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The Climbing Q&A: Barbara "Babsi" Zangerl

The Austrian Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl has ticked V13, 5.14d sport, 5.14 trad, the Alpine Trilogy of 5.14-, multi-pitch, high-altitude free climbs, and some of the hardest free routes on El Capitan. At only 30 years old, Zangerl is one of the best, most versatile climbers in the world.

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Barbara Babsi Zangerl Rock Climbing Sport Trad Austria Pro
Dongyun Lee

While Barbara Zangerl is a household name in the European climbing scene, unless you pay close attention to international climbing news, you’ve likely not heard of this Austrian all-around badass. A decade ago, she burst onto the bouldering scene with a tick of Pura Vida (V12/13) in Switzerland’s Magic Wood, the hardest bouldering ascent by a woman at the time. She’s since parlayed that into an amazing list of cutting-edge ascents. Babsi is one of only four climbers to have completed the Alpine Trilogy: redpoint ascents of the 5.14a Alps “sport” routes Des Kaisers neue Kleider, Silbergeier, and End of Silence. These runout, technical, multi-pitch climbs are known for their thin, nails-hard cruxes on storm-thrashed limestone walls at altitude. In 2017, she and the pro climber Jacopo Larcher (who’s also her boyfriend) established the 5.14b R trad climb Gondo Crack in Switzerland after leading it on bolts, and the pair has ticked three of El Capitan’s toughest free routes in three consecutive years: El Niño (VI 5.13c A0) in 2015, Zodiac (VI 5.13d) in 2016, and the long-awaited second free ascent of Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a) in 2017. Zangerl lives in the mountain town of Bludenz, Austria, in the Vorarlberg region, making her living as a pro climber and part-time radiology assistant in a local hospital.

The early days of Zangerl’s climbing life unfolded, like so many others of her generation, at the local gym: When she was 14, her older brother, Udo, took her and her 16-year-old sister, Claudia, to the gym in the village of Flirsch am Arlberg, 10 minutes from their hometown of Strengen. Babsi was addicted immediately, heading to the gym three times a week, improving quickly. Meanwhile, she and Claudia developed a playful sense of competition to figure out beta and push each other to improve. Soon, fellow Austrian Bernd Zangerl (no relation) began to show Babsi and Claudia around Austria’s bouldering areas, and then Italy and Switzerland. Being away from home and visiting these cool places excited the teenage girls. Their parents had been taking the five Zangerl children hiking and skiing in the mountains from an early age, so it was natural to connect with outdoor climbing.

As she improved, Babsi dabbled in the competition bouldering scene in Innsbruck, entering a handful of national comps, but pulling plastic never captivated her like rock. After only four years, she had sent V11/12; two years later, in 2008, she ticked Pura Vida. At that time, Magic Wood was still relatively quiet, with untapped potential in the boulder-filled forest. Babsi, Bernd, and Thomas Steinbrugger had found the moss-covered block that houses Pura Vida, and she spotted and supported Bernd on his first ascent. Fascinated by the small pocket at the end of the problem, she found the moves beautiful but seemingly above her level. Two years later, she did a few moves on Pura Vida to warm up for another problem, and the crimpy style hooked her. She spent 15 to 20 days projecting it before the send.

However, years of bouldering and falling off highballs had caused the L5-S1 disc in Babsi’s lower back to herniate. A few months afterward, she could no longer boulder without pain. The injury was slow to develop, and the recovery process was even slower. She would take a few months off, return to bouldering, experience another setback, and need more time off. Eventually, she realized she needed to stop bouldering altogether. She started roped climbing as therapy, entranced by the plethora of high-quality sport areas near her home. 

Barbara Zangerl 5.14a Magic Mushroom VI 5.14a El Capitan Yosemite California rock climbing trad
Barbara Zangerl on the 5.14a twenty-second pitch of Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), El Capitan, Yosemite, California.François Lebeau

After two years, she was able to boulder again, but the pursuit now paled compared to taller objectives. In 2011 at Vorarlberg, she sent Reifeprüfung (8b+/5.14a), then a month later took down Erntezeit, her first 8c/5.14b. The next year, she ventured to Spain and the Red River Gorge. Shortly after that, she had her first multi-pitch experience on Acacia, a nine-pitch 5.13a on Switzerland’s Rätikon, a massive limestone face known for its runouts. This alpine sport climbing presented a new style: slabby, intricate, technical movement. “I had to work on every single pitch even if it was 7a [5.11d]. I invested a lot of time,” she says. “For me, it was just cool to climb the crux pitches, the top pitches, and then connect everything from the ground up. It was like big-wall bouldering.”

