Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Kilian Fischhuber: Free-climbing star searching for ultimate high

By Francesca Church and Matthew Knight, CNN
updated 7:08 AM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
'Rock' star climber
  • World-beating competition climber Kilian Fischhuber talks to CNN's Human to Hero series
  • Austrian is a five-time Bouldering World Cup winner and reigning European champ
  • Boulderers are incredibly athletic and strong and climb with no ropes
  • Fischhuber one of few climbers to scale the famously difficult Action Directe sport climb

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- You could say that Kilian Fischhuber is on top of his game.

For almost a decade, the 30-year-old has scaled the peaks of competitive free-climbing, becoming one of the most successful boulderers the sport has ever known with five overall World Cup titles to his name.

Bouldering -- the sport of climbing small rocks or boulders without ropes or harnesses -- combines athletic agility with incredible strength, which are two qualities the Austrian has in abundance.

"As a professional you need to be really focused and train really hard," Fischhuber told CNN's Human to Hero series. "I think the thing that makes my climbing unique is that I'm really diverse.

"I'm really strong in different areas of climbing whether it's steep or flat, or long or short climbs. I'm a very powerful and dynamic climber, so this helps me to combine all the skills of the different areas of climbing."

Born in Waidhofen an der Ybbs, Fischhuber began climbing at the age of 11, honing his skills on indoor walls before moving outside to climb on rocks.

He turned pro by the time he'd reached his late teens, and in 2005 he clinched his first World Cup title aged just 22.

Once upon a time, bouldering was used solely for practice by climbers preparing for bigger climbs, but the rise in popularity of indoor climbing centers in recent decades has seen it morph into a sport.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) has three disciplines: Lead, Boulder and Speed.

Lead climbing allows rope-tied competitors eight minutes to climb an overhanging route with the person climbing highest winning.

Boulder competitors attempt to climb a four-meter high wall in a maximum of 10 movements.

Speed climbing pits two rope-tied climbers on parallel 15-meter walls. The fastest to the top wins!

In 1998, it officially became a new climbing discipline, and the following year the International Federation of Sport Climbing held the first World Cup.

This year, the competition was contested over eight meetings held around the globe, with competitors battling it out on a variety of artificial climbing walls with crash mats below. The winner is the climber who can conquer the most boulders in the fewest attempts.

"In competing, it's a lot about knowing what other people did and knowing you have to better them ... and that makes it really difficult," Fischhuber says.

"It's both mental and physical, but it depends on the situation. It can be very mental and not physical at all, but usually it's a combination."

Read: What next for man who fell to earth?

Fischhuber has successfully mastered both over the last decade, recording a top-three finish in nine of the last 10 years. And while he didn't win the overall title this year, he made up for it by chalking up his first win at the European Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands in September.

"Next season, I'm going to try to win the World Championships, which I haven't achieved yet ... that's one of my goals. And besides that, I want to climb hard stuff ... to push my limits," he says.

Away from the competition walls, Fischhuber has already completed some of the toughest outdoor climbs. In 2006, he became one of only a handful of climbers to successfully scale Action Directe -- a famously difficult, 15-meter high rock in Frankenjura, Germany -- and in 2009, Fischhuber showed he was no slouch at longer climbs either, completing a 250-meter alpine ascent of "The Emporer's New Clothes" route in Austria's Wilder Kaiser region.

Daredevil skydiver breaks speed of sound
Rugby superstar's secret to success

"Wherever I am, I always look out for rock faces. It would be good to discover something new, to go to places no-one has ever climbed before. I find myself on the Internet looking for places to climb. It's an addiction."

A recent trip to Zimbabwe uncovered "some great rock faces and great places to develop climbing," he says, and from a personal perspective, he's keen to one day grapple with the mighty El Capitan, the 900 feet (275 meters) granite monolith in Yosemite National Park, California.

But his heart, along with his fingers, remains firmly wedded to Europe's crags and cliffs, not least those flanking the Zillertal and Otztal valleys near his home in Innsbruck.

