Dave Barnes discusses pushing the known limits with the world's most accomplished rock climber of 2019. Sébastian Bouin is 26 years old.
The name Bouin is mostly associated with a fixing and preserving solution used in histology, consisting of a variety of acids. Sébastien Bouin is a contemporary French rock climber who is reaching for the cutting edge of possibility with only a couple of climbers in front of him and all within reach. Like an acid, he just keeps burning through the grades. Seb climbs like a young man who has not learned fear and commits totally to a sequence and is fluid over steep terrain. His immense strength and skilful technique are appreciated by many.
I first saw Seb climbing on my screen via Facebook. A climber from Europe posted a video of this young guy dressed in a fluoro get-up doing no end of trickery, moves I didn't know existed. He was weaving his way through steep limestone tufas like a kid in a playground making the 9a look like a warm up. I wanted to know more about this climber and I had a gut feeling that I was watching someone bringing something new to climbing, maybe even the future?
I made some calls and found myself connected via Skype with Sebastien: "Ello Dave." I found Seb to be polite, open and jam packed with psyche for climbing. It was like listening to yourself when you started out. I was instantly at ease and we lobbed questions and answers back and forward laughing at each other's ascents. I wanted to know what was driving him to work so hard in his climbing. It took no time for Seb to share his answer.
"Pure motivation is the key for me. I am always psyched to climb and try something higher than my limits. The impossible climb attracts me. I seek to discover a project higher than my limits then push myself in training to realise my goal and progress."
When Seb speaks he often refers to 'the line.' A climbing route means everything to him. It's not about hard, it's about ascetics, everything that a climb has to offer. Seb has a name for it: the Mega Line.
"My Mega Line is the perfect project, the perfect line. The Mega Line is the most beautiful, the most impressive, and the hardest line possible. When I find it, it's better than coffee, drugs, or alcohol. I just want to send it. I need to find something which makes me dream and the dream fuels my motivation." This is an interesting comment which may add some light to his latest Mega Line, The Dream 9b (5.15b), an incomplete account opened by Adam Ondra that Seb was happy to close in December 2019.
It was refreshing to listen to a climber who just loves his climbing. Like any smitten climber, he gets lost in the moment and buzzes from where that journey takes him. The environment in which he climbs is equally important for him and following the sun is the gold that he seeks.
"The place where I climb contributes to my climbing. I enjoy being outside in nature. The more beautiful a place is (like the Verdon Gorge) the more I want to stay and try hard. Being outside makes me happy. I don't know if I would continue climbing if I couldn't go outdoors. For sure I need indoor climbing for training and to maintain my fitness, but this is only to enable me to climb hard outdoors."
Seb began climbing with his mother, Claire, when he was eleven years old. Claire was thinking of something that they could do together and with their love of the mountains, and climbing was a good fit. Mum and son enjoy psyching each other up and Claire is often found belaying Seb and is no pushover herself, cleaning and bolting routes with him in France and throughout Europe. Seb speaks highly of her and her love of climbing complements his.
"Mamma is a good climber herself and we often climb together. Mamma has a lot of energy. She likes climbing and I like climbing, so it makes a good combination of energy for trying hard. My acid [a word Seb uses to represent 'psyche', or passion] has come from her! We don't need coffee as we both fell in the [climbing] cauldron since we started climbing." I'm not 100% sure of what that means, but it must be a French thing, like when Asterisk (the comic hero's) friend, Obelisk fell into the cauldron as a kid and became super strong. Seb continued.
"My mum brought me the energy to always work hard and enjoy doing something outdoors. Climbing is the direction I took, but it would be the same if I had chosen another activity. Doing stuff at 100%, no matter if it's successful or not, and for sure, to have fun with it. This is what she brought to my climbing foundation."
It's hard to find a better mentor than that.
Seb found his way to the mountains with his mum's guidance and from experiencing other pursuits like triathlon and fishing, and he enjoys the benefits that other activities bring. The key to his climbing is his love of the mountains; he's an old school climber that way.
"I like walking and running in the mountains. I am at my best in high places, spending time up there. Yet, climbing hard takes almost all of my time, that's why I can't spend too much time doing other things. I like playing, whatever the game."
