Barbara Zangerl: from bouldering to big walls
Interview with one of the strongest climbers of the world stage21 September 2021
Back from Pakistan, Barbara tells us about her expedition and the exceptional results obtained in recent times, from sport routes to extreme multipitches.
Talking about Barbara Zangerl's ability and climbing skills is like reinventing the wheel.
In the field of climbing at 360 degrees, Barbara is undoubtedly one of the legends of world climbing in the recent years. A climber who reached the excellence practically in all the vertical disciplines and who, always together with the equally legendary Jacopo Larcher, proves year after year that there are no limits to the goals that these two climbers can achieve.
Barbara and Jacopo have just returned from their expedition to Pakistan, but while they were traveling, we were able to know better about some of the remarkable exploits that Zangerl has achieved in the recent months. The 9a of Sprengstoff, the 8B trad of Greenspit and Odyssée on the Eiger: these are her three achievements featured in the Black Diamond Committed videoseries, which in recent weeks we had the opportunity to share on the pages of our site.
Therefore, to talk about both Pakistan and the ascents of the series, we asked Barbara a few questions, to enter even more intimately into the vertical vision of this great protagonist of today's climbing!
Barbara, you and Jacopo are just back from Pakistan. First of all, can you describe us your expedition, the projects and expectations you had before arriving there?
The expectations were to have a great adventure. Pakistan is not a country where many people travel to. Of course many people ask why we want to visit such a “dangerous” part of the world. Because of the political situation with the Taliban and all the terrorism which happened in the past and of course because of Corona as well (neighbor country of India). But to be honest I felt safer than in some other parts of the world especially where we stayed, far away from everything. The driving to get there this was probably the most dangerous because of the freestyle how they drive their cars, this was pretty crazy.
It was always a dream of us to visit the Trango tower area. See the country and all what comes with it. Of course we expected to have good weather windows to climb the Nameless tower. The dream route for us was to try Eternal flame free, a big goal to us.
But at the end we got very tricky weather conditions. Most of the time it was pretty cold and just not possible to climb in this altitude of 6000 meters.
But anyway, it was worth a trip. We were amazed about the people landscape and hospitality what we experienced.
Which is the feeling in putting your hands on such a symbol as Eternal Flame?
We put our hands on eternal flame just once, when we climbed two pitches of it before the next big storm arrived. It was just amazing. It was not much what we got but this little bit of climbing already let us start to dream to come back next year.
The route is on perfect rock. Crack-climbing at its very best. 30 pitches and all look amazing. A real gem from Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert. We definitely found out it is quite breath taking to climb hard in this heights.
From your Instagram posts, you revealed that, even if you did not climb too much, it has been a very good experience. Can you describe us the what that this expedition left you compared to your previous climbs?
It was my first ever expedition. And the coolest thing about it was that it is so far away from everything. One day car driving from Skardu, then two days of trekking to just reach the base camp. You are really at a remote place, surrounded by tons of rock, perfect granite rock towers all around you. It is even hard to decide where to start climbing. 3 Pakistani came with us. They cooked at the basecamp and served us every single day delicious food. We went climbing with them at the BC and shared some climbing experiences even if it was just on some easy single pitches, we definitely had a good <me and got new friends.
To see the culture and how different this country is compared to where we live. How simple people live without having much and still being happy. Of course, I would have wished to see more women and girls on the streets and on official places, or even doing sports. Especially in the small villages I had the feeling it is strictly forbidden that women go to Restaurants or places where people (men) meet. In Islamabad for example it was more open there where many women around even without burka and make-up on their faces.
While you were on your trip we had the occasion to see the three episodes of the Committed series on the Black Diamond channel, showing the recent achievements of your wide climbing activity! Indeed, we first knew you as a boulderer, then a back injury took you to sport climbing, then to trad, multipitch and big walls. All this at the highest levels! In your exceptional versatility, what is the meaning of climbing for you?
Climbing is for me a lifestyle. It comes with so many different aspects and it is connected to traveling as well. I love everything what comes with it. The only thing what I don’t like is that, if you are coming back from an expedition it is hard work to get back in shape (here Babsi commented with a smile, ndr) At least we got strong legs. After my back injury I saw climbing in a bigger perspective. I wanted to change styles and do different things in climbing. That was a real motivation boost. From that moment on I don’t wanted to just focus on one discipline anymore.
Is there any climber that has particularly inspired you in your career?
Of course there are many. But I think Lynn Hill with the first free ascent of the Nose inspires me the most.
The videos that see you as the protagonist in this series report indeed three of your climbs that are representative of your versatility. Let's start from Sprengstoff, the 9a you climbed in April in Lorunser crag. Can you first describe it?
It is a pure power endurance route on perfect limestone. A old open Kammerlander project. Jacopo did the FA last November. And I just couldn’t do the single moves of the crux. I simply thought it is too hard for me. But it is so close to home that I just couldn’t give up to find a way to resolve this boulder crux. I think it is the best line of the crag and it was the only one missing for me. So that was motivation enough to don’t give up on it. I hope this crag will stay alive also in the future. It is on the property of a quarry and definitely in danger to get destroyed. It is a very historical place where people climb since many years and definitely my favorite home crag.
