Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, when rock climbing was very much a fringe activity, women were rarely spotted up on the rock. Even fewer were performing at a cutting-edge level.
The notable exception was Lynn Hill, who in 1993 became the first person (male or female) to free climb the 3,000-foot Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Free climbers ascend without falling or using gear to rest or aid upward progress. Hill’s feat cemented her status as an action sports legend and proved in the biggest way possible that women could climb just as hard as, if not harder than, men.
“It goes, boys,” she boldly stated after her big achievement.
Before climbing the Nose, Hill became the first woman to climb a route with a difficulty grade of 5.14a, which was considered a world-class level at the time. In 1990, Jean-Baptiste Tribout, the leading French sport climber of the time, infamously stated that year that “no woman would ever climb [a 5.14a].” Hill proved Tribout wrong that same year by completing a 5.14a sport climb in France called Masse Critique.
Best of all, she completed the route in fewer tries than Tribout.
In a similar breakthrough, Margo Hayes, 19, of Boulder, Colorado, has achieved a new milestone in the sport. On February 26, 2017, she climbed La Rambla, a sport climb in Siurana, Spain, that is rated 5.15a. This achievement makes her the first woman to reach this level of difficulty, which is very close to the highest levels ever achieved by top-performing male climbers.
“Over the last few years the gender gap has really narrowed,” said Hayes in an online video interview last year. “There’s going to be a big change—there’s more women and more young girls coming up in rock climbing. Watch out, boys!”
La Rambla is a 150-foot tall yellow and blue limestone route. It overhangs by 30 degrees the whole way, making it an unrelenting challenge. It has been climbed by only a few of the best male climbers in the world and is considered solid for its difficulty rating.
The holds on La Rambla, particularly on the blue patina of limestone near the top of the route, can be razor sharp, making the climbing not just difficult but downright painful as the rock chews through fingertips like dog toys.
“Margo’s effort was unprecedented,” says Jon Cardwell, a top American sport climber and one of Hayes’s climbing partners during her historic trip. “She was bleeding from her fingers every day. That route is a bloodbath now! But never once was this an excuse. Extraordinary character in that girl.”
One sign of the changing times in rock climbing is Hayes’s presence at a world-class crag in Spain with perhaps the two strongest American climbers right now, Jon Cardwell and Matty Hong—all of them climbing as equals. The three live in Boulder, Colorado, where they climb and train together.
Hong, in fact, successfully completed La Rambla just two days before Hayes. Cardwell, who is also “projecting” the route, is expected to achieve his own success any day now.
“I am overwhelmed and humbled by the support I’ve received from the climbing community, and my family and friends near and far,” Hayes wrote on Instagram. “None of us achieves our dreams alone, we do so together, and build on those who have come before us.”
Indeed. The question of whether a woman would reach 5.15a was never one of “if” but of “when” and “who.” Over the last decade, the best female climbers in the world have been pushing right up to that 5.15a level. Climbing grades are subject to a community-wide consensus of difficulty, so women have climbed routes that were first considered to be at a 5.15a difficulty level but were retroactively downgraded after consensus was reached. With those shifts in mind, the climbing community has awaited a female ascent of 5.15a sport climb that is widely agreed to be a benchmark for the grade. Hayes’s ascent of La Rambla meets that criteria.
Here’s a timeline of top achievements in female sport climbing that have led up to this moment:
1990: Lynn Hill climbs Masse Critique (5.14a) in Cimai, France, a route that J.B. Tribout once said “no woman would ever climb.” The route takes Hill fewer tries than Tribout and her ascent makes her the first woman to climb a 5.14a.
2002: Josune Bereziartu, a Basque climber, becomes the first woman to climb a 5.14d when she ascends the Bain de Sang in St. Loup, Switzerland. At the time, the hardest route in the world was only one grade higher at 5.15a. She was also climbing two or three grades harder than any other woman.
2004: Bereziartu climbs another 5.14d: Logical Progression in Japan.
2005: Bereziartu achieves her hardest route yet: Bimbaluna in Switzerland. The route is given a “slash” rating of 5.14d/5.15a, meaning it might not be difficult enough to be considered a full-fledged 5.15a, but compared to all other routes with 5.14d ratings, it’s a tough one.
2011: French climber Charlotte Durif climbs PPP (5.14d) in Verdon, France. Some European climbing magazines dispute the veracity of her claim and refuse to publish the news.
2011: Sasha Digiulian, from Virginia, climbs Pure Imagination (5.14d at the time) in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Subsequent ascents of the route, however, land the consensus grade at 5.14c.
2012: Digiulian climbs Era Vella (5.14d), in Margalef, Spain. Again, subsequent ascents suggest the route might in fact be slightly easier.
2013: Murial Sarkany, from Brussels, Belgium, climbs Punt X (5.14d) in Gorges du Loup, France, at age 39. This makes her either the second, third, or fourth woman to reach the 5.14d grade after Bereziartu, depending on whether Durif and Digiulian’s ascents are considered valid.
2015: Mar Alvarez, a full-time firefighter, climbs Escalatamasters (5.14d) in her home country of Spain.
2015: At age 13, Ashima Shiraishi, the phenom climber from New York City, takes a spring break trip to Santa Linya, Spain, where she climbs a potential 5.15a called Open Your Mind Direct. However, other climbers agree to a consensus that the route is, in fact, only 5.14d. The community still awaits a female ascent of an undisputed 5.15a.
2016: Margo Hayes climbs Bad Girls Club (5.14d) in Rifle, Colorado.
2016: Laura Rogora, a 14-year-old climbing prodigy from Italy, climbs Grandi Gesti (5.14d), in Italy, making her the second youngest person to climb that grade.
2017: Rogora continues her tear and climbs another 5.14d: Joe Blau in Oliana, Spain.
2017: Margo Hayes climbs La Rambla (5.15a), becoming the first female climber to reach this level.