On frozen Karakoram peaks, fierce alpine faces, and crags around the world, climbers killed it last year. Here, Climbing presents the 10th annual Golden Piton Awards for top performances in six disciplines. Thank you, athletes, for your inspiration!
Meru Shark’s Fin
Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk
The northeast face of Meru Central (6,310m/20,702’) in India had already been climbed several times, including Valery Babanov’s Piolet d’Or–winning solo first ascent of the mountain in 2001. But the big prize on the face remained: the 4,250-foot knife-edge of ice and granite known as the Shark’s Fin—a line so compelling that it had seen more than 20 attempts, starting in 1993. Conrad Anker first tried this route in 2003, with Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller, but soon discovered the reason it would be such a tough nut to crack: It stacks a super-steep big wall on top of an alpine face, and the combined cold, mixed climbing, and super-technical aid meant light-and-fast ascents were doomed to fail.
Anker returned in the fall of 2008 with Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, and during a 20-day round trip (with only 10 days of food and fuel), the trio pushed the route up the Shark’s Fin higher than anyone before. Partway up, a storm trapped them on their portaledge for five days, dumping more than six feet of snow and forcing them to go on half-rations. The three El Capitan veterans found sustained and difficult aid climbing on the upper prow, hooking and beaking on pitches that took five to six hours apiece to lead, in temperatures hovering around 0°F. Chin called it “modern A4.” Finally, on the 18th day, they topped the wall. But an overhanging gendarme blocked their way up the ridge about 500 feet below the peak, and they were too depleted to continue.
Many would have said “good enough,” and the American climbers fully expected another team to complete their route. But when the line was still unclimbed three years later, the trio decided to return last fall to finish what they’d started. Completing the route as a team was a “dream within a dream,” Anker said, especially since Ozturk had been severely injured in a skiing accident just six months earlier.
This time they were blessed with superb weather, and the climb went smoothly, though “we had to re-lead and earn every pitch,” Anker said. On October 2, the three locked arms on the summit, 11 days after leaving advanced base camp, a well-earned conclusion to a multi-year effort.
The Longhope Route Direct (E11/5.14a R/X)
St. John’s Head, Orkey, Scotland
St. John’s Head is Britain’s tallest rock face, a wild and windswept 1,150-foot sea cliff in the remote Orkney archipelago, off the northern tip of Scotland. It was first climbed in 1970 by Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill in a seven-day bigwall effort, creating a route that was by all measures the most adventurous in the U.K. up to that time—and probably still. No mere “aid men,” Drummond and Hill did much of the route free, with climbing up to 5.11, some of it very runout and loose. The team left almost no fixed gear on the route.
In 1997, the very strong team of John Arran and Dave Turnbull freed the route, with a variation, at E7 (5.13b R/X), but avoided most of the 115-degree- overhanging thin crack on the summit headwall. They also did the free climb in two stages, traversing off below the crux, and rappelling in later to finish.
Over three seasons beginning in 2009, Dave MacLeod, 33, well known for his extreme headpoint routes, made eight trips to St. John’s Head, determined to free the insanely exposed headwall seam. Finally, in late June of last year, supported by Andy Turner, MacLeod redpointed the entire 1,500- foot route (many pitches have significant traverses, adding to the route’s length) in a one-day push.
MacLeod suggests the crux headwall pitch, in isolation, is E10 on the British scale, comparable in difficulty and seriousness to all but the world’s very hardest headpoint routes. At a full 215 feet, overhanging, and with 5.14a climbing and long runouts on small, place-onthe- run nuts and cams, this pitch alone stands as one of the hardest all-natural leads in the world. Finishing with MacLeod’s difficult direct line through the summit overhangs on the remote, weather-battered sea cliff, it’s about as “out there” as climbing gets.
Doing the complete link, in Mac- Leod’s view, merits an E11 rating, the maximum given to any trad route done to date in the U.K. To maintain efficiency for his one-day ascent, MacLeod climbed the route in seven long pitches instead of the original 22, a tactic that required very long runners and huge runouts. Interviewed for a remarkable documentary film made by Paul Diffley, John Arran sums up the route thus: “It’s probably the biggest adventure you can have in Britain. It’s loose in places, solid in many others, it’s sandy, it’s grassy, it’s got birds all over it that vomit on you. It’s got everything you hate about climbing… but it’s fantastic.”
