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Jorg Verhoeven and Project 9b

The 33-year-old Dutch climber is gunning for 9b (5.15b) before his "sport climbing clock" runs out.

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Jorg Verhoeven climbs at an extremely high level across disciplines: he has sent hard Yosemite big wall climbs (the Nose (VI 5.14a), Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a)), bouldered V15 (The Wheel of Life in the Grampians, Australia), and in 2008 won the Lead World Cup. Now he’s trying to take his sport climbing (in which his hardest send to date is Pure Imagination, a 5.14c in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky) to that most elite of levels, too, with “Project 9b,” the goal of which is exactly what it sounds like. While a professional climber trying to reach a stratospheric grade is nothing new, Verhoeven is approaching the process in a more self-aware, deliberate way than the average sport climbing junky.

Verhoeven is coming up on 33 years old and, though climbers like Chris Sharma, Yuji Hirayama, Ben Moon and Steve McClure have proven that age is not a prerequisite for climbing ridiculously hard, starting the project now feels wise to him. He told Rock and Ice, “I’ve come to feel that my ‘sport climbing clock’ is ticking, and if I wanted to see where my limits are, I shouldn’t wait much longer. When last year I decided to get back from only bouldering to endurance, I knew the time had come to start the project. I picked 9b because five years ago, when I came up with the idea, this was a grade that seemed to represent the top of modern sport climbing and only a few people had reached that grade.”

Whereas a decade ago those who had sent 9a+ (5.15a) were the elite of the elite in sport climbing, today there are enough crushers out there that it’s not as rare (though it’s still mind-bogglingly difficult and impressive). With Adam Ondra having just completed the first 9a+ flash, but only he and Chris Sharma having climbed 9b+ (5.15c), 9b (5.15b) is the grade for those who want to be at the tippy top.

The first step in his scheme was project-shopping. Verhoeven said, “I’ve tried six routes so far, four in Spain, two in Italy. Fight or Flight [in Oliana, Spain] and First Round First Minute [in Magalef, Spain] both felt doable but hard.” The other routes he sampled were Stoking the Fire and Neanderthal in Santa Linya, Spain; Queen Line in Laghel, Italy; Lapsus in Andonno, Italy; and one 9b+ (5.15c), La Dura Dura, in Oliana.

Ultimately, he settled on Fight or Flight as the line for him. “It’s basically my dream route,” Verhoeven said.  “Natural, with very little sika.  You can climb fast, and it’s not super long, so you don’t spend an hour each try.”

Another shot of Verhoeven on Fight or Flight from his period of project shopping in 2017. Photo: Tobias Lanzanasto.

Verhoeven has been training specifically for Project 9b since November. While he found the endurance from his lead climbing days on the World Cup circuit slow to return, his motivation for a new type of project was high and he reported seeing “some big breakthroughs.”

While his “sport climbing clock” may indeed be ticking, he does feel that the wide array of climbing experiences he’s collected over the past decade will translate well to projecting hard bolted routes. Verhoeven said, “I actually feel that by doing those Yosemite routes I developed the project skills I needed to climb 9b: the patience, the sense for detail, the love for the process rather than the achievement itself. I didn’t have that before, that’s why I never spent more than a few days working on a route.” And while age might make him more injury-prone in the grand scheme of things, he feels that he knows much better “how to stay away from injuries” after the many ailments he’s dealt with in his career.

With the preparation, the fitness and the desire all in place, it’s finally time to put things to the test. Verhoeven arrived in Spain today, March 1, to see if he’s got what it takes.

“Confidence level on sending this March or April? I give myself 70-30 odds in favor,” Verhoeven said. “In perfect sending conditions 90-10.

“Psych is at 100 though!”

Also read Jorg Verhoeven – Dihedral Wall Interview