If somebody feels literally at home at the crag then it must be Jirka Slavík aka Prcas (“Shorty” in English). He is a beaming guy with unruly ruffled long hair who never comes back unexhausted from climbing but he is always ready for a wild party. And you must believe that his climbing pace is very difficult to catch up with. The bar is set very high: an RP Xb (7c fr) here, another bold Xa there, airy first ascents, healthy lifestyle, vegetarian…He has lived like this for 45 climbing years.
Although there was a very hard test on him recently – a serious injury, he keeps a highly positive mind and I am convinced that there will be another ten years! We caught up with him, guess where, at the crag where we climbed together. The sun was shining and the atmosphere was wonderful – obviously.
I reckon you took up climbing quite early, didn’t you? When exactly was it?
Well, the story of my beginnings goes like this: I would go skiing with the guys from the mountain rescue team when I was really little. They were supposed to do some climbing hours at least once every year. On May 1st 1970 one of them asked me to go with him – you know it was during the communist traditional May Day Parade. I said: “I´d be glad to go but you gotta ask my mum, things are not that easy, you know.” So he asked her and in the afternoon we were climbing on the Špičák hill near Most – my home town.
So, you come from the Most region, right? That means your first climbs must have taken place on the Bořeň hill and the other ones nearby?
Exactly! Actually the very next day I continued my climbing career there. We climbed the III grade on the Scout tower (originally Skautská věž), then some IV climb on Bishop stool (Biskupská stolice) – that was all the potential of our Sunday rendezvous and my first climbing meteres.
You are an expert sandstone climber… so how did the transformation from the basalt of Bořeň to sandstone go?
It went very quickly because my friend Honza Průcha who was responsible for my climbing life talked to my mum and told her we would go to the crag Tisá (Elbe Sandstones) the following week to a totally different rock from Bořeň and that we would stay overnight. First we climbed the chimney III (Saxon classification) to the Triple tower (Trojitá věž) and then we climbed the IV on the Little Tailor (Krejčík) and my third route was the VII (6a+ fr.) over three rings on the Beheaded Major (Sťatý major). I was on the sharp end on that one. So, it was a really quick take off with a lot of other following routes straight away. What I also experienced there was a tiny shot of so called “stomach” liquor Praděd. I was awarded this for my first climbing achievement by Průcha.
Does the nickname “Prcas“ (meaning Shorty) come from your childhood? You are not so short.
Yeah, I was really short at thirteen. And the nickname stayed on me even when I finally grew up.
If anybody is a textbook example of good climbing technique then it must be you. Have you always felt the moves to be so natural?
Thanks a lot. But I can´t judge it properly because I was a skier from the very beginning. I had strong thighs, strong abdominals and, you know, completely different body proportions. I was strong in very specific parts of my body, which was useless for climbing. Climbing is much more about aerobic movement. I was totally unprepared for this. I belonged to the national team of teenage skiers about fifteen years old. But then I gave it up because of climbing and now I have not been skiing for about 35 years! I think these are two absolutely different sports. What they have in common is being out in the mountains.
When did you start making your first ascents? I can remember from the Czech documentary Ostrov Čarodějů (The Island of Wizards) famous first ascender Karel Bělina telling a story of himself taking you from school to explore new routes…
Yeah, these were very interesting moments not only for a high school student but also for the teachers. Karel Bělina saw me when I was climbing in Tisá with a friend. He is a well-known “scout” of young climbers. He finds them and shows them the wild side of climbing. He was also a passionate motorbike rider on weird vehicles. Cars were pretty much unavailable at that time and Karel would pick me up from school in the middle of the day on his “bikes”. He went to the headmaster, talked to him about his vision, charmed the teachers, I was set free and we could go climbing.
What did your mom say to that? A teenage son and rock climbing. It is not the easiest issue to contemplate.
I grew up with my mom and she understood it as well as a mother can. She was quite happy when I was with adults and not fooling around with the youngsters. Karel passed the baton of lead climbing and first ascents on me. He was definitely the best teacher I could get. He was and still is an expert of first ascents. I mean their finding as well as their penetration.
And where did you make the most first ascents?
Most of all definitely in Tisá, Ostrov, Rájec (in the Elbe Sandstones) where we literally occupied loads of rock areas which had not been climbed yet. There’s no more unclimbed areas like this.
I have heard that you were one of the first Czech climbers to replace soccer shoes with real climbing shoes. Where on earth did you get them at the time of the harshest communist regime?
Well, in fact I did not replace soccer shoes but seniors´ house shoes with the climbing shoes. I got them as a present from a friend who had emigrated. I was the only one who was using them regularly. Oh well, for instance one of my friends had them too but he was used to the very soft grip sole of the house shoes which he even stuck on the sole.
When I go through the climbing guide of Tisá-Ostrov I see your name on lots of first ascents. And the routes from the 80´s – those are climbs rated with X. You guys must have been the first ones to make such routes in Tisá crag, right?
