Our image of Klem Loskot began with the Yell: a shout of exhortation, elation and insistence. The thundering exclamation threatens and dares you or anyone to try your hardest. Its reverberations conceal the source. Has this voice come from within?
The call hammers across alpine meadows scattered with blue blocks. Aimed at a climber 60 feet above the battling, roiling sea, it blasts out like a foghorn, amplified by the cave. The climber leaps—to catch and, swinging mightily, hold.
These shouts have been in our heads since the year 2000, when Loskot’s marshaling call hit the States with BigUp Production’s Dosage 1. You still can’t go to any bouldering area without hearing a Klem impersonation. The yell is a power-boosting Kiaa! that frees up the chi and fires us like burning arrows. Or maybe when it booms across the gym as you hesitate on the big swingin’ huck, you laugh yourself into a heap, crumpled at the base of the wall. The yell centers and disperses, tricking you into focusing and also reminding you to lighten up.
Loskot was a developer and standard-shifter in the 1990s and early 2000s, during what 10 years from now will be called bouldering’s golden age. Those from that subculture knew bits about his climbing, knew his face, and especially knew his yell, primarily from video taken of him at the height of his powers.
Loskot’s routes and especially his boulder problems were some of the hardest in the world. Nanuk, in Berchtesgaden, Germany, done in 1997 and a contender as the world’s first 8B+ or V14, only finally saw a second ascent last year. Bügeleisen (which he guessed to be V13) may have only one repeat. Loskot contributed dozens of new routes at nearly every major bouldering area in the world, from Mallorca to Haampi to Vietnam, from South Africa to Australia to Austria. Behind the war cry, he spoke like a shaman, wrote a beautiful, ethereal book called Emotional Landscapes, and then suddenly, and completely, dropped out of climbing.
Loskot raised the bar and inspired a generation of boulderers, me among them, around the world to look within, to try and find the thing that makes us exist at our best, if only for a split second in the midst of a handful of movements.
Joe Kinder, a longtime leading American climber and boulderer originally from Bedford, New Hampshire, calls Loskot’s approach “a really pure way of climbing.”
“It always seemed [Loskot] had nothing to prove,” he says, “other than his emphasis on having a good time.”
For myself, at age 35, it was bolstering news to hear that at 38, one of my greatest bouldering heroes had suddenly resurfaced—and with new world-class first ascents.
Almost curiously, despite the size and build of this 6-foot, 190-pound roaring monster, you always saw him move through technical sequences with snap and precision. A dancer’s swoop of the feet, the setup: then an explosion of power and willpower. It was a smooth style, with an obvious flow that seemed to indicate a cognitive and corporeal enjoyment. Old footage of Loskot taking flight in a powerful dyno somehow made sense, like a medieval catapult slinging stones makes sense. You could see he wanted the climb, to sense the myriad experiences of problem-solving and effort. No screams for himself in his effort—only the puff of a strong exhalation now and then.
“For me he was a huge inspiration,” says Jimmy Webb, a boulder crusher from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who has climbed up to V14 in just about every area he’s visited. “He’s a bigger climber, like me. It made everything seem possible.”
Klem was born in Austria, on the northern border of the Alps in a region packed with limestone and piqued with four distinct seasons of mountain weather. Family trips kept him outdoors and in motion until age 15, when Klem, “bored a lot and too old to play kids’ stuff,” as he put it, began climbing with school friends. Climbing, he says, “felt like a big adventure, being somewhere in the woods by a cliff, no other people, free, away and gone.” He was “inspired by the place and its nature.” The movement was more engaging than soccer or tennis, recruiting the whole body and the brain, and providing a humbling dose of fear. Just a month after he started climbing, Loskot and a friend bicycled to Italy for his first climbing trip.
He and his friends climbed daily, on ropes, bouldering and free soloing. Loskot knew right away that the soloing wasn’t for him. He got scared on a rope as well, but was able, he says, “to have fun and get over it.” Mostly, though, those disciplines seemed too serious. “I didn’t want to have to get over the scare,” he wrote me in one of many e-mail exchanges over several months. “I more liked to play.” Most appealing to him from the start were bouldering and short routes, where the movements became more involved and intense.
In the gentle winter that followed his first few months as a climber, Loskot began going to a small, south-facing cliff near his house and bouldering in the mild sunshine. He recalls this time, spent in an untouched place and finding his own new lines through the cliff band, fondly: “I went alone a lot that holiday because I think it was too intense”—or difficult—“for my friends.”
Six months in and Klem was climbing harder than the older, more experienced climbers in his group. He had always possessed a natural aptitude for any sport. Climbing suited him well, he thinks, and with Teutonic efficiency he cites the names of slightly older friends from that time who demonstrated the techniques and theory he absorbed. Just a year and a half after he found climbing, he placed third in the Austrian Nationals, his first competition ever, at age 16. The first person to climb in the final, he quickly rose high on the wall, and watchers thought that the route must be too easy for the field. Eyebrows rose when most of the other contestants finished before anyone else reached Klem’s high point.
