“The environment you live in influences you – that’s what can knock you out.” says climber, slackliner, and caver Marek Csukás. Marek had been working for a huge marketing company when the moment came and he couldn’t carry on writing shallow PR texts. He decided to make an extraordinary change.
He left the corporate world and went to Val Masina in the Alps… in the winter…to meditate. He took a refuge on a rocky ridge, faced only with nature, and he decided to dwell for a time only with his own thoughts. What did he discover?
In this interview, we aimed to discuss topics that reach beyond small talk. Just try to bring them up in a pub after your regular climbing training… you would hardly succeed. We decided to meet at the rocks in Kokořínsko, where it is unlikely to run in to anyone else.
Already, when we were nearing the rocks, I realized how different Marek is from all the other climbers. He seems to be much more perceptive to his surroundings. He carefully weaves between ant-lion pits among the rocks not to destroy them. He steps lightly, it seems that he cares about each and every ant or moss upon which he might step.
“In the office, we always had an LCD TV on with a six-hour recording of a burning fireplace,” laughs Marek as he adds a piece of beechwood to the best TV you can find. This one can even warm your body. The fire occasionally crackles and the smoke rises into the clear sky above Kokořínsko. In the mountains, this would mean a biting cold. Marek had to face harsh weather right in the beginning of his winter search for true knowledge.
What’s the story of your emergency bivouac?
In the warm comfort of my home, I found the place where I intended to stay for the two months on a map. It was around 2000 meters high and difficult to get to. Snowy gullies and the avalanche danger was very high. Quite a horror scene. I was walking in snow up to my waist for really long time. I was carrying a heavy backpack with tent and supplies… It was getting dark and I was crossing from some forest into yet another gulley. Suddenly, a cloud came in and blanketed the area with fog. Then the snow got even deeper – it was almost as high as my chest. So, I had to turn around and backtrack.
You knew the place from summer?
Yes, I’ve seen it from another ridge but I never actually been there before. So, I had to try another place in the Qualido valley. After this first experience, I decided to go light – just to prepare the bivouac and right away return down for the supplies. So, I took a tent and a tarp. I was wearing just a t-shirt and a gore-tex jacket. I had a thermos with some tea, no food, a lot of paracord to fasten the tarp, and an 18-meter static rope. At least I thought so, later I found out that it was only 13 meters long. And, yeah, I also had my friend’s bent and cracked snow shovel.
How did you find the second place?
It began in a similar way – I was almost swimming through the snow, but then it became steeper, I came to a frozen rock right on the ridge, and soon, I was climbing. I came all the way to a four-meter vertical part. I looked to the right… Nothing, just a blank frozen wall. No chance. I went back to the vertical part only to stand on the spot, shuffling my feet again. Nothing hard, maximum grade 6, but it was covered in ice and my feet were frozen.
And would you at least fall into some snow?
That’s the problem… it would be a long flight all the way down. I would not stop…
So the moves were mandatory.
Strictly mandatory… I hesitated a long time… I tried it many times. Then I saw a kind of jug there and I immediately knew that it was a no-return move, my only chance to go up. So I stepped with my boots onto a small but quite good ledge and went for it. I made a dynamic move into something that looked good. And yeah. It was a jug… It wasn’t really a reasonable move but I probably wouldn’t be able to downclimb what I already did before… The idea of the same way back was horrible… the last 200 meters I was already climbing for real.
So you slept on the ridge?
That’s the thing. I did not have a slightest clue that the 400 meters would take me so long, and when I got there, it was already getting dark. I had to choose either to risk abseiling down just with paracord and 13 meters of rope or suffer the cold night up there. It was a beginning of March and moreover the weather had been really nice that day so the temperatures went as low as to -20 °C. It was really cold, you can tell that by the character of the snow. It seemed to be frozen.
How did you prepare the bivouac?
I dug a hole around one meter deep and two wide to make some space for my tent. That warmed me up so I felt quite good. But the worst thing was the thirst. I started with three quarters of a liter of tea that day. And it was already almost gone. This was the moment I have realized that a thermos is not always a good idea – you cannot melt snow in it. If I had a regular plastic bottle, I would be able to melt it in my tent. It wouldn’t be really comfortable but I would still get me some water to drink. Of course, I tried eating snow, you can sort of melt it in your mouth but it’s horrible. You don’t really drink and you just feel completely freezing. Hunger is not so bad but if you have a truly horrible thirst, that’s pure hell.
What did you sleep on?
I used my backpack instead of a sleeping mat, I also wrapped my legs in a rope and para cord. And then wrapped myself into a wet tarp. Better than nothing.
Were you sleeping in your shoes?
