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Interview: Seb Bouin on His 430-foot Cave Route and the Future of Endurance Climbing

“If you knew nothing about the crag, you’d look at the line from the ground and be like ‘Wow. No. That’s totally crazy. I will never be able to do that.’ But when I knew the crag and the style and the kneebars and how to take down the rope, I was like ‘Yeah, it’s possible.’ ”

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Last week, in Flatanger, Norway, Seb Bouin established what may be the biggest single pitch of hard climbing ever done. At 430-feet long, his route, Nordic Marathon (5.15b/c), is the first of the Flatanger’s epically hard cave routes to proceed from the very bottom of the cave to the true summit of the wall. He says it’s unlikely to be the last.

Climbing caught up with Bouin to chat about his trip, his route, and his plans for harder linkups. Does 5.16a exist? Does 5.16b?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Seb Bouin Climbs New 5.15b/c in One Gigantic 430-foot Pitch

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Climbing: How does Nordic Marathon break down?

Bouin: There are like 80 meters of roof climbing—not really a roof, but almost—but the route follows the ground so you’re only like 20 meters above the ground until the headwall, where the last 40 or 50 meters are vertical. The rope technique is the same as with Silence [Adam Ondra’s 5.15d] and Move [5.15b/c]. You lower down the rope once [pulling the rope through the draw, you lower a bite down to your belayer, who has run up the hill to belay from higher up] and then switch ropes once [untie from the rope and clip into a new one that has been left waiting at the midway anchor].

The route shares the same start as Silence. You do the same 8b [5.13d] up to a good kneebar. From there you continue into a good crack, then up a sloping rail to the first anchor of Nordic Plumber.  You can rest almost anywhere, but it saps your energy, so it’s best to move as fast as possible. At the Nordic Plummer anchor you can rest, but it’s definitely not very good. There’s not a kneebar or anything. You just have good holds and good feet, but you’re still on the arms. And you have to untie your knot and clip into a new rope here, which takes a bit of time. The grade would change if you had a good no-hands rest kneebar and could start from this anchor really fresh. But this is not possible.

Climbing: What’s that second pitch of Thor’s Hammer (5.15a) like?

Bouin: The first crux after the anchor of Nordic Plumber is a 7C or 7C+ boulder problem [V9 or V10]. You’re in the roof, with two crimps and one left toehook. You take a bad sloper and then jump left hand to a jug. You need a lot of body tension for it because you have no foot, just the toehook. If you’re fresh, and have tension, you can reach the jug. But if you lose tension, if your ass is sagging, you aren’t going to reach it. The next crux is also 7C or 7C+ but it’s a totally different style. You’re in a corner dihedral and it’s a crimpy kneebar crux. A very weird crux. Any mistake and you’re in the harness. The last crux is at the lip and it’s around 8A [V11]. But it’s hard to grade. Maybe on the ground it would be a little bit easier but by then you’ve been climbing for 80 meters in the roof. There’s a big move to a sloper; it’s a long explosive move, very risky, and I was falling all the time there. Then you have a heel hook and some crimps that are hard to grab when you’re pumped. Once you’re at the lip, you get to just enjoy the last 45 to 50 meters, which is like 7b, maybe 7c [5.12 or 5.12+].

The hard part is the combination. If you had the 9a+ [5.15a] before the 8c [5.14b], you would never have the grade be 9b/9b+ [5.15b/c], because the 8c is tiring you out and making the crux of the 9a+ very hard. Adam Ondra tried this line [Nordic Marathon] after he did Silence. He did the second pitch of Thor’s Hammer first, then tried from the ground. But he fell on the first crux of the 9a+ because of the endurance. And after that, you still have the second crux and the third crux.

Climbing: How long were you on the wall during your send?

Bouin: I think it was around 45 minutes. Which is not that long considering the size of the route. But time perception is quite different when you’re climbing hard compared to when you’re just sitting on the ground. Imagine yourself climbing a boulder—it might only take 30 seconds, but during those 30 seconds you’re trying hard, and it feels longer. So even though 45 minutes is in general not a long time, when you’re climbing hard, 45 minutes feels long. 

Climbing: What about the other starts?

Bouin: You can start from Nordic Plummer, but you can also start from Magnus Mitbø’s original route, Thor’s Hammer, or you can start from Move. Starting from Move would be a really big challenge. Imagine: You’d replace an 8c start with a 9b or 9b+. And personally I think Move is more 9b+. It took me four trips to do it. So to repeat Move and then do a 9a+ after that—this would be crazy. It would be a next step. A next endurance step.

