In 1991, a crusty climbing bum with a gap-toothed grin named John “Vermin” Sherman published the Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide, introducing his open-ended V scale for grading. As practitioners pushed the outer limits of the sport, Sherman’s Hueco system soon replaced mathematician John Gill’s limited three-tiered system, in which B1 was equivalent to the top sport climbs, B2 was harder, and B3 had only one climber who had ever completed the route.
In the decades since, Sherman has said that “judging the quality or importance of a boulder problem based on a difficulty grade is bullshit.” While we admire Sherman’s insistence that the sheer beauty of a problem is its own reward, we’re nonetheless compelled by the way the sport has advanced since Hueco Tanks. Here is Outside’s timeline of the most impressive sends of the past quarter-century.
January 1996, Radja, V14
Fred Nicole, a stout 27-year-old ex-competitive Swiss sport climber, was at the tail end of a summerlong tear ticking off the most complex boulder problems near his home when he came to Radja, in the Valais region of Switzerland. It took three days for Nicole to successfully send the world’s first V14, at a bouldering locale called Pierre à Grosse Branson, under the scrutinizing eye of a new video technology called DV tape.
October 2000, Dream Time, V15
In the four years since his Radja climb, Fred Nicole’s afro had been photographed everywhere, from South Africa to California. But it was back in Cresciano, Switzerland, where he’d complete the world’s first V15—a nagging problem Nicole first noticed in 1991 that took him an entire season to complete. Doing so indoctrinated scores to the growing sport. It also heralded other marquee V15s, like Markus Bock’s Gossip, in Germany, and Nicole’s own Black Rock SD and Monkey Wedding, in South Africa. Dream Time became so popular that the holds eventually wore bigger, downgrading the problem to V14.
November 2003, Byaku-dou/The Road to Heaven, V15/V16
It was midautumn when a spry five-foot-five Japanese champion climber named Dai Koyamada took up Nicole’s torch while developing V13s and V14s around his native Japan. When the 27-year-old eventually announced completion of a 22-move roof problem in Hourai, it marked not only Koyamada’s personal best, but also purportedly the sport’s. His proposed V16 grade went unchallenged until 2015, when fellow Japanese climber Motochika Nagao repeated the climb and called it V15. In the seven years that followed, a handful of other problems would tickle V16 without confirmation, most notably Daniel Woods’ 2010 The Game, in Colorado, and Paul Robinson’s 2010 Lucid Dreaming, in California.
May 2008, Pura Vida, V12/13
Austrian climber Babara Zangerl was only 16 when she first saw the moss-covered gneiss boulders of a developing area soon to be dubbed Magic Wood. Freshly cleaned, a problem called Pura Vida called to her but seemed impossible. Three years later, just days before her 20th birthday, Zangerl’s send of this strength-intensive line marked the hardest boulder problem achieved by a woman at the time. Eventually, Zangerl would injure her back and transition into sport climbing, but her completion of Pura Vida remains a standout benchmark in women’s bouldering.
August 2010, Automator, V13
Between 2004 and 2010, Angie Payne was the first female sender of 17 bouldering problems graded between V10 and V12. By this point, the budding multidisciplinarian (Payne is also an accomplished photographer) had already won three American Bouldering Series National Championships. During the hottest month of 2010, the Ohio-born Colorado transplant began leaving veterinary school each night to work to do a different kind of homework: After seven nights of attempts lit by headlamps and lanterns, Payne became the first female to send a consensus V13.
October 2010, Hypnotized Minds, V16
In spring of this year, a 21-year-old named Daniel Woods began working on a project in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As a breakout pro, Woods’ intense schedule of climbing trips around the world allowed only two days on the serrated and striped boulder—it proved not enough time to complete it. Months later, he returned and finished the problem after an additional six days. Though Woods dubbed it V15, many suspected his grade was too low. Only Russian climber Rustam Gelmanov has managed it since. In 2016, Woods himself repeated and upgraded Hypnotized Minds to V16, stating he didn’t initially have enough reference. The second climb retroactively made it the world’s first confirmed V16.
November 2011, Terranova, V16
In 2011, a lean 18-year-old kid from the Czech Republic with an already long list of climbing accolades turned his attention to bouldering. Adam Ondra, who started climbing when he was six, spent ten days sorting out the 12 moves comprising Terranova, in the Holstjen region of the Czech Republic. It was his first V16, and one of very few in the world. Ondra remains the only person to have completed it.
December 2011, Gioia, V15/16
Originally climbed by Christian Core in 2008 and graded V15, this Italian line outside Varazze is an enduring controversy. Adam Ondra became the second person to send the problem, in 2011, when he upgraded Core’s grade to V16. In February 2014, Finnish powerhouse Nalle Hukkataival became the third to do it. Hukkataival, nearly a decade Ondra’s senior and with an impressive résumé of first ascents, has since proposed that it is indeed a V15.
October 2012, Catharsis, V14
Tomoka Ogawa first started climbing at 22 and soon ditched the idea of graduate school to pursue her passion professionally. That same determination eventually led her to Catharsis in 2009—a V14 problem in Shiobara, Japan, opened up by Dai Koyamada and confirmed by Daniel Woods. Three years and countless hours after dedicating herself to the 15-move roof problem, Ogawa, at the tender age of 34, became the first woman to send V14—and only the third person ever to climb Catharsis.
January 2015, The Process, V16
Hailed as one of the scariest “highball” lines ever opened, Daniel Woods pieced together this problem (pictured above) after several days of preparation. The crux is an overhang near the top of the 50-foot boulder, and the route adds a terrifying third section to two already established and successive smaller climbs. Named for the focus it took, the Process remains unrepeated. It also sparked a period of strong V16 development, including Woods’ own Creature from the Black Lagoon, in Colorado, and Dai Koyamada’s low start to Story of Two Worlds, in Japan, signaling the growing efficiency of new techniques and training regimens.
March 2016, Horizon, V15
In December 2015, 14-year-old Ashima Shirashi was already the second woman to achieve V14 and rapidly emerging as the strongest female climber in the world. From her home in New York City, Shirashi traveled to Mount Hiei, Japan, after getting an invitation from Dai Koyamada, who wanted her to try a problem he opened in May of that year. Shirashi fell three times on the final move, and then had to go back to school. Four months later—during her spring break—Shirashi returned and nailed each of the 30 moves that originally took Koyamada three years to piece together. Shirashi became the second person ever to climb Horizon, as well as the first woman and youngest person to climb V15.
October 2016, Burden of Dreams, V17
Born in Helsinki, Finland, Nalle Hukkataival proved himself as the most dedicated boulderer in history with this problem. In 2013, when a friend showed him the “unclimbable project” in Lappnor, outside Helsinki, Hukkataival became obsessed. The relatively short overhang looked like a blank wall, with barely a protrusion or crevice. For four years and more than 4,000 attempts, Hukkataival plugged away whenever conditions permitted—even flying home from other travels when weather was ideal. But it wasn’t until Daniel Woods pointed out an unused hold in 2016 that Hukkataival finally managed to put together the world’s first V17. Like all unrepeated problems, it remains unconfirmed, but the community appears to have faith in its difficulty.