© Robert Bösch
Regularly described as one of the world’s best all-round climbers, Barbara ‘Babsi’ Zangerl is known for her boundary-pushing versatility across trad climbing, big wall climbing, alpine routes, sport climbs and bouldering.
The 31-year-old Austrian was the first woman to climb an 8b grade bouldering route, the first woman to free climb El Capitan’s Magic Mushroom route (as part of only the second ever free ascent with partner Jacopo Larcher) and the first woman to nail the Alpine Trilogy of 5.14a sport routes.
When I got in touch with Babsi she was in Yosemite waiting for bad weather to clear up so she could climb The Nose on El Cap. During her downtime she was able to answer my questions on fear, free climbing and sending what at first seems impossible. Enjoy!
When did you fall in love with climbing?
I began climbing at the age of 14 when my brother brought me to the local climbing gym. I enjoyed climbing from the very ﬁrst minute and quickly became obsessed with the sport. Later on, I met Bernd Zangerl (no relation). He was already a professional rock climber at this time and took my sister Claudia and me from the gym to rock climbing. Together we checked out the various boulder regions in Austria and Switzerland.
I can very well remember my ﬁrst rock face experience. Back then I could hardly imagine that climbing on a natural surface could be so much better than what I did before. It was an incisive experience for me and whenever possible next to school, I spent time climbing outside. All my free time I spent on bouldering for six years and travelled to the different bouldering areas around the world.
You suffered a herniated disc 10 years ago. How did this change your climbing?
It changed my life. At this time I was just a boulder fanatic who spent all my free time on bouldering. After the injury I had to stop bouldering for a very long time. That opened my eyes— I had to change and accept that I couldn’t keep on doing what I loved so much at this time. The rehab was quite long and hard but I learned a lot about taking more care of my body/listening to my body.
One of my rehab exercises was rope climbing – this was actually the reason why I started rope climbing. First I got more and more into Sport climbing and after a while I found out that climbing has much more to offer. I searched for bigger adventures and got ﬁnally into big wall climbing and started to love to do all different styles of climbing. That was the key to stay motivated for climbing all year-round. There was always something new to learn, where I had to start at a very low level—for example, crack climbing. Or the mental challenge in trad or big wall climbing… that’s been very exciting from the beginning onwards!
You’ve free climbed several iconic routes including El Cap’s Magic Mushroom. Do you get nervous? And is the mental process different when you’re free climbing?
When I ﬁrst stood in front of El Capitan I couldn’t imagine that I will be able to free climb this gigantic granite wall. I’ve had this feeling quite often in my climbing career. At ﬁrst most of those big projects looked impossible to me. But after I started to try them, I got more and more used to the style and to the exposure. After the ﬁrst impressions and after some days, I often came to the point that I could imagine there’s a chance I could climb these routes.
This process is very interesting to me. It is a big journey. Every route or wall is different. There is always a big question mark in front of it. Is it too hard? Is there a single move for what I am simply not strong enough, or are the weather conditions alright? You never know! That’s exciting. All those routes are great memories which remind me of very good times with people I love to climb and hang out with.
So, for sure, I am nervous approaching a new big wall! Big wall climbing comes with a lot of work as well, hauling all your gear and food/water – approximately 100kg – up the wall. Organising all that is already kind of a challenge. So it is very different compared to a simple cragging day out on the rocks.
How much of your preparation for a big climb is done off the wall – do you visualise routes ahead of a free climb?
In a hard project, the most important step is to just go and try the route. We love to try a wall ground up first, climbing through the whole line once to get a good overview about all the hard pitches. And then we work more on the single cruxes. So there is not much of a strategy before we even know the route, except organising the gear and food/water we need on the wall.
But after I know the route, I try to remember all the single moves and footholds of the hard pitches. That can be more than 1500 sometimes. I visualise the moves in my mind over and over. For the final push we plan approximately how many days it will take us to free climb such a route. We always take extra food/water for an extra day, in case of weather issues. Then we go and try our best. So there’s not a lot of preparation off the wall besides organising and carrying the gear, food, portaledge, portable restroom etc to the bottom of the wall.
If it’s an easier big wall you just organise all the gear and food/water you will need and then go for it! That’s it. So you try to climb it in one single push (most of the pitches on sight), without any extra days for working on single pitches.
How often do you experience fear during your climbs?
If I just go sport climbing in a crag I don’t feel scared anymore. When I started sport climbing, I was scared about falling all the time. But after the years climbing on a lot of different big walls, I lost the fear of falling on a sport route.
But for sure, on a big wall I have to get used to the exposure. Normally I go and climb and try hard on the route or project I want to climb. I take a lot of falls while working on the project. This makes me feel less scared. Staying on a wall, having the exposure and the trying hard and falling—that is the best training in my opinion. It’s not that I am losing the feeling of fear. It’s more about that you can accept it better and you know that most of the time the risk you feel is way bigger than the risk you actually have.
Also on trad climbs, which are way more dangerous compared to sport climbing, I feel scared. It’s always a big mental challenge. But this is exactly what I love about climbing. It’s not only about our physical shape, it’s way more about our mental mindset.
Let’s talk about your Magic Mushroom free climb of El Capitan. Can you describe the route?
