The beating of a hammer drill echoed off the massive gray walls of the storied Hanshelleren Cave in Flatanger, Norway, home to
(5.15b), two of the world’s hardest routes. It was 9 p.m. and still light. The drill belonged to Adam Ondra, who had already established seven new routes since arriving here a week ago in late May, 2013. He had thought that the projects would occupy him all summer, then he redpointed five of those lines in a single week.
When Ondra wasn’t dispatching his projects, he would lie on his back, peering up at the roof for hours, scouting new routes. Above him loomed uncharted territory, providing the perfect canvas for someone possessed by a psych few people can even imagine.
“When I repeated most of the world’s hardest routes, it was a natural progression to try to break the path ahead and push the limits,” he says. “Bolting is time-consuming and tiring, but I’m enjoying myself.”
The area’s Hanshelleren cave is set within a sprawling granite cathedral. Its dark interior opens like the giant mouth of a Norse god.
As he bolted, Ondra’s singing and whistling floated down from the roofs, the acoustics of the cave spreading his notes of inspiration.
Flatanger is a new proving ground for hard sport climbing, and it has been drawing elite climbers from around the world. The area’s Hanshelleren cave is set within a sprawling granite cathedral. Its dark interior opens like the giant mouth of a Norse god. The cave sports 260 feet of overhanging climbing capped by a 160-foot headwall. The granite is crisscrossed by cracks and peppered with blocky holds. Although Ondra, Ethan Pringle, Dani Andrada and Magnus Midtbø have been bolting the hardest lines on the massive roof, other route developers have been steadily churning out lines for the rest of us on the cave’s vertical and slightly overhanging outer edges. As a result, Flatanger has turned into one of Scandinavia’s premier crags.
A BOLTING MISSION
I hiked up to the cave for the first time this summer. Ondra and I, along with the Czech filmmaker Petr Pavlícek, left the campground and headed through pastures owned by the local farmers Berit and Olav Hestnes, who have turned their land into a campground, even letting climbers stay in their barn and use their restroom. The Hestnes plan to build on a new home, and will eventually rent out their entire compound to the climbers who have been coming in increased frequency since the first routes went up in the mid-1990s.
The air that day was rich with the smells of Norway’s boreal forests, the salty North Sea and freshly cut grass. Wild raspberries, cloudberries and lingonberries lined the serpentine path up to the cliff. I munched on fruit the whole way, then stopped, awestruck, at my first view of the cave. I stared into its depths. It was way bigger than it looked from the road or from pictures. The cave was one of the most inspiring rock features I’d ever seen.
Then I noticed Ondra’s 650-foot static line strung from off the top like something out of Jack and the Beanstalk. He’d been using the static rope to bolt his projects, setting hooks and cams to hold him into the wall. The fruits of his efforts would include a 150-foot 5.13b extension to a route Berntsenbanden
; a 5.13d Doorkeeper
, named after a cruxy barndoor move; The Illusionist
, a 5.14d sent in four days; a 100-foot 5.13a Ronja
, at 5.15b; and Dharma
, a 5.14b that had caught his imagination a year before, and which leads into the middle of the cave’s daunting roof.
“The rock quality is absolutely amazing and you don’t even need to brush or clean anything,” says Ondra. “Some of the sections feel like you’re climbing in Yosemite.”
The portion of the cliff to the right of Dharma has been, for Ondra, the most fascinating part of Hanshelleren—probably because the lines appear completely impossible. From the ground, this part of the wall looks like a giant, black, polished plate. Of course, later that summer he threw himself at it, and established Move
(5.15b) after two and a half weeks of effort. It’s one of the world’s hardest routes.
Then I noticed Ondra’s 650-foot static line strung from off the top like something out of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Ondra has spent his career climbing as wide a variety of routes in as many different areas, giving him an enormous repertoire of movements that live in his muscles. When he confronts a move he can’t do, his mind becomes a computer, scanning his vast library of moves and experiences for a solution. When he finds a match, he turns on his try-hard capacity and sends. His infamous screams and grunts are evidence of how hard he goes for it.
“I grew up making my own bouldering problems, and I never let myself get caught up in other people’s routes when I’m training,” he says. “This has made me good at finding my own solutions, visualizing moves, recognizing my own strengths and weaknesses, and most of all, memorizing sequences.
