2012 Golden Piton Awards: The Year in Climbing

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With Climbing’s 11th annual Golden Piton Awards, we celebrate the biggest, hardest, fastest, and scariest ascents of 2012. Prepare to be inspired.

2012 Golden Piton Award Winners:

  • The American Alpine Club

  • Cameron Hörst, Brooke Raboutou, Ashima Shiraishi

  • Alex Honnold

  • Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy

  • Sean McColl

  • Adam Ondra

  • Tomoko Ogawa

  • Red River Gorge, Kentucky

January 2012

David Lama frees Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Photo by Lincoln Else

Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy: Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge saw its first “fair means” ascent, by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk, without using any of Cesare Maestri’s power-drilled bolts for protection. On their way down, the two chopped 120 of Maestri’s bolts to “restore Cerro Torre to a more natural state”—a move that dismayed some and thrilled others. Four days later, Austrian David Lama raised the bar dramatically by free climbing a 5.13 line up the face—a feat made significantly sportier by the bolt-chopping.

Alizée Dufraisse makes the first female ascent of La Reina Mora (5.14c/d), Spain.

On the 45-foot highball/solo Too Big to Flail (V-hard), Buttermilks, California, Alex Honnold is protected by 34 pads and a posse of terrified spotters.

Paul Robinson climbs Meadowlark Lemon (V15), Red Rock, Nevada.

February 2012

GPA: Community Developer – The American Alpine Club

On a five-year mission to reinvent itself as the leading national organization for all types of climbers, the 110-year-old AAC announced sweeping new benefits for the 21st century. Can tweed jackets and crash pads coexist? Twenty-seven percent membership growth in less than one year says they can.

By the numbers (AAC growth over past 18 months)

—Rescue Benefit: $5,000 > $10,000 —Live Your Dream Grants for average climbers: 0 > 41 grants —AAC-operated lodging and campgrounds: 1 > 3 (soon to be 4) —AAC-supported events: 80/year > 280/year —Active volunteers: 112 > 296 —Cornerstone Conservation Grants ($25,000/year for crag infrastructure): 0 > 15 projects —Membership (Jan. 1–Nov. 30): 8,711 > 11,076

Also that month:

Daniel Woods and Alex Puccio win the U.S. bouldering championship.

Jonathan Siegrist danges from La Rêve (5.14d) in Arrow Canyon, Nevada. Photo by Keith Ladzinski

Coloradan Jonathan Siegrist kicks off a big year with the first ascent of La Rêve (5.14d) in Arrow Canyon, Nevada. Later in the year, he completes another 5.14d, as well as many slightly easier new routes. He and Joe Kinder are the two leading Americans traveling their own country to bolt and redpoint cutting-edge new climbs.

Who needs ice? Robert Jasper drytools Ironman (D14+) in Switzerland, possibly world’s hardest “mixed” route.

Rock climbing pioneer Herb Conn dies at 91.

March 2012

From left: Ashima Shiraishi, Brooke Raboutou, Cameron Hörst

GPA: Kids on Fire – Cameron Hörst, 12; Brooke Raboutou, 11; Ashima Shiraishi, 11

Eight years ago, just before he turned 12, a certain Adam Ondra redpointed his first 8c (5.14b), and the leader of a new generation exploded onto the scene. Now a trio of American pre-teens seems poised to have similar impact.

Ashima Shiraishi from New York has been making headlines since she bouldered V10 at age 9. But 2012 was a breakthrough year. In the spring, at 10, she sent Crown of Aragorn, becoming one of the few females ever to boulder a confirmed V13. And in the fall, she climbed two different 5.14c routes in the Red River Gorge—the youngest person, male or female, to redpoint 5.14c. Her top goal for this winter is to send Terre de Sienne (V14) at Hueco Tanks, Texas.

Not far behind was Brooke Raboutou, who redpointed Welcome to Tijuana (5.14b) in Spain in July—the youngest person ever, by a matter of months over Ondra, to climb that grade. Raboutou, daughter of illustrious climbers Robyn Erbesfield and Didier Raboutou, will return to Spain this summer and dreams of bouldering in Fontainebleau, France, and Rocklands, South Africa. (Brooke’s older brother, Shawn, redpointed Welcome to Tijuana in 2011.) Another climber with great genes, Cameron Hörst, son of the longtime climber, trainer, and author Eric Hörst, redpointed three 5.14a routes this year when he was still 11. And just as we went to press, we learned of yet another pre-teen pushing into 5.14 terrain: Harry Edwards, 12, from Arizona.

