The Most Famous Rock Climbers: Now and Then (2023 Overview)
Published on: 02/22/2022
Making a list of the most famous rock climbers of all time starts out easy. At the top of the rock climbing mountain (both figurative and metaphorical), you’ve got names like Alex Honnold, who has transcended into mainstream consciousness through the film Free Solo. But as you go down the list and back in time, it gets less obvious whose star shone the brightest. Also, the most famous rock climbers are not always necessarily the best rock climbers.
We’ve decided to focus primarily on two factors to determine our list – climbing innovation and cultural impact. Pioneering trailblazers who brought eyes and interest to the sport will be considered as important as rock climbers, known only for competition results within the rock climbing world. But with a total of fifteen people, our list of the most famous rock climbers includes a little bit of everything.
Alex Honnold is undoubtedly the most famous climber on earth today. A relative unknown in 2006, he seemed to burst onto the scene in 2007 when he free soloed Yosemite’s Astroman and Rostrum in a day, matching Peter Croft’s 1987 feat. Honnold’s spectacular free solo climbs were something new.
Honnold’s mainstream fame followed his inclusion in the film Alone on the Wall, followed by an appearance on 60 Minutes. Alex would go on to do a Ted Talk, feature in the New York Times, do multiple TV spots, and release a book.
But his enduring legacy is his first, and only free-solo ascent of El Capitan featured in the 2018 film, Free Solo. This film won the 2018 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, a watershed moment in climbing culture.
Spectacular free solo climbing on big walls is what Alex Honnold is known for. Unsurprisingly, free soloing at his level is not an exceptionally crowded scene. As a free solo climber, Honnold is unparalleled. The reason he is considered one of the best rock climbers has been captured on film many times.
His free solo climbing of El Capitan 2017 has been called “the single greatest athletic feat in human history” – high praise.
“I’m not thinking about anything when I’m climbing, which is part of the appeal. I’m focused on executing what’s in front of me.”Alex Honnold, Free Solo
Lynn Hill was amongst the most famous rock climbers in the world throughout the 80s and 90s. Her heyday coincided with the introduction of many innovations in the climbing world. New grades of rubber, explicitly created for climbing, offered much-improved traction, commercial indoor climbing gyms allowed year-round practice and brightly colored Lycra fit tighter than anything previously imagined.
Hill is correctly regarded as one of the best climbers in the world – not simply “best female climbers.” Her first unfastened ascent of the Nose in Yosemite national park stands as a notable achievement in the climbing world. From 86 to 92, her focus shifted to climbing competitions. Lynn won over thirty international titles in this period, becoming one of the world’s most accomplished sport climbers.
At the height of her fame, Hill appeared on Letterman, was featured in the 1999 short film, Extreme, and released a book, Climbing Free in 2011.
Hill is known for being an all-around climber. She holds many medals at the highest level of competition, including Sports Roccia, Rock Master, and IFSC.
Her first female 24hr ascent of the Nose of El Capitan is amongst her greatest achievements. She was the first woman to redpoint and onsight many difficult grades.
“As a climber, I’ve felt connected to similar nonconformist culture, one opposed to society’s increasing materialism, pollution, and corruption. Our approach to the rock—clean, traditional climbing, with the least dependence on equipment—was an extension of this ethical viewpoint.”Lynn Hill
Japanese climber Ashima Shiraishi‘s inclusion in Red Rock’s Young Guns series introduced her to the rock climbing world. But Shiraishi began climbing early in life, sending a V13 by the time she was ten years old. She became the youngest person ever to send a V15/8c when she climbed the boulder Horizon in Japan.
Shiraishi’s status as a phenomenon is such that by age 19, she had ticked off three V14s, two V15s, and even flashed a V12. Though she didn’t qualify for the 2021 Olympics, Shiraishi was enrolled in full-time study at UCLA during the qualifying period. Her inclusion in Paris 2024 seems likely if she devotes herself to the sport.
Ashima Shiraishi’s star continues to rise, and she’s been featured on the Late Show, given a Ted Talk, and written a book. She’s talented and marketable and likely to become one of the most famous rock climbers in the world.
Shiraishi is mostly known for bouldering and outdoor sport rock climbing, But her competition results are also impressive. She has won first place in the 2019 US Lead Climbing World Championships and first place at the USA Bouldering Open Championship.
