Feature Profile: Adam Ondra
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Adam Ondra, 26, is the best climber in the world. The Czech phenom is responsible for putting up the world’s first 5.15c and 5.15d, the latter remaining without a repeat. In addition to multiple World Cup gold medals and World Championship titles, Ondra climbed the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on his first trip to Yosemite Valley, in 2016, and has sent 30 routes at 5.15a. He has climbed V16 and 5.14 trad. The list goes on.
How I Describe Myself
People describe you in many ways. You’re phenomenal, you’re a once-in-a-lifetime kind of climber, etc. How does Adam Ondra describe himself?
AO: I would describe myself as a climber. Climbing influenced me in so many different ways that I don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t a climber. Maybe I would be just a completely different person.
If tomorrow you couldn’t climb anymore, what would that look like for you?
AO: That would be super tough. I think one of the lessons I learned in climbing is that if I could not climb anymore, I would have to find one thing that would be as fun as climbing. It would be very difficult. I don’t think I would ever find something as fun as climbing, but maybe I could get close.
What do you think about when you’re not thinking about climbing?
AO: One thing that actually helped me to get so far in climbing is that I set priorities, which things are important and the rest not so much. So, I don’t waste time being organized in the things that don’t matter.
I worry about the things that I consider important and I don’t worry about the things that just take my energy away.
Do you have self-doubt about anything outside of climbing?
AO: When I was a little kid, I was really shy … For example, [in] all the other sports or most of the other sports, I’m definitely not confident at all. Like try to play football with me …
What about things that you have to do in life that you’re not confident about? What about, say, relationships?
AO: Definitely relationships are important for me. I can’t say I always feel confident, but in years you just learn.
What do your other priorities look like?
AO: I think in the end climbing isn’t the priority, but it’s just being happy, and there are other ways to get there.
What are ways to be happy?
AO: To be happy, for me, doesn’t mean I want to lie on a beach and not think about anything. I would not be happy. I need challenge. I want to challenge myself and climbing is a great combination. There are moments that I truly just enjoy, just traveling around, just climbing some easy routes. But, at the same time, I want to set a goal and go for it.
It’s not only about sending but more the process of getting there, which to the eyes of many people wouldn’t always be enjoyable.
What are things other than climbing that make you happy?
AO: Definitely relationships.
Climbing and relationships: two ingredients for happiness?
AO: For sure, your climbing will not be good if you’re not healthy.
Training and Mental Stamina
I listen to a lot of people when they talk to themselves—the dialogue they have with themselves—and this is also something that Janja Garnbret spoke about. She said there are these moments when you think, “Ah, this sucks. You’re not going to be good enough, blah, blah, blah.” What does Adam Ondra’s head sound like? What are you thinking?
AO: So, for example, in training for sure, I’m trying to make it as fun as possible. And it’s a lot about the dialogue in my mind to actually perceive it as fun. For sure, the training is hard and most people would find it ridiculous to spend six hours a day in a gym. And yes, it is hard, but most of the days, I manage to think, “Wow, this is climbing and climbing is what I like.”
And once you are deeply immersed in this climbing process and like just either trying a problem or just trying to climb three or four routes in a row—you’re just in it. And you feel, “Oh, it does not really feel like any sacrifice.”
It’s not like I cannot wait until the training is over. Yeah. To be happy that I did a good job—this is the training that is going to push me further. But that’s still somehow overcoming a sacrifice, which could work, but I think it’s only a short-term basis.
So, 90 percent of the training days, I do succeed in doing that: just trying to find the fun in the pain. Sometimes even pain is fun. Because, for example, I don’t know, the lead training when you are just super pumped, it’s hot. Like all the muscles are burning, your skin is thrashed. Maybe you are not the most excited to do five more routes. But usually you just started climbing and you’re just in it and you don’t feel the pain. It actually feels like fun.
And in the times when I don’t manage to convince my mind that this is fun, then there is the motivation of the long-term goal.
You have a backup?
