They’ve spent a week on the wall and now it’s time to celebrate. And then tidy up the wall.
At 3:30 PM local time Czech climber Adam Ondra and his companion Pavel Blazek finished climbing one of the most difficult multi pitch routes in the world.
How did he like it? And why does he still think he can´t use his feet and legs properly while climbing?
eMontana is here with the first original interview with Adam Ondra.
Why did you make the ascent one day longer – did you like being in the wall that much?
It was due to the weather forecast which ended up being quite wrong. According to the forecast we had it should have been raining all day yesterday but in fact there were just two or three drops. We could have stood on the top twice. Our damned shittyness made us return to the portaledge while it was a beautiful day.
What was the weather like on the last day?
Well, there was a shower at night and the day was quite foggy – alpine weather. Some pitches were pretty wet but climbing was possible so we took it. The most difficult pitch of the last day (5.13a, 7c+) was on the slab which gets dry immediately after rain. And as far as I can judge it was not even 5.13. I reckon there were worse pitches in the end – for instance the open corner 5.12b (7b+, note) which doesn´t ever get wet, luckily. It is hidden in such an overhang and you must climb inside it. There was even some magnesium chalk on it which indicated no rain for a long time. I climbed past some two year old magnesium left over after Tommy had conquered it. (laughs)
How did you feel about the conditions you had for climbing?
They were quite bad on the first day, I guess. We started climbing at 3 AM and didn´t finish until 9 AM but it was warm and humid. The second day was better and since then I think our conditions have been quite acceptable. The fourth and fifth days were rather good but the sun was shining, which means that you have about 90 minutes of shade in the evening or you can climb when it gets dark. It is logically a bit harder because you must climb with a head torch and at the same time the wind does not usually blow and it gets a bit more humid. The sixth day was the first day of overcast and the wind blew almost constantly during the day. These were the conditions which couldn´t compare to the beginning. Though the skin on my fingers was really devastated from the 14th and 15th pitches the good conditions made up for it. The pitches which I had considered rather unpleasant before, I could get through now. It was pretty freezing on the belay stations but you can cope with it.
When you were climbing in the dark were there people around you who were shining lights on you – to take pictures, shoot video etc.?
There was Heinz Zak with his assistant Christian. Most of the time Christian was hanging somewhere and holding an auxiliary light – but I don´t think it was a big advantage. It is a little advantage. Take the 15th pitch for example, when I was practising I climbed over it with only my little head torch. I must say that climbing El Capitan in the dark is not as different as climbing some limestone trad routes. The wall here is so blank and smooth that the foot holds stick out at night. They are either tiny scales or you can see the chalk marks in the dark too.. The limestone is more uneven and makes shadows in which the hand and foot holds might disappear.
The only unpleasant thing about climbing with a head torch, especially in traverse climbs, is when you are stretched between two side pulls – in fact you are crucified with your full body span. If you try to lower your head with a helmet and torch you can lose your balance. During the day, you can just look down and see. I fell because of this during my first attempt on the 15th pitch. I could not turn my body to lower my head and look down on my feet. I stopped feeling the foot hold – I felt something but it was not the right one. I probably wasn´t standing precisely and fell.
If you were to compare Yosemite foot holds with your favourite home crag in Moravian Karst, how would it be?
Three times as small. (laughs) It is totally different. It might be a little more slippery at home. There are basically two different types of foot holds – you either stand on scales millimetres in size which I would not normally consider to be foot holds and would not even look at… And then there are bigger foot holds but they are reclined and sleek. So, after all, it is better to stand on those micro scales. I think that after a month here in Yosemite I have learned how to stand on them and how much to trust a foot hold. It might sound weird, making lame excuses about not being able to climb here, but I had never stood on anything like that before. (laughs) It is an absolutely different dimension from any other slab climbing on sandstone, limestone or granite.
It is not so much pure slab climbing, is it? There are often vertical pitches…
Yeah, some are sloping. The most difficult traverse pitches – they are perfectly vertical. But then there are several laybacks of which I am not sure if they are overhanging or vertical. For instance the corner with a tiny crack whose left side is overhung and the right side is sloping. You are standing on the microscales on the side which is sloping but your body can be partially overhanging. And the fact that the foot holds are actually invisible means that you have to press on your feet hard enough not to slip down. It is all kept together with some inner muscles. Thus even a sloping pitch can be physically very demanding. (laughs) For example the end of the 10th pitch is only 8b+ however you reach the rappel ring totally exhausted. The crucial pitches (14th and 15th, note) depend utterly on technique and strength in your fingers.
