ADAM ONDRA - The Exclusive Interviewby Vojtech Vrzba and Jack Geldard - UKC May/2010
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Ondra is perhaps the best sport-climber the World has ever seen. This sinewy seventeen year-old, this Harry Potter-esque, babyfaced youngster, has gained world-wide recognition for fast repeats of the hardest routes all over Europe.
“I have recently tried to repeat most of the important hard routes in climbing history...”
He started climbing when he was three years old and did his first F8a when he was just nine. Four years later, at the tender age of thirteen, he rocked the climbing world by clipping the chains on his first F9a. Since then he has successfully climbed 38 routes of F9a or harder.
Adam's recent visit to the UK, where he climbed at our top sport venues of Malham and Kilnsey in Yorkshire, has been covered briefly on UKClimbing.com and other websites. Many people already know he ticked two of Steve McClure's F9a routes at Kilnsey; North Star and Northern Lights.
These ascents are the first time that any route of F9a has been repeated in the UK. Ondra's trip was a landmark in British climbing for this reason, but importantly it serves as a good indicator of just how good Steve McClure really is. It took the next level, the next generation of super climber, to succeed on these climbs... but Ondra didn't cruise every route he tried.
Overshadow, Steve's hardest route, the F9a+ at Malham, held out. Ondra tried it, but didn't tick it in his short week-long stay.
“There is some unfinished business, so I should be back next spring. Overshadow is waiting...”
Lets get down to brass tacks. Why is it that a 17 year-old kid from the Czech Republic is suddenly the World's best climber?!
It's hard to say, but I think that there were some positive factors, like parental support, a passion for climbing and some natural talent, which just joined together well :)
You started to climb at a very young age, when exactly was that and what set the ball rolling?
I started climbing thanks to my parents who have been going with me on the rocks since I was a baby. Naturally I wanted to try it, so I tried my first climbing moves at the age of three or maybe four, but I started climbing more frequently at the age of six. I felt the strongest impulse to climb when I entered my first competitions, I took third place and won a perfect metal cup. So actually, at first, I climbed to win metal cups. :-). But very soon afterwards, I started to prefer climbing on the rock, which I now love the most – natural rock climbing.
You have recently visited the UK, hitting the crags in Yorkshire – Malham Cove and Kilnsey. Can you give is the low down on what you did?
During the first two days, which we spent at Malham Cove, I tried Overshadow, the F9a+ by Steve McClure, and thought it could go after a proper rest. I took a rest day, but this didn't really help. The bottom part was okay but then I got into the crux and I felt too tired to do it. I realised I needed some specific gaston training for it and, well, I rather gave up.
Suddenly Steve McClure appeared and we talked about the route and also about his new project left of Rainshadow, which is supposed to be even harder. He told me about his sequence on the crux of Overshadow, which was different from the one I found. It was a shame, as I couldn't quickly try it his way after that, as I had already stripped out my rope and quickdraws.
Then we moved to Kilnsey and climbed there for the next two and a half days.
The hardest routes I sent during our trip were North Star and Northern Lights, both F9a´s at Kilnsey. Apart from that, I have onsighted lots of routes - 8a's to 8b's at both crags and I really loved the unique and complex climbing.
Malham Cove onsights: Magnetic Fields 8b, Totally Free II 8b, Austrian Oak 8b, Overnite Sensation etc
Kilnsey onsights: Full Tilt 8b, Mandela 8b, Ecstasy etc.
“I found the grades quite stiff in general... ...Buoux is probably even stiffer!”
What did you think about the grades of the routes in Britain?
I found the grades quite stiff in general. Many routes I have climbed were from the 80's, and these old routes are pretty stiff for the grade everywhere and Buoux is probably even stiffer! Another thing is, you have to get used to climbing on those Malham sidepulls and undercuts with pretty bad and polished footholds.
What do you think of Britain and British climbing?
From what I have seen, I liked it a lot. I love to climb in different surroundings and on different rock, and this was definitely a lot different to what I have seen before and it was really worth trying. Of course, we had perfectly dry cliffs and only a little rain, so fortunately we didn't enjoy the 'real misty and drizzly England' :)
Of course lots of people are interested in your 'trad climbing potential', is this something you'd be interested in? Do you see it as very different from sport climbing?
I wouldn't like to headpoint, so I don't want to climb anything with ground fall potential from the crux. It is a challenge, but it's not something I'm interested in. If something is airy with the possibility of long falls but still pretty safe, why not try it?! But first I should learn how to place gear!
I would like to climb some trad multipitches in the future, because it's much faster than drilling and placing bolts and you can avoid groundfall or death-potential falls.
[Editors Note: Adam has repeated several routes in the Ratikon in Austria/Switzerland, which are huge multipitch 'sport climbs' up to F8c. These routes were bolted on the lead and have massive run-outs, with the potential for very long falls. They are also very long and in an alpine environment. Although protected by bolts, they are a lot more 'trad' than many of the UK's trad routes. Fantastic article on the BlackDiamond Website]
Most climbers at Malham and Kilnsey recognised you pretty fast. How did they behave and did they talk to you? If so, what was the most asked question?
