Two Types of Silence – Editor’s Note #246

The rise of Adam Ondra was a slow burn. Until it wasn’t.

By Francis Sanzaro | October 31st, 2017

Adam Ondra in the crux of Silence (9c/5.15d), now the world’s most difficult route, in the Hanshallaren Cave of Flatanger, Norway. Photo: Eddie Gianelloni.


The rise of Adam Ondra was a slow burn. Until it wasn’t. Most in the United States began to come across his name splashing in headlines circa 2004, when he was 11 and redpointed 5.14b. E-lev-en. A year before, at the age of 10, he onsighted a 5.13b.

Ondra was one of those young Euro phenoms. Most Americans have trouble locating the Czech Republic on a map, let alone find Brno, his hometown, where he still campuses in his grandfather’s apartment at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday. Ondra doesn’t hail from a fabled area, nor was he mentored by a great. But, as the story seldom goes, the young shooting star didn’t burn out. Ondra only got stronger. And listen up, parents— Ondra says his folks were “never, ever” his coaches, opting for a hands-off approach.

As Andrew Bisharat writes in this issue’s mega-feature (“Project Ondra,” page 30), Ondra is an experimenter. A pragmatic visionary. Naturally ambitious. His approach is not that of “Do what feels right” and “Climb what inspires you.” Ondra trains methodically, is exceptionally bright, well-spoken and well-respected, and uses whatever is at his disposal to better his craft. What Ueli Steck was to mountaineering, Ondra is to rock climbing. He employs the latest data-driven training techniques. He takes creative visualization to the next level. The results—he can climb on plastic as hard as any gym puller, he has sent 30 routes of 5.15a and two V16s, he is as good on crimps as on slopers and pockets, and, apparently, he can follow in Caldwell and Jorgeson’s footsteps up Yosemite’s notorious Dawn Wall. At the age of 13, no less, he was tick tacking up sketchy 5.13 trad. What, no ice or mixed climbing, Adam?

Ondra’s modus operandi is one version of the limit of human strength. And there is one. Tendons and muscles have snapping points, as the biomedical engineer Glenn Fleisig has demonstrated. Fleisig, who works at the American Sports Medicine Institute, in Birmingham, Alabama, snaps tendons and ligaments for research. In particular, Fleisig has researched the new breed of baseball pitchers throwing the ball at breakneck speeds. After analyzing how tendons and ligaments perform beyond a 105 mph fastball, Fleisig concluded that a 110 mph fastball will not become standard fare. The body’s inner plumbing just can’t withstand the repeated force. Remarkably, Ondra knows this instinctively, going so far as to critique other climbers for getting too strong at the cost of technique.

Another version of the limit is found in the mountains, where epics spew like avalanches from 8,000 meters, roll into base camp, then careen into literary lore. As part of celebrating 50 years of Ascent, we are republishing one of the first, and finest, pieces of mountaineering fiction ever written, Geof Childs’s “Leviathan.” It’s funny and tragic, with classic characters, to boot—Metilkja, the stoic, brooding hard man; Hamish, the gregarious one, whose grip on reality slowly loosens; the Major, expedition captain and high-altitude madman; and Ishmael, who observes it all. “Leviathan” is an epic epic.

When Ondra finally sent his 5.15d project, he named it Silence. Why? After the send, he says he “felt like I was in my own world, with my mind in complete silence.” Geof Childs ends “Leviathan” alone with his narrator, feeling himself to be a “great, silent thump at the end of the universe.” Two types of silence. Chew on that.

Francis Sanzaro


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