It was a couple years ago that French climber Caroline Ciavaldini dragged her British husband, James Pearson, out to try one of his home country’s most legendary lines: The Quarryman, a four-pitch Johnny Dawes route that he established in 1986 and gave the grade of E8 7a (converted over the years variously as 5.13b R, and 5.13q due to the cryptic, unique style which many insist makes it virtually un-gradable).
Pearson managed to send all four pitches of The Quarryman back then and Ciavaldini was able to tick the climb’s most famous pitch, known as the “Groove.” Reflecting on the experience in a blog post at the time, she wrote, “Will I come back for the whole game? I have figured out that I can do all the movements now, but it is a project that will take time and attention that I don’t have for now. For now, I will store up my experience to reuse it on my big project. … But for later… maybe?”
Her “big project” was the Voie Petit, a 14-pitch 8b (5.13d) on the Grand Capucin, Mont Blanc, which she freed in July 2016. Hers was the first female ascent and she considered it her biggest climbing accomplishment up to that time.
Ciavaldini did finally return to The Quarryman to deal with unfinished business, the”later” from her blog post having turned out to be almost two years down the road. Last week Ciavaldini finally sent the entire route, becoming one of only a handful of climbers—including Pearson, Steve McClure, Tom Randall and Adam Bailes—to have done so. She is the first woman to send The Quarryman.
Rock and Ice caught up with Ciavaldini by email to hear more about her historic climb.
Q&A with Caroline Ciavaldini
This wasn’t the first time you had tried Quarryman, right?
I had tried the route two years ago, when I was projecting the Voie Petit: I knew about The Quarryman, and it was already on my “list,” but I just wanted to go in it because the weirdness of the groove pitch would be a good experience in terms of “braveness” and “courage.” An experience I would need to manage to climb well on my only alpine route ever. I didn’t plan to succeed the groove, but even climbing on it would force me to keep fear on a leash.
So two years ago, I worked and managed to do the groove pitch, the most famous pitch of the legendary route, but The Quarryman is four pitches long, and at the time I didn’t have the mental space, or maybe the courage actually, to attack the whole route. So I left it, not really wanting to go back as it seemed so hard.
How did Quarryman get on your radar originally?
I wouldn’t be able to tell you when I first heard of The Quarryman. I am French, but getting to climb and live with (and get married to!) James Pearson, I have become acclimatized to the British tradition of climbing, and its immense history.
A few years ago I spent some time with Hazel Findlay, and with James McHaffie, and it became obvious that The Quarryman was something special. I saw some videos of Johnny Dawes and Steve McClure, and the Groove pitch seemed crazy, impossible, and at the same time, a question mark: Could I do it?
I know when I said aloud for the first time,“I would love to do The Quarryman”—that was three years ago. But when did it all start?
I think, both the Voie Petit and The Quarryman are famous routes in the British climbing scene, and neither of them had had a female ascent. With my background of competition climbing, I wanted to learn, and to become a good trad climber. These two routes stood out in my mind as a “competent trad climber”-diploma.
What is the climbing like?
It you have never climbed on slate, you may want to get a hold of a roof slate. It gives you an idea of the friction. Slate is nearly always slabby, but if there isn’t a hold, your foot will not stick. Find a nail size hold, apply the exact correct friction at the right angle, and your foot will hold…
On top of that, the Groove pitch on The Quarryman is like glass like, with next to no holds. I had to put my nose on the faces, touch with my hands to spot the very few, vague foot holds there were. It only works because you are pushing in between the two sides, but as the two sides are at 60 to 70 degrees to each other, each time you push, you feel like you are slipping further and further from the corner, until you fall out of it.
It is not really about being a strong climber, it is about being good at weird climbing. But it is unique, awesome and worth a play!
What was the send itself like? Did everything go smoothly?
I managed the first and second pitch straight away, but took three tries for the Groove. In fact, before my third try, I had decided it would be my last try of the day, as my shoulder was really hurting (the crux move is very shouldery with my method). I managed the shoulder move, but as I turned around in the Groove, I had to let go for a second. I fell a few centimeters, and got caught (my butt on one side of the Groove, my leg on the other !) as I fell… It took me a few seconds to realize I was still on, to check that the rope hadn’t caught me… and I finished the pitch. The last pitch took me two tries, it has a very nasty crux on very thin footholds. Fiinally I sent it thought. So everything didn’t go quite smoothly—I did it by the skin of my teeth.
Are the run-outs on the route at all scary?
I think (or rather I learned with James) there are two types of fear.
There’s the fear that makes sense because you are in real danger (for example, when the last bolt or gear is too low/bad and you would land on a ledge or the ground if you fell). That fear is good, it warns you that you must not fall.
Then there’s the fear that isn’t necessary because, even thought there is a big run out (up to eight meters on pitches one and four of The Quarryman), you won’t die if you fall. You’ll just fall a long way.
So, on D-Day for me, I didn’t get scared because I had prepared myself for it, and I have learned to put the unnecessary fear in a box and close the box. The very beginning of the route actually is dangerous—you could break a leg if you fell—but then it is pretty safe run outs (as long as the old bolts hold!).
Yours was the first female ascent of the route. Can you speculate on why that took so long? Are you hopeful that now more women will be psyched to try this classic Johnny Dawes route?
I think the route only has a handful of ascents total. It may be down to the weather, too: You have to be patient to climb in the slates. But I hope a lot of climbers will come to enjoy the weirdness of The Quarryman, men and women!
Where does this rank among your proudest climbing achievements?
My two proudest outdoor routes are for sure the Voie Petit and The Quarryman, and I don’t really want to rank two routes that are so completely different. My proudest competition achievement was winning the Chamonix World cup in lead a good few years ago, and competitions were as well an amazing, hard, demanding path that I walked when I was a competition climber.
I could only tell you that I loved the experience and the preparation that I had go through to do both of these two routes, and all the skills I had to master before going at them. I have done a lot of sport routes, but never had the same amount of emotions when sport climbing. Fear is a nice little spice!