Shiraishi sent a V10 at 8 years old, climbed a V11 at 9 years old, and climbed a V13 at 10 years old. She’s also the youngest person ever to climb a V15. Her gold medals in US Climbing World Championships and US Bouldering Open Championships also show how accomplished she is.
Ashima Shiraishi typically wears colorful three-quarter length pants while rock climbing. They’ve become a signature part of her look. The trousers are hand-stitched by her mom, often using material picked out by her dad.
From a technical perspective, Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra is arguably one of the best rock climbers alive today. Just how wide we can discuss the gap between him and competition at length but the notable feats section for Mr. Ondra could fill the rest of this article.
Adam Ondra is extraordinarily well-rounded, having won World Cup and World Championship titles in both lead and bouldering. He began rock climbing at age six and was at a world-class level by the time he was 11. Both his parents were rock climbers who shared their passion with their son. His prodigious talent led to interest from climbing magazines which published many of his young accomplishments.
Challenging, ultra-technical climbs are what Ondra is famous for. He is currently the only person in the world to have climbed a proposed grade of 9c/5.15d on the route Silence. He’s also pushed the envelope by exploring two new grades.
Ondra was the first person ever to climb 9b and 9c routes. He’s also the first and only climber to flash Super Crackinelle, a 9a.
“I believe rock climbing is in our genetic code. We somehow want to go higher to see the world from above.”Adam Ondra
Tommy Caldwell made his name by making first ascents on spots like Kryptonite 5.14c and Flex Luthor 9a+/b. This was the highest-graded climb of the time and the world’s first 9a. Tommy’s parents were mountain guides, hikers, and climbers, introducing their son to the sport at a young age.
Like Adam Ondra, Caldwell is an especially well-rounded rock climber. He has talked about how two traumatic events in his life led to him becoming a better climber. The first incident, in 2000, was when he, fellow climbers Beth Rodden (later Caldwell’s wife), John Dickey, and Jason Smith were held hostage in Kyrgyzstan. After six days in captivity, Caldwell pushed their captor off a cliff and escaped with the group to government forces.
Caldwell also lost much of his left index finger in a table saw accident in 2001. Doctors could reattach the severed part of his finger, but it would never fully heal. Knowing it would only hinder his climbing ability, Tommy opted to have the useless part of his finger removed.
In 2015, Caldwell and fellow climber Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall -considered the hardest big wall climb of them all. He is featured in the documentaries Progression, The Dawn Wall, and Free Solo.
Though he’s an incredible all-around climber, Caldwell is mainly known for sport climbing, big wall-free climbing, and big wall speed climbing. The Dawn Wall is his most famous climb.
Tommy Caldwell’s climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley is his most famous work.
Caldwell (and everyone else) assumed the assaillant he pushed off the cliff died from the fall. The 19-year-old militant survived and was later incarcerated for his crimes.
Brooke Raboutou was born in 2001 in Colorado to two former world champion rock climbers. The effect of this pedigree became apparent when Brooke became the first 9-year-old to send a V10, the first 10-year-old to top out a V11, and the youngest person ever to complete a 5.13d at 10 years old.
At 11 years old, Brooke became the youngest person ever to send a 5.14b. In 2019, she qualified for the 2020 Olympics to finish in fifth place.
Raboutou’s known for her competition climbing. She loves the challenge and the push forward for newer, more technical climbing.
Brooke was the youngest person ever to send a 5.13d. She was also the first American to qualify for the new Olympic sport of climbing. She finished in 5th place at the 2020 Olympics.
Brooke’s parents are also famous rock climbers. Her father, Didier, is a three-time World Cup champion and her mother, Robyn is a five-time US champion and a four-time World Cup Champion.
Born in Algeria to French parents, Catherine Destivelle was encouraged by her father, an amateur climber and mountaineer. She started to climb in earnest at age 12, learning to boulder in Fontainebleau. Catherine quickly developed into one of the best climbers of all time.
Her early experience in the Alps helped her adapt and develop alongside the newly formed “sport climbing” scene. Though initially skeptical of competitive climbing, Catherine was convinced by her climbing partner, Lothar Mauch, to try it out. In 1985, Destivelle won first place at the first Sportroccia contest (which would later become the Rock Master annual contest).
In the late ’80s, Catherine Destivelle was a rival to the fellow climber, Lynn Hill. The two would often jockey for the first position in contests, and it wasn’t always clear who was a more prominent household name. Catherine left the competition climbing world in 1990 to return to alpinism. She did some of her best work during this period of freedom. She was an outstanding climber in this Alpine environment securing many first ascents.
