The hardest routes until 2008


21 February 2010

Top-10 most difficult routes in the world
By Björn Pohl from the 2008 8a yearbook

This might be somewhat blasphemic to say these days, but hard climbing would be nothing without grades, otherwise "hard" means nothing. Saying grades aren't important to climbing as a sport, would be like saying time isn't important to the sport of running. Sure, you could go running or climbing just for the fun of it (doesn't really make any sense, cause running IS boring, everyone knows that), but if you can't measure the achievement in any way, it's not really sports, it's lifestyle, and although climbing, and 8a, to a certain extent IS about lifestyle, we can't report it. So this article is about the highest NUMBERS in climbing, and we're not ashamed... We've decided to rank these routes, but don't take that too serious. In fact, don't take it serious at all, it's not a truth in any way, I mean HELL, most of them aren't even repeated, so the grades are just suggestions at best, and in some cases pure speculation. Anyway, here they are:

Jumbo love, 9b, ~75m, Chris Sharma, Clark Mountain, Nevada, USA, 2008
This route is a monster. There's no other way to describe it, and if you're looking for reasons not to try it, there are plenty. Clark Mountain is in the middle of a desert wasteland, near Primm, NV. You have to drive for over an hour up a horrendous 4WD road, then hike for at least another hour in the blazing sun straight up the mountain. Since the pitch is 250 feet long and nearly 45 degrees overhanging most of the way, it's not easy to work. No toprope rehearsal or trying the moves off a stepladder like Akira or Ali-Hulk. Plus, you apparently have to climb a 7c+ up to a ledge, where the route starts... The route begins with a 15 meter 8b section leading to a small stance. Here starts the real business part, an 9a to a hand jam rest, directly followed by an 8c+. In total this part is roughly 30 meters. The remaining 30 meters of vertical face climbing don't really add anything to the difficulty, as it's only 8a.

Akira, 9b, ~20m, Fred Rouhling, Grotte de Vilhonneur, Charente, France, 1995
The majority of the route is about three to three and half meters above the cave floor and totally horizontal. After a few meters of moderate climbing, the route turns into a zigzag through complex throws and twists. This is the hardest part of the route. This section, Fred says, would be in the 8B+ region in bouldering terms. After this, the route goes straight out the middle of the cave. According to Fred, this part is roughly 8b+. At the lip, where the route leaves the cave and heads up the wall, there's a big jug. This is where Fred was handed a rope and tied in on the FA. This last part, up to the chains, is about 8a. For obvious reasons, you wouldn't want to fall here... So, that's Akira: 8B+ to 8b+ to 8a = 9b? In total, the route is roughly 20 meters. This route suits Fred's strengths perfectly, but still he had to dedicate months of work before he could send. This should tell you something...  

Es Pontas, 9b, ~20m, Chris Sharma, Mallorca, Spain, 2007
The grade is of course pure speculation, but given the amount of time Chris needed to do it, 9b seems appropriate. The route is also difficult to compare as it's a Deep Water Solo, making it more complicated to work. Perhaps the actual climbing isn’t as hard on this route compared to the others, but the difficulty of working it certainly makes up for it. Then again, we don’t know this. The route has an extremely spectacular all points off-dyno that marks the beginning of the most difficult part. Chris says he needed something like 70 tries just to stick this dyno, meaning at least 70 10 meter falls. In total he made some 100 tries before he finally succeeded.."…once I was resting and drying up in between tries I just enjoyed being by myself under the arch"

Salamandre, 9b, ~30m, Fred Rouhling, Falaise de Saint Pierre en Faucigny, Haute-Savoie, France, 2007
After succeeding my last 9, ‘Mandallaz Drive’, a route on small edges, I was looking for a route more on my style, more on the fingers, especially one-finger pockets, what for me is the most extreme type of holds. This quest eventually ended on a cliff nearby my house. François Ducastel bolted this improbable face some years ago. After an 8a approach section, you arrive at a violent move on a tiny mono (8A+/8B boulder) and then keep on without a rest into a third part, a hard 8b+ route, powerful and "old school". I liked it straight away but I quickly realized that I wouldn't be able to do the crux with the fingers half numb because of the previous moves. The one-finger pocket is too tiny (half a pad) and also too high in the route (15 meters) for me to feel it perfectly during the tries. I had to do a specific training (for numbness and force) on my "Güllich" (campus board) on 1 cm edges... learning to dyno never mind the state of my fingers. It worked out pretty well and I did the section with numb fingers. I again took advantage of the natural force and strength of my fingers. I sent ‘Salamandre’ on a nice sticky morning (6°c). About the grade, if it's necessary to talk about it, I think it's a new route somewhere in the 9 range. I think that the grades are very personal and subjective.  