Most of the route is hard chimney climbing. So you are right in those dihedrals trying to make your way up to the next belay. For me, it felt like fighting for every single inch to stay in there. Pressing your back against the wall and smearing your shoes against the other side of the corner. The hardest is to find friction footholds. You can hardly see any on the hard pitches. About 13 pitches harder than 5.13b. That was a real challenge.
You’ve said it all looked impossible at first. Do you find this sort of climb an exciting challenge or does it becoming mentally draining?
I would have never thought that I would be able to climb all those pitches free. First, I just wanted to go and check the route out without having the goal to free climb it. I really was impressed about the direct line through the steepest part of the wall. So I had no expectations at all. I just could surprise myself with any free climbing on this one. I didn’t have the feeling of pressure when I started to try Magic Mushroom. I love the fact that there is always a big question mark at the beginning of an adventure. You never know how it will turn out. Possible or impossible; that makes the whole thing more exciting.
On Magic Mushroom it turned out to be a real mental challenge and maybe a bit too much of an excitement. I was so doubtful and anxious that pitch 27, named Seven Seas, the last hard 5.14a pitch before the top, could mean the end of my journey. I had sent everything until this point. And it was just 60 metres below the summit. To be so close to send and at the same time so far away, that was mentally draining and I felt a lot of pressure at this point because I already invested so much time and energy and it felt so close. My excitement was bigger than ever, and never before I had felt such a desire to climb a route. Thoughts about failure and having to return another year seemed to be absurd at this time.
Can you talk through how you finally managed to crack Seven Seas?
Before our final push on Magic Mushroom, I spent three full days on it, which turned out to be the most difficult for me. My feet kept slipping off the greasy rock in overstretched positions and I could not keep up my body tension. I kept trying, found three solutions and each one felt way too hard to be climbed coming from the bottom. My optimism quickly dwindled. In addition to that, time was running out. We had already changed our flights, but we only had two weeks left meaning one single chance would be all we would get.
On our final push we reached pitch 27, climbing everything until this point free. And my first try immediately confirmed my concerns: I still was not able to maintain my body tension and kept slipping off. I kept trying and trying, hoping that it would start to feel easier at some point, but it didn’t. It was hard to accept and giving in was not yet an option. Half an hour later, the same story again. Like waking up to reality from a dream, I could not manage to hold back my emotions and went off cursing and swearing for at least ten minutes before I regained my composure. I knew I was too tired for another attempt, but my head would not let me give in without looking for yet another possibility. And it was my head, indeed, that finally became the key to climbing the crux! Pressing it against the left protruding side of the crack, under my elbow, enabled me to statically put my foot on the crucial smeary foothold. That was the key to send!
After another rest day I managed to climb the “Seven Seas” and our cries of joy echoed from El Capitan in the first light of the morning.
You were on El Capitan for nearly 30 days in total. What is portaledge life like?!
It’s really similar to camping on the ground. Just more exposed and not much space to move. It’s kind of a challenge to bring delicious fresh food. For dinners we mostly had Dryfood; dried meals where you only have to add boiled water. We tried to mix it up with fresh food but that was limited! But anyway the food tastes amazing up there—just don’t forget the peanut butter! The view is always amazing and the life up there pretty simple: Climb, haul the bags, set-up the ledge, eat, sleep, repeat. Going to the restroom is not the fun part of living on the wall…
What do you find the most challenging element of free climbing/big wall climbing?
Hauling all our stuff up the wall, which can be very tiring; climbing hard; sometimes it can be really scary to climb on long runouts or bad protection (long distances between protection). Weather conditions can make a climb much harder or more dangerous as well.
You’re a ‘ground up’ climber – is this about respecting traditions or the challenge of the unknown?
Both. In my opinion that is the best style to approach a big wall. It’s the logical way to climb ground up and a better adventure to climb into the unknown, but for sure it takes more effort mentally and physically. For example, if I’d abseiled down on Magic Mushroom to try the crux pitches first, I probably would have never free climbed it. I am pretty sure I would have given up on that one.
What does your training look like during good weather seasons – do you ever spend time in the gym or do you save that for winter?
I spend time in the gym during winter. Usually I focus on gym training 2-3 month in winter and mix it up with skiing. From spring to autumn, I spend most of the time on the rocks.
During the winter what does your training regime involve?
I train 4-5 times a week. Mostly in the bouldering gym. I do bouldering circles (focusing on different kind of holds), power training which includes campus board work, and at the end of the training season I do some endurance training (climbing routes).
What are your favourite items of kit for climbing?
Black Diamond Solution Harness, BD Camelots, Gorilla grip chalk, Skwama climbing shoes, 8.9 pink BD rope, and my Vapor Helmet.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
Black Diamond is my main sponsor (Gear and Apparel), La Sportiva (shoes), Vibram (rubber), verival (organic food), Power bar (bars), friction labs (climbing chalk), Faza Brushes and Climbskin (skincare)
What climbs are on your bucket list and have you any plans for the rest of this year?
We are in the Yosemite Valley right now—trying to climb ‘The Nose’ on El Cap.
I would love to visit Patagonia to climb there. Open a new route; Expedition-style, that would be a dream. Visiting Madagascar for a big wall trip…. And climbing the Eiger in a single day. Or climbing El Cap in a day… Oh so many! I can’t stop 🙂