The hardest slab in the world: the interview

Alessandro Zeni after Cryptography 9b

– When did your love affair with Saint-Loup start and how it started?

It all started in 2015 when I made my first trip with my friend Riccardo Scarian to this remote place in French-speaking Switzerland. I had gone all the way there because Sky was taking laps on “Bimba Luna” and for me it was an opportunity to try the legendary “Bain de Sang” the now famous 9a by Fred Nicole that represented the test route for every slab climbing lover. In that week the conditions were very bad and I couldn’t climb that route, but the beauty of those movements had somehow bewitched me and in 2017 I came back again to wrap it up. It is special crag for me, beyond the routes, a lot of memories were added. Some nice trips with a friend to a cliff far away from the hype, silent and surrounded by green. The classic cliff where if you meet by chance another climber you know that it can only be a local and you immediately make lasting friendships. Who knows if it will always remain an enchanted garden…

I know it was a special story of sharing with Riccardo Sky Scarian…

Sky since the moment we met has been for me an exceptional master who, without any kind of envy, has passed on to me this sort of art of knowing how to dance on these vertical walls, taught me to be patient and how dedication and sacrifices are necessary to achieve all my goals. Surely this has allowed me to improve very quickly. But Sky, fortunately for me, never wanted to be venerated. Right from the start, he decided to break down that “pupil/teacher” barrier that would somehow keep us apart in order to create something more beautiful, a great friendship! Nowadays climbing has a different value for me than when I started out. Of course, I like to test myself more and more on things at my limit, but most of all I love to travel and add memories and great adventures with a real friend. I would say that Sky has not only been a climbing master but also a true life-master.

Foto Stefano Jeantet

How many times have you gone back and forth from Switzerland to do Bain de Sang and then Bimbaluna and then this one?

Each trip we spent about 5 days in Saint Loup and I don’t exactly remember how many trips we made back and forth but I think about 14 times as a whole since 2017. What I think is really wonderful is that we never lost the motivation to come back. Which is not at all obvious on routes like this one where sometimes you really fall at the very end, like Sky happened to experience d on “Bimbaluna” in 2017! As I was saying Sky gave me dedication and patience, I admire it deeply because since 2006 (after a quick repetition of Bain de Sang) he has been trying Bimbaluna, and every time he is so close too send the climb! That day he will succeed I think I will be immensely happy and personally I will help him until the end to be able to complete this great dream of his.

What was the typical day on this kind of route?

We used to get up in the morning in the middle of a beautiful forest, where we used to go with Sky’s van to sleep. In the morning we’d have a breakfast of coffee, yogurt and dried fruit that should have been enough until dinner time and then off to the cliff. We reached the cliff around 10 a.m. to avoid the bad conditions due to the morning dew, we would light a small fire to warm up (there was hardly ever more than 5°C) and then we would start with the heating ritual with the usual two pitches.
Then, a must in the evening, when we had finished destroying our fingers, it was a good beer at the bar before we holed up in the van again to listen to music, have dinner and spend time with each other, mixing bizarre briscola tournaments (play cards,NDR). I’ve never been bored with Sky, we laugh all the time and never take ourselves too seriously.

Foto Stefano Jeantet

Did you meet the Nicole brothers or someone else who was taking laps and confronted you about the beta?

Yes, we met several times both Fred and Francois Nicole, two really delicious people that I hope we will see again soon! No, unfortunately nobody had tried this route yet but I invited Francois to do it since he lives in the neighboring country and he seemed really motivated. I have seen him climbing several times in Saint Loup and I must say that he hasn’t lost his steel fingers and his elegant style of climbing over the years!

The connection is an idea of yours or is it something that some local climbers were already trying?

It was mine after I climbed Bimbaluna. Actually the connection that took the two “easier” parts had already been sent in 1988 by Fred Nicole and is called “Anais et le cannabis” 8c. “Anais” was the first route that was born on this wall, even before the actual “Bain de Sang”, which is a direct start set 5 years later, in 1993. Fred told me about this “old” route and I started thinking about Cryptography. If the combination of the “easier” parts had an 8c grade… What would the combination of the two hardest parts be like? I liked the idea of trying to close this circle, the union of two milestones of climbing, right from the start.

Foto Stefano Jeantet

Have you tried different types of shoes or have you always gone with the same ones?

I always used the same shoes, Katana laces. When I say the same ones, I mean the very same ones! I had a pair of shoes that I wrote “Cryptography” on, specially adapted and that I only used for that occasion. Let’s say that often when you’re on the edge, every detail can make a difference.

What kind of specific training did you do for this kind of route?

I did a lot of board, essential to increase the specific strength on the fingers, combined with system wall and pan gullich. Clearly this was just the “dry training” part. I then rebuilt the key passageway on my wall trying to repeat it using a weight vest. The key part, however, was to find some really difficult routes on which to transform all this work, my main workshop was definitely the Bilico cliff in Val Canali.

