“It can’t be a route if there aren’t any holds, Sonnie,” Alex called from the ground. I could see him down there, sitting back in his harness comfortably, looking up at me, grinning. I was roughly 60 feet in the air, on the opposite end of the 9mm rope he was holding, and searching for some sort of passage through the steep, blue, barely featured limestone. Behind me was nearly a thousand feet of downhill treetops, a forest that extends all the way to the bottom of the valley and pushes right up against the green and blue colors of the winding Bow River. This glacier-fed water cuts right through the middle of downtown Banff, which is right in the middle of Banff National Park, which is bang smack in the middle of the great Canadian Rockies. The surrounding mountains are truly breathtaking, but my focus was on the next 5-foot shield of rock above my head.
“Don’t worry, Alex,” I yelled, “It’s hard—but it will definitely go!” Then I mumbled under my breath, “But not by me.”
With another grunt, I continued upward with the drill. The tops of my shoulders were burning from the effort, and my hips were red and chafed from falling and hanging in my harness. Still, I was like a kid in a candy store, my fingertips ran over the wall, feeling for every single bump, crack or pocket, something for his fingers to dig into or give him purchase, something to get him to the top.
I first met Alex Megos two years ago in California. I’d heard of him, of course. The young German has gained an international reputation for dispatching the hardest climbs on the planet in record time. He makes quick work of other climbers’ lifelong projects, often in less than an hour or so, and now, after a decade of hard training, Alex himself probably doesn’t realize how strong he is. But it was refreshing to learn that in person he was genuine and funny, and I liked him immediately. So the following season, I spent some time in Germany with him and his family. Hoping to repay the hospitality, I invited him to Canada to climb at some of my favorite crags.
As his arrival drew closer, however, I realized that there may not be enough truly hard climbing in Canada to keep Alex busy for the duration of his stay. I love my climbing areas so much—but what if one of the strongest rock climbers in the world found them disappointing in terms of difficulty? Climbing for me has always been about searching out new lines at the very edge of my ability, envisioning something I think I can do, but just barely. This time, I knew I had to find something beyond me, something for the current generation. Namely, something for Alex.
Two degrees steeper and this wall could be impossible to climb. Finding a line this hard up a wall this steep is extremely rare, and knowing a climber who might actually climb it is rarer. For me, it felt like organizing the Super Bowl and then having front-row seats to the game. Every athlete needs a challenge, an opponent, so to speak, and I was sure this was going to be a worthy matchup.
I finally worked through the last sequence of moves just to get to the top. I lowered, exhausted, to the ground. Of course, any climb is incomplete until somebody does it bottom to top, but if anyone could unlock this thing, it would be Alex. We switched ends of the rope, and I belayed him as he went up to check it out for the first time. I felt like I’d pieced together a race car and had just handed him the keys.
Two weeks later, Alex sent it, completing what was most likely the hardest single pitch in North America at the time this catalog printed. What does it mean for Canada to have its first 5.15? Nothing, really. It’s just a number. The challenge itself—the wall, the rock—has been there all along. Teamwork and friendship brought it to life this summer.
Some might think of this as a passing of the torch, but climbing is a community of people with a common passion. Whether you’re climbing on the cutting edge doesn’t matter at all in the end. Saying that I somehow helped the next wave of strong climbers would be inaccurate; they’ve created themselves by years and years of hard work and preparation. My “wave” may have helped inspire them or broken down barriers to what’s considered possible, just as the Yosemite Stonemasters did for us, but this will continue for as long as there are people who love to climb. In a moment where Alex and I had the chance to combine his strength and my experience, we had an adventure, which, like almost any adventure, was richer for having shared it.
This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 Patagonia catalog.