Quickdraws

Caucasian roulette in "Khergiani's Route" on Ushba. A game that you want to play only once

16. 06. 2020, Martin "Lesko" Leskovjan

It’s like déjà vu. During the six years since our first attempt, the village of Mazeri has hardly changed. The only thing that changed was a few hundred meters of new asphalt road. Again, we are welcomed by low cloud cover and a heavy portion of precipitation, which slowly but surely keeps reducing the likelihood of our successful and safe ascent of the wall.

Slowly, we climb into the fog, and just outside the village, we meet a mountain rescuer on horseback, who is trying to break our already undermined morale: „Возвращайся. Условия не хорошие.“ We spend a while assessing our options. Should we try reaching the northern peak by the normal route? It’s a tricky snow ridge, at which Tom failed twice, Leon once, and various climbers from our club ten times in total. Moreover, we’ve only got three ice screws, two snow anchors and the conditions on Ushba Glacier keep getting worse year after year… It’s a dumb idea. After all, we decide to stick to our original plan – to climb the southern peak of Ushba by Gabriel Khergiani’s route (5B in Russian grading scale = several days of hacking and slashing through tough conditions).

South face of Ushba (photo: T. Horský)

The rain gets thicker, forcing us to bivouac in a shepherd’s shelter. With this delay, we reach the moraine under the south face the next day. The weather improves and so does our morale. The whole wall is plastered by a 30-centimeter layer of fresh snow but the forecast promises four to five days of relatively stable weather without much precipitation. Despite our enthusiasm, we decide to spend the next day resting and sunbathing, listening to the amazing performance of a local band The Avalanche, which drops one banger after another.

On the fourth day early in the morning, we’re finally leaving. We swiftly make our way through easy mixed climbing to the glacier and then wind between the crevasses straight under the wall. The path begins with a wide snow staircase followed by a more vertical wall onto a ramp. The rock is solid… as scattered Lego pieces but we expected that. We continue with a narrow rocky gutter that spits us out above a large snow plato.

The view from the snow steps onto Donguzorun. (photo: T. Horský)

We rappel a bit, climb through some relatively easy mixed parts and reach a blank water slide which sucks us up higher and higher. Around 1 p.m., we’re digging a tent platform. It went well, maybe too well. After all, we begin to feel the 1,200 altitude meters that we’ve climbed since the morning and the only thing to do now is to rest, enjoy the views and drink one tea after another. We crawl into the absurd Chinese tent and hope that the storm doesn’t come today.

In the morning, we start straight through the firn channel into the headwall, where we finally unpack our ropes. The first pitch brings us to the key corner. It’s leaning on one side, overhanging on the other and quite smooth – here and there, you can find a piton. This time, I’d rather be just a spectator and enjoy the views of somebody else fighting through the crux moves. After a few moments of hesitation and evaluating the blank wall above me, I arm myself with some iron and start. I freeclimb the first few meters and then I’m forced to start technical climbing. It’s easier than last time. There!’s no waterfall pouring straight onto my head, but it’s not a piece of cake either. As I continue up the crack, it slightly widens, so you can find some solid placements for the climbing axe in the last few meters. I make an anchor in a mess of old slings and pitons right in the spot, where we decided to back off last time.

The first pitch of the headwall. We didn’t get any further last time. (photo: T. Horský) 

“It looks easier further on. Let’s not waste time re-tying into the other ends of the rope,” the boys say, trying to weasel out of the leading. Well, what the hell… I lead on.

After a few meters, it’s clear it won’t get any easier. There’s nothing to hook on and certainly nothing to hold on to. Thanks to an old fixed sling in a stuck friend and the capillary elevation, I scramble a bit higher, step by step all the way across the loose rock (which finally comes down under Tom’s weight), a few meters of blank wall, and finally an anchor.