She’s known as one of the first pros in climbing history. Her talent was enough to gain TV spots, sponsorships, and a level of fame that was new to the climbing world. Her pink Lycra phase is also pretty iconic. And being the first woman to send an 8a is pretty special too.
Catherine Destivelle’s achievements are hard to whittle down. Her first female ascent of Eiger in 1992 is impressive. But so are her first ascents of Nameless Tower, Mount Viets, and Peak 4111.
In the 1990s, Catherine began a second career as a writer and lecturer, focusing on mountaineering and alpinism.
The fact that Chris Sharma is only appearing in our article now is clear proof that we’re listing this in no particular order. If the title of best rock climber were to go to the person who’d pushed the most levels, it’d be Sharma. Climbing from age 12, he represented a new wave of kids.
This younger generation grew up with gyms, campus boards, quality shoes, and lightweight gear, producing incredible climbers. He was able to practice the most technical aspects of his game repeatedly in a way that wasn’t previously possible. Through a combination of natural talent and perseverance, Sharma became one of the best rock climbers in the world.
His redpointing of the 9a+/5.15a route, Realization/Biographie in 2001, ushered in a technical revolution in sport climbing. In 2013, Sharma became the second person to complete a 9b+/5.15c route when he climbed La Dura Dura.
Chris Sharma is all about technical sport climbing and pushing the envelope. He also likes to cliff climb over deep water.
Sharma was the first man to climb 8b (5.13d), 8b+ (5.14a), 8c (5.14b) and 9a (5.14d) routes.
By 2013, Sharma had developed a connection with Adam Ondra, who was widely considered the leading climber of the next generation. This relationship made Sharma work harder and resulted in him topping out La Dura Dura that year.
Wolfgang Gullich is best known in the mainstream as the guy who played Sly Stallone’s stunt double in Cliffhanger. He also features on one of the most iconic climbing posters in history. The 1991 shot of him mid-dyno is the most recognizable image of the sport from that era.
Quite apart from these brushes with the mainstream, Wolfgang has some serious climbing legacy. He’s responsible for a four-grade push, being the first to climb from 8b/5.13d all the way up to a 9a/5.14d. Tragically, he died young after falling asleep at the wheel of his car.
Pushing four consecutive grades is pretty unheard of for a single athlete.
Gullich was a grade pusher and the first man to climb 8b (5.13d), 8b+ (5.14a), 8c (5.14b) and 9a (5.14d)
“A man doesn’t go to drink coffee after climbing, coffee is integral part of the climbing.”Wolfgang Güllich
Placing Janja here on our list is further proof that it’s in no particular order. This is because Janja Garnbret is simply one of the best rock climbers the sport has ever seen. Since starting to compete in the senior category aged 16, she has participated in 35 Lead Climbing World Cup events, missing the podium in only four of them.
Born in Slovenia, Janja started climbing at age 7 and entered her first contest aged 8. Her first competition success came in 2013 when she won the bouldering category at the European Youth Championships.
With six world championships to her name and her status as the first-ever female Olympic gold medalist, Janja’s legacy is here to stay. In addition to her competitive success, she’s also famous for redpointing and onsighting challenging routes. In 20221, she became the first female to onsight an 8c when she climbed Fish Eye in Spain.
Competitive climbing is Janja Garnbret’s specialty. With six World Cup golds and an Olympic gold medal, few can hold a candle to her achievements in this area.
Janja has won 6 World Cup gold medals an Olympic gold medal and is the first female climber in the world to onsight an 8c.
In 2020, Janja teamed up with compatriot Domen Skofic to climb 360 meters up a chimney stack – the largest multi-pitch, artificial route in Europe.
Italian sport climber Stefano Ghisolfi has consistently been at the top of the competition. He was ranked 2nd in the IFSC World Championships in 2017 and 2018 and qualified for the Italian Olympic team in 2020. But Ghisolfi had been achieving for years, winning the bronze medal in the 2010 and 2011 IFSC World Youth Championships.
But his outdoor exploits are also worthy of attention. Stefano is the fourth person ever to redpoint a 9b+ route and has impressive ascents of routes like Change 9b+ and Bibliography 9b+.
Stefano is known primarily as a competition climber.
