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Janja Garnbret, The Greatest Competitive Climber of All Time

The Slovenian is climbing’s first female Olympic medalist, the first woman to onsight 5.14b, and perhaps our sport’s strongest overall competitor

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This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious. 

Janja Garnbret (March 12, 1999) is a Slovenian climber and Olympic Gold medalist in Sport Climbing. Garnbret was the first woman to onsight 5.14b, has redpointed up to 5.14d, and bouldered up to V14, but is best known for her wildly successful competitive career. Since debuting on the IFSC circuit in 2015, at the age of 16, she has earned a total of 32 World Cup gold medals and podiumed in nearly 50 events.

In 2019, Garnbret became the first climber to take first place in every event of a single discipline during a single season, winning all six Bouldering World Cup competitions. She also won a gold medal at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, becoming the first female Olympian in climbing history. Garnbret is widely considered the most successful competitive climber (male or female) of all time. Read How Janja Garnbret Beat Everyone By Preparing For The Worst

Janja Garnbret of Slovenia competes during the women’s finals of the IFSC Climbing World Cup in April, in Meiringen, Switzerland. She won, as she usually does. (: GETTY/ Marco Kost)

Early Life and Youth Career

Born in the village of Slovenj Gradec, in northern Slovenia, Garnbret began climbing at the age of seven, after her father took her to a public climbing wall located in a park in her hometown (neither of her parents were climbers). Garnbret had an older half-sister, Nika, but was essentially an only child growing up, as Nika was 12 years her senior. In addition to climbing, Janja also enjoyed a variety of other sports, including track and field, tennis, and dancing.

Garnbret won the 2013 Youth B European Junior Championships in Bouldering and Lead at the age of 13. The event was her first climbing competition outside of Slovenia. She officially joined the Slovenian Youth National team the following year.

Garnbret went on to win the competition in both disciplines again in 2014 and 2015, this time in the Youth A bracket. Also in 2014, she earned her first international title, winning a Lead gold medal at the Youth B Climbing World Championships. During the following two years, she won the Youth A World Championships in both Bouldering and Lead.

Janja Garnbret climbing indoors.
Janja Garnbret eyeing her next move. Garnbret is the most successful competition climber in history. (: Vladek Zumr )

Competitive Career

In the summer of 2015, after turning 16, Garnbret began entering the IFSC World Cup circuit. She won her first gold medal at the Chamonix leg of the Lead World Cup the following year. In 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2021, she won the Lead World Cup series overall, and in 2019 won the Bouldering World Cup series (and placed second in Lead). Garnbret also won the Combined World Cup four years in a row, from 2016 to 2019. Between 2016 and 2019, she won six Climbing World Championship titles, two in Bouldering, two in Lead, and two in Combined.

In 2019, she achieved widespread fame for becoming the first climber in the history of the IFSC to win every event during a single season, winning all six Bouldering World Cups. After winning her 31st World Cup gold, during a Lead Cup in Kranj in 2021, she became the climber with the most IFSC gold medals from individual events in history, moving ahead of South Korea’s Jain Kim.

As of April 2022, Garnbret has earned a total of 32 IFSC World Cup gold medals (18 in Bouldering and 14 in Lead) and podiumed 49 times. Based on an aggregate of both World Cup series victories (i.e. overall seasonal wins) and World Championship wins, she is the most successful competitive climber in history.

A 1,181-foot smokestack near Trbovlje, Slovenia, was equipped with two tons of holds so Garnbret and Domen Škofic could, as a Red Bull promotion, climb it. The daunting, dynamic 13-pitch route, Never Ending Story (5.14a), was destined never to be repeated—the holds were stripped after Garnbret and Škofic’s ascent. (Photo: Jakob Schweighofer / Red Bull Content Pool)

2020 Olympic Games

Garnbret won the gold medal for sport climbing during its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Though she slipped during Speed qualifiers and finished 14th out of 20 competitors, she surged ahead in the following two disciplines, as the only climber to top all four problems during the Boulder discipline and finishing a respectable fourth place in Lead. As a result, she went into the finals ranked first overall, ahead of Seo Chae-hyun (South Korea) and Miho Nonaka (Japan).

In the finals, she lost her first Speed race, but then managed two wins, placing a modest fifth. Again, she rocketed ahead of the competition in Boulder and Lead. She was the only climber in the finals to complete any of the three Boulder problems (topping two), and also made it higher than any other on the Lead wall (37+), netting her the Olympic gold.

Janja Garnbret, the best competitive climbing of all time.
Janja Garnbret, the best competitive climbing of all time. (: Leo Zhukov)

Outdoor Climbing

While her exploits outside are less well-known, Garnbret has enjoyed a successful career on rock as well, primarily in the realm of sport climbing. By the age of 15, she had both onsighted 5.13d (Avatar) and redpointed 5.14c (Miza za šest). The following year (2016), she flashed Santa Linya’s La Fabelita (5.14b), sending the route in less than 15 minutes. In 2017, she sent her first 5.14d (Seleccio Natural), and sent another, La Fabela pa la Enmienda, just a few days later, both in Santa Linya.

In 2020, Garnbret and fellow Slovenian (and then-boyfriend) Domen Škofic completed a highly-publicized climb of a 1,181-foot decommissioned smokestack near Trbovlje, Slovenia, topping it via a 13-pitch 5.14a, Never Ending Story. The route was then the hardest artificial multi-pitch in existence, though it was stripped after Garnbret and Škofic sent. All of the pitches on Never Ending Story were at least 5.12b, with six of them 5.13b or harder.

Currently, Garnbret is perhaps best known outside of the competition scene for becoming the first woman in history to onsight 5.14b, with a send of Chris Sharma’s Oliana route Fish Eye in November 2021. At least 10 women had completed 5.14a onsight at the time, beginning with Josune Bereziartu in 2006, but it was until then the hardest grade onsighted by a woman. Garnbret onsighted American Hustle, another Oliana 5.14b, just a few days later.

In May 2022 she made the first female ascent of Bügeleisen (V14) in Maltatal, Austria, just before her 23rd birthday. Garnbret reportedly completed the problem, her hardest boulder to date, after only a couple of days of projecting.

Janja Garnbret of Slovenia during the Sport Climbing Women’s Combined, Qualification on day 12 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (: Tsuyoshi Ueda – Pool/Pool)

Climbing Accomplishments

  • 32 IFSC Climbing World Cup gold medals.
  • Six IFSC Climbing World Championship titles.
  • Nine IFSC World Cup Overall wins.
  • More aggregate World Cup series and World Championships victories than any other climber in history.
  • More World Cup gold medals than any other climber in history.
  • Athlete of the Year, Slovenian Sports Journalists Association (2018).
  • Nominated for Sportswoman of the Year Award, Women in Sports Federation (2019).
  • Bloudk Award for Outstanding International Achievement (2019).
  • Gold Medal, Sport Climbing, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (2021)
  • First female onsight of 5.14b with Fish Eye in Oliana, Spain (2021).

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