AO: Yes. I go training now because I want to do well in the next comp. But I think that’s the last resort. You cannot use it too much because you have to enjoy the process. I think you can have this goal in your mind, and maybe it’s possible to survive for half a year, or a couple of years. But for many years in a row—I don’t think it’s possible.
Someone said that the hardest thing isn’t to win a competition. The hardest thing in the world is to win again and again. It’s easy to show up on your best day, feel the best and perform the best. It’s much harder to learn the skill of flipping a bad day around.
AO: And I think the more you feel it—if you feel that training is just the sacrifice for your success, the more pressure you will be feeling on the day you have to perform.
When you have bad days, the 10 percent of the time when you just feel bad and nothing works, you suck at everything you climb—what do you tell yourself? That’s when you pull out that last resort?
AO: Yes, because I am ambitious and want to fulfill my goals, so that usually works, but I don’t want to use it too often.
You really love onsight climbing. Why and what does it say about you as a person?
AO: I want to get out of my comfort zone, but still in the comfort zone of climbing. So climbing as a whole, that’s the comfort zone, kind of. But onsighting is like stepping into the new terrain and getting into something new. And I like the feeling of mastering it, making fast decisions, going for it with the confidence of like, This was the good decision and now I have to go for it. It’s really satisfying.
How do you feel when you go through that?
AO: All decisions are more automatic. I wouldn’t say it’s flow because sometimes even on a hard onsight, it’s not like you’re climbing perfectly—you’re climbing as perfectly as it’s possible for the onsight. But sometimes you cannot flow up the route because it’s too hard to read or the method is just too cryptic.
I think if you want to be a really good onsighter, it’s ultimate multi-tasking because there are just so many decisions you have to make at one moment and it has to be kind of automatic. And the more experience you have, the more you climb onsight, the more the situations are kind of similar.
I think in so many situations, you should be rational. But imagine: You’re up there on a route, on your onsight, and it’s absolutely at your limit. You just don’t have the time to be rational. You have to rely on intuition because if you want to be rational, you need time to consider it. But you don’t have the time. Well, you might have time to be irrational at the bottom or after the climb is finished to get some feedback out of it. But up there on the wall, you just have to rely on intuition, and that’s great.
If you are somebody who doesn’t onsight a lot, you don’t test yourself, right?
AO: It depends on how much experience you have as a climber but doesn’t really depend on the number of routes you tried to onsight in your life. It’s the quality of your climbing. Every time I go climbing, I want to climb perfectly. Even on my warm-up, I want to climb perfectly, and that’s the way that I learn how to be a better climber. Even on my warm-up, even in my training, like some people would think, “O.K., now I hit the gym and I want to train endurance so I just climb until I get pumped.”
Yes, you train the physical part like that. But you can at the same time train the moving-well parts.
Even if you’re having fun but you’re not moving well, that’s not good?
AO: For me, honestly, I don’t have fun if I don’t climb well. Even if I do a route, but I know that I climb badly, it’s not the same experience.
Climbing With Perfection
So you think an internal drive that’s just naturally there has made you the climber you are today?
AO: I like climbing with perfection and I think on the way to get there being open-minded helps a lot. Because even if you have the best coach in the world, if you are not able to reflect on your own climbing based on your own feelings, it is really hard to be the best. You can be the best physically but as a climber—well, actually to be the best climber—maybe you don’t have to climb in the best way if you are just so much stronger than the others. Of course, to have the whole combination helps. Because the worse your climbing is, the stronger you have to be.
You have to be emotional when you climb, but rational before and after you climb. And I think maybe when you were asking what really made me get where I got to in climbing, this is it. I don’t think that many other climbers think about their own climbing that much. I never say that I’m just not strong enough to climb this route too early. I always found a way. Always try to reflect. Maybe I could climb better here or there, in certain sections.
Because in general, I like sport climbing more than bouldering because there are just so many more details you can focus on. If the second move on a boulder problem is the crux, then…
…There’s not enough room for improvement?
