The Czech Republic boasts perhaps one of the strangest associations around, a group dedicated to climbing industrial chimneys in their spare time. And the more than 30 year old organisation, which started with a small group of teenagers in the Communist era climbing a heat plant chimney at night in the suburbs of Prague is now going from strength to strength. It is though, getting more difficult to find new chimneys to climb.
Martin Vyštejn is chairman of what could well be a unique association in the world, the Czech Union of Chimney Climbers. These have no relation to chimney sweeps but are people who have a head for heights and like to map out and climb industrial chimneys in the Czech Republic and across Europe in their spare time.
They are fortunate in the fact that the Czech Republic’s legacy of old textile plants, sugar factories, brickworks, glassworks, and glassworks around the country means that there are thousands of chimneys, brick built masterpieces mostly from the end of the 19th century, still on the doorstep to be climbed. Old postcards and photographs, for example, show the dozens of chimneys belching smoke from, for example, Prague’s former industrial district Smíchov.
Sadly though, probably hundreds of chimneys have also been demolished in the last decade with local authorities slow to take full account of their value and designate them as part of the country’s historical and technical heritage and worthy of preservation.
I met up with Mr. Vyštejn, a still very fit looking fifty-something year old, who was in there at the start of the association, at a beer garden in the Prague 10 district, not so far from the first chimney which he and his friends climbed more than three decades ago. I asked him first of all how the chimney climbers association was born.
“We started in 1981, so this year we celebrated 33 years. When we started, we were four people and we were 19 years old. We climbed for the first time and at that moment we thought that it would be a one-off, just one action. But after three months we travelled to South Bohemia and on this trip we climbed a second chimney and maybe we can say that after this second trip we founded our union or association.”
How many members have you got now?
“Now, we have more than 1,000 members. But for many years we only had a small membership of between 20 and 100. And I think that the big increase in members only took place in the last 10 years.”
And can you describe exactly what you do. Do people go up chimneys regularly and do you need to get permission?
And where do some of you go abroad to climb chimneys?
“Yes, we have climbed many chimneys in Germany, in Poland, in Slovakia, in Slovenia as well, where there is the highest chimney in Europe, and also in other European counties. Several climbs have also taken place outside Europe in other parts of the world but for the most part we are climbing in the Czech Republic.”
Many people might find this a strange activity. They will probably ask themselves ‘why chimneys?’ They might ask if it is dangerous? And while on many there are ladders or steps, but what do you do if there aren’t.?
“I don’t think it’s as dangerous as people think. We always say that you are more likely to get killed crossing the road or travel on a bicycle or in the car and so on. For the most part, it is not dangerous. Sometimes the chimneys are not in good condition but for the most part they are in a very good state so I think it’s not so dangerous. ”
The Czech Republic seems to be quite a rich country for chimneys because of its industrial heritage. What is the situation?
“Yes, we can say that the Czech Republic is very rich. But unfortunately, in the last years many chimneys have been destroyed because factories were in very bad condition and they were completely demolished including the chimneys. Sometimes the chimneys were kept because they are service as antenna [for television and mobile phone services] and in this sense they have been given a second life. ”
Do similar organisations exist in other countries or is the Czech Republic exceptional for this activity?
“We have not heard about any similar organisations anywhere else, so perhaps we are the only one of its kind.”
And when you target a chimney to climb, do you have to get permission from the owner or not and how does it proceed?
“Sometimes we have permission, sometimes we don’t. And in many cases there are chimneys which are solitaires, they are standing on their own, and are not part of some complex so we don’t have to ask anyone for permission to climb.
Do you still think you will be around in 30 years’ time and how do you see the future?
“It’s an interesting question because we have some internal association regulations. For example, we can climb a chimney three times but if we climb a fourth then it is not counted in the overall total. So we have to discover new chimneys or new places and this is a motivation for us to find new chimneys. ”
And have you climbed most of the chimneys already, how many have you climbed?
“I think I have climbed about 1,300 chimneys”.
And how high are most of them, 150-200 metres high?
“The highest chimney that I climbed was in Slovenia, it is the highest in Europe, and that was 360 metres tall. ”