. I wasn’t really ready, this is where I expect to fall off, or grab the wire. But hang on, lets give it a go, why not? Shouts from below, they thought I was in…. Fatigue levels were red-lining but I threw myself into the first move, dropping into third gear and revving hard. Fingers somehow hit the edge… oh wow… maybe.. I dropped into second gear almost exploding every system, but trying desperately to keep it together, stick to the sequence, accurate feet on tiny edges. And then I had it, crux done! I literally could not believe it and let that smile begin to form.

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PIc - screen-grab from film - Dave Petts, Dark Art Pictures

Yesterday I’d made the move, just once. Latching the 10mm edge and thinking ‘that is a really hard move indeed’. From there it’s a bit of a slap to a sloper and another slap to a massive jug. I’d heard myself say ‘its not hard here, but you could still fall off’. But surely not. Now I made the slap to the sloper, missed it, readjusted, and then set up for the jug slap… but it wasn’t right, I wasn’t going to make the distance. Quick re-think; a foot out to the side, ah, no, that’s worse. What about a high foot.. nope. Oh shit, I’m off. I felt all my energy gone, like watching an hourglass timer as the absolute last grain of sand drops through. Somehow I launched, utterly out of control and absolutely at the end. The jug is huge like a pull-up bar and even as I landed it I was still so close to not staying on. This was my closest ever to falling off, perhaps in my entire life.

Dave caught it on film. You can see in my face I was shocked at the margin. This was pretty special. Even on the huge jugs I could barely hold on to rest, and I stayed an age before pressing on. The upper section of the route is still not trivial, a tough off-hands hand jam, or burly layback; generally a very fall-offable finale. But a fitting finale, and latching the top I knew I’d been through something amazing.

Team psyche on the deck was high, they knew for sure I’d been on the edge! Later I pondered my effort. Why try with so little margin? If I’d fallen I’d have blown it for the day, maybe for a few days, maybe the whole trip. And later it was even more apparent, as I began to feel absolutely knackered and both knees were giving plenty of grief, along with a dodgy finger and elbow. By evening I was busted. I’d dug in so deep, beyond the limit, tapping into reserves that maybe, probably, shouldn’t be tapped into. Was it worth the risk? Absolutely, 100%!! Its always worth it when you fall on the right side of the edge, and the closer to the edge, the bigger the buzz....