best boulder problems
Ashton Hall bears down at Enchanted Rock, Texas; (photo/Sam Anderson)

The 10 Best Boulder Problems of 2021

The world’s best boulderers gave us a lot to chew on in 2021. So, the best boulder problem sends of the year are rife with storylines.

Hard bouldering is about transcending the limit of individual possibility. It’s a slow burn and a funny dance that starts with sussing the holds, proceeds with a lot of falling, and concludes with a topout — hours, days, or years down the line.

In 2021, boulderers did a lot of dancing. With more and more hard climbers getting out, progress at the top end might be faster than ever. In 3 days at Joe’s Valley, Natalia Grossman scored more V-points than a lot of us might score in a year.

Ryuichi Murai sent a long-sought-after overhang project by appearing to levitate on holds that would suck if they were on a slab. The world gained, and lost, a V17 thanks to two of the sport’s most fit climbers.

GearJunkie’s Best Boulder Problems of 2021 rounds up the top 10.

Sam Anderson protected on The Prow, Enchanted Rock, TX by the Metolius Session II
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10. Natalia Grossman, 138 V-Points in 3 Days, Joe’s Valley, UT

Natalia Grossman called what she did on a 3-day October trip to Joe’s Valley “getting in lots of volume.” A lot of us would call it a lifetime list of dream projects.

At the end of the mini-trip, Grossman’s scorecard showed a massive 138 V-points — on double-digit problems alone. On average, she cranked two V10s and two V11s for 3 days straight and added a V12.

Her “Beyond Life Sit” send is a gem — steep, springy, and tension-y, with hard moves all the way up, the rig is a certified classic.

 

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It’s consistent with the character of Grossman’s Joe’s ticklist, which seems to point to her background in high-level indoor competition climbing. She’s not tall by any means, but she can stick huge spans. She looks fluid and comfortable in the air, hitting dyno after dyno and calmly pasting her feet back on.

Grossman’s current hardest is V13. She is 20 years old and won gold in the 2021 IFSC Bouldering World Cup. What might the future hold? According to her sponsor, Black Diamond, it might be easier to catch her at the crag “getting in lots of volume” in 2022.

“Although she focuses on competition climbing, she has started to spend more time climbing outdoors,” Black Diamond said. Look for Natalia Grossman at your local spot, lapping your project.

9. Pablo Hammack, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” 8c/V15, Yosemite Valley, CA

Bouldering in the United States started in Yosemite Valley. Ron Kauk’s “Midnight Lightning” speaks for itself in the significance of the sport.

Shapely granite blocks dot the valley’s rim pretty much everywhere there isn’t a road or building. And though thousands of problems already exist, the potential for new ones approaches infinite.

But up until 2021, the valley still didn’t have a problem near the upper limit: 8c/V15 had proved elusive. Jimmy Webb and Carlo Traversi did make quick work of a V14, “Tierrany,” in April. At the time, it was considered Yosemite’s hardest problem. But after the ascent, Traversi said it wouldn’t hold the title for long.

Pablo Hammack confirmed Traversi’s forecast in June. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” clocks in at V15. It takes moves that are somehow scrunchy and spanny at the same time, out a steep block of banded granite.

Hammack’s video is sweet, brief, and dramatic. If the compression spans and his refusal to dab don’t impress you, wait for his foot to pop while he clings to a desperately thin piano match.

Many who’ve been to Yosemite know V-points don’t come easy in the valley. Hammack’s nail-biter ascent is a testament to the sandbagged tradition.

8. Katie Lamb, “New Base Line,” 8b+/V14, Magic Wood, Switzerland

Bernd Zangerl’s “New Base Line” is a Magic Wood icon. In 2002, it went up as one of the hardest problems in the world. Ever since, it’s attracted waves of hopefuls. The grim seam at one-third height is the face’s only climbable weakness — though desperate, it beckons an attempt.

 

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In September, Katie Lamb made “New Base Line” her second V14. The problem is a classic “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” proposition.

