It wasn’t that long ago – sometime after Fred Nicole’s ascent of the final link in the cave puzzle, Sleepy Hollow, in 2000 – that I can remember walking from the bottom of the cave to the top, feeling many of those well-fondled, chalked-up holds that miraculously link together and speculating about the eventual ascent of the entire line. At the time I thought it would take a generation or two. How wrong I was.
It took four years. In 2004 Japan’s Dai Koyamada made his 50-day pilgrimage Downunder with the sole intention of ticking ‘the Cave’. He methodically set about climbing all the individual sections before attempting the main event, eventually climbing it after weeks of effort. And so the Wheel of Life (WOL) was born at the mighty grade of 8c+ or V16, easily the hardest piece of climbing in the SoHem*.
When I think back now and consider why I badly misjudged how long it would take to climb this line, I blame a few factors (apart from stupidity). Maybe it was the fact that I live at the Arse End of the World – with little interaction with the world’s best climbers, and am thus out of touch with how good Good really is.
James Kassay on The Wheel of Life Direct
Or maybe it was because back then all the sections were overgraded. After all, starting from the bottom of the WOL: Extreme Cool was V9 but is now given V8 (it’s actually no more than V7 if you are taller than a midget); Sleepy Hollow was V13 but is now V12; and Cave Rave was V14 and is now V13 (and some consider it easier still). While linking V8 into V12 into V13 is clearly still hard, it isn’t quite the same as linking V9 into V13 into V14.
Why were these problems overgraded? Maybe it is because of the old Tyranny of Distance factor already mentioned, or maybe it was part of the ‘holiday day’ grade phenomenon courtesy of visiting European powerhouses. But, equally, I think it is because there is so much beta now for all the problems. The collective knowledge brought to bear on these problems is encyclopedic; all the nuances and tricks and heels and knee-bars used by the multitudes of climbers who throw themselves at this well travelled piece of stone mean that the WOL isn’t quite the mystery it once was.
I also think that perhaps it is about tactics. It probably isn’t any accident that the quickest ascents have been by climbers rather than pure boulderers, which makes sense because WOL is a route masquerading as a boulder problem. Climbers have not only brought endurance in their tool kit but also route-climbing nous.
Among the many first world problems climbers argue about, there has been lots of debate about the grading of the Wheel of Life. Some argue that it should be given a boulder grade – Ben Cossey has somewhat controversially said it is only V14 – others say it should be given a traverse grade, although anyone who has ever seen it in the flesh would realise it is not a traverse. The fact that the WOL is more route than boulder means that it makes sense to give it a route grade, something suggested by Ethan Pringle (Pringle wrote an interesting blog about it here) and Dave Graham who gave it a grade of 5.14c/d (34/35) and 9a/9a+ (35/36) respectively. Given how many hard routes and boulders this pair have climbed between them, it is likely they aren’t far off the mark.
Since Dai’s ascent, the WOL has been climbed by Chris Webb Parsons, Ethan Pringle, James Kassay, Ben Cossey, Dave Graham, Ian Dory, and Daniel Woods, with Kassay coming back for seconds to complete his long-term vision of climbing out via the Amniotic World (V9) finish at the highest part of the cave, the not-so-direct but certainly very aesthetic Wheel of Life Direct. But perhaps the most mind-blowing ascent since Dai’s happened just a Saturday or two ago, when the strong German youth Alex Megos climbed the Wheel of Life on only his second day of attempts.
Megos is probably the first person to onsight 9a/35, so it shouldn’t be such a surprise to hear that he knocked off the Wheel in two sessions (as far as I can work out Ethan Pringle’s ascent was the fastest up until then, climbing it in four sessions). What impressed me most about Megos’ ascent was that the first time he climbed the Wheel was also the first time he had climbed Sleepy Hollow – so he definitely didn’t have all the sections totally dialed, as you would normally expect when sending a problem of this difficulty.
Tactics and beta-sharing aside, Megos’ ascent, perhaps more than any other, heralds the next generation of stronger, better climbers – and signals that the Wheel is no longer at the cutting edge of climbers’ abilities.
But despite all this talk of difficulty and grades and generations, what I still find most remarkable about the Wheel is the same thing I did back in 2000 – that by some miracle of time, wind and water this tenuous line of of just-climbable holds through such an enormous roof exists.