Leon, trying to spare his dislocating shoulder, performs a mental enema in the form of jumaring on one strand of 7,5-millimeter rope. He didn’t cut it. Somehow, we manage to fight our way up through the third pitch but then I feel I had enough. I climb slowly, my legs tremble, my forearms are spastic, and I barely manage to clip the loose piton in the final moves of the pitch. A few mentally demanding moves in the slab and then an anchor. Hurray! We got over the crux and I can finally tie onto the end of the train and follow the guys leading the rest. The ridge is endless, there’s still quite some climbing and the weather keeps changing all the time. Clear, fog, pure shit – repeat.

On the ridge of Ushba. (photo: T. Horský)

We pass the golden plaque, and at sunset, we stand at the summit of South Ushba. Eureka! We shake hands, take some pictures for Playboy and hurry up down.

We hike down for a while, looking for anything that could serve us as a bivouac. “Look, over there a perfect platform!” We rappel down two pitches from the main ridge into the southern slope. “Oh, well, nothing…“ we dig a snug three-person bench into the snow and secure ourselves using the ropes hanging from the last anchor. The weather calmed down. We’re almost asleep. (picture from bivouac)

At sunrise, we climb back to the ridge and rappel down into C1. Surprisingly enough, the headwall takes only 1 length of rope, however, just through the air. We reach our tent by evening and stay because it’s already too late to go all the way down. Tomorrow’s another day.

The joy of reaching the peak engulfs us. Leon on the left, and Tom. (photo: M. Leskovjan)

We get up quite early and rappel from the top of the water slide almost to the foot of the wall. The descent is for connoisseurs only. Following the lesson the mountain gave us last time, we had picked the best spots for our rappeling slings already during the ascent, which saves us a lot of time on our way down. As truly experienced climbers, we get repeatedly tangled into our ropes and spend the extra time trying to untangle them. As we go down, there’s, unfortunately, fewer anchors and less snow. The exposed bottom ramp turns out to be a system of washed-out slabs covered in loose scree. Every time we pull down a rope, it takes a down grapeshot of various-sized stones.

We play Sherlock Holmes searching for another rock or crack that could hold a piton, uncomfortably lengthening the time we are exposed to the shooting stones. We rather decide to ignore the tracks after a stone avalanche that crosses our descent route. After twelve hours of rappelling, we stand on the glacier. The snow’s gone, so we hurry up and leave this minefield. We arrive in BC completely exhausted. The descent from C1 took us more than twice the time of climbing to the same place. 

We’re happy. We’re happy that we’ve made our way back and what more, we don’t need to climb the mountain again.

It’s over. Finally.

Some more moving pictures for you… (video: P. Novosad)

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„Khergiani’s Route“ to Ushba 4710 m.a.s.l. (5B Russian classification, ED, 3–4 days, climbing in headwall M5+ A2, couloirs 65°, elevation difference 1700 m, objectively dangerous due to falling stones. In 1937, the first ascent took five days.)

Martin „Lesko“ Leskovjan, Tomáš „Tom“ Horský and Petr „Leon“ Novosad climbed the route in July 2019. Photo of the equipment.

„Khergiani’s Route“ – TOPO

Looking for a Loony Girl Climber

19. 05. 2020, Alena Čepelková

“Hi, I’m looking for a girl who’s a bit loony – addicted to climbing (rope) and doesn’t mind going to a climbing gym four times a week and then sets off to Jura for a weekend.” (Dating ad from Czech climbing server called Lezec)

Well, I know some girls… they might not exactly fit the description, but…

I know a girl who fell in love with climbing when she was two years older than the number in the name of a famous route at the Panteon area (“E55” VIIb, 6a). She lost her husband, who was an intellectual, and her father, a great climber, died. She couldn’t get over the grief, so she decided to turn back to the genes she inherited. She went straight from being an intellectual to a climber. She’s now training in a climbing gym four times a week. As for the weekends, she would go anywhere – on the condition that it includes climbing. The grief has disappeared and everything has become new and beautiful. It turned out that she is quite gifted at crack climbing and who knows, maybe she’ll learn to place those knots as well.

