May 15 is 5.15 day, which means if you are either scanning guidebooks dreaming of what could be or you are among the top tier of world class athletes that have attained that level of strength. Most professional climbers have not climbed 5.15. It is really really hard.
In 2001, Chris Sharma established Biographie, also known as Realization, in Céüse, France. Though the hardest route in the world at the time, Sharma decided against rating it. As this was the most important bolted ascent since Punks in the Gym, it stands as a testament to his pure love of rock climbing.
The reason for the name dispute is the difference in ethics between American and French climbers. In France, the person that bolts a route gives it a name whilst in America, the first ascensionist gives the title. The route was bolted in 1989 by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and was named Biographie. Upon its first ascent, Sharma named it Realization, in congruence with the American style, though he primarily refers to the route as Biographie.
Though Biographie is considered the world’s first 5.15a, Alexander Huber’s Weiße Rose and Open Air have received attention in recent years. Though they were both rated 5.14d, Adam Ondra’s ascents led him to believe that they both had the capacity to be 5.15. As they were climbed in 1994 and 1996 respectively, they would have been the first of the grade, but an official upgrade has not occurred.
Seven years after his ascent of Biographie, Sharma established Jumbo Love on Clark Mountain in the Mojave National Preserve. This route would become the world’s first 5.15b and, at 76-metres long, became a new standard in hard route climbing. It would not see a second ascent until 2015 when Ethan Pringle climbed the route.
By 2012, Adam Ondra had become one of the few that establish new difficulty. He climbed Change and graded it 5.15c. It became the hardest climb in the world. The route was bolted in the Hanshelleren Cave of Flatanger, Norway. It is still unrepeated. One year later, ascents of Sharma’s La Dura Dura in Oliana, Spain were climbed by Ondra and Sharma. In many ways, this represented the passing of a torch from one generation to another.
Each of these ascents progressed difficulty, but still the world waited for a female ascent of the elusive 5.15a. In March of 2015, a 13-year-old Ashima Shiraishi climbed Open Your Mind Direct in Santa Linya, Spain. Though the route was originally 5.14d, a hold broke and so the difficulty was increased. That said, the consensus of the community is that the route, post-break, retains its grade of 5.14d.
In 2017, Margo Hayes had become the first woman to have climbed La Rambla 5.15a. This ascent made her the first woman to climb at that difficulty. The route itself is a 35-metre test-piece bolted by Huber in Siurana, Spain. The route was later extended 6-metres by Dani Andrada, and was first climbed in 2003 by Ramón Julián Puigblanque. Hayes’ ascent of the extended route broke down the metaphorical door and led to a series of strong female ascents.
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MY HEART IS FULL 💓 I am grateful to Jean-Christophe Lafaille for envisioning this graceful line, Biographie, in 1989. In 1996, Arnaud Petit completed the pitch to the first anchor, and five years later, in 2001, @chris_sharma became the first person to complete the line to the highest anchor, simultaneously sending the first ever 9a+. Thank you for giving Biographie / Realization to our community! In life, we are tested. Biographie tested my commitment, my fortitude, and my belief in myself. In May, I touched Biographie for the first time. Ever since, the route has been ingrained in my mind and body. In one week, I will leave France, the country that I have lived in and learned from for the past year. Just yesterday, I realized this dream. The difficulties of this endeavor were overshadowed by the sound of the birds, laughter of friends, and the changing of the seasons. To experience the delicate power that Biographie holds is a true privilege. I am so grateful for the support that I have received from the climbing community throughout this process, especially from @arnaudpetit_climb , my mentor on this journey. Thank you, @alexandermegos for the send belay and @jan_novak_photography for this image. @thenorthface @petzl_official @lasportivana @frictionlabs @dogearedjewelry
On September 3 of that same year, Ondra had established the world’s most difficult sport climb: Silence 5.15d. The route was established in the same cave as Change and was bolted sometime between 2012 and 2013 by Ondra. Today, the route stands as a testament to what the future of sport climbing might look like. The 45-metre route follows the beginning of Change at around 5.13d, before moving through a V7 boulder problem to three distinct cruxes. The route moves through a V13 sequence into a ten move V15 boulder problem before concluding on a technical V10. After the final crux, a jug leads through easier climbing.
Eight days later, Anak Verhoeven would become the second woman to climb 5.15a and the first to make a first ascent of a route with such a high difficulty. Her route, Sweet Neuf, was established in Vercors, France and combined the 15-metre 5.14d Sang Neuf with the 25-metre Home Sweet Home 5.14b/c. This ascent is just as ground-breaking as Margo Hayes’ La Rambla as first ascents into new difficulties are difficult to establish. 14 days later, Hayes nabbed the first female ascent of Sharma’s Biographie.
In the subsequent October, headlines were once again made in female sport climbing. Angela Eiter skipped 5.15a entirely and made the first female ascent of La Planta de Shiva 5.15b. The short amount of time between the first female ascent of 5.15a and the first female ascent of 5.15b is incredible, especially considering that it took male climbers, specifically Sharma, seven years to leap from 5.15a to 5.15b. It took female climbers eight months.
Since then, there have been notable 5.15 ascents all over the world. In 2018, Adam Ondra would flash Super Crackinette 5.15a, an Alex Megos route established in 2016. This ascent goes shows just how strong a climber can be, and that there are not limits to flashing difficult routes, aside from those the climber sets upon themselves. In that same year, Megos would put up the first ascent of Perfecto Mundo 5.15c in Margalef, Spain.
In 2019, Hayes would climb the first female ascent of Papichulo 5.15a in Oliana, Spain. In that same year, Olympian Julia Chanourdie would climb Super Crackinette 5.15a in Saint-Léger-du-Ventoux, becoming the fourth woman to climb 5.15. Rounding off the year, Stefano Ghisolfi would climb Perfecto Mundo, becoming the fourth person to climb at such a difficulty, and Jonathan Siegrest would climb All You Can Eat 5.15a at Mt. Potosi just outside Las Vegas.
In Canada, there are only a few 5.15s currently established. In 2016, Megos travelled to Banff National Park to establish Canada’s first 5.15b, Fight Club. The route was originally called the prow project and Megos sent it on his second try. Canadian Sonnie Trotter then extended the route that same day. After five or six days of projecting, Megos managed to finish the route.
Two years later, Ondra visited Canmore, Alberta and took down two of Canada’s projects. Disbelief was a line bolted by Josh Muller, co-owner of Bolder gym in Calgary. Ondra said, “I cannot think of many other routes where I climbed so close to my limit.” Ondra went on to send an Evan Hau project which he titled Sacrifice, giving it a grade of 5.15a.
Though three 5.15s now exist in Canada, no Canadian has yet to complete a 5.15. Evan Hau’s Honour and Glory stood briefly as Canadian 5.15 but was downgraded to 5.14d by Ondra on his trip to Alberta.
United States 5.15
In the same way that there are so few 5.15s in Canada, there are similarly few in the United States. Jaws II is one of the older lines, and though considered softer, has retained its difficulty rating. The route was originally established in Rumney, New Hampshire by Dave Graham as a 5.14b, but after a couple of holds broke, was regraded to 5.15a.
Flex Luther is another classic American route, originally established in 2003 by Tommy Caldwell. The route is still unrepeated, and though it is graded 5.15a, it may be one of the world’s most challenging sport climbs. It is located in the Fortress of Solitude in Colorado and was climbed six months after Caldwell chopped off his finger. It is located in a radical area with harsh conditions.
Though there are only a few 5.15 routes in North America, their quality is high. Perhaps it is time for more Canadians to go try them.