On November 29, 2020, professional climber Jonathan Siegrist made three seemingly impossible moves on a blank shield of rock along the rugged cliffline surrounding Summersville Lake. He pulled through, clipped his rope into an anchor rigged atop the overhanging crag, and made history. While countless climbers have completed thousands of climbs in the region over the decades, Siegrist earned the first ascent of Full Metal Brisket, a line that is now the hardest climbing route east of Colorado.
Siegrist bestowed the route a difficulty rating of 5.15a, gifting the New River Gorge (NRG) region—and the eastern U.S.—its first 5.15 rock climb. There are currently just eight confirmed 5.15 routes in the U.S., Full Metal Brisket included.
In the sport of rock climbing, there are three colloquial levels of difficulty: easy, moderate, and hard. Then comes really hard climbing. After that, perched on the top rung of the difficulty ladder, is really, really hard climbing. This is the type of athletic feat that only a handful of climbers in the world actually aspire to; even fewer ever achieve it.
But just how much harder is 5.15 climbing compared to easier routes? “It’s a totally different sport than recreational climbing,” Siegrist said. “It’s like comparing jogging to an Olympic race, or a game of backyard football to the Super Bowl. To achieve 5.15 climbing requires a lifetime of dedication.”
A bystander can easily see how much more is involved in kayaking waterfalls on a class V creek compared to paddling some riffles in a class I river, but it’s challenging to see just how much smaller the holds are on a 5.15a than those of a moderate 5.10a climb. Full Metal Brisket was scouted as a potential line and bolted as a sport route—meaning protection points for securing a rope and anchors were drilled into the rock—in the early 2000s by Lee Robinson, Chad Umbel, and Will Dameron. The intimidating 90-foot route ascends the tallest section of a crag called the Coliseum, an overhanging amphitheater of sharp sandstone that serves as a proving ground for the region’s burliest rock warriors.
Neither the bolting party nor any visiting climbers were able to climb it and, after a while, folks stopped trying. According to local route developer and NRG climbing guidebook author Mike Williams, the region’s handful of elite climbers were unable to complete the route without falling, the benchmark required for the first ascent. “I hopped on it once or twice and tried some of the moves, but never gave it a real attempt,” Williams said.
When Siegrist first visited the NRG in 2013, Williams showed him the project—the term for an unclimbed route. Siegrist eyed the line but passed on it like many before him, filing it away in his memory for a future attempt. In 2015, German pro climber Alex Megos made the first ascent of Super Pod (5.14d) in the Coliseum, establishing the hardest route in the NRG at the time. During his visit, he too passed on Full Metal Brisket, electing instead to sample the region’s other 5.14 testpieces.
When Siegrist and his girlfriend traveled to the NRG last fall for a month of traditional climbing, Full Metal Brisket was not on his mind. But a spell of warm weather sent their crew to the cool, shaded routes of the Coliseum, and Siegrist decided to give the NRG’s hardest sport routes a try. He quickly dispatched Super Pod, climbing the route clean—meaning no falls or hangs on the rope—in just four tries over two days before attempting Full Metal Brisket. “I could tell right away that Full Metal Brisket was harder than Super Pod, and that it would be possible,” he said. “When you’re in an area that’s as classic as the New River Gorge with the chance to do the hardest route as a first ascent, you tend to drop everything else to pursue that.”
I travel and climb professionally, and I can say with certainty that the New is one of the best climbing areas in the world. The quality of the rock climbing and the aesthetics of the place are world-class.
He worked the route for two weeks, spending hours in his harness trying to unlock the complex sequence of moves, using handholds as small as the edge of a credit card and footholds as minute as the dimple of a thimble. “You have to do a lot of bizarre movement to get your body in just the right position to make use of the bad holds,” he said. “You need to be really close to the wall with a lot of body tension. Routes like this can take days, weeks, or even years of effort. In order to do it well, you can’t make a single mistake.”
Climbing grades are based on the crux, or the hardest set of moves, on a route. Sometimes, the crux comes right at the start, but more often it appears in the middle of the climb. Full Metal Brisket’s crux comes as a crescendo of the final three moves needed to reach the anchors. “So much of that route boils down to those final moves,” Siegrist said. “The reason why the route got the difficulty rating is because you have to do those moves after climbing the entire length of the route.”
