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Last December, Nathaniel Coleman, 23, became the first male American to qualify for the Olympic Games for Sport Climbing. With competitions, including the Games, largely cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, Coleman has spent a little more time outside this year than usual. And his tick list is filling out.
On June 17, Coleman put down his hardest grade yet: The Grand Illusion (V16), first ascent.
Coleman’s previous best was Speed of Sound (V14), which he did in August, 2018, so when he learned about The Grand Illusion from fellow USA Team member Drew Ruana, he was hesitant.
“I kind of just thought it was above my pay grade,” Coleman told Gym Climber in an interview.
“But it was fun to work on. It was long enough that you could treat it like a route. And you could do links from like halfway, and then just go as far as you could, or you could start at the bottom. And it ended up being this amazing process of refining all of the beta, and then executing the beta efficiently over the course of about 25 moves.”
The boulder was originally Euro (V9). Later on, two lower starts were added, graded V12 and V13. The Grand Illusion consists of those variations, plus an even lower start that adds about 13 moves. Ruana, who’s previously sent two V16s, confirmed it was one of the most challenging boulders he’s ever tried.
A series of tufas and flat holds distinguish the boulder from other Little Cottonwood climbs. With about 30 feet of climbing through a near-horizontal roof, the boulder is a bicep-intensive power-fest.
“I had just seen so many of Drew’s attempts where he looked really good and then just got too tired for the top,” says Coleman. “I always just had the impression that for this boulder to come together, you needed to get really lucky to have all the moves go perfectly. So I knew that I was physically capable, but I didn’t know if I was mentally capable of doing it that day.”
And the pressure was mounting. Coleman worked the boulder for a total of 13 sessions over the course of seven weeks. By the time he was ready to go for it, the temps were rising. In order to beat the heat, he started working the route from 11 p.m. to 3 or 4 a.m.
On the night he went on to send, the temps had dropped. “In a way I thought it was my last chance,” he said. He put it down on his second attempt of the evening.
“It was so eye opening to see what the human body and the human mind is capable of, like, so many of these moves that felt like they were at my limit on the first session ended up flowing so well into each other. And that process of not only getting physically stronger, but getting mentally in tune with the rhythm of the route. It is beautiful. And I think that was what I enjoyed the most about it.”
The process has inspired Coleman to spend more time outside after the Tokyo Games.