The 10 Best Sport Climbs of 2021

The best sport climbs usually result from calculative dedication. A peak-performance send may require months of gym sessions, attentive dieting, beta memorization, and so on. Top-end sport climbing is, mainly, a grind. It’s a consistent performance optimization, borne out along a timeline. Sometimes organized with a spreadsheet. 

There are plenty of lame things about performance sport climbing. I know someone who refuses to walk up and down stairs because they believe that they will not send as hard if their leg muscles grow. 

Hard climbing can be a dark place.

When we watch a rock climber tick an ascent at the limit of their capabilities, we see the moment when the door cracks open. 

laura rogora erebor

Laura Rogora on “Erebor,” 9b/+ or 5.15b/c. Photo: Overchalked

 

That’s the cool thing about performance sport climbing: it’s not about doing the best climb. It’s about doing the most impossible climb. Pushing the envelope is the ethic; transforming the impossible into reality is the outcome.

That’s why the grading system is open-ended. It’s also why many don’t care about the grading system. As world-class boulderer Alex Puccio says, “The boulderer cares about only one thing: solving more difficult boulder problems.”

Similarly, sport climbing’s only utility is to make more room inside the enclosure of the possible. To make the walls buckle and, ultimately, crumble. We don’t all have to climb 9c/5.15d, and we won’t. But each individual is free to push the limits. 

Of course, finding the appropriate challenge and meeting it can be difficult. 

Each climber on this list rose to the occasion and punched their hole in the wall of the impossible. A young woman established a new benchmark for female climbers worldwide. A legendary veteran contended with a route he thought would never see an ascent. Still another established his most challenging route after his career seemed over.

(Or maybe they just trained hard, didn’t drink, got good sleep, and climbed pretty well that day.) 

Here are ExplorersWeb’s 10 best sport climbs of 2021.

#10: ‘The non-hold is a hold’

Adam Ondra, Molekuly (9a+/5.15a), Morevsky Kras, Czech Republic

By now, news of Adam Ondra climbing 9a+/5.15a travels like a train in the night; no one registers it, and it proceeds toward its inextricable destination.

But at this point, sport climbing would seem empty without the wiry, screaming Czech. And Molekuly, even by Ondra’s admission, is a singular piece of stone. The brief, bizarre affair was Ondra’s 44th 5.15a and 68th overall 5.15 redpoint. To put that in context, the next climber on the 8a.nu leaderboard, Stefano Ghisolfi, has 24. Ondra is, definitively, the best rock climber in the world.

Somehow, Molekuly took him 12 years to send.

Ondra tried it intermittently over the 12 years, “only to find I had no idea how to climb this thing and doubted whether it could ever be climbed,” he said via Instagram.

Granted, he figures that he only tried it four times. But putting it together required a feat that would register as magic to most climbers. On the crux hold, a “crazy pinch”, he reported that he “found a few molecules” as a result of “believing that the non-hold was a hold.”

Watch the send video and reflect that Ondra is holding onto non-entities while he executes the crux contortions. Then tell me a ho-hum 9a+/5.15a by Adam Ondra doesn’t belong on this list.

#9: ‘Soon I was able to find the right flow’

Miho Nonaka, Mr. Hyde (8c+/5.14c), Ceuse, France

Performance climbing is a game of millimetres and incremental gains. At the start of a project that accurately represents a climber’s physical limit, they usually can’t pull onto the crux holds.

Fast forward days or weeks, and they’re usually pulling into the various positions or making links between segments. Throughout that entire period, the possibility of finishing the route is so remote that the climber’s not even trying it.

Finally, weeks, months, or even years in, the climber starts trying to put the whole route together. If it’s a sport route, a top climber usually adds one letter grade to their hardest redpoint; the journey from 7c+/5.13a to 8a/5.13b can take months.

For accomplished competition climber Miho Nonaka, the grade jump was not gradual. Fresh off a silver medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she headed to Ceuse, France. Her previous highest redpoint? 7c+/5.13a. One day after arriving in Ceuse? 8c+/5.14c.

