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Born in Austria, Bernd Zangerl watched his Tyrolean hometown shift and gentrify throughout his childhood. Trees were chopped to make way for ever-widening ski slopes, and the tourists flooded in.
“After two generations, we have problems with nature,” he says. “And then the next generation actually doesn’t live in a very beautiful place anymore.”
As a pro climber, Zangerl has witnessed the same destruction in other popular climbing destinations, including Magic Wood, where he lived and developed boulders for four years.
Zangerl is in part responsible for putting Magic Wood and Ticino on the map. He established many of most classic and beloved lines, including New Baseline (V14).
“When you see Magic Wood now, it looks really dirty. For me, the forest is really dead,” he says.
A quiet and soft spoken individual, Zangerl’s accomplishments over the last 20-plus years make him an icon, and he takes his leadership role seriously. Over the course of a decade and 13-plus trips to a small Himalayan village, Rakchham, Zangerl has almost single handedly developed a new world-class crag. And this time, he bided his time before introducing the small village to the climbing world.
Rakchham sits in India’s Himalaya near the Tibetan border. To date, it plays host to some 300 boulders that Zangerl established, alongside another 100 or so developed by Zangerl’s friends. Being a tribal village cloaked with ancient traditions and religious beliefs, Zangerl wanted to honor the local community by helping them to preserve the pristine wilderness and benefit economically from an influx of future climbers. Zangerl climbed with villagers and gave presentations about climbing to the school. He helped develop the Rakchham Mountaineering Adventure Club and became a liaison for climbers and locals. The institutions are there so that Rakchham residents can both capitalize and protect.
For Zangerl, his trips to Rakchham amounted to so much more than bouldering and community development. Following a traumatic bouldering fall in 2015, one from which doctors told him he’d never recover, Zangerl not only resumed climbing, but he returned in full force. He credits his success to meditation, for which Rakchham, he says, has been the perfect setting. “You are in a meditative state anyway when you travel in India, and when you are in Rakchham, it actually affects you, and it’s good,” he says. “It’s always quiet. You feel that in the surroundings and even the animals. Like when there is a dog sleeping on the street and a car is coming, the dog does not even move an ear. He’s sleeping because he knows the car drives around him. It’s so cool to see.”
Climbing caught up with Zangerl to hear more about Rakchham, the boulders, and Zangerl’s hopes for the village’s future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Climbing: How did you find out about Rakchham?
Zangerl: It was totally lucky. I went to India and visited another climbing spot in Manali, and I heard about good climbing there in Rakchham. And also, I started to collect old books, and a friend of mine had a lot of old tracking books from the ‘50s and ‘60s. One of those old books had a black and white picture showing big walls behind the little village, and I thought, okay, when there are such big mountains, there must be boulders on the bottom.
I convinced my friends to go. We drove, arriving in the snow. It was a really epic drive. In the morning we woke up and saw all these mountains and all the boulders and walls around. So, just pure luck actually.
Climbing: When was that?
Zangerl: In 2010, in April.
Climbing: And how far was the drive from where you were already climbing in India?
Zangerl: It was about an 18-hour or 16-hour drive. We were close to giving it up actually, because on the way, when we entered the valley, we didn’t see boulders or climbs and we weren’t sure. And I said, “No, no, there must be some rocks at one point.” And, we had already driven so far. It was snowing so hard that at one point the car could not drive. The taxi driver wanted to turn around. We stopped in this village, and I went out and I was shouting “Shelter! Shelter! We need shelter!” Then somebody opened the window. They looked at us and were like, “What are you doing here?” [laughs]
Climbing: Did you climb a bunch on that first trip or were you just scouting?
Zangerl: We climbed for one week. We opened some nice stuff. Then I went home and came back the same year in July and August. We started developing more and more. Since then, I’ve returned every year.
Climbing: How many trips do you think you’ve made?
Zangerl: 13, maybe 15 times.
Climbing: So what’s kept you coming back over the years?
Zangerl: I found the most amazing projects there. I’m always looking for good lines and quality stuff, and there is so much in Rakchham. I didn’t have any similar projects in Europe, and Rakchham was such a huge playground. Every week you find new sectors or new boulders and the rock is just so perfect. Sometimes the hard stuff is very small holes and this granite is bomber.
I think I did the most amazing stuff there in the last 10 years, but I never graded the boulders and I mostly did not publish anything from the place. We always kept it quiet.
Climbing: Could you guess how many boulders you’ve put up?
Zangerl: I established maybe more than 300. And my friends maybe 100. We think about between 400 and 500 boulders.
Climbing: And were you telling the local climbers so they knew where to look?