Are you able to do the frontal and sagittal split and the full frog opening?

No I can’t do the split even though I’m quite close to it. On the other hand, I am lucky enough to have natural hip mobility, which is essential to keep my pelvis glued to the wall on this kind of climbing and the frog position comes very easily to me without ever having trained it.

It is a type of route on which conditions are fundamental. What are the ideal conditions of temperature, humidity and sunshine to succeed?

We have seen that the best conditions to try these routes were when there were veiled winter days with temperatures between 0 and 5 °C. Being a south facing wall the classic north wind doesn’t help much, the perfect grip is found especially when the wind is blowing from the west.
Interesting were also the attempts made at night where we found good conditions but were a bit forced by the high temperatures of March last year.
But we found the best conditions ever when it snowed a little bit.

Foto Stefano Jeantet

How was rotpunkt day? Did you expect it?

The day of the rotpunkt was something great. I knew I was ready but I didn’t expect it so fast! I had just got out of a finger injury and for this, I have to thank my girlfriend Ilenia very much who, as a good physiotherapist, was able to fix me in record time with a good series of Tecar therapy sessions.
I had the first feedback when I went with her for the first time in January to Cornalba and in just 3 attempts I managed to climb the 8c of “Once upon a time in America” failing by very little at the second attempt and at the third one it was almost a walk. From there I knew it would be a good year for Switzerland and it was. After this one on the return in 3 attempts I also succeeded in the first repeat of the route “Stramonio” 8c/+ of Manolo, further confirmation that I was in a period of amazing form.

Are you aware that this is the hardest slab in the world? Can you compare it with your Cosmic energy 9a+?

I have absolutely no presumption to define it as the hardest slab in the world. Mine remains only a proposal! All I know is that for me it has been a great achievement, a journey and a unique challenge!
Cryptography is simply the union of two legendary routes on an old-fashioned climbing style. Compared to “Cosmic Energy” I can say that it’s a different route, less resistance but it can become really very poisonous because it’s more random in some points.
The beauty of “Cosmic energy” is something unique, both for its complex movements and for the special place where it is located. In some ways, now I can say that on a physical level cosmic energy is even more difficult, but the technical component and the ability to be able to spread your feet and find the right balance on Cryptography are certainly not negligible. My friend Sky knows this very well because many times he came close to closing Bimba Luna. On a route like this, as soon as the conditions change even a little bit, you go from being close to not being able to set individual movements anymore. It’s really frustrating!

What are the chances of someone like Ondra coming to try this monster?

I really hope he comes to try it! Beyond the grade I’m sure he’ll have fun on this route because it’s totally natural and he’s seen the history of this kind of climbing. In any case I really hope that sooner or later someone will repeat it, fashions are bound to come back and routes like this I’m sure they will get back the attention they deserve.

Have you assigned grade 9b.What are your parameters?

I don’t fall into the category of climbers who give themselves grades, that’s why the decision on the difficulty of Cryptography was rather painful.
In these cases, it is always difficult to expose yourself, especially when it comes to giving a grade to the world limit on this style of climbing where you can’t make many comparisons precisely because there are no references. But not to give difficulty to a route for fear of exposing yourself I think it’s always wrong, the only thing to do is to be as honest as possible with yourself and with others trying to make comparisons as similar as possible to the route in question. Personally I had a hard time convincing myself that Cryptography could be so difficult, but in the end I could only rely on the difficulties attributed to the two routes in question: “Bain de sang” grade 9a and “bimba luna” grade 9a/+. Both routes have been repeated and confirmed by climbers who I believe have a lot of experience. Even if Bain de Sang is rated 8c+, Cryptography remains one and a half degrees more difficult.
That’s why I gave 9b to Cryptography, it could only be otherwise.
If not, both Bain de Sang and Bimba Luna would have to be reevaluated.
But as usual, there is only one proposal left, waiting for some willing climbers to try to repeat this beautiful route that more than in the grade lives on the story of two great climbers: Fred and François Nicole.

Do you have other projects around at this level or maybe even more difficult?

No at the moment I have no plans of this difficulty at the cliff. Right now I’m trying to open with my friend Sky a new multipitch route where the difficulties will be really high. Without absolutely belittling the climbing on the crag, for me the real goal is to try to bring the high difficulty in the mountains where the use of the spit is justified by the search for long run outs. In the mountains everything is more adventurous and complex, the views are breathtaking and the hundreds of meters below my feet exalt me and make me feel alive for real. The opening days alone are real tests of self-control, risk analysis and uncertainty of success.
Then with my comrades of the Military Section of Alta Montagna we have a lot of projects in mind: from Marmolada to climbs on Mont Blanc and Val di Mello. Then with my friend Andrea Cattarossi I would like to do some routes in Marmolada, Civetta and Cima Scottoni. Everything will depend on the evolution of this difficult moment for our country but I like to think that soon we will return to a new normality.

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