So you were getting into these big objectives—what did you do next?

Barbara Zangerl: I was in Sardinia in 2009, and we went into the Gola di Gorropu gorge on a rest day. I saw this 11-pitch route—super-overhanging and a completely different style than Rätikon. I thought, “Wow, someday I really want to try this route.” Two years later, I came back to try Hotel Supramonte (5.13d) with no expectations. My partner [the Austrian Marco Köb] and I did it in one week, which was a big surprise. At that time, I didn’t know about the ethics of alpine sport climbing. I thought I had to take every quickdraw down for each try for the redpoint. That was a hard challenge! Then Nina [Caprez] told me, “Oh, Babsi! You are so stupid! You can just leave the quickdraws.”

When did you transition to trad climbing?

My first trad route was Super Crill (5.13b) in Ticino, Switzerland, in 2012. The nine-pitch route is a combination of face and crack climbing with bolts, but you have to use [removable] protection on the crux. It’s double splitter cracks with no footholds, and I tried to layback the whole thing without jamming. It felt more like 8b than 8a, but I had no idea how to climb a proper finger crack. I tried to put my hands and feet in, but it didn’t work, so I used the small footholds next to the crack. A few years ago, I got back on the route and climbed it differently. It felt much easier, and I really had to laugh that I’d climbed it in such a complicated way in 2012.

How did you transition into mountain routes?

Wanting more alpine, I went to the Dolomites [in Italy], which is not great climbing. The rock is really bad, and much of the routes are protected with old pitons. I tried Bella Vista, a 10-pitch route on the north face of Cima Ovest. It’s the scariest route I have ever tried, with this big roof, but the line and the tower are so impressive—with such dramatic exposure up there that it was hard to feel comfortable while climbing. When you fall, you have to jumar up to get back to the wall. I was super scared. I had to turn around a few times, but when I would get on the ground, I would ask myself, “Why didn’t you try it?”

Unendliche Geschichte 5.14a Rätikon Switzerland Barbara Babsi Zangerl Rock Climbing Trad Alpine
Hanging but happy on Unendliche Geschichte (5.14a), Rätikon, Switzerland.Robert Bösch

How do you deal with fear—in particular of falling—on these difficult big-wall free climbs?

When I switched from bouldering to sport climbing, I always worried about falling. But over time, I experienced a lot of different climbs and got more used to the exposure and less scared with how many days I spent out in the mountains. But it’s still a challenge when I try a new wall or a new route. On the first days, I normally feel pretty scared, but with taking the falls it usually gets better. That works pretty well for me, but the most important thing is to trust your partner. I have to be sure my partner can give a soft catch; otherwise, I won’t fall.

On these long, difficult routes, how do you stay focused on the moves right in front of you?

At the beginning, I never think about it. I always think every route I try is too hard for me, so everything feels like a surprise when I can do the single pitches. This [mentality] helps a lot; I never put pressure on myself. It’s more like I want to see how it feels and how far I can get. I like to try routes ground-up and not check out higher pitches. Then I have all my attention on what’s right in front of me.

Like on Magic Mushroom, on pitch 27 there were two meters where I couldn’t do the moves. [Zangerl and Larcher made the second free ascent of the 5.14a on Yosemite’s El Capitan in December 2017.] I’m sure if I had rapped down to check it out first, then I wouldn’t have sent. When you reach this point ground-up, when you have done everything before, you have so much more motivation. When you rap down first, you might try the hard section for a few days, then think you can’t do it—and maybe you don’t even try.

What were your first experiences with Yosemite?

