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The Freedom of the Rock Face

IFSC Climbing World Championships

The Freedom of the Rock Face

Interview with Innsbruck climber Jakob Schubert

Text: Simon Leitner, Picture: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut

Climbing star Jakob Schubert sat down for an interview with to talk about what makes rock climbing so special, the difference between indoor and outdoor climbing and, last but not least, his ambitions for the up-coming IFSC Climbing World Championships in Innsbruck.

How did you get into rock climbing? Jakob Schubert: I guess I started off climbing indoors and then progressed to climbing outdoors. Just before I turned 12 years old I started going climbing regularly at my local indoor climbing centre in Innsbruck. After a while the coaches Reini Scherer and Rupert Messner asked me if I fancied training with the Innsbruck Climbing Team. I ended up saying yes and suddenly I was part of the team myself. Our trainers always emphasised how important it is to not only climb indoors but also outdoors, on real rock faces. That’s why we always get together each summer for a little outdoor training camp in Arco alongside the competitions and other training sessions we do indoors. So, right from when I started climbing I have always also out and about on rock faces outdoors. Both indoor climbing and outdoor climbing have always been important to me.

So there was no specific point in time when you decided to focus your attention more on outdoor climbing? No, it was always kind of there in the background. I did regular trips to climb outdoors or just went out climbing here in Tirol, for example in the Zillertal Valley. As you progress you try more difficult routes and want to improve your level – especially if you are an ambitious young guy like I was back then. If you want to be the best in competitions then you have to also be successful at climbing outdoors.

Where do you see the biggest differences between indoor climbing on an artificial wall and outdoor climbing in nature? Indoors I focus mainly on training. It’s not about looking for the hardest or best route. The main aim is simply to get better for competitions. Out on the rock it is more about fun. If I don’t like a certain route than I don’t climb it and will instead look for another one which I prefer.

"Climbing outdoors gives you more freedom." Jakob Schubert

And what about technique? Climbing outdoors gives you more freedom. When climbing indoors you have a limited number of handholds and footholds to choose from, so to get to the top you have to take a certain route. Difficult routes in particular often have to be climbed a certain way – the holds kind of force you to do it like that. Outdoors on natural rock there are generally several different ways to get to the top – you can choose for yourself which one you want to take. Limestone has so much structure that there is a foothold for almost every size – albeit not always of the same quality.

Is it right to say that climbing outdoors requires more creativity than climbing indoors? I would say so, yes. Of course it always depends on the individual route, but outdoors you can generally use your creativity and technique better than indoors. However, in order to do that you must first learn how to read the rock.

Do you find it easy to switch between outdoor and indoor climbing? Yes, it’s not really a problem for me. If you spend a lot of time climbing outdoors then you get used to switching between the two. The best thing is that climbing indoors can benefit your climbing outdoors. For example, if you are training hard for a competition then your fitness naturally improves. When you are really fit then climbing outdoors is even more fun. That’s why every year when the competition season is over I spend three weeks climbing outdoors in Spain. After training so much for the World Cup I am in top shape and can try some of the really hard routes outdoors.

What about the other way round? Does climbing outdoors also bring benefits for climbing indoors? You can also train well outdoors for indoor climbing on an artificial wall. It depends what you need. If you want to train stamina then it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of time climbing outdoors on short boulder problems. However, boulder problems like that are good for working on your short, explosive power. Indoors there are almost never handholds which are as bad as the ones you find on the rocks outdoors. Climbing outdoors also gives you an extra motivation boost to take on really hard routes and keep trying again and again. If you read in the media that another climber has climbed a certain route which you haven’t been able to then it spurs to you on keep trying until you have done it as well. On the other hand, if there is a certain boulder problem indoors and after half an hour of trying you still haven’t managed to climb it, you say to yourself “Okay, it’s impossible. I’ll move on to the next one.”

Jakob Schubert climbing at the Schleierwasserfall.

