Social Climbing Without a Harness

Bouldering Centers are Latest Urban Craze

By Vera Penavic

Imagine climbing a virtually flat, 40 meter long limestone cliff face using nothing but your bare hands.

This route in Oliana, Spain named La Dura Dura — Hardest of the Hard — is the most difficult climbing route in the world.

Adam Ondra, a world champion boulderer was the first person to climb La Dura Dura. He scaled the cliff on February 7, 2013.

Ondra is 22. And he is Czech.

Ondra’s nationality is no coincidence; Czechs are crazy for climbing, despite the relative flatness of their nation.

With walls 50 feet tall and a wide range of wall profiles, there’s something for every level of climber. Photo courtesy of Lezecke Centrum Smichoff.

The 50-foot-tall walls offer routes for every level of climber. Photo courtesy of Lezecke Centrum Smichoff.

Jana Slaba, a Czech University student who boulders in her free time at Prague’s UltraAnt Club, said of people like Ondra, “This is their life. It is what they do. I think it is just becoming more popular because people are noticing.”

With a topography characterized by rolling plains, hills and plateaus surrounded by low mountains, the difference between the highest and lowest elevation in the Czech Republic is about 4,878 feet.

“This is their life. It is what they do. I think it is just becoming more popular because people are noticing.”

A fondness for climbing, passed down through families — Ondra’s family vacations always involved scaling rocks — has evolved into one of the Czech capital’s hippest enterprises.

There are 19 rock climbing facilities in Prague. By comparison, Paris, whose population is almost double that of Prague, has only ten.

I spent a week exploring four of the most popular climbing centers with the aim of finding out who they are for, and whether a novice would find them scary, entertaining or a combination of both.

First I needed to come to grips with the difference between climbing and bouldering. Boulderers climb without a harness, whereas rock climbers are attached to a belayer, someone at the bottom who ensures your safety.

The lack of harness seems scary, but as Slaba said, “My colleague thinks of it like a meditation. You do not think about what you look like because all you think about is technique. People like to boulder because it is too scary to climb real rock walls.”

In bouldering gyms, the floors are covered in thick mats ensuring a safe fall from a maximum height of about 14 feet. The gyms look like a well-lit cave covered in handles. Climbers follow the holds with the same color and numbers and end at the one marked “top” with two hands on the hold. After completing the route, just jump off or climb down to get back to the bottom.

Three of the four gyms I visited would not immediately be recognized as bouldering gyms. Instead, you would notice a bar. To relieve some of the cost of keeping up a bouldering facility, gyms establish bars to increase revenue and attract curious climbers.

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Climbers attach a pouch full of chalk to their harnesses to prevent slippery hands. Photo courtesy of Lezecke Centrum Smichoff.

Boulder V Siti in Prague 2 utilizes this formula with an ideal location next to a hostel. The bar has a warm atmosphere with wooden tables and chairs in which sat young adults.

The bouldering area can be seen through windows on the inside. Jachym, the bartender at Boulder V Siti who would only provide his first name, said that when the hostel visitors come in for a drink they notice the climbing area in the back and drunkenly promise to return the next day.

And they do. Likewise, the place is perfect for a nice cold Staropramen after a hard hour of climbing.

Jachym, a non-boulderer, told me “I thought that when this place opened, more outdoorsy people would come in to climb. You know, people who wear clothes like that.”

He was proved wrong though: “One day, these two young girls came in wearing these high heels, asking to go climb.”

When I went to Boulder V Siti, opened in 2006, a mother and father were there climbing with their ten-year-old son. The son, as agile as Spiderman, was helping his parents, pointing out possible routes for them to use. On my way out, a couple in their late 20s were warming up.

This gym was fairly difficult to climb in, with difficult holds and unclear starts and paths. The holds did not have much of a grip and many of them did not have any colors or numbers denoting difficulty. This made it unclear where to start, where to go, and where to end. But the soft hip-hop playing in the background and cool temperature were calming and motivating enough to get me to try.

Only after climbing did I discover that Boulder V Siti posts new routes on its Facebook page, every time they are created.

All of the gyms I visited played the right music to get you motivated enough to attempt a climb. UltraAnt in Prague 1 succeeded the most in this regard. Opened in 1998, it is one of the oldest climbing clubs in Prague. Great music alternating between upbeat classical music and hip-hop and jazz helped relieve the stress of not being able to complete a single route.

This is what beginners fantasize about when they yearn for a welcoming climbing gym.

The routes here are especially difficult and may be more for the experienced climbers. The easiest holds are small, round, and smooth, feeling more like lumps on a wall than easy grips. They are also far apart from each other, requiring a lot of bravery and skill to complete at least one run.

After paying for my shoes and time on the wall, the receptionist/bartender/student — Jana Slaba — decided to climb with me.

A companion of hers was climbing that afternoon as well. Watching the two of them climb, guiding each other up, down, and across the walls while Mozart blared in the background was inspiration enough to at least try and complete half a route.

Adrenaline Pit in Prague 1 is conveniently located in the middle of Wenceslas Square. But for all its convenience, if you want to boulder, I would recommend going somewhere else. However, if you want to rock climb, it has two giant walls you could do while harnessed. This gym is not strictly just for climbing though. It also has squash, a sauna, a solarium, and offers massages. The climbing walls are operated by a separate club called Climbing Club Whiplash.

My favorite place was Boulder Bar in Holesovice in Prague 7, one of the older gyms which was founded in 2001. This gym caters to all levels. It has a room for children to climb ropes while parents get to climb walls in the adjacent room. The main climbing area also has special designated easier walls covered in inviting wooden animals for complete beginners and children to get the feel for climbing. As for the “adult” areas, the holds are easier to grasp here and the easy routes are actually easy.

As I was resting, I watched a younger man ask a young German girl for help. Communicating in heavily accented English, the German girl helped a complete stranger complete a route he has not been able to get for three days.

The young woman and I clapped and celebrated as if we’d been climbing together for years now. Across the room, a group of Americans participated in a group lesson. None of them had ever bouldered before, but they were having fun trying. Poking fun at each other, giving encouraging shouts from the ground as some climbed, this is what beginners fantasize about when they yearn for a welcoming climbing gym.

In the bouldering room at UltraAnt Club has a total area of 2,152 sq feet to climb. Photo courtesy of UltraAnt Club.

Bouldering room at UltraAnt Club has a total area of 2,152 square feet to climb. Photo courtesy of UltraAnt Club.

Right around the corner from Boulder Bar, families also flock to Lezecke centrum Mammut, opened in 2004.

Bonita Rhoads, an American who is a longtime resident of Prague, loves to bring her young daughter to Mammut. Lucy began working out at Mammut at age 4. “She loves climbing and I’ve come to believe it’s a metaphor for kids for getting on top of things — how could it not be since most of their life is lived much closer to the ground than all the controlling adults around them,” said Rhoads.

“The instructors are super people and kids bug out watching all those culty adult climber nuts scaling the ceiling,” Rhoads added.

Over in Prague 5, The Smichoff Climbing Center, opened in 2007, has hosted many international and Czech climbing competitions. It attracts many celebrity climbers and has everything you could ask for in a climbing facility. There are bouldering walls and enormous great overhangs that allow you to climb upside down.

Smichoff has something for every level of climber with instruction available. There are young kids braving the walls as well as complete beginners. It is where Jana Slaba first learned to climb a few years ago.

Vera Penavic is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2017. Her hometown is Smithtown, New York. 

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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