Was Fred Rouhling a liar or a misunderstood person? This extremely interesting text was first published in 2005 in Climbing Magazine under the title "The other side of Fred Rouhling". In view of the current first repetitions of the «Akira» route, which sparked the controversy surrounding Fred Rouhling's person, we have translated the text into German.
Over the years, many climbers have become objects of ridicule for claiming to have performed and, in the absence of evidence, the scene did not believe them. Once the negative publicity has started rolling, there seems to be no stopping it.
In the world of sport climbing, probably no man received as much bad press before the turn of the millennium as Fred Rouhling, a Frenchman who hit the news in the mid-1990s. In 1995, his fame reached international proportions when he proposed grade 9b for one of his routes - at a time when grade 9a + was not officially even given. Other hard first ascents of Rouhling were similarly controversial. In 2004, Climbing Magazine sent two American climbers and journalists to France, Pete Ward and Tim Kemple. They should investigate the rumors, find Fred Rouhling and see what they find: a liar? Or is everything completely different? The following report was written by Pete Ward.
I think I finally caught Fred Rouhling telling a lie.
«Akira» seems to have a chipped handle! Fred says of his first ascent that he didn't hit any handles. I call him. I ask him to climb the sequence of the route where the artificial grip is located. He takes a moment to look at the section and examine the chalk trails. Apparently a stranger tried the route recently. Fred draws a series of movements in the air and sits down to put on his shoes. Tim put a new film in his camera while I move a couple of crash pads.
How would I feel if I actually caught Fred telling a lie?
I decide that's his problem and see if he needs the artificial grip. Or whether he can even climb that thing. Rouhling gets up, chalks his hands and begins to climb.
It's winter 2004. It's been almost ten years since Fred announced that he had climbed this unusual route near the small village of Vilhonneur, western France. The line goes through a projecting roof, similar to a long boulder, always close to the ground, and finally through a vertical wall. It could be described as a long, hard boulder problem combined with a short, hard wall climb.
Rouhling's suggested evaluation was unprecedented: 9b. He seemed ahead of his time. In the year it was visited (1995), grade 9a was hardly established. The climbing scene reacted with contempt to the Frenchman's claim, whom no one had on the radar. Most Americans immediately rejected the route. In 1995 the top American climbers were just about to advance to grade 5.14b (8c) and although we knew that European climbers are stronger, we couldn't bear the thought that an unknown euro would surpass us so far. Jibé Tribout and Ben Moon, the world's best sport climbers at the time, weren't exactly thrilled by the 9b news either - and they said so. Rouhling made no friends. He saw himself practically at odds with the whole scene.
Some critics said that «Akira» could not possibly be by far the toughest route in the world. Others said it didn't matter anyway, because Rouhling didn't climb it at all. «Akira» was buried in the fine print. And Rouhling became the symbol of an egocentric who wanted to attract sponsors' attention with dubious achievements. Almost all climbers who are accused of cheating quickly disappear from the scene.
Not so with Fred Rouhling. Years after the hype about Akira, he was still climbing at a high level. In 2002 he made Fred Nicole's super record “Bain de Sang” (9a). For most of 2003, he was the third-placed boulderer in the world on the 8a.nu website, having climbed 8b + once and 8b eight times. He managed the second ascent of the “Eau Profond” (8b +) bouldering in Switzerland - within fifteen minutes. All these inspections were observed and considered credible enough to be reported in the international media.
I was fascinated. If Fred Rouhling was responsible for the toughest section of rock ever climbed, why don't we hear from him again? Why couldn't he show more inspections that set standards? If he's been dishonest, why does he keep climbing so publicly in the face of such harsh criticism? And most importantly: «Akira» - does he have or not? After a few months and countless emails, Tim Kemple and I, Pete Ward, agreed to meet up with Rouhling in France. We wanted to find out the truth.
We had just romped around in various European climbing areas for a week. The climbing was great, but it seemed like the main focus of our trip was on gossip. Everyone wanted to talk about Fred Rouhling. And we are very interested in listening. At least half of the people we speak to believe that Fred is a seedy character and / or that he hasn't climbed his routes.
