Man climbing with ocean view

It’s easy to name some of the best athletes in the world (Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Usain Bolt…). We hear their names in the news, in songs, even in textbooks.

But can you name the best rock climbers?

Now that can be tough. Well, after excluding Alex Honnold and his widely publicized Free Solo of El Capitan, of course. 

This is because there are so many types of rock climbing: indoor and outdoor, sport and trad, rope climbing and bouldering, free solo and deep water free solo, ice climbing and alpinism…and even speed climbing! 

Although the different types often compliment each other, many professionals focus on a single one. Some are talented at multiple. Some can show up to any climbing area and immediately start crushing, no matter the type of rock or style of route.

But what makes a better rock climber – being the best at one style, or being really good at all of them?

It turns out, both sorts of climbers can be considered among the greats. 

And that is one of the coolest things about the sport of rock climbing. It is unique in the ways it is multi-varied, yet united in the same community.

It also has less barriers to entry. Routes do not discriminate by gender, like football and basketball. Rather, the rock climbing gender gap is a very close race, with some women being the greatest of either gender  Every climber, no matter who they are, has a chance at success.

That being said, indoor climbing competitions are usually divided by gender. 

But in the outdoors, women join the ranks of the select few overall humans in the world who have sent V15 and 5.15b. 

To put this in perspective: the hardest bouldering ascent by anyone to date is a V16 (or supposedly a V17), and the hardest sport route ascent is 5.15d. 

What It Takes to be the Best Rock Climber In the World

The trait that famous, top-tier climbers like Ashima Shiraishi, Margo Hayes, Adam Ondra, and Chris Sharma have in common is a determination to break boundaries.

All of them, along with others on the list below, have either completed climbing routes that were previously believed to be impossible, reached top ranks in competition climbing, and/or gained first ascents of difficult routes (or were even the first woman to achieve a first ascent of a route).

Some have done a combination of two or all three of these things.

Many famous climbers are also sponsored by major outdoor companies like La Sportiva and the North Face

A New Level Attained Through Free Solo

No climbing feat will ever quite match Alex Honnold’s famous, first ever free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite.

The route he did was extremely difficult, although it isn’t among the hardest routes in existence.

What made this accomplishment so special was the high degree of consequence: If he fell, he died.

Imagine if Michael Jordan died were he to miss a single a shot or land a foul in a basketball game. That is almost the equivalent of the stakes of free solo climbing.

The extreme mental fortitude required for such an act goes unparalleled. Literally. Alex Honnold is one of a rare handful of people throughout history to ascend a rock face without protection.

The chances of another rock climber repeating what he did is extremely unlikely. That is what makes Honnold world class – even if he isn’t climbing 5.15+ like Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra.

Top 21 Best Climbers in the World

As climbing continues increasing in popularity – not to mention, gaining a spot in the next Olympics –  incredible climbers of all genders and backgrounds are emerging to break boundaries and offer inspiration for future legends.

The list of the best climbers is bound to grow and change in the years to come. But for now, here’s our list of top-notch contenders in the climbing scene at present. In no particular order:

Stefano Ghisolfi

Stefano is an Italian competition sport climber also recognized for his outdoor achievements, including:

  • One of just five climbers to redpoint 5.15c in his ascents of Perfecto Mundo and Change
  • Sent five V14 boulder problems
  • Climbed eleven sport routes at the 5.15 grade 

 In 2017 and 2018, he ranked second place in the World Cup for lead climbing indoors. He is also a member of the Italian National Climbing team for the 2021 Olympics.

Ashima Shiraishi

After starring in Reel Rock’s Young Guns film at the age of 16, Ashima Shiraishi caught the world’s attention. She’s one of the most successful young climbers out there and still has endless potential for growth. 

Ashima is the youngest person in history, as well as the second female ever, to climb 5.14d/5.15a. 

At 10 years old, she was the youngest person to send a V13. 

By the age of 19 years old, she’s flashed a V12, and sent three V14’s and two V15 boulder problems. She is the only woman – as of yet – to climb V15. 

