22 Jun ALBERTO GNERRO
Maurizio Oviglia, UP2006
After climbing for over 20 years, Alberto started to become an icon of European sports climbing. Born in Biella, Italy in 1969 he began climbing in 1986 and straight away it became an overwhelming passion for him. Biella has always been a dynamic and resourceful town, with both climbing and mountaineering from Biella no exception to this rule. Following in the footsteps of the pioneers of his town – undoubtedly more discreet than those from the Val Susina area and Turin, but not any less strong for this reason – Alberto took his first steps on the rock-faces of the lower Valle d’Aosta. But his apprenticeship did not last long, in 1986 he ascended the mythical Transea, a 7a reference route, at Arnad. In a few months he gained two grades and so in 1987 is already on 7c+, with Krudelia at Ara, climbed on a freezing cold day. His style is very particular, and as already in the case of Marco Bernardi, he prefers static moves, synonymous with great strength and certainty. But despite his strength becoming legendary right from the beginning, Alberto surprisingly devoted himself to technical climbing and on sight, his great war-horse in the early years of his career. In 1988 he amazed everybody by ascending on sight J’irai cracher sur votres tombes at Buoux, nothing less than a 7c+. It already seemed enough, but in 1989 his progress did not stop. Above all, his on sight performances continued to surprise the Italian climbing community (and the few foreigners who watched his performances) especially those on technical walls and apparently incomprehensible, scattered with finger crux moves. High points are the on sight of Margarina (8a) at Andonno and Mamy avvista (7c) at Finale. However during this period he did not neglect red pointing, and reached 8b+ by climbing Noi (8b+, the same day as the on sight of Margarina). Then the ascents which made him famous during his adolescence as a climber, that is the on sight of En un combat douteux at Cimai (8a) and above all of Outsider (8b) at Cornalba, in 1990.
In 1989 he takes the big step of entering the world of competitions, where he will achieve great results in the Italian championships (Italian champion 1989, 1990, 1992) and good placings in the World Cup.
During the 90’s Alberto divides himself between crags and competitions. Important on sight results come with his travels, where he climbs a number of 8b’s. During this period without a doubt the on sight climb of Kryptonite (8b/b+) stands out at the Tetto di Sarre in Valle d’Aosta, which will become his high difficulty lab. This is where in 1998 he climbs L’avaro, 8c+, a physical route requiring super-endurance, which seems to be his new terrain. Another battle field of his is “Cubo” at Arnad, nothing other than a gigantic cube of gneiss rock in the lower part of Valle d’Aosta, where Alberto equips and climbs very difficult routes, which have become famous and feared even due to the rating system, which is not at all generous.
The new century begins fantastically and Alberto confirms his level of 8c+ by repeating Noia at Andonno, an 8c+ which has become a point of reference in Italy. Then he outdoes himself by climbing Ground Zero at Sarre, for which he toubles the use of the grade 9a, the first Italian route of such a difficulty, later confirmed by Christian Bindhammer.
At this point, Alberto has reached the height of his career, but he seems to experience a lack of motivation due to a lack of new incentives. With his friends Cristian Brenna and Marzio Nardi as allies he “discovers” bouldering during the “new wave” period of this discipline, and from which he manages to gain some real satisfaction helping him feel like a new revitalized man. In 2001 he climbs the famous Boule at Cresciano and La scelta, on his home boulders at the base of “his” Cubo, both 8a boulder problems. Once he has become route setter, and is appreciated for his competence and experience on the international circuit, Alberto finds where to route set on real rock, this time with a re-discovered love for Mother Nature. In 2003 he puts his hands on the Gressoney crag, still in Valle d’Aosta, which will give him great satisfaction in the years to come.
In fact it is in 2003 that he climbs the 8c of Lucky man, while in 2006 his second 9a ,all natural, called SS26.
Being an introvert by nature and coming from Piedmont he is not one to advertise his own achievements, but there is no doubt that he is one of the greatest climbers of modern times. As he says of himself, he represents the liason between the era of the sports climbing pioneers (Mariacher, Manolo, Bernardi) and today’s modern champions, brought up on artificial climbing walls and becoming famous from competitions. But strength alone would not be sufficient to assure them of a place in European climbing history, obviously numbers are not enough! It is for the names of the routes which he has chosen which we take our hat off to him, but above all his style and discretion when dealing with climbing at a high level – almost as if it were an oriental discipline, a martial art to which body and soul are dedicated – to be an example to many of today’s youngsters, the very ones Alberto has decided to devote his time to in his new climbing school.
