Anak Verhoeven On Making the First Female 5.15a First Ascent

After taking down a long-standing project in France, the Belgium climber extended the route and made history.

By Tobey Schmidt | September 20th, 2017

Anak Verhoeven, of Belgium, on the first ascent of Sweet Neuf (9a+/5.15a) in France. Photo: Sébastien Richard.
Anak Verhoeven, of Belgium, on the first ascent of Sweet Neuf (9a+/5.15a) in France. Photo: Sébastien Richard.

Anak Verhoeven made history for women in climbing when she sent Sweet Neuf at Pierrot Beach in France. She became the first woman to make a 9a+/5.15a first ascent. Verhoeven sent the route on September 6, 2017, just seven months after Margo Hayes became the first woman to climb the grade. Verhoeven is now the second.

“I’m really happy that my trainings paid off in this way and it’s special, too, to climb a route of such high level,” Verhoeven, 21, of Belgium, tells Rock and Ice.

Despite the historic nature of her ascent, Sweet Neuf came as a spontaneous side thought to Verhoeven’s main goal of the trip, Sang Neuf (9a/5.14d), an open project bolted by local climber Quentin Chastagnier in 2016.

Last year, Verhoeven had tried to climb Sang Neuf, but abandoned her efforts due to north winds, fog and cold weather. Her mom took a video of her working the moves, so Verhoeven could memorize them during the off-season. “That’s what I do every time when I redpoint or try to redpoint a route,” she says. “I just make sure I don’t waste attempts because of little things.”

A few weeks prior after climbing at the Verdon Gorge in France, Verhoeven decided she wanted to come back to the project. She spent a day working the moves again on the 15-meter long route. The first crux is between the second and third bolts and is quite reachy, she explains. “You need a really good belayer, which is my dad,” Verhoeven adds.

The second crux comes near the top and is a “very extreme boulder problem,” as she describes it. “The second day I was there I brushed all the holds, did the moves again and then did it in the first real attempt,” Verhoeven says.

“The locals and [Chastagnier], they all call [Sang Neuf] a 9a,” Verhoeven says, but “It’s hard to tell when you do a first [ascent],” she adds, in reference to the grade. “There were quite a lot of climbers who had been trying the 9a before and they were all sure that it’s 9a, but I’m waiting for other people to climb it.”

With Sang Neuf complete, Sébastien Richard, a friend and photographer who was also filming Verhoeven, suggested that she try to link it with Home Sweet Home (8c/+ 5.14b/c), an older route to the right. The idea was to climb Sang Neuf to its anchors and then into the upper half of Home Sweet Home, another 25 meters.

Verhoeven took a rest day and returned on her last day of the trip before heading home to Belgium. “I tried to memorize everything carefully, so I wouldn’t waste time with attempts,” Verhoeven says. “The route is quite long in the end, but the hardest part is the beginning.” The limestone, overhung link-up is about 40 meters in total.

After her rest day and rehearsing the moves again, Verhoeven redpointed the 40-meter link-up on her first redpoint attempt. She named it Sweet Neuf in homage to Sang Neuf and Home Sweet Home, and suggested a grade of 9a+/5.15a.

“In the guide book [Sang Neuf] was a 9a,” Verhoeven says. “And then when I climbed the next part, which is still 25 meters of some far moves and tricky ones and some bad foot holds, well the level just has to go up a bit and it must be 9a+.”

Anak Verhoeven, of Belgium, on the first ascent of Sweet Neuf (9a+/5.15a) in France. Photo: Sébastien Richard.
Anak Verhoeven, of Belgium, on the first ascent of Sweet Neuf (9a+/5.15a) in France. Photo: Sébastien Richard.

As mentioned before, only a few women have climbed this hard. In February of this year, Margo Hayes sent La Rambla in Siurana, Spain, making her the first woman to climb a confirmed, solid 9a+/5.15a. In 2005 Spanish rock climber Josune Bereziart climbed a 5.14d/5.15a, and just two years ago American climber Ashima Shiraishi also sent a 5.14d/5.15a.

Verhoeven began climbing when she was four years old, taught by her parents who are also climbers. Although she says she wasn’t very interested in climbing at first, she did love swinging on top rope. “I’ve always loved being high up,” Verhoeven says.

Growing up she was always at the climbing gym or crags and around people who climbed. “It’s not a sport I have chosen actually, it’s just something I’ve started doing because I saw everyone doing it,” she says. That’s changed a little since then, she says. In the years that Verhoeven has been climbing, she describes, “I wanted to train because I knew I could get better and I knew what the results of training would be, but it was not that much because of the sport itself.

“So now it’s sometimes still like that, but at times I do start enjoying it more and that was a bit what happened with this 9a+, that I could enjoy the climbing more and just being there in nature, because that’s something I love.”

Currently, Verhoeven is in Belgium training for the next IFSC Lead World Cup, which takes place September 23 and 24 in Edinburgh, Scotland. She took first place in the 2016 World Cup Lead overall in the women’s category and this season she holds second in the overall IFSC Lead World Cup rankings.

Verhoeven’s dream is to one day bolt her own route with her father, but said it’s tough with so many competitions right now.

“It’s not easy with all of those strong guys,” Verhoeven says. “The guys are bolting the routes, so they are usually the first ones the climb them, but it would be nice to see more girls climbing those hard routes.”

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