Michal Sabovčík: Mom gave me money to buy shoes, I bought climbing gear
I climb here and there, he says. He stood on Fitz Roy in Patagonia, Great Trango in Pakistan, and Dhaulagiri in Nepal, but he still considers the winter crossing of the ridge of the HighTatras in the alpine style to be his most valuable performance. Recently, he and his girlfriend Sisa have set out on an adventure trip from Alaska to Patagonia.
You come from Spišská Nová Ves. Are your beginnings as a climber tied to Tomášovský Viewpoint?
Sveťo Lacko from Poprad, a climber devoted to young people, showed me abseiling for the first time. He used to take us hiking in the Tatras as he also had a daughter our age. He was the one who handed the rope to Peter Hámor for the first time. When I was 14, my friends and I met some local climbers on Tomašovský Viewpoint. They were friendly, so we kept company with them. We would climb the top rope with a 40 meters long static rope, four of us sharing one harness, one pair of climbing shoes, and a few carabiners. Our beginnings were modest. We did not have any grown-up teachers, only a group of young climbers from Spišská. They were all punk. They used to go climbing and then drummed and smoked in a cave under the rocks. Since I tasted what it is like to be in the air, I haven’t enjoyed anything else.
They say you used to hide crampons under the bed from your parents.
The crampons came later. We would hitchhike and go bouldering anywhere around. Firstly I used to hide things, but then I assured my mom that it was safe. She took it in good part. She was happy that I preferred an outdoor activity to go to bars.
Lomnický štít, High Tatras, Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
First, you did sports climbing, and then you moved to the Tatras?
We met some people who took me climbing to the Tatras. And I found out I enjoyed it much more in the mountains. I also tried ski mountaineering and ice climbing. My mom gave me money for casual shoes, but I bought climbing equipment instead.
,,My mom gave me money for casual shoes, but I bought climbing equipment instead."
Do you think that your enthusiasm for hiking determined the fact that you enjoy mountaineering more than rock climbing?
I guess so. I have always wanted to get as high as possible and look down from there. But maybe my climbing skills just were not good enough; the most difficult route I climbed was at most grade nine. I endured walking and discomfort rather than training and climbing difficult paths. My friend and I thought that when we climbed level eight on Tomašák, we could go climbing grade seven in the Tatras, and it was a mess. Climbing in the mountains is completely different from climbing rocks.
Tomašovský viewpoint, Slovak Paradise, 2021. Foto: "Extrémne v horách"
You reached 7,000 at the age of 21. That is quite a fast progress.
It was a coincidence. My ex-girlfriend and I planned to go on a work-study summer stay in America, but somehow it was not working with her. At that time, some friends were planning an expedition to Lenin Peak. At the last minute, I asked them whether I could join them. Then I asked my mom whether she would give me money for Lenin Peak instead of America. I was the first of the five-member group to reach the top. That was when I found out that I may have some predisposition to cope well with high altitudes. Or, it wasn't even a predisposition, but a kind of lust. Because in the high mountains, the body suffers terribly. It always has to be overcome, and that is what I like.
,,At that time, some friends were planning an expedition to Lenin Peak. At the last minute, I asked them whether I could join them. Then I asked my mom whether she would give me money for Lenin Peak instead of America."
From the Tatras, did you immediately go to 7000 meters high mountains?
We had been acclimatizing in the Alps on Matterhorn and Grand Paradise a few weeks before the expedition. On Matterhorn, I tried climbing in the high mountains in the winter for the first time. But Lenin Peak is not that challenging, it is more like alpine hiking, not climbing.
Is it possible to prepare for high altitude? Is it best to use the method of gradual acclimatization?
I was still a complete amateur then. Now I see that I was young and stupid. When I was in 8,000 meters with Peter Hámor, it was completely different from everything I did before. A few months before that, I trained more, I went running, but I didn't have any targeted training. One needs a lot of hiking, climbing in the Tatras, and carrying a heavy backpack. I also went to some medical tests where my heart was measured. I may have it a little bigger, but nothing specific has emerged why I should be predisposed to high altitudes. At 7,250 meters, where we slept, the body cannot regenerate at all, it does not burn fat, but all the energy goes away from the muscles. The main task is to manage maximum discomfort when you do not want to do anything and you would prefer to go down. It's very much about the psyche, being able to overcome strains and move on.