Seb has had to make a living in the world, too, and gaining sponsorship is only recent. Seb is a trained Physical Education teacher and when not on the road he will be found teaching students to be active themselves. His favourite lesson is dancing, something he does well on and off the rock. Seb thinks it is important for professional climbers to get an education while they are climbing. Seb believes that the additional discipline of learning a profession while completing his studies has also assisted with his climbing.
"To complete my college and university studies took me a lot of time, but it opens the mind and gives you a career. I knew since I started climbing that I wanted to do it all my life. I completed my studies and found a job that provided me with time to climb. I have always given priority to climbing and sometimes it was hard to be on time at school, with my homework or meeting deadlines. Education is a chance to have something other than climbing because you know that hard climbing has a finite physical limit. There is less pressure knowing I have a career to fall back on in time which means I can enjoy my climbing 100%."
This reads like a fella with a future on and off the rocks. He plays to win.
Climbing in the present age provides an elite climber with beta, indoor training facilities, advanced training modules, coaches and an understanding of nutrition to work different aspects of a climber's lock, stock and four smoking limbs. Seb has been able to climb hard with fewer injuries as he has taken this learning onboard, using it to gain the holy trinity of a great climber; power, endurance and confidence. Seb is fascinated with human movement.
"I am always surprised to see how my body can recover from training, climbing, or injury. Sometime I think I am totally done and a few days later I am OK. I am always learning how my body can adapt to climbing movement. Sometimes I find myself stuck in an impossible position and without options for the moves. After many tries I can find a sequence and do it easily."
Training is an essential criterion for athletes, including the world's best climbers. Although he didn't want to labour the point, Seb is going the extra mile like Adam Ondra, Chris Sharma or Ashima Shiraishi. He started with "Climbing is training! LoL." Seb then opened a window onto what makes up a training day for a 9b+ climber.
"A typical day's training for me has four parts;
1. Climbing outdoors in the morning or afternoon,
2. Musculation* / Specific training,
3. Climbing in the gym (boulder or lead),
*(the translation - strength and conditioning - does not do that justice)
Seb adapts his training to balance his strength and endurance depending on what project he is working towards and the intensity of a climbing period. On average, Seb is training and/or climbing five days per week, which includes climbing outside. Seb thinks about how to change up his routines to not overstress a particular muscle group and incorporates time for his body to recover. He gave the following example.
"Every climber is different, and every route is different. The most important thing for me is being able to adapt the training to the context and to keep my motivation high. For example, if I stop climbing outdoors I will lose my motivation, so I include outdoor climbing in my training (first part of the day). I vary sessions and work to change things up every time I train. If your programme says you have to do a big day, but you're not feeling good, say your finger is swollen... To be able to have options and reorganise the next part of the week is super important. By doing this I am preventing injuries."
Being a world class climber does not mean you can stick with anything and find everything a doddle. That would be nice, but Seb pointed out some areas in which he has to grind through, like slab climbing and crimps. On the other hand, he loves steep stuff and finds pleasure climbing long, sustained pitches which have become his signature routes. "I have grown up climbing overhangs and tufas but, I'm trying to improve in vertical climbing too!"
I'm feeling for you Seb. That has got to be tough.
Being young and fit, the climbing glitterati often focus on his raw strength. In preparation for this interview I had watched Seb complete hardcore climbing on holds that were as small as a pimple, which he had to squeeze until his fingers turned blue to get some purchase. For me, it was obvious he was a strong climber, but he in turn possessed mental fortitude, an all-or-nothing commitment to the climb, that was and is awe inspiring to watch. When you witness Seb climb, he'll be screaming out loud when he's being pushed and shouting out when he delivers, but all the time remaining tensioned just right - focused like a Nikon lens. I asked Seb for an example of his mental preparation preceding a hard climb.
"In my case it's all about maintaining motivation. When you try a project at your limit for such a long time, your brain tells you to stop and to discover other things - giving up seems like a better choice. Yet, if you're crazy enough you'll continue and try to find out why your efforts aren't working. To believe in success is hard sometimes. So the best way for me is not to think about the what-ifs but just concentrate on what I want to achieve. As a climber I find pleasure in trying new things, it will happen in the end."
more 9th Dimension climbs than any other climber on earth. The real news is this number of first
ascents (FA). These climbs are his story.
