Here's a look at twelve women who could shortly make bouldering history…
There is no sport quite like rock climbing, where both women and men compete on even playing fields – be it up a long sport route, a nerve-wrecking trad line or pulling on some of the hardest physical moves on a boulder problem. Still, a look at the numbers may suggest that women are trailing behind the men in terms of the hardest ascents. Whatever gap there may be, it is closing fast – especially in bouldering.
While women can face morphological disadvantages in climbing, they are finding their own ways around the world's hardest climbs previously established by men (think Lynn Hill's first free ascent of The Nose and Margo Hayes on La Rambla 9a+).
Only four women to date have ticked 8C: Ashima Shiraishi (2016), Kaddi Lehmann (2018), Mishka Ishi (2019) and Oriane Bertone (2020). In recent years, more and more women have been consolidating their climbing around the 8B/8B+ mark.
The first female 8C+ ascent is likely just around the corner, and here's a look at ten women who might soon claim the title.
Brooke Raboutou: Youngest climber to tick 8c sport
The 22 year-old American, who together with her brother Shawn comes from the strongest climbing family in the world as the children of former champion competition climbers Robyn Erbesfeld and Didier Raboutou, has been on fire both on the competition circuit and on rock.
Raboutou recently won her first IFSC Boulder World Cup victory in Hachioji. But the Tokyo 2020 Olympian is no stranger to rock. With her ascent of Welcome to Tijuana at age 11, she beat Adam Ondra to become the youngest climber in the world (regardless of gender) to send an 8c sport route.
She was already sending double-digit boulders at age 9, and to date, has sent multiple V14 boulders, including Muscle Car, Trieste and Jade, with the latest addition being lur during a short trip to Ticino last year. Beaming with pride, Shawn revealed in a Magnus Midtbø video that his sister had come close to sending Box Therapy (8C+) in a day!
Should Raboutou translate her competition prowess and slightly more time to outdoor bouldering, there is no doubt that she may be the first woman to tick 8C+.
Jana Švecová: Underground Czech crusher
Though slightly under-the-radar, Švecová has managed to do all the moves of Terranova 8C+ in just two sessions. The problem, put up by none other than fellow local Adam Ondra in 2011, is a powerful traverse established in the Moravian Karst area of the Czech Republic.
In her YouTube videos, the 26 year-old managed to find alternate beta which fit her better due to a stark difference in height compared to Ondra. British climber Will Bosi, who is arguably one of the strongest boulderers right now, tried the problem during his visit and prior to his send of Burden of Dreams 9A, mentioned in a livestream that Terranova was for sure still the hardest boulder he had tried.
Švecová admits that sending it is still a "big, big challenge and it could take years" but judging from her resume of multiple 8B+ ticks like Roof der Wildnis, Prehistorik, and Nova 8B+ in June - her "hardest boulder yet" and a crucial link which covers the latter half of Terranova 8C+. as well as having established Lion King 8B which is currently the hardest climb in the UAE, she is certainly high up on the list.
Ashima Shiraishi: First female V15
Shiraishi, who began climbing at Rat Rock in Central Park, NYC at the age of six, very quickly rose to the top of the game in both bouldering and sport climbing. The Japanese-American phenom has shattered the glass ceiling multiple times, becoming the youngest ever person to send 8B, with an ascent of Fred Nicole's Crown of Aragorn at age 10. The next year, she climbed Southern Smoke, and became the youngest person to climb an 8c+ sport route.
She would go on to become the youngest to accomplish 9a/+, with her tick of Ciudad de Dios. In her long list of historic achievements, perhaps her biggest claim to fame has to be her repeat of Dai Koyamada's Horizon 8C in 2016. At just 14 years-old, she became the first woman to tick the grade, and a short while after, followed it up with sending Sleepy Rave, another 8C in the Grampians. A successful youth competition climber, she has since stepped away from the scene and could very well start committing resources to what she does best.
Oriane Bertone: First female V15 FA
Bertone is a young French prodigy who recently burst onto the adult competition circuit. In her senior debut at 16 at the Boulder World Cup in Meiringen, she earned a silver medal. Often known for her creative and unique beta, she has in two years already podiumed four times.
While Bertone's career in adult competitions has only just begun with her eyes set on Paris 2024, she has given the world a glimpse of what she is capable of when translating her prowess to rock. When she was 12, she became the youngest climber to send V14, with her ascent of Golden Shadow. She bettered that with an 8C FA at the age of, aptly, 15.
Capitalising on the pandemic lockdown, Bertone devoted her time to her "long-standing project", Satan I Helvete Low 8C in Fontainebleau. The original line was climbed by Dave Graham at 8B, and was upgraded after a hold broke. Bertone envisioned a lower start, and upon topping out, became the fourth woman to tick the grade but the first to establish one. This is likely the most impressive achievement in women's bouldering thus far.
