Call it plan B. Free-soloing—no ropes allowed—climbers Dean Potter and Leo Houlding will soon be wearing lightweight versions of BASE-jumping parachutes to combat the discipline's primary, um, downfall: You slip, you die. Many think that a chute might turn certain death into a coin flip.
THE QUEST TO CATCH A 100-FOOT WAVE
RIDING A TEN-STORY wave is a colossal physical feat. But the truth is, the primary challenge isn't the surfing; it's the finding. Few folks have ever witnessed a wave that size, let alone one with a face that could be surfed. To date, the biggest wave ridden (and photographed) was a 70-footer at Maui's Jaws that Pete Cabrinha towed into behind a jet ski in 2004. The Billabong Odyssey, a much-hyped three-year, $1.5 million mission to seek out and surf the world's biggest waves, which ended in 2004, turned up several new breaks but nothing that approached the century mark.
And yet surfers—and a few surf forecasters—remain convinced that the right wave will appear eventually. Among the two dozen pros ready to board a plane at the first sign of a monster swell are California's hard-charging Long brothers—Greg, 24, and Rusty, 26—and Hawaiians Garrett McNamara, 40, Shane Dorian, 35, and, of course, 43-year-old Laird Hamilton. But this race could well be won by a dark horse: Australia's Ross Clarke-Jones. The burly 41-year-old has both the fierce dedication and serious sponsor dollars that are essential to big-wave hunting. Last year, Clarke-Jones's Red Bull team pioneered two new breaks off Japan, dropping in on typhoon-fueled waves. His latest strategy, however, is to ignore storm systems and seek out Poseidon-style rogue waves. "There are hundreds of them every year," he says. Clarke-Jones is currently working on getting access to satellite data that will help him pinpoint rogue waves as tall as 120 feet in the Bass Strait, between Australia and Tasmania, right outside his home in Torquay, Victoria.
And if he does locate one? "It'll be like trying to ride a dinosaur. We're not going to be smiling and waving to the cameras," says Clarke-Jones. "We're just hoping to hang on."
UP EL CAP WITHOUT A ROPE, AND REACHING FOR 5.16
THE NOTION of free-soloing (climbing without ropes or safety equipment) the 2,900-foot granite face of Yosemite's El Capitan borders on insane. And yet there's a growing sentiment in the climbing community that some steel-nerved maniac will attempt it in the next year. Who? Tommy Caldwell, 29, the only person to have free-climbed (no mechanical aids but ropes to catch falls) two El Cap routes in one day, may be best suited to the task, but he says he'd never take such a risk. The most likely candidate is 24-year-old Austrian Hansjörg Auer, who in April free-soloed a 5.12c line on Italy's 2,789-foot Marmolada. Other talented climbers with the gall to make a bid, including Dean Potter and Alex Huber, are familiar with the moves on the 5.12d Freerider, the easiest line up El Cap. "A lot of people are working on it," says Caldwell. "It's just a matter of time before one of them gets good enough—or just confident enough."
On the sport-climbing front, there was a time not long ago when the 5.15 grade—think blank limestone, slightly overhung—was considered impossible. But now that Chris Sharma's latest project weighs in at 5.15c, it's likely that 5.16 is just around the corner. And Sharma, 26, isn't the only one with the potential to break the barrier. A standout among upstarts: 14-year-old Slovak Adam Ondra, who recently notched 5.14d—four letter grades harder than Sharma had reached at that age. "Glue a quarter to the wall and these guys will grip it," says Yosemite speed climber Hans Florine.