 

Where it looked like Nonaka had torn across the sport climbing universe at light speed, she had traveled through it via a wormhole. She was 24 when she clipped the chains on the bouldery Mr. Hyde. The last time she had redpointed outdoors, she was 13.

After the trip, Nonaka disappeared right back into the gym, leaving us to wonder what she’ll do next time she comes out.

#8: ‘Not a fan’ of calling it a first female ascent

Paige Claassen and Michaela Kiersch, Dreamcatcher (9a/5.14d), Squamish, B.C.

Chris Sharma and Sonnie Trotter’s Dreamcatcher is aptly named. In its 15-year existence, the wild line in Squamish, British Columbia has captivated many and, perhaps, smothered the efforts of even more. When Paige Claassen became the first person to send it who happened to be female in September, she called it precisely that.

best sport climbs: paige claassen dreamcatcher

Photo: Eddie Bauer

 

“I’m not a fan of the title, ‘first female ascent,'” she told Climbing at the time. “Ascents of burly, powerful lines by women aren’t rare. Women are very capable of climbing this style, and they regularly do. I’m proud of my ascent not because it’s an impressive ascent for a woman, but because it’s a special line that I worked hard for.”

She and compadre Michaela Kiersch did work hard for the line — Claassen’s attempts spanned seven years, Kiersch’s three. After months of COVID-induced waiting, the two American climbers sensed they had a shot at the redpoint when the Canadian border opened.

Claassen sent first, employing a tactic of trying the route backward. She did it because Dreamcatcher is a massive crescendo; a techy V8 slab leads to a fatiguing campus rail. This rail ends at a burly boulder problem. Claassen engineered her work sessions toward energy conservation — dialing the boulder problem first meant that she didn’t waste the strength she would need for it on the rail.

Her work paid off on September 2. Then, four days later, Kiersch followed suit.

 

The two became the eighth and ninth climbers, male or female, to clip the route’s coveted chains.

#7: ‘Is this a dream?’

Bayes Wilder, Southern Smoke (8c+/5.14c), Red River Gorge, U.S.

Ten-year-old Bayes Wilder may look weightless on the Red River Gorge classic Southern Smoke, but I guarantee that he doesn’t feel weightless. Watch him fight the steep rig all the way up in the YouTube video (soundtrack volume adjusted to your preference). He repeatedly overcomes his height disadvantage, barely hitting holds at the limit of his reach. At 1:30 or about ⅓ height, he executes a heinous balance bump crux.

Wilder is formidable but not what you’d call machine-like. Many top-end sport climbing videos register as elegantly calculated math problems with binary outcomes; the climber proceeds through the moves and either comes off or doesn’t. On the other hand, Wilder fights to stay on with everything he’s got. He thrutches and punches, straining to hold barn doors while standing on tiptoe. Both feet peel off at the crux throw. Still, Wilder hangs on.

It’s a hell of a performance. And, it turns out, this might be the only time someone under 11 years old has climbed 8c+/5.14c or harder. On his way to his first 8b+/5.14 redpoint, Wild Iris’ Rodeo Free Europe, Wilder excitedly asked, “Is this a dream?

Nope, this is reality.

Note: the featured video is stitched together from various attempts. Curmudgeons should refer to the uncut send footage.

#6: ‘You need everything to line up’

Will Bosi, Mutation (9a+/5.15a), Raven Tor, U.K.

When Will Bosi got to Raven Tor, England’s most famous sport crag, nobody had done the hardest route at the cliff since before he was born. After he had finished, it was one letter harder than when he started.

Mutation is arguably local crusher Steve McClure’s most famous 1990’s test piece. The climbing at Raven Tor is wildly bouldery. The holds and body positions on Mutation are desperate at best. McClure’s ’90s-tastic send video is worth a watch for (grainy) close-ups of the holds and good old-fashioned Brit psych.