That means outdoors you can train certain things which you can’t really train for indoors? Definitely. Outdoor climbing is an important part of my training. If you want to be successful in competition then it certainly helps if you climb a lot – or at least climb regularly – outdoors. There are just things which you can’t practise and learn as well indoors. By being forced to be more creative you also develop a wider range of movements – and that, in turn, can be useful on artificial walls indoors.

Nevertheless, you wouldn’t say that it’s essential for competitive climbers to practise outdoors? Not essential, no. But most competition climbers do it because they just enjoy the feeling. At the same time there are lots of outstanding climbers who climb very little outdoors.

Can there be disadvantages to climbing outdoors too much? No, not really. Of course, if you are preparing for a competition and want to reach peak fitness for climbing indoors then you have to practise a lot indoors. There’s no getting around it. But I personally don’t mind that. I love climbing outdoors, but I have just as much fun climbing indoors – especially since the new climbing centre in Innsbruck opened.

As a member of the national climbing team, do you have to stick to certain training plans? Are there any restrictions or rules when it comes to training outdoors? No, I can decide for myself. Of course there are training camps and courses where I have to be and competitions I have to take part in, but apart from that I talk with my coaches about my training plan. They don’t mind if I spend a few days climbing outdoors. On the contrary, most coaches find it a good thing.

“When I’m on the rock outdoors it’s not just about the climbing.” Jakob Schubert

What makes climbing outdoors so special? When I’m on the rock outdoors it’s not just about the climbing. Sure, that’s the main reason why I am there and it’s great fun, but at the end of the day it’s about the overall experience, the people I’m with, the natural surroundings, etc. Normally I go away for a few days with friends. You get to discover new climbing areas, new countries. The rock faces are also often in fascinating places. The climbing area at the Schleierwasserfall waterfall, for example, is a really beautiful place where you can spend a great day.

What do you like so much about the Schleierwasserfall climbing area? On the one hand the beautiful nature – the waterfall is really impressive. On the other hand there are lots of really tough routes there. Whatever your level of climbing, you will find a route for you. Almost all of the routes here are very long and go all the way up to the top. The quality of the rock itself is very good and there are lots of different kinds of rock surfaces as well. I recently went back there for the first time in ages and instantly remembered how cool it is. I am sure I’ll be back more often in the future. The only thing that’s tough sometimes is that you have to walk 45 minutes to get there. (laughs)

The Schleierwasserfall waterfall is home to one of the Great Lines. What is it that makes a climbing route really special for you? It depends. The rock has to be good quality and solid. I also like routes which are 100% natural and where the handholds aren’t sharp. Apart from that it’s mostly about the movements – if a route has some really cool moves in it then that’s when climbing is the most fun.

Do you still enjoy climbing relatively easy routes? Definitely. Easy routes can also be fun and exciting, albeit in a different way. There are some really beautiful routes, regardless of their difficulty, where I love climbing and can always discover something new – for example, new handholds you haven’t seen before. It’s always fascinating to see the shape of the rock. That is something you can enjoy more if the climbing isn’t too hard. Easy climbs are also a good way for me to relax and clear my head. At the same time, the best feeling for me is when I push myself to the limit and make really good moves. You often climb hard routes so often that you know every move by heart and get into a kind of flow which is very special.

Do you have any favourite climbing routes in Tirol? My favourite route is at the Elefantenwand area in the Ötztal Valley. There is one route there which was shown to me by Heiko Wilhelm, one of the staff with the national team, and I became the first person to climb it. It’s called “Kein Licht, kein Schatten” (“No Light, No Shade”). More generally there are lots of great climbing areas in the valleys of Tirol. I particularly like climbing in the Ötztal and Zillertal Valleys. And, as I said, I fell in love again with the Schleierwasserfall when I went back recently.

Let’s talk briefly about the IFSC Climbing World Championships. How are you preparing for the event? Before the World Championships there were several World Cup events which I was training hard for anyway. I wanted to be in great shape for those World Cup events and go into the World Championships full of confidence. The World Cup competitions were also a good testing ground to identify any areas where I maybe still needed to do some work.

