The Spring of Trad: Three 5.14 FA's Rank Among the World's Hardest Trad Routes

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Jacopo Larcher attempting Tribe in November 2018, before bad weather forced him to shelve the project for the season.

Jacopo Larcher attempting Tribe in November 2018, before bad weather forced him to shelve the project for the season.

The spring of 2019 was a good season for hard trad climbing. Three difficult routes saw FAs between the end of March and the end of May: Jacopo Larcher's Tribe in Cadarese, Italy; Tomi Nytorp's Privatvägen in Raseborg, Finland; and Steve McClure's GreatNess Wall in Nesscliffe, England. Although the jury is still out on the grades of Tribe and Privatvägen, each of these routes are within the realm of hard 5.14, placing them on an elite list of difficult trad routes ascended by a small group of climbers.

Tribe, Cadarese, Italy

FA: Jacopo Larcher

Of these three climbs, Tribe could be the most difficult. Although Jacopo Larcher has not yet assigned a grade to the climb, fellow Italian climber Stefano Ghisolfi wrote on Instagram shortly after the FA that, “I’m pretty sure that this is the hardest trad route in the world, maybe the first trad 9 [5.14d] grade.” Larcher will neither assert nor deny Tribe’s difficulty in comparison to other climbs. Larcher told Climbing, “I believe that Tribe is the hardest route I’ve done so far, but I still stick with my original decision of not grading it. Time and repetitions will tell.”

Larcher crimping hard en route to the finishing jugs on Tribe.

Larcher crimping hard en route to the finishing jugs on Tribe.

According to Larcher, the last three moves of the upper crux on Tribe are what make the route so difficult. Bad slopers and precise sequencing at the very end of the climb combine to create a perfect storm of a crux. Toproping this section was almost impossible since gear couldn’t be placed in this section or above. Luckily the falls were safe, which allowed Larcher to project the line. He first laid eyes on Tribe six years ago, when a friend took him to the area during his first trip to Cardarese. He rapped down that day and began looking for and cleaning holds on the aesthetic, 30-meter arête. It wasn’t until 2017 that he began to project Tribe in earnest, making this achievement the culmination of three years of hard work.

Privatvägen, Antbyvägen, Raseborg, Finland

FA: Tomi Nytorp

In many ways the FA of Privatvägen, which means “private road” in Swedish, by Tomi Nytorp, was similar to that of Tribe. Although this climb has been referred to as a 20-year project, the reality for Nytorp is a bit less epic. “During 20 years I visited the cliff maybe 15 times, and of those times there were some five times of serious projecting,” he explained. Years went by in which Nytorp did not visit Privatvägen at all, so he considers it a project of the last few years rather than the last couple decades. It was putting in some hard tries after years of considering the line from afar that yielded his FA, which occurred in mid-May.

Nytorp feels that he could have gotten the send in better style, as the gear was pre-placed (aka a “pinkpoint" ascent). “The fact is that I managed to lead the route partly by accident,” he said, “I had an intention to lead it by placing the gear on lead, but it’s just harder and needs more preparation and cooler weather.” When Nytorp roped up that day, he didn’t think he was going to send, but rather expected another unsuccessful burn. However, the preplaced gear gave him an advantage since it allowed him to climb without a heavy rack. Furthermore, since the crack that Privatvägen follows is quite thin, placing protection on lead is difficult.

At the crux, the crack that Privatvägen follows does not take jams, but must be climbed using gaston lock offs. Furthermore, there are no rests before entering the crux. Nytorp plans to return to the route, placing gear on lead for a redpoint attempt when the weather cools down this fall. With this in mind, Nytorp also has yet to assign Privatvägen a grade. He speculates it to be around 8c (5.14b).

GreatNess Wall, Nesscliffe, England

FA: Steve McClure

McClure also used a preplaced thread for his FA of GreatNess Wall, during the last week of May. The thread is the last piece of protection before the runout crux on this 18-meter route. It's located 12 meters up, following easier, pocketed climbing in the first two-thirds. The last 6 meters are unprotected, with a delicate crux move at the very top. With the potential for a large fall up top, McClure was nervous before tying in for his final send attempt. He was also calculated. “I figured it was not vey dangerous, and maybe even just 'risky,'” he said. “A fall could turn out completely fine if landed well.”

With that in mind, McClure put himself in “sport mode,” a state of mind where he focuses only on the climbing. It's a practice of calculated risk. McClure first asks himself questions like: “What are the chances of hurting yourself?" "How much will you hurt yourself?" "How much do you really want the route? Is it worth it?” He doesn't attempt a route until the chances of something going catastrophically wrong are marginal. After making it to the top of GreatNess Wall, McClure graded the route E10 7a (5.14b/c).

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The process of working hard trad routes like these is distinct from projecting a sport route, a fact that is denoted by the use of the term “headpoint” in place of “redpoint.” Factors such as risky falls and one’s ability to climb without hangdogging must be calculated, while, as McClure explained, “On a sport redpoint, you'll go for a lead when there is only a 10-percent chance because a fall is no problem.” This is reflected in the different ways that hard trad routes are projected, which may include toproping or preplacing protection. Yet Larcher believes that the routes may be reflective of an evolution in the discipline, saying, “A lot of sport climbers are ... taking advantage of their background to push the limits of trad climbing.”

One thing all three routes had in common was that their aesthetics caught the attention of their first ascensionists. Of Privatvägen, Nytorp said, “The route is beautiful, a lonely crack in the middle of the cliff. It has been on my mind since I first saw it.” Larcher had also been enthralled by Tribe since  he first saw it, while McClure described GreatNess Wall as “stunning”.

They were also protectable, finding a sweet spot in the world of difficult trad. “Hard routes with protection are what we want,” said McClure, “But they are few and far between.”