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Interview: Maxim Ropes Athlete Jonathan Siegrist on Swiss Sport Climbing

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Jonathan Siegrist Rock Sport Climbing Switzerland

From May to July, Maxim Ropes Athlete Jonathan Siegrist toured Switzerland in an effort to experience, in his opinion, the vastly under-appreciated sport climbing areas scattered throughout the country. Switzerland, known by the climbing community primarily for it stunning and challenging alpine objectives (the Eiger, the Matterhorn) as well as for the premier bouldering venue Magic Wood, is largely overlooked by sport climbers in favor of more popular destinations in France and Spain. Two years ago, Siegrist took note of the country’s high-quality and hard single-pitch sport climbing and, after a couple attempts at planning a trip, he was finally able to dive into it.

Siegrist spent the majority of his time at the crags Gimmelwald and Rawyl, while also making shorter visits to Engelberg, Gastlosen, Voralpse, and a brief stop in Italy. He ticked a number of hard routes, including area classics, long-unrepeated lines, and impressive first ascents. Notable sends include: Hyper Finale (9a/5.14d FA), La Cabane au Canada (9a/5.14d), The Missing Link (8b+/5.14c), Jungfrau Marathon (9a/5.14d), Paradise Artificial (8b/5.14b), El Molinero (8b+/5.14c), Goldfinger (8c/5.14b), and Appel au Sodom (8c/5.14b). We spoke to Siegrist about his trip.

What was your main reason for going to Switzerland this year?

I came to Switzerland for the first time two years ago I only spent three weeks there, but I really liked it. It was the first time I ever climbed in Switzerland at all. I knew that there was really good bouldering. I knew that the alpine climbing was really rad. But I didn’t know much about the single-pitch sport climbing scene. When I got to see some of it two years ago I was like, OK, this is legit. It’s worth coming back. And then I actually tried to come back last year, but the weather was so awful at the time. I ended up going to Céüse instead, which has a little more stable weather. Then I just filed it as a place I really wanted to return to.

Where exactly did you go?

I rented an apartment in Interlaken, which is more or less in the center of the country. I had it for two months. I spent a few days in Italy and then a few days in eastern Switzerland climbing at Voralpsee, then moved into my place in Interlaken. I mostly climbed near there. There’s a crag named Gimmelwald that I spent a lot of time at, and another crag in the south where I would escape to once the rain got really bad. That one’s called Rawyl. Those were the crags I spent the most amount of time at but I also sampled quite a few others randomly. Engelberg is one of them, and a crag called the Gastlosen, which is a really cool one in western Switzerland.

And there’s not much buzz around these places, is there?

Swiss single-pitch sport climbing in general has no reputation and that’s crazy to me! Especially after spending time there. To think that people don’t know about Gimmelwald is crazy to me because it’s so, so good. It’s not enormous. It’s not as big as Siurana or Céüse, but the climbing there is world-class. The rock quality is fantastic and the setting is incredible. You only see Swiss people at these crags. They’re international quality but no one’s traveling even from like France or Italy, really nearby countries, just because they have no idea that there’s so much outstanding climbing to be done in Switzerland aside from Magic Wood and the Ratikon. It’s under the radar and in that sense I found it to be really cool.

What was the style of climbing at Gimmelwald?

All the climbing I did was basically on limestone. The routes in Gimmelwald are probably 20 meters long, very steep—like between 35 and 45 degrees overhanging—and really powerful. Some of the routes are pumpy but they’re generally not long, pumpy routes. It’s more like several boulder problems stacked on top of one another. The rock is structured in a really cool way. There aren’t pockets. It’s mostly edges, and you get some drip features too like pinches and full colonnettes. A couple of the routes have some pockets, but it’s not pocketed limestone. It’s more edgy and ledgy. It’s really, really cool. And several of the routes stay dry in the rain. It’s a crazy crag. Everything is really hard. There are 30 to 35 routes and the easiest is 5.13a, so you can imagine. There must be 15 5.14’s at least. It’s just crazy, super stacked and a super rad place to hang out.

When was it developed? Is it a relatively new crag or has it been around for a little bit?

No, it’s been around for a bit, and it has kind of an interesting story. Ueli Steck, who lives in Interlaken, helped to develop Gimmelwald. In Switzerland, everyone has to serve mandatory time in the Swiss military, but instead of doing a military component you can do a civil service. This can include municipal stuff, building, helping with stuff in a city. Ueli Steck and some others went, as their military duty, and bolted Gimmelwald and another crag around 15 years ago. They went and bolted the crag and their excuse was like, “It’ll attract tourism to the area.” That’s how thy fulfilled their military duty to the Swiss government. They did a bunch of routes and the policy is no red tagging, everything is open and there are still projects that haven’t been done that are for sure super hard. There are routes from 5.13a to 5.14d now, including a lot of really good ones.

