Caroline Ciavaldini and James Pearson are two world class climbers, who have ascended some of the most difficult lines. They came to Scotland to take on some of our rocks, and have made time to attend The North Face reopening party.
There’s a DJ, a buffet, and more importantly, an open bar. Customers are greeted by a room full of smiling staff, who are handing out travel bags to everyone upon arrival. There are even street artists to personalise this bag as you please. TNF wanted their reopening to stand out- and it does.
Across the room I see the couple who have been married for four years. They are swapping stories with customers. Caroline was first to talk. She begins tell me what it is that brings her to Scotland. “James had a big project. He wished to repeat, actually- the hardest trad route in the world. It had been done by a Scottish guy like six years ago and it hasn’t been repeated much.” She explains that ‘trad’ is a discipline of climbing which James prefers. This project was in Dumbarton, where the couple have resided for the past three weeks. Did she enjoy her stay there? “Someone was telling me that Dumbarton was a bit of a shit hole, and we arrived there I was like- wow it’s actually really nice.” She laughs.
I ask James his thoughts on Dumbarton too. “It’s not the nicest place in the world, there’s a little bit of graffiti and glass and things, but it’s a lot better than it was. It’s been cleaned up a lot. The rocks are interesting- very slippery, no friction.”
This isn’t the first time that Caroline has visited Scotland. “Actually, loads of years ago, I won my first junior world championship in Edinburgh.” This isn’t so surprising. Although Caroline is only twenty-eight, she has an intimidatingly long list of climbing achievements awarded to her from all corners of the world.
Caroline was born in Toulouse and raised on the paradise Island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. She leads me over to look at a picture on the wall in The North Face store. “So basically,” she points at the picture of a man holding onto the rock with his fingertips, “that’s an expedition we made on La Reunion.” Caroline and James returned to her home place last year, so the island must be quite big on climbing as a sport. “Climbing is very different in France- and in Reunion Island. In the UK, you would never have it as a school sport.” I correct her here but she is probably right. The climbing wall at my school was certainly only there for show.
There are definite cultural differences in child taught sport between these countries. Caroline explains that surfing is a common sport in La Reunion, just as Football is here. She follows that she, “didn’t want to be that kid, like everybody else. But now I’m really sad that I didn’t get to actually try.”
James returns after being approached by an enthusiastic climber who was excited to meet him. He is speaking in French to Caroline, and offers drinks. The couple are living in Innsbruck, so James has quickly learned the language. He expresses his disapproval of Britain’s approach to child climbers. “As a kid, it was very difficult to start. We have this idea that climbing in the UK is totally reckless, dangerous, and extreme. It’s not something that you push your kids towards. So I really wanted to get involved, and neither of my parents climb, no family, no friends- it just didn’t happen. So I almost forgot about climbing.” You can hear the dismay of a younger boy in his voice. Luckily for James (and everyone who knows and loves his climbing), a friend was going to an indoor wall one day and invited him.
One thing that he has thankfully managed to elude is injury. Traditional climbing is where James’ passion lies- it’s classed as an extreme sport. Has he ever had any close calls? “A couple…” he hesitates, “a couple of close calls where nothing happened. When I was younger I fell off whilst soloing in the peak district.” James grew up here, and would practice his passion a lot here with his friends. “It is really really really easy.” He repeats this once more, as if he senses my scepticism. “We do it all the time there, just cruising around doing loads of routes on an afternoon with friends. And just at one moment, very easy, I was a bit stupid and climbed in a way that I shouldn’t. You know.” (I don’t). “You try a move in the gym but you shouldn’t when you’re fifteen metres up.” I ask James about the injuries. “In the end I just had bruised heels, cuts, bruises- nothing serious. I was super lucky.”
The injuries were a wakeup call for James, who was just in his late teens when it happened. He mentions how he has heard many stories of both friends and strangers who have passed away because they pushed themselves beyond their capabilities. He explains how these people are “taking tiny falls, making one little mistake, and that’s it.” He talks more about his fall. “I think that was really good for me. It taught me to never lose respect for the rock. No matter if it’s easy, no matter if you’re really within your comfort zone, gravity still works just as hard.”
James’ injuries acquired must have caused some tension in the family. Well, as James mentioned, his parents don’t know much about climbing, and the same goes for Caroline’s. She says “for years, James refused to bring his parents to the cliffs, because he didn’t want to show them that he was in danger. I mean you don’t want to show your mum that you could fall in front of her.”
However recently things have begun to change and James’ parents are beginning to involve themselves. Caroline explains, “Actually on Saturday, we’re going to bring his Mum and his Dad trad climbing for the first time in his life.” Not only are James’ parents jumping on board, but Caroline’s too. “My dad, last month- I brought him to Pembroke. I made him fly to Pembroke to teach him to climb.”
James and Caroline have taken themselves climbing all around the world, to Italy, Turkey Switzerland, Tasmania- to name a few. What was their favourite place to climb? “Turkey was great for the cultural side of things.” James admits that he is not a culture geek, but he enjoys the odd bit now and again- “especially if it involves food.” It should be mentioned that the couple first met in Antalya, Turkey. The place that really spoke to him however, was South Africa. They were there last July, and plan on going back for another two months next year. The places that the pair enjoys to climb are completely different from the locations of their most difficult. Caroline explained that the hardest ascent she has made is much closer to home, at Trearddur Bay in North Wales.
We finish up having a chat about their evening plans over a drink and some food. They don’t seem to have thought about their night yet, so I take the opportunity to slip in some of my favourite spots in Glasgow. I’m not sure if an athlete’s diet allows for deep fried food and cocktails though.