Is the future bright? Yeah, it is.

Also that month:

Climbing mag founder and prolific first ascensionist Harvey Carter dies at 83.

Belgians climb 500-meter 5.13c in Venezuela with only five bolts.

Still crushing at age 36, Japan’s Dai Koyamada adds lower start to Dave Graham’s The Story of Two Worlds (V15) in Switzerland, creating a possible V16—just one of at least four V15 or harder problems he completes in 12 months.

April 2012

Spanish big-wall ace Silvia Vidal spends 32 days soloing a new route in Chile.

Brooke Raboutou sends God’s Own Stone (5.13d/14a) at the Red at age 10.

With her redpoint of Era Vella (5.14d) in Spain and a win at the U.S. lead climbing championships, Sasha DiGiulian, 19, confirms her position as America’s top female sport climber. (Vasya Vorotnikov is the male U.S. champion.) With a finger injury in the summer, she misses the world championships and a World Cup stop in Atlanta, but DiGiulian comes back to win three gold medals at the Continental Championships in Venezuela in November.

Mason Earle on Real Talk (5.13+), Mill Creek, Utah. Photo by Andrew Burr

Rob Pizem completes The Frank Zappa Appreciation Society (5.13+), a roof crack in Escalante Canyon, Colorado. It’s a big year for hard trad climbs all over the country, including: Hayden Kennedy, The Carbondale Short Bus (5.14a), Indian Creek, UT; Andrew Gearing, Silently Does the Sun Shine (5.14a), Red River Gorge, KY; Mason Earle, Real Talk (5.13+), Mill Creek, UT; Jonathan Siegrist, Enter the Dragon (5.14a), The Fins, ID; and Cody Roth, Mainliner (5.14a/b), Las Conchas, NM.

May 2012

Tommy Caldwell and ALex Honnold top out on Mt. Watkins in Yosemite. Photo by Ben Ditto

Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold link the South Face of Mt. Watkins, Free Rider on El Capitan, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in 21 hours, 15 minutes. Astonishingly, they each free climb every inch of the three routes (70 pitches, up to 5.13). Caldwell falls three times before freeing every pitch. Honnold does not slip off once.

Around 550 climbers summit Mt. Everest, with long lines creating dangerous bottlenecks. Ten die.

Craig DeMartino realizes a long-held dream by completing an “all disabled” ascent of El Capitan with Pete Davis and Jarem Frye, with whom DeMartino had previously attempted El Cap. The three climb Zodiac over five days. Later in the summer, DeMartino wins a bronze medal in his disability group at the Paraclimbing World Championships in Paris.

Daniel Woods completes Mission Impossible (5.14d), Clear Creek, Colorado.

June 2012

GPA: Big Wall Speed – Alex Honnold

Honnold has already racked several Golden Pitons for his remarkable solo and speed ascents in recent years, but we didn’t hesitate to give him another (“My grandma will be so proud!”) for his feats in 2012. Though the highlight reel is extensive (“60 Minutes,” “Honnold 3.0,” etc.), three incredible days in Yosemite top the list. In May, Honnold and Tommy Caldwell free climbed the Valley’s three biggest walls—Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome—in less than 22 hours. Honnold did not fall once during the day. Unbeknownst to most at the time, this incredible effort was just a warm-up for Honnold, who, two and a half weeks later, soloed all three routes in about 19 hours (25 hours including hiking time). He carried a rope for certain key passages but free soloed 95 percent of the climbing. As a warmdown, Honnold teamed up with Hans Florine to take back the speed record for the Nose of El Capitan, which Florine and Yuji Hirayama had lost in 2010. After two practice runs, the pair blazed up the Nose in 2 hours, 23 minutes, 46 seconds, smashing the old record by 13 minutes.

“I think the solo Triple was maybe the most satisfying thing of the season, just because things are a bit scarier when you’re all alone,” Honnold says. “The Nose was surprisingly satisfying, and it was really fun. And the free Triple with Tommy was maybe physically harder. But the solo Triple took the most out of me. It felt the most hardcore.”

What he’d be doing if he weren’t a climber: “I was studying engineering at Cal before I dropped out. I have a lot of respect for people who actually build a real, physical thing and contribute something real to the world. Now I’m more interested in environmental policy questions… Really, I should have played baseball—I’d be a millionaire! But I’d also be pudgy and slap dudes on the ass all day.”