It's a place where he can mix sport and pleasure, he says, picking routes that are sometimes really hard but also beautiful.

"It's not just the difficulty, it's also the aesthetics -- that it's a really nice climb makes it fun to do. It's a nice mix."

Read: Scared of heights? Don't look here!

Fischhuber climbs the 100-meter cliff with the assistance of ropes, a harness and bolts anchored in the rock and a climbing partner called a belayer who controls the amount of friction on the rope.

"In sport climbing, or free climbing, you have a partner who belays you with a rope. Bolts are usually pre-placed -- drilled in, so really safe -- and you climb without resting or falling into the ropes. That's the objective ... It's usually a long process but it gives you a great feeling of satisfaction," Fischhuber says.

Youngest world rhythmic gymnastics champ
Check out England's biggest female sport

"There are situations when you are afraid -- for example, if you are really high above the last belay place, the last bolt -- but usually climbing and bouldering is not too dangerous.

"Sometimes it's difficult mentally, when you work on a route and you're not sure if it's possible. You put a lot of effort into it and learn later it's not possible, that's a big drawback, but you need to stay positive and have fun. It's just a really cool feeling to be up there alone."

Solitude at the top of a cliff is replaced by companionship when he gets back down. More often he's met by his girlfriend and fellow free climber Anna Stohr. The 25-year-old, a four-time overall World Cup winner and double world champion has the knack of keeping Fischhuber emotionally grounded while pushing him towards new career highs.

"All my travels and competitions and places I go, I spend time with her. With Anna, it's funny, she is successful. She has more titles than me and competing with her helps me a lot ... when we rock climb it's really inspiring. We can really push each other," he says.

"I still want to achieve harder climbs, longer climbs, some good places and results in competing.

"I think it's an old expression but when you die you don't want to look back at your life and think you haven't lived. So it's important what we do while we're alive."

Read: Islam calms rugby's wild boy

Read: The importance of being 'gorgeous'

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Olof Mellberg never lived out his childhood tennis fantasy, but he did achieve something millions of football fans around the world can only imagine.
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sweden's former captain Olof Mellberg on his international career, the World Cup and enjoying the game more with age.
updated 7:17 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
If you're aiming to land a top job at the world's most famous financial district, it might help to take up a sport -- but perhaps not the one you're thinking of.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
He travels in private jets and is one of the world's highest-paid athletes, but Fernando Alonso does not forget his humble beginnings.
updated 8:11 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Being blind has not stopped Verity Smith. The singer has starred on stage and written a book -- but she's most at home on a horse.
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
Tai Woffinden's arms, hands, face, neck and shoulders are adorned with tattoos. But most revealing is the portrait of his late father on his back.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
He established himself as one of the most famous American players in European basketball history -- and is still cooking up a storm.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Sebastien Foucan has proved even more elusive than his acrobatic bomb-maker who was eventually blown away in "Casino Royale."
updated 9:35 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Imagine hurtling down a mountain at 60 miles an hour. Now imagine doing it virtually blind. For Kelly Gallagher, it's a thrilling reality.
updated 2:45 PM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
Having suffered bitter disappointment on the running track, Jana Pittman is finding peace on ice at the Winter Games in Sochi.
updated 8:41 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
Sochi is preparing for an Olympic invasion -- but perhaps it didn't expect a former Soviet soldier to be leading the charge.
updated 8:08 AM EST, Thu February 6, 2014
The words no athlete wants to hear: "You can't ski anymore. Racing is finished for you." But, luckily for her, Fanny Smith refused to believe her doctor.
updated 7:59 AM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
"Blood was coming out of every hole in my body and I was completely unconscious," says French daredevil Xavier de Le Rue.
updated 10:10 AM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
Jenna McCorkell has been dancing on a knife edge since first representing her country at the age of 10. "How ice skating is evolving, it's insane."
updated 5:04 PM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
As power couples go, Gerard Pique and Shakira have the sparkle to supersede even Posh and Becks. But a bundle of joy means most to them.