Yes, they recognised me, but I don't mind. All British people were very nice at the crags and were never bothering me, and I always like to talk to people, especially if we share the same passion. People also helped with belaying me on Northern Lights and North Star, while my friend was taking pictures.
On our last day a couple at Kilnsey invited us for a cup of coffee to the nearest pub and also, they let us stay at their flat in Sheffield overnight as our flight was at 7am and this meant we didn't have to get up so early in the morning and drive to the airport from Yorkshire. Thanks again to Jules and Stuart.
The most asked questions were: How long are you in the UK for? Do you like Malham/Kilnsey and which route would you like to climb?
"I also want to go to Raven Tor as Hubble is a must..."
So, now we've done grades and climbing, let's talk about the important stuff... we know that Czech beers are pretty good, but we like to think a good pint of Landlord in the Listers is pretty hard to beat. What did you think?
We went to local pub once but I didn't have a beer... Not every Czech is a notorious beer-drinker and I am only 17 anyway :)
But it is funny the way you order a beer or coke in the UK - that you have to go to the bar to make an order. In the Czech, you just sit and wait for the waitress to take your order and they also bring it to your table, it's the lazy way :)
So, overall did you enjoy your stay in the UK and are you going to come back again?
If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't like to come back!!
There is some unfinished business, so I should be back next spring. Overshadow is waiting. I also want to go to Raven Tor as Hubble is a must since it is the World's first 8c+. Also Steve's new project at Malham looks just amazing. Besides that, I think Malham and Kilnsey offer some potential for extremely hard routes in the upper parts or extensions. Although everybody told me that these lines are often wet.
You seem to climb everywhere and everything and it is certainly impressive that you are travelling around and jumping on these hard routes in far flung places. Given that all your ascents are in different countries, on different rock types and also on big walls, it seems like you're one of the most versatile sport-climbers at the moment. Do you even have some weaknesses in climbing, perhaps specific type of holds or moves, and conversely, what is your main strength?
I have tried to climb as much outdoors as possible, climbing many routes in one day, mainly onsight, absolutely no working on the routes. I think this was very important for getting the 'sense', how to solve tricky sequences quickly and simply.
I am at my weakest on pure power long moves, for example long moves on good pockets. My strength is definitely kicking my feet very high and knee-dropping. Generally I am better on crimps than slopers.
Do you feel a pressure to perform, either at home, or when you make a trip to somewhere like the UK? Be it from the media, sponsors, other climbers or whoever, or can you still climb for fun and enjoy it?
Both. But the biggest pressure comes from myself, not really from the other people around. But I still take an enormous amount of joy from it, especially when I warm up or warm down and I just enjoy the movement.
Many people are waiting for you to take climbing to the next level, to bolt and climb a new 'super route' - any thoughts?
I have recently tried to repeat most of the important hard routes in climbing history in order to know what the new levels and steps forward might look like. I don't know what other people would do if they were fifteen and had so many routes to repeat whilst having a duty to go to school at the same time. Exploring and new-routing is really time-consuming.
During the last five years, I only really explored and new-routed in my home area, but I did not drill any bolts there by myself, I just marked the rock and my friend put the bolts in for me. The hardest of these routes is Perla vychodu F9a (Pearl of the East), it's a really beautiful line on perfect holds.
But we hear that one of your Christmas presents was a drill. Have you had time to bolt some more projects and try them?
I have bolted two projects so far, one remains unclimbed and the other is Tanec kuratek F9a (Chicken dance), that I managed to free at the end of March. It's a really unique line in a narrow cave with many tricks like chimney-ing and awkward toe hooking and it's something I am really proud of. For sure it was a good experience and has motivated me to keep bolting.
The problem with the Frankenjura is that most lines on equipped crags are already bolted and remain projects, but I am not sure if they are open or closed. I saw some unequipped crags that looked very interesting for hard climbs, but I don't know if bolting is allowed there or not.
Is there anything in climbing you would like to try but you haven't had enough time to do so yet?
I'd like to bolt some hard routes from the ground up. I've never tried it, but if I imagine the situation, with skyhooks and a drill, it seems quite unnerving. But I would love to try it some day to open some huge multipitch routes ground up.
You do not have any special training methods and once you said "I train more or less just by climbing!" How often do you train and what is your ratio of rock climbing to climbing on plastic and bouldering?
Rock – sport climbing 85%, bouldering 15%.
Plastic – most of the time I train on bouldering walls, but on these bouldering walls I train endurance as well. I only climb indoor routes around twice a month. In winter, I climb on plastic five days a week, for two to three hours a day. During all other seasons, I usually climb on the rock, even after school and only on plastic for two weeks before the competitions.
Do you have a regular climbing partner and who do you like to train with the most?