I know a girl who was squeezed by a huge piece of rock while climbing. It shattered her ankle and she had to undergo several operations, none of which was entirely successful. Her foot has been crooked ever since and she cannot walk properly without special shoes. Despite that, she organized a girl-only expedition to China. She said that finding sponsors was much easier because it involved a disabled girl scaling a 6 000 meter mountain. She made it to the top.

Then the beginning of the semester came, and with the finals approaching, I had to forget about the wild sandstone adventures for a while. Time to grind some training routines in the climbing gym.

I know a girl who, when she was 80, climbed a rock at a symbolic cemetery under Ostrva mountain in the High Tatras, just to place flowers next to the plaque of her beloved. The chief of the Slovakian climber’s club (JAMES) couldn’t bear watching her climbing the slick wet rock and muttered something about “reckless pubescent”. Now, she’s three years older and wonders if it’s not too embarrassing for her to go to a climbing gym. Her grandson wants her to take him there.

And when I think about it… some years ago, a 17-year-old lunatic girl decided not to take a cable car to Lomnický Štít mountain and forced her friend to walk with her. Her friend swore she would never do it again while the girl decided to become a climber and enrolled in a climbing club – not to get married to one of those guys but to climb like they do. She wanted to have children as well, so she parked the prams by old brick walls, and traversed back and forth to train her fingers. She did that especially during winter in order to build some strength for the summer season. Sometimes, she thought she was the only lunatic out there.

But she hasn’t been. There’s plenty of us – the lunatic girls who love climbing have always been and will be here!

Once you start climbing, it’s for life.

Climbing freaks for life (photo: Karel Vlček)

Tears of Joy: Sean Villanueva in Adršpach

05. 05. 2020, Petr „Pjotr“ Vícha

Three years ago, when Sean first walked into a pub in Adršpach, people immediatelystarted to whisper: “Hey, that must be the big-wall legend! Or not? And what is he doing here alone?”

Waitress Anička went ahead and started chatting with him. He complained that he had joined some dubious climbers, who shocked him a bit. He said they were drinking even during belaying, and the routes they climbed with ropes looked more like soloing. Anička realized that he must be looking for more trustworthy climbing partners as told us: “You’re climbing with Sean tomorrow!” So, we agreed – it was that simple. Although the morning was damp and foggy, we went to Teplice and in the afternoon tried “Bod zlomu” (Xc / 7c+ fr.). I was surprised how far he got during his on-sight attempt. It was inspiring to watch him climb. I was almost sure he would send it at the second try. (And that’s exactly what happened a week later.)

Sean climging “Bod zlomu” Xc, two years ago (photo: P. Vícha)

Two years later, Sean wrote to me that he was going back to Adršpach. It wasn’t the best timing for me, though, because was supposed to stay at work. So I tried to get as many people as possible to show him the best routes. Eventually, I managed to arrive in Adršpach at the same time as him and we climbed together – one week full of amazing routes and only one rest day.

Which routes did we choose? You know Adršpach – it’s a huge maze of rock towers. At first glance, all the routes look impossibly difficult. That’s why it’s so hard to choose one to climb. You can be sure that each of the routes you choose will scare the hell out of you.

After all, we set off for the Himalayas area, which is one of the central sectors in Adršpach. I had no idea where exactly we were going. So I made a list of routes that I like and that I haven’t climbed or finished yet. Another condition for choosing the routes was clear – to stay as far away from the trail packed with tourists as possible. We didn’t spend much time planning. Sean is so flexible and enthusiastic about climbing that it’s hard to find a route he wouldn’t like.