- The fourth person to redpoint a 9b
- Sent five V14 boulder problems
- Climbed eleven sport routes at the 5.15 grade
His August 2021 climb of Bibliographie could be considered the third-ever redpoint ascent of a 9c route. However, Stefano himself suggested the route be downgraded to a 9b+ after he’d completed it.
Narasaki began climbing aged ten with his friend Sachi Amma in his family climbing gym. Both would go on to be world-class climbers. Tomoa’s explosive climbing style has led to gold medals in the IFSCWorld Cup, Bouldering World Championships, and Climbing Japan Cup.
His victory at the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Cup earned him a place at the 2020 Olympics. There, he barely missed a medal by finishing in fourth place. He also holds the Japanese record for speed climbing at 5.73 seconds. His opening maneuver, called the Tomoa Skip, bypasses some of the lower holds on a speed course to shave off time.
Narasaki is a boulderer, with many of his greatest feats occurring on an indoor climbing wall.
- 17 World Cup Bouldering medals in the last four years
- 3 gold and 3 silver medals in the World Cup
Tomoa’s younger brother is a professional sport climber. His wife, Akiyo Noguchi, was also one of the best climbers in the world until she retired in 2021; she won silver at the Olympics!
English rock climber Shauna Coxsey is certainly one of the most famous rock climbers in the world. She’s enormously talented, yes. But she’s also social media savvy, with a huge following across different platforms where she shares her training and routine. This (and her status as an MBE) make her (perhaps) the most recognizable female climber in the world.
Her biggest accomplishments to date are winning the IFSC Bouldering World Cup in 2014 and 2015 when she was only 23 and 24 years old. By reaching the finals of the combined event at the World Cup in 2019, Coxset secured a place at the 2020 Olympics. There she came up just short of qualifying for the final.
Shauna is a competition climber, through and through.
Her victories in the 2014 and 2015 IFSC Bouldering World Cup stand as her most notable achievements.
Shauna was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2016 for her services to climbing.
Peter Croft is a Canadian climber who’s almost as well known for his books as his hardest climbs. Most famous climbers on our list wrote at least one book, usually after their competitive career. Croft has produced three to date, and they are some of the better volumes in the climbing world.
Croft began climbing after reading I Choose to Climb by Chris Bonnington. He has a number of first ascents and first free solo ascents, mainly in the High Sierra and Yosemite Valley area. Peter Croft and Dan Bachar were the first to take down the Yosemite triple crown in 1986.
Peter Croft is famous mainly for taking on big routes and pioneering the idea of the free climb. His impact on the climbing community through his books, workshops, and appearances is hard to overestimate. Almost every climber in the world is familiar with his work.
Croft’s first one-day link-up of the Nose of El Capitan and the Half Dome at Yosemite probably had the most impact. His first ascent of Shadow 5.13 is also remarkable
What I saw so clearly when I started climbing was adventure. Difficulty was only an ingredient. I never thought to wonder about grades, just as I never thought to wonder what Tarzan might bench press.Peter Croft
Most famous climbers come from areas with some climbing culture. Margo Hayes hails from Boulder, Colorado, which routinely produces some of the best rock climbers in the world. In 2016, she won the bouldering and lead climbing events at the World Youth Championships in China.
In the same year, Margo won a Golden Piton award from Climbing magazine for completing fourteen 5.14-graded routes. In February 2017, Hayes bagged a world record when she became the first woman to climb a 9a/5.15a when she ascended La Rambla in Spain. That same year, she was also the third woman to send Realization/Biographie 9a+/5.15a.
Margo is a sport rock climber with incredible bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing skills.
Margo is best known for being the first woman to send a 9a+.
Margo started with gymnastics like several other famous rock climbers on our list. She competed at a national level from age 8 until she discovered climbing. All other hobbies quickly fell by the wayside as rock climbing became her passion.
You know now about the most famous rock climbers throughout history. Of course, there are many more out there and we expect the new generations to accomplish even more incredible feats that we deem impossible at present. At the same time, we should remember that climbing is not only about accomplishments. The very act of climbing is an end in itself. As the legendary mountaineer Alex Lowe once said, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!”
We’ve mainly covered rock climbers in this article. Stay tuned for our piece on the most famous mountaineers like Walter Bonatti, Reinhold Messner, Nirmal Purja, Alex Lowe, and many others!
Alain Robert is the greatest climber of all time. I cant believe hes not on the list…