TEAMgirlcrushrock Athlete Bio: Jitka Kochanek

© Lara Masselos

Tell us what climbing means to you?

As I write this section I am on a massive climbing high from getting on the hardest route I’ve ever tried two days ago (a particularly hard, bouldery, overhanging, beautiful 7b/+) so my feelings below are a summary of this experience.

Climbing is many things to me. It is about the challenge, overcoming hard moves by working out a sequence that works for my short body. It is about the days when I am ‘in the zone’ and move freely and gracefully over the rock. It is about getting strong, feeling strong and encouraging other girls around me to realize their own full potential. It is about the adventure, overcoming fear and sharing a truly unique experience with awesome, interesting people in many beautiful locations. My heroes in climbing are usually women – Lynn Hill, of course, since she is the same height as me but was the first woman to climb 8b and 8b+, and freed The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite. My local heroes are the strong women who climb hard but are humble and always willing to give beta, advice and encouragement (Vicky Moses, Lara Masselos, Lindsay Raynor, Izzie, Nova, Susy-G).

Do you clip bolts, plug cams, stack pads, or crush ice?

I clip bolts and love it! As training I also boulder, top-rope and indoor climb. For cross-training I run. If I am climbing well and feeling good my favourite style of climbing is on-sighting; I have on-sighted grade 6c+ on lead, 7a+ on top-rope and have flashed V4 bouldering. However, I also get a massive buzz from red-pointing routes that are at my limit. Both styles require very different skills and are equally rewarding and mind-blowing. The focus and control required to send is exhilarating! Lately I have focused on working my weaknesses, which is always a humbling experience but all the more rewarding to conquer.

How’s the climbing and climbing scene in your local area?

The climbing scene in South-east Queensland is vibrant, energetic and getting more so by the day. New climbing crags are being discovered, many new and exciting sport routes are appearing on a weekly basis. The best thing is the variety in climbing styles. While no crags around Brisbane are massive or ‘world-class’ on their own, we have at least 10 awesome areas within a 2 hour drive and each has its own unique style and feel. There is everything from technical face climbing at Kangaroo Point (in the middle of city!) to steep overhanging roof climbing at Coolum Cave on the Sunshine Coast – plus every style in between. I feel particularly lucky to be invited to climb at these new climbing areas as the sense of adventure is intense….hard new lines, at times with loose rock. Exciting stuff! Having said that, I only lead climbs where I am certain ‘hitting the deck’ or a ledge is out of the question.

Where is your favorite place to climb in the world and why?

If I could drag one Australian crag to Brisbane, it would be Nowra (in central NSW) as I love the technical, powerful climbing style. The rock is beautiful! My favourite international destination has so far been Tonsai in Thailand as I found the climbing extremely challenging and rewarding, the atmosphere very friendly and relaxed and the food amazing. Even 6bs at Tonsai are a challenge and I loved having a go at on-sighting as many routes as I could. This is definitely a place that would make one strong and powerful! It was also humbling to be spanked by certain climbs that were ‘not my style’ – all part of the eternal learning experience that is climbing.

Who do you usually climb with?

My most dedicated climbing partner is my husband Mark, the person who taught me almost everything I know. We met at a climbing crag, got married at a pub below a climbing crag, we eat, drink, talk and breath climbing – I am very lucky to have him (we are each other’s biggest fans). Mark is a very strong and powerful climber as he was a national champion powerlifter before converting to rockclimbing – hence our styles can be very different.  But we certainly share our passion for climbing – all our holidays and spare time revolve around climbing.

I love climbing with anyone who has a lot of fun (i.e. does not take themselves too seriously) but takes their climbing seriously (i.e. climbs at their full potential). There are a number of strong male friends who I love to sport climb with because they teach me how to control my fear, show me what is possible (if I get stronger) and have a massive amount of experience to pass my way. I love climbing with my female friends because they are strong and inspiring, great for a laugh and there is always a real atmosphere of encouragement and fun. The only climbers I do not enjoy being with are those that are competitive – I perform poorly if I feel an undercurrent of competitiveness. My climbing journey is very much my own and I don’t think competitiveness should be part of our sport.

What goes through your mind whilst you are on the rock?

When I am climbing well and am ‘in the zone’ I focus on three things: controlling my breathing (i.e. slowing it down), precisely placing my hands and feet and milking every rest for all it’s worth (shaking out, breathing etc). When I get this formula right, a climb that previously spanked me can suddenly feel easy. Is there any better feeling in the world?

Unfortunately I have a very demanding job at times (I work as a research academic at a university) and when I am mentally fatigued I find leading almost impossible. There doesn’t seem to be enough juice left to work hard and be stressed all day and then climb hard in my time off. At times like this I find it impossible to focus, I get unreasonably frightened and I often have to resort to top-roping. If anyone has any pointers to overcome this, I’d love to know!

Talk us through your most memorable ‘send’? We want all the beta!

As I said to a friend recently, sending anything that is a 7a or harder is like winning the lottery – the feeling is always one of extreme happiness, satisfaction and accomplishment. I train hard so sending is a way of saying ‘yes, it is all worthwhile’.

