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Interview: James Pearson on Power Ranger, His New 5.14 R

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In mid-November,  British climber James Pearson made the first ascent of Power Ranger (5.14 R), a longstanding open project at Sunset Rock, In Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Pearson first tried the route in February. “I almost gave up, but I kept trying and things started to fall into place,” he says. “I had done all the moves after the first session so knew it would probably go.” That first trip was simply a recon mission, though. Having discovered a dream line, he made plans to return later in the year.

Pearson spent most of 2017 chasing choss—”crappy limestone in China, crappy basalt in the Faroe islands and Grand Manan, crappy sandstone in Jordan,”—so despite not feeling his strongest, the 32-year-old was eager to return to Chattanooga’s perfect sandstone and get back on the project this fall.

It took him about two-and-a-half weeks of solid work on this second trip, but in the end he was able to piece it all together.

Rob Robinson, a longtime driving force in traditional development in the region, on Facebook called Pearson’s ascent a “masterpiece” and “quite possibly the hardest trad route in the eastern United States.”

Robinson proclaimed to the social media masses: “The next generation of ultra extreme trad climbing is — at long last — beginning to manifest in the Chattanooga, TN area. I’ve been waiting for many, many years for climbers to show up who are capable of pushing the game to this next level.”

Rock and Ice caught up with Pearson via Skype to get the details about his new climb.

Photo: Pietro Porro/La Sportiva
Photo: Pietro Porro/La Sportiva

So what’s the backstory behind Power Ranger?

For the last probably five years now, I’ve been kind of actively searching for what I hoped would one day become the next level in my trad climbing.

When I climbed Rhapsody [an E11 7a / 5.14+ R] in 2014, that felt like as far as I could go with repeating other people’s’ hard trad routes. I had slayed some old demons and was ready to start looking again for something of my own.

I wanted to do something that was going to push me as far as it could. I decided if I was going to find something that really pushed me it needed to be something that suited all of my styles. So something bouldery, balance-y, technical. Like gritstone basically, but on a slightly bigger scale. I had some endurance in the bag now, so I kind of had this idea in my head about the sort of route I wanted to do. I could picture the thing, I knew it was out there somewhere, I just didn’t know where.

Why was Chattanooga, Tennessee the place you decided to look for a perfect line?

Originally I thought South Africa would be the place. The rock there is incredible and there’s so much of it. Figured I’d find something amazing. The hardest thing there though was finding something that worked on trad. Went there two seasons in a row, and was going to go back a third.

The Southeast of the U.S. came onto my radar, and I was like, “That might work.” We headed to the States in February of this year, and we were completely unaware about what was around down there. So I reached out on Facebook to some people that climb in the area and ended up in contact with Rob Robinson, an old school Chattanooga trad climber. He knows every nook and cranny.

Lo and behold, we turned up in Chattanooga on the first day, met Rob in his office, and he’d already printed pages from the guidebook about the hardest open projects, marked gear placements, asked if I wanted beta.

First place I went was Sunset Rock. So after two big long trips to South Africa but not finding what I really wanted, we literally walked into Sunset Rock, the Power Ranger project is listed in the guidebook as a project. And it looked really cool.

I didn’t necessarily think it was the one right away, but knew it had a lot of potential. Mainly it was just a fantastic line.

What’s the climbing on Power Ranger like?

It’s a bold start—something like a 5.12- X down low. If you don’t fall off for the first 20 feet you’re fine. Then there’s a huge rest before the this stunning shield of white sandstone where the climb follows this beautiful, single, kind of closed crack-line.

The headwall is pretty run out. The strange thing about this route is its almost not even a trad climb: you end up placing all the gear then down-climbing back to a super good rest, compose yourself, and then when you do the headwall it’s like 30 moves without placing gear. It’s like a giant boulder problem way up there in the air.

The headwall starts fairly powerful, long moves on good holds, and then all of a sudden it changes to super balance-y weird movement—it’s like slab climbing on an overhang. There are a lot of body positions I had to learn before it even felt possible.

Later on it switches again into power endurance. You do this techy, slabby section, and then soon you can start to pull on the holds again. Every second you’re getting further and further away from the last piece of gear.

It’s a super super cool route. I think it’s a pretty good all around challenge for someone who wants to repeat it. It’s fairly safe. I was pretty hesitant with the grade—is it PG? Is it R? Is it R/X?

It’s a bit like Rhapsody: you can take huge falls, but unless something goes really wrong—like the rope wraps around your leg or you flip upside down—you probably won’t hurt yourself.

What’s the gear before the 30-move runout section on the headwall?

A #1 [Wild Country] Rock and a #5 [Wild Country] Rock. They’re super-bomber nuts, though.

Where does Power Ranger rank for you among other climbs you’ve done?

Of all the FAs that I’ve done in the last three or four years, this is probably the closest to my perfect route that I’ve found. If you could take away that really good rest in the middle, this in all honesty would have probably been the one. It would have taken a couple years and been totally amazing.

As it happens mother nature put that huge rest right in the middle. On the one hand it meant I could do it on this trip, but on the other hand there’s this little sour taste in your mouth after finishing a project; that it was close to the one, close to the limit, but not quite what I’m looking for.

I think what I need to ultimately come to terms with is that this idea—to actually search out my perfect line—is just an excuse to get out there and search and find and try these routes. There’s always something I’ll be able to do better.

Any other next level projects you’ve got your eye on down in Chat?

Unfortunately for me, around Chattanooga a lot of the rock seems to be bolted. A lot of the sport routes would work as perfect trad routes, but they were established as sport routes, and I don’t want to get into the conversation of whether they should have been bolted, etc.

There’s a lot of stuff to do up in the 5.13 range, but probably not as much in the 5.14 range.

Photo: Pietro Porro/La Sportiva.
Photo: Pietro Porro/La Sportiva.

Also watch VIDEO: James Pearson Climbs Carbondale Shortbus (5.14-), Indian Creek, Utah