On breaking through plateaus, training, the First Female Ascent and the world’s best pizza with Austrian crusher Barbara Zangerl
Though Alex Honnold refers to her as “one of the strongest climbers in the world,” Babsi is far from a household name, even among core climbers.
In an age when we know what many pro climbers had for a snack today (Honnold: six cookies), this Austrian native, who’s gone from elite boulderer to big wall phenom, remains a dark horse. For now. And, as you’ll see in this interview, she’s a thoroughly stoked climber’s climber.
Ed. Note: Ask a Badass is a unique interview platform collaboration between Mountain Project + Black Diamond. Each month, a BD athlete hangs out in the MP forum answering your questions and awarding swag. Watch Mountain Project’s forum or Facebook to get involved.
Mason Stone: Why do you climb?
I love this sport. I love the challenge, the adventure. I love traveling, meeting new people, hanging out in random places and sharing all this with good people. It is fun!!! I like to work on my fear, too.
MikeY999: Do you have any routines that you follow to help you get ready for a hard climb?
I always tie in on the left side of the belay loop. I always put on my left shoe first. I slap my hands on the rock to get my hands warm before trying a hard route. I also try to remember all the single moves of my project, going through them in my mind. And coffee before hard training.
Seth Monteleone: Since making the third free ascent of Zodiac, are there any other classic aid lines you would want to get the First Free Ascent on?
Hey Seth, of course I am interested in other routes! But it would be a real master challenge to make a First Free Ascent on El Cap. First, I want to go back to climb another great “already freed” line on El Cap. There are so many…
MarcYY: How does it feel to go from being “just” a sponsored athlete with a smaller following to a more mainstream athlete with the push from Black Diamond in all the promotional videos? Does it affect your life for the better or worse?
I never aimed to be a professional climber. But of course Black Diamond helped a lot to promote me in the U.S. for which I am really thankful. Not because it is important to me to be well known—it just makes it easier to live as a professional climber. It is a gift that I can be a pro climber, doing what I love the most and making a living out of it. So it does affect my life positively, and I am proud to work with great companies where I can be myself and choose my projects on my own.
Willis K: Are there any people in particular who inspired you to become the climber you are today? Who or what do you look to when you need to recharge?
I was really lucky that I had the best mentors when I started climbing. It helped a lot to watch them climb and get inspired. And after I injured my back [Babsi suffered a herniated disc in 2009], I started sport and multi pitch climbing, I was sooooo motivated to try out something new. So, for me, it was always easy to keep my psych high. In climbing, there are so many different styles and you always have a new challenge. If I didn’t mix it up, I would lose my motivation. And at the moment, I also have a “normal” job. I work a few days as a radiographer which is a good recharge as well, just doing something completely different from climbing.
Aaron Formella: Is the strategy of relying on the idea of “cross-over” a worthwhile training pursuit? Basically, that a goal of climbing something like The Zodiac can be achieved faster by building fitness via sport-climbing and transitioning that fitness into trad climbing than by just continually climbing trad routes and trying to improve that way. Also, how do you train for cracks?
I think in general it is important to be in good shape for bouldering and sport climbing—that helps for every style of climbing. Training in the gym for a period, then going to try your hardest project, climbing it and heading straight back to the gym is not that what I am a fan of. It can work for sport climbing but not so much for big walls and alpine. I have a different approach to rock climbing: In my opinion, you only become a better rock climber, and a more experienced climber in general, if you spend a lot of time outdoors doing a lot of different routes, especially when it comes to trad climbing.
When it comes to crack climbing, in Europe we don’t have gyms with cracks so the only possibility to learn crack climbing is to go outdoors and try real cracks. There are two bigger areas in Europe that are perfect for crack climbing, but compared to the U.S., we have fewer possibilities to learn crack climbing. Maybe this is the reason why Europeans often suck on crack climbing!!! Haha.
Indian Creek. Maybe this is the only real place where you can’t avoid proper jamming; there aren’t any face holds at all. To spend some weeks in that place—that is the best way to become a better crack climber. And I would recommend going there first before you go to Yosemite—then you will definitely have more fun climbing in Yosemite.
Nick Grant: Growing up in Austria, I assume that you must have done quite a bit of climbing, skiing and hiking in the Alps. Is there a big wall or high peak in the Alps that is similar to climbing on El Cap? Or are the two mountain environments completely different?