I had read all these Yosemite books when I was a boulderer. It was motivating to see the big walls, and 2010 was my first time there, with Hansjörg Auer. Our first climb was Generator Crack [a 5.10 single-pitch offwidth]. It took me three hours, and I couldn’t do half the route. The dream of climbing El Cap was far away, but we went there and tried Secret Passage [a 5.13+]. Hans was a really experienced soloist and alpinist, but there was a problem when he used a non-locking carabiner while hauling. It opened and he fell six meters onto his backup protection, which was also not solid. It was our second day on the wall, and our El Cap experience was over.

Then we climbed on Washington Column, the Rostrum, and all these different shorter routes. We couldn’t do a single one, but we tried. On Washington Column’s Quantum Mechanics (5.13a, 15 pitches), Hans didn’t want to bring the big Camalots for weight. He ended up taking a big fall on a hard offwidth sequence, about 25 meters, the biggest fall I have ever belayed. He broke his wrist. It took us until midnight to get down, then we drove to the hospital and the whole trip was finished.

Bella Vista 5.14b Cima Ovest Dolomites Italy Barbara Babsi Zangerl rock climbing fall whipper
Taking the ride on Bella Vista (5.14b), Cima Ovest, Dolomites, Italy, with Jacopo Larcher on belay.Thomas Senf

Were you nervous returning to the Valley in 2015?

By then I had learned to crack climb at Indian Creek, and I had plenty of alpine multi-pitch experience, having climbed the Alpine Trilogy, Delicatessen (5.13d, 5 pitches) in Corsica, and Bella Vista (5.14b, 10 pitches) in the Dolomites. [Jacopo and I] also did single hard pitches in the beginning. For us, planning the organization was hard. Food, how many days up on the wall, hauling, etc.—it was completely new.

We struggled a lot with hauling; it was a nightmare. It would take us 20 minutes to climb a single pitch but two hours to haul it. For El Niño in 2015, the first five pitches are the hardest so we would work those, then rap down. We did that for a few days before climbing the whole route ground-up. We planned on being on the wall for five days but we were up there for eight, and we ran out of food. It was really hard to sleep because we were so hungry. We almost failed at the end because one pitch was really wet. I tried it 20 times before I succeeded.

In 2015, you and Jacopo freed El Niño, in 2016 Zodiac, and in 2017 Magic Mushroom. What keeps you coming back to El Cap?

Looking down to the Valley is the best—when you wake up in the morning and you see the shadow down there. It looks super-cold and frozen, but you’re up in the sun when it first arrives on the wall.

On Magic Mushroom, you spent almost 30 days on the wall, battling stomach illness, cold weather, and hard climbing. You finally reached the last hard move on the route [just before the anchor on pitch 27, the last 5.14a pitch], but kept falling.

I was super happy to be there and thought, “OK, now we are here. Now it’s finished.” But then I worked this pitch for four days. I could do the moves, but I couldn’t connect the crack sequence. This was the problem. I never had so much pressure as on Magic Mushroom, because this crux is only 40 meters from the top. I tried and tried to find a new solution. In the end, I figured out that I had to press my head against the rock below my elbow so I could bring my left foot higher. I found that solution, rested the next day, and then started the next morning at 4 a.m. I warmed up on the pitch, and then sent it first go.

You do a lot of your big ascents with Jacopo, who is also your boyfriend. What’s it like in these intense situations together?

We had met and talked a few times in the past, but his German was really bad [Larcher is Italian] so I didn’t know him well. The first time we really met and climbed together was at the Melloblocco competition in Italy. We really talked there, and then started to climb together.

One of our first dates was on the south face of the Marmolada in the Dolomites. We wanted to climb an easy route, but with 30 pitches, it ended up being the first test of our relationship. We got lost because the runouts are really big, so on one of the last pitches we were in the wrong place. It got dark and we couldn’t reach the top, and with these alpine routes it’s not a good idea to rap because the anchors are bad, with rusty pitons. But it was too cold to sleep, so we rapped all night. The whole climb and descent took 25 hours, and at the end it was hard to have a conversation. I didn’t understand him anymore—he was too tired to speak German, and I don’t speak Italian. Still, somehow we stayed calm and didn’t fight—that’s why we kept on doing things like this. That was five years ago, and since that experience was the worst, it’s just gotten better. Plus, he speaks German now.

