Ing. Alena Čepelková

* 1953

  • "You go to Mt Dhaulagiri through a forest, an actual jungle, at least if approaching the western face. We were taken aback to find the forest full of leeches. I mean they were everywhere. We walked through the forest for three days, and as I said, they can get everywhere, in your shoes, and nothing can stop them. We tried various things to keep them away, like putting on high altitude boots with these protective bits up to the knees. The worst bit was when you needed to take a leak; that's where us women suffered the most, I mean Zuzka and me. We went to take a leak, and Zuzka and I had to squat. Once I happened to have a very big, fat and full leach on my butt. I couldn't check myself, so it got really big before I found out. It wasn't funny, though, because when we got to the base camp, we found out that some people's leech wounds didn't heal at all and antibiotics and other medicines wouldn't help. You know, sometimes you had to tear them off when they were really full. Some of us were really knocked out of commission because it took an awful lot of time to heal, like two or three weeks."

  • "I think I've already said it in an interview; I'll try to remember. I believe that when you climb to the top of a mountain, it's a wonderful feeling, like you're the queen of the world because you're sitting on top looking down. At the same time, you see you're tiny, you're nothing compared to what's around you. That kind of feeling, that kind of split experience is very cool. It's the best on a tall mountain, but you can also experience it here in Jizerské Mountains."

  • "Hermann Buhl trained a lot, and we all followed suit. I used to walk around Strahov with snowballs in my hands. He would also cross the line, of course. Sadly, there wouldn't be great achievements without that. It's obviously up to everyone and their consideration whether or not to take the risk. It's terribly hard to decide internally if you're shit and scared, pardon the language, or if you overcome it and go on. And those moments are terribly hard to decide because you also need the strength to come back. That's why it's a tough decision, to climb or go back. Great feats are unfortunately impossible without stepping out of one's comfort zone. So if you ask whether one has to be brainless to cross the line, well yes, it's true."

  • "It was hard; it's a huge pillar, so to give you an idea: The very beginning was difficult, overcoming the crack, as the rock is quite unstable at the start. Then a block crumbled out and I dropped with that and hurt my ankle. I couldn't climb properly, but as it happens very often, there was no way to go back, so we climbed up. This is a funny story actually. We were used to tackling the hard bits that we didn't know how to climb with plaid slippers on. We used those for climbing sandstone; there were no proper climbing shoes and those had foam soles. Zuzka put on her slippers and climbed the wall. It was hard climbing. The rope didn't move for a long time and I thought, oh no, what's going on. Zuzka reached some clear ice and climbed over that in her slippers. What a story. I kept climbing a steep snow field, I had almost forty metres climbed, but no belay was possible. I recalled I had an ice screw, but it was at the bottom of my pack. So here I was, fishing it out hanging on to my snow axe to get a belay. I have all sorts of stories like that. Thinking back, my guardian angel must have been very busy with me."

  • "Climbing falls, that's quite the topic. I had two serious incidents. One was when I fell during the winter training on ice in the Tatras. I was the first at the end of the line. I hadn't put any belay on, holding my ice axe in my hand and climbing without a helmet, and the axe almost clipped my ear off. I was unconscious for three days, and I remember my dad coming up there, terrified. I just lay there resigned, wondering what had happened; it's quite common after you fall. I don't remember any of it; luckily it never came back to me. I had a bit of a cracked pelvis and a severe concussion. I have a mild psychiatric diagnosis, so I've been saying since then that I got a licence to go crazy sometimes. I recovered very quickly with the help of Leoš Chládek, an expedition doctor; he gave us a lot of care. He got me in shape so quickly that, as early as April, I went on a rock climbing trip, which was considered training terrain. That was the beginning of a new discipline - rock climbing. You know Adam Ondra; that's how far it got." - "What happened to you on the ice? Did you slip?" - "What happened was that there was a narrow chute. Foolishly, I had no belay because it seemed easy, but it started snowing, a funnel formed, the snow piled up, and it dropped an avalanche into the chute. I was thrown forty meters below the tent where I was belayed by national coach Erik Stejskal. Then it was very dramatic, as my friend from Liberec, who saw me there, told me. What a story. They took me to the Slezský dům lodge. It looked dire; I was bleeding heavily from a near-severed ear. He told me that somebody came in and said, 'who did it to the poor girl?' They all thought I was dead. On top of that, when it started to snow, it snowed so heavily they barely managed to get me to the hospital in Poprad. Someone else fell down too and they couldn't give him a lift anymore, they couldn't take him down on the sledge; he was out of luck. I woke up in the hospital, I didn't remember anything, and that was cool."

