The challenge and drama of rock climbs in the Peak

James Pearson returns to The End of the Affair at Curbar Edge in the Peak District. Picture: David Simmonite
James Pearson returns to The End of the Affair at Curbar Edge in the Peak District. Picture: David Simmonite
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If there is a challenging mountain to be scaled, a rock face to tackle or a crag to hang perilously from anywhere in the world, James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini won’t shy away from it.

From an early age the married couple both loved the sport of climbing - but while traditional ascents and competitions were important to them, they felt there was more to the pursuit than conquering difficult routes.

So the pair began taking climbing trips together with the simple goal of seeing the world. Now they have compiled a book - called Climbing Beyond - that collects more than 30 of their favourite destinations and escapades from around the world, covering Europe, Australasia, Africa, Asia and the Americas, illustrated with over 200 impressive photographs.

And for James, who grew up in the Peak District and started out on the local gritstone outcrops, the countryside beyond Sheffield was completely worthy of standing alongside such far-flung locations. A chapter of the book is devoted to the Peak, and the qualities that make the park a magnet for climbers.

“Three little words - the Peak District - carry a peculiar power throughout the climbing world, and not just for the British,” says James.

“For all climbers in the know, just the mention of the Peak District raises a curious smile, for even if they have never touched ‘God’s own rock’ with their own hands, they have certainly heard the stories and have an idea of what it is all about.”

James is a professional climber, as is Caroline who grew up on the tiny island of La Reunion, in the South Indian Ocean. She came to the pastime through the world of competitions and indoor climbing, winning gold medals at the world championships. The couple, both aged 32, met on a rock face in Turkey, got married in 2013 and live in Connaux, in the south of France.

While on the face of it the Peak might pale in comparison to Yosemite in California or the Alps, places documented in the book, the area is actually home to some of the hardest, most dangerous traditional climbs in the world, says James.

“Climbing first began here in the late 1800s. Perhaps the first person to climb for climbing’s sake was JW Puttrell, who opened routes such as Puttrell’s Progress at Wharncliffe Crags. By the 1950s and 60s, climbing had become a popular pastime in its own right.”

British traditional climbing has ‘a rather strict ethical code’, he says, and ‘nowhere is it adhered to more than within the Peak District.’

What makes ‘trad climbing’ unique is the lack of permanently fixed gear. Instead of clipping onto bolts glued into small, drilled holes, James explains, a climber in the Peak must place their safety equipment into the natural features of the rock.

“Not only does this approach leave the climber 100 per cent responsible for their own safety, it also means certain routes, light on helpful holes and cracks, can have little in the way of protection, or even none at all.”

Climbing on gritstone is ‘incredibly technically demanding’, he says, but the substance does have an unusually high degree of friction, meaning people can hang onto spots in a way impossible on other forms of rock.

The Groove, at Cratcliffe Tor, a line unclimbed until James mastered it in 2008, and Curbar Edge are some of his favoured spots. “Gritstone has a character all its own. It is a serious place to go climbing, and one its history of tragedies reinforces. Listen to the rock and play by its rules.”

Climbing Beyond: The World’s Greatest Rock Climbing Adventures is published by Aurum Press, priced £25. Caroline and James will be signing copies at Outside, Hathersage on December 20. Call 01433 651936 for details.