Alberto, you wrote that you started to climb after seeing a video of Edlinger. I don’t think you are the only one! Do you think that today there is still such a strong identification with a legendary personality, or do you think the tangible absence of charismatic figures no longer allows this type of experience?
It is difficult for me to say if athletes and personalities nowadays can influence so strongly the younger generation. I believe a kind of emulation in any case is passed from generation to generation, even if that halo of mysticism and discovery experienced in the early eighties no longer exists. There are still charismatic figures even if they are less influential than before.
The first thing people think of when they hear your name is strength. But for those a little more mature like myself, their thoughts go instead to your legendary on sight on the 8a and beyond. For example your great on sight achievement on Margarina at Andonno left everyone who thought you could only pull hard on jugs speechless. Why did you choose that particular route, so difficult and so complex? Can you tell us how it went?
My parents certainly gave me a good engine and I have often used it to the maximum, a bit like I do with cars. I then did the rest by putting in a healthy petrol called will power, motivation, enthusiasm. I experimented a lot on myself in this respect and even making lots of mistakes the results came just the same. On the other hand, my personal training wall only arrived in 1991 and until then my weekly training sessions were on wooden beams. Surely thanks to this I achieved performances which would still be worth a lot today. Margarina is one of those. It was a beautiful sunny day in Andonno, a Saturday as I remember. Three days earlier Andrea Gallo had freed that fantastic line of 8b+ which has the name Noi. I was there to repeat it and that’s what I did! I was very pleased with my achievement but that day I thought I had wings on my heels … it was 11 November 1989! I spoke to my partner that day who was Federico Bausone and not satisfied with what I had done, set off in the direction of the central sector of Andonno. Taking the risk for a project which was rather presumptuous, I decided to try Margarina on sight. I felt good and above all calm for what I had already done. With a bit of effort I put on a pair of Kendo shoes, just taken out of their original wrapping, a big risk for a route of this type. But I didn’t think about it and my concentration was at its maximum.. I set off decisively and in half an hour I reached the route’s chain. It was a great day for me, but the greatest satisfaction for me was linked to my on sight ascent of Margarina.
Perhaps on sight climbing is the purest of styles, and it certainly was the way you climbed 8a’s in the eighties. I remember that Moffat actually avoided going down Papy on sight so as not to see it. But today with videos and marked holds, is it still like that? Do you not think we are losing some of the spirit of the "clean" challenge?
I have always been very ethical and I have never gone looking for easy routes to do. I was never interested in over graded routes and many times I have been criticised for the fact that I have undervalued routes that I have climbed. It seemed stupid to me to tell stories and certainly this attitude was not in my interest. I on sighted many routes and climbed them without marking them with chalk and without taking a look. Today that kind of very severe ascent is certainly lost and many which are called performances are not so clean and ethical. An example for all: chalk marks near the holds. Perhaps a medium level climber would not gain such an advantage but for an expert a marked route is an open book and the possibilities of error diminish dramatically.
But don’t you think this reflects less general attention to ethics? For example, fifteen years ago nobody would have publicly declared that a route was easier, on the contrary!! Maybe they were too severe! Today it is almost the opposite. Because, according to you, perhaps the result counts more? The media image?
I think that my generation has made a great step forward in terms of quality in the last ten years but certainly not as dramatically as it may seem. We have improved and the grades have come nearer. If this improvement were to continue at this rate then in a few years time we should be on sighting 9a+ … something which would need anti-gravity pills! In all sports improvements proceed slowly and Pietro Mennea’s record (an example to all) lasting for twenty years demonstrates this fact. When on 1 April 1990 at Cornalba I arrived at the top of Outsider (8b) on sight, descending I said very humbly that it seemed easier to me. How many people would have stated such a thing as I did then? And I was even criticized for it! I was never interested in stealing performances and grade 8b is not exactly a Sunday walk in the park…even for strong athletes! The result in sport has always had value, without that the competitive element for improvement would disappear, but one needs to be objective and know how to identify it. There is no stop watch in climbing.
I remember seeing you climb in a competition many years ago and I was struck by your style, not very dynamic. Do you think this is an advantage or a disadvantage? Or perhaps a legacy which you have been carrying from your earliest years?