No I wasn’t, I put my feet into the warm gloves I wore. Today, I wouldn’t find that idea so good. My heels were freezing badly. As for my back, that was quite okay but still, I felt absurdly cold. When the sun came up, it felt like a rebirth.
Do you still feel any consequences from this experience?
I didn’t get real frostbite, but when I came home they told me I developed some problems with my nerves and veins called trench foot. It’s caused by a long-time exposure to low temperatures. I couldn’t feel my fingers six months later, even.
So how did you get out of that emergency bivouac?
In the morning, the clouds came in. So, I told myself that I would not risk and went abseiling down the easier side. But, I didn’t have a carabiner or harness, so I had to abseil with cords and rope coiled around my forearm. I always fastened the rope to a rock with a self-tightening knot and then pulled it down with the paracord. The descent was so slow, 13 meters at a time. In this way, I managed to abseil around 200 meters. When I came to the path, it started snowing. Pure luck.
So you were lucky, you underestimated the situation.
Yeah, I did many stupid, irreversible things up there. But I was lucky that I survived and that I have such an invaluable experience now.
Of course, you have some years of climbing experience under your belt that helped you survive that improvised abseiling with paracord wrapped around your forearm, right? How long have you been climbing?
I’ve been climbing since 2004, before that I was flying with a glider. I always loved to see things from above – the space and freedom is what fascinates me.
Where did you start?
In Divoká Šárka, just outside of Prague. There were no bolts back then. We didn’t care about names of routes or grades either. We just hammered the metal aids into the rock and kept climbing in any way possible. Then I switched to bouldering in Petráč, Bor, Ostaš… I also got into slacklining and highlining. I’d been to the Masino valley before – to the Melloblocco bouldering area. This time, I went there as well. After spending the winter months up on the mountain, I went down into the rainy valley to do some bouldering and meet some people at 10th annual local bouldering gathering.
How did you come up with the idea of staying such a long time completely alone on a ridge in the winter?
I thought it would be way more interesting than travelling. When you travel, you are always distracted by so many things. I just wanted to be alone, to be with just myself for some time, I was overworked after two years in PR agency. The Corporate World. Before that, I worked for a non-profit company – with the homeless, with mentally handicapped people, and in a hospital. But I never saw a penny from my last three paychecks from this job, so I decided to try the commercial sphere.
How was it to work for a big corporation?
I was working for ten hours a day. Minimum. I was always sitting in the office and most often, I was writing those press reports and preparing conferences. I was mostly working for banks and insurance companies, communicating with the media for them. The worst thing was to write PR articles for the Zemědělské noviny (Agrarian press) about topics that I have no idea about. Well, you can google for some information… but it was a real problem to come up with a coherent article. You are basically making things up. It wasn’t leading anywhere and it really wasn’t fulfilling. In the non-profit sphere, even though the work wasn’t always easy, at least it made some sense. But in the commercial sphere, the work was just one big nonsense. I was promoting mortgages and many other things that I have never believed in. I knew that we are just pushing shit. You cannot describe it in any other words. I couldn’t stand it anymore so I planned to disappear into Masino. In the end it went quite well, they even told me that I could come back. Of course, I didn’t.
What about your colleagues, were they happy about the work?
I think that in many cases, they were pushed to do the job because they had large mortgages. Or they were just too lazy to make a change. Of course, there were positive things as well. The team was quite good and it’s a stable job. But, it’s quite an isolating working environment. Many of people in the company even spent evenings in pub just with their colleagues because they didn’t know enough of people outside the company. That’s what seems crazy to me now. You basically close yourself in a self-contained world and copy the behavior of others.
But you also sought out a quite isolated life up there in the mountains for three months…
Well, it was three months in Italy but only two up there alone. I thought about it as a quite comfortable holiday with an opportunity to sort out my thoughts. I even labeled it in my diary: “To cope with the nonsense.” In the end it turned out to be quite a tough winter, it was even snowing in May.
It’s good to have a good sleeping bag – a down one. Mine is not so warm, so I use two in the winter. One three-season sleeping bag and one summer. That works pretty well. It seems to me a waste of money to buy an expensive sleeping bag that I would use only a few times a year.
Then you need good waterproof clothing – a gore-tex jacket. Well, I can even imagine that you would use only a raincoat. When it’s raining too much, the gore-tex does not ventilate well so you end up went with your sweat anyway. It’s definitely not a miracle. What I also find expensive but useful anyway is thermal underwear. It warms you even when it’s wet.
Recently I wanted to buy somesunglassesto use in the mountains. When I found out, that costs over a hundred EU, I just laughed and went away. That’s a complete nonsense because you always destroy them really quickly. So, I decided to buy some for 20 bucks and they’re already scratched.