Short documentary film about Sean’s and Pjotr’s climbing adventures in Adršpach

For the first two days, Sean’s friend Johan, who is a cameraman, joined us. He shot some footage from “Rohová” route (VI, 4c fr.) on Annapurna tower. I chose this route because of the tricky part, where you have to use the famous man-tower technique. The main reason why we chose this tower, was the route “Prckova porucha” (IXa, 6c+ fr.). Sean managed to lead that one, but I’d say he had to fight a bit… Then Matěj Svojtka showed up and told us he knows some good routes nearby. We went to the Jelení rokle (Deer gorge). This is one of the areas with many new routes. For example, there’s an amazing route “A jde se na pivko” (“Let’s go for a beer” Xc, 7c+ fr.). Isn’t that a poetic name? Before Matěj and Sean climbed it, we did two more new routes: “Fenkám” and “Hovado z lesa” (IXb, 7a fr.) – you’ll see those in Johan’s short film as well. Then the guys made the first and second free ascent “A jde se na pivko” – for now, it must be one of the hardest lines in the sector.

The next day, we stumbled upon an interesting off-width crack. I had noticed the route one rainy day when I was taking a stroll in the rock city. Surprisingly enough, it became the challenge of the day. You’ll see that in the video. Can you imagine that the classic trad climbers made the first ascent of this route in their 60s? We have a lot to learn from them.

Later we climbed paths like „Memento Mori“ (VIIIa, 6b fr.), “Mrtvička”, “Lvíčata” (VIIIa, 6b fr.), “Vabank”, “Smrtonoška lahodná” (IXa, 6c+ fr.), “Bílý mustang”, “Bludný kořen” and “Pražský výběr”. Then we joined Smolo and made a first ascent together – the route is on the Střelci tower and Sean named it “Robin Hood” – it still waits for the first RP climb.

I can’t tell you which of those routes Sean liked the most. He seemed thrilled with every single one, but I felt that those bizarre and challenging routes were challenging Sean’s psyche. One of those was the bold off-width crack “Olověný hřebík” (IXa, 6c+ fr.) which you’ll see in the short film as well. Another bizarre route we climbed was “Obstarožný strašák” – a loose, crumbling, overhanging crack with a nightmarish off-width just below its top. After you climb this route, you have send a few well protected sport routes to start liking climbing again.

There’s plenty of challenges left here. Sean climbing „Olověný hřebík“ IXa, 6c+ fr.
(photo: J. Kervella)

One morning, we went climbing with my friend. He woke up, rolled a fat spliff, smoked it all by himself, and went straight to warm up in Xb-c route (7c/7c+ fr.). I was wondering what Sean thought about all that. He told me: “You crazy Czechs and your warm-ups…” We did have a lot of fun that day. We got our asses properly kicked by a grade V (4b fr.) off-width – I started off solo but the guys had to throw me a rope and Sean decided to back off that nightmare as well. Finally, we sent the route “V hašišovém rytmu” (Xa, 7b+ fr.) – Sean climbed it flash as if it were a mere stroll.

Sean’s visit to Adršpach was nearing its end. I’d say we’ve managed to show him a lot of fresh routes and just a few of the real old classics. On of the guys had a great idea told us to try “Přízemní komplikace” (VIIIa, 6a+ fr.). While climbing the route, Sean shouted at us: “That’s just beautiful! It makes me wanna cry. Hey, guys, do you think I’m allowed to cry here?” And that’s when I realized how lucky we are that we have such an amazing place – Adršpach.

Since I got to know him during his visit, I see Sean as a calm, humble and patient guy with an immense passion for climbing, music, and a great sense of humor.

This short article follows our big interview:
Sean Villanueva. When You Feel Motivation Deep in Your Chest

The Sandstone Bermuda Triangle

28. 04. 2020, Mikuláš Zubec

“You smell like sandstone crack,” said my friend’s wife to him, when he returned from yet another weekend of climbing. It seems like ordinary five words, but in every sandstone climber, such a remark raises countless emotions, memories of experiences, and adventures. I know the smell very well. I have been climbing in the “Bermuda Triangle” of Adršpach-Teplice-Křížák for six years now. In this area, I have gone through all my climber’s milestones – the very first rock climbing experience, the first-time leading, the first big fall, grappling with huge fear, and immense euphoria of reaching the top of a rock spire, which overtook all my life for the two following days.