It that crag where Hyper Finale (9a/5.14d) is?

That route is at Rawyl, which is in the southern part in the French-speaking, southwestern part of Switzerland. That crag is also absolutely amazing and there’s still one project left there. That’s like a two or two-and-a-half hour drive from Interlaken.

It seems like Hyper Finale was one of the big highlights of the trip. What was it like projecting the route and getting the FA?

That was definitely one of my favorite things that I did and it was great. I met the guy, Bertrand Marteney, who bolted it. Really cool guy. Rawyl is a really incredible crag, probably 20 degrees overhanging. The routes are 30 meters long, sometimes 35. It was the only dry place, basically in all of Switzerland. When the rain was really bad, I spent a ton of time there. I spent almost two weeks in the area and climbed basically everything. I think Bertrand saw that I was psyched and also running out of things to do, so he actually got my number from someone and wrote me a text message saying, “Dude, you should try this project.”

I got pysched on the route and did a little bit of cleaning, but for the most part it was ready to go. I don’t remember how many days I spent on it but it’s quite hard. All things considered, it’s probably the hardest route I did on the trip. It was fun to work and unlock. There were a few different ways that I could have finished the route because it doesn’t have an independent finish. It has to join into a different route because of the way the wall is, so I took the hardest way that and it was a super fun experience. I was there alone, so I met a lot of people and it felt good to be part of the community by adding something instead of just hanging around.

How would you describe the crux?

At the fifth bolt there’s a hard crimp boulder problem. It has a really thin left hand crimp. There’s a big lock-off move off it to another crimp that’s very small and also hard to hit. It’s kind of hidden; it’s strange. I fell there a lot! Probably at least 10 times. After that you have a bad sloper that you can take a deep breath on, and then you have a jump. I fell there a couple times as well. That’s the bulk of the difficulty. From there to the top it’s still 5.14 for sure. The Rawyl style generally is: You have a little boulder problem and then a pretty good rest because there are all these horizontal striations and weaknesses in the rock. It’s pretty cool. You get a pretty decent rest and you might have a thin boulder problem on crimps, or a lot of them have jumps. This route in particular has two jumps on it. Then you’ll have another opportunity to rest. So after the initial boulder problem it carries on like that to the top. Yeah, really cool route and the hardest established route at Rawyl. There’s another 5.14d there called La Cabane au Canada but it’s pretty low in the grade I would say.

What are some of the other pitches that stuck out for the trip?

Definitely doing the second ascent of this route called The Missing Link at Voralpse , which is a Beat Kammerlander route from 1997 that he originally graded, “grade 11,” which is a different grading style that is basically the same rating that Wolfgang Güllich gave to Action Directe (9a/5.14d). Beat is a total legend and a big inspiration of mine. That was really cool to go and clean up after many years of it being vacant and then do it. Then Jungfrau Marathon, which was a 14d, at Gimmelwald was also the first repeat of the route since it was originally established in, I think, 2003. So that was awesome as well. Hyper Finale I was pretty psyched on, and I flashed a .14b which I was pretty happy with. I’ve only done that once before. That was also Rawyl and the name of the route is Paradise Artificial, but you know, said all French-like.

Lastly there was a route that I did just a few days ago called El Molinero. It’s at Gimmelwald and it had only been done a couple times and it’s a route that’s really my anti-style. It’s 5.14c, but it probably took me the most number of tries of any route on my whole trip. The end of the trip was coming, so I had some stress from  running out of time, and the conditions were really bad. It was getting really hot and humid. It might not have been the hardest route of the whole trip but it was just a big fight and I felt so relieved to finish. That was really memorable as well.

What was the culture of Switzerland like?

I find Switzerland to be really similar to the US in a lot of ways. Obviously there are huge cultural differences, but generally speaking, it’s really modern, great highways, it’s very clean. It’s kind of the way you would imagine Switzerland, especially the Swiss-German parts like Interlaken, Bern, Zurich. They’re very clean, generally wealthy, affluent zones. They’re very beautiful, very well-kept, but then the difference between the French-speaking part of Switzerland is enormous. It’s really cool that you could have those two things in one country because in the French section you have graffiti, you have this sense that things are just a little more fringe feeling. 

People are much more open. That’s one thing. Most of the climbers I met were totally open and rad and international. Everyone spoke outstanding English. It made it easy on me which I really appreciated. In general, the French-speaking part was much more… French. Just open and artsy, and a much different vibe. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on it. But to have that kind of contrast. And then of course the Italian side, which I drove through today, is a whole ‘nother world.