More than half of the time I train alone. If I don't train alone, I love to climb with my sister, when we're bouldering it works quite well, we only have to figure out two different variations on the problems. I also train with Martin Stranik or I sometimes go to train with Tomas Mrazek, who has a really good bouldering wall in his house.
When you climb, on rocks or at competitions, are you aware of others around you? Do you get extra motivation from onlookers spurring you on?
When I am in the real zone, I don't perceive if somebody is shouting me on or not. But to get into such a state of mind is very difficult and usually I only manage this a few times a year. So most of the time I perceive it and sometimes it helps. It does not make me more nervous or knock my concentration as long as somebody doesn't shout "come on" from the very first move when I'm still on easy ground.
What motivates you to climb so hard, to push yourself so far? Is it the sweet taste that comes from success on hard routes?
There are so many things that motivate me. I like the challenge, exploring, crimping hard... But it's true that I am the most motivated after I have successfully accomplished my project.
In climbing, fingers suffer a lot and with your frequency of climbing it is almost unbelievable that your fingers are still okay. Is it because of any special training or diet?
I don't know, you have to bear in mind that I started climbing many years ago, but for many years had not trained, just climbed. Progression was slow, fingers and tendons were getting continually stronger and more used to holding small holds. If somebody starts climbing at the age of twenty and gets better very fast, it's a different story because their tendons aren't used to it.
Bad skin stops many climbers from climbing hard multiple days in a row. How do you handle thin or sore skin on your fingers when on your climbing trips?
Most of the time I have very thick and hard skin, which is very good on the rock, but terrible for plastic and competitions, because you never know when you're going to slip off a hold. When my fingers are all bloody, I have to take a rest and I use some creams such as ClimbOn!, and Propolis Cream. I haven't found any special thing for growing skin, everything helps just a little :)
Do you care about your diet and what is your favorite meal on a climbing trip?
I eat a lot but I try to eat rather healthy stuff - and I naturally don't put on weight, which is a big advantage :) My favourite meal is pasta with various sauces before a climbing day and fish with basmati rice or couscous before a rest day.
Do you have any rituals before you start climbing?
Putting the right shoe on first :)
And you're sponsored by La Sportiva, but they do a very wide range of shoes, do you stick to certain models? Or do you swap around?
Mostly I climb in La Sportiva Miura and Miura Velcro. From time to time I like to try different models like the Speedster and recently also the Katana Lace Up. But yes, I usually have four different pairs of shoes for different kinds of climbing that I take on every trip. Overall I use about twelve pairs of shoes and five ropes every year!
Do you have time to perceive public responses on your successes and do you ever join the internet discussions?
I usually look at the comments, but I never join the discussions.
Do you ever have moments when you 'don´t like' climbing?
I usually have plenty of motivation. I sometimes hate to climb a route again if I've taken lots of falls, but I always love to climb something different, something new. The only time I I have no motivation is when it is more than 35 degrees, I really hate to climb when I am soaked in sweat.
Your family gives you absolute support. Do you think that it would have been possible to achieve such a high level without their support?
My parents have been supporting me from the very beginning and they still do. Those achievements would have been very difficult and even almost impossible without their help – I really appreciate what they have done and are still doing for me. On the other hand, it could have been a bit easier if we lived in Innsbruck or in Spain, for example. :)
You are visiting many places around Europe during your climbing trips. Do you have time to visit any other interesting places, cultural, historical etc, or do you spend most of the time on the crags?
Unfortunately not very often. I have the opportunity to meet a lot of different people and experience different ways of thinking, which is really interesting, but we usually don't go sight-seeing because it takes a lot of time and I wouldn't call it a proper rest day... It's too tiring :-)
There aren't that many hard routes left for you to do in central Europe, so how do you select places to go to?
If there are some routes to climb and it looks nice on the pictures or I have some recommendations, I go there. And thanks to Chris Sharma and Dani Andrada, there are lots of new hard routes bolted every year in Spain, which also still has huge potential.
How popular is climbing in the Czech republic and how easy is it to become a good climber there?
It's not very popular and conditions for climbing aren't great. If you want to climb outdoors as kid and your parents don't climb, it's extremely difficult. But it could be worse, at least we have some climbing areas. It is quite surprising that we have had quite a few world class climbers, but they have always been strong individuals and motivated to train alone, a great example is Tomas Mrazek.
You will graduate gymnasium/secondary school soon, have you already planned what to study next or which univesity to choose? Do you want to study abroad?
I do not feel it is so soon, two years are still like, plenty of time to decide. :-) I think I will take a break from school for one or two years, just to travel around and then I'll try to get to university. I have no idea if I'll study abroad or at home. I'm leaving it all open and I will see later.
One personal question... how would you describe your ideal partner or relationship?
She must be a climber and psyched to go climbing all around the world! :) To have a non-climbing partner doesn't make so much sense for me, I wouldn't have time for her and she would feel I don't care about her.