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The First Female Ascent

“Inspiration, Mental Training, & Sunny Sends”

For sure, in the UK, the Quarryman is a famous route. It was made famous back in 87 when Johnny Dawes not only had the vision to open the line but also displayed incredibly gymnastic techniques on a video that would become cult: Stone Monkey. The groove pitch of the quarryman became “The route”, a question to any climber: “can you do it?”

Chapter 1 - Inspiration

I am French born and bred and only saw the Quarryman quite recently. The routes I have always known about are La Rose et le Vampire, Akira, Biographie, Le Bronx, Le Plafond… French, hard sport routes. And yet, I have never been that inspired by the French history in the Quarry, becoming aware early on that the old legends were often chipped, or bouldery, or quite ugly.

Are they, though? All ugly, all chipped? Or is it simpler to look down upon a route that deep down, you know you can’t do?

After a bit of honest introspection, out of which I came back confident: “Le Bronx, La rose, Le plafond” they are indeed chipped and Biographie is simply way too hard to be my project.

I like climbing history though. History can make even an ugly route interesting. I heard from one of the climbers of the old French scene about the making of The Bronx; the bolter used what he found at the base of Orgon (it was a dumpsite) to manufacture the holds. If you were to do a scan of the holds, inside the only big hold you would find a piece of broken tile!

Now what I wondered as soon as I saw the topo of the quarryman which is a total zigzag was “what must have passed through the head of Johnny Dawes when he decided to connect pitch one (which in some ways actually make sense as it follows a fault in the base wall) with the second pitch which requires a 5 meter horizontal or even dowclimbing section to reach pitch 3, the Groove, the feature that was the original reason for the Quarryman. It pretty much made no sense to me as straight below the Groove is a very easy fist pitch possibility! Why? Because he could?

"I don't want to climb on endless tuffas anymore. I want something different. I want "unusual"."

The idea of following a trace of lines which, in my head should be more or less vertical I soon realized was just a fantasy and a liberty in climbing that Johnny seems comfortable with (have a look at “Offspring in the Peak District if you doubt me). From that point on, I knew that the Quarryman would be as quirky as his “father”. And at 30 years old I want to be surprised. I don’t want to climb on endless tuffas anymore. I feel like I have spent my life drop-kneeing between tuffas and now I want something different, I want “unusual”.

I had heard about the Quarryman, and just like any Trad keen, I knew that only a handful of climbers had done the full ascent: Steeve McClure, Robbie Philips, Ian Cooper and James (Pearson). Could I do it?

I wouldn’t be able to tell you every hour of my apprenticeship, but for 3 years I have been climbing more and more on slab, limestone, sandstone, and granite. While obviously, the technique revolves a lot on the friction specific to each rock I feel like “just the friction” can be learned quite quickly in a few days whereas slabs require a better foot placement, believing in tiny handholds, and becoming very aware of your body positions. Move your center of gravity in a bit and you can stand on your feet, move it out and nothing works.

The mental part of it was to manage to run it out far above a bolt in a slab. Falling into air for 15 meters in a big overhang is quite comfortable, while the same in a slab involves usually banging this and that. Slab falls aren’t comfortable, but you learn to handle the little bruises.

I got better and better at slabs; from struggling in 6bs to going for 8as. And last year I knew I could start seriously thinking of the Quarryman…

The one biggest lesson I have learned from being a competition climber was: “you must answer the question”. So first you must actually understand exactly what the question is.

I had a little tour in the Quarryman 2 years ago, to see with my own eyes whether the routes was worth the effort. It’s all well and nice to dream of a route because of its history but, what if it turns out to be ugly? Should you still project a route that doesn’t inspire you? I don’t agree with this notion, and it’s only when I went in to look closer at the Quarryman (even managing the Groove pitch, but missing quite a few movements in the first and last pitch) that I realized the route was indeed unbelievable. And now having the answer to my question, I decided 2018 would be for the Quarryman.

Chapter 2 - Prepping The QuaryWoman

There was no need for 100 pull-ups in a row for the Quarryman, nor much endurance in a 45° steep wall.

But I needed very strong shoulders for the potential iron crosses of the groove, more flexibility, climbing shoes perfectly broken in, as much finger strength as possible, good endurance on small holds, and a fair provision of courage.