Janja Garnbret: the only climber to sweep a World Cup season
The Olympic gold medallist would be a hard one to leave out of contention, although she has recently been plagued with an unfortunate toe injury and has Paris 2024 front and centre. Still, the Slovenian already has several titles to her name, including being the first woman to onsight 8c and the first and only climber to sweep an entire World Cup season. The unpredictable and complex nature of competition bouldering only affirms her indisputable finesse.
Still, the 24 year-old has found pockets of time to head outside. Last year, on top of making progress on La Dura Dura 9b+ in Oliana, she also made quick work of Bügeleisen 8B+, making the First Female Ascent of the classic Austrian testpiece. Established by Klem Loskot in 2001, this boulder was at the time one of the most difficult in the world. On top of an already unmatchable record, she is now one of only twenty women in the world who have ticked 8B+. Given enough time, perhaps post-Olympics, Garnbret could very well send an 8C+ eventually.
Kaddi Lehmann: second woman to climb 8C
German climber Kaddi Lehmann was relatively unknown before her ascent of Kryptos 8C at Morchelstock in the Balsthal, Switzerland in 2018. Since then, her activity has been focused on making first ascents at lower grades, but we can't be sure that she doesn't have some big projects in mind for the future.
Tomoko Ogawa: First female V14 and Mishka Ishi: Youngest female V15
One is 45 years old and the other just 17, but these two Japanese names have left indelible marks in the world of bouldering. In 2012, Ogawa took the climbing world by storm when she sent Catharsis 8B+, a fierce roof boulder located in Shiobara, Japan. It was put up by none other than Koyamada and confirmed by Daniel Woods later on. Prior to this, Ogawa was not a household name. In fact, she only started climbing at 22, but devoted over three years to the 15-move problem, and when she finally did it in 2012, she became the first woman to break the 8B+ barrier.
Several years later, Ashima Shiraishi would stop by Japan and become the first woman to send 8C at 15 years-old. Three years after the ground-breaking ascent, a younger local would become the third and youngest woman to complete an 8C. Standing atop Byaku-dou (The Road to Heaven) at Mount Horai, Ishi was only 13 years-old.
To illustrate the difficulty of the boulder, Koyamada (the first ascensionist) commented that Fred Rouhling, who tried it, had suggested that it is harder than Dreamtime 8C. Outside of Europe and the Americas, Japan itself is by far the hotspot for hard bouldering, presently home to eight already-established 8C+s, including the likes of Floatin, United and Gakidō. That's already half the battle won for Ogawa, Ishi or perhaps another underground crusher.
Shauna Coxsey: First Female Ascent of New Base Line 8B+
British climber Shauna Coxsey was part of a strong cohort of women in the early 2010s who broke into the 8B+ grade. She made the First Female Ascent of New Base Line 8B+ in Magic Wood, Switzerland, and became only the third woman to tick the grade.
After a successful competition career including two overall World Cup wins, culminating in a 10th place finish in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Coxsey announced her retirement from competitions in 2021.
SInce then, she has given birth to her daughter Frankie in 2022, recovered from double knee surgery and returned to the rock, ticking two 8Bs in recent weeks: Flip Flopera and Hydro. Her latest ascents are believed to be the hardest done by a woman after giving birth. Given her experience on rock and her strength and technique levels, Coxsey is not one to be overlooked in the line-up for the first female 8C+ ascent.
Team USA: The most female 8B+s
Across the pond, the United States is most definitely the other hotspot for top-end bouldering, and the women from Team USA – the likes of Michaela Kiersch, Katie Lamb, Alex Puccio and Isabelle Faus – are by far the best in the world. Collectively, they have the most female 8B+ ascents to their names.
Faus takes the crown, having amassed the most 8B+s, including The Grinch just this year and the FA of Sinawav, a highball she discovered in the woods near her home. Since climbing Jade in 2014, Puccio has gone on to tick another five 8B+s, and she has easily established herself as one of the strongest.
Likewise, Lamb also has six 8B+s to her name, including New Base Line and the Buttermilks highball Direct North. Her recent send of the historic Spectre, which was established as an 8B, was interesting. The problem comprised the hardest single move she had ever done. Instead of the typical crux beta which previous male ascensionists used, she had to cut feet and endure a difficult swing. Calling it her hardest boulder yet, she logged it as an 8B+ and with that, made the First Female Ascent.
Kiersch, who completed her doctoral studies in occupational therapy just last year, has since been on a tear outside too. She recently became the first woman to have climbed both a consensus 8B+ and 9a+ with her ascent of the classic La Rambla in Siurana.
Canadian climber Allison Vest - an adoptive American who trains with the USA climbing team in Salt Lake City - is also one to watch, having made the first female ascent of Show Your Scars 8B+ in Ogden and demonstrated remarkable finger strength in videos from training sessions.
These top (North) American climbers seem to only have scratched the surface of what they are capable of and it's only a matter of time before the vast array of V16s dotting the country fall into their hands.