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Zach Galla, 3rd at Bouldering Nationals, Sends Grand Illusion (V16)

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Zach Galla, who placed third at the U.S. Bouldering Nationals in Salt Lake City last week, has joined the V16 club, sending Nathaniel Coleman’s Grand Illusion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, after more than a dozen days of work.

A full-time setter at The Front gym, in Salt Lake City, Galla grew up in a small town called Suwanee, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, where he trained at the Stone Summit Gyms, cut his teeth on Chattanoogan sandstone, and made yearly pilgrimages out west. Until he tore his labrum last winter (while making a tick-tock video of a paddle dyno), Galla had been steadily racking up an impressive list of hard outdoor boulders, including sends of Jimmy Webb’s Squoze (V14/15) in Red Rock, Nevada, and Daniel Woods’s The Game (V15) in Boulder Canyon, Colorado. After missing most of 2021’s spring season, Galla surprised himself at the Bouldering World Cup in Salt Lake City this past summer, making semi-finals and then finals—the first time he’d done either at the World Cup level.

It was during that trip to Utah that he began his process with Grand Illusion, sending it from the V13 start, Euro Roof Low. But only after relocating to Salt Lake City four months ago did he dive headfirst into the full line, logging numerous days on the boulder, building up fitness, and doing battle with the weather.

When Climbing spoke with Galla over the phone last week, he’d just placed third at U.S. Nationals, behind Colin Duffy and Ben Hanna. During our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, Galla spoke at length about his process on the climb, his plans for the future, and what it’s like to live in Salt Lake City, the hub of competition climbing in America.

(Photo: Sean Faulkner)

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Climbing: You just got third in Bouldering Nationals and sent your first V16. How do you balance outdoor climbing and comps? They’re very different training regimens, right?

Galla: Definitely. I feel like I’m in really good rock-climbing shape right now, but I feel a little out of practice on the more compy slabs. So I was a bit nervous at Nationals. But it ended up working out okay. Recently, it’s been tough to find extra time to train for the comps, since my main focus has been Grand Illusion. Little Cottonwood Canyon is about to get snowed in for the winter, so I felt a little time pressure.

Climbing: What was your process on Grand Illusion like?

Galla: Right before the Salt Lake World Cups, this past summer, I ended up doing the V13 start—the Chris Sharma start—and I did it pretty quickly. I didn’t try the lower moves, but I knew that the V13 was the crux of the full boulder, and I could see myself doing it when I was more tired. When I moved out to Salt Lake City [four months ago] Grand Illusion was the first thing I ended up trying. It was still a little hot, but I think that ended up working in my favor because I gained a lot of fitness climbing on it. I started getting closer as the temps started getting better. Towards the end of the process, it started getting sketchy with the weather. The snow would come in and it would be wet for a couple of days. Overall it took me 14 days or so—I didn’t count the number of sessions, so I wouldn’t stress myself out about it. I had a take-it-slow mindset. From my house, it’s only a 20-minute drive to the parking. I could go over and give a few attempts after work. So it was kind of a relaxing process. The most stressful part was the impending snow.

Climbing: Have you had past projects where the process became a bit burdensome?

Galla: Definitely. My second longest project before this was The Game in Boulder, Colorado. The Game took me slightly fewer days [than Grand Illusion], but since I didn’t live in Colorado, I was always climbing it on trips, and I felt like I had an obligation to get it done in a set amount of time. With Grand Illusion I knew that even if I didn’t send this season, I’d have a really good chance once the snow melted. But of course, I didn’t want to have to wait until May.

Climbing: Grand Illusion is quite a long problem, while The Game seems to revolve around a few really hard moves. Do you find that there’s a difference in your process when the boulders are shorter or longer? Is one easier, mentally, than the other?

Galla: Grand Illusion is the first super hard boulder I’ve done in like that long, power-endurance style—and it was kind of frustrating in some ways. Typically with boulders like this, you do all the moves pretty quickly—so you know you’re capable of doing the climb—but you’re limited by your efficiency and fitness, whereas on shorter climbs, there are generally a lot more subtleties in the hard moves, and it takes more time to learn how to do them. Previously I was more psyched on shorter climbs. But trying Grand Illusion for so long and getting all the moves wired was a really rewarding process. So I’m going to try to carry my Grand Illusion fitness into some sport climbs and see what the process feels like on those.