Also that month:

Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson redpoint the Tooth Traverse, linking five icy Alaska Range summits over five days— it’s Ozturk’s third attempt in four years.

Daniel Woods climbs a new 5.15 at over 12,000 feet in Borneo, the literal high point of a year in which he flashes 5.14c, puts up or repeats numerous 5.14d climbs, establishes a pair of V15 boulder problems, and wins the U.S. bouldering championships. (He also flashed V14 at the end of 2011). No American rock climber has more across-the-board success in 2012.

Finally winning her Forever War (5.13c/d R), Pamela Pack climbs Vedauwoo, Wyoming’s hardest wide crack.

Austrian power couple and perennial fan favorites Kilian Fischhuber and Anna Stöhr win a Bouldering World Cup at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado.

July 2012

After failing the year before, Kyle Dempster, Hayden Kennedy, and Slovenian climber Urban Novak complete the first ascent of the east face of K7 in Pakistan.

An avalanche kills nine climbers on Mont Maudit, France, including British guide Roger Payne.

British mountaineers Sandy Allan and Rick Allen summit 8,126-meter Nanga Parbat via the Mazeno Ridge, an eight-mile arête, almost all above 22,000 feet, that had been attempted for more than three decades.

Brooke Raboutou climbs Welcome to Tijuana in Spain, becoming the youngest person ever to redpoint 8c (5.14b).

Ashima Shiraishi climbs two V13 problems in Rocklands, South Africa, and flashes a V11.

August 2012

GPA: Alpine – Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy

In 2011, Kyle Dempster (who won a Golden Piton that year for “Breakaway Success”), Hayden Kennedy, and their Slovenian friend Urban Novak retreated two-thirds of the way up the virgin east face of 22,753-foot K7 in Pakistan. They vowed to return, and the two Americans hatched a bold plan. If they succeeded on K7, they’d go for the doubleheader: two new routes on 7,000-meter peaks in a single season. In a three-day round trip, with minimal bivy gear, the three men completed their route up K7 despite M6 mixed climbing and deep snow near the top.

After a brief rest, Dempster and Kennedy trekked up a different valley for game two: a new route on the Ogre, a 23,901-foot peak that had only been climbed twice in 35 years. With them was Josh Wharton, whose partner for another climb had bailed. The three men rapidly climbed to their second bivouac, about 700 feet below the top. Wharton stayed behind with altitude sickness while Dempster and Kennedy went to the summit, only the second major peak ever reached from the Choktoi Glacier. Though the Ogre is better known, both men said their climb of K7 was more satisfying. Says Dempster: “Redpointing K7, especially with Urban, had a more meaningful level of completion than walking up to a mountain and climbing it first go.”

Tip for aspiring alpinists: Kennedy: Climbing in the “greater ranges” doesn’t have to be this huge deal if you don’t want it to be. There are plenty of ways to make these trips cheaper. The most important thing is to have a solid plan, good partners, and, above all, the motivation to climb in the mountains.”

Also that month:

Spanish runner/skier/ mountaineer Kilian Jornet, 24, turns heads by going under 3 hours car-to-car on the Grand Teton. Back in Europe, in September, Jornet pulls off an incredible speed traverse over 15,781-foot Mont Blanc via the Innominata Ridge, a difficult alpine route with 60-degree ice slopes, rock climbing up to 5.7, and extensive glacial travel. Jornet jets from Courmayeur, Italy, to the church in Chamonix, France (26 miles; over 12,000’ of vertical) in 8 hours, 43 minutes.

Swiss climbers Thomas Senf, Stefan Siegriest, and Ralf Weber complete first winter ascent of Cerro Standhardt in Patagonia.

Rustam Gelmanov (Russia) and Anna Stöhr (Austria) win 2012 overall Bouldering World Cup.

BJ Tilden redpoints Wyoming’s hardest sport climb: Moonshine (5.14d) at Wild Iris.

Colin Haley completes first solo ascent of Mt. Waddington in British Columbia, en route to a five-peak solo enchainment.

Iker Pou cruxing on Baffin Island. Photo by Riky Felderer

Austrian Hansjörg Auer and Spanish brothers Eneko and Iker Pou redpoint a 5.13d big wall on icy Baffin Island.