Climbing: Do you think that gets 9c+ [5.16a] or even 10a [5.16b]?

Bouin: No, no, I think it would be 9c [5.15d]. Maybe hard 9c. For a 10a you could start by doing Silence. That link is there too. But I don’t think anyone would want to send Silence and then fall after that. Because after Silence you would probably have to do the hardest part of Move and then do the second pitch of Thor’s Hammer. So it’s crazy. Definitely crazy. But I guess maybe 10a exists!

Climbing: I heard that at the very end of the route, to reduce rope drag, you unclip from the rope entirely.

Bouin: Yes. So I actually bolted the end of the route. When Adam was trying it [in 2017], it ended right above the lip of the cave, on the vertical wall. We found the idea to go to the summit really cool, starting from the ground, crossing the cave, and going to the top. When you know Flatanger, and you know the style of the cave, it’s quite cool to start from the cave and go all the way to the top. If you knew nothing about the crag, you’d look at the line from the ground and be like “Wow. No. That’s totally crazy. I will never be able to do that.” But when I knew the crag and the style and the kneebars and how to take down the rope, I was like ‘Yeah, it’s possible.’ ”

So I bolted the vertical wall—about 50 meters. But I only put six bolts in, plus the one that was there already. When I sent the route it was wet, and with one bolt every ten meters, I was like “Oh, I am so stupid, I should have put in more bolts.” But the last five or 10 meters were really dry and really easy. Like French 5th grade [which ranges from 5.7 to 5.9]. And the rope drag was so intense, it was like 40 kilos of weight, so I just unmade the knot and finished. But it was over. Almost impossible to fall. And then you’re standing at the top and the view is beautiful and you have to walk down without shoes. 

Interview: How Seb Bouin Sent the World’s Hardest Grade

Climbing: With a route so big as Nordic Marathon, you were only trying once every two days. Were you doing any other climbing or was that it? 

Bouin: No. I was just warming up by doing the cruxes, just to remember them and warm the body. And then I’d do one try. And then it was over. Of course, I could climb more but not if I wanted to be fresh for another try two days later.

Climbing: Mentally, what was it like falling at the top?

Bouin: The first tries it was OK. I was not under pressure. It was super fun climbing, and I was just happy to arrive at that point. But eventually you’re like, “I would like to do the route,” and when you climb for so long and reach the last crux and then fall, you’re like, “Oh no.” With each try the pressure was higher. In the end I had a bit of luck. Good conditions. Good shape. I could easily have spent two more weeks on the climb. One problem with this kind of route is that you need body tension and body power, but it’s going down slowly by climbing on the route. You need the power to do the cruxes, but day by day your power is going down and your endurance is going up.

Climbing: You also did Iron Curtain (originally graded 9b) and the first pitch of Change (9a+) on this trip.

Bouin: Yes. I was actually belaying Adam for the first ascent of Iron Curtain in 2013. So it was cool. But I used kneepads and with kneepads it changed the crux. Adam did a 9a [5.14d] route into an 8b [V13] boulder problem, more or less. I did the same 9a, but the way I did the boulder was 7c+ or 8a. Quite hard still, but not the savage move that Adam was doing. So I think 9a+ is more appropriate with kneepads. 

Actually I was quite surprised about Change because I always thought this pitch was not for me. I thought it was too bouldery, too weird, too bad for the shoulder. But then Alex Rohr was trying the first pitch, and I thought maybe I should try with his beta. For the first pitch, there is one little crux before the main crux, then one little crux after the main crux. I flashed crux one. Then the main crux I flashed from the kneebar. And the last crux I flashed too. So I was like, “Oh, maybe I should try the route.” I passed the crux on my fourth go, but I had some trouble clipping and had to stop. So I changed my beta and then did the route on my eighth go. So it was quite good. My goal will be to send the second pitch by the end of the trip—and then give some tries for the whole route. The second pitch is 9a, so if I’m clear on it, I think I can do the whole thing. But we are leaving at the end of July, which is soon, so I don’t know if I will have time. 

Climbing: But you will be back?

Bouin: I will be back for Move IntegralMove into the second pitch of Thor’s Hammer—and Change for sure.