• 9b/+ Move (first repeat after Adam Ondra)✔️
• 9b/+ FA La Rage d'Adam ✔️
• 9b Mamichula (first repeat after Adam Ondra)✔️
• 9b FA The Dream ✔️
• 9a+ Pachamama✔️
• 9a+ Papichulo✔️
• 9a+ Patanics ✔️
• 9a De Battre Mon Cœur s'est Arrêté ✔️
• 9a No Pain No Gain✔️
• 9a FA Detectives ✔️
• 9a Super Finale✔️
• 9a FA Beyond ✔️
• 8c+/9aLa Folle Histoire Immonde✔️
• 8c Hossana (multi pitch hard core) ✔️
Sending twelve 9a to 9b+ routes throughout 2019 is a phenomenal achievement; no one on Earth achieved that level of hardcore consistency in that twelve month period (with another addition potentially being La Folle Histoire Immonde at Montpellier, France which is graded 8c+/9a and which Seb extended by 15 metres). What's more, of the two 9b+ routes completed, one of those was a first ascent. In that list of twelve, four of these were first ascents. Not only is Seb sending routes, he's scoping climbing's future and seeking new dream lines while many of his peers choose to do repeats. He's happy getting into his dirtbag van and has embarked on climbing trips to Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Italy, England, Albania and Turkey. He raved about the climbing in Norway. Seb has also chalked up in Iran and in the United States. There are two nations that you don't see in the same sentence without a conflict being mentioned. Maybe the United Nations should employ Seb as the Send General? The world is calling and he is young. He is keen to climb more extensively.
"There is a Chris Sharma route that I am super keen to try called Jumbo Love (9b) at Clarke Mountain near Los Angeles. I would also like to visit Morocco, Chile, China and Australia." Of course I offered him a place to crash if he made his way to Tasmania.
Speaking with Seb about new climbs was like listening to a gold digger sharing his enthusiasm about his new find. Putting up new routes requires a patient and visionary climber; the dirt, the bush-bashing and the constant let downs when you think you saw that bodacious line from a road only to get there and find fool's gold (choss). You need to see through that, you need to put on your Earnest Shackleton and believe that you will find. I know that new routing vibe and Seb loves that as much as the climbing. I asked another French climbing legend, Antoine le Menestrel who was at the forefront of climbing in the 1980's to give his take on Seb here in the present age. Recently Seb came to Antoine's home in Buoux, the place where climbing cut through to the 8th dimension in that other era. This is what the Jedi Master said of the Apprentice.
"In the winter of 2019, Seb Bouin asked me to participate in his "Vintage Tour" (Seb enjoys organising tours to stoke his fire). We had an outing at Buoux in the Bout du Monde Sector, the scene of many battles. I watched him complete La Rage de Vivre 8 b/c (5.14a), a route that I completed in 1986, at the time it was one of the hardest routes in the world. It is the sequence of La Rose et le Vampire 8b and La Secte 8a/b."
Seb worked through the shallow pockets, crazy cross-over's and steep Buoux limestone like a true Frenchman, and Antoine was very happy to witness Seb's experiment at the place climbing commentators used to call, The Laboratory. Antoine continued.
"I like Seb's approach, it's cultural because it integrates sport climbing and respects the best of French performances. Climbing is constantly being invented. Seb doesn't consume climbing, he is a part of its evolution. He respects history and is adding his signature as a climber."
Seb earns respect from his peers, he doesn't put down others, he celebrates their success and gets in and gets it done himself. My favourite route of Seb's 2019 wicked tick-list was his first ascent of Hosanna in the iconic Verdon Gorge in the South of France. Although it's not at the cutting edge of grades (coming in at 8c) the climber has to negotiate sustained limestone pocket pitching and weird Al moves. Hosanna is 'all acid' with repeated long pitches requiring all you've got and some prayers from the Madonna herself to see you through. You might need to see the sports teacher to get your beta. Seb is putting the Verdon Gorge back into the centre of French climbing, with a collection of supersonic big free and balls-and-all bold lines. Like Antoine, I'm sure Patrick Edlinger would be proud.