Usually, you have to leave the area just as you are getting used to the specifics of the local climbing style. This time, however, it was different. Five days of pure sandstone porn. It’s unbelievable but Adršpach was perhaps the only dry place in the Czech Republic at that time – a good starting point. Well, except Kalírna pub – that place never dries out. A pub where grazed and ragged crack climbers share the same table with slick sport climbers creates a unique atmosphere – a true refuge from all the everyday problems.

Anyway, time to get back to the rocks now. Five days – I could finally climb the routes I had been afraid of until then. I started with a tasty OS climb of “Dařbuján a Pandrhola” VIIIa (6a+ fr.) on Vřesová tower at Křížový Hřeben area. My climbing partner Marťas felt strong and tried “Kapitán Kořala” IXc (7a+ fr.) right next to it – we managed to go through moves in the first half of it. Then we have finally finished our project on “Skalácká Pětka” RP IXa (6c fr.) on Větrná tower.

The highlight of the whole trip should have been “Hrana Kalamárky” VIIIb (6b fr.), a magnificent airy arete, which Maťas had been eyeing for quite some time. After all, he said that a rain shower forced him to postpone this one but, to be honest… that edge commands respect. Then we cheered up while climbing “Stroboskop” VIIIc (6b+ fr.), which is an impressive 55m line leading through Martinské walls. When I found myself at the top, I realized that this must be another milestone in my amateur sandstone career.

Marťas climbing “Stroboskop” VIIIc (6b+ fr.) on Martinské Stěny wall in Teplice nad Metují (photo: Mikuláš Zubec)

Rotten Tooth, or how to get stuck in a chimney forever

07. 04. 2020, Jakub Vondra

The majestic Dragon Tooth (Dračí zub) is one of the most famous rock towers in Skalak, Czech Paradise. Among the routes leading to the top of this spire is “The Secret Route” (“Tajná cesta”). Such a mysterious and poetic name of the route is quite tempting. It was first climbed almost a century ago by Josef Baudyš, Václav Náhlovský, and Karel Čabelka, and the grade is as low as III (3 fr., III UIAA). We’ve heard the warnings but decided to ignore them as mere superstitions. Follow us on our voyage through the darkness of this humbling route.

Our little expedition consists of three members – my girlfriend Míša, my good friend Matouš, and myself. Matouš leads the first pitch, which starts with an off-width crack, without breaking a sweat. Nothing unusual so far. Now, we should climb into a very narrow inner chimney, which leads all the way to the top.

And that’s when the real fun starts. We find ourselves in a small cave wondering how to get up there. It’s dark in here and all we can see is quite an uninviting off-width. We just probably lack some imagination to see where the route leads. It’s time to realize that the rumors might have been right. The only way up starts with several risky moves in a narrowing chimney and disappears up in the dark.

It doesn’t look particularly inviting, but I tie in anyway, trying to calm myself with the fact that it’s only a grade three. It eventually has to get easier! I manage to stuff my body into the hole – when I try to breathe, the sharp grains grate my skin, and I cannot even see what comes next because I jammed my head into the crack sideways. My stomach churns but I decide to continue anyway. The higher, the worse – I start to fight for every single millimeter.

As the chimney gets even tighter, I realize I have no other chance… Somehow, I manage to take off my harness and tie it to my ankle – it hangs below me as I continue snaking my way up. Finally, something that makes me smile – I find a brand-new climbing shoe! I’m still afraid that I’m going to die here in a very slow and terrible way, rotting like a cavity in this rock tooth. I suddenly appreciate all the airy routes, that made me scared of falling.

Dragon’s Tooth area, Czech Paradise (photo: Standa Mitac)

The Light! I feel like a mole that just crawled out of its hole. Or like a child being born. I even find a ring! Now the tricky part – getting back to your harness 20 meters off the ground is not so funny, but somehow, I manage.

A few moves later, I appreciate the safety of the harness, as my chest gets stuck in the chimney once again and I barely manage to squeeze myself through. I don’t even tie the sling around the hourglass under the top of the tower – I just focus on not getting sick on the climbers below.