Since January I started a program tailored to the Quarryman which involved rings, stretching, finger boarding, and endurance on small holds. And every morning I imagined - pitch one, the long impressive runouts between old bolts, staying calm and focused to manage pitch 2 on my first go; the 7-meter down-traverse with a bouldery crux. Then I would picture resting below the Groove without overthinking it. Envisioning keeping calm and staying focussed so I could continue climbing in the Groove, a pitch I knew would feel as if I was constantly about to fall. But I knew I would have to keep on trying, keep slowly moving up and this is what I would imagine. I didn’t’ know all the movements, but I had an idea of the experience, and I was preparing myself for it.

I learned this technique from no one else than Yuji Hirayama, who once told me that he had been preparing for his onsight attempt of Salathé by visualizing it for 2 years. It would be an onsight attempt, so, what was he visualizing? He didn’t know the movements but he did have the topo and a few pictures, he knew the length of the effort and through this he could imagine what it would feel like.

Chapter 3 - Rain or Shine; Working In The Slate Quarry

I set aside a month time in April/May. Wales is temperamental with the weather conditions and optimism would only bring me into trouble. I had to be realistic and know that there would be a lot of waiting in the rain, maybe even attempts stopped by it.

I started working on the route with a static, then on a top rope, and after 10 days (4 days without rain☺), I had all my movements. Pitch one was mainly impressive, with runout cruxes. Pitch 3, the Groove, would be about being perfect and tenacious. And pitch four was a very difficult crux that I had taken 4 hours to figure out. I had a method, but would it work with the tiredness? There was only one way to know.

"I fell twice in the same crux movement of the groove, on an iron cross where I turn around to change sides."

After working through the route I only got one day of rest and then the weather forecast gave me only one day to try. It seemed too early as my shoulders were very tired from figuring out the groove methods. But if I didn't try now I was stuck waiting out the promise of a week's worth of rain. I told myself that this first attempt would only teach me for the next so at 8 am James and I set off with our bags full of jackets, cereal bars, and dry mangos on top of all the gear. I abseiled down the route to clean and replace the tick marks I needed, as they had been erased by the rain.

I warmed up doing movements in pitch one, constantly surprised how hard they seemed when you started the day. As if on the slate you need to warm up the friction too, get acquainted with the tiny footholds and nail hand holds again to be able to believe that it works.

Pitch one went first try. I didn’t get impressed while placing my half nuts and running far above them. I just focused on movements and pulling through the first crux. It was only later in the month when we returned for pictures and I struggled to repeat the movements that I would realize how much in a bubble I was on that day. I had calmly focussed on one move after another that were all so at the limit for me. I had created that bubble by visualizing every day, and the bubble made me oblivious to the runouts.

Pitch 2 went easily, but pitch 3 was going to be another game.

I fell twice in the same crux movement of the Groove. An iron cross move where I turn around to change sides. The whole section always feels completely wrong and unnatural, and you have to just continue, constantly feeling like you are falling.

I went for a first try but failed miserably. The feet were so small, I didn’t manage to trust them. I would wait for the shade, as the sun had come out and was turning the black rock red hot. On slates, conditions make a world of difference. I simply had to wait for 1 or 2 hours on the ledge below pitch 4 with James.

In my early competitions, I would visualize on and on for hours between tours only to arrive mentally exhausted at the hour of my climb. It was crucial not to think. To put my brain onto OFF. James and I focused instead on enjoying being right where we were. I even got a foot massage.

I set off when the shade arrived with one idea in my head, manage to enjoy every second of what was to come. Would I fall or not? It was all my decision, and there was no other reason to be there than pleasure. Because I had accepted the possibility of failure I was freed from the pressure and could focus on the climb, the tiny footholds, the precision of the movements. I pulled through the crux, constantly one move ahead in my head, and focused on the perfection of execution. Two bad side pulls crucified me, I had to remove my helmet to get enough space to turn my head from left to right, then swap feet blindly on a horribly small edge. “Trust it”. With my knee inside my elbow, I launch for a left shoulder thumb. It always feels totally wrong, but somehow it works and I straighten up, cm after cm, stretch all the way to the jug. I found myself past the crux, climbing the last run out onto the summit of the route, with just a few seconds left to enjoy as it was unfolding... I, Caroline, was doing the Quarryman!