September 2012

GPA: Competitions – Sean McColl

As one of the few North Americans with a sustained commitment to the international comp circuit, Sean McColl is a rarity. And this 25-year-old from North Vancouver, British Columbia, is even more unusual because he excels at both bouldering and lead climbing: McColl took the overall gold medal at the 2012 World Championships in Paris, combining bouldering, lead, and speed results, and he finished the 2012 season ranked fourth worldwide in both lead and bouldering. (Austrian Jakob Schubert was the only other climber ranked in the top 10 of both disciplines for 2012.) In all, McColl had 10 podium finishes in 2012, including a lead World Cup victory in China and four silver medals, two in bouldering and two in lead climbing—by far his most successful year in more than a decade of international competition.

McColl makes his home in Toulouse, France, and spends the first half of the season training and competing in bouldering. “After the bouldering season is mostly over, I’m very eager to do 30-plus moves, so I take the power from bouldering and convert it to lead,” he says. “I train pure resistance and get better every day I train.” McColl plans to compete on the full international circuit again this year, including bouldering, lead, and speed comps. “I think I have what it takes to win an overall season, but it will require more focused training starting earlier in the year,” he says. “One of my biggest goals in 2013 is to win a bouldering World Cup. I’ve been on the podium seven times, including four silvers, but never been able to win one.” Is this the year? We’d bet on it.

Most impressed by: “Ashima Shiraishi. She will eventually revolutionize the sport, just like Adam Ondra did and is still doing.”

Favorite outdoor climbing: “I loved the bouldering in Switzerland, I love everything about Céüse [France], and I love my home in Squamish. Those are my top three.”

Also that month:

Mayan Smith-Gobat on Punks in the Gym (5.14a). Photo by Rich Crowder

New Zealand native Mayan Smith-Gobat shatters the women’s speed record for the Nose of El Capitan with partner Chantel Astorga, taking nearly three hours off the old mark. A week later, with Sean Leary, she sets the mixed male/ female record. Smith-Gobat caps her year with the first female ascent of Punks in the Gym, an Australian 5.14a first climbed in 1985.

Slabmaster Jonathan Siegrist climbs Idaho’s hardest route, Algorithm (5.14d), on a limestone wall at the Fins.

Avalanche kills 11 on 26,759-foot Manaslu in Nepal.

October 2012

GPA: Sport – Adam Ondra

Adam Ondra on a project in Norway. Photo by Petr Pavlicek

The Czech climber Adam Ondra already has had so much impact on high-end climbing that it’s difficult to believe he just finished high school. Seemingly poised for a true breakthrough, the 19-year-old delivered big-time last fall, redpointing the world’s first 9b+ (5.15c) and then, only three and a half weeks later, during his first visit to the United States, delivering the world’s first 5.14d flash.

For Ondra, the first ascent of Change at Norway’s Flatanger cave was the most satisfying, in part because he had fallen in love with the area, far from the crowds and bloggers of Spain and France. Ondra bolted the 55-meter roof pitch last summer and managed to redpoint the first section, itself 5.15a, during his three-week visit. He returned in October, and after another two weeks of work, redpointed the climb just before he had to leave. “Climbing a route on your limit is a very precarious thing, and is more psychologically demanding than anything else I have ever experienced in climbing,” Ondra says. “You have to find peace of mind when you are 100 percent ready to give it everything you have, and not be negatively influenced by doubts or nervousness. The peacefulness of the cave and that region definitely helped a lot.”

By comparison, onsighting routes four grades easier—but still harder than anything that 99.9% of climbers will ever do—must have felt almost casual. Ondra went to the Red River Gorge hoping to onsight a 5.14d but was kept off his first choices by wet weather. Instead he went for Southern Smoke Direct, then rated 5.15a; he punched through the boulder problem crux at the bottom and hung on to reach the chains. Ondra downgraded the climb to 5.14d, but it’s still the hardest flash on record. Four days later, he proceeded to onsight Pure Imagination and Golden Ticket—calling each 5.14c—in the same day! Clearly, the Red needs harder routes to challenge the Czech phenom, and Ondra was happy to oblige: Before he left Kentucky, he bolted and began working on a “lifetime project.” The Red may not be as peaceful as Norway, but he’ll be back.

Most impressed by: Ashima Shiraishi sending Lucifer (5.14c) at the Red River Gorge. “The power she possesses is extraordinary, and the flow and rhythm which she climbs with is very efficient and nice to watch. You can see the passion she puts into climbing.”