Despite her lack of experience in competitions, Ashima still dominates when she does participate. 

Ashima only entered one competition in 2019: the USA Open Championships. She proceeded to win second place in lead, and first place in bouldering.  She even won against the Olympic climber Brooke Raboutou. 

Nevertheless, Ashima’s main talent is outdoor sport climbing. 

It is no wonder she is expected to be remain among the best climbers in the world for many years to come. 

Chris Sharma

Chris Sharma specializes in deep water soloing, but has also made serious strides in sport climbing. Chris and Adam Ondra are the only people that have climbed La Dura Dura (5.15c).

La Dura Dura is one of the hardest climbs in the world.

Other accomplishments of his include:

  • Mallorca Spain’s Es Pontàs/Alasha, the most difficult deep-water free solo ascent of all time
  • Multiple 5.15 and V15 sends 
  • Onsighted 5.14b

 Claire Buhrfeind

Despite growing up outside of Dallas with no rock climbing areas available, Claire quickly rose up in the ranks to become one of the most well-rounded climbers on the scene. Her success in all three climbing disciplines –  lead, bouldering, and speed – is what makes her especially unique. Her competition record and impressive outdoor ascents give proof to this:

  • Six Youth National Championship Titles
  • Won silver at the Senior World Championships in 2016
  • Sent three outdoor 5.14’s
  • In 2018, first climber ever to win the Senior National Championships in both sport and speed

Tomoa Narasaki

Tomoa is devoted to indoor climbing and considered one of the best. His explosive style resulted in 17 World Cup boulder medals during the last four years and three World Championships for bouldering.

 During his first Olympic qualifier, he didn’t just win – he dominated the competition.

Even some of the best climbers were unable to match his performance. He achieved new levels in pure power, route-reading and strength.

 Tomoa has made massive improvements in speed climbing. He won the combined event gold medal at the 2019 IFSC World Championships when he was only 24 years old.

Adam Ondra

Adam Ondra is a force of his own in climbing. Many consider him the best climber in the world by an insanely wide margin. His many achievements include:

  • More 5.15 accents than any other climber in history
  • 12 medals for bouldering World Cup including, four of them gold medals
  • The first and only climber to send 5.15d, on the route Silence
  • Second ascent of the 5.14d Dawn Wall, the world’s most difficult big wall climb
  • Ranked number seven in ascents graded at a minimum of V15 for hard boulder problems
  • His La Dura Dura ascent made him the first person to climb 5.15c
  • 20 medals for lead World Cups, including 14 gold medals
  • First to win a lead and boulder World Championship during the same year
  • More 5.15 FA’s than any other climber in history
  • The only climber to flash 5.15a: Super Crackinette
  • Ranked number five for FA’s of hard boulder problems
  • Only climber worldwide to send multiple 5.15c routes, including Change and La Dura Dura
  • The first and only climber to flash a V14 boulder: Jade

Adam Ondra began sport climbing at a world-class level at the age of 11. By the time he turned 26, he was the world’s undisputed best climber. He received this title for being one of the best in every single climbing discipline.

For some perspective: Adam achieved the third ascent of the Dawn Wall even though he had practically no experience with big walls. 

He is more well-rounded than any other rock climber, possibly throughout the history of the sport.

Shauna Coxsey

Shauna Coxsey became interested in climbing at the age of four. She is now Britain’s most successful competition climber. 

 Shauna was 20 when she first climbed a V13 boulder problem. A year later, she was one of only three women to climb V14 when she ascended New Baseline.

She was named overall winner of the  IFSC Bouldering World Cup for two consecutive years (in 2016 and 2017). 

During the 2019 Hachioji Olympic qualifiers, her overall performance won her third place. Her work on speed and lead climbing has many believing she will place first in the 2021 Olympics.

Rishat Khaibullin

Rishat Khaibullin is a sport climber with a talent for speed climbing. He was raised by his father in Kazakhstan as a traditionalist mountaineer.