Despite seeming to be at the top of his game, Seb is still learning. I asked him about nutrition, which is an important aspect of any athlete's preparation and his answer added colour to his story but showed lapses in his overall training. Nutella is his crag staple. It may be gluten free, but despite its contribution to the race for 10a it's still a questionable carbohydrate. He had an answer to my concern. "Hmm. As a human growing on planet earth, I have evolved a lot. I try to find and eat local and natural products, too." That said, Sebastien will find at the pointy end of the climbing game that he will be under increasing scrutiny; every word will be measured and every new send will have commentary. With no coach or team around him at this time he is still winging it, which to me, knowing his achievements, just adds to his standing.
Seb has had a bag full of experiences on climbs this past year. I wondered if he had a favourite and unsurprisingly his French-English began dancing.
"There are two routes that have asked a lot from me. "Move" in Norway (9b+) and "La Rage d'Adam" (9b+) in The Verdon Gorge. These were big mental battles; travel, fail... travel fail... Had you asked me if they were possible, I thought, am I crazy enough to keep trying!" With more than 4000 road kilometres between these routes, he sent them in quick succession. Now that's drive. Each of these projects brings their rewards. "Each route is different, each crag is different, each trip is different, and each send is different. For sure, I find happiness in every successful send but my body and emotions are different each time. Between scream, smile, silence, even dancing, every reaction is a way to enjoy the moment."
Anyone who reads Marvel Comics would also know that being a super hero does not take away your feelings. Seb enjoys mixing it with the common climber and with fellow climbing zeitgeists like Adam Ondra. I asked Adam for his take on Sebastien.
"Seb Bouin is definitely an underrated climber for different reasons. He is very low-key but is making many first ascents, Seb's grades are definitely stiff. He is one of the most passionate climbers I have ever seen whose only problem is that he is rarely willing to take a rest day. He is definitely one of my favourite climbing partners."
Ah, Seb, if you're reading this, that's some pretty good feedback, yeah?
Seb is a climber who revels in psyche. He celebrates success. When he completes one of these '9' things he enjoys sharing his news, frothing on Facebook and makes his calls in a particular order.
"Firstly, I call into the bar! I enjoy passing the news onto my girlfriend Lei, my mum and to the people who contributed to the send. Without these people, these harder climbs would not be possible so they are a part of the success."
Success for a climber brings sponsorship and expectation, things which are increasingly entering into Seb's world, but he has evolved with his climbing and developed a band of friends and family who keep things real and moving.
When Seb was working a forgone project of Adam Ondra called Dream (9b+) at Bra Crag just outside of Tirana in Albania, Seb finished it. I caught up with local climber, Richard Eden, who had seen both of these climbers work the route. This is what he said of the two: "Adam is way faster and has amazing technique, but Seb is way stronger and always seems positive. They have fairly different styles." Seb's style won on this occasion. (Note, when Seb read this article for the final edit he added, "Well, Adam tried Dream over two days, and I did it in three weeks, it's not possible to make a comparison." This is an example of Seb's character.)
People like goals and the great climbers strive to keep pushing the envelope of possibility. Seb is driven by the line and he seeks to bring the best out of himself and to unlock the secrets of the stone that he climbs.
"I'll make the sacrifices and live out of my van to find the perfect project, that next level of difficulty. I want to find that MEGA LINE. My two goals of 2020 are Jumbo Love and La Dura Dura (9b+). Maybe one day I will head over to Yosemite. At the moment I am focused on overhanging climbing, but The Valley and its granite walls are inspiring, so one day for sure."
Seb left me feeling pleased with the future of climbing. He was confident without being cocky, he was full of psyche for other climbers and he didn't come with a brand name. He neither drops names nor looks for easy options project-wise and spoke highly of all the people he had encountered whilst climbing. Seb adds a joie-de-vivre to modern climbing, which benefits all climbers. To conclude our discussions, I asked him if there was anything he would like to share with climbers wanting to send their own projects? His answer summed up his character just right.
"Smile and go for it!"
About The Author
David Barnes is a freelance climbing writer. He asks the questions and listens to a climber's answer and then finds pleasure in linking their excitement to his audience with tales of their climbing lives and the impact they have on others. Dave has been published in several magazines and edits a fresh climbing blog called Common Climber. When not writing he is putting up new routes in Hobart, Australia and works hard pretending to be an adult.