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World’s Hardest Trad Slab Climbed by James Pearson

Brit James Pearson working on The Walk of Life, a slab given the unprecedented grade of E12 7a (equating to 5.14c or harder, with an X rating) at Dyer’s Lookout, North Devon coast, England. It is one of the most difficult and committing traditionally protected climbs in the world. [Photo] Hot Aches Productions

James Pearson’s success on a bold slab project at Dyer’s Lookout on the North Devon coast of England may mark the most difficult route ever climbed with traditional protection. Pearson, the 22-year-old whose headpoints have shaken the British climbing scene this year (read the February 7 and June 6, 2008 NewsWires), graded the new climb, The Walk of Life, an unprecedented E12 7a. Though difficult to translate (British hardman Neil Dickson has suggested that even the E8 and E9 grades are still “speculative”), E12 7a suggests at least 5.14c X: some of the world’s hardest climbing with serious, if not deadly, fall consequences. Climb magazine has reported the send as “without peers in terms of commitment, difficulty and danger.”

Pearson’s own description: “Imagine the longest sport route you have ever done. Now imagine that it is pretty hard, not at your absolute limit of endurance, but fairly close–so there is a good chance you may fall off. Now make the bolts pretty spaced so you will take a bit of a whipper. And then take out a few bolts in the crux section so you will take a BIG whipper if you fall here. Replace all the bolts with micro wires, sliders and other tiny gear, and pray to god that you have placed them in just the right spot or they will be as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Then just for kicks, imagine that the first bolt (or micro wire) is at 12m, above a terrible bouldery landing, and you have to do the crux of the entire route to get there.”

The opening 15 meters is this virtually unprotectable slab, which Pearson considers the most difficult and serious section; above, the line connects into Dyer Straits (E8 6b [5.12- R/X]). The lower slab’s lack of decent protection means that any fall would probably result in a deck onto the seaside boulders below. The upper section, first climbed by Ian Vickers, is serious in its own right. Finding the route a bit wet and himself drained of energy on an earlier attempt, Pearson took a 60-foot fall on the upper section and luckily walked away unscathed.

And, as if the route’s seriousness weren’t great enough, Pearson vowed to complete the climb without any of the pegs that once protected the Dyer Straits section. He removed thirteen of them, instead placing all the “small and awkward” gear on lead–a decision beyond bold considering the questionable nature of the rock (notorious for being “rotten” and “friable”) and the potential consequences of a fall.

“I could never have guessed just how much of my time would be taken up by, and how big a part of my life this route would become,” Pearson wrote in his blog. “It has been at the front of my mind for the last few months, ever since I decided (possibly prematurely) that I was ready to lead it and all my plans, my whole life in fact, have been structured to fit around these trips [to The Walk of Life].” This was his fourth visit to the project.

Pearson working through thin gear on Walk of Life. The direct start is unprotected until a micro wire at approximately 12 meters; above, it links into Dyer Straits (E8 6b [5.12- R/X])–though Pearson opted to pull that climb’s thirteen pegs and place gear on lead. [Photo] Hot Aches Productions

Climb reported Pearson saying, “The Walk of Life pushed me further and made me dig deeper than any other route I’ve climbed before. The route is the hardest I’ve ever climbed and far harder than any other route I’ve tried. When compared to other routes that I’ve experienced, and my previous first ascents including The Groove at Cratcliffe, which in hindsight I feel I undergraded, The Walk of Life is at a new level.”