Wednesday, 27 January 2010


In the summer of ’93, I found myself at the Tosa Pedrotti hut, in the middle of the Brenta Dolomites, with a long, rainy afternoon ahead. The previous day I had had my fire baptism of the Via Normale at the Campanile Basso: after such an extreme climb (that anyway took an entire day, getting back to the hut in the night), a rainy day was perfect to restore my body and soul, forget the terrifying experience and go back to the rocks the following day for another historical feat. As anyone knows, the only way to spend time in an alpine hut is to drink grappa and read climbing magazines, and that’s exactly what I was doing. In one of these magazines, an article caught my attention: a climber, unknown to me, Tadej Slabe, had climbed to short, very hard routes with strange names in the crags close to Trieste. An 8c and an 8c+, I kept on reading. When I finally read about his training regime and strength feats, I immediately found a new idol: 3 one armers on 1,5 cm edge, 1 one armer on 1 cm edge with 3 kg on.
Almost 20 years after, I find myself on a January Saturday, on the train to Trieste. Tadej awaits me at the train station to spend some time together, climb, that’s for sure, and chat about climbing, grades and rock.
He’s taller than me, and has no more his famous moustache “too white!” he tells me. We sit in a bar for coffee and cake, while his wife and daughter finish the shopping. I know that Osp and Misja Pec are close, but it’s almost two o’ clock and I wonder how much time left we will have for climbing today, tomorrow it will be snowing. I’ll understand very soon, that Tadej doesn’t need much time.
While we walk back to his car, he tells me about his past as a competition climber: when he started competing he was already a bit too old, 31… , and he feels that he could have done better; naturally, there weren’t any climbing walls, so the Federation put just for him some resin holds on a vertical concrete wall, but he mainly trained alone, at the old castle in Lubiana. Now every gym in every city or village in Slovenia has a climbing wall: I think about Italy, then I think to something else. In the car I joke “I can’t even remember how to tie in!”, so he tells me about the two times he forgot to tie his knot. One time he fell just a few meters, rolling backwards and hitting the head “I could see inside my head! From the hit my eyes got pushed in!” he laughs, but the other time he fell from 12 meters, badly fracturing a leg and spending one year before walking properly again “but it was fine for climbing, because in climbing the legs bear less weight that in walking!”; call it will power.
We get to the car park, he packs and gets on the path, 200 meters slightly uphill; I am left behind after few steps, and when I finally get to the walls, he’s already in a small cave, tank top and shorts (at the car park it was 8°) and tells me “I put the rope on my project and then we’ll find something for you to climb!”. Right, I think, he books the route and then we warm up. Yeah, right. Three minutes after our arrival, Tadej warms up in the cave, campusing between edges in the roof, then he ties in, he gives his wife the belay plate and casts off on his project. How hard is his project? You will know soon. I find out that his wife, Barbara, always belayed him on all his projects, but when she climbs up to the cave she’s elegantly dressed and has no harness: well, she doesn’t need a harness, Tadej put a bolt at the base of the route!
It’s difficult to read the moves, he knows them well and climbs very dynamically, with no compromise, cutting loose to save on time, very precisely. After some 30 seconds, he falls, dynoing to a hold that is barely visible in the chalk. He comes down, waits one minute and then he goes again. He does again all the first bit, he sticks the dyno, then adds some moves and falls again. He comes down, he changes into his pants and there we go, it’s time for me to climb some other route. What? Two minutes worth of climbing and he’s done? I was waiting for a full day at the crag, getting home at night! This is Tadej. He is super busy, a university professor, a researcher, with dozens of work projects all around the world, from China to Brazil, and now has little time to dedicate to climbing. “here, it’s perfect for me. It’s my life line, half way between work and home, I can be here in no time, and when I’m here I climb little, two, three goes on routes as difficult as possible. It’s also a good training!”
While I scramble my way up a small overhang, we talk about his project: it’s doing “Sanjski Par Extension” 9a, “without the good holds”. That’s what he says. Without the good holds. Tadej is 51, he climbs 8c with no warm up and skips holds on 9a. now his idea of “as difficult as possible” is a bit more precise to me, at least in terms of numbers.
Then, something funny happens. I leave a top rope for a nearby route, that sadly is a bit diagonal. No problem, says Tadej. He solos part of the route, trailing my rope, and pass it inside a chemical bolt. He downclimbs and hands me the rope. I am puzzled, how can I get to the chain? I can’t pass through the bolt. I ask him. “Oh, yes – he says – that’s how I’m used. After that bolt the route is easy, there’s no need to get to the chain!” I love him.
After dinner we sit at the table, wine for me, tea for him – rings a bell… - and we talk for hours.
