Let’s face it, these days you’ll be hard pressed to find a climber who hasn’t heard of Stefano Ghisolfi. An extremely accomplished competition climber with multiple lead podiums under his belt, Ghisolfi’s most recent claim to fame has been his ascent of Alex Megos’ Bibliographie – which he then chose to downgrade. But this is only one Ghisolfi’s many accomplishments over the past 18 months, which include three 9b+ ascents and the overall 2021 Lead World Cup season title. How does he do it all?!
We caught up with Stefano on his return to Arco to ask him this very question. The conversation that follows touches on his recent ascents (including, of course, Bibliographie), his early years as a climber, how he manages his training, and the actions he is currently taking to reduce his carbon footprint. We hope you find it as interesting as we did!
Hi Stefano! It’s such an honour to meet you! Let’s start right at the beginning – can you tell us a bit about how you got into climbing?
I actually entered the world of competitive sports as a mountain biker. My father was a mountain biking instructor so I naturally followed in his footsteps and started participating in youth mountain biking competitions aged 6 years old.
I first tried climbing when I was 11 years old, after a biking competition in the Aosta Valley. Some friends took me to an artificial wall, and I immediately fell in love with the sport. I felt super comfortable on the wall, and was actually the only one to make it to the top! From that moment, I started to search for beginners’ courses in Turin (where I lived), and after just one month I competed for the first time in lead climbing. I competed in both biking and climbing for about a year, then stopped biking and focused all my energy on climbing. I then started doing more and more, increasingly harder comps: the European Youth Cup, Youth World Cup, and the Senior World Cup circuit where I still compete today...
I first got to know you as a competition climber, but you’ve since shown yourself to be an incredible outdoor sport climber too. At this point in your life, would you see yourself more as a competition climber or as a rock climber?
A bit of both. As I mentioned before, I started off as a competition climber but fell in love with rock climbing around 2010. My life now is split between competition and rock climbing, depending on the period of the year. During the competition season, I only climb on artificial walls and train exclusively for this, but during the off-season I climb on rock a lot. If I had to choose, I think I would now gravitate towards rock climbing. Sooner or later I will retire from competitions, but rock climbing is something I will do for the rest of my life.
I was wondering – how do you manage your training to perform so highly in both disciplines?
I tend to focus my training around the competitions. I start training at the beginning of the year with the goal of doing well in the World Cups and World Championships, and then I translate my training into rock climbing, without doing anything specific. I find that the skills and fitness you need for lead competitions are quite similar to those you need in outdoor sport climbing. Bouldering, however, is a completely different story – the modern competition style is not similar to outdoor bouldering at all!
You’ve had an incredible year despite everything going on with Covid-19 and multiple lockdowns. I mean, you climbed Change (9b+) in September 2020, Erebor (9b/+) in January 2021, Bibliographie (9b+) in August and also won the overall Lead World Cup title this year. How did you manage all this?
Lockdown forced me to shift my focus away from competitions, because they were all cancelled. I had to find a new goal for the year, and I found some motivation in rock climbing. So I trained a lot in my garage at home, and then when we were allowed to go outside I focused exclusively on rock. I actually didn’t compete in any competitions aside from the Italian championship last year, and instead went to Norway to try Change.
Did you experience any frustration or lack of motivation during this period – especially with all the uncertainty over which competitions would go on?
My moment of frustration was actually very short! During this period the most worrying issue was the pandemic, and so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about competitions. I knew I could train from home, but had no idea how long the lockdown would last. I decided just to focus on getting into good shape to climb outdoors.
Let’s talk a bit about Change. What inspired you to try this route? If I understand correctly, there was a 8-year gap between Adam Ondra’s first ascent and your second ascent.
This was actually one of the things that motivated me to try it! Nobody had even tried Change since Adam made the first ascent in 2012, and I was curious to see what the route was like. It’s a very historical route – the first 9b+ in the world. I thought it was a pity that it hadn’t seen a repeat.
To be honest, I was a bit worried because the route looked quite strange. The first section has some weird drop-knees, and Adam’s power screams in the video didn’t help me feel reassured. I however knew it would be possible, and in the end it took me two months to complete – with a break in the middle to compete in the Italian Championships.
