Last updated: September 24, 2019. If you notice any omissions, broken links, or other errors, leave a comment below letting us know.
Hard sport climbing is all the rage these days — Adam Ondra puts up a new 5.15 every week or two, and the testpieces of Spain are the training ground for the next generation.
But over the last decade, trad climbing has seen a quiet Renaissance. The last five years have seen 49 ascents of 5.14 trad lines. These include some landmark sends: Beth Rodden’s Meltdown saw a second ascent, The Nose saw its sixth (by a fifteen-year-old!), and new contenders emerged for the hardest trad lines in the world.
2019 has been a strong year for trad climbing. Two new 5.14c ascents hit the board, including a terrifying new route from Steve McClure in the UK. There’s a new candidate for the hardest trad climb in Jacopo Larcher’s Tribe — which he left enigmatically ungraded. Three more women join the ranks in 2019, with Nadine Wallner, Maddy Cope, and Molly Mitchell all logging 5.14 sends.
This article includes a running list of the hardest trad ascents on record. The grade cutoff is 5.14a, but making this list wasn’t so simple — as I learned, defining a trad climb is about more than just a grade.
The World’s Hardest Trad Climbs
|Blackbeard's Tears||5.14c (8c+)||Redwood Coast||USA||Ethan Pringle|
|Brozone||5.14b (8c)||Gunks||USA||Andy Salo, Sam Elias|
|Century Crack||5.14b (8c)||Canyonlands||USA||Tom Randall, Pete Whittaker, Danny Parker|
|China Doll||5.14a (8b+)||Boulder Canyon||USA||Mike Patz, Matt Segal, Ethan Pringle, Joe Mills, Heather Weidner|
|Cobra Crack||5.14b (8c)||Squamish||Canada||Sonnie Trotter, Nico Favresse, Ethan Pringle, Matt Segal, Will Stanhope, Yuji Hirayama, Alex Honnold, Pete Whittaker, Tom Randall, Ben Harnden, Mason Earle, Logan Barber, Said Belhaj|
|Das große Knübbeln||5.14a (8b+)||Pfalz||Germany||Felix Lehmann|
|Dihedron||5.14a (8b+)||Joshua Tree||USA||Randy Leavitt|
|Direquiem||5.14a (8b+)||Dumbarton Rock||United Kingdom||Sonnie Trotter|
|Dunn-Westbay Direct||5.14a (8b+)||The Diamond||USA||Tommy Caldwell, Joe Mills, Jonathan Siegrist|
|East Coast Fist Bump||5.14a (8b+)||Oak Creek Canyon||USA||Joel Unema|
|Echo Wall||5.14b (8c)||Ben Nevis||United Kingdom||Dave MacLeod|
|Enter the Dragon||5.14a (8b+)||The Fins||USA||Jonathan Siegrist|
|Family Man||5.14b (8c)||Skaha||Canada||Sonnie Trotter, Ben Harnden|
|Father's Day||5.14a (8b+)||Donner Summit||USA||Alan Moore, Nico Favresse, Urs Moosmuller|
|Ill Fire||5.14a (8b+)||Adirondacks||USA||Peter Kamitses|
|Iron Monkey||5.14a (8b+)||Eldorado Canyon||USA||Matt Segal, Ethan Pringle, Brian Kim|
|La Zébrée||5.14a (8b+)||Mont-King||Canada||Jean-Pierre Ouellet, Sylvain Masse|
|Lapoterapia||5.14b (8c)||Osso||Italy||Jacopo Larcher|
|Leve Leve||5.14a (8b+)||Pico Cão Grande||São Tomé and Príncipe||Iker Pou, Enoko Pou|
|Longhope Direct||5.14a (8b+)||St. John's Head||United Kingdom||Dave MacLeod, James McHaffie, Ben Bransby|
|Magic Line||5.14b/c (8c/+)||Yosemite||USA||Ron Kauk*, Lonnie Kauk|
|Magic Mushroom||5.14a (8b+)||Yosemite||USA||Tommy Caldwell, Justen Sjong, Babsi Zangerl, Jacopo Larcher|
|Meltdown||5.14c (8c+)||Yosemite||USA||Beth Rodden, Carlo Traversi|
|Oppositional Defiance Disorder||5.14a (8b+)||Adirondacks||USA||Peter Kamitses|
|Ozone||5.14a (8b+)||Gunks||USA||Cody Sims, Peter Kamitses, Andy Salo|
|Planet Claire||5.14a (8b+)||Gunks||USA||Scott Franklin, Char Fetterolf, Andy Salo|
|Prinzip Hoffnung||5.14a (8b+)||Bürser Platte||Austria||Beat Kammerlander, Jacopo Larcher, Babsi Zangerl|
|Proper Soul||5.14a (8b+)||New River Gorge||USA||Brent Perkins|
|Psychogramm||5.14a (8b+)||Bürser Platte||Austria||Alex Luger, Fabi Buhl, Jacopo Larcher|
|Pura Pura||5.14c (8c+)||Valle dell'Orco||Italy||Tom Randall|
|Pure Pressure||5.14a (8b+)||Escalante Canyon||USA||Ben Rueck|
