7 February 2023

Jo Nesbø’s (62) road to 8a

Jo Nesbø, a global bestselling crime writer, who has sold 50+ million books in 50+ languages, has done Elephant (8a) at Unknown Crag. (c) Hanna Jordan

"I'm not going to pretend this short route isn't a big deal for me. At the age of 59 I decided that I would give it all I had to push my limit from 7b+ to 8a with a two-year dead-line (as a goal). It took me three. Given my old bones and limited talent, this is my last time doing a personal best redpoint, I'm hereby going to start my descent with a smile on my face." At age 17, Jo made his first appearance in the Premier Soccer League in Norway but an injury stopped his professional dreams. He has a Master's in Economics and worked as a stockbroker prior to becoming a writer. He is also a singer, songwriter and musician.

Can you give us the scoop on your impressive journey towards 8a?
Three years ago I had started planning to write a book called “Up” about why we climb and about two climbers who pushed the limits both for themselves and for climbing in general. Those two were Lynn Hill who made the first free ascent of The Nose and Hans Christian Doseth who made the first ascent of the east wall on Great Trango Tower. I soon realized that in order to get into the heads of these achievers, I needed to push my own limits, to set a goal that bordered on unrealistic. Three years ago I was – and still am - a mediocre climber. I had tried climbing in my 40s, but I didn’t start climbing a lot until I was 50, and at 59 my max level was 7b+. So, what if I decided I would give my all to do what would be my equivalent of The Nose and Great Trango Tower, namely an 8a before I turned 62? I asked Stian Christophersen, a 9a climber, if he would help me. I told him I had my age and my limited climbing talent working against me, but that I possessed a certain and sometimes annoying tenacity working for me. That was all he needed to hear, he said and accepted the challenge.

For two years I put climbing first, neglecting my job as a writer, my band, my social responsibilities, and most of my sweet vices. Now, the point of the experiment was to try as hard as Hill and Doseth to reach my goal, actually sending an 8a would be secondary. But to do this kind of method acting, you also must really want to reach your goal. So I became that awful creature, the self-absorbed, mono-focused athlete belonging to – according to a famous American study – the mad majority who would take the deal of winning an Olympic gold medal and then immediately die. Well, almost. I had to write and put out the book about it first. When deciding which 8as to focus on, Stian and I ruled out 8as that were hard for the grade or so soft that the grade which would be put into question. We found a route in Norway (“I godt selskap”) that Stian – who more often than not onsights 8a – needed two days and several attempts to send, and a route that might suit me – Elephant on Ton Sai, Thailand that Stian had sent, but not onsighted.

There were of course injuries along the way, like a broken elbow and a painful finger that still needs injections of cortisone, but all in all I trained continuously and hard. I climbed 7c, more 7cs and then 7c+ and then another 7c+, and I got closer and closer on both 8as, but after two years I still hadn’t sent any of them. It was tempting to declare victory when I sent a route in Kalymnos that according to the guidebook and the majority of ticks is 8a. But at that point I had already climbed a 7c+ that felt much harder, and the Kalymnos-route was definitely easier than my 8a-projects. “In your heart you know” the saying goes, and much to my dismay my heart knew so I had to downgrade it. Damned I was!

Time was running out, it was February 2022 and my last day and last attempts at Elephant. It had gotten dark but my friends brought headlamps to the beach in front of the bouldery route. It was fun, with cheering, beer and bats, and quite touching. My climbing friends showed me the way, literally and metaphorically. After having failed once more I promised I would give it one more year.

Before going to Ton Sai this year I had been training even harder and I had been in Colorado, doing the last interviews and climbing with Lynn Hill. She had given me useful tips for the dynos at Elephant, and I was in good shape. Then I discovered I had hernia, probably due to some of the harder core exercises. So when I got to Ton Sai I was still recovering from the operation, not being allowed to climb or exercise for six weeks. It really put me back. That is one of the problems with turning 60, if you stop training, you lose power and stamina so much quicker. Then again, if you’ve been on a certain level, getting back there is always easier than getting there the first time. I climbed easy routes, trained and got stronger every day. And there was something else and more important, I was simply a better climber than the year before. I started on Elephant again, a shock at first, but gradually my muscles remembered. At my 100-something attempt over three years on this short route, I was strong, but probably not at my strongest ever. But, I was at my best ever. My daughter, now 23, was visiting. She is not into climbing and has never seen me climbing, except for a few times when I’ve put up rope for her. She has now seen me climbing 15 meters and for 2 minutes.

I was surprised how overwhelmed I was by the send. Not so much with clipping the anchor as with the warm and earnest response from everybody who was there, most of them friends, but even from people I didn’t know. Climbing is joy. It is only important to the people that decide to make it important, and that freedom to make playing important is the greatest joy. That goes for Hill and Doseth and that goes for a mediocre, old guy stalking a personal goal. Sending an 8a is of course not making history, not even climbing history. I think the reason why strangers smile at you when you are lowered from an anchor, why we read stories like this one or stories about true climbing achievements, is we all can relate to struggles, hard work and personal triumphs, no matter how insignificant in the big picture. On a day on a crag with a dozen climbers anyone can supply us with a happy conclusion, a moment of bliss we can share. I’m sometimes asked by young climbers if I’m sorry I didn’t discover climbing until so late in life. To me it’s the opposite. I’m glad I didn’t eat this dessert in life for starter.

My plan – after having put out “Up” – is to hopefully slowly descend through the grades with a smile on my face, back to where I came from. But no, I don’t plan to write (a sequel called) “Down”.
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