A week before her 15th birthday, Ashima Shiraishi, the unlikely climbing prodigy from New York City, got an early present. During a spring-break trip to Japan, she climbed a boulder problem with a difficulty rating of V15—essentially, at the current limit of climbing difficulty.
This makes Shiraishi not only the first woman to climb a V15 boulder problem, but also the youngest person, male or female, ever to do so.
Bouldering involves climbing rocks, often around 15 or 20 feet tall. No ropes or gear are needed other than sticky-rubber climbing shoes, chalk, and crash pads made of lightweight, firm foam to help soften falls. Each boulder problem takes a distinct path up the rock, with a defined start and finish. Any of the handholds and footholds located between those two points are usually considered to be fair game, so the challenge then becomes figuring out the sequence of hand moves, foot moves, and twisty body positions that allow you to go from start to finish without falling.
Unlike normal rock climbs that use the Yosemite Decimal System rating of difficulty (e.g., 5.8, 5.10a, 5.15a, etc.), boulder problems are measured on the “V-scale,” an open-ended system that begins with V0 (think: climbing a ladder) and currently reaches V16.
“Ashima is unstoppable right now, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon,” says Angie Payne, a top female climber from Colorado. In 2010, Payne climbed a boulder problem called Automator, making her the world’s first woman to climb the V13 grade. “She is an incredibly talented climber who is gaining more and more momentum in her climbing each year.”
This is the second year in a row that Shiraishi has made headlines while on a spring-break climbing trip. Last year, she traveled to Catalonia, Spain—a region renowned for its world-class sport climbing, which differs from bouldering primarily in its reliance on ropes and gear, and also has its own rating system. In Spain, at a climbing area called Santa Linya, she achieved a quick ascent of a 5.15a rock climb, debatably making her the first female to reach that level in sport climbing.
“Ashima is one of the most talented sport climbers I’ve ever seen,” says Lynn Hill, an international rock-climbing legend who, in 1992, achieved the first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a monumental accomplishment.
“I admire her determination, patience and incredible ‘lightness of being,’” says Hill. “I’m happy that she is the most accomplished young climber to date—male or female!”
Having now achieved both a 5.15a sport climb and a V15 boulder problem, Shiraishi is the first young woman to join a very small, elite group of climbers who have ticked both of these pinnacle, benchmark grades.
Bouldering is a game of powerful, dynamic, anaerobic movement. Sport climbing, meanwhile, with its 70- to 100-foot long routes, favors endurance or power-endurance. Climbers often do both, but are better at one or the other, usually. To perform at such a high level in both disciplines is akin to a runner winning an Olympic medal in both the sprinting and long-distance categories.
Shiraishi has been the focus of much media attention over the past few years, appearing in features on the BBC, in the The New Yorker and Time magazine, who named her one of “the 30 most influential teens of 2015.” In an interview with me conducted earlier this year, she remarked on the pressure she feels to push her own climbing to new levels.
“I feel like sometimes I have pressure to become the first woman to do a V15, or become the first woman to do a 5.15b,” she said. “But, then again, that’s exactly what I want to do.”
Typically, cutting-edge ascents in rock climbing will take most elite climbers weeks, months, and sometimes even years. Shiraishi, meanwhile, has demonstrated that she can perform at a cutting-edge level rather casually while on spring break.
“What she’s already done on just a few short school breaks each year is unbelievable,” says Josh Lowell, a director and filmmaker for Big UP Productions who is currently working on a film about Shiraishi for this fall’s REEL ROCK Tour. “When she has the time and freedom to go out into the world and develop her own vision for what’s possible, we might see some incredible things go down.”
“Imagine what would be possible if Ashima devoted weeks, months or years to climbing something at her absolute limit,” says Payne. “V15 is definitely not the stopping point for Ashima.”
Indeed, Shiraishi, who turns 15 years old on April 3, seems to be just warming up.
Ashima on Horizon
The V15 that Shiraishi climbed is named Horizon, and it’s located on a large boulder in the mountainous Buddhist enclave of Mt. Hiei, on the southern island of Kyushu, near Miyazaki. Deep in the woods, this large granite rock is perched across the terrain, creating a natural tunnel that goes straight through. The boulder is so large and smooth it almost resembles a spaceship, hovering menacingly just above the ground.
The climb itself follows a tapered, jagged crack splitting the tunnel’s ceiling, challenging the climber with holds on slick, rounded edges of rock for around 25 moves, which is considered quite long as most boulder problems are between three and eight moves.
Only one other person has ever climbed Horizon: Dai Koyamada.
