La Pura Dura: The World's Hardest and Purest Crack Lines
by Paul Nelson
Recently, footage was released of Belgian Nico Favresse's May, 2013 send of The Recovery Drink. This 35 meter mega-line in Jossingfjord, Norway, took Favresse two trips, and definitely ranks as one of the hardest crack climbs in the world. Favresse, who nabbed the second ascent of Sonnie Trotter's Cobra Crack in Squamish, calls it the hardest he's sent.
So what are some of the other "world's hardest" pure crack climbs? This is a hazy topic, especially as armchair climbers such as us begin trying to speculate as to what a "pure" crack is. The harder a route gets, usually the more "facey" it is; there are are plenty of very hard trad routes out there that follow incipient cracks or seams, but involve more face climbing cruxes (this is actually what the majority of the trad routes at my home crag of the New River Gorge consist of).
Much more rare are the "pure" crack climbs– splitters in which the cruxes involve solely moving from jam to jam. Even for movement as relatively simple as jamming, there are plenty of variables that can influence the difficulty of a pure jam crack: how steep is it? How flared is it? How far apart are the jams from one another? But here's the problem: once a crack is wide enough to accomodate jams, it is very likely that it will not be harder than 5.13 or so. For example, one of the most difficult jam sizes is the "baggy fingers" size (purple camalot for average finger-sized males), but an entire enduro pitch of this size might still be "only" 5.13, such as Indian Creek's Tricks Are for Kids.
This is why 5.14 cracks are such a rarity in this world, and why routes such as the recently-completed Dawn Wall are hard precisely because they veer away from cracks! If you are a 5.14 or harder climber, it is just difficult to find cracks of that level. It makes us of more mediocre abilities appreciate what we have, if you think about it. There are more than enough 5.11s and .12s to challenge us for multiple lifetimes!
That said, here are some of the most difficult pure crack lines in the world. Some are roofs, others tweaky vertical seams; some see a lot of traffic, but most are unrepeated. In compiling this list, I tried to keep the climbs as "pure" as possible– laybacks, facey seams, and stemming corners were eliminated. Sorry, Family Man and Carbondale Shortbus. Similarly, some cracks that were originally given or speculated to be the magic 5.14 grade but later downgraded have also been left out. Sorry, Greenspit and Home on the Range!
Stingray (5.13d/14a), Joshua Tree
"Wait a minute!" you are probably typing angrily right now, "after making this stringent and restrictive list of 'pure' crack climbs you lead off with a 5.13? WTF?" But bear with me for a minute.
Yes, Stingray, a sharp tips crack in Joshua Tree's crystal-ridden quartz monzonite, might "only" get 5.13, but Sonnie Trotter (who got the climb's second ascent, and first true redpoint ascent nearly two decades after Hidetaka Suzuki sent it in the mid-1990s) has an interesting take on it in this blog post here.
After going into the subjectivity of grades, mentioning that he broke several key footholds on Stingray while working it, and noting that the climb took him longer to do than several 5.14 sport routes, it comes down to this for Trotter: "If you can climb Stingray, you can climb Cobra, and vice versa." If you have been living under a rock and don't know what he's talking about regarding Cobra Crack, just keep reading. But those words alone from one of the world's best crack climbers probably warrant this climb being on the list of the world's hardest.
|Mason Earle on Stingray|
Magic Line (5.14a/b), YosemiteThis beautiful, arching line was put up by Ron Kauk in 1996, with some pre-placed gear. It is unrepeated, and still awaits a true redpoint ascent. Contenders should bring perfect footwork, balance, and a bandana.
Cobra Crack (5.14), Squamish
The beauty and classicity of a climb is an incredibly subjective topic, but I'm just going go ahead and say it (as others have): Cobra Crack is the most beautiful crack in the world, and certainly one of the hardest and purest.
Situated high up on the flanks of The Chief in Squamish, this line was known as possibly one of the world's most difficult cracks for decades before its FA. Swiss crackmaster Didier Berthod came agonizingly close to the first ascent of this beautiful line, utilizing a painful mono-undercling-jam (don't try this at home). However, Canadian Sonnie Trotter managed to send the line first, in 2006.
Since then, a list of those who have sent Cobra Crack reads like a "who's who" of international hard trad climbing, and includes Nico Favresse, Matt Segal, Ethan Pringle, Alex Honnold, Pete Whittaker, Tom Randall, Will Stanhope, and probably a few others whom I've forgotten.