The young man continued to participate in comps for the next year, but found he had little motivation to train for the “pumpy” indoor style. Instead he preferred to find his own way and rewards outside.
“I was cooking my own soup,” he says, meaning that he was working with ingredients or elements of his own choosing.
Moving away from the small, competition-oriented scene in Salzburg, he went outdoors, finding inspiration in the cliffs and the woods: “being free and following my inner things.”
In his late teens, he began traveling more often, to Italy, to France, looking for bouldery routes and unfinished projects, which he then quickly dispatched, leaving a wake of rumor behind him. During that time he met the punk rocker and bouldering giant Toni Lamprecht in the South of France, and Lamprecht took Loskot to see some of the lines that the legendary Fred Nicole had been quietly establishing. It was the first time that Klem had even bouldered with pads; his previous problems had mostly been traverses or short bouldery routes.
After Loskot quickly repeated a number of Nicole’s hardest problems, such as the groundbreaking Radja (V13) in Branson, Switzerland, and Eau Profonde (V14) in Kesserloch, Switzerland, the press caught wind of his talent and he was all over the global climbing media. He was doubted by some because he was an unknown entity. Conversely, he was also touted in print as the strongest boulderer in the world, and featured in a number of films that revealed a thinker, ever in search of what he terms “flow experience,” a fleeting, hard-won feeling he describes as being without weight or limits.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Loskot traveled the world as a professional climber, following his own path of dreams. He established lines like Bugeleisen, in 2001, originally tagged at V13 but unrepeated for a dozen years despite dedicated reconnaissance by more than a handful of the world’s strongest. The line finally bowed last year to the Finnish standard setter Nalle Hukkataival, who confirmed it at V14, and describes it in his blog as “one of the best hard boulders in the world. Hats off to Klem for opening such an amazing boulder.” Loskot’s 1997 Nanuk (V14) was only just repeated last fall, by Martin Schidlowski from Germany.
Loskot also contributed greatly to the now famous collection of hard lines in South Africa, with first ascents like Armed Response (V12), Desperado (V13) and Oral Office (V12). In 1999, in the Grampians, Australia, he opened Cave Rave (V13), which became the foundation for iconic megablocs like Dai Koyamada's The Wheel of Life (V15). At home in Austria, Loskot's fabled “Carinthian Projects” at Carinthia’s Maltal, the Austrian Alps, included The Power of Goodbye (V13/14) and Wrestling With an Alligator (V13), still coveted ticks. The Welsh bouldering ace Chris Davies has said of The Power of Goodbye, “Truly harder than 8b, unless every other is overgraded.”
Of his lifelong approach, Loskot says: “I prefer to find my own lines. While [I am] repeating, it’s all set, I just have to execute. It can feel like work for me, as it was not like my own baby. I’m not with the rock so much, and sometimes there are silly thoughts like Aha, this guy did it in two days, so ... On first ascents I can follow only my dream. I don’t repeat other people’s dreams. I search for what makes me most happy.” Moving away from the small, competition-oriented scene in Salzburg, he went outdoors, finding inspiration in the cliffs and the woods: “being free and following my inner things.”
His knife-dance at the edge of what was possible generated an ongoing question: How hard were these things, and how hard is hard, anyway? In the introduction to his first book, The Eleventh Grade, Klem asks this question of us and of himself: “Was it really that difficult, was it really the limit? How can you answer these questions with a number?”
It’s clear he wrestled with the dualistic notion of grades: the necessity of a ballpark figure as a personal yardstick and the futility of compressing a multi-layered experience into a numeric value, especially when that must include the magical experience of weightlessness.
With such queries and perspectives as a jumping-off point, Loskot assembled two books: The 11th Grade and Emotional Landscapes, each filled with diaphanous micro-parables and color-tasting declarations. He tried to communicate what it was that he was pursuing, to forge a delicate link between the concrete characteristics of a number grade only dimly understood by a handful of climbers, and its connection to a collection of feelings and sensations we can all relate to.
The search to define the experience afflicts many climbers who hover around the upper reaches of our sport—and many of the best seem to go through a stage where they decline to grade anything they do. One can only describe a climb by how it felt at the time, by comparison and correlation of a huge number of variables, and the result can either bolster or tarnish one’s reputation as repeats are (or are not) made. When the world relies on someone to say what is hard, maybe he’ll take a shot and guess. When the best climbers disagree and experiences differ, where is the line drawn, and by whom? Eventually, Loskot stopped trying to grade his climbs.
