World-class French competition climber Caroline Ciavaldini has once again turned her hand to trad climbing: ticking an E8 and an E9 in one week. Katy Dartford caught up with her to find out just what attracts her to British trad climbing.
28-year-old Caroline headed to the UK after her recent trip to her home of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean with her boyfriend James Pearson. In Wales, she climbed the Pembroke classic Chupacabra, E8 6c, in Huntsman's Leap, and Chicama, E9 6c, at Trearddur Bay in North Wales.
Chupacabra has seen three repeats before Caroline's (from Steve McClure, Nic Sellers and Neil Mawson, who downgraded it to E8) whilst Tim Emmett's E9 6c was recently repeated by Hazel Findlay and James McHaffie.
Caroline has been climbing since the age of 12. She left her family and the island and has been training seriously in France for the last eleven years. She is now a full-time professional climber in traditional, multi-pitch, sport climbing and bouldering and aims to push her limits in multi-pitch and trad climbing and to push the boundaries of female climbing.
Your boyfriend James Pearson has helped develop your trad climbing. Do you find it a good or bad thing to work with your partner?
James and I come from very different backgrounds. I know a lot about sport climbing and training, he knows a lot about trad. I’ve accepted that I’m the student, looking up to the teacher when we are trad climbing, because I am very aware that he is trustworthy, and when we sport climb the situation is mirrored. The thing is, maybe in some couples you could discuss the validity of the advices of your partner. But in our case, I don’t know anything about trad, where James is considered as an expert by any climber you would ask. So things go very easily!
What was your experience of trad climbing before and how did you go about mastering the skills?
Well, I guess it is quite hard to believe for English climbers but before I met James I was a sport climber, and even more specialised: a competitor! I had always been very certain that the best climbers in the world were the competitors, and the others, the ones who had tried and failed. So I didn’t pay any attention to any news that wouldn’t be about the competition... I had never even heard about trad! So my experience was zero.
The main thing to learn for a good sport climber, apart from the placement of the protections of course, is to become capable of assessing whether you are safe, or whether you have crossed the line of “must not fall”. And for that, I am afraid there is only practice and time. I think the best way to learn is onsight trad. So I have done quite a bit of onsight up to E6 in Pembroke this month, I consider that the after work (after working the route) is less of a learning process, and more of a scary sport challenge (I only choose routes that are not deadly).
What is the biggest difficulty to overcome if you’re used to sport climbing?
The fear. I mean, the real fear. The real danger.
Have you been converted to trad climbing?
I haven’t dropped any other part of my climbing. What I love is changing, exploring, discovering: sport, trad, but as well recently bouldering and multi-pitch. I love the intensity of a trad route, how you will remember it forever, while you forget the sport routes.
How long did you spend in Pembroke?
I have been in Pembroke three times in total. The first time was my baptism of fire for trad climbing, James sent me up Point Blank (E8) as my second trad route ever. I fell, pulled the ropes back, and sent the route. My second trip was with Hot Aches productions. James and I did the Jackals, a flash for him and after work (after working the route) for me.
And this time, we stayed just under a week. I really enjoy trad in Pembroke, as the routes are not too scary, not too bouldery. People say it’s the perfect introduction to trad, the only tricky part is picking your routes. It’s very hard, I figured, to find if a route that is actually safe or bold from the topo’s description. As a result, I had a very scary time on one E5 and ending up soloing while I thought I was going for a safe route!
Do you have any favourite routes there now?
I will have to say Chupacabra. I wasn’t so fond of it the first time I abseiled, I found it sharp... mainly because I was struggling so much to find the methods that I had to repeat again and again the moves. Pleasuredome is quite a special memory too. My first-ever trad route.
How did you build up to Chupacapra and why this particular route?
I didn’t plan anything at all. Pembroke was the next climbing trip after the Reunion Island expedition. There had been a lot of planning for Reunion, so I hadn’t really given a thought to UK beforehand. James and I went to Innsbruck to train indoor for a week, because we were both so weak after the route opening, and then, we arrived in Pembroke, James couldn’t climb because he was injured. I just picked one route after another and decided to abseil down Chupacabra as a little mental rest.
Why Chupacabra? I had done 2 E8s there already, and Chupacabra was E9 the first time I went to Pembroke two years ago, downgraded since then, so at least a very tough E8 in perspective. James had saved it for a flash attempt, always telling me that it was safe. There aren’t that many E9s in Pembroke for a start: Brother Karamazov, but I had abseiled down that one: scary. The big issue with preplaced gear didn’t tempt me too much, so I went for Chupacabra!
How long did it take for you to climb clean and how did you feel when you completed it, as you are the first female to climb it?
It took me three days working the moves, and I even had to ask Ben Bransby his method. Then I went through the low and hardest crux, only to fall on the top crux on my first lead attempt... finally I returned two days after, and was lucky enough to send it. It had been a really tough mental battle, Churacabra was really scaring me because of the big big runout... and then after falling on my first lead attempt, I had to deal with the fear of failing as well... But I made it, and this is exactly the kind of personal victory that I was looking for.
Your next route was Chicama. How did you feel about trying this?
After Chupacabra I just wanted to go home for a rest, but James wanted to have a look at Chicama, He wanted me to do the movements so he could get an idea. He is injured, and had been belaying me for a week. So I couldn’t really tell him that I didn’t want to go! I didn’t even plan to have a proper try.
Describe the route- how did you go about preparing for it?
Chicama is a pretty sea cliff, very overhanging, big holds, the rock breaks a little bit. To find it we called Tim Emmett, he was nice enough to give us directions. There are quite a few pegs in a good state as Hazel Findlay had replaced some earlier this year. I abseiled behind James, he was fixing a rope to allow me to work the moves. I just tried a few of them, chalked the holds, and I decided to have a lead try. It didn’t seem very hard, nor very scary. James pushed me to have a top rope go before, I did it quite neatly, so I abseiled, cleaned all quickdraws and slings, and made my lead attempt. Again, it went quite smoothly. Of course I got pumped, but not too badly. I was never really close to falling, like I was in Chupacabra.
How did the two routes compare to each other and which did you prefer?
Well, very clearly Chupacabra was much harder to me than Chicama: four days against four hours...that goes without saying, no? It’s only my opinion though, and that depends on my strength and weaknesses, and I can’t really give you an official “I think it’s only E8”, or “I think it is E9”.
I am not English for a start. I don’t like so much this downgrading game that seems to be the main British entertainment on rainy days and the English grades are a mystery to me. All I could do is compare: I found Chicama not as hard as Jackals, for example. While Chupacabra is much harder than any other E8 I have done: Point Blank, Jackals, My Piano.
What are your thoughts on trad climbing. How would you encourage more people, especially women, to try it and to lead?
Well, I think: ‘just try it!” but easy easy routes to begin! Trad is a very fun, very intense game. It’s best-selling method is simply to make people try!
What are your next projects/ambitions?
Rest! Then the North Face Kalymnos festival.