And what about the ratings of the key pitches? Do you find them OK? Would you rate them 9a routes in the sport climbing areas?
In my opinion the 14th pitch is a bit of an easier 9a, so it fits the guidebook. The 15th pitch, and Tommy himself said it too, should be 8c+. I would agree with that. But then there are a lot of 8b+ pitches which I could rate 8c in some areas. Lots of those 8a+ could be 8b or even more, I reckon. So, I find the most difficult pitches a little bit overrated but it is compensated by the fact that any of those 8a could be rated higher. (laughs) It is mainly because of the unusual style of climbing. A layback of 8a+ is extremely physically demanding for me. (laughs) I may have not learned how to climb them effectively. Even though I can climb it on the first attempt it is still highly tiring.
Listen, 16 pitches are harder than 8a+. How can you climb them and still save some strength?
If you are planning this attempt, you must know that you will climb the 8a+ pitches on sight. The more attempts you make the more tired you will be for the next pitches. I have learned from sport climbing that I climb rather quickly, I do not stop too much and I consider it a very effective style. Here it shows that what pays is slow climbing with certainty, literally like a snail. When I start this slow pace I feel out of sorts. But gradually, I am getting used to it. I have found out that slow climbing is not so much more tiring and at the same time there are fewer opportunities for mistakes. For the first attempts I had some reserved strength so I was trying to climb as much as possible on the first attempt. It is better than making seven quick attempts and keep slipping down.
How did your feet cope with it?
I had never experienced such a thing anywhere else. Here, endurance and strength in legs and feet, especially in the calves and soles, is more important than in forearms. They are fully utilized because you are climbing so slowly. The routes are vertical, sloping, lots of no hands. The legs and feet get tired and you have to shake it out of them. It is good to know how to give them a massage on the belay station. (laughs) I sometimes tried keeping them up before a pitch when I thought they would work hard. Let the lactate flow away and so on. (laughs) Now I do not know if my legs are weak but I hope they are not. (laughs)
How many pairs of climbing shoes did you destroy? Did you cut the edges as Tommy Caldwell advised?
I keep cutting the edges after every day of climbing. For one day of climbing I use two or three pairs and I change them not to wreck them in sweat. In the whole trip I destroyed seven pairs or so.
When are you coming back home to the Czech Republic?
I am going home on the 30th of November. We will see if we can take a look at “Salathé“ (8a+, 5.13c, 37 pitches, note) because Heinz would like to take some nice pictures of the Dawn Wall. We also have to tidy up our gear– clear away our fixed ropes, remove the portaledge… I suppose it will take us about one day and the photos about three days. So far Heinz has been focusing mostly on video.
So, you are going to tackle the key pitch one more time…. Happy? (laughs)
I would not like to see those tiny finger holds again if I had the choice. But on the other hand this is not my last visit to the route so it doesn´t really matter. I would love to climb it a lot faster next time. I will be happy to see it again.
In our last interview you said you would like to finish the route in one day. How do you see this plan now?
(speaking slowly and deliberately) I think it is difficult but it could happen one day. (laughs) Of course it would involve a lot of days of very thorough training which would enable me to work extremely hard for 20 hours straight. As well as that I would also have to adapt myself much better to the local granite. I am aware of the fact that I am not currently capable of such a thing but I still think it is possible. The motivation to finish the ascent in 24 hours could emerge. But I admit it really is an insane idea.
Wouldn´t it be better to move house to the USA?
For some time – maybe. The right strategy would be to spend the whole autumn here, practise, practise and practise until I am blue in the face. Then to get lost for somewhere to train the body and finally come back, wait for an overcast day and do it. I have been practising the pitches this year and it was very physically demanding. Then I took a few rest days, which was not ideal. I definitely wasn´t in perfect shape as if I had taken several days of training in between.
Does the route appeal to you enough to spend so much time on it? To sacrifice a number of sport routes?
Yeah, the wall of El Capitan appeals to me. I have never seen anything better in terms of bigwall climbing. And whether I will be hanging on “Dawn Wall” pitches that I know well or on another route, we will see. . There is vast potential for free climbing new routes. Anyway, I think climbing “Dawn Wall” in 24 hours is a nice challenge. It won´t be my ambition for the next year, that´s what I am sure of. I would like to take a mental rest for a few seasons but it would be interesting as a life goal. Climbing on “Dawn Wall” might seem boring and painful. True – the two key pitches are not too amusing. They are like holding razor blades. But apart from those there are the pitches which I consider to be among the best ones I have ever climbed. There are such great corners and laybacks. For instance, climbing 40 metres on a leaning layback on gerry rails, it is fantastic.
