text: Eva Schwienbacher, picture: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut
"I am, and always have been, a very stubborn person, who will keep on trying to do something until I eventually succeed."
29 year-old Tirolean, Babsi Zangerl, is constantly on the search for her next challenge on the steepest walls of the world. She is drawn to special routes, ones that enable her to experience the art of climbing in all its diversity.
Babsi Zangerl was introduced to bouldering at the age of 14 by her brother. She concentrated exclusively on climbing without ropes for six whole years. She was the first woman to climb a bouldering route graded 8b and was regarded as one of the discipline's best talents for many years. A slipped disc forced her to give up bouldering at the age of 19. Instead of allowing the loss of her greatest passion thus far to drag her down, she sought new challenges elsewhere in the vertical rock. She started out with sport and alpine climbing, and quickly rose to join the echelons of the women's climbing elite in this domain.
She succeeded in achieving several first ascents for women, including the "Alpine Trilogy" (End of Silence, Berchtesgarden / 2012, Silbergeier, Rätikon / 2013, Kaisers neue Kleider, Wilder Kaiser / 2013) and the "Prinzip Hoffnung" (Vorarlberg / 2014), as well as repeat ascents of challenging routes such as "Bellavista" (Dolomites / 2015), "El Niño" (El Capitan, Yosemite / 2015) and "Zodiac" (El Capitan, Yosemite / 2016).
Zangerl regularly returns to Tirol's climbing areas where, for her, everything began. She selected the 8b-graded-route, "Der Seewächter”, at Piburger See in the Ötztal for her meet-up with Sport.Tirol. On the shore of this deep lake, she also tells us about past projects that have left a deep impression on her, and of her future plans.
What is so special about “Der Seewächter - The Watchman“ route? The climbing area is located in a very beautiful place, directly on Lake Piburger. You can climb here in summer, when it is generally too hot in other areas. In other words, it is a perfect summer climbing area with the opportunity to cool off after a strenuous day on the rock. The route itself is very steep, is great to climb and involves some tricky manoeuvres, with a hard bouldering section at the end.
You recently came back from Wales. What project did you undertake there? My boyfriend, Jacopo, and I wanted to check out trad climbing (climbing with only mobile safety devices, which are placed in cracks and fissures as you climb up, and then removed) on the coast of Wales. You climb right by the sea there. We did not know what to expect at first, so we did not set ourselves particularly ambitious goals. Climbing there is very different from sport climbing, which uses, for example, fixed bolts, and is therefore associated with greater risks. The climbing area around Pembroke offers impressive rocky heights of up to 50 meters in height. There is not a stand at the end of the route, as one is normally accustomed to, but a metal pole fixed in the ground instead. Climbers have to abseil down from this to inspect the route, or access the entry point in the first place.
What are your criteria when selecting a project? Most of the time it is photos, or stories I hear from friends that motivate me to try something out. What I generally like is to combine the diverse facets of climbing sport. If, for example, I fancy a spot of alpine climbing, I will try out a high wall somewhere. Apart from that, I enjoy trad-sport climbing or bouldering. Big walls are what I am attracted to most right now, and the entire package that multi-pitch alpine tours have to offer. The visual aspect is also very important: When it comes to challenging projects, I need to be impressed by the individual pitch lengths, the line and location. It is, ultimately, a question of motivation.
"When climbing you have to overcome your fears and rise above yourself, this is what makes this sport so thrilling and exciting."
Do you climb the route mentally before attempting it physically? No. At the beginning of a project, when I am standing in front of a big wall, I have no preconceived idea as to how it will be to climb. Easier routes don’t pose much of a problem, you just climb them. However, when it comes to more difficult ones, my motivation may only develop after I have seen the individual pitches and gained a general overview of the prevailing situation. Only then do I decide whether to invest more time and redpoint the route or not.
You have repeatedly sought out projects that only very few, or even no other women have previously achieved, such as the Alpine Trilogy or the Bellavista. What is the attraction of such projects? I don’t specifically seek out routes that no woman has achieved before. That is not what motivates me. The incentives are manifold. The three Alpine Trilogy routes are some of the most beautiful multi-pitch tours in the Alps and rank highly in the world of alpine sport climbing. Originally, I was motivated to climb the “Silbergeier”. That was my first big goal. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me to attempt the other Trilogy routes. The desire to climb all three evolved, therefore, only gradually. All three routes are secured with bolts, however the route is rather exposed in some sections with very espaced pegs. That, combined with its beauty and difficulty, is what makes the Trilogy so exciting! The Bellavista, on the other hand, is a completely different story and very different to the Trilogy routes. Its location alone at Tre Cime di Lavaredo (three peaks of Lavaredo) is awe-inspiring. I was there for the first time in 2006 with Hansjörg Auer, although only as belay-partner before following myself. I was afraid and found the route to be quite savage: the rock was brittle in parts, with rusty pitons and very exposed sections. Then there is that incredible overhang: Climbing with a jumar and trax is important because otherwise there is no way to return to the wall after falling. To see Hansjörg climbing so relaxed and without fear in this environment, was a game-changing experience for me. I thought to myself how cool it would be to climb in terrain like this, to feel no fear and be able to concentrate purely on the climbing. I could not imagine that being the case back then. I was nervous enough just being the belay partner. At the same time, however, this adventurous experience motivated me to come back to this wall and try the route for myself.
