These superhuman, super talented climbers have all changed climbing forever — and not one of them is older than 22. Among this group you’ll find an 11-year-old boulderer, a teenage sport-climbing machine and a pair of young alpinists battling each other for glory. Each one has changed climbing forever, and each one is just getting warmed up.
Last year alone, this Czech phenom climbed four routes rated 5.15b — currently the hardest grade in the world. But ever since the 19-year old started climbing at age 6, he has taken home awards from competiton after competition and climbed harder than basically anyone else. At 9, he onsighted (climbed first try, without prior knowledge) a 5.13, a benchmark grade for expert-level difficulty. Now he has racked up ascents of many of the world’s toughest sport climbs. There is little question that he will set new standards in the sport, if he has not already — the almost preposterous number of super-hard onsights already has people talking. This spring, he made a heartbreakingly close attempt at one that would have altered the sport dramatically. The route was Realization, a 5.15, that has been climbed by only a handful of people, but never onsight.
This featherweight climber (she is 95 pounds) cranked harder than any American woman has last fall. The 20-year-old’s ascent of Pure Imagination, a 5.14d in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, placed her into an elite level of sport climbers where few women ascended. If there was any doubt about her ability, she surely undermined it by winning the Climbing World Championships in Arco, Italy last year. Oh, and she completed another 5.14d, just to show the first wasn’t a fluke.
At 22, Hayden Kennedy has attracted much less fanfare for his climbing than some of his peers. But while a lot of young climbers regularly show up at competitions and make videos, he has quietly made a name for himself as an elite alpinist. In January, he nearly free climbed the Compressor route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia — an infamous route that has been the subject of debate for decades in the climbing world. In 1970, an Italian climber used a gas-powered compressor to drill 400 bolts into the mountain. Many climbers saw this as an unfair or unethical method, although all who climb this route use the bolts today. But Kennedy and his partner climbed the route using only bolts they deemed necessary — and they chopped the rest, around 100 of them. Kennedy called it the first ascent by “fair means.” That kind of ethical compass, combined with superior ability, is sure to be a game changer for climbing.
By his own account, Austrian climber David Lama has been surrounded by cameras since he started climbing as a little boy. Born to a Tibetan Sherpa, Lama was raised around climbers who were slackjawed at his natural ability. At 15, he was the youngest climber to win a world cup competition. He’s starred in numerous videos and attracted a sponsorship from Red Bull. Now 21, Lama focuses on alpine climbing, like Kennedy, with whom he has been locked in a duel for the most impressive ascent of Patagonia’s Compressor Route. While Lama was attempting the route using bolts for his camera crew to film, Kennedy chopped many of them. The very next day, Lama responded by climbing the forbidding 4,000-foot route totally free — without using aid as Kennedy had done. The history-making Patagonian season is over, but Lama is only just beginning.
Meet the new face of super hard bouldering, here to change climbing forever and someday redefine the bounds of the sport. She is Ashima Shiraishi, age 11. Tiny even for her age, Ashima makes experienced boulderers gasp with amazement and has amassed a startling record of ascents. At 10, she climbed Crown of Aragorn in Hueco Tanks, Texas: difficulty rating, V13. It is a grade so hard that only a handful of women have climbed it. For the professional climbers Shiraishi is chasing down, what’s worse is that she has only been at it only 5 years, a fraction of the time it takes most climbers to develop superhuman strength. The world has probably only glimpsed the reservoir of talent this climber has. Growing a little taller, too, will only help.