The Forever 5.9 Climber


By Alan Goldbetter

In 2005, while preparing to attend my second (and the third ever) New River Rendezvous, I inquired from my then boss what routes should I try climbing during my trip to the New River Gorge. He asked, “Well, what grade do you climb?” I thought about my response for a moment, and with all the false confidence that a new-to-climbing, 15-year-old can muster replied, “5.9.” A dozen years later, the answer to that question still remains the same.

Climbing 5.9 on a recent trip to Nabari, Japan.
Climbing 5.9 on a recent trip to Nabari, Japan.

Over the last twelve years, and especially during the last three, I have put an increasing amount of effort into becoming a better climber; yet the grade I climb has not changed. It is not that these toils have all been for naught, but rather that my preferred style of climbing has increased in difficulty almost in unison with my personal climbing improvements.

During those early days of flailing up the horizontal breaks at the local sandstone cliffs, hang dogging, belayer-assisted moves, and top rope sends were all the rage. Of course, I had aspirations of climbing bigger and badder cliffs, but at the current time, this was the only style of climbing I was participating in and, therefore, the style I most enjoyed. Climbing 5.9 was pretty much where my flailing abilities maxed out.

As my skills slowly progressed my chosen style of climbing also changed. Sport leading and traditional climbing were quickly followed by my first multi-pitch experience (Cat in the Hat, Red Rocks). As the years past and my climbing experience continued to grow, I started to consider myself a trad-climber. My ideal outings became multi-pitch gear lines. What grade marked the upper limit of reasonable possibility for me? That’s right, 5.9.

Not all 5.9s are created equal. Baugen, Norway.

These days, the climbs that most excite me are long routes in remote locations. On these routes, speed is critical. Pulling on gear is an often employed tactic climbers use to get past difficulties that would otherwise be slow to free climb. Last year, while attempting a new route in the Piritas Valley, my partner and I made use of this quick aid technique to bypass a few short sections of harder climbing. What grade marked our free climbing cutoff? 5.9, of course!

Lots and lots of 5.9 fun to be had up there. Piritas Central, Patagonia.

I am often reminded about an old climbing magazine article from the 90’s about Seneca Rocks, WV. The catchphrase was “So you think you can climb 5.10?” Thinking about those 5.10 routes at Seneca, I am quite sure that even today I would get spanked trying to onsight the majority of them with a standard leader’s pack. Until then, when the question comes up, I will proudly stick with my decade-old answer of “5.9”.

Topping out at sunset in the Peak District, England. Photo by Malcolm Cook.