New on Sidetracked:

Critical State

An Interview with Alex Megos
Jamie Bunchuk | Photography by M. Schaefer & Patrick Matros

It is incredibly hard to convey just how exciting the rise of Alexander Megos is for the world of climbing. The German rock-star is, after all, the first person ever to get up Fr9a onsight. For those who may be unaccustomed to climbing lingo, that’s the grade of a route on a cliff ranked so fiendishly difficult it can take the Olympians of the sport many, many years of trying just to get up it, end of. Alex climbed such a rock face on his first attempt having never even looked at, or been told about, anything that lay ahead of him. Such a climb is an unprecedented achievement, and yet only one of the many already under the 20-year-old’s belt, his accolades also including: winning two European Youth Cup championships, bouldering up to 8B+ and being responsible for one of the most difficult multi-pitch routes in the world, the twenty pitch, Fly (Fr8c), in Switzerland. He is also a rock climbing ambassador for Patagonia.

Taking a break from his training, Alex very kindly sat down with us at Sidetracked to talk a little bit more about his incredible onsight achievement, as well as his strengths, weaknesses, competitions, and the boundaries of what can possibly be achieved out on rock.

JB – Hi Alex, thank you very much for chatting with us. To start with, could I possibly ask about the early days of your climbing life. Did you climb much when you were young?

AM – For the first few years of my life I climbed very little. At I would say around five-years-old I was barely climbing more than once a week. So, yeah, that was with either my family at the weekend, outside, or else with a climbing group, training for about an hour a week. That was basically all the training I had. After that, I started participating in the local town’s climbing championships and from then on I began climbing twice a week. That’s how it continued, with the amount of time I spent climbing growing more and more over the years from there.

When did climbing pass from being a hobby to becoming something more serious for you?

I think it was quite a number of years ago – at least eight or nine – when I’d just started entering the competitions here in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany. That was the time I really began to feel that this was the sport I wanted to do above everything else.

You’ve done incredibly well with competition climbing in the past. What aspect of these events do you find so appealing?

Good question. It’s very hard to say. I think what I like most about competitions is the mental game you have to play and the fact that you have just one shot; you have to keep yourself together. You have to deal with the pressure and you have to deal with whatever comes up in terms of the route. You cannot just prepare ahead of time, or get a second go; success is solely down to how strong you are on the onsight and flash attempts.

I haven’t been doing very many comps lately – I stopped competition climbing in 2011 – but the best way I found to deal with the pressure is just to be confident. If you can tell yourself you can do it, and keep having positive thoughts, then that’s the best way to handle the stress and achieve the best you possibly can.

What I like most about competitions is the mental game you have to play, and the fact that you have just one shot; you have to keep yourself together. You have to deal with the pressure and you have to deal with whatever comes up in terms of the route.
Alex Megos – Photo by M. Schaefer & Patrick Matros

Can I ask, why did you stop competition climbing?

I always climbed outdoors at the same time as competition climbing and outdoor climbing was always more important for me. I started curtailing my comps, and getting even more into outdoor stuff when I finished school in 2012. I wanted to take a year off and just travel around to see different climbing areas. It was at that the time that I said to myself: ‘I don’t want to have any comps during the year where I have to be at a certain gym at a certain time’. I didn’t want to have any fixed dates that could get in the way of my travels. I dropped the competitions and went travelling.

Where did you go?

Quite a few places. Directly after school, I went to South Africa, to the Rocklands. After that I went for one month to Kalmynos, Greece. Then I went with a friend for four months to the USA for a long road trip. After that, a couple of smaller trips in Europe to France and Spain. Recently I’ve spent two months in Australia and just lately I have been for another month to Rocklands.

What would you say is your favourite type of climbing?

I enjoy every style of climbing but I’m best at sport climbing and I enjoy sport the most as well. I think it’s the perfect expression of the activity. Trad is too specific, you could say too dangerous. It doesn’t have enough to do with really hard climbing. With trad climbing you’re for sure pushing the limits, but you’re not climbing at your very very limit; in trad that’s impossible. Bouldering on the other hand is a lot more specific than sports climbing, which is fun, but for me personally I think it’s just too specific; too conditions dependent. To me, sports climbing is the perfect style of climbing. You can push your limits and have a big variety of movements and styles that you have to be able to climb at the same time.

