Adam Ondra’s Magnificent Failure

I would have given anything to be in Ceuse last Friday night. Of course that was the evening Adam Ondra tied in for his flash attempt of Biographie (aka Realization)—the world’s first confirmed 5.15a. Instead, I experienced the event vicariously through a barrage of text messages pinging onto my iPhone from my friend Jonathan Thesenga, the lucky bastard who was at France’s limestone mega crag that night, insta-tagging and hash-gramming the action away.

Adam Ondra is about to try and flash Biographie. So Sick. We are at the wall right now. He’s going for it in 30 minutes.

He’s about to tie in. He seems dialed and focused. Told me conditions aren’t perfect but that he is “too motivated to wait.” He’ll start climbing in 5 minutes or so. Camera crew is getting into position.

The information seemed too important to me to not share, and I reported the news in real time on rockandice.com, Tweeting and Sharing the news through as many social networks as possible. The power of collective thought in influencing big events is ancient wisdom under utilized in today’s spiritually dissociated society. If enough people got on the right mental wavelength, perhaps we could play some atomically small, though not insignificant, role in seeing the impossible done.

Photographers' ropes fixed, and Adam's girlfriend brushing/ticking holds on Realization. Moments before the flash attempt. Photo: @jthesenga

That a flash attempt of Biographie could be even taken seriously is pretty dazzling evidence of just how far the sport of rock climbing has come in the last 11 years since Chris Sharma clipped the chains—after four years of effort—on his 5.15a extension to Ceuse super local Arnaud Petit’s 5.14c.

I had heard as many as three years ago that Ondra wanted to flash Biographie, and it seemed just so improbable and audacious. But over the past few years, Ondra has amassed a huge base of experience, with at least eight 5.14c onsights, and one 5.14d that he did first try, but technically couldn’t be categorized as an onsight or flash due to a few pesky details. When 5.14c a vue starts looking comfortable, then a 5.15a flash really does seem more reasonable.

He’s power breathing like a ninja. Must be 30 people here cheering him on. Very very cool.

If there was ever a 5.15a to flash, Biographie was it. Chris Sharma’s attempts were famously documented by Big Up Productions. I remember fueling my own psyche by watching, and re-watching, before and after every one of my own piddling climbing sessions, that video of Chris finally, triumphantly, breaking through that stopper V10ish boulder problem with 80 feet of hard 5.14c beneath him. Subsequent ascents have been documented as well.

Ondra used these resources and prepared for his flash like a true professional. He had compiled two hand-written pages of notes about the holds, sequences and rests. How many times do you think he visualized himself on that sequence beforehand?

I think about my own experience with hard (for me) onsights and flashes, both the successes and failures. There really is something magical about climbing on a big, hard route for the first time. There is only one first time. You could always save it for later—another day when you feel stronger, better, fresher. For all the planning and thinking you do about that one special route, the decision to actually go for it always feels spontaneous, even supernatural, like there is a higher energy telling you something. It takes courage to recognize what the universe is communicating to you in that moment and not shirk away from it. So you commit. Suddenly, everything goes wildly electric. Sparks fly. There’s an internal nuclear fusion taking place inside your guts as confidence meets nervousness. You experience an extremely tenuous teetering between belief and optimism, and vacuous doubt. You need to calm down, but it’s also urgent that you leave the ground before the scales tip south. Shut your mind off. Now it’s all just a matter of simple mechanical execution, of making galvanic strides up the wall.

He just fell. Fuck! Four or five moves from the jug in the middle of the upper boulder problem. He was hiking. Shit was going down and then his elbows went up. But so badass he went for it.

He’s bummed. I feel bad for him. He wanted this BAD.

There was no wobbler, no apoplexy of rage. If anything, he seemed deflated. He just pulled back up and began working the boulder problem.

This morning, I read an interview with Ondra on Up Climbing, where he expressed humility.

“It was maybe too bold,” Ondra said. “Probably I should have waited more to get more chance to flash. I gave it two tries more, but frustratingly didn’t manage to send and then we had to leave back home.”

Ondra didn’t go home empty-handed. Two days prior to his Biographie flash attempt, he earned the first ascent of Jungle Boogie (5.15a), also on the Biographie wall. Days after his attempt, he onsighted his ninth 5.14c, Deltaplane Man Direct in Entraygues. It actually doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t send Biographie—if you give so much energy to the flash/onsight, sometimes there’s none left for the redpoint.

Says Thesenga, “He told me after he had lowered, untied and decompressed that sometimes the flash is almost more difficult than an onsight because on an onsight you ‘climb with your intuition, while a flash your mind knows what to do but your body does not.’ He said he was ‘very surprised how big the holds were, but also how far apart they were and that’s why I got so pumped.'”

To me, however, it’s Ondra’s magnificent failure that I find more inspiring than his other successes. To have gone for it, with all the world watching, vicariously experiencing, and energized, was heroic—and I think it in turn had an effect on us all.

  • Jason Keck

    Hey I am new to your blog and relatively new to the sport of climbing. I first heard of this route when I saw Sharma scream in glorious agony up the last 4 or 5 moves in the movie King Lines. It would have been super human for Ondra to ascend this route on his first try. Also, I was unable to discern the difference between a flash and an on sight as they both seem to mean ascending a route on your first try. Can you briefly describe the disinction?

  • regularjohn

    on sight: sending first try, without knowing things about the route
    flash: sending first try, knowing things about the route

  • theclimbing

    I wonder if one has to be a pro climber to be able to do these sort of routes or if you can train to the degree that would be required.Still a hard route on good rock.I hope the standards are continued to to pushed.