He used to play basketball before, then he saw climbers doing traverses on the walls of the old castle in Lubiana, and he gave it a go. He discovered that he was “quite good quite soon”, entered the national team and became very well known: when he bolted the first multipitch route that climbed the highest wall in Osp, the national television broadcasted a live show that followed him in the first free climb of the route. He starred in films about climbing and documentaries. He kept training at the old castle, where he still goes “because there are endless possibilities of super hard campus projects under the main arch!”, and when he finished university, he spent two or three years climbing full time, until getting a scholarship. Naturally, with this also came responsibilities and he started focusing on training, having less time to dedicate to climbing. Still today, in all his offices all around Slovenia, he has all he needs to train; when he didn’t, he used to get up at 4 am to train before work (he still gets up at 4 every day to go to work early, and at 6 30 in the weekends…), at his parents’ house there was some heating plumbing on the ceiling, a simple tube for everyone else, a pull up bar for him. So he started to do pull ups: without any training knowledge, he started doing series of 10 pull ups every minute, for 70 minutes. “But I soon discovered that it was useless for me!” he laughs, and tells me that he understood that power was the way to follow. Fingerboarding and pull ups became his mantra, with the results that you read before. I ask him if he has a pull up bar or a fingerboard in his office now, and he says “a fingerboard, but it’s the same, I can’t tell the difference between a pull up bar and a small edge. My fingers are still strong.”
Luckily he didn’t have any bad injury, because he has no patience. As soon as the pain disappears a bit, he starts training again: he reckons that training and climbing are two different paths, that go on together but independently, and each one has a meaning and a dignity in itself. I strongly approve with my head.
He’s sorry that he couldn’t do as well as he could have in comps, he used to feel a lot the pressure: “it’s just a matter of getting used to it! I am not a natural born competitor, you know, but I’m tough, I’m determined and when I have a goal I never give up. If I knew that I have to do 10.000 pull ups a day to climb my project, I’d say no problem, I can do them”. He trains at home after climbing, and at his office, where he does “one armers on edges very other day. I sit all day in front of my computer and it’s boring. That’s a good way to also release the tension”; he climbs on rock or on plastic “at least five times a week”, few tries on routes as difficult as possible. So he faces his projects from many angles: reps on specific, hard sections of the route; specific bouldering indoors and fingerboarding “I always have projects!” he laughs, and I think about Jerry Moffatt and “stay hungry”.
Problem: when he started, the hardest routes were VI+. He did some alpine climbing, but he soon realized that he wasn’t into it. “that wasn’t climbing anymore, that was something else, also connected with staying alive. I was interested in climbing as a sport discipline, in being athletes”. So I ask him whether he progressed constantly or by big leaps forward, and he says “both. Physically, I progressed constantly, but mentally I had big leaps forward.”, for sure, physically he was already strong enough to climb very hard, but the idea was needed, the vision of bolting walls that seemed impossible to climb “my neck kept bending backwards, from the vertical to overhangs to roofs”, while everyone kept telling him that he was crazy, that it was pointless to bolt such routes. They were wrong. The small cave in Misja Pec was dubbed “Taddy’s cave”. So he bolted the impossible routes, and adds a low spit as a belay anchor for his wife to belay him without a harness “this cave can be a very romantic place in the morning, when the sun comes out from the trees and shine in” his wife smiles, embarrassed “without her, nothing of this all could have been possible for me”.
He wanted to find out what was possible to climb using natural holds, without chipping, and he reckons that yes, his routes are pretty hard “I prepared a lot to climb them, anyone else who wants to repeat them has to prepare a lot”, and he tells me that Fred Nicole, visiting, told him that the three hardest routes in the world, at the moment, were “Action Directe”, “Bain de Sang” and “Za Staro Kolo”.
Curious as a cat, I ask him about these particular names: “Sanjiski Par” (“Dream Couple”) and “Za Staro Kolo…” (“For an old bicycle and a small dog”), and the answer is a beautiful story, they are dedicated to his wife. The dream couple, in those years, was supermodel Schiffer and magician Copperfield, and he thought “if they are a magic couple, we can be a magic couple!”, while the other name is taken from one of his wife’s poems, translated and published in half Europe. Chapeau. Naturally I want to know which routes, in the world, he would like to climb, and the answer leaves me puzzled: he knows nothing about climbing news now, he hasn’t even time to check the Internet, “But that guy, Ondra, when he’s on the wall he IS on the wall. You’re not pulling him down.”