 

Bosi has characterized the Tor as “savage.” He nearly laughed when describing the crux holds to UKClimbing. He knew the holds well — in total, his efforts on Mutation spanned 40 days over four years. But in November, he finally finished it, claiming its first repeat and becoming the only person to climb it since McClure in 1998.

 

Interestingly, Bosi also upgraded the route. McClure originally graded it 9a/5.14d. Many wondered whether Bosi would give Mutation 9b/5.15b. That would make it (retroactively) the world’s first of the grade — by nearly a decade. He settled the debate with comments to Planet Mountain:

“So Mutation is the first 9b in the world? Perhaps, time will tell with other repetitions, but I think for now I will opt for the 9a+,” Bosi said.

Note: A week later, he finished Raven Tor’s last open project, Brandenburg Gate. Grade: 9a+/5.15a.

#5: ‘Well, damn’

Joe Kinder, Kinder Cakes (9a+/5.15a), Rifle, U.S.

It had been a while since we’d heard from Joe Kinder. Starting in the late 1990s, he methodically built a reputation as one of America’s most psyched sport climbers and became famous for his work ethic while conquering the world’s best sport climbs.

In 2021, he flashed back on the scene with his hardest first ascent ever, after internet cancellation had dogged him for several years. The story of Kinder’s mistakes, for which he apologized but which gravely damaged his reputation anyway, is well-documented. After years in the spotlight at the top of the sport, anonymity suddenly overtook the East Coast native.

During his public hiatus, few, if any, outside his inner circle knew that he kept working at his craft. On September 30, his work paid off with the hardest first ascent of his prolific career. Kinder Cakes, 9a+/5.15a, was the first 5.15 at Rifle Mountain Park, a United States crucible of hard sport climbing.

 

Kinder spotted a direct line in an often-overlooked area, a grim cave with a steep roof called the Skull Cave. A year after he bolted it, he clipped the chains. Kinder filed it along with his 200 other redpoints graded 5.14 or harder and kept working. We last saw him working routes at the jaw-dropping Hurricave, just outside St. George, Utah.

#4: ‘Four days were not enough to do all the routes’

Janja Garnbret, Fish Eye (8c/5.14b), Oliana, Spain

Slovenian Janja Garnbret‘s career precedes her. At just 22, she’s won enough hardware to support the argument that she’s the best competition climber ever.

In 2021, she also established herself — twice in one week — as the best female onsight climber globally. On November 5, Garnbret onsighted Fish Eye (8c/5.14b) a massive 50m endurance climb in Oliana, Spain.

 

Then she showed up the next day and did it again, this time on American Hustle (same grade, just down the cliff from Fish Eye).

Before Garnbret, the female onsight record had stood since 2006. Josune Bereziartu set the bar at 8b+/5.14a that year. Others followed — Sasha DiGiulian did it in 2011, Laura Rogora in 2020.

Garnbret’s onsights cement her status as one of the best climbers of her generation, male or female. She came into the Oliana trip with 31 IFSC Climbing World Cup gold medals and an Olympic Gold. Her hardest redpoints are Seleccio Natural and La Fabela pa la Enmienda, both 8c+/5.14c.

On social media, Garnbret called Fish Eye her “first 8c onsight.” That was before American Hustle. We’d look for more of the same.

#3: ‘My favorite hold on the route: the sloppy pinch’

Stefano Ghisolfi, Bibliographie (9b+/c or 5.15c/d), Ceuse, France

During a high-profile year that yielded multiple strong ascents, Stefano Ghisolfi downgraded one of the world’s two 9c/5.15d routes. He worked on Alex Megos’ Bibliographie for three months before redpointing it in April. Then he downgraded it to 9b+/5.15c.

Ghisolfi seemed to realize he’d get asked why a lot. So he explained his rationale thoroughly and released a one-of-a-kind video designed to show the character of holds on the world’s hardest and best sport climbs.