Caroline Ciavaldini's Quarryman Kit



“Why did James and I pick a small dot on the other side of the planet?”

Because Yuji told us about it. The last time Yuji proposed us a trip, we ended up in Kinabalu, the now oh so famous mountain where untouched granite will overwhelm the climber. The Real Rock tour has thrown Kinabalu into fame, but 5 years ago, when we went there, no climber could even put it on the climbing

Kinkasan is a small island not far from Fukushima, on the north east side of Japan. It has 26km circumference and is inhabited by two monks. From Tokyo it is a six hour journey. Yuji didn’t say that much more: Kinkasan’s coast is covered with granite cliffs, and there is a Shinto shrine on it. Yuji mentioned as well the damages made by the tsunami…

We began our journey with next to no expectations about the climbing, and a big question mark for the rest. 3 days in the trip and I know exactly why we came: for Japan. 

2 years ago we spent a week in this unique country and both James and I knew that we had to come back one day: how could I compare it? Well, the first time you taste wine, you have heard a lot about it. But you smell, and you only smell the alcohol, you taste and you can’t put words on it because wine is subtle, complicated and requests an education. You have to go back to it, learn to enjoy, differentiate and remember. Japan is maybe a little bit like wine.

There is this astonishing mix of modernity (the Japanese toilets and their multi jets, music and self cleaning options give you an idea of the immensity of your difference)  and spirituality, respect, focus.

We arrived at Base Camp, the gym that Yuji opened 5 years ago in Tokyo, and I oscillate between marvel and shame. I am a pro climber, and most of the boulders are too hard for me, the Japanese climbers around me seem to evolve so effortlessly, like flying cats on the wall. But then you realise: the world championship have just finished in Paris and in the bouldering competition, 3 of the 6 medals are not only Japanese, but from Tokyo, from Base Camp. Yuji and his company helps the athletes become professional and they often climb together. Shall I repeat that? Half of the world’s medals come from one gym! Surely there is no wonder that Yuji owns that gym… But that is only just the very top of the iceberg, because behind this 3 medals, there are a lot of other athletes with an incredible level. I have never seen so many good, extremely good boulderers in one place. And I am a former competition climber, trust me, I know what I am talking about.

“Why are they so good?”

The answer is surely complicated but here are a few elements: climbing has become very trendy in Japan, with over a 100 gyms in Tokyo. The Japanese body type is perfect for climbing; light, powerful and explosive muscles. The Japanese constant pursuit of perfection pushes the athletes to train hard, just like everyone around them simply accomplished every task with perfection.

It was dry for the crossing, and after unpacking our bags at the shrine we bouldered on a nearby beach for 1 hour before the rain came. With so much rock to see and so little time, we hiked out anyway along the coast to search out potential lines. The rain became heavier, we became wetter, and after 4 soggy hours we returned to the shrine, hopes high but spirits low. We’d been preparing this trip since September 2015, putting the team together, finding funding from sponsors, organizing the local logistics, yet it would all be in vain if the weather didn’t brighten up.

A morning of rain gave us the excuse to sit down and record some interviews, though truthfully we had little to say as we’d done little climbing. Toru, ever the silent optimist finally dragged me out to the closest boulder spot during a break between two showers, and we were surprisingly able to climb! Toru lived up to his reputation of boldness and brilliance, making the first ascents of two of Kinkasan’s boldest and hardest problems. Finally things were looking up. The forecast was good for the following days, and group psyche could not have been higher. We began to plan our upcoming adventure and our first trip to the other side of the island – the area with the highest concentration of rock, and the biggest cliffs, but had to cut them short as bad news broke.

With my thirst for climbing temporarily quenched, we left the island in limbo, happy, yet sad, but knowing we’d be back in less than 24 hours. We passed the day visiting some of the worst tsunami affected towns in an effort to better understand what hardships the local people had to live through, and how they are moving forwards towards the future. It is one thing to watch the news from the comfort of your lounge back home, it is another thing entirely to see it first hand, and speak to the people who have lost everything - houses, possessions, loved ones!

Suddenly our troubles with the rain seemed embarrassingly small, and we remembered why we were actually here in the first place.

Our personal climbing desires must come second to the larger goal of showing this place to the world. Rain or shine, we have to get out there. Hike around, document the potential, and if in the end we are lucky, open up some new routes.