Hitting the Wall

LAST FALL, 20-year-old human fly Chris Sharma clawed up the first 80 feet of limestone on Biographie Extensiona 70-move, 140-foot climbing route in Ceuse, south of Grenoble, France, that has yet to see its first full ascent and that is believed by many to be the hardest sport climb in the world. Nearing the crux, Sharma reached for a tiny, three-finger split pocket, held it for one agonizing second, screaming—and then fell.

Breaking News

Biographie Extension remains unclimbed — check back for reports on attempts as they happen.

For the past decade, sport climbing's benchmark has been 5.14d, a rating first claimed in 1991 in Germany on Action Directe by prolific route setter Wolfgang Gullich. (In climbing's Yosemite Decimal System, 1 is flat, hikeable terrain, and ratings between 5.0 and 5.15 denote vertical ascents.) Despite the fact that there are only about two dozen individuals capable of completing Action Directe and the approximately 20 other 5.14d routes around the world, elite climbers on both sides of the Atlantic have been scraping their fingertips raw trying to reach the next pinnacle: a clean ascent of a route boasting the absurdly difficult 5.15 grade. This summer that milestone may finally be reached by the climbers currently flinging themselves at Biographie Extension.
Sharma's narrow miss shifted the U.S. focus to Dave Graham, a 19-year-old rock rat from Maine with one of climbing's toughest resumes. Graham, currently traveling in Europe, says he plans to attack the coveted French route this July, all the while keeping an eye on 30-year-old 1996 UIAA World Cup champ Arnaud Petit, who conquered the lower half of the climb, Biographie, in 1996 and has this year stepped up his efforts to link it with Extension, the route's more difficult upper half. Petit goads the competition in e-mails from his home in Chambry, France "Allez Dave, viens vite!" ('Let's go Dave, come quick!') And Sharma? The famously anticompetitive climber is priming himself for another go at the route this summer. "Giving up now," he allows, Òwould make my 19 previous attempts pointless.Ó ÑAlisa Smith

Filed To: Mountaineering / France
More Adventure