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Climbing 101: America’s Innovative Climbers


by David Thul

May 05, 2002

Rock climbing is an individual sport marked by milestones and accomplishments. It is more popular today than ever in its history. In 50 years, climbing has gone from being a counter-culture activity to a more mainstream sport. The most important changes that have made it more popular were the creation of bouldering, the climbing of harder routes and the change to a dynamic climbing style. Although, American climbing history has seen many influential people known both in the U.S. and the world, the standouts are John Gill, Dave Graham and Chris Sharma.

There are many different ways to climb and many different ways to stay safe while doing it. First, the most extreme way to climb is called free soloing. In this, the climber uses nothing to aid in his upward movement except for his own body. Most importantly, the free soloing climber has no rope or partner to assist or protect him in a fall. Most free soloing falls result in death. Next is free climbing, which is when a climber places something into the rock such as a piton, a metal spike hammered into a crack, so the climber can secure a rope in case of a fall. These items placed into the rock are a climber’s “protection”. This is considered free climbing because the items that the climber uses to keep from falling are not pulled on, or clung to in order to help his upward progress. Each free climbing route has a rating. The scale starts with a 5, which indicates the climber is using all four limbs to help him climb upward. He/she is also tied into a rope hence the five contact points. The next part of the scale tells how difficult it is from a rating of .1 to .15. This confuses many because it is not a typical decimal system, .9 is easier than .10. A 5.1 route is no more than scrambling up very low angle rock. A 5.10 is a tough route that most people can climb if they climb and practice often. A 5.15 is a route that only one person in the world, Chris Sharma, can complete. A third way to climb is called sport climbing. A climber clips the rope into bolts that are already drilled and set into the rock he is climbing. The route is already set. The set route is what makes it different from free climbing.

Another way to climb is called bouldering. Bouldering is climbing smaller rock faces or boulders with no rope or any kind of protection. A bouldering route is called a “problem” because there is often more than one way to do it. Bouldering also has its own scale. It is denoted, by first a V and then a number following, to tell how hard the problem is. The scale currently runs from V0, which is equal to a 5.10 free climb (or easier), meaning most climbers can do it after practice and training, to V15 which is nearly impossible for anyone but the most elite of full-time climbers. Bouldering falls will (sometimes) result in injuries but usually not death. This interesting form of climbing was popularized by John Gill.

Gill first began climbing in the early 1950’s when his friend Jeanie Shearer took him to the Beehive Cliffs of the Southern Appalachians (Ament). Later, during his college years, Gill used chalk while he was a gymnast and then took it out onto the rocks, making him the first rock climber to use it to reduce the amount of sweat while climbing (Ament). Throughout his life Gill made many important advances in climbing.

Gill had a radical climbing style regarded by many as too unconventional and unpleasing to the eye. These insults came mostly from the traditional climbers that fixed their own protection to climb routes. At the time, the traditional climbers believed that a climber should at all times have three points of contact on the rock. First they would move one arm then the other. Gill on the other hand used what he called dynamic movement (Sherman, 91). This way of moving was inspired by his days as a gymnast. He would often jump for a hold far out of his reach. He also used “jump starts” when bouldering, which were regarded by traditionalists as bad form. A “jump start” is when he started from the ground and jumped for the first set of holds on what he wanted to climb. Gill’s “bad form” and “dynamic movement” are now standard procedure for the world’s greatest climbers.

Gill also advanced the difficulty of climbs in America. He climbed America’s first route rated 5.10. This route, Baxter’s Pinnacle, was set in the Tetons with the help of Yvon Chouinard, one of Yosemite’s most prolific climbers (Ament). Before that route was established the toughest route in the U.S. was rated 5.8. Gill then continued to push the limits climbing up the first 5.11 on Flying Buttress Variation. In his life, Gill has set most of Colorado’s toughest bouldering routes on the Mental Block, Right Eliminator, Left Eliminator, Final Exam and the no-handed free solo ascent of The Needle in Estes Park, Colorado. All of these are rated over 5.10 (Benningfield).

