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Adam Ondra: The Future of Climbing

Adam Ondra is arguably the best climber in the world— he flashes 5.14d, has more 5.15c ticks than anyone, and has topped the podium in a half-dozen international competitions. Ondra represents the potential of a new generation born to climbing parents and raised in gyms. his career is a case study in what happens when enormous talent and desire find their life’s purpose at an early age.

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This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of our print edition.

Adam Ondra Rock Climbing
Adam Ondra on the last moves of Chilam Balam (5.15b) in Andalucia, Spain. Photo: Bernardo Gimenez

More than 100 ascents 5.14d or harder, including over thirty 5.15 sends. Boulder problems up to V16. Three World Cup gold medals. Two World Championships. Any one of Adam Ondra’s achievements would be a lifelong goal for 99% of climbers, but he’s just getting started. “I want to get better,” he says. “I want the satisfaction that I’m climbing better than last year.” Ondra holds the future of climbing in his hands, but that success hasn’t gone to his head. Those who know him describe him as “refreshingly down to earth.” If you met him at the crag and didn’t know who he was, he would seem like any other stoked, enthusiastic young climber.

But that’s where the similarities end. As soon as the 23-year-old touches rock, it’s easy to see a level of mastery that only two or three people on the planet possess, like watching Michael Jordan play basketball or Einstein do math. He’s tall for a sport climber at 6 feet 1 inch, with a curly mop of brown hair and a wiry but powerful and flexible build. Although he’s quiet and reserved on the ground, Ondra is famous for his banshee screams post-fall, and he follows a training regimen so fierce it would put most climbers on the disabled list after one session.

Growing up in the Czech Republic, Ondra was born into a family whose world revolved around climbing. His parents, their friends, and the kids he knew were all climbers. It wasn’t until he was 5 years old that he learned there were people who weren’t climbers. Ondra won his first competition at age 6, and was climbing every day by the time he turned 7. Rather than make daily trips to the gym, his parents compromised by building a tiny wall in his bedroom so he could climb on “rest days.”

The result is that Ondra went on to win the junior competition series in Europe every year from ages 11 through 16. He climbed his first 5.14d (9a) at 13, and two years later he repeated Wolfgang Güllich’s Action Directe (5.14d), a testpiece that was once the hardest route in the world. To date, only two humans have climbed 5.15c (9b+)—Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra—but Ondra has redpointed three routes at the grade: Vasil Vasil at Sloup in the Czech Republic; La Dura Dura, the world’s first 15c, bolted and repeated by Chris Sharma at Oliana, Spain; and Change, a route Ondra developed himself at Norway’s Flatanger Cave.

Perhaps most remarkable in this era of increasing specialization—where most World Cup competitors forego outdoor time to train indoors—Ondra excels inside and out. He won his first World Cup comp at 16, the World Championship in both Lead and Bouldering in 2014, and the overall Lead World Cup title in 2015. And the past few competitions were won while pursuing a degree in economics and business management.

At press time, Ondra was home in the Czech Republic, studying, training, and packing for an upcoming trip to Spain. For the time being, he says he’s done with World Cup competition and will spend his summer focusing on hard climbing outdoors and traveling in his van with his girlfriend.

Adam Ondra Rock Climbing
Ondra demonstrates his remarkable flexibility on Les Tres Panes (5.14b/8c) at Pelvoux, La Vallouise, France. Photo: Chris Noble 

Tell me about your university studies.

I’m primarily a climber, but at the same time I like my studies. I like having something else in my life, because I don’t think it’s healthy only to be occupied by climbing. I’m studying economics and business management and just completed my second year [summer 2015], so there’s one more year for my bachelor and three more for my masters. So far I’m enjoying it.

The main reason I decided to go to college was because I wanted to compete in the World Cup. I wanted to train hard and potentially win world championships, so I started studying because I knew it would keep me home and there would be nothing else to do except go to school and train. That way I could be 100% prepared for the World Cup season. And it has been perfect; the duty of school has made me train harder. In 2014 my main goal was to win the Lead Championships and I trained super-hard for that. I was very well-prepared physically and mentally, and it was just enough for the victory in both lead and bouldering. That was one of the best moments of my climbing career. [In 2015 Ondra went on to win the Lead World Cup for the second year in a row. World Championships are held every other year.]

To be honest, I was a bit surprised what a high level of satisfaction and happiness it brought me, because I had already won quite a few World Cups when I was 16 and 17. But I suppose the difference was that I wasn’t really training for competitions back then, just going to comps between climbing trips and it wasn’t as much of a priority. Winning both World Championships in a single year was an amazing moment, but it didn’t compare to the feeling I had after succeeding on routes outdoors like Change (5.15c) or La Dura Dura (5.15c).

