The strangest training site for the Tokyo Olympics: Europe’s tallest chimney

TOKYO— Janja Garnbret, a Slovenian climber who has won just about everything there is to win in the sport, prepared like most other athletes for the Tokyo Games: she trained for five hours , six days a week, did yoga and even started learning Japanese.

She also climbed the tallest chimney in Europe.

Garnbret, one of the favorites here as rock climbing makes its debut as an Olympic sport, has six world championship titles under her harness belt. In 2019, she became the first female or male climber to win all six bouldering competitions, where athletes climb as many fixed routes as possible, during a World Cup season.

In Tokyo, she led the qualifying round ahead of Friday’s final. She was the only athlete to overcome all four blocks and, more remarkably, she did so in just one attempt each.

“There’s a saying in Slovenian that translates directly to ‘I’m going on a knife,'” Garnbret said. “That pretty much sums up my attitude to training. I go to the limit every time.

Prior to the Games, this boundary took the form of the chimney of Termoelektrarna Trbovlje, an unused power station in Slovenia. Soaring 1,181 feet into the sky, it often breaks through low clouds.

Janja Garnbret from Slovenia during the Women’s Sport Climbing Combined.


Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Experts from the International Sport Climbing Federation drilled some 5,000 holes and set two tonnes of holds in what has become the highest artificial climbing route in the world. The route was designed specifically for Garnbret’s attempt and has since been dismantled.

With only half the chimney visible in the fog on an October morning, Garnbret looked up.

” I’m a little scared. I don’t know,” Garnbret told her boyfriend, mountaineer Domen Skofic, as they prepared to climb the chimney together. Then they started their ascent.

Garnbret only stopped to eat energy bars. She also fell a few times, caught by her ropes.

At one point, with some 266 feet remaining, Garnbret wondered, “Can we do this?”

After 11 hours and 30 minutes they did. As if that weren’t enough, she returned four days later, and this time completed the course in just over 7 hours and 30 minutes – without a single fall.

“Hanging the harness for 11 hours straight was tough, but overall it was definitely the coolest project I’ve ever done,” she said.

Also the most painful: “My feet hurt, my muscles were sore, I had never been so tired in my life,” she said after coming down from the fireplace.

Fortunately, sport climbing at the Olympics does not feature such heights. The vertical walls are up to 50 feet high and athletes use a range of hand and foot holds of different shapes and sizes to scale them.

Climbing includes three disciplines in Tokyo: bouldering, lead, where they climb as high as they can, and speed, a vertical sprint.

The combination of these three different climbing styles — and the only men’s and women’s medal set offered — didn’t sit well with many climbers, including Garnbret. Some athletes say the inclusion of sprint, a more specialized discipline, could blur the run and cost them medals.

“I definitely prefer bouldering and advancing to speed, and would have preferred to have separate competitions for all disciplines,” Garnbret said. “But the call was made and it makes no sense to keep complaining about it.”

“The Olympics are the biggest sporting event in the world, and a lot of people will have their eyes set on climbing for the first time, which I think is great,” she said.

Janja Garnbret competes in the speed qualifying portion of the women’s sport climbing competition.


Tsuyoshi Ueda/Associated Press

Garnbret got her start in rock climbing in more diverse settings: as a child, she climbed trees, closets and doors. She also tried dance competitions but said she didn’t feel on stage.

“When I first climbed, I felt weightless,” she said. “It was love at first sight.”

Since then, she has won the sport’s highest competition and, outdoors, she has covered very difficult routes through the European mountains.

To train, she would first travel to neighboring Austria, which has better facilities. More recently, Skofic, her boyfriend, built the “Climbing Ranch” at their house: a huge climbing hall with walls, boulder problems and fast climbing routes.

In Tokyo, she was one of the stars to watch, and even her competitors say they can’t wait to see her in the final.

“Of course you have Janja Garnbret, everyone wants to see Janja climb,” said British mountaineer Shauna Coxsey.

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Write to Georgi Kantchev at [email protected]

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