We hear that Rouhling is 2 meters tall, with a huge span. “Plus six or seven monkey index,” says a guy who allegedly knows Rouhling from before. Another climber says his routes are just a bunch of chipped moves that he could only do because he's so big. We hear that Rouhling climbed «Akira» and then filled in holds to make it more difficult for repeaters. We hear from the American climber Dave Graham that Rouhling couldn't manage the 7a + sequence at the beginning of «Biography» (9a) in Ceüse. We've heard enough to feel that the best scenario for Rouhling is that he has climbed his routes - but that it is a crazy gymnastic feat that is only possible for tall climbers with huge wingspan .
When we pull into the parking lot where we arranged to meet, things don't look good for Fred Rouhling. I get out of our rental car just as Rouhling pulls up on the other side of the street with his VW caravan. French police officers in strange hats drive past in their tiny patrol car. You stare at the strange-looking people talking in the parking lot late at night and almost go over a red light.
We wave to Fred, he waves back. When he jogs across the street to us, something is wrong. At first I can't be quite sure, so I smile as we exchange courtesies. When he shows us the way to his parents' house, the disagreement becomes clear to me: he is too small. Later we measure its size and range. It is 180 centimeters high with a monkey index of +1.5. The myth is beginning to unravel.
Rouhling grew up in the tiny farming village of Le Panissaud, about 100 kilometers northeast of Bordeaux. In the neighboring village of Vilhonneur there is a limestone quarry which, as the locals say with great pride, delivered the blocks at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Twenty minutes away is the town of Angoulême, where gray limestone bulges tower over many of the streets and form a quiet, small climbing area with several dozen rocks: "Les Eaux Claires". Literally translated it means "The clear waters". It is a dream of a climbing area. The longest approach is a hundred meters and leads to limestone sleepers that tower fifteen to twenty meters high and are often more overhanging than high. And the style? No trace of the stereotypical French drop knees and the like; If you want to be successful in "Les Eaux Claires", you need two strong fingers on each hand and shoulder that go with it. Long stretches between small holes and pockets are popular here - Rouhling is a master at this.
He worked his way through the grades as a teenager and opened his first 8b at the age of nineteen. In the early 1990s he attended high school in the south of France, the region that was the world's number 1 address for hard sport climbing. There, Rouhling opened two early 8c routes: “UFO” in the Calanques near Marseille and “Les Spécialistes” in the Verdon Gorge.
When Rouhling returned from high school in 1993, he had had enough of the technical endurance style that had made French sport climbing famous. Tired of using his feet, he looked for - or created - routes in Les Eaux Claires that required a different style. The first was "Hugh", an overhanging 18-meter bulge (at the base of which the graffito "HUG" is painted in large letters).
After his first ascent, he felt that he had made the route too easy. So he filled some grips with a cement mixture, made others worse and then climbed the route again - which on the one hand was his roughest "manufacturing work" on a rock and on the other led to incredibly dynamic movements. He gave Hugh a 9a at a time when there were only two or three other 9a's in the world. The next Rouhling route was «Akira». The huge roof was less than a kilometer from his parents' house and only 200 meters from the edge of the local quarry. In a slightly different world, «Akira» could hold up the Statue of Liberty.
The line runs from the deepest corner of a cave across the roof. It is 19 meters long and initially only rises about 3 meters above the ground. You can reach any point on the first 13 meters of the climbing route with a ladder, which Rouhling did in 1995. For three months in a row he worked out the relentless, dynamic bouldering movements. Pinches, slopers, crimps and holes lead to a handle near the edge of the roof, where Rouhling let himself be tied into a rope from the break in order to climb the last 5 meters vertically. He rated “Akira” with a 9b; the hardest line a human has ever climbed? And Rouhling claimed that all the handles are natural. In contrast to “Hugh”, he didn't pick up the hammer in “Akira”.
The last hard first ascent of Rouhling follows a protruding bead, right next to "Hugh": "L'autre Côté du Ciel" (The other side of the sky). The overhang includes a series of campus movements on holes that are hardly intended for a human body. The closing sequence is something to watch: Long pulls of holes lead to a 1.5 meter wide crusade with the climber turning with his back to the wall - a more impressive version of Tom Cruise's memorable move in Mission Impossible. Rouhling climbed “L'autre Côté du Ciel” in 1996 and considers it to be his second hardest route with grade 9a. "Of course it is natural." The twinkle in Rouhling's eyes reveals the punch line before he says it. "Drilled, of course." He adds a shrug.