  • "You obviously encounter avalanches climbing in the mountains. It was an avalanche that hit me in the Tatras. I got in another avalanche below Lomnický štít; I remember it very well. A colleague who was walking above us set it off, and it hit me directly. I sensed doing somersaults in it and going down. I stopped, and luckily it wasn't very big, I was left waist deep in the snow. But all my stuff, including the crampons I was just putting on, was lost. On Mt Dhaulagiri, there was a route through a chute during our first ascent where avalanches were always coming and there was no 'timetable'. It was an outright dangerous place, as we couldn't fix a rope. You had to cross it, hope that you would be lucky to cross it, and be actually lucky enough to pull it off. They would fall day and night, you tried to trace their timetable, but it didn't really work. Or you were safe, like when I was on a pillar, and it came down next to you. I know that feeling well also from Krkonoše. I saw a massive avalanche fall from Studniční Mountain. I was down in the Modrý důl valley, and it was quite the experience. It was a huge mass of rocks, and although I was standing on the opposite slope, I was very scared. It is a force of nature, and you are so tiny facing it."

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Liberec, 16.04.2023

    duration: 02:19:40
    media recorded in project Tipsport for Legends
  • 2

    Liberec, 18.04.2023

    duration: 01:09:08
    media recorded in project Tipsport for Legends
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They thought she was dead. When she came round, she went climbing again.

Alena Čepelková during an expedition to the Soviet Pamir Mountains, 1983
Alena Čepelková during an expedition to the Soviet Pamir Mountains, 1983
photo: Witness's archive

Alena Čepelková, née Stehlíková, was born in Náchod on 5 July 1953. She grew up with a brother three years older. Her parents Jaroslav and Alena were workers and they joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) out of conviction after the Second World War. Her father was a trained electrician/mechanic, and after 1948, when the Communists took over the state, graduated from a technical college. He worked managerial jobs in the uranium industry, and the family lived consecutively in Ostrov nad Ohří, Jáchymov, Příbram, and finally Liberec. In the 1970s Jaroslav Stehlík became the general manager of the Hamr na Jezeře Uranium Mines. Along with his wife and children, he pursued mountain and alpine hiking. Alena Stehlíková graduated from high school and enrolled at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague. She graduated in 1977 and got a job at the computer centre of the Hamr na Jezeře Uranium Mines where she joined the mountaineering club. She met many top climbers and her long-time partner Zuzana Hoffmanová. Her first son was born in 1980, and a year later she went on a long-term secondment in the UK where she established relationships with local climbers. On her arrival home, she was questioned by the State Security Service (StB) regarding her colleague with whom she stayed in the UK. The StB had filed Alena Čepelková as a person to be investigated and they did not get her to collaborate. She refused membership in the Communist Party while still a student in university. In 1981, she and Zuzana Hoffmanová were the first women in the world to climb the Khergiani Route on Mount Tyutyu in the Caucasus, for which they received the Climb of the Year Award from the Czechoslovak Mountaineering Association. In 1982 they climbed the English Route to the summit of Piz Badile in the Italian Alps. It was the first winter female ascent of Piz Badile in the history of world mountaineering. They also received the Climbing Association’s Climb of the Year award. In 1984, Alena Stehlíková and Zuzana Hoffmanová were members of a large mixed expedition to the Himalayan eight-thousander Mt. Dhaulagiri; three climbers reached the summit, but twenty-five-year-old Jan Šimon died during the descent. In 1984, Alena Stehlíková was awarded the official Czechoslovak title Master of Sport. Her second son was born in 1987. In the following years she was successful in expeditions to the mountains of Europe, North Africa and Asia. She served as the President of the Czech Mountaineering Association from 2005 to 2009. In 2023 she was living in Liberec and still mountaineering.