Climbing on plastic in a comp and climbing outside on rock are very different activities. How do you make them work together?

It is very different. For me competition climbing is just a sport that I enjoy for the challenge. I like to train, and the competitions are a nice game that motivates me to get better. For the World Cup, the first thing you need to do is train hard to be physically prepared, but it’s not just about being strong, it’s about climbing well on demand. Those are different things and you have to be good at both.

Climbing outside on rock is more about the lifestyle. Sure, I like climbing hard routes—I like the challenge—but I also like all the other things that are connected. It’s not only about movement on rock, it’s also about the travel, driving to the crag, being in nature, meeting new people. This is something I understood when I was only 7 years old—I have always loved climbing as a full package. Many climbers don’t like the fact that sometimes they have to camp. They find it uncomfortable. But I love it all.

Adam Ondra Rock Climbing
Ondra on Move, a 5.15b in Flatanger, Norway. Photo: Claudia Ziegler

Would you say that most of today’s World Cup competitors climb primarily indoors?

I would say that most World Cup climbers today are quite specialized. They don’t go rock climbing that often, and only during the off-season. And I think the reason is because the style of competition is changing so quickly. It’s very different from rock climbing, especially in bouldering, but also in lead.

World Cup Lead is the ultimate fitness test, because the climbing is so continuous. It’s hard to find rest points, whereas on rock it’s all about doing hard moves with little rests in between, using kneebars and similar techniques. In that, I’m quite good. If I can get a kneebar and release my hands for only a few seconds, I can recover.

But I need to train super-hard to be able to rest on a bad hold, which is a necessary skill for World Cup because the routes are so long—too long to climb with only one breath, as we say. So you start climbing and try to sprint as fast as possible. In that way you can make perhaps 30 moves, but a World Cup lead route requires 40 to 50 moves. To climb that far you really have to find little rests, shake out, then continue.

And modern World Cup bouldering is now almost a parkour style. The problems themselves are not so hard in terms of grade. For sure you need power, but it’s more about coordination and skill and how to decipher the solution quickly. And sometimes that’s a lot about luck! There may be five different ways to attempt the boulder, but in four minutes, there’s not enough time to try them all.

Tell us the story of how you got started.

I was born into a climbing family. My parents have been climbing for 30 years, and when I was a little baby they brought me with them to the rocks. I can’t remember the first time I climbed. I think it came gradually, starting with playing in the dirt under the crag to hanging and swinging on the rope to more serious climbing.

The first climbing I really remember was when I was 6, and that was the time I entered my first competition. I placed third, won my first medal, put it over my bed, and thought, “I would like to get more of these!” Later when I was in third grade, a friend of my parents gave me the book Rock Stars: The World’s Best Free Climbers, by Heinz Zak, which inspired me so much! That’s when I started thinking that I only wanted to be a climber. I decided I wanted to live exactly the way I’m living now, and that feels pretty good!

What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

I suppose I’m most proud that I’ve always tried to be a complete and universal climber. I hope I can say that. I’ve accomplished quite good things in sport climbing, bouldering, and competitions, which is quite rare. But between becoming a double world champion to climbing 9b+ or onsighting 9a, I can’t really tell what has more value. Every experience, every route, and every competition are different and special.

What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

My biggest climbing skill is being universal, that is, being an all-arounder. Then in a comp I don’t really mind if the route is short and bouldery, or if it’s a long endurance piece. My biggest climbing strength is making strange moves like drop-knees and high heel hooks, and rocking up over my feet. I can rest in totally different positions from other climbers because my hips are quite flexible. As long as I have a high foot and I can rock up on to it, I can release the weight on my hands and recover, even if I’m holding onto really bad holds. Having flexible hips is probably my biggest strength. Raw power and campus moves are my biggest weaknesses. I’ve gotten better at that recently, but I would still consider it my biggest weakness.

Adam Ondra Rock Climbing
The crux of iron curtain (5.15b) in the flatanger cave of norway. Photo: Henning Wang

Have you had any major setbacks, such as illness or injury?

In terms of injury I’ve been really lucky. I’ve never had an injury for more than five to seven days. And I think the reason is that when something hurts, I try not to push it. I just take a couple days off and see how it’s going to turn out, and that usually helps. I believe the worst thing you can do if something hurts is to keep climbing and training. That’s when small problems get serious.

