Patxi Usobiaga is nothing less than a sport climbing icon. The former World Cup Champion has climbed some 20 routes of 9a or harder, runs a successful climbing training business and is climbing the same grades now as he was over a decade ago. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the Basque Country climber, who suffered lasting injuries in a car accident in 2010 that changed the course of his climbing for several years.
Patxi, who is originally from Eibar in the Basque Country, Spain, started climbing at the age of 10 and has been consumed by the sport for as long as he can remember. He was only 14 when he climbed his first 8a, Conan Dax Librarian, in Araotz, and by the time he finished school he had climbed an 8b, Parva Naturalia, in Araotz. He also started competing internationally at a young age and was European Youth Champion in 1997. These early years of competition set the scene for his performance on the adult circuit.
In total, Patxi earned himself no fewer than 25 World Cup medals on the adult lead circuit. After winning his first World Cup gold medal in Edinburgh in 2003 he went on win the Lead World Cup in 2006 and 2007, become European champion in 2008, and Lead World Champion in 2009, earning himself the reputation as one of the very best lead climbers in the world.
In parallel with his outstanding competition achievements, Patxi was also working hard outdoors, ticking off elite routes and establishing many of his own. In March 2003, Patxi made the first ascent of Il Domani in Baltzola: his first 9a route. The following year he made the third ascent of Chris Sharma’s 9a+ testpiece, Realization/Biographie in Céüse, France. And these achievements were not out of the ordinary for him. Between 2003 and 2010, Patxi climbed 17 9a and 9a+ routes, five of which were first ascents, and included famous testpieces like Action Direct (9a) in the Frankenjura and La Rambla (9a+) in Siurana.
It was during this time that Patxi also made history with his onsight ascent of Bizi Euskaraz (8c+) at Etxauri. Considered an almost futuristic feat at the time, the line had never before seen an ascent, making Patxi’s onsight even more impressive. Patxi, who has onsighted well in excess of 160 routes graded 8a or harder, has always been a strong onsight climber, something he puts down to his imagination, stamina and competition background.
“What I really liked was the personal commitment that climbing onsight requires,” says Patxi. “Just like in a competition, you only get one chance to climb as high as you can and fight against yourself, the greatest of enemies.”
Shortly after the close of the 2009 competition season, Patxi underwent shoulder surgery that required three months of structured rest and rehabilitation. However, as the end of his rehab drew near, a freak car accident left him with a herniated disk in his neck. Severely limited in his movement and in considerable pain, Patxi stopped climbing all together, officially announcing his retirement from competitions in October 2011. It was several years before he was convinced to once more pick up his climbing shoes, and he returned to the sport with different intentions and a new approach.
“Almost three years away from climbing were good for me to understand climbing away from competition and enjoy it as I do now,” says Patxi, who also says that he doesn’t miss competition climbing. “It had to be that way, that's why I am who I am.”
Around this time, he also started working with elite climbers to share his knowledge, passion and training regimes. During his competition years Patxi developed a reputation for almost obsessive training, but the result was indisputable: he was world champion. He started working with a handful of elite athletes, including Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma, as a coach and trainer and in 2012 he set up Patxi Usobiaga Climbing Training, which offers structured training and coaching plans to climbers of all levels. He is passionate about helping climbers develop and achieve their best, pouring everything he has into clients to help them succeed. But Patxi stresses that the attitude of each climber is the real drive behind success in climbing:
“With all the clients I try to give them the values that I learned when I trained,” says Patxi. “The coach is only a guide, he tells you what to do in a personalised way, when and how, but the real coach and boss is oneself. This is my goal, I don't like dependencies, I like a climber to be unique and independent to be able to go further.”
Patxi reapplied his systematic and dedicated approach to training when he returned to climbing again in 2013, and the results came in quickly. In 2015 he climbed 4x4 (8c+/9a) in Atxarte and in 2016, despite batting with niggling injuries, he ticked Fish Eye (8c) in Oliana and Seta Total (9a) in Cuenca. The following year Patxi saw off Papichulo (9a+) in Oliana and also established a new 9a/+ link up Patxixulo. These 9a+ ascents, a decade since his last, announced his return to form and spurred Patxi on to return to an old flame: Pachamama (9a+/b) in Oliana.
Patxi had opened his account on this 40-metre test of strength and stamina back in 2009, shortly after it was established by Chris Sharma. However, because of his accident, it was eight years before he returned. In November 2017 he clipped the chains on Pachamama, his hardest route to date, describing it as a dream come true.
While his accident does not appear to have held him back in his sport climbing, it does limit some of the activities Patxi is happy to undertake.
“Being limited and not wanting to suffer any accident after the herniated disc operation in 2019 and having suffered pain since 2010, I have focused on sport climbing [as the way] to reach my physical and mental limit with a risk of zero,” he explains. “I see boulders that I would like to try, but I cannot fall, and I see trad lines that attract me, but it is better not to get involved in these… I would like to continue climbing for many years.”
“I am human, I have my ups and downs and I take advantage of the lows to train and relax and the highs to climb as much as I can,” says Patxi, when asked how he stays motivated for his climbing. “During the moments that I am not so motivated, I usually try to do things that require a different motivation, such as training and equipping, which are activities that motivate me and make me feel complete.”
Patxi currently lives in Oliana with his partner, Ingrid, and their little boy, Nim. Day to day he works, climbs and is set on being happy and enjoying every second of life.