The afternoon sun bounces off the ochre cliffs like they’ve been hammered from bronze as James Pearson hangs, one-handed, 200m above the crashing surf. It’s impressive stuff, though still bread- and-butter for Pearson, who feels at home on steep limestone overhangs, fingertips locking into minuscule rails of rock, toes pressing into the merest suggestion of a foothold, high above dizzying falls. He makes it look easy. Make no mistake, it isn’t.
When accomplishing these feats, Pearson never gets a sense of the awe-inspiring scenes he creates. Once he zooms in, nothing else exists. “On very hard routes, once I start climbing I’m so focused that everything else disappears,” he says. “From leaving the floor to topping out on the route, there’s just me and the rock in a magic little bubble.”
This altered mode, known as entering ‘The Zone’, is not unique to the British climber. The euphoric – or ‘flow’ – state of high performance can be experienced while doing everything from playing Call Of Duty to running a 100m sprint. Much has been written about flow by psychologists, who identified a point at which the right level of challenge meets the appropriate level of skill. When your mind is clear and you’re totally focused, something clicks and allows you to reach your true potential. “You almost don’t even remember the climbing,”says Pearson. “It just flows and you have this magical performance moment where everything is just perfect.”
By unlocking The Zone and finding fulfilment in his passion for rock climbing, Pearson has achieved a dream life in which he searches the world for next-level trad climbs, with his French pro-climber wife, Caroline Ciavaldini. But finding your flow isn’t simple, even once you’ve found your passion. It’s been a long climb to the top for Pearson.
When he was just 19, Pearson repeated what was then the hardest trad rock- climbing route in the world: Equilibrium, on home gritstone in the Peak District.
“I grew up in the Peak, and from an early age I loved being out in nature and exploring the crags,” he says. “Gritstone climbing tends to be just using friction between your boots or hands and the rock to go up the faces. There are very few actual holds and even fewer cracks or holes. This makes it heart-in-the-mouth stuff, because parts of the route can’t be protected – if you fall here, you die, simple as that.”
Pearson drilled the moves of the climb in safety, tied to a rope attached to the top. But right in the lethal ‘no-fall zone’ there was one move where he had to blindly place a foot on the other side of an arête, which was easy to miss. And every time he missed it on the top rope, he fell.
Though it was a sketchy prospect, he eventually decided to attempt the climb without the top rope. “This was a physical level so far above other stuff I’d tried, and I was so focused that right from the very beginning I lost myself,” he says. “This was the first moment I experienced really being in The Zone and becoming totally immersed in the experience.
“Then, at the top, it’s just ‘Whoosh’ and suddenly your vision opens up from this little 1m square and you can start to hear things again, like your friends at the bottom, cheering. You can feel the cold of the snow on the ground and the wind on your back. All these senses had been closed off, because you were so focused on what needed to be done.”
But Pearson almost didn’t make it to the top. “Of course, I missed the foothold,” he says. “I remember watching my fingers uncurl off this tiny, tiny little pebble hold and being so much in this bubble that the concept of failure existed, but the consequence of falling didn’t.”
Pearson made another discovery, which, as it happened, saved his life that day. “With that level of calm came this new physical level of strength. Even now, I don’t know how I did it. My thumb had come off [the hold] so I had this tiny little pebble under just one finger. I remember looking at it and somehow pulling back into the position and placing my foot.”
Pearson’s natural talent was for pushing the limits of rock climbing like this on routes requiring cat-like balance, delicacy and luck, where any mistake could be fatal. He couldn’t push the envelope on routes that were a trial of strength, because he was relatively slight. It made his name as an athlete, but it was also a deal with the devil.
“I developed a system where if the moves were hard, my logical mind would turn off, my body would take over and I would be in this little body of calm where nothing was scary and the physical side of things felt easier,” he says. “Movements that had been impossible when I was in safety on the top rope suddenly became easy when it mattered.”
Pearson found himself playing a deadly game of roulette, chasing ever-more risky routes in the Peak, just to claim the high grade, even if the climb itself was ugly. “All of the positive feelings that I felt towards myself came from just being a high-performing climber,” he says. “But you know that if you drive a car, one day you’ll crash. It may not be your fault – it may be the weather – but it’s going to happen. It was the same when climbing these dangerous routes.”
