With breathtaking maneuvers in alpine and big wall climbing, this Austrian crusher is one of the best all-around climbers in the world
In July 2018, about halfway up The Shadow, a 7c+/5.13a in Squamish, Canada, Barbara 'Babsi' Zangerl took a quick rest in the granite dihedral by pushing against the wall on either side. She removes her feet from the wall and dangles them below for a few seconds. At 5 foot 3 inches (160cm) tall, with light brown hair, Babsi’s petite build belies the strength it requires to hold her entire body up simply by pressing outward with her palms. The rock resembles an open book, and with no large holes or features, she must rely purely on the friction between the rock and her hands and feet to move upward.
The 165-foot (50-meter) route is slightly less than vertical, so most of her weight is directed into her toes, creating enormous force on her calves; this stemming corner demands she rest her feet and calves as much as possible. She starts climbing again, a delicate and subtle dance of figuring out just the right amount of counterpressure—shifting her weight between palm presses and imperceptible foot nubs. She had rehearsed these moves several times over the last few days. She is stubborn; her motivation only increases when she cannot figure out the right sequence. It is this determination and focus that earned her the nickname “The Technician”—she is known for throwing herself at seemingly impossible moves until she can do them once, twice, three times.
After several feet of climbing on The Shadow, the thin crack in the corner of the open book opens up slightly, and Babsi can fit her small fingers into it. She jams her digits in, torquing them into the fissure and removing her feet from the wall again. Hanging purely on the finger locks, she flutter-kicks her feet back and forth to rest her calves again, looking calm and collected despite the pain she must be feeling.
The Shadow is well below the hardest route Babsi has ever sent, but it is a benchmark climb in a notoriously difficult style, and Babsi ticked it on her first redpoint attempt. Her trip to Squamish, along with her boyfriend and climbing partner Jacopo Larcher, was in the midst of an impressive year of climbing for Babsi. Eight months earlier, she and Jacopo made the second free ascent (first female ascent for her) of Magic Mushroom (8b+/5.14a) on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California.
At 31 pitches and almost 3,000 feet (900 meters), Magic Mushroom was long considered the hardest route on El Cap until the Dawn Wall was climbed in 2015. It took the duo, who live together in Bludenz, Austria, 11 days to complete the line, both battling their own personal cruxes. Babsi notes that route as her proudest climbing achievement: “I got sick on the wall after the first day on our final push. I couldn’t eat for three days because of gastritis. I had some really hard days where I questioned the whole thing. I almost gave up 80 meters below the top because of a single move I struggled with. We invested the longest time in this climb, and I could stand together with Jacopo on top. We both climbed it together, and it was the best, most beautiful line I have done on El Cap.”
The month before the Squamish trip, she had just climbed her first 9a/5.14d sport route when she ticked Speed Intégrale in Voralpsee, Switzerland. Then the month after Squamish, in August 2018, Jacopo and Babsi would free a 33-pitch route on the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger called Odyssee. They did the 33 pitches ground-up in four days, meaning they never returned to the ground while both sending the 4,600-foot (1,400-meter) 8a+/5.13c. Babsi and Jacopo are a unique climbing team in that their goal is to individually lead each hard pitch of a rock climb. Whereas other notable climbing duos will swap leads, meaning one of them climbs it cleanly on lead and the other climbs it cleanly on the top rope, Babsi and Jacopo will keep trying and pulling the rope until they have each done every crux pitch on the sharp end. Sometimes one sends and the other doesn’t. “For sure there are moments, like on the Pre-Muir wall, where it is a little frustrating.”
In June 2019, they attempted the 8b/5.13d route on El Capitan. With a crazy stemming corner, similar to The Shadow, Babsi was able to free all 34 pitches, but Jacopo came up short. “Jacopo got so close on the corner pitch but fell at the very end, then got too tired to climb it finally,” she says. “We didn’t finish that line together. It is definitely a different experience and half as good compared to succeeding together on a climb. But in the end, it is the quality time together on the wall that makes that experience great.” Sending Pre-Muir marked Babsi’s fourth free ascent of El Capitan at age 31. Five months later she and Jacopo both sent El Cap’s most famous line: The Nose (8b+/5.14a). She now has five free ascents of El Capitan—many elite big wall climbers try an entire lifetime to free climb it once.
With such a mind-blowing big wall and alpine résumé (she is one of few climbers—and the first woman—who has climbed the Alpine Trilogy, a trifecta of long, high-altitude 8b+/5.14a routes in the Alps), it is hard to believe Babsi got her to start climbing in the gym. Her older brother, Udo, took her and her sister, Claudia, to the gym in the village of Flirsch am Arlberg, 10 minutes away from where she grew up in Strengen, Austria. She started going to the gym three times a week and improved quickly, eventually going outside to combine her new love for climbing with a Zangerl family passion for the mountains. After six years of climbing, she ticked Pura Vida, an 8A+/8B (V12/V13) boulder problem in Magic Wood, Switzerland.
Around that time, a back injury forced Babsi to stop bouldering and start sport climbing. After a year of that, she tried trad climbing. Her first trad route was Super Crill, a nine-pitch 8a/5.13b in Ticino, Switzerland, in 2012 (most trad climbers go their whole lives and never climb anything even near this level of difficulty). She was motivated by the new types of challenges she found with long trad routes in the mountains: placing her own gear, climbing on exposed walls, getting scared, overcoming her fears, and forgetting about falling. She continued to trad climb, visiting places like the Dolomites, Indian Creek, and Yosemite Valley. While she still loves all types of climbing, she has found the perfect recipe for challenge and difficulty in big walls. She and Jacopo plan to climb big walls in Madagascar, Pakistan, and Patagonia in the coming years.
“In the end, every single discipline is important to climb on those big walls. You definitely need to boulder to figure out the single sequences. You need the power-endurance of sport climbing, and you need to keep it all together from the mental point of view. It definitely was a long learning process. With gaining experience I got more confident in doing what I love the most, and sharing all this with good people that lead to unforgettable moments.”