Not only is he an exceptionally well-rounded climber, but he is also one of the fastest speedsters on the planet. His frame is compact and short, he has good skills for route reading, and strength known to last for days.

He became established as a primary Olympic competitor after taking third place at the Hachioji qualifiers.

He is the best speed climber qualifying for the Olympics. His personal best only misses the world record by 0.4 seconds. 

Rishat does not have as many accomplishments as many of the other rock climbers at this time, but there is no doubt he has the talent for the indoor competition scene. 

Janja Garnbredt

Janja is an extremely successful competitive climber, having competed in 31 events for the Lead World Cup since she turned 16. 

She has won 15 gold medals for the Lead World cup and an additional 11 gold medals for the World Cup bouldering events. She climbs like someone from another planet with more athleticism than many of the other climbers.

Janja was the second climber to win both a Lead and Bouldering World Cup during the same year. In 2019, she repeated her accomplishment by winning in the combined, Bouldering and Lead championships.

This was the first clean sweep in sports history. The only reason she does not have even more accolades is that she does not have as many outdoor accomplishments.

 Her outdoor track record is still impressive, with one 5.13d flash and two 5.14d ascents. If she decides to push into the 5.15 territory, she may become one of the best in the world.

Jakob Schubert

Throughout the years, Jakob has been an extremely successful climber. By 2011, he won the World Cup and broke the record for winning seven consecutive Lead World Cup competitions in a single season. 

Since then, he has won two more World Cups. 

By the time Jakob turned 29, many expected him to be at the start of his physical decline. Yet, he has defied those expectations to become a rock climbing icon – and even appears to be entering his prime. 

He made a splash on the competition circuit and took second place in Hachioji to secure a ticket to the 2021 Olympics. His next move was flying to Cataluna to become the fifth in history to successfully climb 5.15c with his Perfecto Mundo ascent.

In the past, Jakob has bouldered up to V15 and onsighted 5.14b. 

Undoubtedly, one of his most impressive qualities is the ability to remain one of the best for such a long period of time. 

Alex Honnold

 

Of all the best rock climbers in the world, Alex is perhaps the most famous.  You are more likely to know of him due to his starring in the film Free Solo. He is the world’s best free solo climber, and he also specializes in trad. 

To free solo a route means to ascend it without a rope or harness.

Alex Honnold has a long list of impressive accomplishments, including:

  • Free soloing Free Rider (5.13a) on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park
  • Free soloing El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d) in El Potrero Chico, Mexico
  • Free soloing Northwest Face (5.12a) of Yosemite’s Half Dome 
  • Free soloing Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) in Zion National Park
  • Speed Record on the Nose with Tommy Caldwell, in 1:58:07
  • First ascent of the Fitz Traverse in Argentine Patagonia with Tommy Caldwell

No one else has yet completed any of Honnold’s free solos named above, and perhaps never will. His physical talent and mental strength goes unparalleled. 

Before attempting a free solo, he gains confidence by memorizing sequences and visualizing his moves. He places himself in scary positions inside his head for the expansion of his comfort zone. His climbs are all about metronomic consistency.

Honnold is known for having incredible footwork and technique, using minimal effort to float up the walls. 

In the realm of ‘hard’ grades and competitions, climbers like Honnold are reminders of the sport’s roots.

Tommy Caldwell

Tommy Caldwell has been considered a superstar rock climber for many years, and remains one of the best climbers in history. 

He has led a difficult life involving a kidnapping, divorce, and an accident that almost destroyed his career when he chopped off a finger. However, such adversity did not stop him from becoming one of the most successful climbers ever. 

His accomplishments include: 

  • FA’s of Kryptonite (5.14c/d) and Flex Luthor (5.15a) at the Fortress of Solitude, CO
  • Numerous FFA’s and notable free ascents of super difficult big wall climbs in Yosemite Valley
  • Speed record on the Nose with Alex Honnold – in 1:58:07
  • First ascent of the Fitz Traverse in Argentine Patagonia with Alex Honnold

Tommy’s completion of the Dawn Wall in 2015 was overall his most notable feat. It took him six years to work out the moves and link the pitches together. On their successful, final attempt, Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson ascended the route in 19 days.