Fred Rouhling drilled and struck man-made holds on some of his tough routes, but his tactics were typical of that era in France. Many of the famous French routes, including “La Rose et la Vampire”, “Bronx” and “Super Plafond” are chipped and / or glued to some degree, and some are entirely man-made. Even in the USA there are many hard, classic routes with artificial grips - "The Phoenix" in Yosemite, "Just Do It" at Smith Rock and "Hasta la Vista" at Mount Charleston, for example. In the mid-1990s, Rouhling was hardly the only one who started routes with chipped grips. But no sooner did he claim grade 9b for "Akira" than his methodology was subjected to an unprecedented test, and he became a whipping boy for the seedy practices of an entire generation of climbers.
Rouhling is now of the opinion that the chipping was a mistake. The generation of climbers in which he grew up did it with a certain naturalness. But after traveling a lot in the climbing areas of this world, he has broadened his view of things. The last grip he chipped was in "L'autre Côté du Ciel". He's not proud of it. Whenever he describes "Hugh" he always refers to the line as dirty. He has changed his mind about chipping and the joy of climbing is unbroken. You can see it straight away when he looks back over his old routes. His eyes light up and he literally hops from grip to grip, feet swinging out and seeming to remember exactly where they belong.
The same gossip that Rouhling is a two-meter giant also goes that he is a recluse. So I expect him to be reluctant to show us his routes. But when we sit down for dinner, the first thing he asks is: "Do you want to go to Akira tomorrow morning?" Over the next four days I experience Fred Rouhling as the most open and approachable person I have ever met. You can ask him anything and he will do his best to give a complete answer.
So that's exactly what we're doing. Less than an hour after meeting him at the dinner table with his parents, we question him about his routes, his chipping, and his slanderers. We repeat the accusations of famous climbers, we ask him tough questions and we repeat them in anticipation of discrepancies in his answers. There is none.
"When people say that I do tough routes in my style, I can't say anything," he says. "They are all my style and they are here, not in the south of France, where it is easy for anyone to see them."
Rouhling flatly refuses to say anything negative about anyone. And as far as I can tell, it's not that he's shut up; he just has no hostility. It is incomprehensible to me that someone who has been so severely criticized would hold no grudges.
Tim and I leave for the night, replete with fine French food, more fascinated than ever. We look forward to seeing «Akira» first thing in the morning.
Our first attempt to see the route fails to some extent. The drunk from the neighborhood has taken up residence on the main path and is furious at our presence there. Finally he starts screaming that he is going to get a gun. We pretend to disappear, but sneak through some bushes to the rocks. Our French friend Philippe is standing at the entrance to the cave, nervously moving from one foot to the other. Every sound makes him twitch.
Rouhling shows us sequences and points out places where he has compensated for the landing. He says he was very scared of the trains because he didn't have crash pads and the limestone is not just of the best quality. He points out the many handles that he has glued. It's a little ugly in some places. But although the glue is abundant, there doesn't seem to be any artificially whipped handles. After our brief inspection, we decide that it might be better to come back another day. And bring the drunk a bottle of wine.
Over the next few days we will be photographing Rouhling on his routes, including “Hugh” and “L'autre Côté du Ciel”. He repeats large sections of the route many times to make sure that Tim gets the photos he wants. At the beginning of the first shoot, Rouhling tears a huge hole in his middle finger while he fires campus trains at one-finger holes. The blood is splattering, I'm worried our investigation will come to an abrupt end. Instead, Rouhling stuffs the hole with chalk until the bleeding stops and asks Tim if he needs another angle to take the picture.
Later that day, Rouhling climbed half of "Hugh" on his first attempt. His climb reminds me of that of Chris Sharma: He plays with his feet and seems unsure where to put them until he seems tired of trying and simply moves on to huge campus trains. As if that were the easiest option.
In “L'autre Côté du Ciel” Rouhling does his Tom Cruise imitation over and over until Tim has the shot he wants. Rouhling is used up (he does the route without warming up on the third climbing day in a row). He asks to come down. I tell him I need to look back at the section. Fred smiles and chalks.
After a series of long pulls, he reaches into a one-finger hole with his left hand, fully stretched out. He lets his feet come and places his right hand flat on the edge of the roof over his head. There are no handles there, but the movement controls its swing. Then he carries out the monstrous right-over-left crusade and rolls into Mission Impossible, his face turned away from the rock. This time the 180 degree campus move from the two-finger hole is too much for him. He hits the next sloper, but cannot hold him. His body slams down again, he is only hanging on two fingers of his right hand and seems to be spinning in the wind. He holds this position for a few seconds, seems to be thinking about another one-arm pull-up while Tim and I tell him to let go. It has long been clear to me that these routes are within the scope of Rouhling's abilities.