High Tatras, 2020. Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
In 2011, you managed to conquer the great north faces of the Alps in a row.
At that time, I got together with Jan Čech, an influential climber from Spišská Nová Ves, who returned to climbing after a 10-year break. Before he turned forty, we repeated some demanding Tatra trips together, and in the spring we went to the Alps. We wanted to climb Matterhorn, Eiger, and Grandes Jorasses. We managed it in 16 days, which is not a breakthrough performance, but it was a big goal for Jan. It meant a lot to him. Unfortunately, he died during the descent.
What happened? A stone avalanche or slip?
We have been descending all day. The weather was harsh, and we strayed a lot. Finally, we saw a glacier on the last slope, from where it is only a moderate terrain. We hung the loops on a rock spike. There were even some old slings, someone had obviously been rappelling from there. I abseiled some 50-60 meters to the glacier, Jano followed me to the same point. He must have put a bit too much strain on it because it tore after a few meters. I only saw him falling down. He lived for about 5 hours and told me that he was glad it hadn't happened to me, but to him. That was very poignant.
How did you deal with that?
It affected all the climbers who knew Jan. I hadn't climbed at all for almost a year. My friends took me out to ride horses and camping, and I had no need to climb at all. But then Dodo Kopold asked me to go dry tooling in the Alps with him. Somehow I took an interest in climbing again. Then he called me to go climbing the Great Trango with him. I felt I was a mountaineer, and I needed to climb. I must have gone. We managed to get a fifteen hundred-meter first ascent via the northwest wall. Due to bad luck, we did not reach the top. We lost a mess tin, so we had nothing to make water from snow. Dodo was wise enough not to take a risk, and we went down.
Winter crossing the High Tatras ridge, 2013. Foto: Jakob Schweighofer
You once said that you consider the alpine-style winter crossing of the Tatra Ridge to be your most valuable performance. Is that still the case?
After Paľo Pochylý, who had done it solo in 1979, Adam Kadlečík and I were the first to repeat this style in pair. I made my first attempt in the summer of 2009 with Peter Bugáň. However, there is a problem with the water on the ridge. There are few places where you can find some, so we had to go down repeatedly. And then the weather got worse, and we ran out of supplies.
In 2013, everything worked out?
We set off in February, everyone with a 25-kilo backpack packed for 12 days. We only had what we wore, nothing but spare socks, we dried them on our bodies in sleeping bags. We didn't look at the forecast, we were determined to go in any weather. I think we made it because we were so young and didn't consider what could happen. It was rough from every point of view, because you are climbing in a storm on the Tatra ridge, you lie down in a wet sleeping bag and you cuddle at night to warm up a bit. Fifteen days in such harsh conditions. Therefore, the Tatra Ridge certainly wins, but each ascent has something special about it.
,,It was rough from every point of view because you are climbing in a storm on the Tatra ridge, you lie down in a wet sleeping bag and you cuddle at night to warm up a bit. Fifteen days in such harsh conditions."
What were you wearing?
We only had thin synthetic thermal underwear, the second layer was a full-body caver overall made of thick Polartec, with some fleece over it. We had high-quality top layers, the best we could get back then.
Winter crossing the Tatras ridge, 2013. Foto: Jakob Schweighofer
Then climbing in Patagonia came.
I had such a period of life at that time that I didn't really want to climb. But Jano Smoleň and Stano Filkor persuaded me to go to Patagonia with them. We managed to climb Poincenot and then Cerro Torre during one trip. We were the first Slovaks to stand atop. It was amazing. Patagonia is simply a wonderland for everything, even for bouldering. Smolo and I returned there once again because we wanted to try a new route in the south wall of Fitz Roy. We climbed the easier Argentine route first, and then we were lucky again that another good weather window came out within a month. We did a difficult first ascent to Fitz Roy, for which we also received a silver carabiner from James.
Climbing Fitz Roy, Patagonia, 2015. Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
Let's talk about the eight-thousander.