At the time, it was considered the hardest big wall climb in history. Their journey was recorded and released in the popular documentary, the Dawn Wall.

 

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Margo Hayes 

Margo dropped jaws and gained international attention when she became the first woman to climb 5.15a with her ascent of La Rambla in 2017. She also gained the first female redpoint of the 5.15a, Realization/Biographie. 

Margo has even had great success competing on the USA National Climbing team, including winning three gold medals in the 2016 World Youth Championships. However, her competition performance still does not seem to compare to her outstanding sport climbing tick list outdoors: 

  • She climbed fourteen 5.14’s in 2016, even bagging two 5.14’s in a single day – Zulu and Double Rainbow
  • Gained the first female ascent of Bad Girls Club (5.14d)
  • In 2020, she got the FFA of the first 5.14d in the United States, Kryptonite

With such an impressive record behind her at only age 22 and no signs of stopping, Margo shows a great deal of potential for the years to come. 

Sebastien Bouin

 

Sebastien (aka. “Seb”) has a well-earned nickname of Undercover Crusher. He comes from Draguignan, a small municipality in France. He has never been a part of the competition scene because he only has one climbing goal: crushing the most difficult routes for single-pitch sport. 

During the last five years, he has successfully reached his goal. After becoming the third to ascend Chilam Balam 5.15b, however, he disappeared for a while.

Once he re-entered the climbing world in 2019, he had the best year of his entire career; and perhaps, the most productive year for any climber in history. He finished seven routes graded 5.15a or harder, including four 5.15b’s. Those routes included: 

  • First ascents for La Rage D’Adam (5.15b/c) and The Dream (5.15b)
  • Second ascent of Mamichula (5.15b)
  • Second ascent of Move (5.15b/c) 

The reason Sebastien stands out from his competition is his bravery, pure tenacity and unbelievable strength. No other climber on the globe ever went to Flatlanger cave and reached Ondra’s sandbox.

Not only did he succeed, but he has been hinting that he might tackle Silence one day. Despite not having any accolades for indoor climbing or gaining the attention of the more mainstream media, he is one of the best sport climbers worldwide at only 26 years old. 

Babsi Zangerl 

Talk about a badass female trad-climbing icon! Babsi has a nearly endless list of accomplishments, all in the outdoor realm. She truly takes the cake from bouldering, to single-pitch sport, to big wall routes. Although you probably haven’t heard her name as she has never really entered the competition circuit, she deserves some well-earned attention, with:

  • The first  woman to climb Pura Vida (V13)
  • The first woman to climb the  “Alpine Trilogy”, three routes in the Alps all rated at 5.14a
  • First free ascent of Gondo Crack (5.14b), an R-rated trad climb in Switzerland
  • Five free-climbs on Yosemite’s El Capitan, two of which were FFA’s and three second-ascents
  • Multiple 5.14 sends, many on scary run-out trad climbs!

Alain Robert

Alain is a bit of an outlier in the list, as he specializes in urban free soloing. His best climb was in 2011, when he ascended one of the tallest buildings in the world – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. He is often referred to as “Spiderman”.

 This is due to his frequent and illegal climbing of giant skyscrapers without any rope. His urban ascents have become legendary in the climbing world. He uses techniques generally employed to find routes on rock scars, pits and cracks.

