Climb of the Century? 7 Groundbreaking Ascents (Besides the Dawn Wall)

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2/2/15 - As the media frenzy swelled through January, both climbing and mass-market writers called the Dawn Wall the “climb of the century.” There’s no doubt Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s 19-day, 5.14+ free climb of El Cap’s southeast face was a monumental, historic ascent. But climbing is a complex, subdivided sport, and comparing ascents of different styles is tricky business. It gets even trickier when you compare across generations—how do you gauge today's best ascents against those using hemp ropes, pitons, or straight-shafted ice axes?

Ueli Steck acclimatizing before his solo new route on Annapurna. Photo courtesy of Uelisteck.ch.

Ueli Steck acclimatizing before his solo new route on Annapurna. Photo courtesy of Uelisteck.ch.

Assuming the pundits were really talking about the 21st century, are there other climbs that compare with the Dawn Wall's impact, within their own disciplines of climbing? Consider these seven ascents since 2000 that historians undoubtedly will note as groundbreaking. As you ponder this list, maybe the Dawn Wall will still rise to the top. But the 21st century is only 14 percent over—who knows what the next 86 years will bring!

Mountaineering: Ueli Steck’s solo first ascent of an 8,000-foot route on the south face of Annapurna in October 2013. Steck soloed the route—with crux ice climbing above 7,000 meters—and then downclimbed and rappelled the same line for a 28-hour round trip.

Crack Climbing: Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker’s first ascent of Century Crack, a 100-foot offwidth roof in Utah. The Brits trained specifically for offwidths for two years, then systematically repeated nearly all the hardest wide cracks in the U.S. before deciding Century Crack merited a 5.14b rating—by far the highest grade ever given to an offwidth.

Sport Climbing: La Dura Dura (9b+/5.15c). It wasn’t the world’s first 5.15c—Adam Ondra reached that milestone with Change in Norway—but this one is the hardest, and it took several years and many trips to Oliana, Spain, before Ondra and Chris Sharma both sent in 2013.

Ice Climbing: Spray On, Tim Emmett and Will Gadd’s visionary WI 10 route on the massive wall of overhanging “spray ice” behind Helmcken Falls in Canada. Gadd has since climbed a multi-pitch route to the top of the cave, and late last month he used the techniques he'd perfected at Helmcken to climb the spray ice beside Niagara Falls in New York.

David Lama free-climbing Cerro Torre's southeast ridge. Photo by Lincoln Else / Red Bull.

David Lama free-climbing Cerro Torre's southeast ridge. Photo by Lincoln Else / Red Bull.

Free Solo: Alex Honnold’s free-solo ascent of the 23-pitch, 5.12 Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in 2008. He has free-soloed harder long routes—Moonlight Buttress, El Sendero Luminoso—but none was more tenuous or awe-inspiring—and no other coined a verb: “Honnolding.”

Alpine: The fair means (no power-drilled protection bolts) and all-free ascents of Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge, by Hayden Kennedy/Jason Kruk and David Lama, respectively. These back-to-back ascents in early 2012 forever erased Cesare Maestri’s stranglehold on the Patagonian needle and restored the southeast ridge into one of the toughest alpine routes in the world.

Boulder: Dreamtime and The Story of Two Worlds in Cresciano, Switzerland. In 2000, Fred Nicole gave the world its first 8c (V15) boulder with Dreamtime—arguably the first internationally famous boulder problem since Midnight Lightning. The Story of Two Worlds (Dave Graham, 2005), on the same boulder, became the new standard for V15 after Dreamtime was broken and downgraded. And, yes, we’re aware that 2000 actually was the final year of the 20th century.