Barbara Babsi Zangerl age 6 Ochsenkopf Bavaria Germany family mother sister rock climbing
Zangerl (front) at age 6 on top of the Ochsenkopf (3,360 feet), Bavaria, Germany, with her mother, Evi; sister Claudia; and a family friend.Barbara Zangerl Collection

How would you describe the American versus Austrian climbing scenes?

In Austria in the winter, the climbing gym is full of people, but in the summer, nobody goes to the gym. Everyone who is a climber climbs outside on real rock. In the US, it seems like many people go to the gym for fitness. In Austria, it’s more related to climbing. For the most part, climbers are the same all over the world—simple and open people—but Austrian culture in general is more closed. It can be hard to find friends. Americans are open; everybody talks to everybody, even when you don’t know each other. You don’t have this in Austria. When you don’t know somebody, it’s hard to get in a conversation.

Which climbers inspire you?

Lynn Hill, who freed the Nose in 1993. It was graded 8a [5.13b], and now it’s graded 8b+ [5.14a]—most times routes get easier, but that one got harder. That is really impressive. Freeing the Nose has always been a big dream of mine, and that was the goal last year, but when we went in October there was no chance. It was too crowded, with 20 parties. It’s not fun to try a route like that. I’m also inspired by Sílvia Vidal. I don’t want to do things like she does, but it’s crazy the expeditions she does alone, these first ascents. Also Beat Kammerlander, who has established a lot of cool routes in Rätikon.

Did Beat’s ground-up, trad ethics inspire you for your greenpoint (no-bolts ascent) of Gondo Crack? And do you and he ever climb together?

I often meet Beat in his local crag of Voralpsee—it’s fun to climb with such a legend! I am impressed with how he opened his routes in the Rätikon, always ground-up with long runouts, and bolts only when they are needed. This seems the logical way, I think. For the climbers who repeat those routes, it offers a greater adventure because you have to climb hard sequences to reach the next bolt. There is no other way—no aid style or grabbing quickdraws.

I try to respect the ethics of the first ascensionists, and I think ethics are important in climbing. I love to go to the UK for trad climbing; they have their own strong ethic, which you have to respect. Nobody would bolt a route there if it’s possible to climb it with trad gear, so that offers a great mental game and a more intense experience. In Ossola where Gondo is located, people bolted all those cracks, but you can climb most of them without using the bolts. If this area was in Britain or the US, there wouldn’t be a single bolt, but since it’s in the middle of Europe, the trad climber’s eye might water at the sight of beautiful cracks with shiny bolts.

For Gondo Crack, it made more sense to us to climb it with trad gear. It’s a logical line that doesn’t need bolts. Doing it this way requires more effort, but it also provides far stronger emotions.

Silbergeier 5.14a Rätikon Switzerland crux fifth pitch Alpine Trilogy Barbara Babsi Zangerl Rock Climbing
Silbergeier (5.14a), Rätikon, Switzerland, here on the crux, fifth pitch of this route in the Alpine Trilogy.Hannes Mair

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Barbara Zangerl

1. One thing you can’t live without on a wall?

Airwaves Cool Cassis gum.

2. Favorite music?

Lumineers, Cake, Florence and the Machine.

3. Cats or dogs?

I have had a cat, never a dog—but I’m a dog person.

4. Superstitions?

I always tie my knot on the left side of my belay loop.

5. Fave food?

Thai food and sushi. I love fish, but we don’t have good fish in Austria—never eat fish in Austria.

6. Height and ape index?

1 m, 62 cm (just under 5’4”), -2 cm (-.78”)

7. What is your training regimen?

In winter, I train five days a week, doing a combination of bouldering, Beastmaker hangboard workouts, system-board circuits, and general fitness. I focus on power for 10 weeks and then do two weeks of endurance and sport-climbing training at the end of the two months. Then I climb outside the rest of the year.

8. If you didn’t climb, what would you do with your free time?

I’ve always wanted to try surfing and diving.

9. Non-climbing obsession?

I’ll lie on my couch at night watching TV and movies. City of God and American Beauty are two of my favorite films.

10. Anything else?

I also work as a radiographer, reading X-rays and MRIs in a hospital. The schedule is really flexible: two night shifts during the week and then a 24-hour shift on the weekend, and that’s it for the month.

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