Being a climbing instructor in the United States and Czech Republic did not come easy. I was not born into a climbing family. Nobody in my family had ever tried rock climbing before me, and I found the sport myself at the age of 25. Once I started climbing, I was hooked and threw everything I had at progressing in both strength and experience. I am a pretty strange mix of introverted and extroverted. When I am around new people or in a new situation I tend to be quiet and a bit timid. Around the right group of people I can be outgoing and the center of attention. My introverted nature made it difficult for me to find climbing partners or mentors early on and meant that if I wanted to progress, it was on me to push myself. This was not without its woes or embarrassing mistakes that I will share. Keep in mind the best way to learn how to climb is by hiring guides, taking a climbing course or maybe even learning a thing or two from that old crusty climber your local climbing gym.
I started climbing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of the closest climbing areas and a great spot to get introduced to outdoor climbing is McConnells Mill State Park. It has hard sandstone that is constantly wet for some reason and has walls that get up to about 40 feet or so. McConnells Mill is not sport bolted but has some anchors at the top and many trees for setting up top-ropes. My first climbing rope lived a short life because I had no idea at the time how to build a proper anchor and shredded my rope with some terrible rope drag.
The most striking line in this area is on a formation called the ship’s prow which gets its name from its shape. I had more confidence than competence at this point (something that has mostly reversed nowadays) and was stoked to send it. My brother and I set up our top-rope and I gave it a run. I made it about 15 feet up and just started into the overhanging section when my foot slipped on the forever wet rock and it all went south. Due to the overhanging nature of the rock there was a massive amount of swing that resulted in me decking (pun intended) and injuring my legs. Luckily, I had no broken bones but I was on crutches for two weeks or so. Right after this event, my father-in-law came to visit for the first time since I married his daughter and was none too impressed with my new career path. I went back and sent the route with a smarter setup after my injuries healed. I am the person climbing the route in the mountain project photo now, so take that daddy-in-law!
Cleaning Sport Routes
This mistake is more funny and embarrassing than tragic. I have a tendency to make big climbing plans and goals, and it started early in my climbing. I somehow came across a climbing area in Lion’s Head, Ontario, Canada and decided this was where I would do my first sport route. There were much more accessible and easier to navigate areas near Pittsburgh but my stoke took me elsewhere. I semi-defend my decision as it is still one of the most beautiful climbing areas I have been to to date! I took my wife Emily who is not a climber to the area and I am lucky to still be married. In this location, you need to either belay from the top, which was way outside my capabilities at the time, or hike to the bottom and go from there. We chose the path of hiking and learned that when climbers say it is an easy hike down they mean easy for climbers. There are a few sections where you need to do a bit of down climbing, which is no real problem for a climber but Emily was not amused.
To the actual point of the story, I had learned how to sport lead in the climbing gym and felt confident I could make it up some easier routes. I had my first experience with Elvis leg here but made it up my selected route cleanly nonetheless. When I got to the top of the climb I was quite confused as there were only rings at the top for descending. In the climbing gym where I learned to lead there were carabiners at the top where you simply clip your rope in and lower down. I embarrassingly assumed all climbs were like this and it was a shock to me to find out otherwise. I didn’t know what else to do so I clipped in one of my carabiners, lowered down and left it there. I knew this wasn’t correct but it was my solution to the problem in the moment. I also knew I was not going to get Emily to do the approach a second day so I climbed a few more routes, repeating my process of leaving carabiners at the anchor and making an unneeded contribution to the climbing community.
After learning how to sport climb, traditional climbing soon followed. I purchased a set of cams, nuts and hexes and headed to the New River Gorge to try them out. At the time, I felt as if I was climbing pretty strong. I don’t really know why I had that impression as I was still a brand spanking new climber with almost no experience outdoors. Anyway, I had watched some Youtube videos and read some online articles about how to place trad gear so I was ready. I decided I would take it easy on my first trad climb and picked out a 5.9+ YDS called Jaws. This is a hand sized crack that runs up a corner and is actually quite a pretty line, not that I made it up far enough to experience it. I tied in and started up the route and quickly realized that climbing on cracks is completely different to climbing face. I placed my first ever cam in the crack and figured it met my standards for a good placement and continued upward. I didn’t make it too far above my placement before I was pumped and panicking. I started to downclimb but it was no use as my foot slipped off of the slippery corner. I fell nearly to the ground but my cam held! I was able to retrieve my cam and bailed off the route without any real incident.
It was winter in Pennsylvania, but I was thirsty for climbing and decided to do my first multi-pitch climbs in Joshua Tree National Park. Yes, I know that Joshua Tree is not specifically known for its multi-pitch climbs and no it did not stop me. By this point in my climbing I had wised up somewhat and had taken a single pitch instructor course through the American Mountain Guide Association. My skills were starting to take a more professional shape but I was pushing new terrain again.
