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9b+ in Spain?
On July 4, Bernabé Fernández claimed the first ascent of Chilam-Balam near Málaga, Spain, proposing the grade of 9b+ (5.15c), two full grades above Chris Sharma’s acclaimed Realization at Ceuse, France, and Ramón Julián Puigblanc’s recent La Rambla Direct at Siurana, Spain. Named after an ancient Mayan story, Chilam-Balam is a traversing, 270-foot super-pitch of overhanging stamina climbing on tufas and colonettes with several bouldering cruxes. Fernández spent three years working the 22-bolt line, using static lines and three-foot-long quickdraws to reduce rope drag and fall potential from the radically overhanging route. Not surprisingly, the proposed grade has sparked an onslaught of online controversy around the world. “I cannot take Bernabé’s proposal seriously as I can’t see any references that would demonstrate his skills of climbing at such a high level — far above the rest of the world,” writes German Alexander Huber on the European spray-tracking website www.8a.nu. When the Spanish climbing media asked Fernández to climb on the route in their presence, he declined, stating that if people doubted his claims, they could try the route themselves. “We explained to Fernández that he was claiming the most difficult ascent in the world, and that it had to be clear to all of the climbing community that he had climbed the route,” says Dario Rodriguez, editor at Desnivel Magazine. “But Fernández still refused.” At least some top Spanish climbers are willing to give Fernández the benefit of the doubt. “I come from the old climbing world and have always been taught to respect the climber and his ascent,” says Josune Bereziartu. “I have no proof to confirm Fernández’s ascent, but I must believe him. Otherwise, all the history of climbing becomes invalid.” Fernández, who climbed his first 8a at age 14 and established Hari Kiri, Spain’s first 8c, is no stranger to controversy. He rarely leaves his home sector in southern Spain to climb, avoiding the more high-profile climbing areas and climbers. He used several bolted-on holds on his route Orujo, 9a (5.14d). (It is interesting to ponder why Fernández’s bolt-on holds were so controvesial, while standard-setting routes from Mount Charleston to Buoux have gone uncontested in spite of their equally artificial qualities.) As for grade claims, the “old climbing world” may need to give way to the new. Sponsorship dollars encourage top climbers not only to climb harder, but also to claim high grades for their climbs, and ascents like Chilam-Balam will provoke ever-greater debate and demands for verification. In the end however, says Bereziartu, Fernández’s new grade is “a proposition — just that. In the worst case, Fernandez could be very wrong, but as a climber, he has all my respect.”