China Doll Extension (5.14a), Dream Canyon, CO
This line has an interesting history. It was originally a 5.13b/c bolted line, equipped and redpointed in the mid-1990s by Bob Horan. Later, in the early 2000s, a young Adam Stack noticed that the seam would go on gear and sent it on some borrowed cams. However, it was not until 2006 that Mike Patz linked this lower pitch with 30 more feet of 5.13+ crack climbing to create a 5.14a megapitch. In 2007 it was repeated by Matt Segal.
The issue of leading bolted lines on removable gear (occasionally, and sillily called "greenpointing") usually does not apply to pure crack climbs. Proper Soul (5.14a) at the New River Gorge has been led on gear, but although it does follow cracks and corners, it is by no means a pure jamming crack. More similar to China Doll, Donner Summit's Father's Day (5.14a) also follows a bolted crack that has been led on gear, but its crux section is of a pure sport line, which is why it did not make this list. In contrast, China Doll seems to be pure crack climbing in its crux. Confused yet?
La Zébrée (5.14a), Val David, Quebec
Probably no other climber in the world has sought out hard cracks with the skill and tenacity of French Canadian Jean-Pierre "Peewee" Ouellet. His ticklist includes Stingray, Necronomicon, Home on the Range, and a slew of other 5.13 cracks. It seems as if Cobra Crack is the only one to have eluded him so far (maybe he needs to climb more sport routes to send it).
La Zébrée, an often-wet, multi-tiered finger crack in Quebec's Val David, saw a pinkpoint ascent by Jeff Beaulieu, but it was not until 2007 that Peewee sent the route while placing all his gear on lead.
Meltdown (5.14b), Yosemite
Near the aforementioned Magic Line is another unrepeated, possibly harder crack. Meltdown was established in 2008 by Beth Rodden, who made full use of her strong sport resume, tiny fingers, and even attached her cams by velcro to her harness so she could place them more quickly! Seven years later, it remains superlative: it is the hardest trad FA established by a female, is Yosemite's hardest single-pitch trad line, and is still unrepeated, even as standards continue to explode in the Valley.
Century Crack (5.14), Canyonlands, UT
The redrock Canyon Country of Southern Utah houses the world's greatest quantity and quality of pure splitter cracks, most of them in Indian Creek Canyon. However, you may notice from this list that Indian Creek has no contenders for pure 5.14 crack climbs. There may be several reasons for this– Indian Creek tends not to have too many steep climbs, its cracks are not too flared, and because they are perfectly parallel, they tend not to have big, powerful moves between locks that characterize climbs like Cobra Crack.
It may be that, for the uniform, soft sandstone of the Canyon Country to form really hard cracks, they need to be in roof form, of which there are several in areas adjacent to Indian Creek. There are several of these hard roof crack climbs in the region. Rob Pizem's Army of Darkness (5.13+) is one, as is Necronomicon (5.13+/14-), next on the list.
Then there is Century Crack, the only offwidth to make this list. Anyone who followed the quest of "Wide Boyz" Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, two Brits who tore up the U.S. in a 2010 roadtrip to climb its hardest offwidths, knows the story of Century Crack. After the two young guns onsighted, flashed, or soloed many testpieces such as Belly Full of Bad Berries and Trench Warfare, they finally found a route that made them work. Century Crack, with a nearly 100-foot horizontal offwidth roof, almost repelled their efforts. Almost.
Necronomicon (5.13d/14a), Canyonlands, Utah
Another FA by Peewee, this route is a slightly narrower version of Century Crack, and cuts through the same roofed geological formation in the Canyon Country. It was sent in 2011, and remains unrepeated.
The Almighty (5.14), Tetons
For being one of the hardest cracks in the US, we don't know much about this one. Apart from the well-made video of its ascent, this route has not gotten massive press or attention. First ascentionist Ty Mack of Driggs, ID, is not a big-name rock star climber, and I was unable to find out where this line even is– Wyoming, Idaho, where?
That said, this crack looks amazing, is unrepeated, and along with the next one, may very well make the Idaho region a stop on the hardman crack master's circuit.
Enter the Dragon (5.14a), The Fins, Idaho
Although most climbers know him as a high-end sport climber, Jonathan Siegrist also has mad trad street cred. For the last few years, he's been spending time in central Idaho's Fins, putting up sport routes up to 5.14+. Although limestone does not lend itself easily to trad climbing, and even less to beautiful cracks, Siegrist plucked a gem with Enter the Dragon in 2012, which he considers his hardest trad send.
Up until Favresse took down The Recovery Drink, most of the world's 5.14 cracks were in North America, but hopefully more will get put up around the world, and with removable gear. There are certainly still unsent cracks waiting for those with the pain tolerance to step up. Matt Segal and Will Stanhope are close to sending this beautiful splitter in the Bugaboos, and there's always this project in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon, too.