Nathaniel Soon makes some predictions for the next top-grade first ascent...
2022 was a phenomenal year for the cutting edge of sport climbing and we should expect nothing less for the year ahead. It's only February and two new 9b+s have already made headlines, both less than a week apart.
Stefano Ghisolfi freed his hardest route yet and finally claimed his first 9b+ FA, with the legendary Excalibur (UKC News), not far from his hometown of Arco.
A couple days later, Jorge Díaz-Rullo officially joined the 9b+ club. Having clipped the chains of Mejorando la Samfaina in Margalef (UKC News), he became the first Spaniard to tick the grade.
If the past few weeks are any indication of what's to come, you heard it here first – we're going to see another new 9c this year.
But which one, where and by whom? Here are my top 5 predictions…
'Move Integral' by Seb Bouin
Let's begin with the obvious ones.
If there's anyone in the world right now who could put their finger on what 9c is, it would be none other than Adam Ondra and Seb Bouin, having proposed the highest grade for Silence in Flatanger (UKC News) and DNA in the Verdon Gorge (UKC Video) respectively. Both routes have been attempted but remain unrepeated.
Bouin had an unparalleled 2022 where on top of DNA, he also established Nordic Marathon (9b/+) (UKC News) and repeated Change (9b+) (UKC News) in the Hanshelleren Cave. Since that trip, he has mused on the future of the cave (UKC Video) putting the spotlight on a harder variation to Nordic Marathon, which he dubbed 'Move Integral'.
As the name implies, 'Move Integral' will see Bouin replace an 8c intro with Move, a climb that took him four trips to finally claim the first repeat of in 2019. Move itself proved so challenging that he retrospectively upgraded it to 9b+ last year. The result, according to Bouin, would be a 9b+ straight into a 9a+ (Thor's Hammer P2). "This would be crazy. It would be a next step," Bouin admits in a Climbing Magazine interview.
Bouin wrapped up the interview by promising a return to Flatanger to commence work on 'Move Integral', which we should expect some news about this year. But can he possibly get it done within a year? The odds are 50/50.
Realistically, he will be up against his toughest challenge yet – a "hard 9c", in his own words. But certain factors could well put the wind in his sails. For one, he professes that this form of endurance climbing, where he crosses the entire cave from ground to summit is his "pure climbing style", which will be a key motivation for the Frenchman.
Let's not forget that Bouin has in fact done all the individual moves of this next-level project already, having sent both Move (UKC News) and Thor's Hammer P2 separately. And of course, no one puts down the world's hardest routes faster than him – he took only 3 days of redpoint attempts to send Change, and less than a month to establish America's hardest with Suprême Jumbo Love (9b+) (UKC News). All things considered, it would be unwise to discount the possibility altogether.
'Project Big' by Adam Ondra (and/or Jakob Schubert?)
Staying in Flatanger, just a couple metres left of 'Move Integral' lies yet another obvious contender.
Towards the end of 2022, we were treated to an intimate portrait of Mammut teammates Adam Ondra and Jakob Schubert battling it out on what Ondra defined as "the real line" of the cave. The duo came exceedingly close to sending after a season in Norway, but hindered by bad weather and illness, had to leave empty-handed.
At present, 'Project Big' remains just that – a project. Having bolted it in 2013, Ondra described it as the most obvious but most improbable line of the cave. The climb had intimidated him all this while and in the seasons that followed, he devoted his time and energy instead to Silence (formerly Project Hard), which he successfully freed as the world's first 9c in 2017.
While the difficulty of Silence (9c) mainly lies in its first crux – the prominent inverted crack which Ondra estimated as 8C/V15 alone and Ghisolfi suggested even harder, 'Project Big' differs in style. It is a longer, more consistent and complex strength endurance testpiece that similarly left Schubert overwhelmed at first sight.
Almost nothing in the world compares to this behemoth endeavour. Ondra dissected the route into five sections in his video. After a breezy 7a intro up Kakestykket, the first 8A/V11 boulder problem awaits. Thereafter, a 7C/V9 boulder section leads into none other than a signature kneebar, which on this route proves tricky to learn but extremely beneficial for regaining power.
Then the fourth section, which Ondra calls "the meat of the route", begins. It features the main 8A+/V12 crux comprising a big and precise jump move to a slopey rail and complex foot movements. A 20-metre 8a outro wraps up the journey.
