Last updated: Table data updated February 4, 2020. Analysis below the table last updated February 4, 2019.
If you notice any omissions, broken links, or other errors, leave a comment below letting us know.
Table is updated semi-regularly, while data and analysis was last updated on the date above.
Gone are the days when climbing a 5.15 was truly rare. By our count, there have now been more than 300 ascents of 5.15 climbs.
2018 was a banner year for hard sport climbing. Although none have equaled Adam Ondra’s 2017 ascent of Silence, 2018 saw 51 new 5.15 ascents, of which 21 were FAs. Ondra continued to dominate—in addition to putting up 8 of those 21 routes, he snagged the first ever 5.15 flash.
But the ranks are beginning to grow. 81 different climbers have now claimed at least one 5.15 ascent. Stefano Ghisolfi became the fourth climber in history to climb 5.15c (after Ondra, Chris Sharma and Alex Megos). All these achievements come on the heels of historic ascents from Margo Hayes, Anak Verhoeven, and Angy Eiter in 2017.
To help keep track of it all, this article includes a running list of the hardest sport climbing routes in existence. To keep things simple, I cut the grade off at 5.15a (9a+) and above.
Below the table you can find specific list criteria, assumptions made and further analysis.
The Hardest Sport Climbs in the World
[The following analysis has not been updated to reflect the updated table data.]
• Climbs had to be graded 5.15a (9a+) or higher. Adding 5.14d (9a) climbs would have made this list horrifically long. If routes were given the slash grade of 5.14d/5.15a (9a/+), I did not include them.
• For climbs where there was disagreement about the grade (of which there were surprisingly few), I averaged the grade suggestions. Surprisingly, there weren’t any cases that I found where there was much controversy or discrepancy over grade. Where climbs have been repeated, climbers by and large tend to agree on the grade. The biggest discrepancy comes on El Bon Combat, for which Chris Sharma proposed 5.15b/5.15c (9b/9b+) but Jakob Schubert suggested 5.15a (9a+).
• I included all claimed ascents. Some of these (see notes below) have since been called into question. These are rare cases, and generally climbers tend to be an honest bunch about FAs (let’s not talk about Cerro Torre). It’s much more likely that some of the proposed grades will shift. Most of these routes haven’t been repeated, and downgrading/upgrading is still relatively common at the upper edge of the sport. Where there is only one ascent, I included the climb at the grade proposed by the first ascentionist.
Notes on Specific Climbs, Climbers, & Ascents
• Fred Rouhling has drawn more than his fair share of controversy. A scapegoat for chipping tactics in the 1990s, he drew an especially large barrage of flak when he proposed the unheard-of grade 9b for Akira in 1995. Other top climbers have leveled all sorts of accusations, claiming that he never actually climbed it or that he filled in pockets with glue later on. Pete Ward of Climbing magazine went to meet Rouhling to set the record straight, and the results were a bit of a surprise. You can make up your own mind about Rouhling’s ascents and track record, but it remains possible (likely?) that Akira was a climb far, far ahead of its time.
• Chilam Balam is the other controversial ascent on this list. At first, Bernabé Fernández’s route drew criticism for many of the same reasons as Rouhling’s: Fernández did not have a track record of 5.15 ascents, and he was known for questionable practices on other climbs (most notably Orujo). Then Dani Andrada went to try the climb and reportedly saw very little evidence of rubber or travel, especially on the upper sections. It’s hard to say how much of this is verifiable or useful, and Fernández has been fairly open about his feelings on the climb and the grade. Chilam Balam was confirmed at (soft) 5.15b, though some still doubt that Fernández ever climbed it.
• Alex Huber is one of the most outspoken critics of both of the above ascentionists, which may or may not be related to the fact that he also owns a groundbreaking first ascent. Huber’s Open Air, originally proposed at 5.14d, was upgraded by none other than Adam Ondra himself. Conveniently for Huber, discrediting Rouhling’s Akira would make Open Air the world’s first 5.15 route. Regardless, Huber’s ascent was a groundbreaking moment for climbing, coming a full five years before the next 5.15 ascent (Sharma on Biographie).
• Pirmin Bertle rounds out our discussion of grading controversy. Yet another ascensionist to propose a controversial 5.15b, on Meiose, Bertle offered as justification only the fact that it took him longer to project the climb than a 5.15a would have. In February 2018, Ondra sent the route and did indeed suggest a downgrade to 5.15a. Bertle was not pleased. Though Ondra is probably the climber best-equipped to judge grades at this level, the climb sits at 5.15a/b in our table due to averaging. Not one to be discouraged, Bertle went right ahead and suggested 5.15b for La Barriere, a linkup in Jansegg.
• Alasha and Es Pontas are included in this list because of their physical similarity to sport climbs, but as deep water solos they are in many ways a category of their own. Consequently, Chris Sharma has been reluctant to grade either one. Based on his hints in various interviews (along with input from others who have made attempts, like Magnus Midtbø), it seems likely that both routes fall somewhere around the 9a+ mark in terms of physical difficulty. Jernej Kruder, the only climber to repeat either climb, agreed with Sharma that “this thing is so specific” and did not assign a grade.
• Tinipi, Daniel Woods’ epic-looking climb on Mont Kinabalu, is unique on this list as the only climb no longer in existence. Just weeks after Sachi Amma claimed the second ascent, a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit Malaysia and toppled the Donkey’s Ears formation. Sadly, this means that no one will ever attempt the route again.
The World’s Current Hardest Sport Climb?
Based solely on grade, the world’s hardest sport climb is currently Silence, 5.15d (9c).
