Sílvia Vidal - Solo and Alone
Interview and photography by Ian Smith
Sílvia Vidal is, to many British climbers, probably one of the most amazing climbers you've never heard of. Climber's Assistant Editor, Ian Smith, met her at the recent International Mountain Summit in Italy and took the opportunity to interview her. Born in Barcelona, Sílvia discovered climbing when she was 24 years old and quickly became inspired by big wall climbing and is especially known for her solo ascents. She has climbed in many of the world's most remote regions, repeating difficult routes or completing first ascents in the Himalaya (India and Pakistan), Mali (West Africa), Baffin Island (Canada), Yosemite Valley (USA), and many others.
How did you start out as a climber?
I’m from Barcelona, I’m Catalan, and I started to climb because I was studying PE at the university and there was the possibility to participate in a special event that was a multi-sports competition. One of these sports that we needed to do in this competition was climbing. For me, this was something different because before that I was doing athletics and running a lot and this became the first time I touched the rock. Then everything went really fast because with all these friends from the university, some of them were already climbers, we started to go to the rocks together after the competition.
Initially, were you climbing on just small crags, or did you go straight to the mountains?
I went straight to the walls. I started climbing multi-pitch routes traditionally because these guys were trad climbers, so I started like that. After a year or so, I did my first sport climbing because I didn’t know about anything else other than multi-pitch.
You had good friends at the time? Did you have somebody who was a particularly good mentor, or an inspiration to you?
At that time I was climbing with different people, because everything was new for me so I started to meet people in the climbing areas and started to climb with different people. But after a year, or a year and a half, I met a guy called Pep Masip and we both started to do a lot of big walls together and do a lot of aid climbing and started to go on expeditions. We spent a lot of years climbing together.
These big walls in Spain, could you describe the names of some of them and where they are?
Well, we call them ‘big walls’ but they’re not really big. There is Monserrat that is really close to Barcelona, the rock is conglomerate and it’s amazing for aid climbing because you need to be more creative because when you look at it, you don’t see lines, it’s all faces and slabs? There’s also Naranjo de Bulnes in the Picos de Europa where there are a lot of good aid climbing routes. And there’s another place called Mont Rebei in Catalunya. So there are not many but there are some, and I think it’s that the rock is limestone or conglomerate and that makes it the best school for aid climbing because to aid climb on granite is not that creative.
At this time, were you repeating other people’s climbs or were you creating your own new ones at this point?
Usually repeating, but we also did some new routes in the walls around home.
And how difficult were the new routes? What grade of difficulty?
A4+, something like that.
So when did you start climbing solo?
From the beginning, the first year, but at first I was doing short routes and some walls around home. After about a year and a half, I went to Yosemite for the first time and I soloed Zodiac on El Capitan.
Was that your first route on El Cap?
It was the second, the first one was the week before, which was Mescalito and then when I finished that, I did Zodiac. So since the beginning I was interested in solo climbing, but since then it has been more intense, because there were other kinds of expeditions. It’s not the same to go to Yosemite as it is to go to remote areas.
Have you climbed in other places in America, or only Yosemite?
For aid climbing, only Yosemite, but for free climbing, I’ve been to Utah and Colorado.
So you’ve continued to be a free climber as well as an aid climber?
Yes, usually I don’t aid climb. At the beginning I was aiding a lot because I was learning and I was so curious about it, but also free climbing at that time. But now, maybe I do one, two routes aid climbing in the year, and the rest of the time I’m free climbing.
Catalunya has an amazing climbing scene at the moment, with some very good climbers living there and lots of climbers visiting to do amazing things. It seems that Catalunya is a very important place at the moment in the world of climbing for people to push grades. Are you part of that social scene? Do you meet the other climbers, like Chris Sharma and others? Do you have contact?
No, I have met him at festivals but I am not a sport climber. My level in sport climbing is normal, so the maximum I can do… well, depending on whether it's after an expedition, I might do a F6a, but I’ve done some F7bs on-sight, but nowadays that’s nothing.
So at the moment, when you’re back in Catalunya, do you still go trad climbing or has everything been bolted? Is there still good trad climbing there?
Yes but it's more about a mixed style. It’s not like in England.
So you might have routes that might have one or two bolts, but you still have to place your own gear?
Yes, there are a lot of routes like that in Catalunya and some are quite long, there are some between 200m and 400m.
When did you do your first expedition outside of Europe or America? What was the first time?
To Mali in Africa, to the Hand of Fatima.
Was that a big wall and on aid?
Yes and yes, we climbed the Suri Tondo, that’s on the Hand of Fatima, I went with Pep Masip. Then I went to Pakistan and then India, Baffin Island and Peru.
What did you climb on Baffin Isand?
The first time, I was there with Frank Van Herreweghe and we did a new route on Turnweather Peak, near Mount Thor and the second time I was there with Sean Villanueva, Nico Favresse, Olivier Favresse and Stephane Hanssens, we met there and we climbed Mount Asgard.
By a new route or by an established route?
They free climbed an old route but with some variations, so I just was there doing some aid.
You were part of the team?
Yes, it was a nice coincidence because, well, it's a really long story, but in the end I decided just to hike there. There were no good goals for me in the situation. but I knew that they would be there. I met them and they said, ‘Yes, come with us’ and it was good because it was not easy for them to get to the first belay because the glacier had lowered that much and it was not easy to free climb to there. So another pitch, I aid climbed and then they free climbed, so it was a good team but all of the time I was there it was, ‘Yes! Come on!
