25 March 2024

Sébastien Berthe repeats trad test-piece Bon Voyage

Sébastien Berthe, one of the very best multi-discipline climbers in the world from competitions to Big Walls, has completed Bon Voyage (9a) in Annot. (c) Soline Kentzel

"Bon voyage is this incredible route first ascended by James Pearson in early 2023, and then first repeated by the GOAT Adam Ondra a month ago, in February 2024. After long months of reflection, James proposed the grade of 9a, E12, which makes one of the hardest, if not the hardest trad route in the world. The route starts in the famous 8b+ trad-crack line “Le voyage” (or ”Les voillage faurmes la jenaice”) and then leaves the crack and traverses left into a blank impressive wall. The notion that on this wall, a route could be freeclimbed on gear, is akin to a magic trick. A big congratulations to the magician James, for having the vision and perseverance to see through his "Bon Voyage" till the end!

When leaving the Voyage, there are a few more “moderate” moves, big moves on good handholds and bad footholds. On the last rest, you need to place the last piece of gear, a little blue Totemcam, which can be quite tricky while climbing, to place in a pocket. From this point, the hard section starts: 12 really intense and complex moves, hard for the fingers, finishing on an amazing arete far left. The section itself could probably be graded 8c or 8c+, and it is quite runout. However, as Adam said, it is "probably safe" with a good belay. Nevertheless, there is a rocky spike, a "guillotine," a few meters below the final arete, which is rather intimidating. I believe that a bad fall at the wrong moment, with just a bit too much slack in the system, could likely result in hitting it.

I spent more or less 8 sessions in total on the route. I first tried Bon Voyage in April 2023 for half an hour after my flash ascent of “Le Voyage”, I immediately fell in love with the route, and decided it would be one of my main goals for 2024. That’s why I came back to Annot at the end of February this year, just a few days after Adam Ondra's lightning-fast ascent, with a firm intention to tackle the route! Despite very erratic weather conditions during this trip, I managed to have 3 sessions on the route. Right from the first session, I pushed myself to lead climb the route to get used to the placement of protections, the falls, and so on. My progress on the route was quite rapid, and by the third session, I was considering doing the entire difficult section in one go. Unfortunately, I injured my little finger on the key move of the route, a big move to the left from a very small mono-finger hold, a very aggressive and particular move. While attempting to link the section, I felt a sharp pain and a jolt in my hand and forearm... Diagnosis: a small tear or strain of the lumbrical muscles inside the hand. So, this first trip ended abruptly, and it's with frustration and, above all, a strong desire to return that I leave Annot!

Two weeks later, I'm back in Annot! My finger is a bit better, but I'm not fully healed yet. I can easily climb using four fingers, but I feel pain as soon as my ring finger and little finger are separated. I'm hesitant to jump back into the process so quickly, but the temptation to return to Bon Voyage is too strong: the route haunts me, and the weather for the upcoming days is perfect. A voice inside me tells me that I can try again despite the minor injury, that I could change my method in the crux move, use another finger, and that it should probably be okay for the other moves. I spend two sessions trying to regain good sensations, recalibrating the movements, and getting used to leading the beginning. To my great surprise, I manage to link the entire difficult section in one lead, albeit with great fear, because the potential fall is not only long but also possibly dangerous, which I find hard to estimate. Then, after a day of rest, I feel ready for some goes “A muerte"! That day, I put in a superb effort and fall at the crux from the ground. I feel quite close to sending it. Unfortunately, upon returning to the ground, I notice that I've severely torn my skin due to the crucial hold, that cursed mono-finger pocket, during my attempt, and I have a deep cut. Impossible to try again... So, I decide to take two days off and do everything to heal this wound as quickly as possible.

On March 19, 2024, I return to the crag after two days off. My motivation is at its peak; I'm eager to tackle the climb! My skin has more or less closed up, but I feel it won't hold for long. During warm-up, I test the move on a static rope, but I dare not try too hard as I feel the wound might open up directly. Well, at that moment, I know I might only get one shot. I'll have to give it my all! Before my attempt, I decide to put strong glue on my skin to protect the injury and prevent it from reopening until later. I'm feeling butterflies in my stomach; I'm stressed. I know it's possible, but I'll have to be good, to surpass myself! My preparation is meticulous; my rack is set up on my harness in detail. I leave nothing to chance and ensure that everything is optimized for my climb. There are many people at the crag (James Pearson has just arrived to work on a new project nearby), and the atmosphere is fantastic. But as I set off, everyone stops climbing and falls silent to watch my run; the tension is high. I give the last instructions to my belayer, James Taylor, an Englishman who came to work on the Voyage, and off I go!

I easily and quickly climb the first meters of the climb. I feel good and strong. After a few minutes of climbing, I'm already on the final rest; I make the last gear placement that I've worked on for a long time to execute it as best as possible. When I launch into the section, I am determined and ready to give it my all. The cheers grow louder and louder as I progress through the difficult and committing section. I'm at the crux now; I place my middle finger in that famous pocket and twist it to fit as best as possible. I can immediately feel all the glue coming off, and the hold attacking my flesh, but there's no time to dwell on it! I launch my body to the left and manage to grab the next hold with just my fingertips. And that's when the real battle begins. I know exactly what I have to do; I am precise in my movements, but I am in agony; with every move, I have to fight. My friends below are literally pushing me with their encouragement! There, I'm on the arete after a famous retreat during the most "delicate" movement in terms of commitment. Now I must remain focused, even though I know it's won. I make the last movements, shouting with joy! I did it! The relief and pleasure of reaching the top of this magnificent line overwhelm me.

Thanks to all those who helped and support me with this process: Soline, Jean-Elie, Mathieu (aka Michmich), James, Miguel, my parents Rico and Coco, Magali and Gilles, Tonio Rhode, James Taylor, Franco Cookson, Jacopo Larcher, and all the others… Thank you! An original film about the whole process and ascent is in preparation, stay tuned!"
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