It was a characteristic of mine due to the fact that I could stay on the hold for a long time. In any case it is a disadvantage. One year in a competition I remember I made the time run out seven times in a row. At a Rock Master I spent twenty five minutes on the on sight route after I had been told that my time had run out. Nowadays my style has changed a lot and above all thanks to bouldering which has given me that dynamism and speed necessary for very hard routes. But nowadays my physchological attitude has also changed. Today I am a self-assured mature athlete capable of reading rock forms very quickly.
And now we come to strength. How has your attitude changed over the years towards this important component of climbing?
Strength is certainly the starting point for achieving big results and I am not only referring to our sport. Today at 37 years old my strength compared to five or six years ago has diminished a little but I continue to cultivate it. What’s more today I add a dynamic component which is fundamental for success.
There is a legend about you which has come to my attention that there was a time not very long ago when you would arrive at a crag and warm up on a 7b. If it went well you stayed, otherwise you went back home annoyed.. Apart from how true is what I have heard, is it true that you have always suffered some anxiety over your performance? Could this be the reason for your preference for on sight, at least in the early years?
At first my climbing was very "moody" and was inspired by an infallible plan. Mistakes were not allowed, and if they happened, the punishment was to go back home. But then it changed. You get used to making mistakes and accept what comes. But I am not the only one, I can assure you, and even today every so often I see these episodes. Watching them I see myself again and it makes me laugh to think of the time lost commiserating with oneself for a defeat.
On your site I read a sentence about friendship which made me curious. Is it true, friendship in climbing comes and goes and every so often one remains…but do you think something has changed since the era of the “climbing partner” to that of the “gang”?
Your partner used to be the fine white line which joined you to the ground and gave you the maximum trust when you ascended. A hard ascent was happily shared by both. Today I think that figure has disappeared a little and often, for the sake of climbing, we get used to climbing with anybody. But this is also an advantage because it allows us to get to know people and to widen our horizons. However the friends of the past have remained and today thanks to the climbing gym I have opened in Biella there has been a sort of return to these old friendships.
So bouldering (and the boulder gym) is sharing, or did you love, like me, those days of solitary bouldering when nothing else existed except you and the crux? How do you see this new socialising in climbing, perhaps the real novelty in this return to bouldering?
Bouldering is certainly a very gregarious occasion and the gatherings and the large number of people who frequent the gyms proves this. In addition it has become an essential moment in the search for gestures. I think this return is a little the need to find new stimulus on the part of some people. Then this thing diffused and the socialising which developed as a direct consequence. Bouldering is more immediate, more fun, and also needs physical prowess and high motor skills as well as fantasy, on the other hand it requires less ability to suffer and resist compared to climbing by rope. A speciality for those who follow the cult of gestures on one hand, a speciality for athletes who feel the need to prove themselves on the other!
The usual question on your experience of competitions awaits you, but not the only one! From athlete to route setter: a simple question of age or a need for creativity?
Lets say I needed a change but staying within the same environment which I enjoy. Route setting is a bit like writing the rules of a game while waiting to see who respects them best. For me personally it has been very useful especially in getting used to artificial climbing walls and understanding what a high level athlete can really do. Route setting is certainly very demanding and proposing something new is never easy. I am not really a boulderer and each time I have to set a route for a bouldering competition at least three weeks beforehand I get used to that type of climbing trying to invent something new on my wall. To know the gesture is very important and sometimes the route setting of a problem, if you have a clear idea, can really be solved very quickly. Other times the idea you have of a boulder problem is so difficult that you have to abandon it.
How did you live your experience of equipping new, often visionary, routes at Arnad’s Cubo?
Opening new routes has always been a necessity to me. It is partly the need to leave a trace of yourself. Il Cubo is really a very important chapter of my vertical life …it is one of the few places near home where I can train. Lots of effort and lots of days work to create those routes. The rock is scarce and I had to red point it to climb. Today maybe I would have chipped less but in the end as usual I would have found myself climbing with a few close friends. A contribution therefore to the vertical people, a job that I do not regret at all. Chipping holds was the only choice possible to allow me to train nearby without travelling 200 kilometres every time. Today also my style of equipping routes has changed. With the discovery of Gressoney I learnt to equip very calmly and look carefully before chipping, if you look carefully there is always a solution. In this way the result is excellent. More than thirty routes and no artificial holds. But this is a difficult case to repeat…
Dont let’s rush to Gressoney yet, let’s proceed in order! What did the episode Tetto di Sarre mean to you? The struggle to achieve a record, the first Italian 9a, or something more?
