The experience I had in Serbia was incredible, humbling and filled with kindness and love. I think the word inspired would complete my thoughts while I was in Serbia. Inspired by the history of the Balkan culture and what each country has experienced over the years. Maybe inspiration doesn't fit here, but I think gluttony might - gluttony by the meat and pastries that I devoured each day and night with no regret (okay, maybe once). But the real inspiration came by a force, driving me to learn more about the people and community and their needs as climbers. There are not many climbers in Serbia and the lack of climbing gyms had me thinking about the potential the country has for more sport climbing, bigger and better climbing gyms, competitions, youth and adult climbing teams and coaches. (Belgrade only has 4 small boulder only gyms and one (very old) short, outdoor lead/tr wall.). The community is there, the kids and adults are psyched and the rock is fresh, so, what's next? What needs to happen to ignite this spark into a ball of fire (besides a bottle Rakjia)?
I went to Serbia directly after spending 10 days in Shanghai, China coaching the US University Team and exploring the city. Back in April, I was asked by Dusan Brankovic with Outdoor Collective (a Serbian outdoor non-profit community) to partake in their annual Reel Rock Tour and teach climbing workshops, give a lecture about my climbing life and training, and climb with the community of kind, generous (and crazy) locals. I arrived in Serbia and Djuk Brankovic from Outdoor Collective picked me up from the airport and then what felt like 1hr, was 10 days and I found myself back at the same gate I arrived at.
The event in Belgrade
The Reel Rock Serbian Tour kicked off in downtown Belgrade at a busy intersection with life and motion everywhere I looked. I stepped inside the auditorium and was excited to see it filled with climbers and people interested in getting to know climbing a bit more. Before the film started there was slacklining and climbing sessions to get people hanging out and meeting new friends. 30min before the Reel Rock film started a line formed outside the building to the ticket office and into the auditorium. The place we getting sold out! Hundreds of people funneled into their seats and waited for the start. Dusan told me that when they show mountain biking films or skiing films, they never fill the place up, but whenever Reel Rock is in town, the people come! Cool to think about a sport that isn't as know as cycling and skiing get more attention, maybe it's the quality of the films or maybe it's the pure joy of not exactly knowing what they might see.
The show kicked off with a short introduction from Dusan and myself, but after the show, people didn't leave. They stuck around for the dyno competition that we had set up prior to the event. The climbers stretched and lined up, excited and ready to jump around on the wall, I was so impressed and happy seeing all these climbers excited about a little dyno comp in a basement of an auditorium in downtown Belgrade, Serbia.
I had 3 workshops to hold, basically, the topics were; training and coaching. The climbers wanted to structure their training to be more efficient in their climbing. There are a few coaches in Serbia, there are strong locals who have climbed 8c and some guys that coach small youth teams. There is of course, the Serbian climbing star Staša Gejo who competes internationally and is coached by her father. But, she even trains in Slovenia due to the lack of gyms and training areas around her home in Niš.
I talked to the climbers about how to structure their season to preform better over a certain period of time - Periodization training. It's simple and has great results if you stick to it. Each time I started to talk about the planning and work outs, people would start taking notes and asking questions, they want it and I wanted to give more. After 2 nights worth of workshops, I began to realize that I could only give them so much in the little time that I was there. The thought of explaining all the exercise and subtle do's and don'ts on training and movement worried me. I could only sprinkle the ideas and exercise to them like planting seeds, it was up to them to water them and see the results. But, I wasn't okay with that, I wanted to give them more, help them more, not just this once but consistently over a longer period of time. "Should I come back to Serbia and coach"? I remember asking myself that after 2 workshops, but I figured it was too soon to start that thought process, I needed more time. But it wasn't until a work shop I gave in Novi Sad ( an hour north of Belgrade) that made me really start thinking about a return coaching plan...
The workshop in Novi Sad was mostly adults and 3 or 4 kids, after my talk, the adults and I ran through some general fundamentals and climbing skills and then a power workout. The kids were tip-toeing around, wanting the same workout, wanting attention. I was excited and worked with the kids for the next 1hr, doing pull-ups, lock-offs, coordinations bumps. But the real fun started when we worked on a boulder problem I had previously set earlier in the day, just for the kids.
As I worked with the kids on movement and positioning hips the right way at just the right time, I realized I had missed coaching a lot. It's been a little more than a year since I stopped coaching full time at Metro Rock in Boston and I didn't think I was going to miss is it so quickly. The kids I coached at Metro Rock were (and still are) amazing kids. All motivated and wanting to learn, giving all their effort during practice and competition.
These Serbian kids were slowly learning the process and feel of body vs gravity while continue to position their hips, but finally, they nailed it. Once one kid stuck the move, they all knew it was possible, their eyes lit up with hope and competitiveness. They all stuck the move! The lesson was good for me too, I had to talk slow in English and use simple words to explain climbing. The kids spoke good English (much better than my Serbian) but I had to focus on my words and ideas, a great challenge and practice for any coach.
We traveled to the city of Niš a few days later for a workshop, lecture, reel rock showing and 3 days of climbing outside! I kept hearing the climbing here was the best in the country and I was excited to see, touch and climb as much as I could.