GPA: Bouldering – Tomoko Ogawa

It would have taken a particularly prescient bouldering aficionado to predict that Japan’s Tomoko Ogawa would be the first woman to boulder V14. Although she’s a full-time climber and has traveled to the U.S., South Africa, and other countries for bouldering and competition, she was 34 years old and, remarkably, had never climbed harder than V12 before she sent Catharsis, a V14 in Japan put up by Dai Koyamada and repeated by Daniel Woods. Ogawa worked on the problem for between 30 and 40 days over three years, making “a few hundred attempts.” During this time, she trained her finger strength using a pullup technique she learned from Woods in a video; she also trained core strength with the advice of a professional soccer player, and she worked to balance her over-developed back muscles and open up her chest, in order to extend her reach between the roof problem’s shallow pockets and “heinous footholds.”

“I am not a strong climber, actually,” Ogawa says modestly. “I took part in the World Cup, but I was a loser every time. My previous best was two 8A+ (V12) routes. When I tried Catharsis the first time, everyone said it was impossible for me because I had not done an 8B. But I never gave up. I kept on trying for three years for something that seemed impossible in the beginning.”

How you celebrated: “My friends supported me a lot, so I treated them to a French dinner.”

If you could go anywhere in the world to climb: “Rocklands, in South Africa. I love it!”

Also that month:

Prolific British alpinists Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden climb the Prow of Shiva (20,151’) in India.

British climber Hazel Findlay does the second free ascent of Pre-Muir (5.13c/d, 30+ pitches) on El Capitan with two fellow Brits. Roaming the globe in 2012, the 23-year-old puts up a 5.13R crack climb at Squamish and repeats other trad routes up to 5.13d.

Atlanta’s new Stone Summit gym hosts the second Lead World Cup in the U.S. in more than 20 years. Gold to Ramón Julián Puigblanque (Spain) and Jain Kim (Korea).

Mikey Schaefer completes Father Time, a 2,000-foot 5.13 on Middle Cathedral in Yosemite, after 60 days of work over two years.

November 2012

Daniel Woods on the direct start to Southern Smoke (5.14d). Photo by Forest Woodward

GPA: Crag of the Year – Red River Gorge, Kentucky

Each decade, it seems, a new area emerges at the forefront of American cragging—a place that captures the world’s attention and compels the best roped climbers to try to leave their mark. (For the moment, we’re setting aside Yosemite Valley, which is perennially in a class of its own.) The Red River Gorge hit foreign climbers’ radar after the Petzl RocTrip in 2007, and since then, high-level sending by Americans and visitors has continued unabated, culminating this fall with the world’s first 5.14d flash (Adam Ondra) and the first 5.14c flash by an American (Daniel Woods). Whether you’re from Frankfurt, Germany, or Frankfort, Kentucky, the Red was THE place to be this fall. At the same time, the Red remains an amazing destination for climbers of all abilities, and for trad and sport alike. Miguel’s Pizza is just the topping.

1970s: Eldorado, CO 1980s: Smith Rock, OR 1990s: Rifle, CO 2000s: Indian Creek, UT 2010s: The Red River Gorge, KY 2020s: ???

Also that month:

James Kassay, who had previously sent endurance-bouldering testpiece The Wheel of Life (variously graded V15/16 or 5.15) in Australia, boulders a more direct and longer line that’s “a hell of a lot harder than the original.”

Sachi Amma (Japan) and Mina Markovic (Slovenia) win the Lead World Cup season.

The superstar of French sport climbing in the 1980s, Patrick Edlinger, dies at age 52.

During a terrific trip to Europe, American Carlo Traversi repeats two V15s and many V14s, and puts up a new V14.

Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, and new team member Jonathan Siegrist siege El Cap’s Dawn Wall for another fall season, making “great progress” on the 5.14d crux pitches. They promise to return in 2013.

December 2012

“I wish I could climb like…”

Alex Honnold. Photo by Andrew Burr

We surveyed visitors to and asked them which of 10 climbers who made headlines in 2012 they would most like to emulate. After almost 750 votes, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, the most admired climber was Alex Honnold. Do readers wish they could free solo 5.12 big walls? Cruise Yosemite’s three biggest walls in a day? Star in a “60 Minutes” episode? Maybe they just appreciate Honnold’s nonchalant approach to his remarkable life and climbing. As one reader put it, “Alex is establishing a new level, all in good style and humility.” Sounds about right.

The runner-up on our list? Amputee climber Craig DeMartino, who, as one reader wrote, “is joyous all the time, and the most positive person I’ve ever met. He may not climb the hardest out of this list, but I want to carry his attitude with me when I climb.”