(Photo: Sean Faulkner)

Climbing: Do you have any specific sport climbing goals?

Galla: I’m really stoked to check out the Pop Tire Cave. There are a number of hard, bouldery routes there, so maybe I can have a shot at them even though I’m primarily a boulderer. I’d like to try Ace of Spades [a 5.15a established by James Litz]. But I don’t really have any specific goals in mind. I’ve actually never done a 5.14 before—so I’ve got almost no experience on a rope outside. I just want to sample some harder sport climbs.

Climbing:  What was the send-day like? You competed earlier that day in Lead Nationals, right?

Galla: Well, in the morning I had no intention of trying Grand Illusion. I had a nice warm up in isolation, but then didn’t have the best day on the lead semifinal route, so I wasn’t too exhausted from my effort, and I wasn’t qualified for the final that night. So I checked the weather and saw that there was supposed to be snow up in the canyon on the day of the bouldering final—three days later—so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to try Grand Illusion when the comp was over.

I was still warm when I got to the boulder, but most of the holds below the V13 were a little damp. I wondered if there was even a point in trying, since I’d seen the holds like that before and had struggled to get them dry. But I worked on them a bit with the fan and then decided to give it a try. In my head, I was limiting myself to two tries, since it wasn’t super good conditions and I had the bouldering comp coming up. The fact that everything about the day seemed so unlikely took a lot of the pressure off. It wasn’t like, “Oh man, everything’s lining up, I gotta do this.” I felt like I climbed with no pressure, and everything clicked.

Climbing: That seems to be a theme for people projecting limit things: On days when you’re a little tired or the conditions aren’t ideal you end up like sending your long-term project because you’re not thinking about it in the same way.

Galla: Definitely. Mentally, Grand Illusion was hard for me. A few days earlier, two sessions before I sent, I had a super gnarly punt where I fell after grabbing the lip of the boulder, and that was super devastating, especially because I wasn’t able to get back up there that day and I knew the snow was coming. I went back for another session, but I felt this huge pressure building as I climbed higher on the boulder. By the time I’d get to the final crux, I’d be more stressed than tired, and I’d just make some stupid mistake. But on the send day, I had a super clear mind.

Climbing: How many tries could you get in a day on Grand Illusion?

Galla: Typically I was trying three times a day, though if I planned to rest the next day, sometimes I’d give a fourth attempt. I’d rest at least 30 minutes between attempts, sometimes 45, which was definitely a little bit annoying. Even though I spent so many sessions on the boulder, I didn’t have all that many attempts from the ground.

(Photo: Sean Faulkner)

Climbing: You’re a super powerful climber. Do you have any training tips for weaklings like me?

Galla: My training is pretty straightforward. In the past I used to be really big on lifting. I was in a weight-training class in my high school, and I’ve carried that forward. But I only lift about once a week now. Then I set at The Front four days a week and try to climb a little bit after my setting shifts. For me the best training for climbing has always been climbing itself. Once a week, I lift weights: I’ll do bench press, three-way shoulders, shoulder flies in different directions, bent-over rows, and then a lot of pull down or weighted pull ups.

Climbing: Salt Lake City is something of a hub for America’s comp climbing scene—how has it been being part of that community?

Galla: It’s so awesome. It’s just a lot easier to learn and train when you’re surrounded by so many strong people. It was tougher for me in Atlanta. I had a few teammates there who were super strong, but it definitely wasn’t as deep as it is here. In Salt Lake, it’s always easy to find somebody who’s psyched. I normally finish route setting at The Front at 4 p.m., and it’s pretty taxing, but there’s always some mega session going on somewhere—there’ll be like four U.S. team athletes in the gym at the same time—and I’m like, “Well, I could go home and lie in my bed while these guys get strong, or I could go join them.”