The planet’s highest-graded climbing routes are defined by everything from their difficulty to their remoteness, but what distinguishes a tough test from an impossible feat? From the most gruelling big wall project to the crimpiest of bouldering problems, here are 6 of the most challenging ascents in the world:
In January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed what is considered to be the world’s toughest multi-pitch free climb in a total of 19 days: 3,000ft of sharp, vertical granite on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, with seven 5.14 grade pitches along its 32-pitch route. It’s almost the equivalent of climbing The Shard three times over. There are roughly 100 ways to scale the face of El Capitan, but only 13 of those have been free climbed. Caldwell is also the first to complete two El Cap free climbs, The Nose and Freerider, in under 24 hours.
MULTI-PITCH CLIMBING: These routes are too high to ascend with a single rope, so one or more belay stations are needed to reach the top. The climbing sections between each belay station are called ‘pitches’.
Located under Canyonlands’ White Rim, Century Crack is the planet’s hardest offwidth (wide crack) climb, a 160-foot fissure ranked with a 5.14b grade. Brits Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall, known as the Wide Boyz, made the first gruelling ascent in 2011, having previously completed the 5.14a-rated Cobra Crack.
CRACK CLIMBING: Climbers work their way up rock faces by using cracks, which can be just narrow enough to fit fingers inside, to wide enough that fists and whole limbs can be used to ascend.
Norwegian for ‘The Wolf’s Tooth’, Ulvetanna (2,930m) is one of the planet’s toughest peaks, not just for its demanding climbing, but also due to its remote location in the unforgiving Antarctic, more than 200 miles from civilisation. Brit Leo Houlding led the first ascent of Ulvetanna via its tricky, mile-long north-east ridge in January 2013, all while braving 35 days of 50mph winds, temperatures plummeting to as low as -35°C and a three-day storm, just for good measure.
TRAD CLMBING: Climbers, with the belayer holding the other end of the rope below, secure protective gear (like anchors or bolts) as they ascend a route and remove them again on the descent.
Since Chris Sharma’s first ascent in April 2015, ‘El Bon Combat’ (only a 40-minute drive from Barcelona) has been hailed as one of Planet Earth’s most challenging sports climbs. Graded at 5.15b/c, the route offers 25 vertical metres of pure crimping on a mixture of sandstone and conglomerate, meaning that perfect technique and colder conditions are both necessary to complete this technically torturous ascent.