This title was previously shared by Change, La Dura Dura, and Vasil Vasil— all of which are graded 5.15c (9b+), and all established by Adam Ondra. With his ascent of Silence, Ondra opened a new grade. Silence has yet to be repeated, but Ondra isn’t generally one to give soft grades.
Only one of Ondra’s 5.15c routes, La Dura Dura, has been repeated, which suggests that it might be a while before anyone manages to catch up to Ondra. The closest competitor may turn out to be Alex Megos, who marked a personal best in 2018 by sending longtime Chris Sharma project Perfecto Mundo. The ascent made him the third climber in history to climb 5.15c.
The Best Sport Climber in the World?
The numbers here don’t lie—Adam Ondra is far and away the best sport climber in the world. He has well more than twice the ascents and FAs of the next most prolific hardman (Chris Sharma, of course). He is the lone ascentionist on three of the world’s five hardest climbs, and many of his ascents took shockingly little time. In February 2018, Ondra made history by claiming the world’s first 5.15a flash on Saint Léger’s Super Crackinette.
Here are two graphs of the data in the above table corroborating this claim.
There is one major factor to commend Sharma, and it’s how far he was ahead of his time. A full 80% of Sharma’s 5.15 climbs were first ascents. He is rightfully renowned for putting up some of the most groundbreaking and excellent climbs of our generation—climbs like Biographie, Pachamama and Jumbo Love.
That’s not even to mention his mastery of that tricky medium, deep water soloing: Es Pontas and Alasha remain in a class of their own.
Still, it’s possible that one day we’ll be speaking about Change the way we now talk about Biographie. Adam Ondra is currently so far ahead of the curve that no one can actually confirm how classic or dificult his new climbs are. It’s hard to even keep up with all his ascents—for a complete list, you can check out his website here.
Margo Hayes, Anak Verhoeven and Angy Eiter also deserve a huge shoutout here for remarkable 2017s. Hayes went on a tear, completing two 5.15a’s, the second none other than Biographie. Verhoeven made history as the first woman to make an FA of a 5.15 with Sweet Neuf. Angy Eiter then one-upped both of them by becoming the first woman to climb a 5.15b when she repeated La Planta de Shiva. Frontiers are being pushed all over the place, and it’s exciting to imagine what’s yet to come.
It took a while for climbers to really break into 5.15s. There were a couple flares in the late 1990s and early 2000s (including some truly revolutionary ascents), but there wasn’t a consistent number of 5.15 ascents until the late aughts.
The two earliest first ascents of 5.15b routes (Akira and Chilam Balam) have been questioned. The next suggested route of the grade was Jumbo Love in 2008. Four years later in 2012, Ondra bagged the first 5.15c on Change, and then in 2017 we got the first 5.15d.
That’s actually a relatively consistent grade progression—if things continue as they have, we can expect to wait four to six years before seeing a 5.16a (9c+).
A few things stand out from the data. One is that grades tend to get pushed by a very select few. At the moment, it’s pretty much just Adam Ondra. It takes a while for more ascentionists to catch up. It took around a decade after Open Air for 5.15a ascents to become more common, and frequent 5.15b ascents didn’t start popping up until the 2010s. To date, we’ve still seen only six ascents of a 5.15c, and three were by Ondra.
On the other hand, at a level just below the tip-top, the sport seems to be accelerating. An unprecedented number of climbers ticked 5.15s in the last few years, many of them young and still learning.
Climbing itself is growing, so it makes sense for the number of top ascentionists to grow alongside. Training methods, accessibility and equipment are all improving. In the future we’ll see even more high-level ascents from an increasingly diverse group of climbers.
All the same, the fact that 5.15c and 5.15d ascents have remained elusive for all except two climbers is a testament to how difficult it is to push through these plateaus. Not only does it take exceptional athletes with exceptional drive, but it takes projects at just the right level, often in just the right style.
This is part of what makes iconic ascents—from Es Pontas to Silence—seem so revolutionary. Almost all top climbers want to be pushing the boundaries, but grade-wise only a handful ever do. It’s really, really hard to climb consistently at that level (I’m still halfway convinced that Ondra is an alien). Technology and growth will doubtless change the sport, but it seems likely that limits will continue to be broken inch by laborious inch, over long periods of time, by an extremely elite few.
My final note would be that it’s very hard to predict when ascents and grades will happen. It might take another decade for someone to repeat Silence or climb another 5.15d, or it might happen in the next few years. The rise of 5.15 ascents means that this is a very exciting time for climbing, and personally I’m excited to see what the next generation of wünderkinds have in store.
Plus, if his track record is any indication, Ondra will be putting up some crazy new project by next week.
Where in the World Are the Hardest Sport Climbs?
Mostly in Europe, it turns out. Nearly 90% of the world’s 5.15 climbs are in Europe. Of the remaining climbs, all but five are in Canada or the USA. Those five are in Chile, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia, but Tinipi no longer exists, leaving just four 5.15s outside of North America and Europe.
That’s both a testament to the insular nature of climbing and a bright look at the future. Imagine all the insanely difficult routes that will be put up around the world—as the sport continues to expand, it finds most of the globe unexplored.
Willis Kuelthau is the rare local who was actually born in Boulder, Colorado, and he has been climbing mountains since he was small. He appreciates all styles of climbing and enjoys skiing and running on the side. Favorite climbing spots include Rocky Mountain National Park, Wild Iris, and Tuolumne. He attended college in Massachusetts and currently resides in Portland, Maine. He loves cats, green tea, and endurance climbs. You can check out his adventures on his Instagram account.
99boulders.com is a website committed to bringing you unbiased, informative gear reviews for all things climbing, hiking and camping. Visit today to see what’s new.