The difference is that he uses these techniques for protrusions, ledges and window frames on modern buildings. To date he has climbed more than 100 buildings including the:

  • Eiffel Tower
  • Sydney Opera House
  • Burj Khalifa
  • Petronas Towers

Sasha DiGiulian 

Sasha is famous for her unabashed embrace of femininity while still being a top-tier athlete. She uses her success and platform to inspire other women climbers to reach for greatness. Sasha’s accomplishments include:

  • Winning the World Championships for Female Overall
  • Winning a silver medal in the Bouldering World Championships
  • Three-time U.S. National Champion
  • First North American woman and third woman in history to climb 5.14d
  • Multiple 5.14a first ascents
  • Numerous first ascents all over the world

Alex Megos

Alex Megos is undoubtedly among the ranks of the world’s greatest climbers:

  • He is the first person ever to flash 5.14d, even doing so on two separate occasions
  • Achieved the third ascent of Perfecto Mundo (5.15c) in 2018, and sent Bibliographie (5.15d) this year
  • Alex stated he climbed 2,500 hundred routes in Rotpunkt. All of these routes have been graded as 5.13b or harder.
  • He also has many boulder ascents in the V14 and V16 range. 

Alex made a name for himself in the competition scene when he won five medals in just three years. In 2019, he was one of only eight climbers qualifying at Hachioji to compete in the Olympics. He is projected to be on team Germany in 2021.

Daniel Woods

Daniel specializes in bouldering, and his name is known by boulderers across the world. 

It is no wonder why:

  • He is among the few elite climbers who have sent V16, on the problems Creature of the Black Lagoon and The Process
  • He has completed more V15 problems than any other climber in the world.
  • He is also a nine-time American Bouldering Series National Champion. 

Although sport climbing is mostly on the backburner for Daniel, he still bagged an impressive send of La Capella (5.15b) in 2018.

Daniel admits he is completely obsessed with climbing. His pursuit of perfection drove him right to the top. As with all of the folks on this list, it will be exciting to see how he continues to push climbing to new limits.

Laura Rogora

This 4.9 feet tall 19-year-old is taking the climbing world by storm. In the past year, she has qualified for a spot to compete in the 2021 Olympics, while also becoming the second woman ever to climb 5.15b with her ascent of the Ali Hulk Sit Start Extension Total

Laura’s competition history is no joke: with three gold medals at the IFSC World Youth Championships under her belt, a silver medal at the senior level of the European climbing Championships, and a 2020 World Cup win. 

She also performs well outdoors. Ever since sending her first 14d at 14 years old, Laura has bagged over fifteen routes graded at and above 5.14+. 

Needless to say, Laura stands at the forefront with the new generation of climbers like Margo and Ashima who will keep pushing the boundaries of possibility in climbing. 

Brooke Raboutou

Brooke is yet another young crusher who will take the stage in the 2021 Olympics, being the first American in history to qualify for the newly added sport. 

She is no stranger to making history, either:

  • Brooke was the first 11-year-old to climb 5.14b,
  • The first 10-year-old to climb V11 and 5.14a, and
  • The first 9-year-old to climb V10.

Like most of the top-notch young climbers on the Olympic roster, Brooke has years of achievements in climbing competitions to brag for. She was the combined youth world champion in 2016, the combined youth Pan-American champion in 2017, and the 2018 lead youth world champion. 

This year, Brooke sent her first V14.

Conclusion?

In the past couple decades climbing has exploded as a sport. Its newly gained position in the Olympics has guaranteed it will not lose its popularity for years to come. 

As a result, a new wave of talented younger rock climbers – perhaps larger than ever before – are reaching new heights and promising for a future of boundary pushing. 5.16 and V18 might just be right around the corner…

It is important to acknowledge the rising generation’s successes while also remembering the amazing feats of past climbers that helped set the stage. Likewise, to keep an eye out for climbers of all ages, genders, and styles who never stop crushing. 

It is impossible to identify a single best climber in the world because there are so many disciplines and unique types of challenges within the realm of rock climbing. The list above was still only a small snippet of the many rock climbers in the world who have done or are doing amazing things. 

Never stop watching: climbing history is always unfolding right in front of us.  All of the amazing athletes on our list were once new to the climbing scene.

For more reading see: “Potrero Chico El Búho: The Climber Café That Could” and “The Dawn Wall vs Free Solo: Which Film Is Better? [Hint ~ It’s Not Free Solo]

Published by Melissa Kochanowsky

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