Bělina showed me how to make a first ascent but later I started climbing with my fellow climbers. Then Venca Širl came and took us to former eastern Germany, specifically the area of Elbe canyon where he showed us something different – the Saxon sport-style climbing. And all that formed my life and climbing style which resulted in first ascents in higher difficulties.
Your routes on sandstone rocks are significant for their hallmark courageous and airy style. Can you say your first ascents started from there?
Yeah, I would say so. We visited the Elbe canyon (Czech Rep.) and Saxony (Germany). We wouldn´t drive cars too often. We were rather wanderers. We carried back packs with the rope inside, not to raise the suspicion. In my life there are four important periods of first ascents. The first with Bělina and with other climbers swapping on the sharp end but nothing too remarkable. Then after the military service we mostly climbed in the area of Tisá and Rájec where we knew every stone. Especially routes with my friend Míra Vlk were quite courageous. I can´t say these routes were well protected; there were routes with more courageous parts which were sometimes longer and sometimes shorter. In fact, well protected sport routes actually started after I was nominated onto the Czech national climbing team when I tried out a bit of it in France, Frankenjura and so on.
Did it matter to you if your climbs were followed?
To be frank, I was not interested in that. I made the routes according to my feelings. I simply climbed like I felt. If anybody felt it should be his way he did it. We always played paper scissors stone for the one who places the bolts. We never planned anything. We always climbed on the edge of the fatal experience so we did our best to avoid the worst.
Do you still make the routes in the same style and spirit? The modern style of new routes is a bit more favourable for not so courageous climbers, especially in the Elbe canyon.
You know, I hardly ever make new routes these days so I am not concerned with their spirit at all. I would follow the modern trends because I have grown old enough to get adapted to it.
Which of your first ascents do you value the most?
Phew, I value them all. This is one of the things that puts you back into the memories and thinking about it twice, every route was meaningful. Yes, it was.
Are there any routes that you made and never went back to?
Well, not too many. Most of the routes I made I have also managed to redpoint, especially the cruxes.
What was your cooperation with Špek (today’s most famous Czech first ascender) like? He only acknowledges classic climbing without magnesium chalk but obviously it didn´t stop you from making lots of airy difficult routes in the Elbe canyon.
Exactly, nothing could stop us from making a lot of airy and beautiful routes.
I hear you would go bouldering together. Is Špek a passionate boulderer or solo climber?
Špek is a passionate climber in the first place.
Do you ever return to the German Saxony for climbing? I feel that the Saxon climbers rather come to us to climb.
As a chalk user I do not go there much. I had enough of it when I was younger.
Are you a traditional style supporter?
In my opinion traditions are misleading. You see, people can´t imagine life without computers or climbing without proper shoes as trends change with time. Bernd Arnold climbed bare foot for a long time and really difficult routes but he doesn´t do it any more. Of course, he is an elderly man now but there is also some progress involved. The technology is more advanced and that is where it all starts. But if anybody wants to return to traditionalism, take off the boots and tie into a hemp rope, let him do it. I don´t apply my mind to this. Let everybody do whatever and however they want. It is all about the mind and its focus.
What is your position in the development of sandstone rock climbing? Or the current generation’s approach to climbing in general?
As climbing is a living organism it is constantly developing and new trends arise. That means more and more climbers at the crag. Sometimes as many as 20 climbers in one place, you approach it and look for unoccupied routes, which suggests the fact that climbing is very similar to track and field athletics now and there are a lot of different aspects.
It seems to me that the new first ascenders are slowly turning their attention back to bolder routes in order to protect the sandstone rock areas from crowds of short-term climbers.
Yeah, it may be true. But I rather find today’s sport style climbers returning to some dangerous runouts in their new routes. They feel the climb more that way. Špek makes routes that not everybody dares to climb. Whoever takes the dare they must count on something unusual to come up in the route. And if it eventually ends up well they must be extremely careful next time not to rush into a route like that without prior thinking. When you are choosing a route another time you know what to expect from its author. It is very similar to paragliding, I think. You approach a hill where a number of people are flying in the air but it still doesn´t mean you can take off and fly too.
What do you think about later installation of “safety“ bolts on sandstone?
Well, it depends on many circumstances why the bolts are installed. Some of the routes would probably deserve it but it always depends on the agreement with their authors.
In the 1990´s you and a friend Bobuláč went to the USA. A great trip, right? How was it? Were you prepared for their style of climbing?
We visited the US for almost 4 months in the 90´s. It was because the political situation at home had changed dramatically. And as we are no politicians we had no idea if the damned communism would come back – you know, it was really rampant here. So, we set off from here with the idea that we did not have to come back again. We travelled all around the states visiting the areas that we had read so much about in the magazines: The New River Gorge, The Tennessee Wall, Joshua Tree, Moab, Yosemite and we finished it in The Shawangunks. We were pretty well prepared for Yosemite climbing from Adršpach (a legendary scary north-east Czech crag).