It was kind of strange, because when I was 7 or 8, people on the Internet were forecasting that I would be forced to stop climbing in a few years because my fingers would be ruined. And for sure that could have happened, but I actually think the fact I started climbing so young helped me avoid injuries, because my level was gradually and slowly increased. It took many years for me to climb harder routes so my tendons and knuckles got adapted to the stress. It really depends on the way you climb when you are a kid. For instance, I never did any campus board or special training. Until I was 15 or 16, it was all just climbing and bouldering.

So how do you train now?

Well I’ve always been an individualist. I hated being told what I should do by my parents. So they have never been coaches for me. In my opinion, it’s very dangerous if your parents are also your coaches. It can create tension that I see in many kids, which is not positive.

From a young age, I would not listen to my parents about what I should climb. Instead, before we went on a trip, I would study all the guidebooks. I committed them to memory, and I had all the routes I wanted to do already prepared in my mind. Then when we reached the crag I didn’t need a book or anyone’s advice. The same was true of training. Even when I was only 8 years old, I would experiment with the way I trained for routes or boulder problems, to see what worked best. Until I reached 20, this was the way I trained. And I think it has worked quite well. After all, I was able to climb Change at 9b+ (5.15c) by training in this way.

Last year I contacted Patxi Usobiaga [a former World Cup competitor from Spain, now a climbing coach] to help me train specifically for the World Cup because that’s a different game, especially if there is one important comp during the season. It’s difficult to train in a way that you are sure to be strong and well-prepared for a single day, and I’ve failed to do that in the past.

So I began training with Patxi, because he’s the only person I could trust. He’s famous for saying that he was never a talented climber, but earned everything through hard work and a brutal training regimen. I knew I could trust him because he has gone through the same process, and he can understand how I feel and judge how my training is going. I divide my training into different periods when I train really, really hard, and I go through enormous fatigue. This means training three times a day, six days a week. I do some campusing, some bouldering, and endurance training every single day. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m training for boulder or lead because if you’re lead climbing you still need bouldering power, and in the bouldering comps it’s also a power-endurance challenge because you’re allowed six tries on each problem in four minutes and that’s going to wear you down if you don’t have endurance.

I train a lot for two to three months, then when the World Cup season starts, I train less, but focus more on quality. During that period I do a little campusing in order to work on raw power, and then I concentrate on trying to climb World Cup–style routes. I know that during a comp I will need to climb two routes a day, so I warm up, then I give a route two good burns, which I take as seriously as if I was actually competing. Then if there’s a two- or three-week break between events during the season, I can train for a week but still have time to rest. In this way, I can stay fit through the entire season.

But you also have to decide which comps are most important and when it’s time just to have fun outdoors. If I only train in the gym the whole year, it’s too hard for my head, and the head is very important in competition climbing. Regardless of how strong you are, the more relaxed and happy you are, the better your results will be.

Adam Ondra Eating Picnic Camping
Ondra and friends enjoy an evening meal after a day of climbing at Entraygues, La Vallouise, France. Photo: Chris Noble  

What about diet?

Diet is important. I don’t feel like my diet is very special, but I suppose some people would think that it is. The most important thing is how I eat during the time when I’m training hard. Right now I’m climbing outdoors, and in comparison I don’t climb as much. So diet is still important, but less so. I try to eat as much natural food as possible. For breakfast I have porridge or a smoothie. Throughout the day I eat only fruit, nuts, and seeds, as well as some vegetables and good spices like turmeric, curry, and cumin mixed with rice, buckwheat, or millet. In the evening I have some protein. It can be meat, eggs, lentils, or legumes. I don’t eat that much meat. I find that if I eat too much meat I’m not as strong. But at the same time if I go two weeks without any meat—I also feel weak. So I eat meat once or twice a week.

What do you love most about climbing?

There are many things. Climbing is beautiful. There are moments when I’m high on the rock, and I’m enjoying every move, every handhold, every foothold. That feeling is hard to find! I believe it’s a feeling you can only find if you bring to an activity the kind of passion I have for climbing.

I don’t know if I want to use the word freedom. Many people describe climbing as a kind of freedom. I don’t think freedom is precise enough, but I’ve never found a better word. How do you describe the feeling you get when you wake up in the van in the morning, and then you go to the crag all day and come back to camp in the evening and have a nice dinner? It just feels great! It feels like I’m doing what I really love, something I was born to do.

Then there’s the challenge. If I only climb easy routes after a while I would get bored. Besides I usually find the harder routes more impressive. For example, at the Flatanger Cave in Norway I’ve been working on a 9c [5.15d] line for some time. It’s become my lifetime goal. It’s more impressive than any other line in the cave and that motivates me to train harder, because I want to do that route.