After nearly 25 attempts, on a cold day where he and his climbing crew used handwarmers between attempts, Siegrist pulled through the crux without error. With his ascent of Full Metal Brisket, Siegrist, now 35, has climbed 14 routes in the 5.15 range. Four of them, including Full Metal Brisket, were first ascents, etching him in stone as one of the world’s strongest and most prolific rock climbers.
Typically, a route’s first ascentionist will name it, but in the case of Full Metal Brisket, the name had already been chosen by the bolting party. A brisket is the choice cut of meat from the lower chest of a cow. Full Metal Brisket stemmed from the idea that whoever climbed the route would need incredibly strong and tense chest muscles—a full metal brisket of power. Siegrist, however, is a vegetarian. “I was joking that I was going to rename it Full Metal Tofu or something like that. Once I learned about the name, I realized it was quite special.”
The first ascentionist also proposes the difficulty rating, requiring a humble and honest attitude. “When you’re doing a first ascent, it’s difficult to know what the grade is,” Siegrist said. “Every climber is different; some things can feel significantly harder for one person over another.”
When the difficulty level is so extreme, how does one decide between a 5.15a or 5.15b rating? “For a route to go from 5.7 to 5.8, little additional difficulty is required,” Siegrist said. “But when you get toward the top of the scale, the difference between letters needs to be significant. The difference from 15a to 15b is dramatic.” Siegrist decided upon the coveted 5.15a grade given his relatively easy experience climbing Super Pod. “When I first tried Full Metal Brisket, it was clear immediately that it was harder.”
By adding a 5.15 route, the NRG, which has a rich climbing history, touts another feather in its cap as one of the world’s premier climbing destinations. “There are tens of thousands of climbing routes in the eastern U.S., and Full Metal Brisket is the hardest one,” Williams said. “I think the general population views the epicenter of rock climbing as Colorado or Yosemite, and views the East as being little practice rocks, and that’s just not the case.”
Much to the preference of locals who enjoy the lack of crowds, the NRG has been relatively underappreciated over the past few decades compared to crowded crags out west. “Part of the reason the New never got the attention it deserved, at least in the media, is because it didn’t have any super hard routes,” Siegrist said. “I think having a 5.15 galvanizes the world-class nature of the place. It reminds people that the New is really important from a climbing perspective.”
Maintaining a wry sense of humor, Williams adds that, at the end of the day, the ascent of Full Metal Brisket doesn’t mean much for the average climber. “Nobody can do this route; it’s not like a great addition to the crag or anything, but for the climbing community, it’s a badge of honor,” he said. “Our stone at the New can produce everything from moderate traditional routes to the hardest sport route in the East, and that’s a cool thing.”
Now that the NRG—and the eastern U.S.—has its first 5.15, climbers are wondering where the next one will be established. Siegrist said it could be tucked among the steep cliffs of Summersville Lake, which still offer unexplored terrain as opposed to the fully developed cliffs along the New River. “There are probably still a handful of really incredible lines that will be fruitful in that realm of difficulty,” he said. “They’re there for sure, and they’ll be unearthed gradually.”
Climbing Grades, Explained
Although the alphanumerical soup of 5.15a sounds like the model number of some obscure relic from Radio Shack, it represents the upper echelon of modern rock climbing. Climbers in the U.S. use the Yosemite Decimal System to indicate the difficulty of a climbing route. The number preceding the decimal indicates the class of terrain. Class 1 terrain refers to a relatively flat hiking trail , class 3 terrain is a steep staircase or a scramble up large rock ledges, and class 5 is reserved for vertical terrain where technical climbing skills are required and ropes are recommended.
The number following the decimal confers the difficulty of that terrain. Most rock climbs start in the 5.4 to 5.6 range, going up in single-digit jumps to 5.10. Before the days of modern climbing equipment, 5.10 was the ceiling of difficulty. After the advent of dynamic ropes and sticky rubber shoes, falls became safer and the realm of possibility expanded. Able to easily dispatch 5.10 routes, climbers added a new layer of difficulty to the system. Once 5.10 is reached, the lowercase letter grades a through d are added. After 5.10d, the jump to 5.11 is made, and the letters a through d are added until 5.12 is reached, and so on. This allows for seemingly endless growth as subsequent generations of athletes continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in rock climbing. Currently, the hardest climb in the world holds the grade of 5.15d, and the climbing community is waiting with bated breath for the first 5.16a to be confirmed.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and, although once an obsessed climber, probably couldn’t flail his desk body up a 5.9 these days.