You then went on to send Erebor - currently the hardest route in Italy - in January of this year. Am I correct in thinking that this was the first route you bolted?
Erebor is the only route I’ve bolted. The idea came to me when I was in Eremo di San Paolo (a crag in Arco) just after lockdown, in June 2020. I was trying another route there and noticed a part of the rock that was unbolted. At first it looked quite smooth and featureless, but on closer inspection I found some holds. I decided to bolt it and see if it was possible. I had to take a break over the summer because it was too hot – so I went to Norway to try Change – but when I came back to Arco in October I started trying it again, and sent it in the first few days of January 2021.
Is the process of bolting and working a route very different to repeating a route, or even making a first ascent of a route bolted by someone else?
Yes, it’s very different. Making a first ascent is very different to repeating something because you have to find the beta and the holds. It’s a much slower process. However, if you're climbing a route bolted by someone else, you already know it’s possible because the bolter will have tried the moves.
When you bolt something yourself, the process is even slower. You have to bolt it, find the line, decide where to go. You have no idea if it’s even possible to climb the line – you could just be wasting a lot of time and energy. Or the route could be too easy!
Do you think you’ll bolt more routes in the future?
I think I will have too! There aren’t that many possibilities left at the cutting edge that have already been bolted. Usually, bolters bolt routes that are at their own level, or the level of most other climbers. A hard route might be 8b, 8b+ or even 8c. But for anything at the next level, you either have to find a generous bolter who wants to bolt something for you, or do it yourself.
You’ve been in the press a lot recently following your repeat of Alex Megos’ Bibiliographie. Why motivated you to try this route?
This year, my goal was to climb something at the next level, as I’d already done two 9b+ routes.
There wasn’t much choice when it came to 9c: it was either Silence or Bibliographie. I chose Bibliographie because Céüse is closer to home than Norway and I knew I’d have more time to try it between competitions. Also, after watching the videos, I felt like it would suit my style better. Silence is a weird route, and I didn’t know if I wanted to go all the way to Flatanger to try something I couldn’t even do the moves on.
I started trying Bibliographie in June 2021 and returned to it over multiple trips. In July the competition season started, so I shifted my focus to this, but went straight to Céüse after the Briançon Lead World Cup. I then returned to Céüse for a full month in August, and sent Bibliographie on the last day of that trip.
In the end you decided to downgrade Bibliographie from 9c to 9b+. Was this a difficult decision to make?
Well, I felt it had to be done. For me the difficulty of the route was 9b+, not 9c. For Bibliographie to be 9c it would’ve had to have been much harder than Perfecto Mundo and Change, which I felt it was not. The most difficult thing for me was actually finding the right words to say this.
In the end, I feel like the decision to downgrade the route was well accepted by the climbing community. When you repeat a route, the process is often easier. You know the route is possible, you know the line, and so you can devote more time to finding new beta. Sometimes the grade changes. I talked to Alex throughout the process and he understood.
I noticed that you are a zeroCo2 ambassador (alongside Alex Megos) and that you came up with the idea of the Climber’s Forest. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
As a professional climber I travel a lot, so I make a lot of carbon emissions. Even when I’m not flying around the world for competitions, I travel a lot in my van. I had the idea of offsetting some of my emissions this year by planting trees according to the number of trips I do. But I actually decided it was better to plant trees when I accomplished something, as a way of celebrating the ascent and offsetting the travel that got me there. I asked my followers to do the same and we created this imaginary forest: all the trees are planted, but not in one single spot! So when you send your next project, make a gift to the planet by planting some trees and have them counted in the Climber’s Forest.
Finally, what’s next? Any big projects or goals?
My plans for the immediate future are to stay at home for a bit and work on some projects. Just chilling, training and rock climbing.
In the long term, I intend to keep competing for a few more years – I have a few goals in this area!
Great! Thanks so much for your time Stefano. I wish you the best of luck with your projects this autumn!
A big thank you to Stefano Ghisolfi for his time and insights. If you want to keep up to date on his projects and sends, go follow his Instagram, @steghiso
Top and cover pictures caption: Stefano Ghisolfi climbing in Céüse, © Adri Martinez.
This post was kindly sponsored by La Sportiva, who collaborated with us on the Climbing Travel Guide.