For 25 years, Fred Rouhling’s masterpiece sat nearly untouched. Dust and cobwebs covered the holds. The chalk, once a beacon of light in a dark cave, both figuratively and literally, was fading. But in 1995, while Rouhling cared for his wife Celine who was recovering from a serious spinal cord injury, this cave was a refuge for a worried man. Located just 200 meters from his parent’s home, this limestone cave gave Rouhling a few hours of escape every day during his wife’s recovery. A place where he could relax his mind and let his body flow through 65 feet of overhanging crimps and pockets. When he completed the route, he called it Akira and proposed the unprecedented grade of 5.15b. Considering that was two letter grades harder than anything in the world at the time, many considered Rouhling an eccentric who was out of touch. But after all these years, this route, which was once a mental sanctuary for a distraught husband, was left waiting for someone who could also find meaning in the movement. Fortunately, BD Athlete Seb Bouin was intrigued, and journeyed to the village of Vilhonneur to uncover the mythical Akira.
Akira was one of the main points of my Vintage Rock Tour. If we speak about historical climbing routes, Akira is for sure one of them.
More than the first 5.15b world proposition, it was a mythological route. For 25 years, this route remained unrepeated. The world controversy was huge at the time because Fred Rouhling skipped one step on the world grades: he proposed 5.15b, and 5.15a wasn't existing yet ...
No one could say anything about the climb because no one repeated it.
So, 25 years later, here is the story of the first repetitions.
I came on a rainy day to the Akira cave. It was an expedition just to find it. There was no trail because no one had been going there for several years. We opened a path in the mud, cutting the brambles. We finally reached the cave and it was entirely wet.
When I saw the place, I felt like Indiana Jones in the old times. I had the feeling I would find an archeological treasure. There were spider webs on every holds. Luckily the local Christophe Jacoupi was here to show me where start and finish the route were located.
I spent one day brushing the holds, working the line, and finding the beta.
I immediately saw that a kneepad could help on this climb. However, I made the decision to not use a kneepad and repeat the route as Fred Rouhling did it. It was important to put myself in the same conditions.
Lucien Martinez joined me to work the route.
It's a powerful route on a huge roof. We found good beta with dropknees, toe-hooks, heels ... The moves are really fun and quite impressive for the times.
The main problem of Akira is the height and the size. It's hard to work the moves because the roof is quite high: 3m / 3m50.
The dynamics and risky moves make this routes a bit dangerous if you fall beyond the pads. Just before the send I fell on the big dynamic move. I took a swing and slipped from the right hand. My body turned in the air, and I fell straight on my back just on the corner of a pad. It was quite close—a few centimeters more on the right and the trip was over.
So, after 25 years, there was finally action in this cave. This route was advanced for its time. It's the French witness the fitness. Big moves and big swings in the 90's. It was not common. Respect Fred!
About the grade, we had the impression Akira climbed like a 9a route. We can easily understand why this route was graded 9b. If you have no pads, no one to climb with, and a new style of moves, you can easily think bigger. First ascents are always harder.
It was a cool moment. Thanks, Fred for the inspiration!
Video & Photos by Julien Nadiras