Bernd Zangerl - A Bouldering Pioneer Interview

© Natalie Berry

Austrian boulderer Bernd Zangerl was at the forefront of the sport for many years. Having recently made the first ascent of a particularly risky highball problem named 29 dots in Valle Dell'Orco, we caught up with Bernd - currently living in the Himalaya - to find out what inspires him, his thoughts on the modern bouldering scene and what lies ahead for future bouldering pioneers.

Bernd Zangerl  © Ray Demski/Red Bull Content Pool
Bernd Zangerl
© Ray Demski/Red Bull Content Pool

"The pressure to report more outstanding performances is increasing and value will become more important than an idea. For me this illustrates a sad image of a sport which used to be characterised by individualism, creativity, freedom, and an exploratory spirit."

How did you get into climbing?

In 1994 Peter Grissemann, a local mountain guide (living in the same village where I grew up), saw me traversing, climbing around on an artificial wall on the roadside. He asked me if I wanted to try „real“ climbing. A few days later he taught me the basics at a local crag nearby. After that first day I wanted to climb as much as possible, and Peter had a new partner for his alpine adventures. That's how everything started...

I read that you started in alpine climbing but made a conscious decision to focus on bouldering - what prompted that decision?

As a 17 year old teenager I had a dramatic day on the Marmolada south wall (Dolomites, Italy). Halfway up: a rockfall. A table-sized piece of rock shattered beneath me into small pieces. Seconds before I was watching this piece of the Marmolada south wall falling in my direction. We were shocked by this incident, but decided to finish the climb. Later that day we lost our bearings due to heavy fog in the upper part of the wall. We lost track of the orginal line. Finally I was climbing up some wet and dirty chimneys, mixed with ice and snow without any possibility for protection. 

After that day I quit my alpine 'career' and focused on sport climbing. I put all my energy into it, dashed through the grades and two years later I made the first ascent of Tai Chi (8c, Lorüns, 1998). I tried my luck in competitions, participated at three world cups and at the first ice climbing competitions in Austria. Finally, in 1999 Thomas Steinbrugger took me down to Cresciano for my first boulder session. After that day on the boulders my rope stayed at home on climbing days and bouldering became my true passion. After trying so many disciplines of climbing, I finally found what I was searching for....

On the Grand Capucin  © Zangerl Collection
On the Grand Capucin
© Zangerl Collection

What is it about bouldering that you enjoy so much?

I love the whole experience of this sport. I love to be outside in nature, alone or sharing good times with friends. I love travelling and with my crash pad I have visited many countries all over the world. I love to search, to discover and decode unclimbed pieces of rock. I love to brush rocks and search for structures to hold on to. Bouldering is about creativity, pushing limits. It's my way of life. 

"For me bouldering is the “kindergarten”  - but also the pinnacle of climbing. It's the pureness of movement. The fascination, the “lust”  to try something exceptional, something which looks impossible at first sight...this keeps me on the rocks."

Fred Nicole seems to have been an inspiration for your own bouldering. What was it about his problems which made you want to repeat them? Was it purely because of the difficulty, or something else?

Fred Nicole, this visionary Master from Switzerland opened my eyes for climbing. The difficulty he was able to climb and the boulders he opened were a big inspiration for me. I saw what was possible on the rock. I had been climbing 8c sport routes at that time and I felt pretty strong after doing this. When I saw some of Fred's boulders I knew that the hardest moves in climbing can only be found close to the ground. 

Moreover, I enjoyed the small and relaxed ( – non-competitive- ) boulder-community of that time. In 1999 the boulder mania had not yet reached Europe yet. It was quiet in the woods, no topos and most of the problems had no grade at that time. We had our own grading system:  It goes, or it doesn't go! Quite a different mindset compared to today.

Your repeat of Dreamtime 8C threw you into the spotlight - but what do you consider your own personal career highlight and why?

It's hard to choose ONE highlight, after opening more than 700 lines in the last 15 years!

The FA of Shantaram (2013) is one of the most memorable moments of my career. 

This massive block on a remote, idyllic island near Trondheim literally dwarfed everything I'd done before…probably the most beautiful boulder in the world and one of the hardest. 23 hard moves without the opportunity to rest was a new level of intensity to me. 

Shantaram  © Radek Capek
© Radek Capek

Die Versorgungslinie (Autumn, 2015) 

This Autumn I finally completed a project where I have been working now for five years. What makes this climb even more special: GROUND - UP: without the opportunity to check out the uncompromising crux 4m above the deck, more than 150 tries were needed. 150 jumps, 150 falls; this was definitely the longest time I had to spend on a climb, and is my hardest FA so far. 

