Was ‘Hubble’ or ‘Action Directe’ the First 9a? Buster Martin Weighs In

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Things weren't going well for Buster Martin: the crux holds were wet; his finger ached; his feet were slipping; and in a pocket where he normally fit two fingers, Martin only managed to get in one before launching to the next hold. Immediately afterwards, he would say, "Nothing went right there."

Yet, he sent, and in doing so, Martin became only the second person to clip the chains on both Hubble, in Raven Tor in the Peak District of England, and Action Directe, at Waldkopf in the Frankenjura, each of which is a contender for the world's first 9a (5.14d).

Action Directe was established in September 1991 by Wolfgang Gullich. The 14-meter line punches through a series of pockets. The crux--a feet-cutting deadpoint from a mono to a two-finger pocket--comes early, right when the route changes from vertical to about 40 degrees overhung. The route doesn't let up for 15 subsequent moves, making it a power-endurance test piece. The name is both a reference to a far-left French terrorist group that was active in the late '70s and '80s and to the fact that Gullich considered his training for the route--mono campusing--an act of terror against his tendons. Gullich spent 11 days on Action Direct before clipping the chains. Though Gullich originally called the line 8c+/9a, it quickly was upgraded and was widely considered the world's first 9a. Thanks to its historic nature, it's become something of a must-do for strong climbers and has seen more than 20 repeats.

In 1990, however, one year before Action Direct went down, British climber Ben Moon established Hubble. The line is short and bouldery, with just four hard moves rather than 16. Instead of pockets, the climber faces bad underlings and scrunchy feet. Because no 8c+ (5.14c) routes existed at the time, Moon settled comfortably there with the grade. Perhaps due to the less popular location, or because it never quite garnered the fame of Action Directe, or perhaps because it's just plain hard, Hubble has just over 10 ascents.

Before Martin, Megos was the only climber to have sent both lines. Megos called Hubble 8c+, but over the years the line has settled at the 9a grade, thus re-writing history.

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Buster Martin first saw climbers at age 11 while on a walk with his family in the Lake District in north west England. He thought they looked "cool," so his parents signed him up for a local youth climbing team. He began competing, going on to place as high as eighth in a European Youth Cup. At age 16, he became the youngest Brit to climb 5.14b, with Bat Route at Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

Then, at 18, Martin stopped climbing altogether.

"I just got distracted by partying, being a teenager, and just enjoying life outside of climbing," he says.

But he came back to the sport four years later, in 2017, with renewed perspective and psych following a trip to Hampi, India, where he climbed with a different crowd: "Everyone was chill, and there was no chat about grades or numbers or being better than each other." That difference in perspective was the starter. Then, while in France, Martin saw the Briancon World Cup, and that added the gas.

"I saw the level that some of my friends had gotten to, and that was when I got the psych to start training hard again."

Martin came back swinging. In 2019, he sent First Ley (5.15a), in Margalef, Spain. In 2020, he ticked Hubble, exclaiming at the chains in an underwhelming and characteristically British fashion, "Brilliant!"

In 2021, there was a hiccup. He ruptured a pulley in his ring finger. Martin was, of course, already accustomed to comebacks. He returned to climbing quickly and just over a year later, in October, after months of rehab and pocket-specific training, he sent Action Directe on his fifth day of attempts spread out over a handful of trips.

Climbing caught up with Martin to discuss Action Directe, training, and grades. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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