The word got around in Angoulême that Fred Rouhling has come home. While he is climbing, cars are parked in the street below and people are sitting on one
Bridge from which you have a good view. When Rouhling comes down, several people approach him. Some are old childhood friends, happy to see him and a little pissed off that he didn't announce his visit. When he first started "Hugh" and "Akira" no one knew who he was and there were no crowds. It was not until “L'autre Côté du ciel” that people came to watch. He says this is his best first ascent. For him, climbing is better this way, with more transparency. If he could change anything about his previous climbs, it would be to make them more public.
After the photo shoot, we retire to Fred's parents' house for dinner. His children, Hugo (three years old), Chloé (five years old), and his wife Céline are the most important people in his life. In 1995, Celine suffered a serious spinal cord injury in a fall while solo climbing. The couple stayed at Fred's parents' home for three months while Celine recovered from emergency surgery. Although Fred took care of Celine, he would scurry out of the house for a few hours every day to work on "Akira". When he talks about the process in the route, you can see how he relaxes and remembers what the route gave him: moments of breaking out in a time of worry for his wife. When she was doing well enough, Celine came along to secure Fred on the first ascent of «Akira».
In 1996 Rouhling climbed “L'autre Côté du Ciel”, but in the years that followed it became increasingly difficult to find time to climb. The children came first, and then Celine was forced to undergo brain surgery because of an illness unrelated to her fall. She is now healthy, but experience has rearranged Rouhling's priorities: family comes first.
Tim and I are getting used to hanging out with Fred's parents. We drink cognac and wine late into the night and babble in our broken French. When we are alone we shake our heads in disbelief. It seems that almost nothing we have heard or read about Rouhling turns out to be correct. He ruthlessly points out his mistakes, and in four consecutive days of climbing, Rouhling does not excuse a single mistake. It's a refreshing, pressure-free way to climb. Success and failure feel less important, and he seems to enjoy the process of trying. Tim and I speculate on how such a large discrepancy came about between the Rouhling gossip and our experience of the Rouhling reality. We decide it's because Rouhling isn't the type to play the game. He is not trying to change public opinion about himself. He takes the downright un-American view that the routes themselves are more important than whoever climbs them. And he seems to like that sport allows people to reach a high level without becoming a public figure.
"Climbing is good because it's not like tennis," says Rouhling. “If I train tennis for the next year, it doesn't matter how good I get. The chance that I can play against the best tennis players like Pete Sampras is minimal. But climbing is different. Tomorrow I can go to Céüse and try a biography if I want. The most difficult routes are always there and everyone can try them at will. So if people say things about me, that's fine. Because no matter what they say about me, the routes are still there. And if you want, you can go and try them out. "
So if people say things about me, that's fine. Because no matter what they say about me, the routes are still there. And if you want, you can go and try them out.Fred Rouhling
On the last day of our visit we drive back to «Akira». Fortunately, the drunk is nowhere in sight. Tickmarks and chalk can be seen everywhere along the route. Someone was here so maybe the rumors are true that Spanish ace Dani Andrada climbed here.
Most of the route is about three meters above the ground and is completely horizontal. After the first three meters, the next six meters zigzag through the most difficult trains on the route. Fred says he thinks this section could be Fb 8c compared to the bouldering problems he was facing. After the initial bouldering problem, the route fires right from the middle of the cave. Rouhling says he heard that Andrada found a better beta and so this section might just be 8a instead of 8b +. (Rouhling alternates between bouldering grades and route grades in order to distinguish between the difficulty of a shorter sequence and the difficulty of an entire section of the route. Therefore, he says that «Akira» could be called Fb 8c, consisting of a part of 8b + and a part of 8a + - or just 9b).
I ask if «Akira» is a boulder problem or a route. Rouhling says that if he tried the route now, he would end up at the handle after the cave and no longer attach the rope. As usual, he warms up by climbing a considerable part of the route on the first try. I want to feel every grip on this route myself, so I start at the far end of the cave and work my way out, trying movements that look possible, but above all looking for signs of struck holds. The climbing is just as impressive as the level of difficulty suggests. But 9b? Who knows? It's continuous, dynamic, and very cool. Finally, on the last pull before the section in which Rouhling let himself be tied into the rope, I find a handle that looks artificially struck.