Pearson’s reliance on this feeling of flow was misplaced. It was the discovery that wealth, material goods and fame don’t bring happiness that first led Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to research what actually does. The result was his flow theory, which he called “the secret to happiness”. Though Pearson was experiencing a lot of what characterises flow, in his pursuit of glory he was missing a fundamental aspect. Part of finding flow is intrinsically loving the activity for what it is, truly connecting with the moment. Thoughts of external reward, such as the kudos and the sponsorship deals that come with being a pro climber, degraded the experience, not to mention increasing what were already big risks.
The pressure of being a pro climber meant Pearson felt he had to push the limits to maintain his status. “At the base of these climbs, I would feel physically sick with all the anxiety,” he says. “Then, as soon as I got onto the rock to lead the route, I was 100 per cent focused, the anxiety fell away and I was in The Zone again, flowing from move to move. But I understood, even at the time, that this was a very dangerous way to climb.”
Even before he started these climbs, Pearson’s fear of failure was overriding the terror of falling. This wasn’t a sustainable situation. As he found out, all the pieces must be in place before you can truly find your flow and master your sport in the process.
In 2008, Pearson spotted a new ‘next-level’ route high up on a sea cliff in Devon. The Walk Of Life, a 50m monster, requires great skill, strength and stamina. It’s the complete climbing challenge. As one of the best in his sport, Pearson assumed he was up to it, despite not having done any climbing endurance training.
The climbs that had made his name were short, intense bursts of effort, scaling 20m of rock at most. The challenge level of The Walk Of Life was way above Pearson’s ability level, and his usual climbing flow was swallowed by his fear. “I basically found myself terrified for an hour,” he says. “When you’re scared, you over-grip. When you over-grip, you get more tired and it feels harder than it should be.”
By the time he completed the route, after months of work and a massive fall on one attempt, he had climbed out of his skin. “It was the biggest physical and mental effort I’d given in my entire life,” he says. “So I gave it an astronomical grade of E12 7a.” This made it the world’s hardest climb by a huge margin.
When super-fit Scottish climber Dave MacLeod repeated the route in 2009, he promptly downgraded it to E9. Cue a backlash against Pearson’s assessment as internet forums flared into life. He wasn’t just burnt, he was roasted alive.
“I’d built a house of cards,” says Pearson, and its collapse threatened to destroy everything he’d achieved. He left the country and moved to Innsbruck with the aim of becoming the more complete climber by working on his stamina. But his inexperience in fitness training soon became evident, and he became distracted by freeskiing, mountain biking and partying.
It took a chance meeting with fellow pro climber Ciavaldini to reignite his passion. “I told her my training wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “She just laughed at me, saying, ‘You’re not training, you’re just playing on the rock with your friends.’ She offered to train me, promising three things: it would be boring, it would be painful, but it would work.”
This was the start of a long journey back to form, during which he mastered Muy Caliente, an E10 in Pembroke, Wales, on his first attempt. No one had even tried the climb before, let alone achieved it. As soon as he put one foot on the rock, Pearson remembers, he returned to The Zone. “It was a route that perfectly fitted a combination of my old and new strengths.”
It was still a risky route, but this time he had meticulously prepared for the challenge, using visualisation and training specific moves until he knew that all the components necessary to achieve true flow – skill, strength, fitness and psychological preparation – were in place. This also included a method of dealing with the pressures of expectation. “I climbed with my iPod,” he says.
“I was playing a Stanton Warriors mix that was timed to build through the hard section of the climb and then drop just after the rest section. The beat dropped, I set off and I was just lost in the thing, just flowing. Even talking about it now, I get goose bumps, because I can remember being lost in that moment. It was just amazing – nothing else existed.”
Right now, as Pearson dangles from an outrageously overhanging cave roof, he isn’t trying to bolster his confidence by bagging a grade. He and Ciavaldini are redefining what it means to be a pro climber by exploring the world, opening up new areas to discover beautiful but hard new lines, and creating opportunities for local climbers with their charity, SPOT (Share Progress Open Teach).
Pearson is on a mission, tirelessly searching for that aesthetically and athletically perfect, next-level trad line. He’s doing this not for some kind of overblown legacy, but for the sake of the climbing itself – to find happiness in that all-consuming moment. ‘It’s a kind of peace,” he says. “You can’t find that same feeling anywhere else.