Sarre was for many people the possibility of climbing during wet days before the birth of climbing gyms. It was good training ground. The story of Ground zero is not the search for the first Italian 9a. I was not there to establish a record but simply to close the accounts with something I had created. Certainly, if Sarre was the main ingredient, the Bindhammer brothers were the catalyst which made the desire to make the first ascent, explode in me. With the great effort I had put into equipping the ghastly overhanging blackboard I would never have forgiven myself to have missed out on the first ascent, and so after the Rock Master went badly I took my revenge on the terrain which I enjoy the best. The grade 9a then came by itself and the time spent by the brothers on the route confirms it!
Your words however betray a certain desire to leave a mark on this little big history of ours. Many very strong climbers however are happy to repeat the reference routes opened by others, without attempting unsolved projects with an uncertain outcome. When you devote yourself to repetitions, do you do it to legitimise your first free ascents or effectively not to lose the sense of reality and keep your feet on the ground? Is it something which stimulates you or do you feel you have to do it?
Climbing is my great inspiration, the desire to train comes from my passion and the fact of leaving my mark is the direct consequence of having done a good job. There are many ways of leaving something behind but perhaps the results are undermined by other results and soon forgotten. The opening of a new route is something which will remain, and even if I do it for you, it will also remain for others. To repeat another climber’s hard route can be used as a parameter, but I do no have a lot of time for travelling also because, even if with great effort I managed to take some time off work, the professional part of my climbing finished in March 1994! It may seem strange but I have never climbed for ten days in a row and I am always telling myself that I should like to try taking two months off and live again a short period as a professional to see where my limits will take me. When I repeat the routes that I open I try to be in line with the ones which were the grades at the time I opened it. My first point of reference is the Finale area and I have always tried to keep to a rating scale which does not give anything for granted. Returning to the routes that I open sometimes I found myself fighting on pitches which did not stimulate me at all, but almost from an innate sense of duty I tried in every case to climb them. As a result, recently, the need has developed in me to open only good routes which are the most natural possible.
Alberto, you are one of the few climbers to know from personal experience what a 9a is. In fact many people talk about it, but nobody knows what it actually means to climb this grade. According to you what margins for improvement are there in the future, regarding difficulty? Do you see any particular tendencies on the horizon?
The difficulty on red pointing can still increase, but there is a need to be humble and objective in giving a grade while awaiting confirmation without fear of being contradicted. Certainly those who can push the limits are the athletes who train for competitions and develop to the maximum their quality of strength endurance. The determining factor however remains the rock structure. A ten metre long 9a+ I think is currently impossible. The tendency for high difficulty now remains on routes over 25 metres.
What is or has been your attitude towards those who have declared outstanding performances, like Rouhling o Fernandez?
I am always a bit sceptical of these numbers. It must be said however that both of them have spent a lot of time under their routes and have devoted themselves probably to that one and only route, so it is therefore possible. And then you need to go and try it before talking about it. I have my greatest doubts when a 9a is repeated very quickly by 10-15 people!
From high intensity we have passed to endurance, so bouldering has come back to enjoy great favour and some people have even stopped chipping. Which climbing era has given you the most?
Everything is cyclical and bouldering has returned after years of hibernation. In twenty years of climbing I think I have experienced all the different specialisations and I have tried to learn something from all of them. Perhaps in the last few years bouldering has been for me the best way of progressing. With regards to chipped holds I don’t feel I can criminalise it also because I was one of the instigators. Today however I believe I can say that the situation could be improved in the sense that before chipping you need to look carefully for every natural possibility.
Today it is said, as a result of many attempts, anyone who climbs 6c can at least achieve an 8a, if this is important to him. In fact we have lots of climbers who have reached this magic figure, but very few are able to do so in one or two attempts. Do you think this is a false problem, a degeneration, or real progress?
It is a question of approach. A different point of view in dealing with things. When I climbed 6c I tried to climb 7a in 2 attempts. To try an 8a when your level is low, I think is a bit like doing gymnastics. Forcing yourself to improve only on that pitch and on that type of hold. I love the original climber, who on sights an overhanging 8a and the day after repeats himself on a slab. I love the ability to adapt to any style of climbing.
What would you say to the climbers of today, who struggle to find the right motivation to improve? Focus on the grade and its results, train, diversify, concentrate on competitions … it is a real puzzle!