Zangerl: Yeah. But at that time not many Indian climbers were around. Those two guys who are in the movie—they actually found out that I was climbing there and they came one day and visited me. Since then, we’ve been friends and we climb together. But the climbing scene 10 years back consisted of maybe five people around Manali. There’s been more Indian climbers in only the last four or five years. It’s growing. They have bouldering gyms in the cities now and they’ve started to go outdoors.
I mostly just shared beta with my best friends here in Europe or in Africa. I always invited my best friends to join me—the ones who were also motivated to establish things and clean. And that’s a lot of work actually. [laughs] Everybody likes brushing rocks [sarcastic].
Climbing: That’s so cool that the community’s grown in such a short time.
Zangerl: Yeah. And now, Indian climbers have a huge playground for their future. They’re very motivated and they have boulders in all grades, from 5A to 8C (V0 to V15). Everything is there: Sport climbing from 8b+ or 8c (5.14a or 5.14b) to trad climbing. A few Indian climbers will go to Rakchham this year. The village is far, even for Indian climbers. This place is really hidden on the border to Tibet. Most people try to make it a day trip, but you need two days to get there. But now, they have more homestays and they have a little hotel. So now, the place actually opens up so that more people can stay.
Climbing: In the video, you talked a little bit about how you felt like tourism had negatively affected your hometown in Austria and in Magic Wood. Can you talk about the specifics of that and then how you feel things are going to be different in Rakchham?
Zangerl: Magic wood was also my playground. I opened most of the boulders in Magic Wood. I lived there for four years in the forest, and it was really magic. When you know it from the beginning, it was just amazing. But when you see Magic Wood now, it looks really dirty. For me, the forest is really dead, and I thought, “Wow, we can’t do it like that again.” And the Rakchham forest is even more wild. It’s an old forest from hundreds and thousands of years back. It’s just so beautiful to be there. And I think it’s important. We need to have an idea that the forest must stay like that. People can go there and people stay on the trails, and it should actually work with a limited number of people. I think that’s really important. I know guides from Hueco Tanks and people in Bishop and in Rocklands and they all talk about the same kind of problems. So I think it’s actually a good time to focus on how we can make it different in Rakchham. Also, the local people there can learn more to protect their place. I grew up in Tyrol, a very touristy place. Skiing is super famous there. They took down a lot of trees. The only economic focus is on the tourists. And after two generations, we have problems with nature. And then the next generation actually doesn’t live in a very beautiful place anymore. And I think it’s good to tell the locals in Rakchham that they can do it differently, or they have the choice. The young people, they’re really motivated to take care of nature and the forest. They are really aware of the global problems with climate change and are motivated to protect their environment.
Climbing: Do you feel like they have the institutions in place to do that?
Zangerl: Yeah. And actually, it’s a sanctuary area. It’s holy grounds for them because it’s on the border to Tibet. So this area is actually protected anyway, but still, when the big-business people are coming with money, it might change. But now everything is perfectly set up with the locals and the climbing club. They are all motivated to keep it pristine. Many people can come, 50, 60 or one hundred people could probably be accommodated in the village. That’s not really a problem. And one hundred people is actually already a lot of tourists for this little place. It will take some years, I think, till it gets there.
Climbing: It’s hard, coming from a Western culture, to imagine what the community there is like. Can you kind of describe the local culture?
Zangerl: They are Buddhists from the heart. That’s maybe another reason I go there. They believe in the good of the person and they just try to make a good life. For me, they’re very open. They were suspicious at times, but at the end they saw, “This is just a nice guy. And he always brings nice people.” So, I was very quickly included into the whole community.
The old people live like their great grandparents from a few hundred years ago. But now, the kids grow up with the internet and can go to school and actually have the web on their hands. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next generation. But people are open. They don’t harm other animals, and they always try to be nice with other people. That’s been my experience.
Climbing: In the video, you talked about how you can find yourself in Rakchham. Can you elaborate on that more?
Zangerl: Yeah, I spend a lot of time alone. I’m also kind of a Buddhist. I believe in Jesus, but I love the Buddhist way … When you spend so much time alone with yourself, you get really clear about your thoughts and your feelings—what you want and what is important. You see yourself a little bit outside of a box, and this is actually a very good place to experience. When you’re really alone and you don’t have T.V. or radio, you’re just human in nature. It’s very meditative. I think it’s important to have time for yourself and that you actually see how you are without the influence of people around you. Many people can’t be alone, but as humans, we should be. You can listen to yourself, and maybe you will find out interesting things.
Climbing: Do you feel like that sort of meditation helped your climbing there or helped your creativity with establishing stuff?