Our first day of climbing in Joshua Tree went without major incident. I did have my first time leading runout granite slab which was a new terrifying experience. I also learned that I didn’t need to hold my pee until my bladder is about to explode and I could pee off of the wall with my harness on need be. This is much easier as a male, I am told by my female climbing partners.
On day two of our excursion we went to the Lost Horse area, and this is where my route finding troubles came into play. I love climbing, but there were times when I was starting out that my stoke to get going would get in the way of proper planning for a route. We decided to climb Dappled Mare, which is a popular 5.8 in the area. We glanced at the topo and could see the general direction of the climb so we went for it. Pitches one and two went without issue. It was my turn to lead pitch 3 so I started the short traverse with an undercling and went up the obvious crack that begins the pitch. After the crack I must have made a wrong turn, and I went up a section of holdless slab with no protection. It led me to an outward flaring crack that couldn’t take any protection. I continued upward through another protection-less slab to yet another outward flaring crack. The runout of about 30 feet was the largest I had faced at the time and I was in a bit over my head. I didn’t feel as if I could down climb and I was getting fatigued due to my hesitation to continue. I was just barely able to pull through the last section of rock, place protection and finish the route. My lax route planning put me on a more challenging rated R route which was a bit much at that point in my climbing career. I have also gotten off route on Royal Arches in Yosemite and got to enjoy a chilly unplanned bivy. The climbing rope does not make a good blanket if you were wondering. Topo reading is an important skill if you are going to venture into longer routes. Reading comments online, asking friends, or talking with more experienced climbers can help you avoid these situations.
Those looking to push their climbing to new levels often have growing pains. Especially if they are not partnering up with a more experienced climber. Learning from past mistakes has helped me make fewer new mistakes while learning how to climb in the Czech Republic. After all, I didn’t want to fall on the first knot that I placed for protection. Feel free to share a story of your climbing growing pains in the comments below. That way I won’t be the only one looking foolish.
I am nearly ready to open my climbing guiding business and it is all very exciting. The problem is I have been spending a lot of time climbing challenging routes in interesting areas without keeping a mindful eye for good guiding spots for beginner climbers. This weekend was my attempt to change that habit and it was semi-successful!
Český Ráj is a large nature reserve about 90 minutes north-east of Prague. It is a well known area in the Czech Republic due to the striking sandstone towers that shoot up out of the forest. Some of these towers are densely packed together and are called rock towns. It is a very picturesque place to hike around and a fantastic place to climb. Český Ráj does translate to Czech Paradise afterall. For this particular adventure to the nature reserve we went to an area called Hrubá Skála. This area is known to have some of the softest sandstone in the Czech Republic. My goal was to explore the area and climb some nice easy climbs.
You don’t have to walk on the trails long before you see the large rock towers. Some of the towers are upwards of 200ft and are very impressive to look at. Because the rock is so soft the wind and water have eroded them into interesting shapes. The nature of the rock also changes how it is climbed. You are not allowed to use metal climbing protection like nuts, cams or hexes because it will pull right through the rock if you fall on it. I could never really stand to climb with hexes but I do miss my nuts and cams. I have not placed a cam in nearly 8 months which is absurd with the amount that I climb. Some routes have large metal rings that are drilled deep into the rocks for protection, like bolts on steroids.
Make no mistake, these are not like sport routes. Many times the first ring is 30 feet off the ground and the distance to the next ring is similar, if there is a second ring. In addition to these mental/safety obstacles you are not allowed to use chalk. This rule has been a hard change for me as I started climbing as a boulderer in the United States, using so much chalk I could be confused for a mime. It is forbidden in the sandstone areas because the porous rock absorbs the chalk and makes permanent white blemishes on the surface. This is deemed unsightly by some and leaves unwanted clues about where good climbing holds may be hiding. I have climbed many routes where you just follow the chalk marks to the top.
It took me the full three days of my trip to get used to the climbing here. I started on some nice easy routes as was my intention for the trip. The easier routes often do not have any large rings drilled into the rock so they are purely traditional climbing on knots. Typically I would fly up routes of an easy grade but the lack of protection and the insecurity of the holds had me hesitating more than normal. The climbing is characterized by having large slopey holds, weird cracks, deep pockets and shapes like the middle of an hourglass where you can grab all the way around. When using the slopey holds you can feel the compacted sand detach from the rock which gives you much less friction to work with. The base of most of the towers is a beach of sand and is the closest feeling you can have to the seaside while living in the Czech Republic. The trick is to be delicate with your climbing and keep your cool. You must place your foot with intention and mustn’t shift your foot after placement as that can add to the reduction in friction you are already working with. It can be pretty mentally challenging to lead routes here but they are super fun to follow unless you are my reluctant wife who does not enjoy climbing.