You are one of the hot favourites for the Lead discipline. What are your personal goals for the World Championships? I will be competing in all three disciplines and will do my best to be up at the top of the standings in the Boulder and Combined disciplines as well. Of course, my main focus is on Lead. I want to win the title. It’s going to be hard, but I am confident that I will be up there fighting for the win. When it comes to the Combined discipline I want to reach the final and be in with the chance of a medal, but ultimately that will depend on how things go in the Lead event.

Jakob Schubert is one of the favourites at the IFSC Climbing World Championships in Innsbruck. Expectations are high, especially in his specialist discipline Lead.

Being from Innsbruck, these are your home World Championships. Does that make the competition even more special? Of course it’s special – in many different ways. It’s a great motivation for me to know that my friends and all my family are in the crowd watching me. The qualification rounds will take place in the climbing centre where I normally train. And it is cool that I can live at home during such an important event. That is definitely an advantage. On the other hand, climbing in front of a home crowd also means more pressure.

Does that mean you are training differently than usual? No, nothing has changed about my training. Wherever the World Championships take place, I will always try to prepare as well as possible and do everything I can to be successful.

Do you have any plans for after the World Championships? After the World Championships there are still three World Cup events. I hope that I will be up there battling it out for the overall title. When the season is over I will think about what I want to do in winter. The chances are that I will do a few trips to places where I can climb outdoors.

Rock climbing will be part of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The decision to include climbing in the Olympics has split the climbing world. What is your opinion? Basically I am very happy that we will have the chance to take part in the Olympics and to present out sport to the world. Personally I am really motivated and will work as hard as possible to compete in the Games and maybe even win a medal. The reason why many climbers have been critical is because only the Combined event has been included in the Olympics. That is unusual because normally in climbing competitions the individual disciplines are the most important ones. I hope that these individual disciplines will also be part of the Olympics one day in the future. After all, they are what climbing is really about.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.


Jakob Schubert (born 31 December 1990 in Innsbruck) has for many years been one of the best and most consistent climbers in the Lead discipline, despite the fact that he started climbing relatively late at the age of 12. He took part in his first competition in 2004 and, just one year later, was runner up at the Under 16 World Championships in Beijing.

Competition successes
World Champion in Lead: 2012
World Cup overall winner in Lead: 2011, 2014
Austrian National Champion: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018
In 2011 he won seven World Cup events in a row, a record which still stands today.

Biggest successes in outdoor climbing
La Planta de Shiva (9b), Spain, second person to climb the route (January 2016)
Fight or Flight (9b), Spain (January 2015)
Stoking the Fire (9b), third person to climb the route, Spain (January 2018)
Kangaroo Limb (9a+), Norway, second person to climb the route (May 2016)
Thor’s Hammer (9a+), Norway (August 2015)
Hades (9a), Austria (Mai 2010)
Boulder Bügeleisen Sit fb8c, Austria, second person to climb the route (April 2015)

Schleierwasserfall climbing area

The Schleierwasserfall climbing area is located in the Wilder Kaiser Mountains and is one of the largest climbing areas in Tirol. It is home to more than 200 routes graded between 5 and 9, including some of the hardest in Europe. This is one of the reasons why the area, which is characterised by beautiful natural surroundings and outstanding rock quality, is particularly popular with extreme climbers. The route “Number One direkt" in the Schleierwasserfall climbing area is among the Great Lines. 

Great Lines
An expert panel of five judges has selected five special climbing routes in Tirol with the aim of underlining the region’s outstanding rock climbing terrain. These Great Lines have been chosen based on criteria including location, rock quality and fun factor.

Number One direkt (7b+)

Number One direkt is rated 7b+ and can be found in the Graue Wand sector of the climbing area. The limestone there is very compact and among the best of its kind in Tirol. The route itself has a logical structure and demands maximum strength, stamina and good foot technique.

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