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Can anybody climb 9a? Part I: Challenges

Tom Randall from Lattice Training weighs in on the question

by Zofia Reych

What makes a 9a climber? Is it talent, youth, a specific body shape and composition, perseverance, or luck? Finger strength, pull power, or flexibility? Can anybody achieve the grade, or is it reserved for the likes of Adam Ondra and Margo Hayes? 

Few things are as inspiring as seeing a climber flourish, going from an ordinary wannabe to a real wad. Witnessing my friend Alice develop her skills, overcome fears and reach for her goals was definitely one of those hella inspiring experiences. 

Alice Hafer is a 3RD ROCK Ambassador who recently clipped the chains of her first 8b+, or in American money the benchmark grade of 5.14. Congratulating her on the send of “End of Days”, a tricky 45 metre line in Mt. Charleston, Nevada, I was beyond stoked. “Next thing 8c, and then you’re on the home stretch to 9a!” I gasped in awe. 

“Yeah, right,” she said, laughing and clearly taking it as a joke, but I was dead serious. If in making it to 5.14a she’d achieved what was before completely unthinkable, why couldn’t she make it all the way to 5.14d, or 9a?

Alice Hafer Photo By: Peter Vintoniv

We started pondering her odds but the more elements we took into account, the further we were from the answer. Could she really do it? And if so, why couldn’t anybody else too? 

To find out what makes a 9a climber, we looked at the history of the grade, climbers who can actually do it, the skills they have and challenges they had to overcome. We also picked the brains of Tom Randall, founder of Lattice Training and Crimpd, ½ of the Wide Boyz, and the coach with whom Alice has entrusted her training. Read on! 

The 9a benchmark 

The world’s first 9a graded routes were “Hubble” in the UK (1990, FA by Ben Moon) and “Action Directe” in the German Frankenjura (1991, FA Wolfgang Güllich). Since those days, many more climbers have reached this level but the exact numbers are unknown. The crème de la crème includes Adam Ondra, who has red-pointed no fewer than one hundred 9a’s; Alex Megos, who on-sighted two; and Ashima Shiraishi, the youngest person to climb one at the tender age of 13.

 The 9a club remains extremely exclusive but the ranks of elite climbers are far from homogenous.

The unlikely crushers 

In 2015, when Ashima Shiraishi clipped the chains of “Open your mind direct, she was not only a child but also well under five foot tall. On the other end of the spectrum is the UK’s Stevie Haston, who climbed his first 9a aged 52 and a second one just a year later. There go the excuses of being too short or too old. And if you think you’re too busy to be able to climb 9a, think again.

      Stevie Haston, climbed his first 9a aged 52. Photo by Alex Hancock

Mar Alvarez of Spain is one of the few women with multiple 9a ascents to their name. The 39-year-old works as a firefighter and admits that she sometimes finishes her training sessions in the wee hours of the morning. 

Another example of a “9a punter”, a.k.a. a non-professional climber who can tick 9a despite holding a regular job, is Australian Tom O’Halloran who divides his time between work, being a dad, and crushing in the Grampians. 

Closer to home, Sheffield based Stu Littlefair attributes his incredible rise through the grades to training with Tom Randall and maintains he wouldn’t have climbed Malham testpiece “Rainshadow” without his help. (Or maybe he would've - if he first quit his full-time job as an astrophysicist.) 

Asked about training methodologies for elite performers, Randall gives an astonishingly simple answer: “The rules that apply for training for 7a, 8a or 9a are all the same. The difference is that as you get better, the return on training investment becomes lower”. 

The principle of training progression is constantly overloading the muscles and the nervous system. As the athlete becomes stronger and more training-adapted, overloading becomes more and more challenging. It requires more time, more effort and more recovery. With increased strain and intensity comes an increased risk of injury, so closely monitoring the climber is key. “All in all, you have to invest increasingly more for the same incremental returns. The historical time component is crucial,” adds Tom. 

The punter struggles

Building a 9a climbing machine is not easy. It seems that between time spent on the wall, fingerboarding, full-body conditioning (strength training, cardio, stretching, and more) and recovery, a serious training plan is enough to take over your life, ruin your career and make your other half rather upset. 

We asked in the Lattice Training - Community discussionFacebook group what makes 9a an unachievable benchmark and most comments mentioned work and family commitments. Age and genetics were the next most commonly perceived obstacles, closely followed by lack of motivation. A few climbers candidly admitted that enjoyment was more important than dedicating time and effort into an uncertain goal. 

"Can anyone climb 9a?" discussion on the Lattice page

Somewhat telling was that the comment thread quickly became one of the most popular in the group, attracting over 100 entries within just a few days. It is a testimony to how much the 9a grade fires the imagination and ambition, despite being seemingly unattainable.

“The difficulty for people with day jobs is that their lifestyle doesn’t allow enough time for optimal training and recovery,” concludes Tom Randall. “A professional athlete [paid to climb] can afford to provide their body with exactly what it needs, when it needs it. For example: The perfect training session and nutrition, topped up with a one-hour nap before their second session of the day.”

Yet increasingly more examples prove that having a non-climbing related career and smashing 9a is entirely possible. So, how is it done?

Read PART II of this article, where Tom tells us about purposeful practice, and we geek out with some finger strength benchmark numbers.

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