After the heinous seam, the exit demands ticky-tack movement between tiny, finicky sidepulls, plus a long, barndoor-y cross. Finally, a deadpoint to a nasty sloper guards the topout.

Lamb became the seventh woman to top the block, following Shauna Coxsey, Alex Puccio, Anna Stöhr, Mile Heyden, Marine Thevenet, and Linda Sjödin.

7. Brooke Raboutou, “Trieste,” 8b+/V14, Red Rock Canyon, NV

Watching Brooke Raboutou climb “Trieste” creates a sensation somewhere between fright and awe. Raboutou’s not scared — but the sheer tension she can throw down between awful holds in the overhang is scary. Then the awe trickles in as you begin to realize she’s executing each grating sequence with balletic grace.

Red Rock Canyon’s “Trieste” is an impressive line, among the park’s best boulder problems at the grade. It’s long and tall, and the slabby (sandy?) topout soars above the lip.

Raboutou gives a clinic in power and mobility in the first 8 feet. The first move is a full-extension deadpoint to a sloper.

In that position, she’s starfished on the rock; it doesn’t look possible that she’ll get out of it. But then she simply reels in the tension and floats to a foothold at shoulder height. A low lockoff leads to another deadpoint.

Enough said. Clearly, Raboutou is at the height of her power. It only remains to be seen what she’ll do next.

6. Ryuichi Murai, “Floatin,” 8c+/V16, Mizugaki, Japan

Ryuichi Murai’s display of pure athleticism on “Floatin” strongly contends for 2021’s best. Dare I say that Murai’s trapeze artistry may even convert curmudgeons who still don’t think campusing is a valid form of climbing?

Before you scroll: What if I told you that topping out the problem required getting back to a hold you’d already come from?

Fans of circus tricks, read on. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of airborne body control than Murai’s. There are no start footholds for “Floatin.” Instead, campus to the pocket with what appears to be the wrong hand, and then hold the barndoor.

It’s arguably the move that makes the most sense out of any on the rig. After that, Murai’s beta kicks into full jaws-on-the-floor mode. The 27-year-old described it as his “dream line” after first brushing the holds in late 2020.

5. Dai Koyamada, “The Maze” Project, 8c/V15, Japan

When Dai Koyamada starts climbing out from under the roof of his mega-project in The Maze, it looks like he should have a rope on if he’s going to top out. The line is massive. And, clearly, complex — he spends seconds groveling underneath the boulder, orchestrating the escape.

Finally, he’s out. Then he deadpoints onto what looks like a horrible sloping edge, into terrain that still overhangs 45 degrees or more. From the looks of things, none of that is even the hard part. (Note: full send video not available.)

 

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Forcing a short boulder problem into submission takes poise. But doing the first ascent of a long problem with multiple cruxes and overlapping difficulty requires work on another level.

Scan Dai Koyamada’s Instagram and pay attention to how often he refers to giving his total effort. If the second half of The Maze project is half as long as the first, sending it takes over 40 hand and foot moves.

To make them all near-perfectly requires massive bandwidth. After the send, Koyamada mentioned that the sit start extension “would represent a new level” for him. We look forward to it.

4. Charles Albert, “The Source,” 8c/V15, Gorges des Usses, France

Charles Albert’s barefoot style is a lightning rod in the bouldering community. Reactions range from scathing to disbelieving to reverent — how can this guy climb so hard without shoes? And doesn’t he make the footholds all greasy when he paws at them with his sweaty toes?

Add on the fact that consensus has thrown Albert’s ability to issue accurate grades into question. His “No Kpote Only” started at 9a/V17 and settled at 8c/V15.

Still, Albert literally belongs in a class of one: Every other V15 climber toes the rock with sticky rubber. The Frenchman acknowledged that he thinks it makes climbing harder. But he landed on the approach as an alternative way to interpret the rock — not in order to leverage an advantage.

