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Pavel Blažek: Behind the Scenes on the Dawn Wall

Monday, December 5, 2016
Every rock star needs a sideman, and every great climber needs a solid belayer. Adam Ondra found his man in Pavel Blažek, a 41-year-old web designer, photographer and climber from the Czech Republic. Blažek spent the last month on El Cap, taking a crash course in the intricacies of wall climbing while belaying Ondra on the second ascent of the Dawn Wall. We chatted during his visit to Black Diamond’s global headquarters and listened while he gave us a behind the scenes account of belaying Ondra on the world’s hardest big wall.


What’s your climbing background?

I used to climb a lot. I started when I was about 16, and when I was younger climbing was pretty much my life. I was doing a lot of soloing and then I had a big accident—I broke three discs in my spine. And after that I was soloing the Diamond on Longs Peak in Colorado and I got to a section that was frozen, and I barely made it. I decided I wasn’t that good and I needed to do something else.

What did you do?

I got into polar expeditions. During that time I was always climbing but not really training.

Image: Pavel Blažek

How did you become Adam Ondra’s climbing partner?

Well, I’m an expedition photographer and because of my climbing background I knew about Adam and thought, gosh, I’d love to work with this guy. And what really bugs me is that he’s one of the best climbers in the world, and a lot of people know him outside of the Czech Republic, but not inside the Czech Republic. I really want to change that. I mean, he deserves it. So, a year and a half ago, I picked up the phone and called him and asked if he wanted to do an expedition.

He was pretty excited and we thought it would be about Change (5.15c), his route in Flatanger, Norway. Then I noticed in some small newspaper that he might be coming to Yosemite, and I was like, he’s definitely going to do the Dawn Wall. I’d love to be part of it. So I talked to Adam and Heinz Zak, who was going to be the photographer for the trip, and asked if we could meet and Heinz said, “We’re going to Flatanger in a week. Want to come?” So, while we were there I asked them if they needed any help and that’s how it all started. Adam said I could be his belayer because I had been belaying him that week.

So you passed the Ondra belay test?

Well, actually I dropped him the first day! He was climbing the Change and it’s hard five or six meters from the ground, and—I probably shouldn’t be saying this— but I’d never used a Grigri before! Never. And he said, “Oh you got to use the Grigri.” And of course I made the mistake of holding the rope, which goes to him, so I burned my fingers. He touched the ground and I’m like, oh, shit. But he was just so pissed that he didn’t make the moves that he didn’t even bother to tell me anything. Heinz spent the next hour showing me how to use it. And of course, during that week I got a lot of practice. Adam climbs so fast and doesn’t clip the quickdraws and he’s taking like 20-meter falls, so you really get to know how use the Grigri.

Had you been to Yosemite before?

I had been maybe six or seven times, and always would stare up at El Cap.

But you never climbed it?

Never. I had hardly even done any multi-pitches before this last trip.

Were you nervous?

Oh, big-time. Actually, after the first day on the wall with Adam, I thought I was going to have to walk away. It was so hard. And I had been training, running quite a lot, and climbing, but still … the first day I got on the wall I was like, oh god, this is so hard. And of course the exposure. It takes so much strength out of you just to be on the wall 400 meters up all day.

Did you tell Adam you were thinking of bailing?

Yeah, I mean, I’m not going to lie to him. But he was like, “Hey, it’s alright. I’m tired too!”

Did you doubt that Adam could pull off the second ascent?

Never. He is like a climbing machine.

Of course we were surprised by how difficult the Dawn Wall is. I don’t want to downplay that. The rock is like glass. But, again, I never doubted that he would do it. He’s just so focused.

There were times when I didn’t even bother to talk to him. It doesn’t matter if he’s got a 20-meter runout. I just didn’t talk to him, because you know what? He’s not listening. He’s focused.

Image: Pavel Blažek

What was the process of working the Dawn Wall like?

Our schedule was two days on the wall, one day rest. We had two portaledges set up on a ledge about 30 meters below pitch 14 that we called basecamp. We would jug up early in the morning, he would do some of the moves, and during the day when it was too hot we were laying on the portaledge. Around five o’clock, he would try the pitches and work until maybe midnight or two o’clock. The next day would be the same. And then we would go down and have one day on the ground.

What did you guys do during all that time on the portaledges?

You’re like in an oven. Baking pretty much. It gets hot. But I brought solar panels, so we were charging phones, and we actually got good signal. We were messaging our friends, reading Wikipedia and news, talking. And what I really like about Adam is that he has a lot of knowledge about not just climbing. So we were discussing, like, the Palestine and Israel relationship, politics, whatever Elon Musk was doing. And of course, two guys on a wall … we talked girls too [laughs].