Die Versorgungslinie  © Ray Demski/Red Bull Content Pool
Die Versorgungslinie
© Ray Demski/Red Bull Content Pool

Anam Cara (2007) 

I also want to mention this climb located in the Silvapark Galtür (Austria)!  

(It has been downgraded because the repeater found a way to do the crux with a heel hook) 

With the FA of Anam Cara I proved to myself that the tendons of my ring finger had recovered from a complicated injury and that doctors and MRI`s can be wrong. Some doctors told me that I would never crimp again and that I had to stop bouldering.

You don't suggest grades for your problems anymore. Is it because your hardest problems were downgraded perhaps? I guess grading will always be so subjective!

The atmosphere has become too competitive. It seems as if grades and numbers are all that matter in bouldering or climbing in general. It is boring. With the notion of „personal grading“ the rating has lost its original purpose, anyway. Now grades serve more and more one's egotistic self-portrayal/ profiling. We should debate the purpose of today's grading system and what needs we want it to fulfil. I didn`t suggest grades because I didn't want to support the 'number-chasing game', but there is also another reason for not grading. If there is no number, places stay quieter. 

The downgrading of some of my boulders was not the problem. It was the "way“ everything started and how the community and media acted. In the end I (and also Fred Nicole) were indicted for inflation, for using overblown grades. I have opened more than 700 lines in the last 15 years. Some of them have been downgraded, some of them are still considered hard. Many of them haven't seen a 2nd ascent. It wasn't for the grades, that I spent all my time in Magic Wood, or other areas in Ticino brushing rocks. 

Bernd Zangerl: exploring new bouldering areas and different cultures  © Zangerl Collection
Bernd Zangerl: exploring new bouldering areas and different cultures
© Zangerl Collection

Grades were never meant to be objective and I don't think they ever will be objective. Progression in the sport is resulting in more and more subjective scales, but the community acts duplicitous when confronted with the topic: Depending on who is grading, or more importantly downgrading a problem, we accept the grade without any further discussions. The achievement of 11-year old Ashima Shiraishi climbing 8B boulders seems less  important for the community. Why? Is she a special case of climber, because of her age or weight, her finger-size?  But Ondra for example also has very specific physical preconditions, clearly differing from the average climber. Adam for sure can downgrade for example  “Shantaram”, skipping two crux moves because of his extraordinary ape index. I am interested in their grade suggestions, but which weight should it be attributed to in the public? Is the “brave” repeater the only voice which holds true? For me “Shantaram” is one of the biggest highlights of my climbing career. It's an extraordinary climb and way harder than anything else I did before. (Personal grade: 8C/8C+) 

In high end bouldering it often comes down to one single hard move, physical preconditions and personal style play a crucial role, making the grading more subjective than for example in sport climbing. We will always have our individual physical preconditions, our own style, preferences and strengths. So, either we change the grading system, or the idea of grading. Until then, we just can try to make the grades as good as possible, as fair as possible, as honest as possible. I don`t give a sh*t, if the “+” behind the 8a is authorised, because nobody can really tell.

Tell us a bit about 29 dots!

Since my first visit to Valle Dell Òrco back in 2011 this stunning piece of granite was captured in my mind. Years before, Tony Lamprecht bolted a short sport climb far left on the same rock. Every time I passed the area, I stopped, I looked, but the idea went away.  

This year I stopped again and decided to rappel down. There were some ''safe“ crimps on the upper part of the wall. At the bottom I found some razorblade holds to start. After three goes my fingers were bleeding. After a few days of effort I was finally halfway up the wall, but I didn't find any features to get into the headwall. The 'Drop Zone' was also very close to a steel girder, lying on the ground. Some falls later I decided to check this sequence with a rope. It took me two days to find a safe solution. I put the rope away and started again ground up. A week later I made the first ascent of 29dots with the mental support of Danilo, a local from Noasca. 

Bernd on 29dots  © Zangerl Collection
Bernd on 29dots
© Zangerl Collection

29dots is the most amazing highball I have ever done. It's so pure. If only one crimp breaks, the line might be not possible any more. But 29dots is dangerous. I even thought about stashing six or more mondo pads on the ground which I have seen in Bishop and other areas. I put two pads on the ground on the first ascent, as we always do in Magic Wood or Cresciano. Falling from a certain height is never an option. i used two pads and one little pad to start with! In the drop zone there are only two pads, but you can see a little one lying at the start...just to be British ;-) 

Why does highball bouldering appeal to you so much?

After more than 20 years on the rocks I have experience. I have a strong mind and a good feeling for granite. But highballs are always special moments in my life. It's a fine line. It must be a very inspiring piece of rock and I only have ONE reason to do it. When mind (control) and feeling comes together it's 99% safe. 