What ascent are you most proud of?

Well probably my Fr9a onsight, which I did in 2013. When I did the route Estado Critico at Siurana in Spain. That was for sure one of my proudest ascents. It’s very hard to describe the feeling of reaching the top. It was the first Fr9a onsight ever. In the beginning I didn’t even realise what I’d actually done. It was only a couple of days later that I actually appreciated what had happened and what I’d achieved. It felt very surreal. I didn’t really think it was possible. The whole event is very hard to describe; I still don’t know how exactly I feel about it, even now.

To me, sports climbing is the perfect style of climbing. You can push your limits and have a big variety of movements and styles that you have to be able to climb at the same time.
Alex Megos – Photo by M. Schaefer

Would you say that we are approaching a plateau of what can be physically achieved by humans on rock?

I’m pretty sure that future progress won’t be as pronounced as, let’s say the last 10 or 15 years. But I’m sure some progress is still possible. I mean if Fr9a onsight is achievable then for sure Fr9a+ is too. However I’m not sure how far it can go after that. With climbing Fr9b+, the space for progress is reduced so much because the only way to make it harder is by the moves becoming a lot more specific. As a result, success becomes a lot more dependent on not just your fitness but on everything else, on the conditions, on your skin, etc. The harder a project gets, the more niche it gets, and the more time people will have to invest in climbing it. But I’m pretty sure we’re not at the limit just yet.

And what about your own limits; how far do you have left to go?

I’m not sure: I hope quite a way. I’m pretty confident I haven’t reached my plateau yet so I hope that in the next few years I can progress as far as I have over the last five.

What are your interests outside of rock climbing?

Well I have a lot interests, sport in general for example. I am doing quite a lot of antagonist training at the moment. I’m going for a lot runs too; they’re quite fun. I am photographing quite often; that is also a hobby for me. It’s also quite good for climbing trips. Basically every kind of sport and every kind of travelling that I do is very interesting for me. I think you have to find a balance and of course it’s very exciting be able see different countries, different cultures, different rocks. That’s for sure one of the most interesting parts of climbing.

You coaches Patrick Matros and Ludwig Korb have been very active in your development as a professional athlete. In what ways would you say they’ve helped you?

I think first of all they have helped me develop my training; specifically, training my weaknesses. For eight years now I’ve been working on my weak areas, also focusing on antagonist training. Most of the climbers I know absolutely do not do any form of antagonist training. All they do is go climbing. But my trainers showed me how important it is to build up the opposing muscles to the ones climbers normally use, to prevent injuries and to get the upper body in balance and stronger. That’s what we did. For the last two or three years my coaches have also acted as my managers. They helped with all kinds of sponsorship issues, handling the contracts and dealing with the companies. At a certain point it gets very hard if you want to make a living out of climbing and if you have to deal with all these issues by yourself it can get quite difficult indeed.

What’s your weakness?

I think – as it’s been ever since I started climbing – my weakness is still dynamic moves. But I also think it’s still possible for me to work on the mental side of my climbing too. I have never really projected something longer than five days yet. I find it really hard to keep trying to link something over and again when at the beginning I can do all the moves individually. The mental part of climbing is for sure something we’re still working on.

One last question from us; would you say your success in competitions and on rock is solely down to your training, or would you say that genetics have also played a part?

I think success is not just down to training. For sure your body type influences how your climbing develops and what kind of styles you’re good at and what you’re not. I mean I’m not one of the bulkiest climbers that’s for sure, nor am I super tall. But I am naturally very skinny, so obviously long routes and endurance climbing are going to be more my type of style. It’s also clear that dynamic moves and very compression-based stuff is not what I’m best at. Dynamic moves require a lot of explosive power and for that you need as much muscle mass as possible. This is my weakness as my body is, on a fundamental level, not set up that way. But that’s the good thing about climbing: it has so many different forms and styles that there can never be one body type that is better than all the rest.

Alex Megos is a Patagonia Ambassador. View more details here or find Alex on Facebook.
Photography: M. Schaefer ©2014 Patagonia Inc.