Maurizio, Manolo, Mago
Eternit, the slab. Andrea Gallo and a day's climbing with Maurizio Manolo Zanolla at Baule (Dolomites, Italy)
Do you think that passions can fill our lives? Believe that encounters are worth more than a thousand words? And that climbing, real rock climbing and not only chitter chatter, helps to comprehend and understand each other? I think so. I reckon that climbing with someone else isn't only the best way to enjoy that air, that void, those rocks which fuel the dreams of climbers. But it also gives a sense to the endless search for that elusive something. The day's climbing, told by Andrea Gallo, one of Italy's foremost climbers during the late 80's, is all of this. It is about a rock face, at the crag Baule. It is about a route, Eternit, established and first ascended by Manolo last year. And it is about the curiosity to see, to attempt to understand. To be amazed together, climbing in unison.
Maurizio, Manolo, Mago by Andrea Gallo
While waiting for Maurizio I look at the magnetic Totoga slabs and ask myself why I've never climbed there during the last 30 years. There was a time when all I needed was to hear about a difficult route and I immediately travelled across all of Italy to try it, and then return for months on end to repeat it. But at Totoga, at Maurizio's crag, never. We studied each other for years, like famished hounds who ran around each other, smelling each other, pretending not to know each other, avoiding the battle; perhaps I knew who had the sharper teeth and I chose not to admit it.
Time has helped us, Maurizio came to Gressoney for an evening show and I introduced him. I imagine his amazement when he found out I'd be the one: words never expressed directly, misunderstandings, petty distance quarrels could have foretold the worst, an ice-cold shoulder. And it really was cold that night, one of those evenings in the town square which forced you to wear a duvet jacket. I was worried by the show, carried out with a slide projector, without any music. In the beginning he was perhaps more suspicious than uneasy. But as the lights dimmed and the flow of words accompanied the images of a boy who matured into a man via explosions of life which flirted with death, he proved magical. The crowd of onlookers weren't climbers yet with his stories of insane escapades up the Pale di San Martino it didn't bar any holds, on the contrary, the crowd was magnetised, drawn in by a world far removed from normal holidays.
I was struck, taken in, I absolutely needed more, wanted to see, understand what he undertook on his rocks. Wanted to finally see Maurizio Zanolla climb, devoid of the stories and legends which first transformed him in Manolo, then Mago, the magician. The book I'm completing bridged the gap. In the last decade I've climbed and photographed many of Italy's best climbers. At one point I looked back and understood that I was on a journey. Moving to the other side of the lens I attempted to tell what the climbers were really up to, on a crag, an ice fall, a rock face, via a route which took on a life form. Reality only, fuck technique, perfect light, the right moment, bullshit, they were there to climb, I was there to take photos, nothing else. This was to become "Io Scalo", I Climb, a project which I can't and never want to finish because there is always another life, another route to talk about. Maurizio was missing from all this, but I pretended as if this didn't matter, just like I had done with his routes. But not now.
We walked up to Baule, suspended between the plain and the Pale di San Martino on a ridge above Val Noana, and above this perfect slab the sky was electric blue. Eternit finally, 20m of perfect limestone, the angle nothing more than vertical. This might seem funny, but it isn't. Ridiculous holds, extremely small and distant, inexistent footholds and Maurizio began to climb.
By the way he crimped, how he weighted the front of the shoe, how he breathed and lifted himself upwards I immediately understood that this was something one gains not only on a climbing wall. He toyed with the first section, the one called "O ce l’hai o ne hai bisogno" (Either you've got it or you need it, Editor's note) which in its own right would be enough to render a climber famous. Unusually good friction, which stuck the fingers to the rock and dried his skin, cut his finger. Game over, the day was done. But the photographer within me was suitably satisfied and Maurizio, now in my eyes Manolo, continued to the top, carrying out the sequence on the final headwall, the one which gives the meaning to Eternit.
"Now it's your turn." Yep, now it's my turn, I should have declined the invitation, but I'm more curious than intelligent. Every hold is small, tiny, the next one is distant, extremely, too far. The footholds flee, are never where you want them to be, but exactly there where he had just climbed without hesitation. I'm not capable of climbing these difficulties but this summer I climbed enough vertical routes to remind my hands and feet what a difficult route is all about. But this goes well beyond, it's something which isn't just about becoming stronger, above all it's about becoming better, and Manolo is just this.
The photographer shook the climber still within me, the radiant light was about to leave the slab and the friction about to bite even harder. Come on Manolo, give it another go. I now knew every hold and the game he's playing, there where I had hung from the rope, touching and retouching the rock to understand how to stick the holds he arrived completely extended, his feet on two disgusting footholds, now he's fucked I thought to myself, you're can't escape from a situation like this one, but like a balloon he transformed and up he went. On the final section, the one which gives the route it's 9 grade, where he had told me to match to change hands and I had laughed, thinking it was a joke, I realised that it wasn't. Instinctively I took my eye from behind the lens to check whether it was all true .. and it was. I was overcome by the desire to shout "well done", and I did. And it was then that I understood why he's called Mago, the magician.
It's an absurd difficulty, another dimension which Manolo entered years ago and which perhaps we still haven't understood fully. His climbing is comprised of great athletic fitness combined with a total mastery of the moves, developed in 30 years of extreme, technical climbing. This is what Eternit is about, a manifesto for rock climbing.
Chain... lower back down to the ground. Decimo was waiting for him, his father-in-law, 72 splendid years old, at 70 he fell in love with snowboarding and apart from being a ski instructor, he now also teaches snowboarding. Mago, your retirement is still a long way off.
Andrea Gallo / www.galloclick.com
This meeting was a great moment for me, powerful and also tough, it shook years of climbing and certainties. Manolo has already expressed his thoughts about the grade, Eternit is harder than the other slabs he's repeated in Switzerland (Bain de Sang and Bimbaluna) and which many of the world's best consider the hardest in the world. Until they walk up to Baule.