Adam Ondra: 5.14d First Ascent

posted by dpm on 03/27/2012


5.14d first ascents are nothing new for Adam Ondra. In most cases we’d consider this almost boring as just another day in the life of the world’s best sport climber. But Adam’s new route comes with a slight twist. He bolted it on lead from the ground up despite the fact that it would be a hell of a lot easier to walk to the top, rap down, and place the bolts on rappel like he would in most areas.

The new route is called To tu ještě nebylo and it’s located in the Elbe Valley, a sandstone wonderland that forms the largest traditional climbing area in the world. Often referred to as the Elbsandstein, this geologic phenomenon of free-standing towers has somewhere in the vicinity of 14,000-20,000 climbing routes throughout its range on the German/Czech Republic boundary. You’ll probably recognize it as the place where they don’t allow chalk or metal pro, instead using knotted slings or rope for protection. It’s one of the oldest free-climbing arenas in the world with a rich history of bold ascents. Regarding the ‘rules’ of the Elbsandstein, Steve Curtis summed it up on mountainproject stating, “The rules are an attempt to keep the Elbsandsteingebirge a climbing museum. "Our Ompahs climbed 5.11 in 1925 without modern gear--so will you." Despite the ban on metal pro, it’s common to see old ring bolts on some of the routes. As with many staunchly traditional areas throughout the world the locals abide by a strict rule-set and ethical standard.

According to Adam’s scorecard comment, his new route was originally bolted on rappel by some Germans who also chipped a few holds. I’m speculating, but it seems likely that this method of route establishment was not within the parameters of what is considered kosher in the Elbsandstein. The route was chopped and abandoned. Adam set out to re-equip the route and this time the bolts went back in from the ground up, a term that refers to bolting on lead instead of placing them on rappel. I’m speculating again, but it seems likely that he chose this method to abide by the local ethic. It’s not an easy task to do it this way as you can see in the video below that includes some footage of gnarly lead falls with power drill in hand.

Drilling the route. Click for video.

I grew up climbing in North Carolina which also maintains a fairly strict ethic of new-routing on lead. Rappel bolted routes are often chopped regardless of the quality of the finished product. It’s done in an effort to minimize bolts and preserve the nature of the rock as well as the adventure of the first ascent party. I’ve also seen routes in North Carolina that have been done ground up as aid climbs, standing on hooks and drilling bolts where you can. While this sometimes turns out OK, it just as often produces a route with bolts in the wrong places, impossible to clip for the onsight free-climber. I’m familiar with routes that were done ground up at the New River Gorge, again with misplaced bolts that were later chopped and moved to facilitate free climbing. Is it really in the best interest of rock preservation to go ground up when bolts might have to be chopped and moved? Does a top down approach destroy the traditional ethic, outweighing the benefits of a better finished product?  Is it just as important to preserve a long history of bold, adventurous ground-up route establishment and maintain a ‘climbing museum?’

In the case of Adam’s new route in the Elbsandstein, the finished product would have looked exactly the same whether he chose to bolt on lead or from a rappel line. So why does it matter if he started from the bottom or the top? If you have an answer to this age-old question, don’t expect everyone to agree with you. It’s one of the all-time great debates of rock climbing probably even trumping the ‘bolts on Cerro Torre’ debate! Hardcore traditionalists have gone to their grave defending the ethic of a ground up approach while today’s modern sport climber couldn’t care less about how the bolts go in. Regardless of your stance, it is interesting to see that Adam stepped up to the challenge of the Elbsandstein and took some nasty whippers with drill in hand. In the end, it’s just another 9a first ascent for Adam Ondra, though I doubt he’ll ever forget the experience of equipping this one. Maybe that’s why he chose to do it from the ground up? Click the image below for footage of Adam on his redpoint. 

Click the image for video of the redpoint.

Sources: Up-climbing, UKclimbing,,Wikipedia, mountainproject.