“When I first came to here, I just wanted to climb whatever looked like the most fun,” said Shiraishi, who initially visited this region of Japan last December during a winter-break climbing trip.
“Dai said I should try Horizon because it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done, and he thought it would suit me.”
During that initial trip, Shiraishi almost “sent” Horizon, falling from the last hold three times because it was seeping wet.
At 39 years old, Koyamada is arguably one of the best and most prolific boulderers of all time. Over the last two decades, Koyamada has climbed as many as 25 problems rated V15 (or harder)—potentially more than anyone else.
Koyamada first discovered the Horizon boulder three years ago, and remarked on its natural beauty, saying, “It was beyond my imagination. I never thought such a rock would exist in Japan.”
When Koyamada began making attempts to climb up the belly of this beastly boulder, he initially wrote it off as completely impossible. But he kept trying. And trying.
For three years, in fact, Koyamada tried to do Horizon, which he had simply referred to as his “Super Project.”
Finally, he did it on May 8, 2015.
Koyamada maintains that Horizon is the hardest bit of climbing he’s ever done. Originally, he wanted to give it a rating of V16, but he demurred to a more conservative rating of V15+, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that rating a first ascent is a troubling, subjective endeavor that opens you up to criticism when other climbers may disagree with your proposed rating.
Either way, whether it’s V15+ or V16, it’s safe to assume that Horizon is really damn hard. And, move for move, Shiraishi’s ascent of Horizon is likely the hardest thing that’s ever been climbed by a female.
Bouldering and Women
In 2012, Tomoko Ogawa, a Japanese female climber, then 34 years old, became the first woman to climb a V14 with a boulder problem named Catharsis. This problem is also in Japan, and it was also initially climbed first by Koyamada. Catharsis took Ogawa three years of effort to do.
In 2014, Shiraishi, at age 13, became the second woman ever to climb a V14, with an ascent of Golden Shadow, a problem located in Rocklands, South Africa. The ascent only took her little more than a few days of effort before she succeeded.
Since then, only three other women around the world have reached the V14 level: Shauna Coxey, of the U.K., and Alex Puccio and Isabelle Faus, both from the U.S.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Depending on who you ask, Shiraishi has recorded ascents of as many of five different boulder problems rated V14, more than any other woman.
“It is exciting to see that the pace of progress in women’s bouldering seems to have accelerated in recent years,” said Payne. “And now, the female that has pushed the bar one notch higher is also a member of a younger generation of climbers. Whether or not this indicates a new trend in climbing obviously is yet to be seen, but I suspect it might.”
Climbing Progression, and What’s Next
The world’s first V15 boulder problem was established in 2000. And the world’s first 5.15a sport climb was established in 2001.
Over the last 16 years, the sport of bouldering—and climbing in general—has exploded in terms of its width. The Climbing Business Journal estimates that, in the year 2000, there were 196 climbing gyms in North America. Today, that number has more than doubled to 468. Many climbing gyms focus only on bouldering, like Brooklyn Boulders, where Shiraishi trains five days per week after school.
What’s interesting, however, is that despite the influx of new climbing gyms and their concomitant crop of strong, talented climbers like Shiraishi, over the last 16 years, the upper limit of difficulty in climbing has barely inched forward. Today, there are two sport climbs in the world given a rating of 5.15c, and four boulder problems rated V16.
This has led some to wonder if the relatively young sport of rock climbing has matured to a point where it is reaching something of a plateau in terms of the outer limits of human potential on the rock. Just as we can only expect the best sprinters or swimmers of tomorrow to shave mere micro-seconds off of world records, will climbers like Shiraishi, and others of her generation, only be able to slightly nudge the bar forward?
Or, will Shiraishi, who appears to be capable of climbing at a world-class level during quick breaks from her full-time high-school schedule, be capable of taking the sport forward by leaps and bounds?
Just how far will Shiraishi take climbing? It’s a question that’s on many climbers’ minds.
“I think Ashima could be the biggest game-changer in high-end climbing since Chris Sharma came along,” says Josh Lowell, who has documented Sharma’s climbing career through dozens of films since the 1990s. “When you watch her climb it’s like a different sport than what everyone else is doing. Somehow the same laws of gravity don’t apply.”
Shiraishi’s ascent of Horizon, as well as other sends, will appear in this year’s REEL ROCK Tour.
But for Shiraishi, it’s first things first—she wants to prove that women can climb just as hard as men before venturing off into new terrain.
“I know a lot of women haven’t done a lot of first ascents of the hardest rock climbs,” she said. “But if we keep repeating the hardest climbs that men have already done, then I think eventually women will start to lead the sport of climbing.”