LOCAL CLIMBER SEAN
“I belay Sean to the top of the tower, who asks with a smile on his face what the French sport grade of the route would be. After discovering it’s a 5c, he starts laughing loudly and exclaims: “It’s insane, I love it!”„
Dani Andrada, Silvia Vidal, Chris Sharma – Adršpach has gotten quite a lot of celebrity attention lately. Usually, these stars appear during the annual Climbing Film Festival, praise the Czech sandstone for its ‘uniqueness’ and with that they return to their home galaxy/crag, never to be seen again.
When Belgian bigwall climber Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll made an appearance at one of the local pubs, he was repeatedly asked:
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean what am I doing here? I came to climb.”
“But foreigners don’t come here.”
It can therefore be said that Sean is no longer a foreigner. This year he visited the sandstone towers of Adršpach for the fourth time in his life. This time he spent a few weeks here. (He was also enthralled by Saxony, where he was exposed by his signature in the summit logbook on the Falkenstein, but that’s a story for another time (author’s note)). The last time he visited was in September: “The weather wasn’t too great then. Not a soul to be seen in fact, because of the rain. Sean spent a week in the corner of the campsite in the gazebo, practicing his bagpipes,” recalls Tomáš Meier from Adršpach.
The weather, however, improved considerably and an Indian Summer finally arrived. During this time Sean met the author of this article in Teplice. Here for a change, he was exposed by his flute. They agreed to take some photographs in Adršpach, and so there are some photos accompanying the article that was mainly written by Karolína Jelínková.
Nevertheless, Sean is probably the first celebrity from abroad who has become accustomed to the nuances of sandstone climbing. How was this revealed? He has acquired his own ankle protectors, knot-tool and set of knotted slings. “It’s all so cheap!” he said. His favourites are flat slings and ten-millimetre chords. He doesn’t use UFO rings: “They really change what it’s all about here.”
Sean excelled in thin finger-cracks. He climbed the ‘Direct Route to Communism’ VIIIa and ‘The Exorcism’ VIIIb on the Abbot. He initially struggled in some of the offwidths but improved rapidly. He was able to climb (AF) ‘The Hussar’s Piece’ VIIIb on the Pegasus. He also did the notorious Teplice trilogy in one day. (‚Whiplash‚ on Jarda Beran’s tower, ‘Flys’ Crack’ on The Bottles and the ‘Valley Route’ on The Town Hall – watch the film about it here.)
This is your second time in Adršpach this year… that means you’ve spent more time here than the average Czech climber… Where do you go après-climbing?
Tošovák pub is quite a special place. It has a nice atmosphere. They also have good food in Qádr. Or I spend the night at the campsite, sometimes at my friend’s place in Zdonov…
Are you able to find specific towers in Adršpach – without help from your Czech friends?
Yes, I can find a few near the campsite or near the tracks. Everything else is a labyrinth though that I get completely lost in. I can usually find the King and the Queen in the ‘City’ area and other dominant features like the Town Hall.
Is there any particular route that you remember more vividly than any other?
There are too many of those. I can’t name even one actually. You’ve actually hit what Adršpach means to me: there’s just a bunch of quality routes. That’s the truth! (Laughing) In all the other world-class climbing areas you have a few king-lines, but here you have so many! (“Not many people would agree with that,” says Kajá Nováček) “Those people are wrong!” laughs Sean.
Would you be interested in doing some kind of project here that would be at your limits? Or doing a first ascent?
Yes, I like the challenge that Kája did a few years back – doing all the routes on the Town Hall in a day. That sounds very hard and very appealing. (Laughing) I hope that someday I’ll feel ready for it. I know I am not right now at least – I still have a lot to learn in the offwidths. But I like it and I think it’s a fun challenge. I think that would be a good day’s climbing. (Laughing)
„I would be tempted to try all the routes on the Town Hall in a day.“
You would need a committed partner for something like that… have you got one?