Overall, what I really appreciate about Switzerland is how diverse it is. There are three national languages, Swiss-German, Italian, and French. All the areas of the country are so different, but they are all uniquely Swiss. I was driving to Sion, which is in Valais, and there’s literally a line in the road you cross and then all the signs are in French. You’re still in Switzerland, and then everyone is speaking French. You have to remember when you’re walking up to the crag to say “Bonjour!” not, “Grüezi!” I loved it. The diversity, not only in the landscape, the mountains, the farmland, but also the diversity in the people and the different vibe between places is really cool.

So you did a little mountaineering trip that was featured in a video on Epic TV, and you’ve mentioned previously that you were really psyched on alpine climbing when you first got into the sport. Did being back in the big mountains revitalize any of those feelings? Do you plan to do more alpine climbing in the future?

Yeah, I do actually. It’s so unique in the Alps. The access is so easy. You can go from a coffee shop to being on a glacier in ten minutes. It’s so strange. There are all these lifts and roads everywhere and it’s so accessible. That was one thing. I was like, Whoa, damn. I haven’t been up in this landscape for a while! And also for the last three weeks Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni, were living with me in Interlaken. Hanging around him and Ueli Steck and hearing them talk got me pretty psyched on the alpine. It’s really hot and dry in Colorado right now so that’s where I’ll go when I come back to the US. I move to Estes Park probably until mid-September. I’ll spend probably two months in Estes. I hope to do some bouldering, but also there’s some alpine stuff I’d really like to do if it’s dry and the weather cooperates.

Are there any specific projects or objectives for your time in Estes that you’re thinking about right now?

I’d like to do some climbing on the Diamond. I spent like a month bouldering last summer, and I had this goal of doing 12 V12s or harder in a month. It was the first time I had really done much bouldering and I fell in love with Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). I haven’t been to that many bouldering places, so maybe it isn’t even that good. A lot of people are like, “Dude, you need to go to Hueco before you say that RMNP is so good.” But I really liked it.  There are a few problems I didn’t get to that I would like to go at least try. And there’s some single-pitch trad stuff randomly around Estes that I want to try. Just being up in the mountains and getting up high, that’d be great. But definitely, my first priority is to go up on the Diamond and do some climbing up there. I hope it’s dry and safe for me.

Would the goal be to complete existing free routes you haven’t done yet or do you want to go try to find a new, hard line?

Both. Yeah, exactly.

Do you have any boulder problems in particular you want to get back on and send?

I tried Top Notch (V13) a little bit. It’d be cool to try that some more. That’s a really hard boulder. Then I’ve never been to Upper Chaos Canyon. It’d be cool to go up there and check it out some. And I’d love to go to some of the other zones outside of Chaos, like Wild Basin. I know it’ pretty hot so I might have to wait.

In the past you’ve talked about your passion for development. Do you have any interesting in putting up new lines in RMNP?

Definitely. I’ve done quite a bit of route development in the Estes Park area, and I’m definitely interested in alpine stuff. I don’t know if that’s something I’ll get into this summer just because my main focus is still on sport climbing. I’m OK to take a few weeks to get into the alpine for longer stuff, or even take a month to go bouldering, but once you start doing alpine FA’s you spend a lot of days not climbing. It’s a lot of walking and cleaning and that kind of stuff. I’m not motivated enough right now. I’d really like to transition into doing a lot more big walls and alpine walls, but I still have a few more sport climbing goals. That’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time, getting more into big walls. I’d love to come to Switzerland and do the alpine multi-pitch sport climbing because it’s some of the best in the world. And I’d love to go back to Yosemite. I’d love to do more climbing in California in the Sierras and stuff like that, but that’s on hold right now while I focus on sport climbing.

Do you see yourself going back to the Las Vegas areas and tapping into all the rock that hasn’t been touched yet?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve spotted a few things I’m really interested in last spring and years before. I’m still really interested in development, but that has taken a backseat the past couple years while I try and do the best I can with single-pitch sport climbing. But that being said, there are some things I have my eyes on that I’m really motivated to come back to at some point. Nevada is crazy.

Nevada, Arizona, and Southwest Utah—that whole area has a lot. The future of sport climbing will be there. As I learned from the last two rainy-as-hell months in Switzerland, having a stable climate is so important. It’s so rad that you can go to Vegas and it only rains once a month, if that. That’s really helpful. I would never choose a project at my limit in Switzerland because it’s too frustrating to be ready physically and then have storms come in for two weeks, which happened several times on this trip. In Vegas, and into California and Clark Mountain or elsewhere, the weather is so stable that you can just go two days on and one day off forever basically. Assuming it doesn’t get too hot you’re pretty much good to go, which is really nice.


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