“The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself,” he says. “Or at least that’s what I tell myself.”
PROJECTS FOR MORTALS
I was in Norway to get back in shape, and I figured the best way to do it was to be Ondra’s belay slave and let him be my rope gun as I scoped new projects.
There are at least 50 inspiring lines from 5.9 to 5.10 in Flatanger, and potential for hundreds more on the surrounding crags. I found a line I wanted to try, a 70-foot traverse called Litt på Kante
n (5.13b) along the lip of the cave. The route requires extensive heel hooking, so I asked Ondra if he would try it. I wanted his beta, and watched him float the powerful and crimpy crux. It looks easy, I thought. I can do that.
The long traverse makes the route hard to clean, so after getting to the anchor Ondra slipped his heels out of his tight shoes and downclimbed the route to strip the draws.
When I returned a month later to attempt Litt På Kanten
, the memory of Ondra downclimbing the route made me chuckle as the sharp crimps bit into my tips and the crux move stretched me twice as far as I thought it would.
On that trip, I also decided to sample the area’s more moderate lines. Flatanger is a playground for all climbers, and nearby crags such as Sandmælen and Einvikfjellet, less than a mile away, have about 50 routes alone from 5.7 to 5.11b. There are enough multipitch trad climbs and sport climbs to keep visitors busy for weeks.
One evening at the farm I walked over to Ondra’s van, where the smells of exotic Asian spices wafted out the windows. Inside was a curly haired mad chef, cooking up a storm. Vegetarian food rules Ondra’s menu, and his dishes are piled with fresh vegetables, fruit, quinoa, lentils, beans, millet, buckwheat, polenta, sprouts, seeds, nuts and soy. He soaks the seeds and nuts overnight to make their nutrients more accessible.
“Cooking I learned myself, but I got the inspiration from home,” he says. “My mom always used many spices in different combinations, but didn’t always have the luckiest results.” His mother also used to be his most frequent road-tripping companion, but these days he’s mostly on his own—though his trips tend to be shorter now as he focuses more on projects. He fears he’ll weaken after a couple of weeks of climbing, so often he flies home to train his weakness, then returns stronger than ever.
When Ondra trains, he rarely ties into a rope and instead campuses and boulders. “Disciplined training is good, but training should be creative,” he says. “It takes too much energy trying to keep everything perfect all the time. In training, it’s essential to listen to your body. If I feel too tired to climb, or if I get to the training session and have nothing to give, I’d rather walk away instead of pushing through.” Ondra’s genetics and body-awareness, combined with healthy life choices like good sleep, ice baths, running, stretching and nutrition, has so far kept him from taking a long forced break due to injuries.
Despite his intense motivation to climb, Ondra is interested in languages, geography, traveling and exploring new places. He spent his evenings in the Flatanger farmhouse lying on a sofa with a Spanish book, learning vocabulary.
COMING TO A CLOSE
The golden light that had been sparkling over Trøndelag’s coast for 20 hours every summer day was gone. The weather was changing and Ondra’s trip was coming to a close. Still, he was hungry for more, and he had left a number of lines unbolted. “This last day should have twice as many hours,” he said on his final morning, and decided to take matters into his own hands.
It was midnight and the rain was lashing sideways, but he packed his bag and strolled alone up the hill in the gloom. I watched as the light from his headlamp disappeared into the mist. I hunkered down in the farmhouse as the rain pelted the roof, and pictured him dangling with his drill and skyhooks on that 650-foot static line in the storm.
Hours later I was startled awake by Ondra standing like a wet cat in a pool of water in the living room. His curly hair was stuck flat to his face, he was covered in rock dust from head to toe, and his eyes were fiery orbs of excitement. It was 3 a.m. and he just finished bolting two new lines with a couple of hours to spare. When the sun peaked through the window in a few more hours, he’d begin his 1,200-mile drive home to the Czech Republic. But he will certainly return to the four projects looming overhead in the Hanshelleren cave. The most impressive line is what he calls Project Big, estimated to be 5.15c.
“I thought it would be possible to send it in three weeks, but after putting four days of effort into it, I had to admit that I was too far off,” Ondra says. “But I was very happy with the whole season, and now I am even more aware of massive potential for extremely hard routes that this cave has to offer.”
Rannveig Aamodt is a professional climber from Norway.