Rouhling inspects the handle. It's hard to tell if he's actually beaten or just looks. It's got a lot of chalk on it. Rouhling says he doesn't think the grip was there when he climbed the route in 1995. At that point I've lost the cynical desire to catch Rouhling lying. But to be on the safe side, I ask him to climb this section of the route. And without the suspicious handle.
When Rouhling puts on his shoes, Tim and I exchange a look. We'll find out what's going on in a moment. Rouhling gets in. Without even a grunt or deep breath, he fires the last five meters of the roof without using the ominous handle. And without using any of the ticked kicks. It dangles horizontally, we stack the crash pads and it jumps down.
That was the last question I had for Rouhling. I can't think of any other ways to test it. Tim and I are convinced that Rouhling could climb «Akira» as she is now in his fitness state. When I ask him why he hasn't been able to climb a similarly difficult route in the eight years since his first ascent, he holds up three fingers.
"Three things," he says. «Route, style and time. It is very difficult to find a route that is exactly at the limit and exactly what your style is. Time is limited. I've never found another. "
Two days after we left Angoulême, Tim and I sit across from Alexander Huber at the table. We discuss the evaluation of first ascents. Huber's words carry weight. We land on the controversial first ascent of «Chilam Balam» by Bernabé Fernandez. Huber says it is very unlikely that Fernandez actually climbed the route suggested with 9b + in Spain. Then I ask Huber what he thinks of Fred Rouhling. Huber looks up and looks me straight in the eye. His gaze is so intense that I immediately understand how he can climb the tough, scary routes for which he is famous.
"You should ask Dani Andrada about Fred Rouhling," he replies.
I ask him why we should speak to Dani Andrada.
“Dani says the route is more difficult now than it was when Fred climbed it. He says that certain handles are now filled with Sika. No? He says Fred did it that way. "
This description matched what I found online. I reply that I had heard the same thing, but that Tim and I only saw Rouhling climb large sequences of "Akira" two days ago, so we are convinced that he climbed the route in its current form.
Huber shrugs his shoulders and sips his beer. It looks like I've lost his trust. But Tim's gaze - himself a strong climber who has also done a lot of wild tours - tells me that I haven't lost my way.
Huber continues and says that if someone has climbed at the upper end of the difficulty scale, then there must also be a certain track record of difficult ascents that make the performance comprehensible. He gestures with his hand:
“If Rouhling's level is here,” he says, holding his hand at chest height, “and with Akira it's here” - he puts his hand to his forehead - “then there should be many other routes here”.
The hand is level with his nose.
"Where are they?" asks Huber.
The hand moves to the side of the head, palm up.
"Why hasn't he done many other hard routes since Akira?"
Tim leans into the table and says: "Because he couldn't climb for almost two years."
"Why?" asks Huber.
"Because he had two children and his wife had brain surgery and almost died."
"Nevertheless," says Huber, "there should be other routes."
On the way back to Spain, Tim and I reflect on the events of the past four days. The degree of "Akira" suggests that the route should be compared with Chris Sharma's ascent of "Biography" (9a +). But that's the last thing that comes to mind when looking at the route. Rouhling himself is amazed at the comparison. He says that at the highest level it is impossible to compare two routes with such dramatically different styles. For him, “biography” is the most impressive route in the world, he says. He wished he could climb it. But he tried it once and had a cold shower. (In fact, his description of the experiment is almost literally the same as we heard from Dave Graham).
Tim suggests calling «Akira» not the first 9b route in the world, but perhaps better than the first 8c or 8c + boulder problem in the world. Rouhling has shown that he can master powerful 8b + routes and 8c traverses with little effort. A comparison of «Akira» with these inspections could help explain Rouhling's lack of success.
Fred Rouhling is now thirty-three years old (when this text was first published. Today, 2020, he is 50, editor's note). He lives with his family in a house they bought in the French Alps. It is not far from his new favorite bouldering area, the granite blocks of Switzerland. He wants to repeat Fred Nicole's "Dreamtime"; in 8 he narrowly failed on the notorious 2003b + boulder in Cresciano. He also dreams of climbing what is probably the most famous of all hard routes: "Action Directe" (9a), a power route on holes. In the style of Rouhling.
Even if Rouhling climbs either route, it is unlikely to change the opinion of its critics. But Rouhling listens to his children, not his critics. Of course, the kids have no idea what 9b means, but they think Fred Rouhling is the best climber in the world.
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Credits: Pictures by Tim Kemple, first published in Climbing Magazine