Yes, we have a lot of big wall climbing around Austria. But you can’t compare the big walls in the Alps to El Cap. El Cap is such an impressive piece of rock, it is hard to find something similar where you just have 10-minute approach to the wall. When it comes down to approach and weather conditions, El Cap is one of the easiest big walls. In the Alps, it is often more alpine and hard to trust the weather forecast for longer than two days. The rock quality in the Dolomites in Italy can be tricky with a lot of loose rock (on Tre Cime, for example) but on the other side, at the Marmolada, the south facing rock is bomber. On many of the biggest walls in the Alps, like the Eiger, you need also experience in ice climbing.
Of course, there are also places where the walls are smaller and the conditions are easier, like Rätikon, Wendenstöcke, Ticino, Wilder Kaiser or Loferer Steinplatte. Here you can find good rock and one-day climbs on bolted big walls. The granite walls of Chamonix are really impressive as well.
Gavin W: I’m curious about your opinion on First Female Ascents (FFA).
The First Female Ascent is not really important to me. That won’t be a motivation for me to try a special route, just to be the first women doing it. Of course, it is a cool side-effect, and sometimes that makes sense; if you are the first women climbing a hard special route or a new grade. It works pretty well for the marketing of a professional climber, but there are other aspects [of climbing] that are much more important to me. It’s more like I want to try an impressive wall, a different style, an impressive-looking piece of rock. Or I just get impressed with what another woman has climbed, and I also want to try the route because the lines are looking great and offer me a new adventure.
There are so many routes around where you can make FFAs, but sometimes it is really not something special because sometimes there aren’t many women who try the routes. Where I live, I could call a lot of routes, especially sport climbs, FFAs, but I don’t mention that because it’s really not something special, as there are not that many girls trying those routes.
For me personally, it is no less impressive or inspirational when you repeat a route that a woman did before you or if you are the first female to climb it. What really makes a difference is when you make the first ascent. I think that is a different game and that is for sure a bigger challenge than repeating something.
Old lady H: As a true badass, you get to have great photographers around. What are your all time favorite photos? Or, are the snapshots you or your partners take more meaningful?
Yes, pictures remind you of the good times! For me, mostly the unprofessional pics we take on a big wall adventure or from a great climbing day. It is definitely worth it to always have your phone in your pocket to snap the best moments.
Austin Baird: Babsi, forget all those other questions. New York style or Chicago deep dish pizza? Which is the true pizza and which is heretical garbage?
Good question! Hehe. Italian Pizza!!!! There is no pizza in the U.S. that can compete with the real Italian one! SORRY!
Sydney Droegemeier: In thinking back on your climbing career, what’s helped you through any plateaus you’ve found yourself in? What gets you unstuck when you’re feeling stuck?
I didn’t feel stuck for a long time, but sometimes you train a lot and you don’t really get better. This is part of the game! Sometimes I have good days, and sometimes, bad. I feel pretty weak or not motivated, or I feel super scared. There are up and downs. You gain experiences, and you learn to become a better climber in different ways. I always go back on those routes on which I don’t feel comfortable, to work on them and try to get further. Fall less, feel less scared, work on single moves to reach an intermediate goal. Sometimes, it is just awesome to resolve a single sequence.
Fan Zhang: I always end up bringing too much food, which slows me down on the approach. Do you have suggestions for how to strike the right balance between going light and staying well fed?
I have the same problem! I always bring too much food. I often bring couscous, avocado and eggs. And I never forget the Italian cheese :-). I know that is really heavy stuff, but I can’t eat dry food for more than three days. So I mix it up with two days of dry food and then a normal day with couscous. And I love to bring freeze-dried berries and oatmeal for breakfast.
BigNobody: Where is your favorite place to climb? Do you have a favorite route?
I love Yosemite, Rocklands in South Africa, The Alps and Indian Creek. There are so many cool routes I can’t choose a single one. Delicatessen (5.13) in Ceuse was awesome. Or Zodiac on El Cap. Silbergeier (5.14) in Rätikon. Hotel Supramonte (5.13d) in Sardinia. The Fish (a 37-pitch 5.12c) on the Marmolada. I count all of these routes among the best I have ever climbed.
ClimbingOn: When climbing long, difficult free routes, how do you and your partner keep laughing and having fun?
Normally we don’t take it too seriously. When we started to try Zodiac, I thought, “It’s too hard for me to redpoint this route anyway.” At the beginning, I thought I had no chance to connect the moves on the crux pitches, so it was important to just enjoy the time up there, believing that it doesn’t matter if we finally reach our goal or not. The best on El Cap is to stay on the wall for days—that is so cool just by itself. That it is always a great adventure, and it doesn’t matter if you stand on the top at the end or not. But it is always a big exciting puzzle, and the closer we get to finishing it, the more motivated we are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full, unabridged version here.
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