This past weekend, Margo Hayes, 19, became the first female to send a 5.15 route — the most difficult rating in rock climbing. The climb, La Rambla in Siurana, Spain, was originally sent in 1994 by German mountaineering icon Alex Huber. Fifteen people have since followed. Until this week, no woman had made it up.
The first 5.15-rated route wasn’t achieved in rock climbing until 2001, when Chris Sharma climbed Realization (also known as Biographie) in France. Since then, climbers, notably Sharma and Adam Ondra, have succeeded in pushing the difficulty level up to 5.15b, and, most recently, to 5.15c (only three routes on earth hold a 5.15c rating: La Dura Dura in Spain, Change in Norway, and Vasil Vasil in the Czech Republic). Women have been attempting to crack the 5.15 glass ceiling for nearly two decades, with Ashima Shiraishi coming the closest, in March 2015, when she climbed Open Your Mind Direct in Spain. The route had only been climbed once previously, and was rated 5.14d. When Shiraishi sent it, a hold had broken near the top, potentially graduating the route to 5.15a. Until more people climb Open Your Mind Direct and weigh in (climbing ratings are subjective), the route is considered a 5.14d/5.15a, so not an official 5.15.
Hayes spent seven days projecting the climb during her spring break, and got so close on February 25 that she bumped her return flight back to have another go. This time, she made it. Prior to sending La Rambla, 5.15a, Hayes was on a tear in North America, climbing 14 routes in the 5.14 range, including making the first female ascent of Bad Girls Club, 5.14d, in Rifle, Colorado. She’s currently spending a year studying abroad in France and plans to continue her siege of the world’s hardest routes in Europe.
In the history of climbing, there have always been women like Hayes (Lynn Hill, Sasha DiGiulian) pushing the limits of what’s considered possible for women. What’s particularly notable about Hayes is that she's barely 19. Both Hayes and Shiraishi, just 15, are part of a new generation of American climbers who grew up after rock climbing went mainstream and indoor climbing gyms sprung up all over the country. Hayes started climbing at age 10, in Boulder, with elite kids climbing club, Team ABC, and competing shortly after. She was a national champion in sport climbing by the time she was 17.
To others who grew up climbing as kids, like Alex Honnold, 5.15 is the natural progression of the sport, and the numbers will continue to rise. “People are already talking about projecting 5.15d,” says Honnold. “Both men and women are climbing harder than ever before.”