Of course! (He glances at Kája who waves his hand, signalling never again) (Sean starts having a fit of laughter) What about Vojta, (Vojta Přibyl, who climbed „Heavy Shackles“) has he tried it? He would be a good partner. I should start training though.
If Adšpach has all of these king-lines that you keep mentioning, why haven’t we met anyone else today?
I don’t understand it. It’s probably because you locals keep it a secret for yourselves. (Laughing) You’re so selfish, you just want to hoard it and not let anyone else in. Well too bad because I’m going to tell the world that this is one of the best areas… (Laughing)
Seriously though, this place is very special. There are many lifetimes-worth of climbing. I’ve been in lots of other areas, sport and trad but they don’t have the same… (thinking) how to define it? I was in Greece this year in the spring – super, great climbing, lovely routes. But there was something missing.
Do you perhaps mean the ‘depth’, that the climbing has here?
Yes. The adventures are so much more enthralling. And the lines are just: “Wow!”
CLIMBING WITH SEAN
Adršpach in the autumn is rarely visited by more than the usual ‘addicts’, who whole-heartedly believe that on any one of the faces of a named tower could be dry and climbable; or by Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll when he appears suddenly out of nowhere.
He’s a short, hirsute Belgian with an endearing grin, dark features and shining eyes, who only seems to drink fruit tea. We know from our previous encounter earlier in the summer that for Sean, Adršpach is not new and where he found “something unique that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.”
I don’t understand many things in life, but Sean’s arrival in Adršpach during this time of year is beyond comprehension, an event that was favoured by the gods as evidenced by the improvement in the weather.
We dust our climbing shoes, attempt to quickly stitch up our favourite climbing jeans and head out towards the towers. We take Sean with us.
And so, on the 24th of September 2022, Vojta Přibyl, Sean Villanueva and myself headed in the direction of Cleopatra to warm up and climb the route ‘Fisso Corda’ (VIIIa from 1969). To stupid my question about how familiar Sean is with offwidths, he promptly responds by running up the route after Vojta. I sit on top of the tower, covered in blood and sweat, grinning over his rather timid and humble initial response: “Not that familiar because I know there is still a lot to learn.”
The next destination for our elite crack team was the route ‘Greek Myths’ on Themis (VIIb from 1983). An unusual route, probably unrepeated somewhere between VIIb and VIIb for an unusual day.
VOJTA PŘIBYL’S ACCOUNT
After warming up we stand under the North-East face of Themis, which is criss-crossed by a number of long cracks. Greek Myth’s has never been repeated so the task is obvious. After a few meters I assure myself that this is not a typical VIIb. Kája watches from the side-lines and cheers us on. Meanwhile Sean puts on his hood and adjusts it so that it protects him from the incoming barrage of mud and ferns. I clip the rusty ringbolt that needed to be threaded through with a sling and after some shuffling I reach the summit. I belay Sean to the top of the tower, who asks with a smile on his face what the French sport grade of the route would be. After discovering it’s a 5c, he starts laughing loudly and exclaims: “It’s insane, I love it!”.
We abseil and I show Sean another route on Themis – ‘Palllas Athena’ a VIIc with only one repeat by Šoumen. “I know nothing about it, but it looks nice and there should be plenty of sling placements.” Sean inspects the route for a second and then ties onto the sharp end. I inform him that it’s good to be careful on the chossy jugs. He climbs about ten meters, and I instantly realise that my warnings fell of deaf ears and Sean starts grabbing delicate fragile jugs. I nervously instruct him to be careful. He soon however clips the (once again) rusty ring-bolt and more-or-less effortlessly reaches the top. While writing the second repeat he grins cheekily.
What next? We head for the valley-face of the Pegasus. I show him ‘Water Droplets’ VIIIa: “This crack is really nice.” “OK, let’s do this!” Sean sets off, but he’s slowed down by the start of the route and a difficult section around a preplaced sling. I reassure him that this should be the hardest part and that higher up the route is easier. Unexpectedly he starts having trouble in a section approximately three meters under the second ring-bolt. With the knowledge that he simply must clip it, I cheer him on loudly and after a small fight he clips it and climbs to the top. We enjoy the views and in the dark we return to the Tošovák pub.
THE SEARCH FOR THE FORGOTTEN MUSCLES
I spent the rest of the day behind the bar. I find the rest of the party in the pub at night: their faces beaming and scarred. “How was your day with Vojta? Still alive?” I ask Sean after all of his experiences with Vojta, with whom I spend most of my time dusting unrepeated or unpopular routes, meaning they are often quite difficult and full of unique surprises. “It was awesome!”. I understand – tomorrow we will be doing the same.
It’s Sunday, 25th of September 2022. We tidy up the pub, pick up Sean and head for the ‘Magic’ route on Sunday tower (VIIb from 1960), where we meet our friend and local legend Kája Nováček. A party of this composition indicates to me that today won’t be spent climbing routes easier than VIIIa, and so I’m left with no choice but to tie on to the other end of the rope. “Awesome…”
On the next route – The ‘Valley Route’ on Jean Frank’s (VIIIa! from 1971) we let Sean take the lead. After hesitating under the first and only ring-bolt and after a quick gear placing tutorial, he levitated towards the summit in a single breath. The route suddenly appears easy despite its difficulty. I, however, gasped for air while searching for every forgotten muscle in my body.
The ideal warm-up for bigger projects it would seem. We head in the direction of the legendary route ‘White Rose’. I would describe the route like the long-boiled broth, that Karel the chef cooked repeatedly in the summer months in the Tošovák pub. The route will give you everything you need. Cracks, overhanging cracks, overhanging offwidths, vertical offwidths, vertical cracks a chimney and the end. But you must not over-cook it! You will not only burn the broth, but the pot and if you’re unlucky, the kitchen as well. The route too can burn even advanced climbers like paper, especially those who think they’re made of the right stuff, just because they’ve done the odd VIIc or VIIIa.
On the summit I ask Sean, who once again seemingly walked up the route without the slightest hint of any effort how it was for him: “It is such a unique and beautiful route! I almost cried.” I also almost cried…
What next? Can I drop dead now? Not a chance, it isn’t dark yet. In the following seconds Vojta hops up ‘Hum of the Forest’ on Ťuhýk (VIIIb from 1979). Compared to White Rose the route is a cake-walk.
While packing our bags in the twilight hours of the day, Sean thanks the towers with a tune on his flute. I audibly recall that one of the last songs I learned on the flute was from Titanic… and so we head back to the pub to the tune of ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
MOMENTS OF GRATITUDE
We spend the last day of our Adršpach climbing season a few days later with Sean and Kája. We head to the Hejšovina, as Adršpach had been mercilessly drenched over the last few days. The routes (cracks) are so nice that Sean immediately climbed the first two without climbing shoes. We finish the day with a visit to Pavlína Binková’s place; her warm smile (that of a dedicated climber) meets us. She is the creator of the best ankle protectors in the world, without which the ankles of local climbers simply wouldn’t exist. We dedicated Sean a pair as a gift. We then headed over to Kája Nováček’s place, where, crying with laughter, Sean taught us not only how to play his many flutes, but also his bagpipes.
Meeting Sean was utterly unique for me in many respects. Having the opportunity to climb with one of the world’s most talented climbers was an honour in-and-of itself. More than this however I perhaps appreciated the opportunity to understand what it means to be a professional climber and what it’s like to be a person who doesn’t try to plan things; one who lets life carry him on its many adventures while he simply tries to keep up.
After those few days that we spent together, I came to understand that even a world-class climber of his talent can be a humble and quiet man, who you won’t find promoting himself on the internet; a man who at the end of every day thanked the towers and his partners for what was given to him; and a man from whom a few weeks later you receive a message asking how you are, with a picture attached of him alone at the top of a cliff with a big thank you for the ankle-protectors, with which he will likely never part.