Although 'Project Big' shares its home with Silence (9c), Ondra still expresses uncertainty as to which is harder. Regardless, it is clear that the route, in his eyes, epitomises the future of hard sport climbing. In Hazel Findlay's recent Strong Mind podcast, Ondra attributes a big part of the development of hard sport climbing to hard bouldering. The apex of human potential in sport climbing will manifest in increasingly longer routes encompassing more and more difficult boulder problems.
Considering that this year will see the start of Olympic qualifications, it remains to be seen if either Ondra or Schubert will commit to a season in Norway anytime soon. But their impressive progress on 'Project Big' evidently suggests that the route will go down sooner rather than later. I foresee that it will eventually clock in at hard 9b+ and a bonus prediction – if Adam gets the FA, he'll name the route Hugo, after his son.
'Café Columbia' by Jorge Díaz-Rullo
In clipping the chains of the world's newest 9b+, Jorge Díaz-Rullo became the youngest in the world to tick the grade, and is definitely one to watch in the coming months. Just as Seb Bouin took 2022 by storm, I have a gut feeling that this year might belong to Díaz-Rullo, culminating in a new 9c ascent.
His track record even prior to Mejorando la Samfaina is remarkable. He has done over 60 9as and harder, including nine 9bs. He ranks fifth in the world in terms of 5.15 (9a+ and up) ascents. That's not all. The 23 year-old has also onsighted up to 8c, bouldered up to 8C/V15 and more impressively, free-soloed the 8c route Darwin Dixit in his home ground of Margalef.
Speaking of Margalef, that's where the Spaniard is spending most of his days now, and where he put down his hardest route. It's no surprise he has now turned his attention back to his main project 'Café Colombia', which lies further right of the same Finestra sector. In an interview with El País, he claims that the route "might be harder than Bibliographie (9b+)".
The last we heard from him, he had already reached what he deemed to be the final high-point of the route, falling on the last hard move. To date, he has exhausted over a hundred days on the project, including having established the easier variation Café Solo (9b) in November 2021. Café Solo circumvents the final boulder crux by exiting left, while his main project goes straight up.
The last time we heard of someone with a 9b side project? It was Ghisolfi on Move Hard (9b) in the midst of projecting Silence (9c). And the last time someone spent over a hundred days on a single route? It was Bouin on DNA (9c).
Aside from Perfecto Mundo (9b+) and The Full Journey (9b), Díaz-Rullo has to date sent every other route in Margalef graded at 9b and harder. There's perhaps no one else who can attest to the area's hardest (including a potential 9c here) better. Comparing the amount of effort he appears to be putting in on 'Café Colombia' with Mejorando la Samfaina (9b+), all signs point to the former being a step above.
There's almost no doubt that 'Café Colombia' will be the world's next 9c and that Díaz-Rullo will be capitalising on his best form yet to cement his name in sport climbing history soon.
'Sleeping Lion' by Chris Sharma
The legend that is Chris Sharma is known for many things – one of (if not) the first to send a consensus 9a+ (5.15a) with Biographie (UKC News) and 9b with Jumbo Love (UKC News), the second in the world to tick 9b+ with La Dura Dura (UKC News) which marked the historic passing of the baton of 'world's best climber' to Ondra, and most recently, reality TV star with his HBO Max series, The Climb.
But even as the 41-year-old has embraced his new identities through fatherhood and business, his penchant for establishing the world's hardest climbs has far from faded.
Just a few months after establishing Jumbo Love (9b) at Clark Mountain in 2008, Sharma put down the direct start of Siurana's famed Estado Critico (9a), calling it Golpe de Estado (9b). Since then, nearly fifteen years have passed and only Ondra has repeated the route, leading to Sharma speculating that it could be harder than 9b, and potentially even the world's first 9b+.
In those fifteen years, the American has returned to the same El Pati sector countless times and in 2021, he finally realised his vision to bolt and attempt a new king line that he, in a recent GQ interview, confessed would trump all of his previous ascents. "I'm already working on linking the sections and putting the pieces together. It's been a while since I felt so giddy and excited about a new route. I'm calling it 'Sleeping Lion' and it's waking up and it's hungry!"
While Sharma hasn't divulged much about the intricacies of 'Sleeping Lion', he has sporadically posted close-up shots of his attempts, which very much reflects his own evolution towards climbing these days. In a departure from his younger days of hunkering down to unlock his renowned King Lines, he now aspires to achieve greater balance in his life, maintaining his fitness as best as possible in order to make the most of any opportunities to get back on the project when they come by.