|Recovery Drink||5.14c (8c+)||Jossingford||Norway||Nico Favresse, Daniel Jung|
|Rhapsody||5.14c (8c+)||Dumbarton Rock||United Kingdom||Dave MacLeod, Sonnie Trotter, Steve McClure, James Pearson, Jacopo Larcher|
|Sewer Rat||5.14a (8b+)||Sundown Ledge||USA||Dave Sharratt|
|Silently Does the Sun Shine||5.14a (8b+)||Red River Gorge||USA||Andrew Gearing|
|South Face (Washington Column)||5.14a (8b+)||Yosemite||USA||Matt Wilder|
|Stranger Than Fiction||5.14a (8b+)||Moab||USA||Mason Earle|
|Sugar Daddy||5.14a (8b+)||Squamish||Canada||Sonnie Trotter, Ben Harnden|
|The Almighty||5.14a/b (8b+/c)||Teton Canyon||USA||Ty Mack, Jonathan Siegrist|
|The Bull||5.14b (8c)||Squamish||USA||Jeremy Smith, Ben Harnden|
|The Dawn Wall||5.14b (8c)||Yosemite||USA||Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, Adam Ondra|
|The Nose||5.14a (8b+)||Yosemite||USA||Lynn Hill, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Jorg Verhoeven, Keita Kurakami, Connor Herson|
|The Path||5.14a (8b+)||Lake Louise||Canada||Sonnie Trotter, Ethan Pringle, Miles Adamson, Matt Wilder, Peter Kamitses, Tommy Caldwell, Read Macadam, Tim Emmett, Doug McConnell, Babsi Zangerl, Jonathan Siegrist, Jacopo Larcher|
|Tom Egan Memorial Route||5.14b (8c)||Bugaboos||Canada||Will Stanhope|
- Climbs had to be graded 5.14a or harder. Where there was grade disagreement, I averaged the suggested grades. For example, Matt Wilder’s front-range testpiece Cheating Reality was proposed at 5.14a but later downgraded by Joe Mills — which, by average, took it off this list.
- I included all claimed ascents. Trad climbers tend to be more of a blue-collar bunch than sport climbers, and there’s less controversy over claimed ascents. Which isn’t to say that trad is without controversy — the debate just shifts to the matter of ethics. Which brings us to:
What Makes a Trad Climb?
On the surface, this question appears to have an easy answer: a trad climb is any route that requires removable gear.
But this definition breaks down quickly. Take, for example, the Tommy Caldwell classic Sarchasm in RMNP, which is mostly bolted but requires a few nuts for the top. Or imagine the reverse — a climb with a mostly gear-protected climbing to a bolted crux.
It’s easy to design some wild thought experiments here: if a climb has 90 feet of trad 5.8 followed by a bolted 5.14 crux, is it a trad climb? If those bolts are replaced by ancient pitons, then is it a trad climb?
The weirdness does not end there. On multipitch lines, some pitches may be protected by gear while others are bolted.
For example, El Cap’s Dihedral Wall checks in at 5.14a, but the crux pitch is protected entirely by bolts. Is this a sport climb? Not exactly. Is it a 5.14 trad climb?
Or take Bernd Zangerl’s unusual Into the Sun, which is essentially a highball boulder followed by a few gear-protected exit moves. Is this a trad climb? Sure, but…is it a 5.14 trad pitch?
For that matter, what about pre-placed gear? Is it different from sport climbing? If that gear is sparse and marginal, does it change the answer?
The lines here become blurred and arbitrary in a hurry. To keep things as simple as possible, I used the following working definition:
A route that includes at least one pitch of 5.14, on which the majority of the difficult climbing is protected by removable gear (placed on lead).
That is, if at any point a climber is pulling 5.14 moves above gear, that climb is a 5.14 trad climb. If they don’t, I didn’t include the route.
That knocks off some significant climbs, including the examples noted above. It eliminates routes like Cathedral’s Difficulties Be Damned, which has the 5.14a grade but is largely bolted. It’s also why The Dawn Wall is listed at lower than its given grade (see notes below).