It’s worth a (thorough) watch. You think it gets fun at 4:25 or so when Ghisolfi takes an absurd down-facing pockmark he calls a “two-finger pocket.” Then he briefly holds something at about 6:09 that looks like a straight razor. But you haven’t lived until you’ve seen what he calls the “second crux,” starting at 7:45. When he shows you the footwork, it makes even less sense. Then he hits either the “slopey pinch” or the “sloppy pinch” (hard to tell which due to his accent, either one works). It’s like a fingertip bowling ball on rock that overhangs about 20°.

Ghisolfi calls it his “favorite hold of the route”. An eight-metre runout to the chains awaits. 9b+/5.15c. There are the rest of us, and then there is Stefano Ghisolfi.

#2: ‘Sharma for a day!’

Will Bosi, King Capella (9b+/5.15c), Siurana, Spain

Who else but Will Bosi would tag 2021’s hardest first ascent? Bosi thinks King Capella, originally bolted by David Brasco, is just that. The route awaits the first repeat, so the grade remains unconfirmed. However, corroborating Bosi’s ridiculous 2021 tick list with his comments about the route adds credence to his assessment.

King Capella is short but viciously intense. Boulder problems stack on top of boulder problems as the route steepens on sharp Siurana stone. In the middle, several very long moves on tiny, exacting holds constitute the crux.

“With powerful moves that don’t let up and having big all points off moves, King Capella was like I got to be Chris Sharma for a day,” Bosi told Gripped. “It was amazing!”

The route’s textural similarity to the rest of the cliff helped Bosi put its difficulty in context. He said it “has the same style of the area with a series of boulder problems stacked on top of one another; however, this route was another level for me. For comparison, it took me three sessions to complete La Capella [9b], whereas it took me three sessions to unlock the first sequence on King Capella.”

In March, while the young Scot was in Siurana, he amassed a jaw-dropping tick list. La Capella, La Furia de Jabali 9b/5.15b (first ascent, bolted by Beto Rocasolano), Last Night 9a/5.14d (first ascent, bolted by Dani Andrada), First Ley 9a+/5.15a, Ley Indignata 9a+/5.15a (third ascent), and Estado Critico 9a/5.14d all went down.

Unless Chris Sharma finishes his mystery project before the end of the year — and the route ends up being one of his hardest all-time climbs — King Capella will be 2021’s hardest first ascent. Regardless, Will Bosi will be 2021’s best sport climber.

#1: ‘I used very different sequences’

Laura Rogora, Erebor (9b/+ or 5.15b/c), Arco, Italy

How Laura Rogora rests so much on 45° overhanging limestone is beyond me. Even if you have a bucket handle to shake out on, you have to be in pristine climbing shape to get anything back on a wall that steep. In short: Laura Rogora is in pristine climbing shape.

When Rogora clipped the chains on Erebor in early October, she claimed the world’s hardest female redpoint. Getting there required strategy, patience, and athletic style balanced equally between flexibility and explosive power.

Don’t take it from me; watch the uncut send footage by Mellow and see it for yourself.

The video is pleasingly raw. Onlookers rarely talk, there’s no music, and the camera stays locked on Rogora as she pulls the cliff down. The sequences she chooses (vastly different from first ascensionist Stefano Ghisolfi’s beta) appear complex and calculated. She regularly throws feet above shoulder level. And she bites down on numerous open-hand slopers near the limit of her reach.

Rogora hangs tough and calm, climbing silently. As she clips the chains, it’s clear she’s been bottling it in. Don’t get in Laura Rogora’s way unless you want to get summarily dismissed.

10 best sport climbs - Laura Rogora

Photo: Marco Iacono

On that note, Adam Ondra downgraded Erebor shortly after Rogora’s repeat. If subsequent climbers confirm his 9b/5.15b grade, Rogora’s hardest-female-redpoint mantle will vanish. By now, there’s plenty of reason to trust Ondra’s judgment about 5.15 difficulty. And he stated that Rogora would demolish her benchmark.

“The fact that Laura did Erebor is one of the most impressive feats in climbing ever, but my suggestion is just my honest opinion and not a way to put down her achievement,” he told Planet Mountain. “Not talking about the fact she can definitely climb harder than that.”

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments