Quick heads-up: this will probably turn out to be a rather lengthy story. Bear with me though as I’ll be sharing a truely unique story about Adam Ondra, often regarded as the world’s best climber. In 2013, I photographed Adam at his local climbing crag near Brno in Czech Republic. The story and image of him climbing an 8b route wearing a blindfold made its way around the online climbing community.
In 2013, just after finishing my Master of Science degree in industrial engineering, I made the leap to being a full time photographer. Of course this caused quite a few raised eyebrows, passing on a secure and financially stable career as an engineer and instead trying my luck as a freelance creative. However, I considered (and still do) photography to be my calling, the one thing that will allow me to live my life to the fullest. Now while I was finishing my thesis I’d started to do some smaller assignments for the Dutch climbing magazine Blok. This magazine was run by Bart van Raaij, who is pretty much regarded as professor Fontainebleau in Holland. Blok had used the photos I’d shot of Russian climber Rustam Gelmanov for a personal project and commissioned me to shoot some portraits of talented young climbers. Then one day Bart dropped me an email: how would you like to go to Czech Republic with us to visit Adam Ondra at home and go for a climb with him?
Now you have to understand, when I decided to pursue photography as a career I’d set myself some goals. Naturally these goals included shooting some famous and inspiring people. However, to be asked to do an assignment that involved photographing quite possibly the best climber in the world this soon after starting out was kind of confusing in a way. It certainly called for some rethinking of my goals.
Who’s this Ondra guy?
Quick bio for those of you not too familiar with the whole climbing world: Adam Ondra is a 22 year old climber who lives with his parents in Brno in Czech Republic. Adam is well known for his extremely impressive accomplishments both on real rock and in climbing competitions on artificial walls. Adam climbs with a fierce and emotional style, often growling and even screaming while climbing. There’s even a Taylor Swift vs Adam Ondra video circulating the interwebs, for those of you familiar with the Taylor Swift vs goat video. Adam’s main accomplishments include being the first to climb quite possibly the hardest sports climbing route in the world, Dura Dura. See below for a short trailer of the film documenting this ascent. Adam also became the world champion of both lead climbing and bouldering in 2014. This guy is the best there is, period.
Logistics, gear and approach
The trip would only last a couple of days. We’d drive to Czech Republic by car, only stopping at night for a quick sleep at a hotel and then continue straight on in the morning. Bart and Ties, who’d be writing the interview, spent the day climbing some boulders while I took some photos. I believe I had a finger injury at the time actually. On to another hotel, but not before going out for an obligatory drink, Czech Republic invented so called pils beer after all. Prices for food, drinks and lodging were amazingly low in this country, I’d highly recommend it for any climbers looking for some areas off the beaten path of Fontainebleau and Ticino. Next, we’d drive over to Adam’s house on the third day of the trip. Adam promised us he’d give us a tour of his local crags, so we could see where he grew into the climber he is today. Then spend another night at a hotel, drive as far home as we can, crash at another hotel and then home sweet home.
Beforehand, I’d discussed with Bart about the style of photos that would suit the article best. I was really stoked on approaching this as a sort of documentary lifestyle series. There’s zillions of photos of Adam climbing, but fewer photos show him not climbing, doing things that are also a part of the climbing lifestyle. After all, Adam’s not some superhuman who only climbs all day and doesn’t pee or sleep. Not that I was intending on shooting him doing any of these things, but you get my point.
Since I’d be using a rather down to earth and natural style for the photos, I kept my kit pretty simple: just a couple of prime lenses and two bodies. No sick-ass zoom lenses or bags full of flash modifiers. I did pack one flash and a simple umbrella setup though, just in case. This turned out to be an excellent decision as you’ll see later. I also packed my GoPro camera to capture some behind the scenes footage.
The house of a climbing superstar
On the third day of our trip we rang Adam’s doorbell somewhere in the morning. Now let me just burst your bubble there: even though Adam’s a superstar in the climbing world, unfortunately climbing’s equivalents of Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo do not drive Ferraris or live in villas. Once we were inside the house though, it turned out to be a lovely modernly decorated place. Adam’s parents were extremely kind and were quick to offer us some coffee and a local variation of apple pie. It became pretty clear to me that Adam’s parents had played a major role in him becoming the world class climber he is. Climbing and the outdoor lifestyle in general appeared to be a common theme in the family. Adam has a sister that climbs routes graded in the 8 range as well. More on the house later.
As soon as we finished talking with Adam’s parents we made our way to Adam’s local crags. After a brief stop at a nice place right next to a touristic grotto, we made our way to Holstejn. This is where Adam’s stomping grounds are located, and where a pretty impressive offering of routes can be found. It is also the place of one of the hardest boulders on the planet, Terranova (8C+?). Although this particular problem is a traverse, meaning the line of the climb is mainly horizontal and therefore doesn’t follow the logical pattern of climbing up a rock, the moves are some of the hardest in the world. Adam showed us around at the crag, enthousiastically pointing out all of the different routes to be found there. While normally really laid-back and a tiny bit shy, when Adam starts talking about climbing, routes and moves his eyes light up and he’s full of energy. We had a hard time keeping up with his tour. It’s amazing to see that when Adam’s competing in the finals of some international competition he’s cheered on and the spotlight is on him, but while we were at the crag, Adam was really just another guy doing some climbing. The other climbers there recognized him of course, but they’d probably seen him climb there a hundred times before. It must be lovely for a famous climber like Adam to have this secluded place where he’s not a superstar but just another climber. With the sport growing rapidly, it’ll become increasingly difficult for well known climbers to just have a relaxed session without having tens of faces quietly following your every move, as one well-known Finnish climber recently remarked.
