Last June, German climber Alexander Megos, 19, finished high school and embarked on a yearlong climbing sojourn with friends. They traveled through South Africa's Rocklands and the Greek islands, and then drove across the U.S. in a 1992 GMC Safari van, picking up hitchhikers and ascending peaks in places like Utah's Indian Creek along the way. By the time Megos stood in the mountains of Spain's Catalonia region, at the base of the 131-foot Estado Critico route – one of climbing's most difficult ascents, with a mountaineering grade of 5.14d – he thought the climb would be a final fling before heading home and to college. He approached the route "cold," in a practice known as onsight climbing, where people scale a route free of existing equipment and without any prior study of the climb. Such a feat had never been accomplished on an ascent so difficult. "I just wanted to climb as far as possible," Megos said, "before getting completely punked and falling."
Megos' ascent was an arduous half-hour undertaking. He navigated the path by surveying where past climbers had left chalk prints in handholds, making crucial decisions while clinging by his fingertips to vertical limestone. As previous climbers' chalky routes varied depending on arm length, Megos, 5-foot-7 and 115 pounds, customized his route on the fly. "You have to go by feeling and find a fast solution," Megos says. From the steep beginning to the route's treacherous overhang, he nearly fell several times but managed to reach the top.
After Megos summited, a stunned bystander asked him if he knew he'd just made history. The man alerted a Spanish climbing magazine, who interviewed Megos and posted an account of his achievement, leading to controversy. Dubious readers noted that Megos had never before completed such a difficult route without several attempts. But vindication from eyewitnesses won him instant fame. While the teen savant has been climbing since the age of five, has garnered a Patagonia sponsorship, and has just earned a place in climbing's record books, Megos doesn't want to turn pro – although he is planning to hold off on college for the moment. "I wanted to start studying this October, but now it's different," Megos says, noting he may instead travel to the 250-foot-high Taipan Wall in Australia's Grampians. "I'd like to try some routes nobody has climbed before."