It's an area with some of the most potential I've ever seen. Just endless.
After making the first ascent of Change, Adam Ondra was ready for one. The 19-year-old Czech climber had spent over a month in Norway's massive Flatanger Cave working the 165-foot-long route—at 5.15c, the world's hardest—before finally managing to climb it on October 2. With the toughest send of his life behind him, Ondra decided he needed a break from projecting. He had never been to the United States, so he booked a ticket to Kentucky and headed for the Red River Gorge, the legendary sandstone sport climbing area located along the river of the same name.
By the time Ondra left the Red a few weeks later, he had torn the place apart. His ticklist from the trip could easily double as a lifetime bucket list for most high-level pros: he had onsighted some of Kentucky's stiffest testpieces, including The Golden Ticket (5.14c/d) and Pure Imagination (5.14c/d), and had become the first person to climb a 5.14d first go with a flash of Southern Smoke Direct.
Ondra, a Brno native with a mane of curly hair, doesn't get the level of recognition among non-climbers that Chris Sharma and Alex Honnold do. But if you wanted to name the best sport climber in the world, it would be hard to make an argument for anyone but him. A two-time World Cup champion with 20 5.15 ascents to his credit, Adam Ondra seems to operate on a different, grander scale than anyone else in the sport. We caught him after a three-hour gym session to talk about his new projects, the U.S. scene, and what he's taken away from climbing with Sharma.
This was your first trip to the U.S. Why did you pick the Red River Gorge as your first destination?
I really liked the pictures I saw. It resembled a Czech climbing area that I liked, but with overhanging stuff. At the same time, I heard that there were plenty of high-quality climbs and that there was good potential for hard onsighting. After spending a lot of time working on my project in Norway, Change, I felt like I wanted to do a bit of onsighting.
Tell me a little about the highlights of your trip. What sends are you most proud of?
There are definitely two climbs. The first one is Southern Smoke Direct (5.14d/5.15a), which was rather strange for me, because it was something I was not really thinking about prior to my departure. I had it in my mind that it might have been possible to flash it but I did not really believe it so much, because I knew that the first boulder problem was really hard. The first four or five climbing days, I didn't feel very strong. I was kind of thinking of postponing my goals for the next trip. But obviously, you can run out of good routes to onsight pretty soon.
This was kind of a strange day. I knew that Daniel Woods and Jon Cardwell went there, so I told myself, Why not try? This might be my only chance to flash this route. And that's exactly what happened. Sometimes I wonder how it's even possible that I can get so much luck in one single minute, but I think it's better not to wonder about it too much.
Since I was confident that my shape was not that bad, in about two days time I went for Pure Imagination (5.14d), which was the main goal on the trip; it went for an onsight quite well. But then there was The Golden Ticket (5.14d), which was much harder for me. I had some information that it was not that easy to onsight, but I was lucky.
How does the climbing scene in the U.S. compare to the one you're used to in Europe?
I think in general the American scene is much more focused on bouldering, where in Europe they're more focused on sport climbing. But there's no surprise there, because I think that in most parts of the U.S. you can get really high-quality bouldering areas, but it's really hard to find high-quality sport-climbing areas. Except the Red, which is a world-class climbing area. I have never seen something like this in terms of climbing on sandstone. It's definitely in my top three favorite climbing areas right now.