Golpe de estado, 9b, ~30m, Chris Sharma, El Pato, Siurana, Spain, 2008
A super bouldery direct 9a start of 'Estado critico', 8c+, with a poor rest in between. Chris worked the route on and off for about a year before putting in 6 days in two weeks to make the ascent. Chris says he's "still not totally sure on the grade, but it is comparable in some ways to 'Jumbo love', except the bottom is probably harder and the top a bit easier and less overhanging. I'll have to try some other routes to compare a bit more before I’m sure about the grade." He also told Big Up, this route is harder than pretty much all the other 9a+, so 9b can't be too far off the mark.  

Delincuente Natural Extensión, 9b, ~25m, Dani Andrada, Rodellar, Spain, 2008
  "The route was bolted by me, together with a friend of mine and Andreita (Dani's girlfriend), who helped me. The route in its lower part is very short, four bolts, I don't know, maybe 8c+/9a or something like that. Then, it goes up to where the route 'Hulk' starts, which up from the extension is 8c+. I think it's hard because there's almost no rest in between one part and the other. I tried the lower part 2 or 3 days plus 4 or 5 days more this year. I knew the rest very well, that's why it's difficult to count the effort. Concerning the graduation, always with some doubts, it's a hard 9a+ for sure or a 9b. It's really difficult to be more exact, but future repetitors will tell."  

Open air, 9a+, ~20m, Alexander Huber, Schleier Wasserfall, Austria, 1996
Back in 1996 I considered ‘Open Air’ being significantly harder than ‘Action Directe’, so I gave the grade 9a. Climbers like Chris Sharma are used to climb the modern soft-grade 9a-routes within in a day, investing no more than three or four attempts. For climbing ‘Open Air’ or any other hard old-school-route they have to invest a little bit more than just a few attempts. Surely today’s top climbers are stronger than Güllich, Moon or I had been in those days – but for a repetition of the old-school-top-routes they have to work harder than for so many other modern soft-grade routes, which then even carry a higher grade!!! As a logical consequence the modern soft-grade-routes have to get downgraded or the old-school-routes have to get upgraded (like it happened to ‘Action Direct’). Adam Ondra, who made the 2nd ascent in November, agrees with Alexander and doesn't hesitate to in calling it his hardest yet, although he only needed a total of 9 tries. In crisp conditions and with Alexander's hard earned beta mind you. ...after the rest position there's a long move to a bad pinch for the left hand. Then it is tricky to fix yourself with some hooks at the roof's edge before reaching with the right hand to the key hold. This is first taken as a crimp and it seems to be very bad. You'll then have to solve the hook and prevent any swing. Get your feet higher and sort the right hold as a side pull. Then make a very long move with the left hand into a 2-finger-pocket. Take another two finger pocket for the right hand. Then you'll have to change hands on the right pocket: right middle finger out of the pocket, left ring finger in the pocket, right hand back to the prior finger pocket. Now, sort the left fingers in the upper pocket and make a long move to an undercling hold with your right. That's the crux.  

Corona, 9a+, ~15m, Markus Bock, Frankenjura, Germany, 2006
I first tried the route in spring 2004, I mean I tried to climb any of the 6 Crux moves (around 8B), but couldn't climb two of them. Then in the autumn I really focused on it for 4 weeks or so. I have had done now all the moves and after a while was able to link some of them together. I still speak of the 6 move 8B... The route starts with around 10 easier moves in the grade 7a or so, then the 6 move 8B and then without any Rest a 15 move 8b route. I never climbed the 8B before I have done it on the 5.October 2006, but have climbed many, many times the 8b route. AND: Climbed once the boulder section, I finished the route. So 2004 was over and the route has not seen an ascent. 2005 I have had other goals, repetition of the classic 'Action directe', 9a, and my FA of 'Heiliger Gral, 9a', which has still no repeat. Then 2006 came, my mind was free and I have had no other goal then this route which is now called 'Corona'. I spent another month on it, one week in spring, three in autumn. For me it’s definitely harder than 'Action directe', cause I spent so many days on it and it suits me much better. About the style: It's about 120 degrees steep, on small two finger pockets with really bad footholds. Technical and powerful, all the time "under tension". For me the hardest thing I have climbed ever. "Adam Ondra told me he has tried Corona a bit last autumn but felt too weak!!!! (isn't he funny:-) ) and that he found it hard."