A two hour drive from Belgrade and we arrived in Niš, settled into our little climber hostel that the climbers visit each time they climb. Out next mission, was to head into the city of Niš to prepare for a meeting with the Vice Deans of the University...
At the University of Niš, Djuk and I met with some professors and Vice Dean of School (above) about my lecture I was giving to the school. We talked abut how the U.S. funds and supports their National climbing teams and our selection process for those teams.
The lecture went great later on that evening, a good amount of climbers showed up but the students that were supposed to attend had another lecture to go to. So, it was a little crowd but fun and interesting to say the least. Then, we enjoyed some food with a bunch of climbers and headed back to our climber hostels and prepared for 3 days on the cliffs!
...the actual climbing
The climbing was interesting each day we went out, the locals took me to different sectors each day, giving me a small, but proper tour through the canyons. The first day we started along the road in the H2o Cave, a med sized limestone cave, colored black with about 15 lines spread across.
I climbed with local strong boys Dabi and Igor, two guys psyched about climbing, training and sending hard outside. They were some cool guys for sure and we climbed together for the rest of the day. I flashed a classic line there called “H2o” an overhanging 7c+ with 2 boulder problems midway up. Then with some beta from Dabi, Igor and I climbed a bouldery 8a that had a cool under-cling bump section and run-out top. I was itching to check out an near by gorge that sounded like it had much more potential for more climbs. It was off to bed after the same delicious meal and nightly Rakija circle wit the crew.
The next morning we hit the canyon that I've heard about so much with Vuk, Jelena, Dabi and Igor. I couldn’t believe the cliffs and potential they continually pointed out to me as we drove along the winding road to our pull out. A short hike uphill and we were at a nice cliff with 20 bolted lines, all less than 30m. After a quick warm up and chasing the sun that vanished quicker than our cold fingers wished, Igor and I hit the line that jumped out at us. A beautiful wave like arete with a very technical, slabby start and ending. It followed the arete with the meat of the route (I say meat because it's all I’ ate in Serbia!) midway up. Igor hit it first figuring out some beta and sadly, after the crux section, pulled a rather large jug off the wall, making the sequence a bit harder and less secure. It stood as 8a+ before the break and possibly the same grade now, but a solid 8a+ at that. LESSON: After I gave it a solid flash go with slipping out of a jug at the end of the crux, I gave it a second go but completely forgot my foot beta and fell lower than my flash go. Not completely weird when it comes to climbing, it happens often and it's okay, but preventable. I memorized the foot sequences and made the crux flow two times and lowered. I often wonder if you could ever practice a sequence too much, I thought I had it figured out because I didn't fall during my flash go, but instincts can take over so subconsciously that I didn't have to really focus and think about the beta, just climb. Igor came close to the line but the crux was low-percentage and hard! Next time Igor! You got it mang!
The 3rd and final day of climbing we went back to the original canyon and this time the Niš local route equipper and professor Daniel Stanković toured me around to some hidden hard lines that were amazing and unique. I was pretty stoked to check out this one feature I saw during our first drive through the canon, something I dubbed the Fin (I forget the actual name). It was a 35meter tall fin like feature with 5 stunning lines climbing to the top of the feature. We hiked over and noticed the amount of grass growing out of the holds, "it hasn’t been climbed in a little while". I racked up with the draws and sky hook to clean out my holds, started up “Zilet” (Gillet) 7C. I figured I would take and clean holds but at the same time, I wanted to give it a good on-sight / cleaning go. I would stop and rip chunks of grass and branches out of the crimps I would then chalk up and grip. It was a fantastic route with a tricky ending sequence that I really enjoyed. It's clean again now!
A local Niš climber joined us to hang out and watch as I started to climb on the next route, a 7c+/13a with a tricky beginning and hard sequence 3/4 of the way up, that I could not figure out on my on-sight go and fell, but quickly figured it out and lowered to rest. Ana (finally) came over to climb the beautiful 6b+ line that was dirtier than the one I just climbed. Luckily, she's a bad ass and took out the bushes, dirt and possibly spiders and snakes as she climbed the line. It was close to the end of the day so I went for the send go of the beautiful “phobia” (7c+) line I had just tried. I felt comfortable and happy through the crux and I was at the chains with some cheering from the crew on the other side of the canyon. I topped out the fin and stood on top with a huge "high" off of the climb and experience. I took it in, a lot of it. All of it. I had to smack myself a little and remind myself where I was, what I just did and why I was in Serbia. I thought back to where I was ten years ago and what I was doing, I was wiring a fan, a light or gluing pipes together in a trench in Boston. I sat down and thanked God and the opportunities I've had and not take a single day for granted. Climbing changed my life, changed how I look at life. Thanks, Serbia, thank you to my new friends in this wonderful country.
To end the trip, Djuk and I talked on the drive home that night about a return trip, for a longer period of time. To return and coach a small program, help train the psyched climbers and kids and bolt some lines in the nearby, beautiful limestone cliffs. So, I’ve already added Serbia in my 2017 calendar, watch out for some more Serbian crushers in the near future!
Peace and Love!