What is it that drives you to push yourself to the limit? The perceived risk is greater than the actual risk at Bellavista. Not much can happen really, especially at the top pitches. It is so exposed that you always fall into a huge gap of air. If one or two pitons didn’t hold, you would fall far, but not actually hurt yourself. When I finally tackled the project together with Jacopo in 2014, the most difficult thing for me was to ignore this perceived risk and focus just on the climbing. The conditions were often bad back then and the grips wet and slippery. I was never quite one hundred percent sure as to whether I could prevent myself from slipping or not.
"After returning to terra firma, I thought to myself: You idiot, why didn't you just try?" Babsi Zangerl
That does not sound particularly pleasant. The feeling of slipping in unsafe terrain is probably the most intimidating, especially when climbing. Fortunately, this does not happen very often. But under certain circumstances, it suddenly surprises you how unpleasant alpine climbing can actually be. It is a huge mental challenge; one that I am not always able to rise to. Sometimes I am more relaxed and sometimes I have to contend with true fear. I still remember well: the first few pitches along at Bellavista were more than enough for me and I lost the courage to continue climbing when I reached the “roof”, where things really start getting tricky. Twice, I have turned back after reaching the roof of Bellavista. But after returning to terra firma, I thought to myself: You idiot, why didn't you just try? (She laughs)
and her boyfriend and climbing partner Jacopo Larcher
Despite the extreme mental pressure, you didn’t give up. Why? The first few falls from the roof were a decisive factor for me. Once you have fallen a few times and seen that the gear holds and nothing much can actually really happen, you gain self-confidence. Your head becomes clearer and you can focus purely on the climbing. That makes everything a whole lot more fun and you can finally enjoy hanging and climbing in such exposed terrain. When climbing you have to overcome your fears and rise above yourself, this is what makes this sport so thrilling and exciting. If you manage to achieve something unexpected, the greater and longer is the pleasure afforded by the result. Climbing offers us these interesting experiences. You can choose from the most diverse routes - easy or challenging, safe or savage. You can choose your own personal challenge and decide what you want to do. Maybe it is important to conquer one’s own inner demons every now and again. That is what makes climbing so interesting. And that's exactly why we should also ensure these routes are preserved in their attractive and inimitable style, so later generations can experience the same that we climbers do today.
How do you prepare yourself physically for such major projects? I prepare in winter for the next season. I never train specifically for a certain route on the rock, but go straight to the project. Normally I test the project, climb as far as I can before returning on another day to get to the next pitch. I hang on the wall, try individual manoeuvres over and again, fall often, and only after gradually completing individual sections do I gain an overall picture. The next step is to send the route from bottom to top. I never set a big goal in my head from the start; it tends to be small, intermediate goals. When, for example, there is a manoeuvre on the 20th pitch that I can’t manage, the entire project may be doomed to failure. It is simply too difficult and I am unable to climb the route freely.
Is it hard for you to abort a project? Yes, extremely. I am, and always have been, a very stubborn person, who will keep on trying to do something until I eventually succeed. I don’t know if that is a good attribute or not. (She says laughing). But when I like the look of a route, I will invest a lot of time and energy into it.
Are you patient? Yes, depending on the situation! Not in my private life, but when it comes to climbing I can be pretty patient.
One often reads that you are encroaching into the alpine men's world with your successes. What goes through your mind when you hear such things? I don’t give it much head-space. On the whole, I think it is a good thing that excellent women’s achievements are remarked upon. But in no way is that what motivates me personally. It is nothing more than a positive side effect - simple public appreciation. There are some very strong women out and about on the alpine routes. And many more women have the potential to do so, they just need to try it out. Associated costs, motivation and time are often preventative factors. However, as climbing is experiencing an ongoing boom, I think more women will get involved in alpine climbing in the future.
Do you have any role models? I am inspired by people who try something new, such as Silvia Vida from Catalonia, who makes solo ascents of the big walls. She is often alone for days and climbs routes in a technical style, that no one has ever used before. Personally, that would be a bit too lonely for me and is not what inspires me, but these achievements impress me greatly nonetheless. Or Lynn Hill, the first person ever to make a free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan, is someone I find particularly inspirational.
You suffered your first slipped disc at the age of 19, which ultimately led you to take the path of sport and alpine climbing. Could you say that something positive came out of this incident? Definitely. I concentrated on bouldering for six whole years. My back problem was the result of the constant repetition of certain movements and the often relatively high jumps. The pain kept getting worse until I finally had to give up bouldering completely. It was very hard for me at first. Rope climbing didn’t particularly interest me at that time, until I started it as part of my therapy. It opened my eyes and showed me all the possibilities there are out there. It was a great incentive for me to start something new. I wasn’t aware of the many sport-climbing opportunities there were just outside my front door back then, which I gradually began to discover and appreciate.
Have you ever considered what it would be like, if you had to give up climbing for health reasons? I could not imagine that. It would be really awful for me. If I couldn’t climb any more I would have to look for something new that I feel passionate about, something that motivates me.
What are your plans concerning climbing, family and career? I am a person who lives in the moment, rather than looking ahead. I will probably carry on as before for the next five years. One of my dreams is to make an expedition with a team and open a new route, in some distant country. I am very aware of the fact that things cannot go on like this forever. One day, the moment when other things become more important, will come of its own accord.
Many thanks for the interview.
Babsi Zangerl, professional climber
"If you manage to achieve something unexpected, the greater and longer is the pleasure afforded by the result."