Check out 19-year-old Sasha DiGiulian’s 2011 résumé: In the past year she has become the first American woman to climb 9a (5.14d), has put three 5.14c’s under her belt, and has onsighted two 5.14a’s and four 5.13d’s. She also put time into international competitions, highlighted by an overall gold medal at the World Championships in Arco, Italy. (OK, she benefitted from a seven-way tie in the lead comp, but still.)
DiGiulian began climbing at age 7, entered her first competition at 9, and broke into the 5.13 grade at 11. Despite rigorous studies at the Potomac School near Washington, D.C., she has never struggled balancing school and climbing. “You just adapt when you have something you really want to pursue and have a passion for,” she explains. “I maximized every free minute I had to get homework done, so that I’d have more time to climb.” She plans to attend Columbia University in the fall of 2012 and attend the World Championships in Paris at the same time—“I’ll have to miss the first two weeks at Columbia because there’s no way I’ll miss the World Championships,” she says.
In March of last year, just before graduating high school, DiGiulian really began to up her game, redpointing Southern Smoke (5.14c) at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Yet she says she doesn’t focus on numbers when climbing. “I had never done a 5.14c,” she said, “but I just looked at it and thought the route looked really fun. There was no reason not to try it.” Five days later, she climbed Lucifer, another 5.14c at the Red, climbing both routes on her sixth attempt. Though DiGiulian was originally more known for comps, she had always been an avid outdoor climber. “People just started seeing that I was climbing outside more when I started doing harder routes,” she says.
Last summer, DiGiulian traveled to Spain, adding another 5.14c to her scorecard, after only four attempts. Less than two months later, she was back at the Red River Gorge for a week, where she cemented her place in sportclimbing history by dispatching Pure Imagination, becoming the first American female to climb the grade—and only the third woman of all time to climb 9a, after Spain’s Josune Bereziartu and Charlotte Durif of France. Knowing it was going to be her most challenging route yet, DiGiulian didn’t think it would go down so fast—six tries. “I kind of surprised myself,” she says. “It was very crimpy, and I like crimpers.”
As we said, climbers were killing it in 2011. Here are 15 more, across all six Golden Piton categories, whose performances earned our deepest respect.
Voie du Milieu (5.14b) by Daniel Dulac: even taller, almost as hard and sustained, but not quite so steep as Dani Andrada’s route on the Getu Valley limestone arches in China. And back on planet Earth: Adam Ondra, for a 5.15 first ascent and a 5.14c onsight—in the same day—and for doing the notorious Chilam Balam (5.15b); and Chris Sharma, for climbing two 5.15s in a day.
Jean-Pierre Ouellet, for Necronomicon (5.14a), a 90- foot fist-to-finger roof crack, along Canyonlands’ White Rim in Utah.
Ammon McNeely and Kait Barber , for the second ascent of Wings of Steel on the left side of El Capitan, 29 years after Richard Jensen and Mark Smith climbed the route and endured a notorious bout of scorn and vandalism from Valley xenophobes. McNeely confirmed the climb as perhaps El Cap’s hardest aid route.
Alpine speedster Ueli Steck, from Switzerland, for racing up the 6,500- foot south face of Shishapangma (8,013m/26,289’) in just 10.5 hours from advanced base camp; Americans Mark Richey, Steve Swenson, and Freddie Wilkinson, for the first ascent of the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world: Saser Kangri II (7,513m/24,649’), by the steep and beautiful south face.
Hansjörg Auer , for the first free ascent of Hallucinogen Wall, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado; Peter Kamitses, for the first ascent of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (5.14a), one of the hardest trad leads in the U.S.; and Arnaud Petit, for his all-gear headpoint of the 215-foot Black Bean (5.13d) at Ceuse—if you haven’t seen the video yet, check it out here.
Coloradan Joe Mills, for his second free ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall (5.13+ R, 16 pitches) in the Black Canyon. He’s also done big-wall routes like Free Rider (5.12d) and Golden Gate (5.13b), hard single pitches like China Doll (5.14 R), and has onsighted cracks up to 5.13. Also, Nik Berry from Utah, for his first free ascent of Lunar Ecstasy (5.13) in Zion National Park, and the first free ascent of Wonderwall (5.13c R) in Utah’s Lone Peak Cirque.