Who’s the best climber in the world right now?
We’ve been debating this question here at Rock and Ice
World Headquarters after a couple of lines in the last two issues [Nos. 214 and 215] prompted some reader backlash. The mag copy claimed that Adam Ondra and Sasha DiGiulian are the best male and female climbers of all time. Several readers wrote in taking exception with calling DiGiulian and Ondra the best because the authors of the letters felt like a distinction must be made between sport climbing and all the other disciplines. While Ondra and DiGiulian might be the best sport climbers of all time, they can’t be compared to someone like Ueli Steck or Ines Papert, for example, who are pushing the boundaries of alpinism, which, by the way—according to some letter writers—is way harder than sport.
This same argument took place last year after an article titled “Adam Ondra Does FA of World’s Hardest Route” appeared on rockandice.com. Several people penned comments best summed up by this post: “Climbing hard in the mountains is far more challenging than climbing hard sport routes.”
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editor Andrew Bisharat countered, writing: “There are plenty of examples of sport climbers transitioning from sport to alpine/trad/multi-pitch, and performing at a world-standard level. There are zero examples of it working the other way.”
This is undoubtedly true. Look at David Lama, for example. He started out as a standout world-cup sport climber and is now arguably the best all-around climber in the world. In fact, virtually all the best current alpine/trad performers have excelled at sport climbing and/or bouldering—but does that really mean that sport climbing is harder than alpine climbing? To put it another way, since alpine climbers can’t cross over to sport climbing as easily as sport climbers can cross to alpine climbing, does that mean sport climbers are better?
While sport climbers can certainly evolve into top-notch alpinists, if Adam Ondra or Chris Sharma were handed an ice axe right now and asked to solo the south face of Annapurna (as Ueli Steck did in October) they would probably just laugh.
I don’t think it’s that simple. While sport climbers can certainly evolve into top-notch alpinists, if Adam Ondra or Chris Sharma were handed an ice axe right now and asked to solo the south face of Annapurna (as Ueli Steck did in October) they would probably just laugh because they’d have about the same chance of surviving as Steck would have of redpointing La Dura Dura
. My point is that excelling at any climbing discipline requires an intense period of specialization.
Interestingly, sport climbing and bouldering require the least amount of acquired knowledge. All you really need to know in order to safely practice sport climbing is rope work. Alpinism, on the other hand, requires a huge amount of skills over and above the actual climbing. Camping in heinous conditions, cooking, layering, reading snow and ice, using tools like ice axes and crampons, etc. These are all skills that a world-class alpinist must dial in … or die.
I’m not interested in discussing the foggy concept of risk because the “commitment” of people like Ondra or DiGiulian comes in a different form. Great sport climbers are no less committed than great alpinists, but they are no more committed either. Take training, for example. While some sport climbers and boulderers spend hours in the gym, some of the very best of all time—like Chris Sharma and Fred Nicole—don’t really train. They just go climbing. Furthermore, though both these guys spent hours and hours on the rock, there is an undeniable genetic component at play. Most of us will never be able to climb 5.15 or V15 simply because we don’t have the genetic potential. Great sport climbers, on the other hand, are often gifted physiques that allow them to excel by simply practicing the art.
Modern, high-end alpine climbing is similarly dependent on genetic factors such as VO2 max and the ability to acclimatize, but the necessity to master a more diverse skill set makes alpine climbing less accessible and more elite. Alpinists like Steck can’t simply walk into the mountains and tie in for a few burns on their projects every other day. They have to cross-train like Olympic athletes and then go for it when conditions permit.
Alpine climbing is inherently harder to learn and more problematic to practice, but does that make alpine climbing more difficult than sport climbing? Or is the inverse true—sport climbing is harder because practically everyone can do it and therefore the bar of physical ability is set higher?
A quick confession: I personally don’t believe that one can say which discipline is harder because the distinction is impossible to prove, and ultimately, doesn’t matter. To me, a more interesting question is why do human beings always feel the need to rank themselves against one another? This tendency is innate and instinctual to the extent that even the most enlightened person in the world—someone like the Dalai Lama, for example—will enter a room, look around and take stock of his or her position in relation to other people in the room. You can easily observe this in yourself the next time you attend a meeting or gathering. There is a constant assessment going on at an unconscious level. Am I “above” or “below” this or that person? If you don’t think you do this, then you are simply unaware of the way your human mind and consciousness works. Human beings are all about status.
This tendency to rank oneself against others is the catalyst for much of the world’s greatest achievements and also the root cause of some of the worst societal ills. Rank is always defined by an arbitrary set of rules that must be bought into. Asking permission to enter a house is an example of an arbitrary rule that confers status and position. Similarly, a non-climber might think that the best climber is the one who falls the furthest, or climbs the fastest, or the one who makes the most money. It all depends on how you choose to measure success.
One of my favorite Zen stories is about a warrior who attempts to intimidate a master by saying, “I’m the man who can run a sword through you without blinking an eye.” The upshot is that this guy is in control, “above” the master. But the master replies, “I’m the man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye.”
Imagine living life in that way, where status simply doesn’t matter. You’d be free.
That’s why, to me, the best climber in the world is not the one climbing the hardest grades, or moving the fastest in the mountains, or the one with the most 8a.nu points or even the one having the most fun. There is no “best climber in the world.” Think about it.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments. Have a very happy holiday.