Untangling the ‘Slovak Direct’ Squabble — No Internet Trolls Required!

It might look like the climbing world pulsates with controversy if you’re most interested in internet comment threads.

True, accusations and plain vitriol all swirl in that uneasy boiler. And, sometimes, you can read the truth in the resulting bile and chunks when it finally blows.

You may remember when the world canceled (a categorically apologetic) Joe Kinder for inflammatory behavior. Or when just about everybody, beyond a doubt, figured out that Cesare Maestri faked the first ascent of Cerro Torre. Those were juicy moments; many found the intrigue irresistible.

And for a moment, it looked like the recently claimed first free ascent of 6,190m Denali’s Slovak Direct fit the bill.

On May 26, Richard Nemec and Michal Sabovcik topped out the Slovak Direct (2,700m, Alaska Grade 6). The Slovak pair said that they’d managed the first no-aid ascent of a route previously graded M6+, A2 by free climbing the aid section at M8.

slovak direct

Richard Nemec and Michal Sabovcik. Photo: SHS JAMES


But with a dozen previous ascents of the route on the books, the rumor mill began immediately.

The route had changed; the climbers didn’t know where they were; it just wasn’t true — look, my friend so-and-so climbed it back in 2000-so-and-so.

Before you reflexively pop open a new Chrome tab each for Reddit, 8a.nu, Mountain Project, The Crag, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Planet Mountain, Facebook, 4sport.ua, Andrew Bisharat’s website, “Climbing,” Falling, whodidwhat.com, myfrienddidthat2yearsago.com, and f*ckthoseguys.com, then bend to the internet’s eternal glow, I’ll spare you the resulting spinal kyphosis and compromised sleep.

What Nemec and Sabovcik did was a first free ascent. The discrepancy is that multiple climbers have registered first free ascents on the Slovak Direct — er, whatever the Slovak Direct actually is.

Route background

Blazej Adam, Tono Krizo, and Frantisek Korl first climbed the Slovak Direct over 11 days in 1984. Here are the basics.

The South Face of Denali soars almost 3,000m above the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. The wall houses some of the most notable alpine routes in the world, like the Cassin Ridge and the Denali Diamond, but the king line might be the Slovak Direct.

slovak direct

Topo: Anne Gilbert Chase via the American Alpine Journal


It first climbs to a long, delicate traverse, then forces its way through questionable rock and ice to a prominent bergschrund. From there, climbers surge straight up through an impressive corner system to another possible stopping point. Then they choose one of a few ways to get through a cruxy segment before taking low-angle terrain to the top.

Change is the only constant; a ‘sh*tty’ reality

Sound complicated? Well, it’s high-altitude mountaineering. Coherence challenges come with the territory. And over 40 years, an extensive, complex formation like Denali can change a lot — especially on its surface, where climbing routes exist.

The 1984 first-ascent team, for instance, took a ramp to the left at the afore-mentioned crux headwall at about three-quarter height. At the time, as Nemec later found in his extensive route research, it must have looked pretty climbable — because it was covered in snow. The team climbed the route at “UIAA IV to V+,” they wrote in the American Alpine Journal in 1985. The grade corresponds to about 5.6-5.8.

But now, the same ramp rates 5.9 X, which constitutes a dicey proposition high in the mountains. Nemec, climbing to the feature almost 40 years after the FA, called it “shitty.” Snow had melted substantially; the dearth rendered it impassible or an idiot’s errand.

Instead, a couple of steep, sustained mixed pitches on fractured stone dead ahead — which might have been buried under rime or verglas in 1984 — looked like a surer bet.

So the Slovaks took it. And thanks to their preparation and their abilities at the time, they climbed it free at M8. The option they chose was previously rated M6+, A2.

This just in: multiple truths are a thing

A Spanish team had nearly freed the pitch in 2019, but the difficulties forced the leader to aid some moves. The follower successfully free-climbed the section on top rope.

Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell, and Alan Rousseau notched another near-miss just days before Nemec and Sabovcik this year. Leading up the crux section in terrain never previously freed, Cornell fell a few metres before the belay, then aided up for efficiency.

In another tricky, not-so-tricky anecdote, Helias Millerioux and Remi Sfilio freed the Slovak Direct in 2013. But to do it, they chose yet a different option at the crux headwall. Millerioux said they climbed the snowfield to the wall on an unusually warm day, scanned it, and thought, “Why not climb that 5.10 crack to the right?”

Freed of heavy mountaineering boots and gloves, they raced up the pitch via straightforward crack climbing. Skip to about 11 minutes into the video to watch Sfilio lead the pitch.

So let it be known: the first free ascents of the Slovak Direct include:

  • Richard Nemec and Michal Sabovcik at WI6, M8 in 2022
  • Helias Millerioux and Remi Sfilio at WI6, 5.10 in 2013

‘Not fighting against the whole world’

And before any tussles churn up over that, it’s worth noting that there’s no use baiting one team against the other — because neither of them cares about the distinction enough to lose sleep over it.

“When we freed the route, we looked at our choices and decided that the crack gave us the best chance [to succeed],” Millerioux said. “I don’t want to say that I don’t care [about the conflict], but also, maybe somebody even freed it before we did. It’s a complicated route, so I don’t know! Really, I don’t care about freeing something or not.

“Alpinism is more about the experience. [The South Face of Denali] is huge. It’s enough to do it without worries about the grade or free climbing.”

For his part, Nemec said, “The first ascent was a free climb [of the ramp]. But conditions are always changing, and now the ramp is really worse to climb because there’s much less snow.

“I think it’s [the] evolution of the route,” he continued. “About this section, I tried really to study because I don’t want to mess up with myself or insult anyone else. From the topos I saw, everyone chose their own variation, their own line a bit different. There is no one exact line that anyone copied.

“I’m not fighting against the whole world. I don’t need to be famous — I just wanted to let the community know that we climbed everything free, on the lead.”

So, case closed? I guess it depends on whether you want to argue about the definitive, end-all-be-all route of the Slovak Direct.

If you do, cool, go ahead — just be aware that your crux pitch might melt off the wall before next season. And even if it’s still there, nobody may ever climb it again.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.