Sometimes reading the route and committing the sequences to memory aren’t enough. Sometimes you need a full-on book to help you send… or at least that’s how it went for the Belgian climber Simon Lorenzi on the first ascent of The Big Island Assis (“Assis” means “sit,” for the non-Francophones), what is being called one of the hardest boulder problems in the world, possibly the second (or third, depending on consensus grades) V17 in the world. The first V17 in the world was Nalle Hukkataival’s Burden of Dreams.
“The first part is reachy so I was lucky to have a good ape index and a book in my kneepad to make my leg taller,” Lorenzi—who turned 24 years old today!—told Rock and Ice in an exclusive interview about his new low start to the classic Dave Graham problem The Island, originally established as a V15, but the consensus for which has settled at V14. The sandstone boulder is in Fontainebleau, France.
The sit-start to The Big Island—itself a low start to Graham’s original bloc, that adds in just two moves, and was established in 2010 by Vincent Pochon at 8C (V15)—has been a well-known open project of near mythical proportions for years. Some of the best in the game have tested their mettle against the technical slopers, crimps and compression moves with nothing to show for it. Jimmy Webb and Jan Hojer each tried the project at one time.
It was the “biggest project in ‘Bleau, practically,” Chris Schulte, himself a past ascentionist of The Big Island, told Rock and Ice.
According to Lorenzi, the new low start by itself, to say nothing of The Big Island, clocks in at hard 8B (V13).
“It’s weird, because if there are good conditions and you feel comfortable with the kneebars, it can feel not so hard,” he said. “But it is very condition dependent and when I tried it in 12-degree Celsius conditions [53 degrees Fahrenheit], the first part was way harder than the stand start. Overall, it felt harder for me than any of the other the 8Bs I’ve done.”
And he’s done his fair share of 8Bs. Climbing since the age of 2—his father, a lifelong climber himself, got little Simon on the rock as soon as he could, though nearly turned the youngster off for life: “I peed on my self when my father put me for the first time on a climbing wall—bad first experience!”Lorenzi said—Lorenzi has plenty of classic and hard routes padding his resume. His first 9a (5.14d) was Action Directe, in the Frankenjura, Germany. His first 8C (V15) was Dreamtime, in Cresciano, Switzerland. One of his proudest ascents to date was his flash of L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’Être (8B/V13) last year in Fontainebleau.
Lorenzi first tickled the holds of The Big Island in October 2020, and sent it in just two sessions, topping it out on the fourth try during his second day.
“The problem really fit my style,” Lorenzi said. “With my height, it’s pure power and core tension. I’m also really good on short resistance problems, which is helpful on this kind of problem.”
(Of note, Lorenzi said that he doesn’t feel there is any difference between the difficulty of The Island and The Big Island. He thinks they are both 8B+ (V14), give or take depending on one’s style and height.)
On the day he sent the The Big Island, Lorenzi looked at the fiendish low start but didn’t try it, instead opting to rack up some more V-points by climbing two other 8A+’s (V12) and an 8B (V13).
“But the sit start was already in my mind,” he said.
He thought to himself, It looks beautiful! But really hard and tricky. Having sent the stand start as quick as he did, he knew the sit-start should be his new project.
When he started working on it, his expectations proved true. It was damn hard and damn tricky. At 5-feet-6-inches tall, Lorenzi knew he’d need to sort out a different sequence than what others had tried on the sit start in the past.
“For the crux section instead of going with my right hand really far out to the sloper off a right heel hook, I get a left heel hook close to my left hand and then I cross left hand to the same sloper as the other method,” he explained. “After that I match with my right hand so that I can go with my left hand into the last crimp, where I’m back in the same position as the other method. I think my method is more powerful but less reachy, and requires good heel hooking abilities and technique.”
Though he made good progress from the outset, each time Lorenzi thought he had figured out some critical piece of the puzzle, he realized it presented it’s own new set of problems; micro-adjustments in beta that, like a pebble in a pond, set off ripples that affected every other piece of beta, from body-positioning to shoe rubber.
For example, when he switched to stiffer shoes, which he thought would help during the sit-start, the end became noticeably harder.
The breakthrough happened not sitting on the pads beneath the boulder but at 2:00 am one night, when Lorenzi was wide awake because the boulder wouldn’t let his mind rest.
“I came up with an idea,” he said. “The heel hook and toe hook rubber of the soft shoes was way more appropriate for the end, so finally I took it off and stuck it on my stiffer shoes. The Big Island Sit Start-shoe was born!”
Soon he was getting to the very end of The Big Island from the sit-start—painfully close. This was ten days ago.
A week of bad weather followed, allowing him to rest his strained psoas muscle—likely from the extreme heel-hooking demanded by his beta—and refine his beta that tiny bit more that he’d need to finish off the king line.
When he came back, he was fresh and focused. Finally, on session number 25 or thereabouts (he’s not certain how many times he climbed on the boulder), Lorenzi did the first ascent of The Big Island Sit.
“I’m so happy!” he told Rock and Ice. Not only was it the perfect challenge difficulty-wise for him, but the “cherry on the cake is that it was the first ascent of one of the most famous lines in the world. … I almost cried on the top!”
And the grade?
“That’s the big question!” he said. “It looks harder than other 8C+ (V16) boulders, and we don’t have V17 in this style to compare. Personally, I think it is something in between. But is it hard V16? V16/V17? V17? I don’t have the exact answer, but it seems that most of the guys who tried it are thinking it’s on the V17 side of things. The future will tell!”
Dave Graham on the first ascent of The Island
Vincent Pochon on the first ascent of The Big Island