You talked in your presentation [at the IMS] about your expedition to Kinnaur in the Indian Himalaya. Could you tell me how you discovered the wall in Kinnaur? What was the story behind finding that wall?
I wanted to go to India because I love that country, but I didn’t have a goal, a ‘wall goal’, so I just wrote on google ‘unclimbed wall India’ and then, to my surprise, a really nice picture appeared. Wow! Then I saw that the picture was taken by John Middendorf, and I emailed him and I asked him, ‘John, what’s this picture? Where is this wall?’ And he told me that he has been in the area, travelling with his family, and that he had seen the wall from his route, and that he had no idea about the approach and everything, but that it looked huge. So I just printed it and, with a friend of mine Eulàlia, who came to accompany me, we travelled together through India with five 25-kilo bags, with public transport and all that. Once we arrived at the base camp, she left and I spent all the time there.
How long did it take to climb the wall and you were alone on the wall?
Twenty five days. Yes, and at the base camp too.
And the whole climb was on aid?
Almost all, this wall was the hardest, well, not the hardest route, but it’s really steep and has really no lines, no natural lines. It’s amazing to arrive at a wall that’s virgin and there are no logical or easy lines to climb.
So you had to explore the wall as well as climb it? You had no other reference points? And how difficult did it turn out to be?
About A4+ aid climbing.
And you lived in a portaledge the whole time?
The hauling must be difficult? You are a small person.
So the climbing is, I imagine, okay, but how do you deal with the hauling?
Yes, that’s the worst part, hauling and carrying everything. Well, it’s still a nightmare now but I’ve changed the technique of hauling over the years, I have tried many different ways because sometimes someone shows you another way with the pullies and then I say, ‘Okay, I will try it’. Now what I am doing is like a mobile pulley and a fixed pulley, so that means that you need double length rope. It works better, but in the end it’s always strength. Like, pushing, pushing…
May I ask a slightly personal question: how heavy are you and how tall are you? It’s useful to put in context just how difficult the hauling is because obviously in big wall hauling climbers use their body weight to make the system work?
I’m 46 kilos [around seven and a half stones] before an expedition and I'm 1.59m [about five foot three inches].
So recently, your other big expeditions, after Kinnaur, did you go to Patagonia? What did you do?
Yes, last year. I was in Chilean Patagonia. I climbed a wall called Serranía Avalancha and it was a good experience because it was another land. It was jungle and to climb the wall you needed to paddle across a lake. The wall is not a perfect wall for aid climbing because there are a lot of natural lines so it’s not really steep. So talking about climbing difficulty, it’s not very interesting for aid climbing, but it took me 32 days to climb it because of the weather. Again, solo.
And the weather was poor? A lot of rain?
A lot of rain but that’s usual there because that's what area is like, but it’s a really strong rain, and that was the first time that I was on a wall feeling that I could not quit the route whenever I wanted. Because, in other places, things can be more difficult or less, but at the end it’s just about suffering. If you want to suffer more or less, you stay or you don't? But I always had the feeling that I could quit whenever I wanted. Maybe it would take two or three days to quit a route, but it was possible. But there, it was not, because of the rain, it was dangerous because there were waterfalls.
So have you ever quit on a big wall, or have you always succeeded when you have set your mind to do a big wall?
I have quit sometimes, yes. In Mali once, climbing with Pep Masip, I got an eye problem, I was almost blind because I put some drops in and I was allergic to those drops and I didn’t know that.
Could you explain what is your motivation for tackling these big walls alone? Why do you do it? Do you know and how do you feel afterwards?
Not really, I know that it’s a need, that sometimes I feel that I want to experience something really intense and these situations, they are always intense, but if you are alone they are much more. It’s like, everything, is increased, no? For me, there are some moments that I never experience when I'm here. Afterwards, I feel totally destroyed, physically destroyed, really weak, very weak, but mentally, I feel that I need a lot of time to digest all of it, but after some months I feel really happy and grateful that I had the opportunity to go and come back.
Do you have a job in Spain? Do you work?
Well, no and yes, because I am making a living from climbing that’s a lot of work because you need to have the drive but I’m very calm so I don’t need to go climbing every day.
And you can survive financially? You have an okay life?
I can ‘survive’ – that’s the word, also because of how I am, it’s not easy for me to live from all of this because I know that I’m closing a lot of doors. For me it’s not easy to live from my passion and the 'how to sell it', and even worst nowadays with all the internet craziness.
So you see yourself as a climber? You wish to be represented as a climber?
For your accomplishments, not for being a woman?
Yes, climbing it’s not about gender.
Catherine Destivelle, in her presentation, said something very similar, that she wanted to be taken as a climber, and when she did some of her climbs she didn’t want it to be ‘the first woman’, she just wanted to be a climber doing it. So you have a similar attitude?
If someone puts you inside the woman box, they always take your activity down.
And do you have your next trip planned or are you just waiting to see what comes along?
I have something in mind, but I will not explain that.
Do other climbers know that you’re looking for projects? Might they think, ‘That wall would be good for Sílvia, I’ll tell her’?
Yes, some people send me pictures. Yes, that’s really nice, yes, so I’m looking for more pictures but there’s some places that I already want to go, so let’s see.
Sílvia is sponsored by Berghaus, Black Diamond, Boreal and Sterling Rope and her web page is www.vidalsilvia.com