One friend boughta gore-tex jacket for 15 grandand then every time we went somewhere he was always afraid that he would lose or damage it. It seems reasonable to me to invest around 5 grand into it. But, it’s not essential to do so. Take climbers and mountaineers from 25 years ago – they tried the same routes using much simpler equipment. Maybe they even did crazier stuff in the mountains and they did it in heavy woolen sweaters. .
Recently, I saw a really sad scene in an outdoor clothing store – an elderly lady went there to buy winter gloves . And the shopkeeper talked her into buying some gloves that cost 80 EU, saying “they’re really good, they have better grip than the others.” It was kind of tragic . He was probably right, but what use they were for the granny. People often buy things that they don’t really use later. Then they walking around town in their gore-tex equipment.
Or the question of bivouac bags – they have different prices, but you sweat in all of them anyway. Their functionality does not improve when the price rises.
What was your everyday routine up there?
In the end I was sleeping at around 100 m lower elevation than that emergency bivouac. I decided to go there from the easier side and that time I wasn’t going so light. (he laughs) I took some food and 50 meters of half rope. I climbed through some easy slab and found a nice place. The place wasn’t as high as I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t facing any civilization. So, that was the best option in the end. No visual contact with the outer world.
Did you have a phone signall?
There was some signal but I carried only an old mobile phone and I kept it turned off in my sleeping bag. The battery lasted for the whole two months. I turned it on when it was snowing for a really time and I wanted to find a weather forecast. I also phoned my friend after a month up there and asked him: “Hey man, how can you recognize frostbite?” I couldn’t feel my legs at all, so I wanted to solve that problem. And he told me: “If your fingers are not black then it’s all right.”
What was your sleeping set up like and how did you keep the snow out of your place?
I took my tent and a tarp that I bought at a regular store. The tarp was by far the best thing that I took up there. I stretched it over the tent and it protected me from snow and water. If it wasn’t for that tarp, I would have gotten completely buried by the snow. Moreover, when the sun came up, there was drinking water trickling down the tarp. Later I have used it for melting snow on purpose. It was just a great useful thing.
It was snowing almost all of March. The weather was nice for around three days. So, I just had to keep digging myself out of deep snow. When I came there was about a meter of snow laying on the ground. Then, everyday there were around 30 centimeters of fresh snow. I woke up several times during night to shake the fresh snow from the tarp and to shovel it away with that crazy axe. So instead of meditating, I was often just working on my survival. I didn’t really expect that. (he laughs) It was difficult, especially mentally.
Was there risk of avalanches?
No, I chose the place quite carefully, at least in this respect. I was basically on a ridge. But when it was snowing hard I realized that I would probably have trouble if I wanted to go down. It was basically trapped up there. I didn’t need to go down but it was a strange feeling.
And what about your legs?
I had some problems with them. I wasn’t moving enough, and when I did it was mostly on a frozen snow. I wasn’t able to warm them up properly. I even felt that my bones are frozen. After a month I have finally managed to make a fire and warm my legs up – quite an experience! One more thing – I forgot my hat in the car and later had large frost scabs on my ears. But it wasn’t painful at all.
Did you encounter a single human being during that time?
No. Only once a large Ibex came to visit me, that was a truly rare visit. He came to me as close as ten meters. We were looking at each other for quite a long time. Then he made an ugly loud sound and went away. (he laughs) I totally got him. The place that I chose as my meditation spot was probably his favorite lookout.
How could you keep warm during meditation? When you were sitting there…
I started meditating the second month. At first, I mostly cared about that snow. Yet, even the order, the monotony seemed strange to me. Every day was basically the same. When you don’t have structure, you miss many things, and that was exactly my case. I was living like a true punk. The first month, I had to switch to a strict routine – shovel away the snow, cook, and go to sleep.
What did you eat?
Muesli and tea for breakfast, then not much during the day and a warm dinner before going to bed. I found out that I am always hungry and that I had to keep to my estimated rations. I didn’t take enough fats with me. I don’t eat meat and I only had a few pieces of cheese with me. I think that a liter of oil would have helped me a lot. In such a cold, one needs fat badly. I had plenty of lentils – that’s great. Some soy meat and a bit of dried vegetables.
How did you manage to carry enough gas for such long time?
I had more than I needed, I actually used around a half of it. The lentils need just three minutes, then I wrapped it into a sweatshirt and leave it to sit for half an hour. It always stayed hot enough. I also took a Jetboil stove that saves you a lot of gas. A good thing, but you can definitely do without it anyway.
So you saw this kind of monotony (cooking and shoveling) as a positive one?