In 2017, I was with Peter Hámor at Dhaulagiri. It was very difficult due to the altitude, but Peter is an experienced climber, so I knew it would be fine. If I was there alone or with someone inexperienced, I don’t think we would have succeeded. We were a great team then, we climbed to the top together. We were there in 2019, too, we had some acclimatization ascents, but due to the corona, all expeditions were canceled. We plan another first ascent there, and if everything goes well, I want to return to the Himalayas with Pete.
At the top of Dhaulagiri with Peter Hámor, 2017. Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
Are you scared when you climb?
I have the biggest fear when everyone tells me to be careful before leaving. When I climb, I think about what I'm doing. I do not panic, but I try to keep a cool head in critical situations. Only when I descended did I realize how dangerous it was.
,,I have the biggest fear when everyone tells me to be careful before leaving. When I climb, I think about what I'm doing."
I was intrigued that you also climbed mountains in Antarctica and Greenland.
When we got down from Dhaulagiri, I met Mára Holeček, a famous Czech climber, in a pub in Kathmandu. He told me that he had been going to sail from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica on a small sailboat and that he had a place for me there. In six days, we crossed the Drake Passage, which is something like "Everest" for sailors. With Ďuro Koreň, a paraglider, we had an idea to climb a hill no one had ever climbed yet, and jump off it with a parachute. A year later, we did the same in Greenland, where we climbed untouched 800-meter tall granite walls. Antarctica and Greenland are probably my travel highlights.
Antarctica, 2018. Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
Antarctica, 2018. Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
What do your upcoming plans look like?
My girlfriend Sisa and I decided to travel a bit while we haven‘t got a family yet. At the beginning of March, we are flying to Vancouver, where we want to find an older caravan and set off. We'll see how long our finances will last. (Laughter) Last year I did a lot of high-altitude jobs, now I have sold a car and rented one building I own in Spišská. In addition, I opened a small shop with climbing hardware with a neighbor, so I will deal with the e-shop remotely. Sisa also has some money saved, and she will rent an apartment. If nothing goes wrong, we could make a living.
Have you left the return date open yet?
We're telling the family that we will be gone for a year, but I suppose it will be longer. A few weeks ago, Rišo Nemec told me he would like to go to Denali, the highest peak in North America, and repeat the Slovak route from the 1980s. It is said to be one of the most beautiful mountain routes. We already have all the permits to climb, the boys will arrive in Alaska on May 10, so I hope that Sisa and I will get there by then. She would like to go to the top via the normal route. We don't have any plans other than Denali yet, but on our way to the south, we plan to stop in almost every climbing area.
Greenland, 2019. Foto: Michal Sabovčík Archive
What clothes do you need to climb Denali?
I’ll wear quality thermal underwear, fleece, thin puff jacket, gore-tex jacket, just all the layers needed for winter conditions. I'm looking forward to wearing the roughest Grade VII Down Parka from Patagonia, which will play an important role because it can get extremely cold on Denali. The altitude is only 6,100 meters, the problem is the cold. You also need thicker shoes, feather insulated pants, and gore-tex pants. I believe Patagonia will perform excellently in these conditions because they use quality materials. I know I don't have to test it before, I’m sure I will not be disappointed.
,,I'm looking forward to wearing the roughest Grade VII Down Parka from Patagonia, which will play an important role because it can get extremely cold on Denali. The altitude is only 6,100 meters, the problem is the cold."
Have you had any experience with their products so far?
My first experience was the 35 l Ascensionist backpack. The last time I climbed in Patagonia, I traded it for crampons because they have a shortage of climbing gear there. Besides, I have some t-shirts, and a year ago I bought a cap because my head is a bit bigger and this cap fits me well. Sisa laughed at me for showing off. But I told her that I was standing on the peaks that Patagonia had in its logo. (Laughter)
Michal is a devoted adventurer and climber. As early as fourteen, he spent his pocket money on climbing gear. In a relatively short time, he worked his way up from Slovak limestone rocks to the soaring peak of eight-thousand Dhaulagiri that he reached with Peter Hámor. Michal entered the history of Slovak climbing by a successful crossing of the ridge of the Tatras alpine style in winter conditions. He explored, climbed, and parachuted from pristine mountains in Antarctica and Greenland.