Then, THE question: “all your pictures show you climbing in shorts. Were you against lycra?”. Luckily he laughs “of course I had lycra! Also because I had sponsors and I needed some room to show their logos and brands, but my favourite climbing uniform is shorts and a tank top, just as today!” yeah, sure, as today and the following day, when we arrived at the crag at 9 30 with 2°… “when I was young, the Jugoslavian govern used to have a special project for strong athletes in all disciplines, and so I got some money. I also had sponsors, but I had to plan my season with specific goals to make it even. Now I am much more free, I do it all for myself”. He tells me that sponsors helped him a lot not only with money and gear, but also by showing him their trust, demonstrating that they believed in what he was doing, that they found it worth. There were also some pages in the main newspapers, just for the climbing news, where everyone could read about the latest ascents and climbs. “this was very important, because it made climbing visible to everyone, not only to climbers, so maybe someone could have gotten interested and tried. Now it’s not like this anymore, all information is very specific and targeted, also Interned isn’t of much help. There are magazines and websites, but they are dedicated just to climbers, non climbers don’t know them. It’s more difficult to make our sport known now.” An interesting point.
I ask him if someone in particular inspired him at the beginning of his climbing career. He tells me that yes, there was someone, but for him they weren’t real idols, but more just stronger climbers that he was chasing! He wanted to close the gap. Then he exclaims “the route was my idol!”, to climb an impossible route and dedicate all his self to climbing it. This is so beautiful to me, and I understand that I am in front of a man that actively pushed the discipline forward, not only in pure difficulty, but also in the mentality, and did this in complete isolation from the rest of Europe. Naturally, he met everyone and climbed with everyone, on rock or in comps, but he also lost “too many friends in the mountains”.
It’s dark now, and out of the window I can no more see the lake in front of Tadej’s house. It forms when the heavy rains or snow melting push too much water in the depths of the earth, and the valley gets flooded and many roads are cut off.
I ask him about the biggest technical innovation in climbing, for him. “the rubber”, he says quickly, when Boreal created the Fire model that Jerry appreciated also. He worked with Boreal for many years, and he still uses many different pairs of shoes “I understand quite soon which kind of shoe is the best one for each one of my projects, and that’s a very important part for me.” While we discuss the various brands, his wife enters the room with “Rock Stars” by Heinz Zak in her hands. Personal dedication to Tadej from the author on the first page, and big, two pages picture of him climbing “Za Staro Kolo” with Barbara belaying: we run through the entire book and he knows everyone, he recalls memories, they are familiar faces. The last one is Gullich. “it’s a tragedy. Imagine what he could have done.”
Looking back to the past, I ask him about his regrets. “well, I would train less and climb more, especially on sight. Then I’d do more comps and more bouldering. Oh, and I’d study philosophy!” naturally, he wouldn’t change a single thing in his past, he’s happy also about his mistakes.
It’s getting late, and my questions are close to an end. “what did you feel after climbing a project?” “I was happy and satisfied, for one minute. Then I already needed another project, harder.” “and what if you fell near the top?” “I used to get angry! Maybe I could yell at Barbara that she didn’t belay well, and so we would have an argument, and the entire crag would become silent! Everyone climbing in silence!” I laugh and understand how deep is their history, tying together love, passions.
“and now?” “I still have so many projects! I don’t feel any decrease in power, my fingers are still strong. When I climb, I still feel without weight”.
Sunday morning, early, heavy snow outside. Dammit, I think, I wanted to climb. Full breakfast, then we all go out, -3°, I think about the journey back. At the roundabout just outside of Trieste Tadej turns right, and I know that we are going climbing; after all, it’s not snowing in the cave and it’s 2° now!
On the path he quickly leaves me behind again, so I pretend waiting his wife. When we get there he is already at the base of the route, shorts and tank top de rigueur, he blasts two goes on the project, then he asks me if I want to climb “Sanjski Par” 8c, or “Za Staro Kolo” 8c+. I obviously choose the easy option and, with 4 sport routes on my back in ten years, and no warm up, I cast off on “Sanjski Par”. Ah ah! Tadej says that the moves aren’t difficult, it’s just hard to link them, while I bite my tongue not to swear at full volume, and try to stay attached to the wall, my feet clamping and squeezing everything in sight not to cut loose. I fall after few moves, but I think “in Rome do what Romans do” so I get down and I start again. Locking and dynoing I manage to put some moves in a row, but still the image of how Tadej was climbing that section, the easy one, of the route, blows me away. I keep on pulling until the cold, the pump and the thought that he and his wife are just waiting for me, make me call it a day, fighting the desire to spend the whole day on the route. I am happy. I enjoyed it. It’s just my style and I put together some decent links, I feel very close to Tadej’s vision of climbing, very far from his power.
Train station. I can only thank them for their kindness and hospitality. One last photo, it’s time to go. I am truly happy. I know a great person, not only a great climber. He opened both his house and his mind to me, and he made me a big gift by offering to try his routes. This has no price. I know now, that they really are the “Sanjski Par”.
We shake hands, then just before getting in the car, as if he just remembered something very important, he asks me “where are the hardest routes, in Italy?”
I smile and think that we’ll meet again. Thank you Tadej.


Jasper said...

Top stuff Lore.

Dieselryder said...

Yeah Lore. A very nice deep introduction into an ultramotivated legend.

pascal said...

amazing. thanks.