Basically, it was a first stage of meditation. A total mind cleaning. You only care about the most basic things you need. Nothing else. A true cleansing. Then it kept getting better. I found out how much a person is dependent on a weather. When it got a bit warmer again, the weather greeted me right away with a storm. It was coming down right on me. A great theatrical experience. When I got hungry, I usually things like this into my diary: “Drops become flakes, flakes peas, now the millets are falling from the sky…” (he laughs) I was thinking about food a lot..
How were you working with your thoughts?
Just kept it flowing. I think that is is important not to cling on any ideas. But at the same time you should not avoid some ideas, you just have to let them pass.
Can you keep the same state of mind now that you are back in the city?
I get what you mean. It’s quite easy to be a monk when you’re in a monastery. It’s completely different challenge, though, when you are a part of society. Nobody lets you think like that. They immediately label you as a stranger. It’s challenging because the two worlds are completely different. Other people have problems with you if you’re not like them. Anyway, I think that from time to time it’s quite useful to get out of the society for a while to clean your head. You realize how many things immediately lose their former importance. My main conclusion is that people tend to take everything too seriously.
I really like how you can compare human lifespan with the immense resilience of the mountains. You are surrounded by rocks that stand there for millions of years. They don’t really care about you. You are just a speck, you don’t register in their mode of perception. You are nothing. For them, your life is like an ant to us: you just don’t care about it too much, and sometimes you don’t even realize that you stepped on it. That’s why I don’t like the phrase that many people use: “To conquer the mountain.” I really don’t like it. First, you can never conquer it. When you climb up there, the mountain just doesn’t care. Second, when you climb a route, it’s fine but you do it just for your pleasure.
How were the meditations in April?
When the weather finally allowed me to do so, I tried to exercise both my body and mind. The meditation was great. I think that there are only good spirits in the mountains. There’s nothing wrong there. That’s what’s beautiful about it. I was never anxious, the world just makes sense up there. Sometimes you can feel that you are ion a place with bad energy – something just doesn’t feel right. These places often have connections to various events and people in history.
When you meditate you are quite open. When you open yourself so much in a bad place, it can hurt you. There’s nothing like that up in the mountains. It’s just pure. You don’t even have to create a “protective bubble” around you, a safe zone into which you can close yourself. In the mountains, I felt absolutely connected to my surroundings. I felt a sort of empathy even with the rock. Once, I felt like I was a stone. It made me laugh a lot. I had the feeling that I’m everywhere.
“It’s easy to be a monk when you’re in a monastery.”
You also sculpted nice figurines…
I was thinking what to do. At first, I wanted to create something just by myself but then I realized that I did not have to do anything like that. I’m not an artist and moreover, everything that is lying around is already beautiful. So, you only have to collect these lovely things. All the art is already out there. And I realized that there was plenty of sticks that remind me of hands and legs. So I just started assembling them together to make figurines. I was gluing them together with resin from the trees. The heads were the biggest problem – they took me a long time, I had to look for hazel nuts. Then all I needed was a bit of moss and a bit of resin for the eyes so that they can shine.
Did you take them home?
I only kept have a small figure of Buddha that I made. The others I gave away to my friends. One, the woman, was made especially for a local bartender working in Mello. He gave me a beer, so I felt I should bring him something in return. I wanted to create something for him when I had time.
What was your deepest experience?
Well, the meditation was great but it’s really hard to talk about it. One master once told me that when you practice meditation, you can come to a state when you see an intense white glow. That is supposed to be a good sign. I remembered that advice, but I didn’t see the glow for a long time. Up there it changed. Once I was sitting there and saw a vast emptiness, a white void. I cannot describe how beautiful it was. I was in a completely different space. I also tried breathing to each of the lungs separately. That was also incredibly interesting experience. But I don’t have those stories of the old masters – for example, when they wanted to cool themselves, they breathed only into a right lung and so on…
I believe that practice can get you to a wholly new level. I tried to keep to a meditation routine for around a month and I already felt a great improvement. When you keep to such practice for several years, it can get you far. For me it was a kind of introduction to meditation. I wasn’t even following some particular school of practice, I’m quite skeptical about that. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a Christian family. I deliberately choose not to read anything up there. I just wanted to be there for myself. Not to have any ideology that I could hide behind.
Would you like to do something similar again?
Well, a winter would interesting again. I will see about that. I would also like to visit a desert some time. To see a different world. I’ve never been to a desert, but I guess that it has a special atmosphere as well. Many hermits went into deserts. Anyway, it’s always about the choice. You either look for simple answers and “powerful experiences” or you seek to reach beyond the borders of the mundane. As for me, the most important realization was that one should never take himself or herself too seriously – we tend to aim for the best performance possible – to improve constantly. Everybody has an ego. I definitely don’t aim to say that I don’t have one. But I’m trying to free myself a bit of that. We tend to think too much about ourselves. In fact, though, we are just a tiny drop in the sea.
“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.