2003 Golden Piton Awards: Sport Climbing
Photo by Dario Rodriguez
Photo by Marco Kost
In 2002, Chris Sharma’s route Realization at Ceüse, France, became the first undisputed 5.15 — this despite the fact that Sharma declined to grade it. Still, with 9a climbers such as Dave Graham and Patxi Usobiaga trying hard and failing to repeat the climb, and testifying to its difficulty level, Realization has gained stature as the world’s first consensus 5.15a. So, depending on whom you believe and what you call a legitimate roped climb, one to three 5.15s had been completed by the end of 2002.
In 2003, two more 5.15s were claimed, along with two other new routes that eventually may settle at the grade. One was Asia’s first grade 9 route, Flat Mountain (9a/9a+?) at Fugatoyama, Japan. After first trying it 14 years ago, Yuji Hirayama finally climbed this project, taking more than 20 days, on his home crag, while his two previous 8c+/9a ascents took only four or five days each. Unfortunately, as judges, we are at a disadvantage here. Japan is virtually terra incognita for us, and though Hirayama and his countryman Dai Koyamada are undoubtedly among the world’s strongest climbers, Flat Mountain won’t get the full nod from the West until it gets some international attempts.
Almost as remote is Tommy Caldwell’s Flex Luthor at the Fortress of Solitude in western Colorado, done in early January. While he did not grade the route, Caldwell said it was “much harder” than any other sport climb he had done, including Kryptonite (5.14c/d) at the same cliff. But there’s room in the scale above Kryptonite before you hit 5.15, and, again, it will take some attempts or repeats to confirm the grade.
The most colorful contender was Bernabé Fernández, who climbed way out on a limb, once again, claiming 5.15c — two grades harder than Realization — for Chilam Bilam in Spain, a 270-foot rising cave traverse that required a special 90-meter rope. Fernandez has established routes that may have been Spain’s first 5.14b, 5.14c, 5.14d and 5.15a respectively, but the doctoring of difficulty with artificial holds and Fernandez’s lack of a track record outside his home region cast enough doubt on his effort that we’re unwilling to champion it, especially since he refused to humor the Spanish climbing press who wanted some proof of the astronomical rating claim. Compounding the international community’s doubt, Fernández has announced his “retirement” from hard climbing.
Claimed grades alone won’t earn a sport route any awards. The great prizes have purity of line, a history of attempts, and a good foundation on which to lay belief. The one 5.15a from 2003 that meets all criteria is the extension to La Rambla (8c+, 5.14c) at Siurana, Spain. Ramón “Ramonét” Julián Puigblanque completed La Rambla Direct in March, and his climb gets the 2003 Golden Piton for sport climbing.
La Rambla has loomed over aspirants at Siurana, one of Europe’s mega-crags, since Alex Huber climbed it in 1994. Like many hard sport climbs, including Biographie, the first part of Realization, La Rambla ends at an arbitrary anchor, with obvious hard climbing remaining above the chains. Many of Europe’s best have tried the extension, and Ramonét tried La Rambla nearly 50 times, starting in 2001. Top Spanish climber Daniel Andrada, who also nearly completed the extension, feels certain the combination is 5.15a.
Ramonét has been on fire on both rock and plastic during the last 12 months. The 22-year-old climber, who works five hours a day as an electrician and trains with a coach in the evenings, onsighted two 5.14a routes on the same day last year, and also climbed four 5.14b routes on his second try. He climbed three 5.14c routes in 2003 (including Biographie in a single day). And in World Cup competitions, Ramonét gave favorite Alex Chabot of France a run for his money, winning three World Cup comps and finishing second overall for the 2003 World Cup season. That’s what we call a track record.