John Gill’s dominance as a climber was fueled by his enormous mental and physical strength. He is capable of doing a one-armed front lever, a one-armed one-fingered pull up and many other feats. His influence on climbing is unquestionable. He created his own style, his own sect of climbing and contributed to advances such as the use of chalk and creating the first 5.10 and 5.11 routes.

Another influential American climber is Dave Graham, a great sport climber. Sport climbing requires massive amounts of strength and solid technique. In sport climbing a climber is tied into a rope and clips his rope into preset bolts as he moves upwards or outwards depending on the angle of the rock he is climbing. Graham, possibly the fittest climber in the world, specializes in overhangs that are almost parallel to the ground and routes that climb a few hundred feet out 30 to 45 degree overhangs.

One of Graham’s most recent feats was pushing sport climbing to the limit by, after only 20 attempts in six days, climbing Action Directe a 5.14d (Fioravanti, 35). Only three other men in the world have climbed this route, all of which spent months training for it. Graham, on the other hand, just went and cranked it out in, what compared to the others, might as well have been his first try. In the afternoon following his first ascent of Action Directe he proceeded to climb Downset 5.14b, one of only five climbs in the world that are rated that tough (Fioravanti, 35).

Graham can be considered a renaissance man of sorts because he is one of the premier boulderers in the world as well. In the summer of 2001 Graham also managed to put up many of the United States toughest bouldering problems. All of his problems created in Chaos Canyon, in the Colorado Rockies, were rated above V12 (Visser, 31). If all of this is not impressive enough he is also one of America’s young guns. He, at the age of 18 puts up some of America’s hardest problems and routes that are often not repeated for years.

Another of America’s young guns is Chris Sharma. Sharma is one of the many young people that forgo all of the gear and concentrate almost exclusively on bouldering. Sharma feels that the bouldering he does is a more spiritual kind of journey. He likes it to be just him and the rock.

Sharma is quickly surpassing the professional bouldering field. In a competition last April in Phoenix, he more than doubled the score of the second place climber (Fraser). Sharma first won the Bouldering Nationals in Phoenix at the age of 14 (Fraser) launching him into the climbing scene. Ever since, Sharma has been repeating all of the world’s hardest problems. Sharma’s most famous problem is Mandala. Mandala is on a piece of rock in Bishop, California that has for over twenty years been deemed impossible to scale by the climbing community. Sharma, however, was the first to prove them wrong.

Sharma’s most important advance in the world of climbing was his accomplishing the world’s first ever 5.15 route (Master, 12). This route has not yet been repeated and it is currently the toughest climb anywhere in the world. The route, Biographique, is in France where the rock is peculiar and characterized by small-pocketed limestone leaving most of the holds one or two-digit sized so the finger can be inserted only. This type of route creates large strains on the fingers and demands a superb climber.

These three men have been and will always be known as men who advanced the sport of rock climbing. From creating tougher routes to making technological and stylistic advances their contributions to the sport will have a long lasting effect. Even if someone goes on to set harder routes, Graham and Sharma will always be known as the men who progressed climbing at the turn of the century. And Gill will be known for popularizing the sport of bouldering and bringing it to the popularity it has today.

Works Cited

Ament, Pat. John Gill Master Of Rock. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1998.

Benningfield, Phillip. Colorado Bouldering. Boulder: Sharp End Publishing, 1999.

Fioravanti, Roberto. “Action Man, Graham ticks Frankenjura.” Climbing 15 Sept. 2001: 35.

Fraser, Christa. “Rock Star.”

Sherman, John. Better Bouldering. Helena: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 1997.

Beta, Master. “Master Beta.” Climbing 15 Dec 2001:12.

Visser, Jorge. “Rocky Mountain Chaos.” Climbing 15 Dec. 2001: 31.

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