Zangerl: I think so. Meditation was always important to me, and since the accident I had in 2015, this is a very important topic. I hit my body with deep meditation and positive thoughts and believing in something which is not here. I was seeing the best specialists in Europe and everybody was saying that I would never do sports again. But two years later, those doctors asked me, “What did I do?” Because my muscles and everything were back. It’s really cool. And since then, medication is part of my life. And when you are in a place like Rakchham, people are not in a rush. It’s always quiet. You feel that in the surroundings and even the animals.
You are in a meditative state anyway when you travel in India, and when you are in Rakchham, it actually affects you and it’s good.
Climbing: It sounds like such a mystical place. For someone who wants to go there, can you kind of give them a quick when-how-where-what guide?
Zangerl: So, nowadays the roads are really good. Like 10 years ago, it was really an epic drive to go there. It was really wild, but now the roads are really good. The easiest, cheapest way is to take a night bus to Shimla. From there you can take a taxi or a bus, and then you will arrive on the second day. And the cool thing is, once you are in the village, you don’t need a car—everything is around you. The nicest season is September, October, or November, but you can actually climb in April and May, when it’s a little bit warmer and greener. We are working on a guidebook now, which will be done maybe by the end of the year. We will give this to the people. And right now, you have the locals there, these guides, who bring you to the sectors and show you the best problems.
There are really cool problems from 6A to 8C (V2 to V15). A lot of 8As and 7B and Cs (V8 to V11). And even for beginners, there are whole sectors where people can start climbing. So we can even go there with beginners and teach them climbing there.
Also, the food is great, and you can drink the water. It’s actually all a bit too luxurious. [laughs] I think when the climbing scene finds out how easy it is, then the hotel is going to be full very soon.
Climbing: In the beginning of the film, the question was posed, “How can he do better when sharing his passion to make the people of Rakchham feel respected and benefited?” It seems like that’s a question that weighed heavily throughout the film. How do you feel about that question?
Zangerl: I think it’s good to ask this question, because in the past, we didn’t think about it. We climbers still think we are these dirtbags traveling around, and that we can go and do what we want. But, in the end we are tourists. We are a very big economy now. And I think we must be more aware of this and be more respectful of everything around us.
What I see from all those different places, like Rocklands or Magic Wood, the solutions are simple: Don’t leave trash. Don’t shit everywhere. And be nice to locals. I think it’s so basic. But even in Rocklands, they had been talking about closing some sectors, or it looked really wise to do so two years ago. After COVID, Rocklands recovered very well, because last year there was nobody there and they had rain. Nature recovered within two years. So Rocklands looks very nice now, but I think we can do more.
When you go to India, it’s so cheap for us to stay there. That’s the reason we put in a permit system—to help support the local people. Just giving a little bit more from our side, because 100 euros is not so much for us, but a lot of money in the village. And, for me, it was important that more people than the hotel owner can earn money from the climbers. When the whole village can grow with this, you have a positive feedback loop from everybody. So I always supported the school. When there’s something else happening in the village, they come to me and ask for support. So we can share more, and I think this is just positive.
Climbing: That’s awesome.
Zangerl: Yeah. And this year, we sent four boys from the village to a mountain guide course with the income from last year’s permit system. So they can do this work in Rakchham in the future.
Climbing: That’s really cool. Can you talk a little bit about your favorite boulders?
Zangerl: There are so many. I put up some really cool stuff. … [Of my two favorites] one boulder Giuliano Cameroni repeated, and the other he couldn’t because it’s so unique. That one is a 15-move boulder out of a huge groove with perfect holds. And the other one, when you stand in front of it, it looks unclimbable. And my friends told me that this is not possible, but there was one day when I had really good friction and I could climb the arete. But that’s the hard stuff.
And the projects which are still waiting there are also futuristic. Maybe I can finish some, or the next generation can finish them.
Climbing: Are you planning on going back there soon?
Zangerl: This year I will go again in September. Last year I was super motivated and actually super fit, but this film was a lot of work and I had to organize everything there in the village. So by the end, I was doing more organizing. This year, I will just go for myself and try to focus on my project.
Climbing: What is your project?
Zangerl: There’s a one-mover. I think it’s the best problem in the world. [laughs] It’s only one crux move, and when I do that, I can top it out. I have tried it for a few years. And the other project is a two-move test piece. I was already close, so I’m really psyched to see if I can do that, but maybe I will also do some more sport climbing or trad climbing this year. I have some main projects, but ultimately I will just go with the flow. These two problems will be cool if I do them, but otherwise the next generation of boys or girls can do it.