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John Gill

Back in the days of rock climbing pioneering, scaling small boulders and “exercising” hard moves was a great pastime activity. All of these were about to change when John Gill stepped into this world. Also known as the father of modern bouldering, Gill introduced a certain discipline and a new grading system, and truth be told, he made the first steps in what bouldering means today.


United States

Date Of Birth




Hardest Sport


Hardest Boulder


Hardest Trad


John Gill

Ascent Log

ClimbTypeSuggested GradeDate of AscentNotes
Gill ProblemBoulderV91959
The GrooveBoulderV101978
Thimble OverhangHighball5.12a1961
Final ExamRoute5.11a1960
The Gill CrackRoute5.12a1960s

Climbing Career

Early Life & Education

When you start searching for John Gill on the internet, you’ll be left in awe. This man has done it all. He was not only a great climber, but also a great gymnast and a mathematician. 

Born in February 1937 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he spent his childhood in several cities around the Southern US, ending up in Atlanta, Georgia, where he attended Georgia Tech until 1958, when he got his degree in mathematics.

Climber John Gill bouldering

After graduating from Georgia Tech, he enrolled in a graduate program in meteorology at the University of Chicago. After all these, he served in the US Air Force, and he resigned from the Reserves in the mid-1960s.

In 1964, he earned a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Alabama and worked as a mathematics instructor at Kentucky’s Murray State University.

If that wasn’t enough, from 1967 until 1971 he enrolled in further graduate studies, earning his PhD in Classical Complex Analysis.

While being a badass climber and maybe one of the coolest math professors in history, Gill wrote around thirty research papers on the analytic theory of continued fractions, complex functions, and linear fractional transformations.

Learning the Ropes

John Gill began rock climbing around the age of 16 in northern Georgia. He started as a trad climber. Later, while at Georgia Tech, he enrolled in the college’s gymnastics team and started “bouldering” around campus as a form of training.

The man was a modern-day Hercules; in the 1950s, he was able to make half a dozen one-arm pull-ups per arm, multiple one-finger one-arm pull-ups, and one-arm front levers. How’s that for a training challenge at the gym?

Climbr John Gill doing one arm side lever

Because the V scale was not invented yet, Gill climbed at an extremely hard level without even knowing how much it would take for his problems to be repeated. And how did he do that? Well, keeping it old school (which during that time was only the norm), without crash pads or climbing shoes, as the Boreal Fire will appear on the market only in 1979.

Also, due to his gymnastics background, John brought a small but essential innovation into rock climbing, he introduced the use of chalk to keep his hands dry and grippy.

John Gill climbing

Notable Ascents

The Gill Problem [Red Cross Rock]

First ascended by the man himself in 1959, the Gill Problem is maybe the first V9 boulder problem in the world. In a time when bouldering grades were not a thing, Gill did this route after seeing many strong climbers trying to get to the top hold and failing. 

Located in the Grand Teton Mountains, the Gill Problem sits in the exact middle of Red Cross Rock.

John Gill on the Gill Problem

At that time, the start was on a smooth irregularity in the rock, with a horizontal hairline crack on the top. John started by placing his left toe on a small hold and reached for a large hold in the middle with his left hand, followed by toeing off the ground with his right foot. He called this technique “swinging lieback”, which was not a jump but a big dynamic move.

Because the move was really hard and he couldn’t do it every time, John chipped off a bit of the rock in the hairline crack just to have a fingertip hold on the right hand.

Over time, other climbers altered the rock by chipping bigger footholds which now makes the problem considerably easier than it used to be.

Thimble Overhang

Located in The Needles of South Dakota, the Thimble Overhang is a 10-meter 6C highball considered back then a free solo route. Since Gill treated the climb as a free solo, it has a YDS grade of 5.10. As for most of the Gill routes, this is one of the first 5.10 routes in America and maybe the world.

John Gill climbing Thimble Overhang
John Gill climbing Thimble Overhang

As John Sherman in Stone Crusade said, when Gill climbed The Thimble in 1961, it was the hardest route of its length in America.

As it is close to a daredevil act, Thimble wasn’t repeated for 20 years. The reasons are multiple, including the height, the complexity of the moves, and also the fact that when John made the first ascent, a guardrail was placed at the foot of the rock, adding an extra layer of danger in case of a fall.

The Groove

Considered the first 7C+ (V10) boulder problem in the world, John Gills’ The Groove is located near Pueblo, Colorado.

It’s not a line riddled with tiny holds but rather a strong one that requires resistance and some strong biceps.

John made the first ascent in 1978, and according to him, climbing it required learning some great technical moves. Described as a strong-arm route, The Groove involved techy moves, great strength, and momentum.


The Use of Chalk

Around 1954, Gill was the first climber to use chalk while training on the campus of Georgia Tech. As a member of the gymnastics team, he had easy access to the white stuff and was also aware of the advantages it could bring in rock climbing.

John Gill climbing chalk

It took a while to make it a thing, as some climbers considered using chalk as cheating, but John’s hard climbs proved that it could really give you an edge in solving some of his most challenging problems.

The First Bouldering Grades

Before the V-grade became a thing in 1991, John Gill introduced his own bouldering grading system, the B-Scale. It was very simple and used three grades, B1, B2 and B3.

Maybe due to its simplistic or limited nature, the B system didn’t become widespread in the US and was taken over by the V-scale.

A powerhouse and, frankly, one of my rock climbing heroes, John Gill is one of the most important curators of climbing culture. With essays like The Art of Bouldering, he pushed an activity often overlooked by athletes of his time to a veritable standalone sport that even features in the Olympic Games.

John is a member of the American Alpine Club and received in 2008 the annual Robert & Miriam Underhill Award. Now aged 86, he retired from climbing, but he can still be found at his local park working on his pull-ups.

John Gill Climbing
Age hasn’t stopped John Gill from doing what he loves

Video Library


Born and raised in Jiu Valley, Romania, I am a true mountain enthusiast, absorbing knowledge from each sport the area offers. Snowboarder in the winter and a hiker and climber in the summer, I love spending my days up in the Carpathians. I have had a passion for writing ever since I laid my hands on my first keyboard, and I always have a curiosity for gear and great stories. I split my time between various jobs and hobbies, including being a full-time psychologist, repairing skis in the winter, and working with kids at my local gym whenever I have time.

John Long
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