A world famous climber who grew up in Matlock has just become the first known British man to scale Japan’s highest waterfall.
James Pearson, now 33 and living in France, took on the Shōmyō Falls near Tateyama for a film made by outdoors brand the North Face, and it is just the latest stop on his tour of some of the world’s most diverse climbing challenges.
He said: “We’re not blessed with the best weather in the UK, and so growing up in the Peak forces you to learn to climb in all sorts of uncomfortable conditions.
“Since I moved away, I’ve felt this lure towards weird and wonderful places and climbs, enjoying the overall challenge more than just the quality of the climbing itself. Shōmyō was the most memorable stop yet on this rollercoaster ride.”
At 350 metres tall, the falls are not nearly as high as some of the climbs James has taken on - but they presented a serious challenge of their own.
He said: “You can’t really compare this experience with the other climbing I’ve done in the past.
“While it was without doubt not as physically difficult as some of my recent climbing projects, it demanded a whole lot of other things.”
He added: “The most obvious difference is that it’s wet! Climbers do everything they can to avoid wet rock as it drastically reduces the friction.
“Climbing waterfalls is really the last thing any sane climber would ever think of attempting. When you can wade you wade, when you can swim you swim, and when you have to climb, you climb. There are no rules as such, but one generally tries to stay as close to the water as possible.”
It might not be the next obvious handhold for a seasoned rock climber, but the sport of scaling waterfalls has a long history in Japan, where it is known as sawanobori.
James said: “When you take the time to understand its history, then things begin to make sense.
“Japan is often covered in dense, tropical vegetation and, in days gone by, people often used the rivers and streams as ways of travelling from village to village instead of having to battle with the jungle.”
Nowadays, sawanobori is almost a sub-sport of climbing, in the same way that many would think of bouldering.
James said: “As time moved on, bringing roads and railways, sawanobori became a leisure activity in its own right, enjoyed by Japanese hikers and mountaineers during the summer months.
“It developed at a very similar time as modern climbing did in Japan – to some degree it was Japan’s version of mountaineering. Adventurous climbers there will often be mountaineering in the winter then doing sawanobori in the summer.”
James and the film crew spent three weeks in Japan preparing for the challenge.
He said: “I’d been planning the trip on and off for around a year, and we climbed a selection of smaller waterfalls before we were ready to attempt Shōmyō.
“Completing the climb was a wonderful feeling, but it paled into insignificance when compared to the overall feelings of discovering this crazy new style of climbing.”
He added: “I had so much fun during those three weeks. If at the end I could have gone back in time and done it all again, I’d have jumped right back in.”
For now, James has to keep his feet on the ground, since he and his wife Caroline Ciavaldini—an equally skilled climber—welcomed their first child, Arthur, into the world three months ago.
James said: “Eventually we dream of going on big adventures as a family, but for now, it’s enough of an adventure just leaving the house and going for a walk in the woods.
“Next month we’re off to Corsica in our camper van for his first trip overseas. We can’t wait.”
As to whether they will take less slippery paths through life now, James is still reflecting on the change in perspective which comes with parenthood.
He said: “I think its inevitable that it changes something, after all we’re now entirely responsible for another little person. It’s not however a conscious decision that we’ve taken to change anything specific.
“Climbing has always been more about risk management than risk taking and having a child will be just one more factor we have to consider when making any decision.”
He added: “What both Caroline and I love about our lives as professional climbers is the freedom it gives us to travel and see the world. I can’t really say there is a hard part. We have the perfect job and the perfect life.
“Experiencing other people’s lives first hand gives you a greater understanding of all the challenges we can face and the fact that as different as we can sometimes seem, we are all part of the same family.”
James is also expecting some relatively gentle adventures back to Derbyshire to see Arthur’s grandparents, and revisit some of his favourite rockfaces.
He said: “We don’t come home nearly as much as we would like, and so every time we are back we make the most of climbing in the Peak District. The gritstone really is some of the best rock in the world.
“I love the Peaks because each cliff has a slightly different feeling despite being only a few minutes drive from one another. If I had to choose only one cliff it would be Black Rocks as I’ve a lot of good memories there. I still have plenty of things to climb.”
A brand ambassador for the North Face, James is a passionate advocate for the sport, and he and Caroline wrote their first book opening up their adventures two years ago.
He said: “I’ve always loved climbing on things but I didn’t actually get to go rock climbing until I was 15 through some new friends at school.
“It used to be a difficult sport to start due to the general public perception that it is dangerous. With numbers of climbing walls rocketing now, its a lot easier today than before.”
He added: The thing we have most difficulty with is the ever changing world of social media and how we fit into it all.
“I don’t like the fact that to be a success in the world of Instagram and Facebook you have to be bigger and better than life. I’d love to see more ‘real’ people out there.”
Climbing Beyond: The World’s Greatest Rock Climbing Adventures, published by Aurum Press, is available to order from all good book stores or online retailers.
To watch the film of James at Shōmyō Falls, go to https://youtu.be/-yNS7EF7LGI.