On goes the blindfold
After a quick tour of the crag, it was time to get down to business. While Adam had been showing us around I’d been taking as much photos as I could, attempting to capture some parts of the climbing lifestyle. These included walking to the crag, checking out the rock and chatting with other climbers. I wanted to show the ‘normal’ side of Adam, not just the epic rock-shredding superhuman side. When Adam strapped on his harness, pulled on his climbing shoes and chalked up, I continued this approach. Although I’ve since deleted the evidence, I can assure you that Adam also makes the weird faces we all make when trying hard to pull shoes that are 50 sizes too small. Warmping up consisted of doing ten pullups hanging from a jug located at the start of a route for Adam. Next, he went straight on to climbing a route that was graded 8 something. For many people,this is a level that takes them a lifetime to achieve, if they ever do. For Adam, it was a leisurely warm up route. Next, Adam went to work on connecting and extending some lines and routes. After being fed up with this, he decided it was time for a little play. He’d been wanting to try to climb a hard route blindfolded for some time. Out comes an orange shirt, Adam’s sister who joined us was all too eager to help him fasten it quite securely. Adam’s parents had also come out on their bikes all the way from home to see how things were going. After tying the blindfold, Adam found out that putting on your climbing shoes blindfolded wasn’t as easy as one would expect. Regardless, up he went, after his sister helped him find the starting holds of the route. The route Adam had set his sights on was an 8b route he’d climbed often before and knew by heart. Adam was perfectly able to remember where the holds were and how the moves should be executed. The hardest part was finding the footholds and clipping the quickdraws. There’s actually a perfect explanation for that: the quickdraws were the only part of the route that wasn’t static and set in stone, literally. I think Adam may have actually had it easier had he been climbing free solo. This is not something he’s interested in though, he later told us. Eventually Adam did fall from the route, struggling to clip one of the draws. It’s amazing to see how far through he made it though. I’ll try to dig up the GoPro footage from my archives soon. This story and photo were featured on Epic TV and garnered quite some attention in the climbing community.
After Adam was done trying to get up wearing the blindfold, our reporter Ties (who incidentally owns a shirt captioned “Real men don’t wear ties”) tied in to try a route Adam recommended. Adam himself was on belay, which was actually quite a novel thing for me to see. Then we suddenly noticed some major damage to the rope. Ties tied in to the nearest bolt to try and redo the rope on his harness. Meanwhile Adam untied the rope from his harness and went to get a knife. When Adam got back, the reporter had redone the rope so that the damaged part wasn’t directly loaded any more. Somehow however he had failed to register that Adam wasn’t belaying him any more, and happy with his re-rigging of the rope he untied from the bolt. Adam noticed the looming disaster just in time and we both screamed up for the reporter who just in time managed to get a hold of the nearest clip. Disaster at the crag averted.
Tasting the local cuisine
After we wrapped things up at the crag, Adam took us into the tiny village where we parked the car and recommended some local dishes to us. After we’d made our way back to Brno (Adam may have been driving at this point since we’d had a beer with our meal, but memory doesn’t quite serve here) we parked outside Adam’s house to drop him off.
We’d head out to find a hotel. Just as we were about to get back in our car though, Adam came out of the house again and offered us to sleep at his parents’ place for the night. Now either Czech hospitality is one of the best in the world, or Adam’s parents are just really nice people, because it didn’t stop there: once we had settled in the living, out came the snacks and drinks. I remember there being some local spirit, some salad, cheeses, meats and bread. We’d packed our sleeping mattresses and sleeping bags just in case we had to crash anywhere else than a hotel, so we laid these out in the attic, which Adam would normally have to himself. Next morning, Adam went for a quick run around the neighbourhood while we chatted with his parents. After he’d returned and changed into fresh clothes I came up with the idea to shoot a quick portrait of him. Bart and I hadn’t really discussed this but I thought it’d be nice to have and it may come in handy.
I just set up a single light stand with an umbrella and a tiny speed light to complement the natural light. We shot the portrait in the attic, pretty much on the spot where I’d been sleeping. This portrait actually ended up on the cover of the magazine, which just proves photographers should roll with their gut and err on the safe side with respect to shooting too much. After giving our many thanks to Adam and his hospitable parents, we spent another half day climbing and eventually crashed at another highway motel.
Bart did a wonderful job of using the photos as a sort of film roll in the final article, embracing their cinematic quality. For my own portfolio, I’ve decided to just use the photos taken at the crag, since the other photos are slightly off topic from the general theme of my website. However, for your viewing pleasure, I’ve included some tear sheets of the final article in the climbing magazine, and some of the previously unreleased photos are found throughout this article. On a side note, the climbing magazine (Blok) is now out of business, because sadly enough a fair amount of its subscribers apparently weren’t paying their subscription fees, and some advertisers stopped running their ads in the mag. Blok was a quality magazine and a true enrichment to the Dutch climbing scene. On a more positive note, the void that resulted inspired two friends and myself to found Siked, an online media platform focused on bouldering and sports climbing. Bart is still heavily involved in the climbing scene, having recently acquired the online ticklist website Bleau.info, geared specifically toward Fontainebleau climbing. He’s also the author of the high quality topo guides for Fontainebleau called 5+6 and 7+8, recently having released the second part of the 5+6 guide. If you’re looking to get yourself a clear, complete and durable guide for the French forest, look no further!