The formative years of cutting edge rock climbing: 1980

I always loved climbing history, and especially the early days of sport climbing. Over the next few months, I will be covering the 1980-2000 period of rock climbing, with republishing of an old article by Steve Kelly from Australia (credits below). Hope you enjoy the stories!

Patrick Edlinger “Le Blond” on Fenrir in Verdon. 80s. Photo by Robert Nicod.

Back in 1980 the small world of cutting-edge rock climbing was mainly a world of hard-end trad routes and skimpy multi-coloured tights. Top climbers of the day were names such as Carrigan, Fawcett, Bachar, Yaniro and Edlinger – and thus unsurprisingly the hardest routes of the day were mainly their own creations.

If you wanted to make a name for yourself, then you could do no better than visit Wales (Tremadog & Gogarth), the US (Joshua Tree) or Australia (Arapiles) – all three destinations responsible for harbouring the hardest climbs in the world at the time.

The level at this time was hovering around grade 7b+, with only half a dozen routes having been labelled a harder grade. Routes considered to be the top of their class were things like Strawberries (7b+), Yesterday (then 7b+), The Phoenix (7c), Equinox (7b) and Supercrack (7b) – the latter three all residing in the States.

Ron Kauk, October 1976. 2nd ascent of Supercrack, The Shawangunks. EB’s, swami, and nuts.

Very unknown at the time and somewhat largely ignored due to the tactics used on the first ascent (probably the first true redpoint of any route) was Tony Yaniro’s line Grand Illusion – which at first was given 5.12+ – but later regarded as 5.13b/c (8a/a+) – a route WAY ahead of its time.

Tony Yaniro on Grand Illusion. Photo by: Heinz Zak.

Australia was holding its own – mainly due to the efforts of the hard working Kim Carrigan, but also due to people like Mark Moorhead and Mike Law – who were both operating in the 7b grade bracket (2 grades off the world standard).

Probably the most famous climber of the time however was Patrick Edlinger – a French superstar – notably because he had struck a deal with a television producer and had a film made of himself – climbing (and sometimes soloing) routes in the Verdon Gorge and environs. Edlinger though – wasn’t just any old climber – he was one of the most naturally gifted.

Published with kind permission from Climbing Club of South Australia. Original article from the The BOLFA Newsletter: “A window on the past: The formative years of of cutting edge rock climbing Part 1 (1980-1990) by Steve Kelly”. Note: text was minimally modified for 2020. Images were added with personal preference and due credits.