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May 18, 2015 | 0 Comments
Rebellion against communist authorities turns into high-soaring hobby
By Devan Schulte
Chimney Climbers, an organization established about 34 years ago in Prague, that now boasts over 1,000 members. Photos courtesy Martin Vystejn.
On the top of Slovenia’s highest chimney, Martin Vystejn may look like a speck. The Trbovlje smokestack stands at 360 meters (1,182 feet) yet, Vystejn said that for him, the climb to its top is “quite basic.”
The stocky, 53-year-old Prague native is the president and chairman of the Czech Union of Chimney Climbers, an organization established in Prague almost 34 years ago that now boasts over 1,000 members. As the only one of its kind in Europe, the organization attracts individuals looking for a hobby that combines thrills and exceptional views.
Members ascend the steel steps on the outside of chimneys across the Czech Republic “because it is just more interesting than bouldering or mountain climbing,” Vystejn said. After one climb at the age of 19-years-old, he developed a passion for exploring, climbing and seeing the world from an unlikely viewpoint. Despite misconceptions about the activity, a dedicated handful of Czechs have followed his lead.
“It’s no problem. Be careful and pay attention,” Vystejn said to me on a recent climb 40 km outside of Prague at an abandoned shipyard factory, the home of a 50 m (164 ft) brick chimney. With only windproof pants and a camera strapped to his neck, Vystejn clutched the first steel rung step and launched his body upwards, beginning to quickly climb the structure without a piece of safety equipment.
The Czech Republic is ideal for scaling factory chimneys and cooling towers — the country hosts a variety of abandoned factories and industrial plants. The large number of sites has provided the group with thousands of meters to climb since the end of the Communist era, and Vystejn has climbed approximately 96,000 meters (315,000 ft) in the last three decades.
The union began unofficially in 1981 when Vystejn and three other teenage boys climbed the chimney tower near their homes in Prague.
“We could see the chimney from my friend’s window and thought it looked interesting,” Vystejn said as their original motivation. A single climb quickly turned into frequent outings as a form of rebellion against the communist authorities and their endless restrictions on personal freedom. “We climbed one, and then another, and so on.”
During one of the boys’ first climbs, they were spotted climbing and were threatened with expulsion from school if they were caught again. Today, however, the Czech Republic is one of the only countries where climbers believe they can participate in the hobby without major hassle.
“In terms of statistics, it is safer than many other activities. For example, a visit to the castle or walking up stairs.”
Two years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution that saw the end of the Communist regime and the advent of democracy, Vystejn and his friends applied sought to transform their hobby into a formal association. Ironically, the once feared Ministry of the Interior, which oversaw previous totalitarian police state, approved the climbers’ association request and provided them with documents, which Vystejn now has on hand at every climb.
Martin Vonka, a 36-year-old chimney climber, civil engineer and professor at the Czech Technical Institute in Prague, said that people assume climbing is dangerous because it is unfamiliar and looks unusual.
“In terms of statistics, it is safer than many other activities. For example, a visit to the castle or walking up stairs,” Vonka said.
Vystejn also recognizes that outsiders may criticize the men and women scaling bricks for fun. “Most people think it is dangerous, but most chimneys are in good condition so it is no problem,” he said.
To ensure safety, “go one step, then two steps, then three steps,” said Vladimir Jiricka, a 14-year veteran to climbing who has recorded approximately 80,000 meters. Jiricka referred to himself as 58-years-old physically, but 20-years-old mentally.
At either age, Jiricka would still be allowed to join the union. According to official rules, climbers must be over 18-years-old, climb at least ten chimneys on ten different days in a single year, always have a partner and can only climb the same chimney three times a year for the meters to officially count.
Currently, there are 10,004 chimneys in the organization’s database totaling 370 miles climbed by members. Brick chimneys are most commonly found in the Czech Republic, though those made of steel and concrete still attract climbers’ attention.
It is in recent years that the association has struggled to find new, unexplored chimneys which has inspired journeys outside of Prague and across borders to Slovenia, Poland and Germany.
Michal Fabik, a 29-year-old Brno native, joined the group in 2007 and has participated on 383 climbs on 234 unique chimneys, totaling 18,022 meters. His climbs have ranged from 200-meter factory chimneys to smaller cooling towers, which also count as chimneys, throughout the Czech Republic.
“My brother and his girlfriend would give me monthly lectures on how dangerous it was.”
“Most don’t even know we exist. Those who do think we’re nut jobs or adrenaline seekers,” Fabik said. His girlfriend pleaded for him to stop climbing for the fear that he would die.
Vystejn responds to any doubts of danger the same way. “It is best if he or she tries it,” he said on multiple occasions, noting that only one severe injury has occurred in the union’s 34 years. When probed further he vaguely explains that one man died after falling from several feet, but no one was liable because doctors said he died before hitting the ground.
Working in international transport by day and leading chimney-climbing expeditions at night, Vystejn foresees a long future for the organization. “Chimney climbing. Every man has another idea about it,” he said.
Lillie Langlois, a 34-year-old American citizen living with family in Brno, climbed between two and four times a week for several months as a union member, despite criticism from her family. She said, “My brother and his girlfriend would give me monthly lectures on how dangerous it was. They were quite angry with me.”
Vystejn recalls the most frequent problems during outings as minor encounters with authorities. On a recent climb to a 40-meter (131 ft.) chimney at a sugar factory in Hospozin, approximately 50 km outside Prague, Vystejn laughed off a curious neighbor inquiring about our permission to climb the factory chimney, revealing his familiarity with the encounters.
“Some people are friends. Some people are not,” Jiricka said.
Most current members share similar experiences in confrontations with police and security guards. Forced to show documentation and prove their legality, the climbers often escape serious conflict after explaining their activity as pure entertainment.
“Sometimes, they might even join you or call a local TV station to cover it,” Fabik said.
By following rules and procedure, the Czech Union of Chimney Climbers has collectively climbed almost every day since May 2005. To log the meters climbed for the association’s official records, climbers must touch the top of the chimney.
The ages of members span from 18 to 77, which results in a wide range of physical abilities. The demanding physical requirements, however, seem to attract a larger proportion of men than women to the hobby.
“Brave, American girl,” Vystejn said after my first climb alongside him. With a smile and handshake, he invited me to join them on another chimney climb in Prague: an activity that would never exist in America, according to multiple members.
Langlois, the American, said she found it hard to imagine such a hobby in her native land. Through an email, she said that in the Czech Republic, “there’s no chance of a lawsuit, there’s no problem. But the States is so lawsuit savvy that it would never be allowed for so many reasons.”
Devan Schulte is in the Bucknell University Class of 2016. Her hometown is Wycoff, New Jersey.