What did you climb in Yosemite?
We spent two days climbing the Salathe Wall. Then Separate Reality and Phoenix.
You have quite a lot of “side” sports…
Yeah, paragliding, white water… Anything out in the wild appeals to me a lot. I like being and moving outdoors. There is a natural favour of sports in me which is connected with climbing too. Also, I have been to the Himalayas, which is nice – pretty expensive though. But I have never been so much attracted to it. However, I really like being in the mountains. I go snowboarding, freeriding in particular.
You are an incredible sandstone rock machine. When you go to the popular Pantheon (in Malá Skála near Turnov), you can climb ten routes of the difficulty 10 on average! On limestone you have managed an 8a. When are you happiest?
The number of routes has always been really relative. But when I started thinking about another trip to the US, which is an absolutely fascinating place, I raised the number of routes per day. You know, as I am old enough not to waste time with exploring I rather wander around the areas which have been explored already. And the number of routes depends on your health and determination to enjoy your stay outside. First I climbed 6 a day, then I raised it to 7 which is, especially in the Elbe canyon, is quite a large number of metres.
There was one year when you wanted to achieve a number of routes rated X (7b+ fr., usually harder). How many did you actually make?
Well, I wanted to set my personal best and climb 100 X routes in one year. I reached the number 80. But on the eightieth one I erred, which prevented me from achieving my aim.
“When I was 28 I said to myself that I would not get stressed out about things, and I have not done so ever since.”
In the movie Ostrov Čarodějů (The Island of Wizards) you said that having a rest is important but this one-year rest after an error had been quite long, I reckon. How were you doing after such a serious injury?
I made several mistakes on Pantheon and I fell down from the rock. However, I hold no grudges. After the fall there are a lot of screws and other pieces of titanium and steel in my body. About 60 altogether. Oh, now there are a bit fewer because some have been removed from my pelvis recently. In fact there is about 320 grams of extra iron in my body. So, I say there is something more in me. The whole problem starts from the head. If your head is determined to get back, you will make it. And in my case this was the only way. I had to get back otherwise I would have seen the dead end.
So you gave it no other chance. You were highly disciplined…
Exactly, I gave it no other chance. When I was 28 I said to myself that I would not get stressed out about things, and I have not done so ever since. Of course, I have been angry several times and I could have disagreed with others but I have always looked for a sensible solution. So, I got back together after the injury too. And, you can imagine, I was broken into the tiniest pieces – apart from my head and spine all the bones in my body were broken …the pelvis, chest, ribs, arms, legs, vertebrae …and most of the times they were broken in a pretty complicated way.
The diagnosis and prediction said that after some time I would be able to ride a wheel chair. I said: ”Euthanize me, doc. I give up.” He replied: “Well, you´d have to be living in a different country, man.” Right, if no euthanasia I told him I would go climbing within a year. I started climbing again after 6 months. The main role is played by your head. And if your head and spine are fine the bones will get together somehow. When I was in the rehabilitation centres I met people whose situation was much better than mine but they had quit. I made slide shows, thematic parties about climbing and trained twice as much as my physiotherapist recommended. Simply, my approach was highly positive. As positive as possible.
It has always been important to you to climb and to climb a lot. You have also coped well with difficult routes. I know you will get back to the X´s very soon – as soon as your eye gets better and you will see well again. But how do you perceive climbing now?
I can say that when I repeat routes I have to find a different procedure of moves which are in accordance with my current limits. I have also had to adjust my mental approach and in the most general sense my existence on this planet. I am really limited physically, I feel a lot of pain. But it is great that I can climb at least a little bit. You know, if all climbers felt as much pain as I do, there would be about one thousandth as many on earth – that is how I imagine it to be. The fact that I can´t climb the way I could before is irrelevant to me. I have been doing it for 45 years and I would like to share some ideas about how to avoid injuries with the young guys. I would also like to thank my friends for their support, even the financial support. I made roofs and the injury put me onto the disability pension. As a result of this I made a film with a friend in order to thank everyone.
He was born in Most in 1957.
He lived in Nový Bor for a long time. Now he lives in Jablonec nad Nisou and he also has a hut in Dolní Žleb. (in the Elbe Canyon)
He was a freelance worker – a roofer and tinsmith.
He lives with his girlfriend Helenka. She, as a physiotherapist, has supported him a lot after the injury which was caused by a little inadvertence.
Today (November 2017) he is climbing on the sharp end in the routes of IXc and he wants to proceed on to X´s. (8a fr.)
His definition of adventure?
“For me the word adventure means the most common routine activities. Traveling on the subway, visiting a mall; everyday things.”
Climber and occasional author. Her mood gets better with climbed meters, when she throws away stereotypes of normal days and runs away from reality. “Climbing is colorful and has many different aspects,” she says.
“Climbing is not about the grades and life is not about the money.”
He loves to write about inspiring people.
Addicted to situations when he does not care about the time – in the mountains or sandstone crags.