Making Sense of Climbing

Ashima Shiraishi climbing Open Your Mind Direct (9a/+), Catalyuna.
Ashima, pretty much for sure the “best youngest female climber,” cranking in Catalunya. Photo from Ashima’s Instagram feed, taken by Parker Alec Cross

Not long ago I found myself on the phone trying to explain to a journalist, who wasn’t a climber, some of climbing’s subtler points.

“So who’s the overarching authority for these things,” the writer asked, hoping to find something concrete to reference for her article about Ashima Shiraishi’s impressive ascents in Catalunya’s Santa Linya cave.

“Well, you see…” I began, trying to figure out how to phrase it, “in climbing, there is no authority for this type of thing.”

The grades, the designations of hardest route or best climber are fuzzy at best, I told the journalist, determined by group consensus. The fewer people who’ve done the route (in this case, Ashima was the first to climb it since a crux hold broke), the less statistically reliable a grade will be. Heck, even basic information like who did a route, when, and how hard they thought it was can be tough to pin down. In this case, the first ascentionist mentioned in the journalist’s already-published article had been called into question and she was looking for a definitive source.

Unfortunately, I told her, the only definitive source on such a matter would be the person who did the route first (and even then there can be debate). I pointed her to the website, with its database of self-reported ascents, cringing as I pictured a person from outside the climbing world trying to make sense of the site’s trademark late-90s-style user interface and oft-cryptic route comments.

In the end, rather than brave a potential quagmire, the publication chose to pull any mention of first ascents. It was easier than trying to tease apart the intricacies of the matter—particularly for a general audience, most of whom couldn’t explain the difference between a flash and an onsight. (A surprisingly difficult differentiation, it turns out, even for climbers.)

“So is it correct to say that Ashima is the first woman to climb 9a+?” Another journalist asked me during the recent media frenzy.

Well, you see…” I began again.

For some reason it was difficult for me to just tell these journalists what they seemingly wanted to hear. Maybe I’d been working in the climbing world for too long. I mean, I’ve had to research articles like this myself and could only think of the commenters lurking in the wings to declare every detail journalistically sloppy. I’d read also hundreds of debates about grades and rankings that never did anything more than highlight the arbitrary nature of our little game. And I’d seen the bizarre ways the general interest media represented climbers and their accomplishments to fit a narrative that non-climbers could readily understand. So I felt compelled to offer up at least a hint of this arbitrariness, if only to say I tried.

“Well then would it be safe to say that Ashima is the best youngest female rock climber climbing today?” the woman pressed me.

“Uhm, sure; that seems safe to say,” I yielded. I felt it highly improbable that there was some other 13-year-old girl (she’s 14 now, actually—happy birthday Ashima!) sport climbing as hard as Ashima. But even still I harbored a shadow of doubt. There always seems to be some unsung crusher somewhere, flying under the radar and making mincemeat of old standards. Still, “best youngest female rock climber?” Who could argue with that?

Now, to paint an accurate picture, any article on such a topic should probably attempt to explain the difference between sport climbing and all those other types of climbing (though to be fair, Ashima is a shoo-in for the best youngest female boulderer title, too), but after seeing the way mainstream media dealt with the concept of “free climbing” during the Dawn Wall excitement, I thought better of trying to make such distinctions.

At the end of the day, however you want to frame the discussion, Ashima’s accomplishments are truly and exceedingly impressive. She reminds me of Sharma in his early years; it’s like watching a new era being ushered in right before your eyes. But like all climbing accomplishments, her ascents and their significance resist succinct encapsulation, particularly for outsiders who don’t (or don’t really want to) understand all the made-up rules and distinctions we climbers love to throw at our achievements.

At first glance this could be seen as a critique of climbing. There’s so much subjectivity, so many qualifications—how can we really determine who’s “the best”? But this is one of the things I most enjoy about what we do. Climbing’s subjectivity only helps to reinforce its personal nature. It reminds us that we’re not, after all, curing cancer or helping the homeless, but striving after something for our own reasons.

I also enjoy the fact that, no matter which heated online discussion through which I find myself salaciously scrolling, there’s usually at least one voice crying out for us to remember that whatever the grade and whomever the climber, at root the most important thing is getting out there and getting after it and growing and learning and having a great goddamned time along the way. All the rest is pretty much up for debate, anyhow.