Beyond the difficulty, this route is also iconic: a project bolted 25 years ago by Beat Kammerlander and of which Jacopo made the first ascent at the end of 2020. So it is a route that binds you to a legend of Austrian climbing on one hand and to your climbing and life partner on the other. What did it mean for you being the first to repeat Sprengstoff and the first woman to climb it?
I just didn’t expect that I can climb it. To be the first women that doesn’t mean the world for me. (I think not many other women tried it) But to be able to send it was super cool. It is definitely one of the greatest and the hardest I did in Sportclimbing.
How important is it for you to push high difficulty in sport climbing? Is it something aimed at preparing for trad or multipitch ascents or do you give it a sense on its own?
It is the best training for multipitch climbing. And I love it because you don’t have to haul so much stuff up the wall, it is not connected to all the work you have to do on a bigwall for example. You don’t need so much gear. It is simple and you can test yourself and push your limits. But of course I also like to climb easy routes, everything which looks like a cool climb. It doesn’t need to be always a hard project.
Trad: the climbing discipline for people with balls! Which was the “spark” pushing you to dedicate to this style? What is the aspect that you like most in trad?
The first visit of Indian Creek in the US. We were so bad at this style and so tired already after two pitches. I didn’t even know if I really like crack climbing. At the beginning it just felt like suffering. Lots of pain on the hands and feet. But the challenge was great and the learning process. Luckily it got better and more enjoyable after the first week in Indian Creek. It was like comparing table tennis and tennis. It felt like a different sport. But this is cool about climbing, experience new styles and try to get a better climber. And if you really suck on something you get better pretty fast. It was like starting climbing a second time.
In general trad adds a mental challenge to climbing. You are more nervous about a climb. It’s also more risk what you take especially on face climbs where are no perfect cracks. This mental challenge is one part of climbing I really like. You try to find the perfection how to climb a line, sometimes there are no mistakes allowed and you decide how much risk you wanna take. Overcome your own fears on a long runout for example is a great process and progress in climbing, I would say.
Some of the most memorable climbs I did were on trad. It doesn’t have to be very hard it also can be tricky to protect and even add a proper challenge this way. And those memories stay in mind even longer.
Tell us about Greenspit: in terms of the difficulty and commitment it required of you, how do you compare it to the other trad routes you have climbed so far?
I can’t compare it to other trad climbs, this one is the first hard roof climb on trad what I did. It is definitely very safe to climb with super good protection. It is such an iconic line I always wanted to try one day. (I am a big fan of Didier as well.) So it was easy to find the motivation for this one. I was surprised how exciting it was to try. From hand jams to fist, feet forward and a hard boulder crux at the very end you can find everything on this single pitch. It is a perfect piece of rock. The hardest challenge was to get the jams right and have enough power le` for the final boulder. There were definitely some heart breaking falls at the very top.
Like many other routes, both you and Jacopo have climbed Greenspit: can you tell us how you manage the process of climbing a hard route together? How do you determine who will be the first to try? Is there some kind of competition between you (in a positive sense of course)?
Not really most of the time Jacopo succeeds on the climbs before myself because he is simply the one who is stronger. A very few times I did routes before him – like green spit for example – then he gets a bit stressed (here Babsi commented with another smile, ndr). When there is the question who starts first to lead a pitch we often do (rock-paper-scissors).
There is no competition feeling at all, on sport climbing he is way stronger. On multipitch we are a team and our levels are closer in that style. Sometime there is some pressure what we put on ourselves because of the wish that we really want to climb a route.
Greenspit is one of the symbolic routes of Valle dell’Orco, a valley that has nevertheless played a historical role for Italian climbing. What impression did you have of these walls? Do you think they can still reserve possibilities for the future of climbing?
This valley is amazing. So much rock around. El Caporal looks like little El Cap. And I think there is still a lot of potential to find hidden little gems in this valley. To me it felt like searching mushrooms. You never know what you can find around the corner. A valley with a lot of potential and one of the very few places where you can find proper crack climbing in Europe.
Can you tell us what your next multipitch goals are? On a more general level, what do you think are the horizons towards which free climbing on big walls can be pushed?
We want to go back to Pakistan next year. And we are super motivated to climb at Qualido in Val di Mello next spring. Putting up a new line would be a lifetime goal to me.
In light of your remarkable versatility and experience, a question also about the debut of climbing at the Olympics in this summer. The outdoor world often does not see positively this uniquely "sporting" consecration of climbing and what may derive from it. What do you think about it? Could we possibly have seen an Olympic Barbara?
I really enjoy to watch competitions! Super exciting! but I never fully got into competition climbing by myself. I did a few comps back in the days and I really enjoyed them. The climbing community/friends around me always focused more on climbing outdoors, maybe that was one reason why I always preferred to climb on rocks. I love to be outdoors, it would have been hard to me to put all my focus on gym climbing. I see it as a great step that climbing got Olympic. Of course this can add some challenges to the outdoor sport as well. Having more and more people at the crags can add some troubles. But I think as a climbing community, we should be aware of the problems and try to find a way to protect the places we love the most. For the indoor climbing there is already a huge hype maybe due to the Olympics as well, many people get easily into gym-climbing and can discover that sport which is a good thing I think.
For the report of Barbara and Jacopo's ascent of Odyssée, the appointment is for a future article!