In early March, Paul Robinson was two weeks into an 8-week bouldering trip to Switzerland when Covid-19 exploded in Europe.
“We were right on the Italian border and Italy was just getting slammed,” he told me. For him and his climbing partners, Lizzy Ellison and Jeremy Fullerton, the safest path forward was unclear. The pandemic escalated by the hour.
“Then Switzerland closed the border to Italy,” he said, “and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what should we do?’”
Robinson is tall and thin, with a lean build and long arms. He’s a professional climber who has called Boulder home since 2006, though he hasn’t been “home” all that often, choosing instead to travel the world in search of the best, most challenging boulder problems.
In the process, he amassed an astounding number of extreme ascents, culminating on May 13, with his 1,000th boulder rated V11 or harder.
In French bouldering grades, which carry more panache, V11 equals 8a — the beginning of the coveted 8th grade. “It’s the most elite level of bouldering,” he explained.
Without context these numbers hold little meaning (not unlike the trillions of dollars we hear about on the news). Even most climbers cannot comprehend this achievement, except to say that he’s likely the first person ever to do this.
“I might be the first,” he said, “but I don’t know for certain.”
What we do know is that two months earlier, Robinson and his partners escaped Europe just in time, yet just short of his goal. “I think I was at 996 or 997 maybe … somewhere very close,” he said. Yet returning early had a bright side: it compelled him to train hard during quarantine.
“I wanted to stay as strong as I possibly could so when I got outside again I could just keep crushing toward that goal of hitting 1,000.”
His accomplishment, of course, is far more than just a number. It represents a wholehearted devotion to bouldering, to travel, to learning, to savoring the experience.
Robinson stumbled upon climbing at a friend’s birthday party when he was 10 years old back in New Jersey, where he grew up. He was hooked instantly.
Then, just before his 16th birthday, in August 2003, he fulfilled what was then a lifetime goal: his first V11/8a, called The Egg, in Squamish, B.C. A few years later he moved to Boulder to attend CU, where he earned a Fine Arts degree in Painting. During one school break in 2007, Robinson flashed (a first-try ascent) Nagual, a problem rated V13/8b, in Hueco Tanks, Texas. Only one other person had ever flashed a boulder this difficult.
While tied up in school he focused on competitions. In 2008 he won the bouldering National Championship, then went on to place third in the Vail World Cup. More podium finishes followed, yet real rock had always been his passion.
“I enjoyed (competitions), but as soon as I graduated all I wanted to do was climb outside. I mean, that’s all I wanted to do the entire time.”
With so much time on rock, Robinson has mastered an elegant climbing style. It’s thoughtful, deliberate and unhurried, not unlike how he talks. Even clinging to the tiniest fingertip holds — his finger strength is legendary — he patiently positions his body for the next move. It’s as if the size of the hold is irrelevant; he just keeps hanging on.
Throughout his career Robinson has focused on two things: repeating the most difficult climbs in the world, and establishing new ones.
“It’s nice to ride the wave of doing first ascents and then trying to repeat some of the hardest boulders, then going back to your own climbs,” he said. “I think that’s really what keeps me motivated.”
Now, after nearly 23 years in the game, Robinson seems as driven as ever. Even as he topped out his 1,000th 8th grade boulder — a process that took nearly 17 years — he began to consider the next 1,000.
“I mean, I did 1,001 the other day, a really cool first ascent. Why not?” he said laughing, “999 left.”
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.