Adam Ondra Rock Climbing Route Beta
Ondra and his girlfriend, Iva Vejmolová, scout lines in Tyrol, austria. Photo: Claudia Ziegler

How long will you devote to a project before you give up?

There’s no limit. As long as I enjoy it, I will keep trying. It doesn’t make sense to set a schedule. Every route is different. Working a route is a very interesting process, because for the first few weeks you always make some progress. That’s because for one or two weeks you don’t lose that much power and you are getting to know the route better, which allows you to climb higher and higher.

But after that, it’s much more precarious. You may start falling lower than before, and it becomes really hard to motivate yourself. So the moment comes when you say, “OK, I’m done. I need to go home, train harder, and come back with fresh motivation, more strength, and perhaps better conditions so I can get a new chance.” That’s the approach I’ve used for many routes, but especially for La Dura Dura. I went to Spain for that route on five different trips, and on every trip I was stronger, but then I got back on the route and I said to myself, “OK, you’re stronger, but you’re still probably not strong enough!”

It wasn’t until the last trip. I tried La Dura Dura on the first day, and then I knew, “On this trip I’m going to send,” and I succeeded one week later.

How would you describe climbing?

Climbing is strange. You drive 12 hours to the crag. You sleep in the dirt. You get on the rock, and it’s cold. The holds are painful and you wonder, “Why am I putting myself through this?” Why is it that so many hobbyist climbers are doing this in their free time? They are not forced to do it. It’s like we are some strange and rare species! It’s definitely not for everyone. I like to think that we climbers are somehow different.

For me there’s no other activity that takes me so deep within myself. When I am climbing well on a hard route, it’s like my mind is somewhere totally different than my body. My movements are driven subconsciously by my intuition and experience. That’s when I climb best. And that’s hard to achieve. What I enjoy most about it is not necessarily the moment I’m climbing in that state, but the moment just after. It’s like I entered a different world or a different dimension. It’s certainly something I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

I think it can only happen if you do something very well. Sometimes when I get down from a climb I don’t remember certain moves because I was so fully in the moment. I think if you don’t have this intuitive ability, you haven’t climbed enough. You are not a complete climber, because your intuition is not strong enough to tell your body what to do. I would like to try different things. I would be psyched to snowboard or paraglide for instance, but at the same time, I know it would take so much time to get good at those activities. Not good because my ego demands it, but good enough to be able to enjoy the same intuitive state of mind I feel when climbing.

Adam Ondra Rock Climbing
A quick rest on Move (5.15b), Flatanger cave, Norway. Photo: Claudia Ziegler

What do you think you’ll be doing in five to 10 years?

For sure I will still be climbing, but beyond that I don’t really know. But even living this great lifestyle I have felt a bit bored. As I said, I believe you need different things in life to occupy yourself, and that you enjoy the process of climbing even more if you can’t go out every single day. And what happens if you get injured and all you have is climbing? There’s nothing else in your life? You would definitely get much more depressed. So sure, there are times now when I would like to have more free time, but I’m pretty happy with my current situation. Right now I’m really psyched for sport climbing, to open new routes, to complete my projects in Flatanger, and try different crags in Norway and Europe, as well as other continents. But maybe some seasons I will exclusively boulder, I don’t really know. I decide quite spontaneously what’s going to make me the most excited. In 2015 it was World Cup competition, but now in 2016 I’m not psyched for comps anymore. I want to take advantage of all the hard training I’ve done and apply it to climbing outdoors on hard sport routes.

When do you think we’ll see a route rated 10a (5.16) and what will it look like?

That’s a really hard question. Nobody knows what 10a should look like, and how much harder it should be than 9b+. It’s purely subjective. But in my opinion there should be big jumps between the specific grades, otherwise it’s impossible to judge a new level of difficulty. The higher you go up the grading scale the more subjective it all becomes. It can be more dependent on height, conditions, finger size, and so on.

If we don’t make big jumps, we can’t really say why it should be a new grade. Therefore in my opinion, we will have to wait quite a while to see 10a. And I don’t think I will ever climb it. For sure I’m capable of climbing 9c [5.15d], and I can imagine what 10a might look like, but someone stronger and younger than me will come along, and hopefully they will succeed on a 10a. We will see.

This is an excerpt from the book Why We Climb: The World’s Most Inspiring Climbers, by Chris Noble, to be published by Falcon Guides in November 2016. The book will be available for pre-orders in June through Amazon.