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An interview with Alex Megos about the cross-disciplines of sport vs. trad climbing

It is not uncommon in America for climbers to make distinctions among themselves, based on which particular manifestation of climbing they most frequently pursue. Even calling the thing a sport is contentious, as some climbers prefer to give other appellations such as “way of life” or “practice.”

Yet the distinctions between different types of climbers is something of a modern invention. In France in the first half of the twentieth century, some Bleausards trained for the alpine by climbing on the sandstone boulders of Fontainebleau. In Yosemite and Joshua Tree during the 1970s and ’80s, the Stonemasters practiced bouldering and free soloing side by side, often with blurred lines as to what constituted one or the other. Specialization within a single discipline wasn’t a priority for pioneering climbers such as Yvon Chouinard, Jim Bridwell or Fred Beckey. They plugged gear, sunk jams, swung tools, trudged in snow, even bouldered. In short, they simply climbed. For the majority of climbing history, a climber was a climber was a climber.

Alex Megos gets a grip on Fight Club (5.15b) at Raven's Crag near Banff, Canada. Megos made the first ascent of the route in August, establishing the country's first 5.15 as well as the second 5.15b in all of North America. A few days later Megos flashed The Path, a 5.14 R trad route. [Photo] Sonnie Trotter

Alex Megos gets a grip on Fight Club (5.15b) at Raven’s Crag near Banff, Canada. Megos made the first ascent of the route in August, establishing the country’s first 5.15 as well as the second 5.15b in all of North America. A few days later Megos flashed The Path, a 5.14 R trad route. [Photo] Sonnie Trotter

Today, the climate in American climbing gyms and Internet climbing forums can often be divisive. It’s not uncommon to hear trad climbers refer to boulderers as knuckle draggers, or for boulderers to refer to trad climbers as salty and crusty. There are plenty of memes that capitalize on the polarization of climbers into various independent groups (google Rawk Tawk if you have any doubts), and, increasingly, it feels as if a divide is growing between indoor and outdoor climbers.

However, at the same time, climbers such as David Lama, Marc-Andre Leclerc, Ueli Steck and Brette Harrington continue to push their limits in a wide range of disciplines. Tommy Caldwell (a preeminent example of an all-around climber) was even able to get Alex Honnold, better known for his rock soloing, to don crampons and wield ice tools during their historic ascent of the Fitz Roy Traverse (5.11d C1 65 degrees, 5000m) in 2014.

In Alpinist 56, Japanese climber Keita Kurakami writes about his first ascent of Senjitsu no Ruri (A Thousand Days of Lapis Lazuli), a seven-pitch 5.14a R route protected with minimal gear and only two bolted belay stations: “Until about half a year ago, I was a ‘boulderer,’ entirely absorbed in the simplicity of the experience and the minimal reliance on tools. I’d begun to wonder whether I’d missed something of the essence of climbing–the risk and adventure–in favor of that game. I felt confined by the rigidity of separate genres: I wanted to experience the way that all forms of vertical movement were intertwined.”

Alex Megos–internationally known for his lightning quick ascents of some of the hardest boulders and sport climbs in the world–recently showed the depth of his skillset in Canada, where he onsighted Sonnie Trotter’s dicey trad climbing testpiece, The Path (5.14 R) at Banff’s Lake Louise. Though it was not his first trad climb ever, according to an Instagram post by photographer Ken Etzel, “at the base of the climb, we had to teach him how to place a cam.”

The lesson in gear placements clearly didn’t slow Megos down much, as he managed to send the climb on his first try, with Trotter belaying and yelling beta from below. I caught up with Megos recently, following his trip to Banff, in Alberta–during which he also made the first free ascent of Fight Club (5.15b, sport) the hardest pitch in Canada.

Q: You just flashed Sonnie Trotter’s Lake Louise testpiece, The Path (5.14 R). Congratulations! How long have you been trad climbing? Was this your first pitch on gear?

Megos: No, this was not my first pitch on gear. I climbed two or three trad routes in the Frankenjura in 2011, and I was in Indian Creek for a week in 2012, but Indian Creek doesn’t really require any skills in placing the gear, at least not in the grades we were trying back then. So The Path is for sure the hardest, most demanding gear climb I’ve ever done, and the first one I’ve tried ground up.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of The Path? What about your history with the route? Have you wanted to try it for a long time, or was it just something of a whim?

Megos: I don’t know that much about the history of The Path. I know that Sonnie put it up in 2007 and that it hasn’t got that many repeats until now. It was not something I was planning on trying before I came over to Canada. It just happened. I try not to plan too much when I’m on a trip. Normally everything will fall into place when you just wait.

Q: Ken Etzel, described you pulling a V10 above “a suspect 000 C3”. What was going through your head at that moment? Were you relying more on the gear, or on your ability not to fall?

Megos: Yeah that last piece of gear, the 000 C3 didn’t really encourage taking a lead fall, so I backed it up with a 00 C3, and then I just told myself “It’ll be fine because you won’t fall.” Not falling is actually always the best option, I would say, so I’m going for that one.

Q: In America, it is fairly common for climbers to identify themselves according to labels, whether sport climber, boulderer, or trad climber. Is there a similar tendency in Europe, or in Germany where you grew up?

Megos: I wouldn’t say that there is such a big tendency in Europe to label the climbers that much. Sure there is the separation between sport climbing and bouldering, but most people don’t exclusively just do one of the two. Trad climbers don’t really exist that much in Europe since there are not that many crags for trad climbing.

Q: What has it been like training and climbing with Sonnie? He is such a distinguished all-around climber; do you hope, one day, to climb trad at the same difficulty as sport?

Megos: Climbing with Sonnie is great! It’s cool to see that he really feels comfortable in almost every situation, whether it’s sport climbing, or trad climbing or multipitch climbing. I don’t think I’ll try to climb trad as hard as sport. That’s something that doesn’t really make sense in my eyes. The harder the routes, the less features there are. So there are less options to place gear, which makes it more dangerous. And since the harder the routes get, the more often you fall, it gets even more dangerous. For me, climbing is not about how dangerous and hard I can make it and still survive. Climbing is a way to check out my limits and that won’t happen if I’m scared of falling, or if I break something every other time I fall.

Q: Is 5.15 trad possible? What would it look like? Do you have any projects in mind?

Megos: Sure 5.15 trad is possible. Everything is possible. It would probably look hard and it would probably be dangerous, that’s how I would imagine it. If I’ve got 5.15 trad projects in mind? Hell no! I’m a sport climber!