My confidence grew the more routes I climbed and I enjoyed the different challenges that the climbing here provides. My good friend and climbing partner Mikuláš is more experienced in the area and took me up some routes I would describe as dandies. The biggest and most challenging tower that we climbed toward the end of our trip was the most memorable for me. Miki picked out the line and took the lead of the VIIc. The start was vertical climbing on all manageable holds but no place for protection until a hollow sounding horn that could be slung 20 feet above the ground. From there you used a few decent holds on slabby ground to get to the first ring 15 feet higher. It was intense to watch my friend climbing so far above the ground with no solid protection. There was one move in particular I had to make while following that I was not 100% confident making. After clipping the first ring with two quickdraws to shore up the only good point of protection, you need to move up an extra sandy arete. It was only 20 feet to the next ring but it was through some suspect holds so he moved carefully. Preceding the third and final ring was 40 feet of vertical face climbing where you could place some knots here or there. This was beautiful climbing to follow but must have been quite the mental challenge to lead. The final 20 feet to the top of the tower had the crux where one has to get on the final slab from sandy feet and slopey holds. It was a very memorable climb and it provided a beautiful view of the other towers in the area.
I really enjoy the climbing culture here. Each tower you climb feels like an adventure instead of just climbing another bolted wall. You always mark the completion of your climb by giving your climbing partner a handshake and signing the logbook that each tower holds in a weather protected container at the top. It is interesting to look at the history in each book and to be part of it.
Srbsko is a small town located along the Berounka river, about 30 minutes south-west of Prague by train. The town itself is quite small but has a few nice spots to have a beer after a day of climbing. Srbsko is a well loved climbing area by Czech folks and for good reason. This area has a plethora of limestone sport routes ranging from easy bolt ladder 5.4 to 5.15 (YDS) overhang. It is easy to get from wall to wall via the bike trail that runs along the base of the crags and is my preferred mode of transport. Limestone climbing is my jam, although you rarely actually get to jam on limestone, so I spend a lot of time here. My climbing partner, Squirrel from Colorado, said, “It looks like cragging heaven.”
There are some challenges when it comes to climbing in Srbsko. First of all, it can be a challenge to find out what and where you are climbing. While Mountain Project is far from perfect, I did not realize how useful it was until I did not have it anymore. There are several Czech websites that have climbs listed, but they often lack detailed descriptions or photos to help identify the climbs. I often use www.czechclimbing.com. It is helpful to get a climbing guide book for the location you are planning to climb, but they are in Czech language, so it is only so helpful for us English speakers. The climbing guide book for this area in particular was produced in 2000, so it is quite dated.
Due to the fact that this is a well loved and used climbing area, some of the classic climbs are polished to an impressive level. I thought Rifle Canyon in Colorado was polished, but the routes here take the cake; most footholds have the friction level of a bar of soap. Learning to climb on this kind of limestone has helped me to refocus on my footwork, and I have probably improved my finger strength from overgripping. That being said, there are plenty of routes with good friction if you know where to look.
Czechs are known for their bold climbing, and if you didn’t know that, now you do. Runouts are the name of the game here. I have been on several climbs where the first bolt is 15 ft or higher. Quite often, you find yourself a little higher above your bolt than you would like to be. It is not uncommon to place two quickdraws opposite and opposed in a crucial bolt placement to ensure safety. I have found it prudent to bring my rack to the sport crag if I am climbing an unknown route or in an unknown area. Keep in mind you can use metal protection on granite and limestone, but do not use it on sandstone in the Czech Republic. If you talk to any of my partners, you will find out that my head game is not the strongest facet in my climbing arsenal, but it is something that has improved since climbing on the rock here.
This is a great area to spend a few days climbing. There are hundreds of routes in this area, and you could easily spend a full day at various different walls. It is nicest to take a bike and ride to the different crags and through the Czech towns. Many Czech folks in small towns like to be as self sufficient as possible. I often ride past small gardens and chickens, and you can usually catch the homey smell of wood-burning stoves. Karlštejn is 2.5 miles away and is home to the second most famous castle in the Czech Republic. It is one stop away on the train or an easy bike ride on a country road. This spot is a little built up for tourists, but it is not the kind of place where people hassle you. The castle is awesome, and there are nice spots to grab a drink or get some Czech-style food. The bike trail that goes along the climbing areas in Srbsko connects with the town of Beroun. This is the biggest town in the area and has a great brewery and several nice restaurants. Both of these options are a good way to end your day of climbing. Taking the train to this area is quite easy. Trains leave Prague every 30 minutes, and you don’t even need to purchase a ticket in advance. You can just pop on the train and purchase a ticket from the ticket checker on the train. This works for this train line in particular, but not all train lines. It is pretty easy to take your bikes on the train to either return them to their place of rental or to take them back home. It will cost you 30 czk, and you should load your bike on either the first or last train car.
Srbsko area is a great place to climb and certainly worth a visit if you are into the peaceful countryside terrain. I am looking forward to warmer weather and my continued exploration of this area.
I am a climbing instructor who moved from the United States to the Czech Republic. Here is where I share some of my adventures and talk about what it is like to climb in the Czech Republic and Europe.