No one is calling these routes sport climbs, but for the sake of this list I had to draw the line somewhere.
This definition does include sport routes that have seen gear-only ascents, like Proper Soul or Lapoterapia. These ascents are included in our list, although they are not credited with an FA.
The trouble with this definition is that information can be hard to find. Hard trad ascents tend to get publicized less than cutting-edge sport climbs, and accounts of what protection is present are even harder to track down. So I’d like to make one last caveat:
I may have missed some routes or ascents.
If I missed any lines you think should be included, throw them in the comments below!
A Word on Runouts
Trad climbs are generally rated not only by their difficulty, but by the amount of risk they involve. Some routes take gear better than others, and some involve mandatory runouts.
In the USA, climbs may be called G, PG13, R, or R/X, while other climbing grading systems have numeric ratings for risk.
Many of the climbs on this list involve significant risk or long falls. These ratings are informative, but they can be deceptive — R/X climbing may occur on easy terrain despite a high grade of difficulty elsewhere.
Judging where R ends and X begins is often subjective. For these reasons, I haven’t included ratings for runouts or protection.
Notes on Specific Climbs, Climbers, and Ascents
- The Dawn Wall is arguably the most famous trad climb in the world after Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s groundbreaking ascent back in 2015. The route was graded around 5.14c/d, but both of the crux pitches are protected entirely by bolts. Fortunately, the line boasts five or six other 5.14 pitches to choose from, some of which are gear protected. For lack of exact information about which pitches are traditionally protected, I’ve left the Dawn Wall at the grade of the next hardest pitch (around 5.14b).
- Magic Line is another famous Yosemite testpiece. Ron Kauk made a historic first ascent in 1996, at which point the route was almost certainly the hardest crack climb in the world. The first ascent was done with some preplaced gear, but it’s hard to say how much. It remains in our list with an asterisk, a groundbreaking ascent either way. Ron’s son Lonnie Kauk would give the line its first repeat on lead 22 years later.
The World’s Current Hardest Trad Climb
There are now no fewer than 7 possibilities for the world’s hardest trad climb — but still no firm consensus.
Let’s go over the contenders.
The first is Meltdown, Beth Rodden’s fingercrack masterpiece that went unrepeated until fall of 2018. It spurned crack-climbing wizard Tom Randall, not to mention Tommy Caldwell.
Randall owns the next contender, a linkup he titled Pura Pura. Consisting of a low, bouldery crack linked into Didier Berthod’s Greenspit, the project is slightly contrived but still earned the grade of .14c from Randall.
The earliest contender is a line by another trad-climbing legend, Scotsman Dave MacLeod. In 2006 in his home country, MacLeod put up Rhapsody, which ends with a 30-foot runout (including the crux of the route) above a small stopper. Rhapsody has seen the most repeats of any contender, with five ascents to date.
MacLeod owns another contender in Echo Wall, which he opened in 2008 but left ungraded. He did comment that he felt Echo Wall was harder than Rhapsody, but the line has never been repeated.
Ethan Pringle added another contender in California with his 2016 FA of Blackbeard’s Tears, which ascends a single long crack overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The line has not seen a repeat.
Nico Favresse made a bid for hardest crack in the world with Norway’s Recovery Drink. Daniel Jung earned the first repeat in 2018, and Pete Whittaker followed suit in 2019.
In May of 2019, Steve McClure established a new 5.14c with some serious pucker factor, which he named GreatNess Wall. Remarkably, both McClure’s trad ascents have been at the grade of 5.14c (the other being a repeat of Rhapsody).
Last but not least, Jacopo Larcher sent his long-term Cadarese project in March 2019 after 6 years of work, dubbing the route Tribe. Larcher opted to leave the line ungraded, which is how we’ve listed it in our table. But with 7 ascents of 5.14 trad to his name (including Rhapsody), Larcher is now the most prolific hard trad climber on the record. He’s also ticked 5.15a sport climb La Rambla, and he commented that Tribe was his hardest ascent of either discipline. That means a likely grade somewhere in the 5.14+/5.15- range.
MacLeod, McClure, and Larcher are the only climbers to own ticks on more than one of these routes. That’s relatively little crossover compared to the world of sport climbing, and a testament to the specialization inherent in high-level trad climbing.
Larcher and Macleod’s lack of grades leaves us in the dark on official comparisons. Both commented that after so much time and effort poured into a single route, they lost any sense of reference to other climbs, making a grade difficult to assign. Maybe we’d be wise to take a leaf out of their books — it was never about the numbers, anyway.