Asked about grades today, he seems to think that if you’re climbing for yourself, you know the difference between one climb and another.
“I want to be free like a bird and not think about how other people climb and compare. It’s great to see other people climb and get inspired and motivated, but to compare is not my world.” Yet the life he was living demanded simple numbers from media, the industry and other climbers. “Soon I realized they were only interested in facts, not the background. That’s what made me lose interest.
”Doing it as a profession wasn’t good for the passion.”
A climbing and surfing trip to India resulted in a month in the hospital with typhoid fever, which featured attendant hallucinations, pain, weight loss and risk of complications. On the rebound, he surprised himself a little when he opened Emotional Landscapes (V14), and then “the oven went out.”
At what seemed an apex for Loskot, in the first few years after the millennium, he stopped climbing completely.
He drifted toward surfing more, traveling around Indonesia with friends and living a life on water instead of stone. Later on, he earned turns for a while, skiing and hiking in the mountains near his home in Austria.
“When I was skiing and surfing, I felt not at all as a climber,” he says today. “I forgot all about it. It was as if I had never climbed.” He did some rigging work for a friend who arranges rope-dancing performances on luxury yachts and hotels. He studied to become a high school teacher, and met his wife, Michi, on a surfing trip to Indonesia. They now have two children, Nils, 5, and Emilia, 2, and family has taken over as the central course in Klem’s life.
“I still live where I grew up, even in the same house,” he says. “It’s a real paradise.”
Loskot’s parents gave the young couple the house when the kids came. “It’s very kind of them,” he says. “My parents play a big role in my life. They gave me the basics like a good education, university, and they always supported me in what I liked.” His folks live close by, and spend a lot of time with the children. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “we had a van and we traveled all over Europe in the summertime, [to] just be in nature and the outdoors. My parents like the mountains and hiking, and just like me stay outdoors and move with the body.”
Vacations nowadays with Klem’s own family are as they were back then: in the van, maybe by the Mediterranean with “some little waves to jump on.” Sometimes Loskot does little trips to climb, maybe for three days or so, but not at all often. “I want to stay with the family,” he says.
Within climbing, surfing or skiing, he says, he always felt a sense that he was in the right place for him: “I am on this earth. I feel [as if I am] myself more than going to daily work, for example. Just now being a dad is also like that, but totally different.
“I am hungry for harmony, I would say. Also my climbing is a lot about harmony. Harmony makes me and is leading me to having the flow. It's the same in life outside climbing. Feeling harmony is a great feeling to me and I watch out to feel so ... Just let it flow and be as it is, and adapt.”
Within harmony lies balance, and the pendulum has begun to complete its swing. About three years ago Loskot quietly returned to climbing in the woods near his home outside of Salzburg. “It's where I grew up climbing and my first climbing adventures were born there. I have again these adventures and feeling great there, like it was 1989.” He has since re-lit the furnace with “my greatest experience in climbing,” as he told Rock and Ice, with an ascent that fulfilled all the requisites of flow and feeling: the FA of The Balcony (5.15a). He also made a rare repeat of the Austrian climber Berni Schwaiger’s benchmark Zunami (V15). In the last three years Loskot has opened nearly 40 new problems on the bone-white limestone of home, each estimated at V12 or much, much harder, including his Desert Fox (V15?), of which time may tell more.
Though Loskot cites an expanding perception regarding the feasibility of some lines over time, he doesn’t think much has changed in bouldering over the last hundred years. “People are getting more specialized in everything they do. Of course it will always continue in a way, but what I think is the single hardest move on a boulder couldn’t get so much more. Like in the ’80s, those slabs have hard single moves. In the ’90s, the overhanging stuff has hard single moves.”
Boulders and routes are both getting longer, but he contends that for him “the limit of human performance is not about linking 70 meters of hard climbing, but doing the hardest moves. Long endurance stuff is for workers. One-move wonders are for those who are fast as lightning.”
When I ask Loskot about how personal limits evolve and expand, he replies that such concepts are all in the brain. In the last couple of years he has climbed at least 12 V14s and at least one V15, as well as two routes graded 5.15. “I was not able to do these routes before when I also felt strong, but I did not have the horizon. I could not imagine so much, finding good solutions, reading the rock, using the structure, bringing everything to the point and ... climbing smooth[ly] like a river flows.”
Asked further, though, how he possibly gained such powers, Loskot says his “intellect” grew. And with it his sense, perhaps, of a place in his community and in history. “Right now I don’t have time to travel, but I would like to try some other people’s lines. I am more open-mind[ed] now. Today I feel like sharing the experience. I realized it’s something great to inspire other people, but to follow my intuition. Just going to the rocks, that’s what makes me most happy.”
Chris Schulte heard the call back in 1993 and has been bouldering ever since. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, along with what seems like damn near everybody else.