Coup de grace, 9a+, ~20m, Dave Graham, Sonlerto, Switzerland, 2005
This was Dave Graham's parting message when leaving Switzerland after having lived there for a year or so. Ascending a giant and very steep mountain of a boulder, just outside Sonlerto in Ticino, Switzerland, this route packs a lot of climbing into relatively few meters. Starting with a 8B boulder problem and then working its way through a roof before finishing up a short face, the over all difficulty should be in the 9a+ region according to Dave.  Overshadow, 9a+, Steve McClure, Malham cove, UK, 2007 This new route felt way harder than my '9's' but that doesn't make it 9a+, perhaps I was doing it wrong, it might be 8c+, but then maybe I was doing it perfectly and it's even harder..." "It felt like an 8a+ followed by an 8c+." Steve has mentioned 8A+ for a bouldering grade for the crux sequence. If so it would be roughly the same formula as for Open air. "It seems important to stick a number on things these days. If you don't, everyone else will anyway. I suggest it could be 9a+, an estimate based on effort and experience. But then how important is it to get it right? Not important at all! What’s important is honestly suggesting a level. If it gets down graded so what, if it gets up graded, so what again. What counts is it’s a great route that tested me right to my limit. Had it been 9b or 8c the journey from start to finish would have been no more or less rewarding." 

So... that's the top-10 and all we have space for. But what about...and how about... and why aren't you mentioning... Well, again, this was simply a list of ten routes that could be the top-10. Routes that aren't climbable today are excluded from the list. We also decided to exclude routes following contrived lines, variations, eliminations, sitdown starts, routes that are mainly chipped etc. In short, we're trying to focus on difficult high quality routes, however difficult this is to define.

Below, we've listed some routes, a couple of which a most certainly should be in the top-10. But, as we all now, it’s impossible to know. Time will tell. __________________

Violent new breed, 9a+, ~6m, John Gaskins, G-spot Giggleswick, UK, 2004
This is what used to be John Gaskins' long-standing project at the G-Spot on Giggleswick South. Violent New Breed takes the central leaning wall of the super-steep cave and has taken John many years of work to complete, and the man wasn't exactly weak at the time of the ascent, having FA:d two and repeated one 8C the same year. (check bouldering article for more information about John). With the 4 move crux weighing in around the 8C mark, this 6 meter line definitely features the hardest moves to be found on a route. 9a+ is probably a very conservative suggestion. The style of the FA was unusual to say the least: John belayed himself by some kind of rope solo variation.

I'm Reich des Shogun, 9a+, Eric Talmadge, Tüfleten, Switzerland, 2000
This route is very much a contender for an upgrade. The original route, ‘Shogun part 1’, was climbed by Eric back in 1992 and was then given 8b+, but it took a full ten years until anyone (Fred Nicole) managed to repeat even the crux (~8A) and a further five years before Johannes Pohl made the first repeat of the whole route (although it should be mentioned that Fred simply didn't bother to turn right for the chains of Part 1, gunning for the 9a instead). It took Eric eight more years before he could clip the chains and look for something else. In total, he worked thirteen years for this 19 meter route. You do the math. The route is actually given 9a, but we're sticking our necks out and suggests it's probably harder.

Jaws II, 9a+, Vasya Vorotnikov, Rumney, NH, USA, 2007
Vorotnikov spent about 35 days over a year and a half working on Jaws II (or Broken Jaws—Vorotnikov hasn’t settled on a new name). First climbed by Dave Graham in the late 1990s, Jaws ascends Rumney’s sweeping Waimea Wall. Originally given 8c, but Dave later said it might be harder. After a few holds have broken, making both the crux, now in the 8A+ region, and the top significantly harder, Vasya took up the challenge.  Vorotnikov: “Hard grades are an invitation for the strongest climbers to come show what they can do. So, the ‘9a+’ is an open invitation to anyone who is looking for something really hard.”   

The big bang, 9a+, Neil Carson, Lower Pen Trwyn, UK, 1996
This line, on a sea cliff at the Lower Pen Trwyn in Wales, was dismissed by Jerry Moffat as being "impossible" before the "walking muscle", Neil Carson, tied in and proved him wrong. OK, it wasn't that easy. Apparently, he had to move house in order to succeed. Anyway, "It's there to be down graded", he declared. That was twelve years ago, and I think it's safe to say the chances of that happening are slim... According to Stevie Mac, who's worked it a bit and done all the moves, it's very condition dependent, very painful due to extremely small and sharp holds, and very, very hard. Again a route that was given 9a, and again we stick our necks out and suggests it's probably harder.

Realization/Biographie, 9a+, Chris Sharma, Ceüse, France, 2001
The most repeated of the grade with at least 6 ascents. Follows a striking blue streak and goes all the way to the top. Chris needed about 6 weeks, spread over three years in order to complete this benchmark route, made famous by the Dosage-movies. The redpoint crux comes high on the route and is a relatively modest ~7C. This may not look very difficult, but after a pumpy 8c+, it's a completely different thing...

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