Each generation has a climber who takes the proverbial baton and runs with it, increasing the hardest grade in the sport and inspiring other climbers to see new possibility where they had seen only featureless rock. When sport climber Adam Ondra wrestled his way up 55 meters of wildly overhanging granite in a cave in Flatanger, Norway, and clipped into the anchors of the route Change, on October 4, 2012, he established a place for himself alongside the sport’s reigning visionary, Chris Sharma, 32. The route, graded 5.15c, marked a new level of difficulty for the sport of climbing.
Just a few months later, the 20-year-old Czech climber further raised eyebrows when, on February 7, 2013, he nabbed the first ascent of Sharma’s long-standing project, a route called La Dura Dura, the world's second 5.15c ever climbed.
“He’s opening routes that would have been considered completely impossible a decade ago,” says climber Alex Honnold, who is known for his big-wall free-soloing, or climbing without ropes. “He's focused on doing the hardest routes in the world, and he's succeeded, which pretty much changes what's considered possible in the world of climbing.”
Sport climbing—clipping into pre-placed bolts drilled into the rock—eliminates most of the risk found in traditional climbing, in which a climber places their own removable protection into fissures in the rock. In doing so, however, it allows for longer sequences of more difficult movements, redefining what is possible in the world of climbing as a whole.
“In some ways his climbing is a rather narrow thing—just doing really, really hard moves—but that's what it takes to push the sport,” Honnold says.
In the '80s and early '90s German climber Wolfgang Güllich almost singlehandedly bumped the highest grade in rock climbing from 5.13d to 5.14d. Ever since Sharma made the first ascent of the route Realization (Biographie), the first 5.15a, in 2001, he has carried the title of the strongest sport-climber in the world. When Ondra climbed Change and then took the first ascent of La Dura Dura, a project that the two had worked on together, it seemed as if Sharma had passed along the title.
Ondra has lived and breathed climbing literally his entire life. He grew up in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic in a family of climbers. His parents started taking him to the crag before he could walk.
“Of course, it was not really serious climbing, it was just swinging on the rope,” says Ondra. “I remember when I started climbing more seriously. That was when I was six years old.”
At age six, Ondra started training and competing. He won the junior competition series every year from age 11 to 16. At 13, he climbed 5.14d. At age 15, he repeated Action Directe, Güllich’s 5.14d. He has continued improving steadily ever since, despite having to balance climbing with the workload of a full-time high school student. He postponed his first year of college to work on these routes.
“Finishing Change was like my childhood dream come true—I’d been dreaming about finding something new in some almost virgin area, cleaning, bolting it, and doing the first ascent that would possibly be the world’s hardest route,” Ondra says.
Ondra started university this fall, and plans to direct his attention toward indoor training and competitions, as indoor climbing will complement school more readily than traveling to climb outside. He does not plan, however, to push straight through school without any breaks.
“I think it wouldn’t be wise to lose the best years of my sports career at university,” Ondra says.
Adventure: You’ve been climbing for pretty much your whole life. It seems as though you’ve been improving steadily the whole time. Have you ever hit a plateau in your climbing or gotten burned out?
Adam Ondra: Not really. I’ve never had problems about passionate motivation to just keep climbing and keep training and pushing. I’ve never really been injured, and I’ve never had any plateau where the progression would stop, but if it ever happened to me, I don’t think it would be that difficult. I just simply love climbing.
A: Why do you climb?
AO: I don’t really think about why I climb, I just simply love it. When I was six or seven, when I was able to read a bit, I had a book called Rock Stars. It had portraits of all the best sport-climbers in the world back then. For me, it was very simple. I saw all these people on the rocks with smiles on their faces. I just told myself that this is something that I want to do. I want to be a climber. And, since then, I’ve been as happy as these faces on the picture. I don’t ever regret my decision.
A: La Dura Dura, a film in the Reel Rock tour, drew a lot of attention to the work you and Chris Sharma did on that route. It contrasted a tan, muscular Sharma living in Spain with a beautiful girlfriend, with you, pale and skinny in comparison and traveling around in a van with your parents. How did you feel about their presentation?
AO: I did not have any objection about it. Since then, I think I have changed a bit, but then, I was pretty much like that. It was filmed in a bit of an American way. I think the competition thing was a bit emphasized. I wanted to do the route and Chris wanted to do the route, but I think, to be honest, it did not really matter too much whether I was the first or Chris was the first. We just went climbing together and had a good time.
A: Have you ever really worked on a project like that with someone before? Or do you tend to work on things by yourself more?
AO: I definitely tend to work on things by myself, because it’s hard to find a partner. Of course, it would be ideal—you work on a project with someone that has the same level, and you’re pushing each other. But it’s very hard to find a partner.
A: Is there a point where it is just too difficult to climb? Will there be a set point where we can say, it’s never going to get more difficult than this?
AO: Not at all. I think sport climbing is still a relatively young sport. Not so many people are really focused into really structured and sophisticated training, and I think that there’s still a lot of room to improve. I can imagine, easily, routes 9c [5.15d], 10a [5.16]. I can describe them, and I think I have even bolted some of the climbs that could have such a grade. I can imagine climbing them; I just don’t have the power now. I might in a couple of years, I will see. I’m very excited about it.