The hardest climb I have sent is a 7b (on my 5th attempt) and is also the climb on which I learnt the most about red-pointing at my limit. My first attempt on my ‘send day’ resulted in a fairly nasty fall, cutting both legs on a sharp piece of rock. Ironically, it occurred because I fell off in an uncontrolled manner after I got through the crux on my first shot; I was so surprised that I lost focus.  The next shot I tried it on top-rope to settle my shaky nerves and got it clean. Then I tied in on the sharp end and sent it quickly and efficiently. The climb starts out with a burly, bouldery, core-intensive series of moves, but there is an awesome rest where I can jam my head below a small roof and shake out almost hands-free. I used this break to control my breathing, shake out my arms and to visualize the sequence all the way to the anchors. It all came together and I climbed the entire climb pretty much perfectly. The main ingredient seems to be that I visualized the entire climb in my head the night before. Hence I got the crux on my first go on the send-day. Lynn Hill is a big advocate for visualization and I would highly recommend it as it has worked many times for me since then also.

© Lara Masselos

What was your most scary climbing experience?

By far my scariest experience was on Kalymnos Island in Greece in the Sikati Cave sector in June 2010. I had yet to send my first 7a on lead, but after this experience managed to send my first 7a+ two days later, and a 7a two days after that! Nothing was as scary as a little climb called ‘Lolita’!

As soon as I walked inside the cave I had my eye on a steeply overhanging 7a called ‘Lolita’ tucked away in the back of the cave. The guidebook told us that the climb had been put up by ‘Team Petzl’ on a recent expedition and that it was an access route for a hard climb above (8a). I should have been warned by this, but the rock looked immaculate, the climbing looked reasonably straightforward so I thought I’d give it a shot. While eyeing up the route, I did notice that there were only 4 bolts visible. I remember thinking to myself “Surely there must be more than 4 bolts in 25 meters of hard sport climbing on a steep overhang littered with tufas?” You would think that, but it turns out that there were not! All would have been fine had I been a little bit taller than 5 feet. Unfortunately I found myself with a 7 meter run-out with the last bolt so low I couldn’t even see it (!), hanging above a gaping abyss by one arm, with no feet and unable to reach the stupidly far away bolt that was just out of my reach. At the same time two good friends were filming the entire episode, waiting to capture the ‘whip of a lifetime’. On the video I am actually begging god to spare my life! As it turns out, I threw the quickdraw at the bolt, it latched (a miracle from heaven?), I grabbed the draw and clipped just as I was about to pump out and plummet (to my doom?). Very dramatic! The rest of the climb was spine-chilling but I could reach the bolts so there were no further dramas. There are three morals to this story: 1. If you can only see 4 bolts in 25 meters, it is very likely that THERE ARE ONLY 4 BOLTS IN 25 METERS; 2. Scaring yourself silly on a run-out climb makes well bolted climbs, even if technically harder, feel really, really safe and relatively easy; 3. If you are only 5 feet tall, make yourself a ‘long-arm’* and never leave home without it, particularly if heading into unknown sport route territory.

*A ‘long-arm’ is a long quickdraw with a stiff dog-bone that allows you to clip a bolt from a long way away. Once you are at your bolt, you put in a normal quickdraw and detach your long-arm, replacing it on your gear loops, to be reused at other unreasonably far-away bolt placements. It allows short climbers to clip from the intended clipping hand hold if the bolt/fixed hanger is out of reach.

Read about Sikati cave here

When you are not climbing, what are you doing?

I live in a small cottage with my lovely husband Mark near the center of Brisbane city. I love hanging out with my mum (another great inspiration), gardening and occasionally surfing with Mark when the beach beckons (less and less often these days since we are always on a rock somewhere). We have two pet ducks and a pet chicken – I am a keen poultry enthusiast.

As mentioned earlier, I work as a research academic at a university in Brisbane as a plant stress physiologist; understanding how and why plants respond the way they to do their surrounding environment.  I run a research project which is looking at how plants respond to materials made from recycled organic waste from our cities. The aim is to reuse organic waste for horticulture rather than having it release methane and other greenhouse gases in landfill. It is a demanding but rewarding job – I feel that I am making a contribution to humanity in my own little way. This is very important to me.

What are your climbing goals?

Just the other day I re-read Lynn Hill’s autobiography (for the third time) and was again super-inspired by her approach to climbing. She tells of ticking the hardest ‘Changing Corners’ pitch (an 8b+!) on The Nose by climbing gently and softly – with a “soft face”. To date my climbing style has been rather aggressive and my nick-name is (embarrassingly?) ‘Aggressive Pixie’ because I tend to throw myself at climbs like I am waging a war with the rock. So my aim is to be more like Lynn Hill and climb more softly. Also, being of Eastern-European descent, I tend to get really angry with myself if think that I am climbing poorly. Hence my other goal is to be more relaxed and treat climbing like a personal life journey – accepting that this journey will inevitably have good and bad moments. By being more zen I think that I will have a better chance of encouraging other women to climb hard and have a great time doing it. Otherwise, I would really, really like to send a 7b+….for this I might still need to release the ‘Aggressive Pixie’ every so often

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