“24 hour push? I would like to take a mental rest for a few seasons but it would be interesting as a life goal.“
How do you protect this route?
The pitches with bolts are 14 and 15 and some others that go at about 8b. Otherwise it is mostly about fix pro. There are some pegs, beaks and copperheads. I decided on the same method as Tommy Caldwell with Kevin Jorgeson – I had prepared the quickdraws in situ. On the most difficult pitches they were hanging there while on the easier ones I put them in myself. Everything up to 7c is purely on your own anchors but I finally chose a way where I only used the fixed pro and in between I climbed without protection. It doesn´t mean that protection is not possible but I just didn´t feel like using it. In the first 20 pitches I placed a cam or nut about 10 times. (laughs) It is definitely not the traditional way of climbing. I was climbing on the fixed pro which is sometimes good and sometimes not so much.
What was the spot that made you feel most frightened?
The most thrilling climbing is the tenth pitch which is belayed with beaks. It is a standard belay method for technical climbing. Good for hanging but if you fall onto it from 10 metres above you are never sure if it will hold you or let you go. And that is mentally demanding. But when I was in a push, that focus on climbing trumped any fear of falling. And even if you tear out some anchors you can fall many metres but the fall is always safe.
How did you perceive the support from people all around the world?
I think that kind of support is very pleasant and it really helped me, no doubt about that. On the other hand it can put more pressure on me – for instance when I didn´t manage to complete the key pitch on the fourth day. It definitely created more pressure. But the highest pressure comes from myself. I had invested a lot of time and it was mainly me who wanted to make this attempt successful. Not because of anyone else. Although the support was definitely nice, making me feel cool. As far as feeling pressure is concerned, I was quite surprised on the fifth day when I managed to send two key pitches. Since then I have been climbing on the top of my skills. I couldn´t do any better. I knew I should not fall on the 16th “Loop” pitch. It would have been very frustrating and I would not have found any energy to climb another five pitches that day. But all worked well somehow.
From the very beginning you weren´t doing so well, were you?
Well, the first four days I was reeeeally nervous. Even while I was climbing. The first two days I was as nervous as a cat. (laughs)
But compared to Tommy you had a great advantage – you knew it was possible to climb it.
That is true. He spent three years trying to climb it not knowing if there is any connection between the route “Mescalito” (the first 13 pitches of “Dawn Wall”, note) and “Early Morning Light”. He tried to free climb these routes and hoped to find the traverse connection later. He started investigating it when he got together with Kevin. I find this really bad-ass. (laughs) When you are standing at the beginning of the traverse it looks quite climbable but you soon find out that what is missing are foot holds and the little backhands do not hold that much.
What did you think of the key traverse when you saw a video at home?
You know, I thought the style wouldn´t be so strange for me and the traverse would be easier. I thought I would figure it out quickly and it would be somehow natural for me. The rating fits my expectations now after I have become accustomed to it. I was rather worried about the 8b+ laybacks on beaks. That turned out to be really difficult.
You have mentioned there are some more route variations on El Cap that you have seen. Have you spoken to Kevin or Tommy about other possible routes to be made?
For example, Kevin has taken a look at a route variation at Wino Tower (at the end of the 21st pitch, note). The last part of the regular route keeps going to the right. In my opinion it is away from the Dawn Wall in the direction towards the North America Wall. It deserves straightening. Kevin has tried that and said it should be possible. They have even managed to climb some pitches there. There is probably the largest roof on the whole El Capitan, about 150 metres under the top. Kevin has had a look at it and said it must be possible to get around it on a finger crack. It looks astonishing.
So, there are things to do next time…
No doubt. It is difficult to say if there is still a single line all the way from the bottom on the Dawn Wall… But there are still a lot of free spots on El Cap. (laughs)
Dawn Wall is the name of the steepest and blankest part of the Yosemite massive El Capitan.
The first free ascenders of this part of wall were Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. They reached the summit on the 14th January 2015. Tommy had started to train the route eight years before his final attempt.
Adam Ondra is the next man who was able to freeclimb it. His final push has taken eight days.
The route has 32 pitches and a the height of the face is 920 meters.
“Climbing is not about the grades and life is not about the money.”
He loves to write about inspiring people.
Addicted to situations when he does not care about the time – in the mountains or sandstone crags.