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As a full-time climbing journalist, I see hundreds of great rock climbing and mountaineering achievements during each year. Singling out a handful as the "best" is a fruitless task-there are too many variables in the games climbers play, and the elements that make a climb memorable vary with every climber. Nevertheless, certain climbs in 2007 seemed to me more intriguing than all the others. For me, these are the ascents that, in some way, point toward the future of climbing.
None of the climbs described here will be featured on a Discovery Channel miniseries. The climbers aren't household names, and to most Americans the routes and peaks will be completely unfamiliar. Nevertheless, I believe each of these ascents will be remembered as milestones.
So, here they are, the 10 Most Intriguing Climbs of 2007:
The Best Two Weeks of Sport Climbing in History
Spain's Patxi Usobiaga won the sport climbing World Cup in 2007, but it was his feats outdoors, after the competition season ended, that will be remembered longer. During a two-week period in late November and early December, the 136-pound 27-year-old climbed two 5.15a routes and more than half a dozen routes 5.14c or harder. To put that in perspective, only a dozen or so Americans have ever climbed even a single route 5.14c or harder. Usobiaga also onsighted three routes 5.13d or harder in a single day-that is, he climbed them first try, with no prior inspection-and on December 11 he managed the first 5.14c onsight in history. Can you say "in the zone"?
Numbers 2 and 3
Ultralight on Pumari Chhish South and Jannu
These first ascents on little-known peaks, far from the commercialized scenes on Everest and Ama Dablam, exemplify the very best in modern Himalayan climbing. In June, Frenchmen Yannick Graziani and Christian Trommsdorff made the first ascent of 24,114-foot Pumari Chhish South in Pakistan. They climbed the 8,750-foot south face in four and a half days, followed by another day and a half of descent. Then, in October, Valery Babanov, a Russian living in Canada, and his compatriot Sergey Kofanov completed the northwest buttress of 25,295-foot Jannu in Nepal in an eight-day climb. Both ascents were made by tiny teams in pure alpine style: no fixed ropes, no preplaced camps or caches, no supplementary oxygen. In a world where anything is possible given enough technology, such self-limited, minimalist tactics surely represent the future of cutting-edge Himalayan climbing.
Free Solo on the Fish
The 33-pitch Via Attraverso il Pesce is perhaps the most famous route on the Marmolada, an El Capitan-sized wall of compact limestone in Italy's Dolomites. More commonly known as The Fish, the route has climbing as difficult as 5.12c, with some sparsely protected pitches. In late April, Austrian Hansjörg Auer dispensed with all protection-and the rope-and free-soloed the legendary route in just under three hours. Auer, 23, had climbed The Fish in 2004 with a partner to belay him, and that time he fell off several times. He returned this spring and climbed the route wearing only his clothes, climbing shoes, chalk bag, and helmet. This is the most sustained free-climbing solo ever done, and it raises an interesting question: Who will be the first to free-solo a route on El Capitan without a rope?
5.12+ in the Himalaya
In July and August, a small international team pushed the boundaries of hard free climbing in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. Over two weeks of climbing, Belgians Nicolas and Olivier Favresse and Sean Villanueva, along with Adam Pustelnik from Poland, pioneered a 4,000-foot granite wall with difficulties up to 5.12d and only 15 feet of aid climbing, topping out at 19,700 feet. This was impressive, but it was their second big climb that pointed the way forward. After one attempt on a prominent rock spire ended only 10 pitches up, the team returned and climbed the 3,250-foot route all-free in a single 27-hour push. They climbed 28 pitches up to 5.12d, using only one bolt and one piton, and returned to camp after a 37-hour round trip. Other people have free-climbed this hard at this altitude before, but never while doing a new route in such rapid time.
The Eiger in Under 4 Hours
Ueli Steck lives in Interlaken, Switzerland, and the nearby Eiger is like his local crag. He has climbed the notorious north face many times, but never like he did in February, when he raced up the classic 1938 route in 3 hours 54 minutes. Most parties need three days to climb the 6,000-foot wall. The Swiss climber had done the 1938 route twice, once ten years earlier and a second time a few days before his speed ascent. Recognizing that conditions were perfect, he seized the moment and raced up the route 30 minutes faster than the previous best time. For Steck, the Eiger was just a warm-up for an attempted solo of Annapurna's mighty south face in May-a bid that came to an end when the Swiss climber was struck by a rock and knocked 1,000 feet to the base of the wall, fortunately without serious injuries.
K2's West Face
Lauded by some as the climb of the year, and excoriated by others as an "agent of death" to modern alpinism, the Russian first ascent of the west face of K2 certainly caught climbers' attention. No one doubts the route is difficult: It's the hardest route on the hardest 8,000-meter peak. The Russian team, nearly two dozen strong, climbed for more than two months and fixed ropes much of the way up the world's second-highest peak, enduring vicious storms and many days in the death zone, without supplemental oxygen. Two injured climbers had to be flown off the mountain. Ultimately, eleven climbers reached the summit. Admirers cheered the Russians' perseverance, courage, and teamwork. Detractors questioned their anything-goes style, more typical of 1950s and '60s Himalayan expeditions than cutting-edge modern climbs. Which faction is correct? History will decide, but consider this: Although climbers are free to choose the style of their ascents, they have no right to trash a route with abandoned ropes and other gear. In this sense, at least, the Russians did not live up to 21st century ideals.
Jade: V15 x 3
Jade is a short, fierce route among the giant boulders of Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park that holds some of the hardest climbing moves in North America. Young American Daniel Woods snagged the first ascent in June, calling the problem V15, high in the stratosphere of bouldering grades. Then Jade got repeated in August by Tyler Landman, and then again the same month by Paul Robinson. Jade may well be one of the hardest boulder problems in the world, but with three ascents in a single summer it begs a question: With so much bouldering talent on the loose in the United States, why aren't even harder problems being completed?
To Hell and Back
Scotland's Dave MacLeod has proven himself to be one of the world's boldest climbers, with the first ascent of Great Britain's only E11, Rhapsody, in 2005. (E11 equates to 5.14c with 70-foot fall potential.) In the summer of 2007, MacLeod signed on to a BBC television special on Scottish climbing, and he laid plans to attempt the first ascent of a poorly protected 5.13 as the cameras rolled. There was a very real possibility that MacLeod might die on live TV if he fell at the wrong place. As it turned out, the live broadcast was rained out, but MacLeod returned shortly afterward and eked out the first ascent of To Hell and Back, a climb he called the most dangerous of his life. Spectating at a rock climb is usually duller than watching grass grow, but this is one ascent that would have made riveting TV.
The Nose: A New Speed Record
In October, Alexander and Thomas Huber broke a five-year-old speed record for climbing the Nose of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley's iconic big-wall climb. The old record, set by Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama in 2002, was 2:48:55. That's less than three hours to climb a 31-pitch route that most people spend three days climbing. The Huber brothers are El Cap experts, having established five free climbs on the giant cliff, as well as the speed record for the Zodiac route. In spring of 2006, the Bavarians seemed on the verge of breaking the record for the Nose, but then Thomas was injured in a fall. In 2007 they began to rehearse the climb again, and on October 5 they raced up the route in 2:48:35, breaking the old record by a mere 20 seconds. After a rest, the two returned three days later and cut the mark to a more convincing 2:45:45. Still, it's remarkable that two of the best climbers in the world, putting massive amounts of effort into their bid, could only shave about three minutes off the record. Amazingly, big-wall speed climbing is now akin to track and field, where times must be measured in seconds instead of hours.
Dougald MacDonald is the news editor of Climbing.com and associate editor of the American Alpine Journal.