James Pearson climbs Parthian Shot and the story behind this iconic british route

Parthian Shot ©Collection James Pearson

It’s one of the most famous routes in the UK: on the famous “gritstone”, in trad climbing of course. Parthian Shot, as it’s called, has seen the cream of British climbers come and go over the past two decades, but its recent remarkable ascent by James Pearson deserves a closer look at the history of this route, where you must not fall.

Parthian Shot was opened by John Dunne in 1989 in the Peak District, Burbage, a stronghold of trad climbing. A magnificent sandstone prow, overhanging, terribly aesthetic, but dangerous. In keeping with the local ethic, no bolts were placed and only a few stoppers protected the route. At the time, John Dunne finally dared to climb the route by placing protection ‘on lead’, the crucial stoppers were placed behind a fragile flake, the only protection against crashing to the ground from the top of the route. Dunne didn’t fall over it the day he succeeded in leading his route, rated E9 at the time, i.e. around 8a/+.

In 1997, the first to repeat the route, Seb Grieve, shattered the myth by taking several falls, on lead, at the exit of the route… after having checked that the flake, and the stoppers placed inside, would hold up, by having thrown a bag over it beforehand!

Parthian Shot has become the route to go for, especially as it’s not as risky as it used to be. Americans such as Alex Honnold and Kevin Jorgenson (who later climbed the Dawn Wall with Caldwell) tried the route, and in the video of his climb, Jorgenson took several falls on the famous flake previous to his successful lead. In 2011, tragedy struck: a young Canadian climber fell at the top of the route, the scale broke and he crashed to the ground, ending up in hospital with a broken leg. Parthian Shot once again became a feared route.

©collection James Pearson

No more flake means that climbing and moreover protection are trickier. The route once again becomes one where you must not fall. What’s more, a new hold broke in 2023, making the route more difficult. Accustomed to gritstone, James Pearson settled in the south of France several years ago. There, he opened and climbed Le Voyage in Annot, in 2017, then Bon Voyage (E10/7a) this year 2023. During a brief visit to the UK recently, he returned to see Parthian Shot.

« Parthian might be my longest running Gritstone project, at least for routes I’ve actively been trying. I first looked at it back in 2005, when it still had all of its holds, and remember being blown away boy how steep and pumpy it was! As a younger climber there is just no way I could have done something like this, and even once I had developed the fitness, I always found the top boulder desperate enough to put me off ever wanting to try it above the terrible looking protection. »

I decided that if I wanted to one day lead Parthian Shot, I’d do it like John Dunne’s original ascent. Gear in the flake alone, placed on lead, knowing I shouldn’t fall. james Pearson

In fact, after the scale broke, other climbers found a way around it by placing protection on the right, making a fall a real possibility. This was out of the question for James Pearson, who wanted to climb the mythical Parthian Shot as directly as possible, without placing stoppers in the right-hand dihedral.

« I always try to match or improve on what has been ethically done before. Then, start on the ground, climb the route, placing gear wherever you climb, and hopefully get to the top. Obviously, things are never black or white, but side runners and pre-placed gear are two things I really try to avoid. I decided that if I wanted to one day lead Parthian Shot, I’d do it like John Dunne’s original ascent. Gear in the flake alone, placed on lead, knowing I shouldn’t fall » told James.

©collection James Pearson

Mini rack for Parthian Shot ©collection James Pearson

En l’occurence, James Pearson trouve la voie plus difficile depuis le bris d’une autre prise, car au lieu d’un mouvement statique, il faut ajouter un mouvement dynamique à cet endroit pour passer. Il raconte son ascension. « The day of the lead went well. I climbed the route on my first try of the day, the protection went in quickly and efficiently, and I had plenty to spare on the crux and the upper slab, which really allowed me to enjoy the whole process. These days, when I climb a potentially dangerous route, I need to be fairly certain I won’t fall, or I just won’t set off in the first place.
Regarding the danger of Parthian Shot, it’s actually a really hard one to judge. The wires themselves are not too bad, and a couple of them are quite deep, but the flake is undeniably hollow, and since the wires are all pretty small it’s hard to say exactly what will happen when you take a big fall and it expands. I have a feeling that it would probably hold a fall, maybe even a few, but eventually, just like before, given enough abuse it will probably fail again. How many falls this might take is anyone’s guess? All I can hope is that people take a little more care with themselves and the route than they did in the early 2000’s. Perhaps at the end of the day the side runner is actually a good idea? »

Surely pleased to add Parthian Shot to his collection of committed routes, James Pearson confirms that, as it stands, you shouldn’t fall headlong into this route, and announces E10/6c, the first commitment rating being close to the maximum (E11). No doubt a reminder that in trad climbing, the game is pushed far. And a game where the manner and the ethics count as much as the result.