Who cooked?

I hate cooking! We kind of decided in Norway that Adam was going to be doing the cooking, and I’ll do the rest.

Adam’s a good cook?

He loves it.

Did you ever lead a pitch for fun while Adam was resting?

No way. But he wanted me to climb the last pitch [on the initial aid/free ascent], which is kind of easy, but I said, “No, man. This is your thing.”

So you belayed the whole time?

Yeah, except for one afternoon when he was working on the down climb on pitch 16. We asked a guy from Camp 4 who was sharing the campsite with us to belay, because I wanted to take some images while Heinz was in Bishop. But just for that one afternoon.

Did you ever get tired of belaying?

Of course. Holding the rope for 10 hours a day was not easy, and it was freezing a lot of the time … but I definitely enjoyed it.

Image: Pavel Blažek

Any scary moments on the wall?

Oh yeah. One was maybe pitch 10, and he started climbing, and the protection is not awesome. Actually it’s pretty sketchy. And he’s maybe 10 or 15 meters above me and five or six meters runout, and suddenly three copperheads pop out. Ping, ping, ping! I was thinking, if he falls he’s going to be flying way below me. And it was dark. I didn’t even tell him though, and he got through it.

Was it obvious toward the end of the month that Adam was ready for the push?

It’s funny. When Adam said “we go for the push,” I thought that it was a little too early, honestly. I thought he was going to spend more time practicing the pitches. But again, that’s Adam. He just wants to get on it.

Did he seem nervous?

You know, I couldn’t tell really when we started. But maybe three days after we finished it, he told me he was really nervous and talked about the pressure. But I didn’t notice it. Maybe he’s just good at hiding it.

Was there ever a moment where Adam seemed to struggle during the push?

He climbed everything really quickly in the beginning. But then we got to pitch 14 [5.14d], which was the first crux. We had a half day rest, and he seemed relaxed, super excited. But he fell like eight times, and that was surprising to all of us. That day we didn’t climb anything. It was shocking. We were like, “what’s happening?” He didn’t look tired and I didn’t see any stress.

Why do you think he was falling?

He was kind of talking and saying it was mental. And the other thing is I think it might have been the shoes [laughs]. I know that sounds funny, and when people read this they’ll think “yeah right.” But he onsighted that first boulder problem. It was not the difficult part for him. I saw him do it a few times before the push and suddenly he was falling there. It was just weird. And his shoes were new, so I have an inclination that they were not quite broken in enough.

But he eventually pulled it off.

Yeah, the next day he did it, and continued on to pitch 15, but fell on the last move. That was another interesting moment. We could see he was tired, and it was already dark, so we had to make a decision: to call it off and go back to basecamp and of course lose another day, or try again. So we just sat on the portaledge, turned off our headlamps, and sat there in the dark for an hour … just talking. It was a special moment—swinging our legs over the portaledge, you could see the stars and we were just talking. I really loved those moments.

And of course he decided to try again, and he did it.

Is that when you knew it was in the bag?

No, no. It’s not like that. Pitch 16 [5.14a] is tough too. And of course a lot can happen above that. But I knew he was going to be so excited that he wouldn’t let it go.

Even on the last day though, we started in really thick fog. It was drizzling. I think it was pitch 22 [5.10] and it was 100% wet. And Adam was climbing into the fog, and he wasn’t talking. I knew it was serious. He was runout and it was so wet. But again, with Adam I learned that you just be quiet and do your stuff, and he’ll do his stuff. He got through it, but I could feel the tension. And when I jugged up to him, he was almost passing out from how scared he was and how difficult it was.

Image: Heinz Zak

When you topped out, what was the moment like?

The funny thing is, I was sitting at the last belay after Adam topped out, and I could hear screams. I was waiting and waiting, and it took maybe 20 minutes! I was thinking, oh, they’re popping champagne. I was just looking at the scenery and thinking, I hope they don’t forget about me!

Was there a crowd waiting up top?

I was a little surprised that not many people were there actually. I know the weather was kind of bad, and I know he wasn’t the first one, but I just thought that he might deserve some recognition because it was such an awesome achievement. But there was nobody, really. Just Heinz and a few friends. We hung out for about an hour, had a little wine, but none of use are big drinkers. So we started heading down … never really celebrated that much actually [laughs].

So what’s next for you and Adam? Any more adventures?

It’s hard to say. I’m going on an expedition to Lake Baikal again in February, and Adam is flying to Spain, where he’s going to spend most of the winter sport climbing and then he wants to go back to Flatanger.

But we want to work together again. We get along well. There’s this trust between us.