Our motivations are guided by different factors and sometimes the frenetic life style we lead tends to make them disappear. Motivation is something which grows inside you. I remember the first years of climbing I was already up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the rock. But this is something inexplicable which few people have. Sometimes I think it is a need for revenge by the person with regards to society, a way of getting out of a difficult and boring life style. To live without passion, without something into which you can channel your energy, apart from work, must be really difficult. I don’t have a medicine to find motivation but what I would suggest to everyone is to experience a competition, try to reason like an athlete and put yourself to the test. Already to do this is a victory because in that moment, when you are taking part you understand who you are and you become more honest towards others.
Like all long time climbers you have had to face up to accidents. What can you say about this experience? Have you learnt something from these interruptions, did your motivation suffer or was it a push to start again with more vigour?
I ruptured my tendon, had some problems with a tendon pulley and then I broke three fingers … perfect! All these events gave me the possibility of having some healthy rest but my motivation never diminished. After each of these periods I reached high points in my performance. Unfortunately as climbers we want to be fit all year round .. but this is not possible in climbing as in any other sport.
Have you ever regretted not having lived other moments of climbing history? The great conquests, the "Nuovo Mattino" (an existential mountaineering movement), the birth of sports climbing. What do you think was the conquest of your generation in the field of climbing?
I think I could insert myself in a period I would call in the middle, the link between two generations of climbers. I am happy to have lived my time and to have witnessed that mysticism which characterised the preceding period. I have confronted myself with the great names of that time: Raboutou, Moffatt, Atkinson, Nadin, Tribout. Climbing at that time was made of legends. There was a great need for inspirational models. I started climbing thanks to the magnetism of one particular personality. Now my legends have disappeared and the only point of reference is my passion and my desire to keep on going. I think that the new generations have the models of athletes to follow. What is missing today is the discovery of what is new, no longer a game for children but a sport for athletes.
Alberto, as a sports climber, but also as a good skier, how do you see the mountains? A sacred and slightly mystical place or a play ground where one day it will be possible to transport all that you do on the small crags in the lower valley?
The great rock faces which you look at when you are down below or the snowy peaks and great mountain spaces when I am about to take part in a ski race, make me understand how small we are in comparison to the great force of nature. So many of us need this strength, to challenge it and feel fulfilled in having done something that few people can do. I don’t think the big mountains are for me. It is a very dangerous game sometimes dictated by coincidences which if unfavourable can end in tragedy … and I want to be able to see the large, deep wrinkles on my face. Perhaps the big walls and the long, difficult routes will be my next objective. But it is always difficult to get away from the crags. For me it is the search for physical limits, to create extreme movements, the ability to make an attempt on a route at your limit after having fallen on the first hold. It is my drug, in life and in sport.
What do you think all these years dedicated to climbing have given you, at an interior level?
Everything I am today is the result of these twenty years of climbing. For better or for worse climbing has made me mature but above all has taught me that in everything you do, achievements only come after hard work. But to maintain these results the effort which you have to put in is even bigger. Personally in competitions, maybe for a variety of reasons, when I could have, I have never succeeded in giving the maximum but my personal victory today is of being still there at a high level on crags climbing! On the other hand you need to be careful in handling your own passions with great care as well as other things in order not to remain alone.
Thinking of the last two years, what effect does it have on you to finally see yourself on the covers of magazines? The media have only discovered you now, after your last 9a at Gressoney, or did it never bother you that other personalities had a lot more visibility? Just the other day a great alpinist said that to be good counted only 30%, the rest is the capacity to communicate, tell your story, know how to sell yourself. What do you think?
I don’t think the media have only noticed me now, in fact I must say that the specialised magazines have always presented me well. At the media level, to have a magazine cover represents almost the maximum for our little world and perhaps I would have deserved it more a few years ago when I was stronger. At that time however I was not able to handle and propose my image, but that is normal. When you are inside the mechanism of training and competitions too much, you need somebody who looks after your promotion and at times you do not understand how important it is to do it and not only for you but also for the growth of our sport. You need to act in such a way that you are talked about also in the external world and to do this sometimes you have to have the right connections and then this is where the concept comes out of the great alpinist who says that sometimes being strong only represents 30% of the cake. In any case there is money around and the athletes who get something out of it economically are few and not inclined to write and have photographs taken to be talked about. This is the example I have had with handling my personal web site devoting a space to interviews with climbing personalities. A project almost abandoned and now rarely used, it was such an effort to get people to write a few lines! We are inside a kind of small commercialism and if you do not know how to sell yourself no matter how good you are you cannot keep afloat.