Sharma recently appeared on The Enormocast and shared about his process. "In the past, I questioned a bit with La Dura Dura, when I'm no longer the best climber, what's it going to be like? A lot of climbing is about the sense of progression, and you always want to keep pushing it up a notch… I'm trying things that are still cutting edge at 5.15c (9b+) or maybe I'll even get up to a 5.15d (9c) – who knows?", he quipped in his typical cavalier fashion.
While his lifestyle has changed over the years, it's clear that Sharma is still at the top of his game, as evidenced by his recent ascent of La Reina Mora (9a) in December 2022 and an 8c onsight of V for Vendetta a few months prior.
Our predictions for 'Sleeping Lion' remains up in the air. Will it be 9c or 9b+? Who knows if The Climb will return for a second season as well? Uncertainty aside, we're certainly looking forward to Sharma sending his hardest sometime in the near future – a good testament to the idea that in climbing, one only gets better with age.
Something else under the radar
Recent 9b+ ascents like Zvěřinec and Mejorando la Samfaina admittedly came as a surprise, without there being much chatter about the routes prior to the ascents. Realistically, we could only be scratching the surface of what's in the works and could very well expect a new 9c to come out of nowhere.
Here's a speedy run-through of several possibilities:
- 'El Toro Salvaje' in Margalef, which Ondra has spent a day or two on
- 'Le Blond' in Oliana, which Sharma would hope to return to soon
- 'Low start to Excalibur' in Drena, which Ghisolfi will be bringing out crash pads for
- Alex Megos' Red River Gorge project, which he tried for five weeks and got close to sending
- 'BOA', which Bouin bolted in Portugal while searching for his next mega-line
- …or perhaps we'll hear more about something even crazier like Bouin's 'Insouciance' which he teased as 9c/+ back in 2021.
Women upping the ante
Our armchair analyses of the top end of sport climbing often fixates on male achievement, unfortunately. In reality, there still remains somewhat of a gender gap due to factors including the number of women establishing hard lines. However, that gap is closing quickly.
Aside from an increasing number of 9a's and 9a+'s by female climbers in recent years, Angela Eiter became the first ever female in history to complete a first ascent of a 9b with Madame Ching in 2020. In October 2021, Laura Rogora sent Erebor at 9b/+ (though it has since been adjusted to 9b), making it the hardest ascent by a woman to date. And in the same year, Janja Garnbret became the first woman to onsight 8c, with Fish Eye (UKC News) and American Hustle (video), an achievement quickly replicated by the 19-year-old Chaehyun Seo in 2022, with her onsight of L'antagonista (8c) (UKC News) in Siurana, after having sent La Rambla (9a+) (UKC News) just a few days earlier.
Positive updates have slowly been coming out of Oliana, which along with an array of hard classic sport routes, fell victim to a large wildfire in June 2022. A female ascent of a 9b+ is indisputably imminent, and perhaps Garnbret will be the first, should she return to La Dura Dura soon. In a UKC interview in 2022, she commented:
"It's hard - hard hard! I hope that it will go. I mean, I did all the moves. One move in the middle is a bit problematic. It's not in the lower crux, but in the middle of the route actually. Where Chris [Sharma] and Adam [Ondra] jump a little bit, I have to jump jump! But yeah, I did all the moves so I'm progressing slowly. Obviously, it's a hard grade, but I'm also trying it for historic reasons. And I'm looking for a challenge and I feel like La Dura Dura is the perfect challenge for me. It's something that I would have to put a lot of effort into to do. It's super reachy. And I feel like it's a great challenge."
The first female ascent of a 9c can't be too far off — and with more women getting into bolting and making first ascents, we could see a first female first ascent (for want of a more elegant term) of a 9c in the near future.
Excellent article, thank you
Yes, great article. For a piece about hard sport grades, actually very interesting!
There was an old climbing film I forget the name of but it showed Sharma and Dani Andrada starting to work Golpe de Estado. It was amazing to see how hard they worked at it. There was a whole crux section where they struggled to figure out and do ~5 moves in a row. Then they got to the big crux. They showed Sharma trying it myriad of different ways. Andrada said he reckoned Sharma tried that 1 move about 200 times before he stuck it in isolation. Incredible dedication.
Unless I'm missing something, is this not just common French practice of using "intégral" (complete) to denote extensions that go to the top of the cliff? Or is there some wordplay I'm missing?