Japanese climbing legend Yuji Hirayama recently tested himself on UK trad for the first time. His project? The Big Issue (E9) at Pembroke. How did Yuji get on, what does he think of our trad culture, and will he be back to test himself on grit next? Sarah Stirling interviews.
45-year-old Yuji Hirayama is an incredible all-rounder: several comp world cups are tucked under his belt, along with the first ever 8c-onsight in 2004. He’s also put up 9a+ first ascents, and set and defended speed records on the Nose on El Cap. However, until a few weeks ago, Yuji hadn’t tested himself on British trad. Then he watched a Hard Grit DVD.
After watching the film, Yuji called his friend James Pearson, and asked if he would please show him some of this real British climbing, in all its complicatedly-ethical, mentally-involving glory. You don’t say “No” to Yuji, said Caroline Ciavaldini, Pearson’s French wife. So they came up with a simple plan: show him some of the UK's best routes without killing him.
Yuji’s warm ups were Pembroke classic E3, Pleasure Dome, and White Heat, E5. Meanwhile, incidentally, Caroline climbed Mercia Wall E8 (impressive!), and James Pearson flashed Something's Burning E9 (perhaps the first ever flash of an E9). Then Yuji began stretching and breathing, getting into the mindset for the big trad project he’d chosen (see picture above).
The route? John Dunne’s famous testpiece, the Big Issue, E9, at Bosherston Head. Its name refers to the Pembroke bolting controversy kicking off back then in the 90s: the route was bolted by Pete Oxley; John Dunne then hammered the bolts flat, and successfully climbed the route using trad gear.
The only other people who have successfully led Big Issue since then (as far as I know) are Steve McClure, Adrian Berry and Gaz Parry, using a few pieces of tenuous gear (some of which is in-situ - it's complicated...).
Quite a project that Hiramaya had chosen! He seems to have quickly got the hang of the weirdness of UK trad, however, because after practicing Big Issue a few times, he cleanly led the route, making it one of the hardest UK trad ascents ever made by an overseas climber.
YH: This was the first time I have visited the UK for trad climbing. I have been here four times before, though. In 1991, 1992 and 1997 for lead climbing competition world cups, and in 1999 for a world championship.
When I was here as a competitor, I thought UK trad climbing carried a risk of being injured or losing my life. But things are not now what they used to be.
I had two reasons for wanting to try UK trad. One was watching a DVD of Hard Grit; the other was seeing James Pearson handle trad gear so skilfully.
I thought that I had to know UK trad climbing. If I could know it, I was sure that the width of my climbing would spread.
When I first began to climb, for the first two or three years I only climbed trad in Japan. After that I went to the US and tried hard routes out there. Since then, sport climbing in Europe has been permeating my life. I moved to France.
I thought that UK trad climbing was real climbing. It popularised and became sport climbing. I couldn’t pay inattention on any route. They are always next to danger.
On UK trad, you have to find the balance between being brave and not being kamikaze. Not only easy routes like E1 and E2 but also hard routes have ‘adventure’.
For those who don’t know UK trad climbing, my ascent will give them a clue to try it, with the style of sport climbing.
The thing I like best about UK trad climbing so far is Big Issue. The grade I would give Big Issue ... it's 8a+, but 8b+ with the difficulty of scary emotions and protections when climbed on lead.
In Wales I found nature, sky and air is beautiful. I felt history at streets lined with houses.
This UK trad climbing trip was just a prologue for myself. I would like to know the deep part of the sport, although it must not be with a light heart.
Of course I want to come back to the UK to try climbing on gritstone.
Next, I would like to focus on going to developing climbing areas that have not been explored yet. There are many wonderful place in the world. By the time I die, I would not be able to climb all of them.
I would simply like to climb and express as many successful routes as possible in my life.
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