That One Time: The Race to Hubble

A crag rivalry for the ages
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Back in 1990, the Brit climber Ben Moon established what was then the world’s hardest route, Hubble (8c+/5.14c) at Raven Tor in the Peak District. In my carefree early 20s then, I was on an extended road trip, trying to up my sending game. At the Aggro Gully in Smith Rock, I met John Vlasto, a scraggly-haired Brit whose sole outfit consisted of Birkenstocks, black Lycra tights with stirrups, and an old button-up shirt with ripped-off sleeves. John and I had comparable climbing goals, similar open-ended schedules, and a competitive streak, which pushed us to try for “same day” sends on our shared projects. When we both sent Aggro Monkey, our first 8a (5.13b), we started a competition. The race to Hubble was on, and it had one simple rule: The first person to redpoint Hubble won.

To push our climbing, we headed to Hueco Tanks where we tried Todd Skinner’s Cowboyography (5.13c/d) and flung ourselves at the problems in John Sherman’s seminal 1990 guidebook. Edging—or so we hoped—ever closer to Hubble, we projected Center El Murray (V6) and Mushroom Roof (V8) on the Mushroom Boulder, and the Devil in Chris Jones (V8), a 29-foot traversing line on buckets and flakes at Bucket Roof.

All that steep, sharp bouldering wore us out, and on a rest day John took a trip to Juarez, Mexico, with British friends for some R & R. At day’s end, the Brits walked across the pedestrian bridge over the Rio Grande to return to El Paso. Then John spied a smuggler ferrying people across the river on inner tubes for a $5 fee. Excited about having a laugh as he tubed across the sluggish brown waters, John told his friends he’d meet them back on the US side. However, the second John landed on the American bank of the Rio Grande, he was promptly apprehended by the US Border Patrol for illegal entry.

While John awaited his trial, I visited him at the detention center, claiming to be his cousin. He lamented his boredom, saying he’d read all the available books. I “kindly” provided him with some new reading material—a ticklist I’d compiled while he wasted away in detention, including Center El Murray and my first V8, The Devil in Chris Jones. After John’s two-week stay in the clink, he had his trial and was given 90 days to leave the country, after which he was to be banished for some years.

A few years later, John sent Punks in the Gym (5.14a) at Mount Arapiles, Australia, moving ahead in the race. Then, in 2016, I tied it up with my redpoint of U-Haul (5.14a) at Jailhouse Rock. Later that year, my teenage son and I visited John in London, and we all had a laugh about the futility of our little competition. Hubble, it turned out, had been undergraded at 5.14c and since has been bumped to 5.14d. It seems we both have a ways to go to the finish line.