AO: Yeah. And even there tiny subtleties exist in that one move that you can still think about forever. But on a route, maybe the crux move is number 50 but there are 50 moves to get there. In 50 moves, there is just so much more room to climb even a tiny bit more efficiently. Because in sport climbing, it’s not really about how hard you try in the crux move or in the move where you keep falling but it’s much more about how you climb before.
The Importance of Excuses
What advice would you say contributed most to your physical success?
AO: Flexibility. But not necessarily just like flexible as a body. Like some people maybe follow a certain regime too much. And sometimes it’s really hard to follow it because there are other occasions that you can’t really control and in that way, I think it’s really important to be flexible as well. And not actually be worried too much when you have to change your plans. Flexibility in climbing is totally underestimated by most of the people. And it’s actually one of my key ingredients in climbing.
What about another one?
AO: Like a certain level of self-confidence.
Maybe the better example is when you have a bad day. Like you are trying a route and it sucks, you just can’t climb it. There are so many different ways that we can react. The one extreme is no excuses, never ever. I think this is a very wrong approach. You can get demotivated very easily. You just have to find good reasons, that maybe you’re having a bad day because, I don’t know, you didn’t take enough sleep in the night before or because conditions are bad or you’re overtrained. And sometimes it could be an excuse. Sometimes it could be a real excuse, sometimes it could be a bad excuse, but it’s all about you, whether your mind actually believes it or not. You cannot just lie or you can lie to your mind, but you have to reflect on yourself if you actually believe it or not.
I watched this video of you when you were younger and you were super emotional when you fell off the climb. And now you have a level of self-control. Something has changed there.
AO: Still, even if I fall on the route, I do get quite emotional. Maybe I control
it a little better. But sometimes I’m not able to, because people still see me on the videos and I curse in the first five seconds. I’m just screaming mad. That actually helps me to be completely fine 15 seconds later, but they don’t see it on the video anymore because that’s not interesting. That’s actually my approach. Instead of trying to suck it in and keep it inside, I explode and then I’m fine.
What’s the one piece of advice in life that you would give to anyone to apply today?
AO: Just do something that you truly love, but don’t do something you think other people expect you to do.
It’s really, really hard to know that when you’re 18. And then we come back to flexibility, being flexible enough to change your direction when you find out that you are wrong.
Improving as a Climber
What is something more specific to climbing that you could tell a climber who’s trying to improve? Something any climber could do today and be a better climber.
AO: Try to reflect on your own climbing. People think of climbing in too physical a way. For sure, it’s very important. Just by climbing, you will improve physically. But I think most people just don’t climb on the level they might be able to climb physically because they just don’t climb well enough.
Climbing well, it’s not just the question of talent, and it’s not only a question how much you have climbed in your life, but how much you really want to improve as a climber. It’s even much more fun to climb if you feel you’re climbing well. I don’t know, if I see some people that just pull hard, I would not even enjoy climbing if I was climbing in their way, even if I sent. For example, they might be an experienced climber but waste too much power.
Maybe what I always try to focus on is not really grace in climbing, but efficiency. Efficiency is a very individual thing, I have to emphasize, because I might climb the route in a certain way, and I know that for me, for my body type, strengths and weaknesses, that was perfect.
What’s a practical tip for recovery?
AO: First, it’s more mental. If you feel like how you are living, how you’re training, what you are doing is super tiring, then of course you’ll be tired.
Do you do specific things to recover mentally or is that a part of your lifestyle, you have just learned all these things, and you are mentally training yourself every time you climb?
AO: For me the recovery is not that surprising. Stretching—some active recovery helps—and any kind of additional relaxation, like it could be massage, could be sauna, could be anything.
You aren’t giving any magic tricks here?
AO: The world is simple and in a way, it’s complicated, but there are no easy tricks that make a miracle.
Feature Image: Ondra on his way to the second ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d), Yosemite Valley, in 2016. Prior to this climb, Ondra had little experience on the technical style of Yosemite’s slick, edgy granite, but was a quick study and dispatched the world’s hardest big wall in 2016, leading every pitch in just eight days. By Heinz Zak
This feature appeared in the fifth issue of Gym Climber.