The Best Trad Climber(s) in the World
With his 2019 ascent of Tribe, Jacopo Larcher has taken the crown for most 5.14 trad ascents, pulling ahead of the legendary Sonnie Trotter.
Larcher now has 7 ascents to his name, including ascents of The Path and Rhapsody, stealing ahead of Trotter with 6. Tribe is Larcher’s first FA, although he was the first to climb Lapoterapia using trad gear.
Trotter’s résumé remains equally impressive — five of his climbs were first ascents, and the sixth was the first repeat of Rhapsody. Sonnie owns first ascents for two of trad climbing’s most beloved crucibles, Cobra Crack and The Path.
Although Trotter has also put up hard multipitch routes in Canada, the undisputed king of pushing the limits on big walls is Tommy Caldwell. The Dawn Wall remains among the most impressive routes on the planet, and it wasn’t even Caldwell’s first 5.14 on El Cap.
Several climbers on our list make a strong case for their all-around skills. Tommy Caldwell, Ethan Pringle, Jacopo Larcher, and Jonathan Siegrist all have multiple 5.14 trad ascents in addition to ticks of of the world’s hardest sport climbs.
It’s also worth mentioning that trad climbing is by no means a boy’s club. One of the world’s hardest FAs belongs to Beth Rodden, and Babsi Zangerl is racking up 5.14 ascents as fast as anyone.
What It Takes to Climb Hard Trad
In the end, declaring anyone “the best trad climber in the world” seems too broad.
The skills that make a strong sport climber seem to be more consistent than those of trad. While some sport climbs may be more to one climber’s “style” than others, the best sport climbers tend to excel on sport routes the world round.
Not so in trad climbing. On this list, the grade of .14b applies to the fingery Cobra Crack, the long and glassy Dawn Wall, and the brutal roof offwidth of Century Crack. These climbs all require drastically different skill sets and preparation.
The breadth of skills may be part of why the roster of hard trad climbers is so diverse. Some climbs are more specialized than others, but climbing hard trad requires commitment not just to the projects, but to the specific skills involved for each.
The other major difference between hard trad and sport is that hard trad climbs happen less.
We have more than 300 ascents of 5.15 sport climbs on record, compared to just 113 for trad (on just 44 routes worldwide). This may be for any number of reasons, like less media or sponsor attention, scarcity of routes, extra gear logistics, or the need for specialized crack climbing skills.
Given the progression of trad climbing so far, we’re about due for a new level.
In 1987, neon-clad strongman Scott Franklin put up what may have been the world’s first traditional 5.14: Planet Claire at the Gunks.
But Planet Claire is one of those gray-zone climbs — it’s a variation on a hard gear-protected line, but the crux is at least partially bolted.
The first clear 5.14a was a doozie: Lynn Hill’s landmark free ascent of The Nose. It’s hard to imagine how many expectations and records this ascent shattered, but it certainly put 5.14 trad climbing on the map.
In 1996 Ron Kauk added 5.14b with Magic Line, and ten years after that came Rhapsody at 5.14c.
We’re due for a 5.14d — where is it?
The obvious answer is that we may already have it. Based on the comments of Larcher and MacLeod, it’s possible that one or both of Tribe and Echo Wall are at least 5.14d. But lacking a grade or consensus, we don’t know for sure.
Another factor may be the scarcity of difficult cracks. Finding projects that are both difficult and climbable is tricky. The selection becomes even narrower when restricted to trad.
Plus, while a new generation of sport climbers is chomping at the bit, the next batch of trad crushers has yet to materialize. Members of the old guard are transitioning into other ventures, and the young prodigies haven’t shown much interest in new trad lines.
That could be cause for mourning. The sport is changing, and it’s hard to know what elements of climbing will thrive or decline.
I prefer to look at it as reason for excitement. The world of trad is waiting for someone to take up the mantle. Who will it be?
Where in the World Are the Hardest Trad Climbs?
While Europe reigns supreme for sport climbing, the undisputed capital of hard trad climbing is North America. The USA and Canada account for roughly 3/4 of all the routes on this list — a full 58% in America alone.
Yosemite and Squamish are the two biggest loci for hard trad routes. Between them, the two areas account for nearly 20% of the routes on our list. Yosemite has six 5.14 trad lines, three of which are on big walls.
An honorable mention goes to the United Kingdom, which has a long history of hard (and sandbagged) trad climbing. For a country with relatively few major climbing areas, five 5.14 trad routes is impressive.
The rest of the globe combined has just 17% of the routes on this list. That can only be encouraging news. As hard as it is to find new projects, the world of hard trad remains largely unexplored.