You have spent a lot of time introducing young people to bouldering. Why do you think bouldering is a good sport for kids to begin?

As a child it was normal for me to climb trees, walls... whatever! It was a natural way of playing and lots of fun. I think it's very important to enable this approach to the kids and teenagers today too. As kids are spending more and more time in front of their Playstations and on the internet, they are more likely to suffer from movement deficits and feel bad about their bodies. It is therefore especially important to inspire them to enjoy sports. Bouldering is a great way to train the whole body. In addition, technique and coordination skills are improved. By doing this playfully, kids develop motivation rapidly to solve smaller problems and enjoy this way of climbing around.

Kyrgyzstan Bouldering  © Zangerl Collection
Kyrgyzstan Bouldering
© Zangerl Collection

I want to mention that I don't support those "training camps“, where seven year old kids are following a training programme! 

What are you doing in the Himalaya? Is there some good bouldering potential there?

I am exploring, meeting other people, other cultures, going bouldering and climbing. In the Himalaya I refreshed my love for the mountains, for bouldering. I do exactly what I did many years ago, were there were no guides and no grades in Ticino or Magic Wood. I am searching, brushing and developing new areas...

The Himalaya might be the biggest playground for the future. You can be sure to find some good potential there. :-) 

Uzbekistan Bouldering  © Zangerl Collection
Uzbekistan Bouldering
© Zangerl Collection

"Some athletes spend more time on social media, than on the rocks, because the smart use of various media channels, particularly web 2.0, enables almost everyone to reach a certain reputation by merely spending a few hours per day on the web."

What do you think about the top-end bouldering scene today? In which direction do you see the sport heading?

There is still space for increasing the difficulty. The kids nowadays start climbing very early. The knowledge about training has increased, as have the opportunities. Now boys and girls need to prepare indoors, train certain muscles for certain movement patterns. We will see a lot more talented climbers in the future. Just recently I saw this young girl from Slovenia showing the best female boulderer in the circuit what the future looks like. 

There is a trend towards longer boulders, i.e. sequences of multiple hard moves and combinations of existing problems. In parallel, single moves can still get more difficult. I think the size of the holds will play a minor role here, whereas body tension and acrobatics will be more important. The holds can't get much smaller, but the walls can still get steeper. There is a bunch of extraordinarily strong people climbing at a very high level. I am impressed how many hard lines they can climb in a season. I miss the peaks, the outstanding performances, the visionary ideas in bouldering. 

Bernd Zangerl: A Bouldering Pioneer  © Ray Demski/Red Bull Content Pool
Bernd Zangerl: A Bouldering Pioneer
© Ray Demski/Red Bull Content Pool

Generally, the pressure to report more outstanding performances is increasing and value will become more important than an idea. For me this illustrates a sad image of a sport which used to be characterised by individualism, creativity, freedom, an exploratory spirit, etc.

There is high pressure in the outdoor industry, so there is also high pressure within the sport itself. Nowadays it's more important to wear the right clothes of the right brand with the right colours. You have to visit the "bouldering hot spots“ of the world and share your private moments on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Some athletes spend more time on social media, than on the rocks, because the smart use of various media channels, particularly web 2.0, enables almost everyone to reach a certain reputation by merely spending a few hours per day on the web. This was definitely not the case ten years ago. 

Watch a video of Bernd on his highball problem 'Unknown - Ungraded' and on Shantaram below:

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20 Dec, 2015
Interesting his comments about web 2.0 and climber's use of social media. I notice that Alex Megos, who initially said he was not into social media, now has a Facebook account. It makes me think that perhaps its more to do with pressure from sponsors rather than the climbers themselves. After all it's not really about how many accounts you have set up. If you're not doing something pretty exceptional no one's going to be interested enough to follow you.
20 Dec, 2015
I wouldn't be so sure, look at Sierra Blair-Coyle for instance, from what I've read she specializes in bouldering and yet the hardest she's climbed is V9, which is not really cutting-edge, even among female climbers if you compare her to Puccio or Shiraishi. Her Facebook page looks like the Instagram of some random glitter-loving starlet and yet she has ten times as many fans as Shiraishi and 100,000 more than Honnold.
21 Dec, 2015
Are those figures correct? I'm surprised just because I thought Honnold was now super famous after he was the subject of a mainstream TV documentary. I would have thought he'd be far more well known than even Shiraishi. As he says, his style of climbing, soloing, is easy for the non climbing public to understand. Presumably Blair Coyle's popularity is all down to bikini videos and thus attracts a large non climbing audience. I struggle to think of what else would get people to follow a climber's web page though unless they were making big news in the climbing media first.
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