I’m alive! I’m alive, and I don’t have to climb this horrible route ever again!

Now it’s Míša’s time to enjoy the route – I’ve never heard her screaming and yelling like that before, even though we’ve been through a lot together. She eventually gives up and manages to get back to the first ring. Matouš seems to be having just as much fun as I did, going through the whole harness episode. He made it! We shake hands, swearing that since this very moment we’re not going to climb any route easier than grade six. On our way down, we pick up Míša, who’s been waiting for salvation at the first ring.

Sure, I would recommend the route… as an ideal training to all the spelunkers, as a delight to all the masochists, and as a shock therapy to all the people with claustrophobia.

The sacrifice. (photo: Jakub Vondra)

Mind the Crack: what it takes to find motivation for a classic bold Adrspach route

19. 02. 2020, Vašek Krejčí

You’ve probably heard this line before: “Yeah, that’s a nice one. Go for it. I’m sure you’ll like it. There might be some runouts but nothing insidious. You can always find some holds and place slings as well.”  That’s the sort of advice my climbing teacher, Jarmila, gave me about the infamous “Parrot Crack” (Papouščí spára, VIIc, „6a fr.“) at the Parrot tower in Adršpach.

She went on: “People think that this “Parrot Crack” by Richter is hard… but that’s just a myth. In fact, it’s just another classic Adršpach route, nothing special. I remember climbing it in 1978 with my friend Zdena. We took some old work gloves and wrapped our wrists in duct tape. I lead the first pitch – it’s quite a trek. I tried to place some knots into the corner crack but failed. Then, somebody shouted from below: “Don’t bother with it and just climb on.” Hmm… so I did, and a few moments later, there I was clipping the first ring. Zdena then climbed the final slab without any problems.”

This year, I got quite confident about my climbing skills. I’ve sent some pretty interesting routes, some of which Jarmila hasn’t ever tried. To name one – the famous “Whiplash” VIIIb, „6b fr“. (See eMontana video). After talking to Jarmila, I decided to go check the “Parrot.” “It’s a mere VIIc and I am already a big sandstone climber,” I thought. The season was nearing its end and I already climbed some nice cracks that summer. Yes… my sling placing skills are miserable and I seldom trust the knots I place, but Jarmila told me that she didn’t place any into the crack anyway, so why bother… And the UFOs? Forget about that. Jarmila did it without those, and so can I!

I scrutinize the route… it looks pretty good, but wait… where’s the ring? Oh… there it is. At least twenty, maybe twenty-five meters off the ground and just beneath it, there’s a small overhang with a sort of a cave. It doesn’t look too hard but there seems to be quite a scary no-escape zone. I inspect the crack for five minutes and imagine desperately trying to clip in the ring too soon… my heart is thumping. Not today. Honestly, I don’t feel good about that route. I’m not gonna climb it!

Then the beginning of the semester came, and with the finals approaching, I had to forget about the wild sandstone adventures for a while. Time to grind some training routines in the climbing gym.

The night before the exam, I couldn’t sleep. I had a pretty weird dream, in which I was frustrated that I haven’t sent the “Parrot Crack” yet, so I decided to try it. I took my UFOs with me and I started climbing. I was freaking out, but I finally managed to place both of those UFOs just under the scary overhang. I clipped the ring without any issues. It even felt quite easy. Suddenly I felt so bitter and ashamed. I woke up. For 50th time that night. This route just doesn’t let me sleep properly! I guess I’ll have to try it next year. I can feel adrenaline rush just thinking about it. Psychosomatics in practice…

It’s funny. Two girls climb “Parrot Crack” some thirty years ago and this egoist guy, who thinks he trained enough in the gym, cannot sleep for the whole winter. Will I finally get some sleep next summer? Let’s see. Maybe the faith that all is going to turn out well, will get me to the top once again, and remind me why I climb rocks anyway.

Pete Whittaker climbing up to the first ring (photo: Jan Šimánek)