“Climbing barefoot is cheaper, more natural, more instinctive. But also more complicated,” Albert told Planetmountain. “Toe hooks and heel hooks are harder barefoot because you can’t just put your foot and pull like a freak; otherwise it’s too painful. You could even hurt your bone on a heel hook. Having said that, some problems are easier barefoot because you can wedge your toes in cracks and holes.”

Watch Albert go au natural and shred 8c/V15 on sharp Gorges des Usses stone in August.

3. Nico Pelorson, “Soudain Seul,” 8c+/V16, Fontainebleau, France

When Simon Lorenzi finished the first ascent of “Soudain Seul” in February 2021, he called it the world’s second 9a/V17. At the time, that rang loudly through the climbing community — no one had repeated Nalle Hukkataival’s “Burden of Dreams” (or really even come close). And Pelorson himself had downgraded Charles Albert’s “No Kpote Only” to 8c/V15 (as mentioned above).

Daniel Woods had just called “Return of the Sleepwalker” V17 when Pelorson repeated “Soudain Seul” in April. He faced a dilemma: Would he confirm the grade or leave Woods and Hukkataival alone at the top?

Pelorson chose humility and even reverence in an interview published by Climbing. “For the rating, I would feel bad to claim to have passed one of the only two 9a[/V17]’s on earth when deep down, I think this block is not worth this sacred rating,” he said.

He added that he respected Lorenzi’s initial assessment. Whether you climbed or not, you would instantly know “Soudain Seul” was hard if you looked at it from below. Wildly overhanging wide compression on surfaces that slope toward the ground can only mean one thing.

2. Katie Lamb, “Jade,” 8b+/V14, Mt. Evans, CO

We’ve never seen anyone make V14 look as easy as Katie Lamb makes it look. “Jade” is a ferocious Daniel Woods Mt. Evans testpiece on one-pad crimps under a steep roof. By its nature, it should be desperate. Climb fast and you might ping off; climb slow and you’ll run out of gas.

Lamb struck the balance when she redpointed “Jade” in July after less than a dozen sessions. Most climbers scream and thrutch on small holds under the roof. Instead, Lamb floats.

 

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She’s calm and composed, hitting the first two moves. The second is a viselike lockoff over a very high foot to reel in a jib at the limit of her reach.

After that, the camera operator gets stimulated, boulderer-stoke style: “Try hard here, come on, Katie!” The next thing you usually see after someone says something like that is a wild throw, and often some noise.

But Lamb hits the tiny sidepull above with ease. Her back foot barely comes off, and she holds the barndoor without apparent effort.

Up to the crux, it’s the quietest V14 send we’ve ever seen. Once Lamb realizes she’s about to top out, the noise starts.

1. Daniel Woods, “Return of the Sleepwalker,” 9a/V17, Red Rock Canyon, NV

Amid all the sustained success, it’s almost easy to lose track of Daniel Woods. Maybe Woods is falling victim to the GOAT effect — after a while, you just expect them to be the best.

The Colorado native has relentlessly pushed the envelope of bouldering difficulty for over a decade. Anything less than the best would be noteworthy; superlative accomplishments are simply on-brand.

If you watch Woods on “Return of the Sleepwalker,” it’s clear he still has to try for it. Woods’ style is far from machine-like. He approaches climbing on a serious tack and structures his life around sending hard, but he’s also emotional and volatile.

“ROTSW” required the extent of his faculties. In one interview, he said, “I don’t sleep at night because of it. I don’t think about anything else in life besides internally feeling my flow on this thing. Figuring out how to speed sections up, when to breathe, when to hold my breath, when to ramp up, when to slow down.”

The problem is heinously complex. At one point in early spring, I walked past as Woods was working on it — he’d covered the snaking rails with a matrix of over 30 tickmarks.

In early April, his dedication paid off. “ROTSW” and the world’s other existing 9a/V17 boulder problem, “Burden of Dreams,” await repeats.

Sam Anderson
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Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.