FEDERICA MINGOLLA: CARPE DIEM
The type of climbing she likes to do is one of the most mentally challenging and technical. We’re talking about trad (or traditional) climbing, just like very first climbers. Aspiring alpine guide Federica Mingolla – a 27-year-old from the Piedmont region – tells us that, to do this kind of climbing, you need to be mentally solid and perfectly in tune with the rock. An outstanding talent, Mingolla is one of Italy’s most gifted mountain climbers whose achievements are internationally recognised: she was the first Italian to climb major technical routes such as Tom et Je Ris (Verdon, France), Digital Crack (Mont Blanc massif) and, in one day, the Via Attraverso il Pesce (Marmolada, Italy). This year, she’s starting the summer season by climbing La Cruna dell’Ago (8a) onsight in the tranquil Vallone di Forzo in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park; the Golden Tower (8a) on the limestone of the Tours d’Areu, France; the famous interlocking roof of Ma Dalton (7b/c), on the granite of Mont Blanc; and Bellavista on the north face of the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo, which was opened solo by Alexander Huber in 1999, and whose difficulty is thought to be around 8b+/c.
When and how did you start going into the mountains?
I started climbing because I’d grown up in the mountains. My father had been taking me with him ever since I was small, but I’d never really explored climbing. I used to do ski mountaineering and via ferratas, and I also swam competitively. I began climbing rather late, when I was around 15 years old, thanks to an indoor gym in Turin. I did competitions but got bored almost immediately, especially when I discovered cliff climbing. Then, when I was 20, I began doing some climbing – my first long routes – and I got back into ski mountaineering, which I had given up. For the first time, I was experiencing the outdoors and the mountains to the full. It became all-consuming and led to me choosing a unique lifestyle. Most of the time I would go to the mountains with an alpine guide who I had met in a gym and who took me under their wing and saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself.
What is the worse thing about being a climber?
You never go to the beach! Joking aside, it’s true: you concentrate so heavily on the mountains and your plans that you often forget that that’s not all there is – that life is made up of many other things and that you need to find balance between your passion and the people you love, as well as cultivating other interests. For a long time I was focused only on climbing. The passion burned so strong inside me that I wanted to do everything, right away. Now, I’ve entered the next stage. I’ve realised that there can’t just be that. There are other ways to feel satisfied and experience life that aren't related to hitting the mountains, so I’m also making time for other things like travelling. This is something that all climbers have to understand, not least because you end up burning out, mentally and physically, if you don’t give yourself a break. I came to understand all this because of the accident I had: I was grounded for two months, a month and a half of which I was in a wheelchair. For a hyperactive person like myself, who never sits still even for a second, it was tough. I had to reassess many aspects of my life. I told myself that there was more to life than just running, climbing and outdoor activities. If other people could be happy even without the use of their legs, I could do it too, even though it wasn’t easy. This is the worse thing about being a climber.
Let’s talk about the Bellavista route on the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo in the Dolomites. How did the idea of climbing it come about? How did you get back in shape after the accident, and which routes did you climb to prepare yourself?
Various people had put the idea in my head by asking why I didn't go and try it. It’s a route that’s known to be difficult, in an amazing location, but I’d always said that it didn’t interest me because I prefer climbing on granite and I thought it was a bit loose. Then I went to do Alpenliebe, on the Cima Oveste di Lavaredo, and I loved it. So two years later, in 2021, once I was good enough to climb it, I decided to challenge myself with Alex Huber’s 1999 masterpiece, which he’d opened climbing solo. After two days I’d free climbed all the pitches, except for the 8c and 8a. I was feeling good and I knew I would have been able to do it if only I’d had a few more days. Unfortunately, though, other commitments forced my climbing partner to leave and just a few days later I broke both my heels. But perhaps it was just as well because at the time, in August, the wind was coming from the south-east, which soaps up the holds and makes it impossible to keep your grip. It was only later that I discovered that you need to climb it when the wind is coming from the north-west. Once I was back on my feet after the accident – it was Thursday 16 June this year – I went back with someone else. The conditions were right, there was a north-westerly wind and I could feel the holds, but the first attempt I made on the route was a disaster. My stamina deserted me. I felt that somehow I was a different person. The time that had passed since the accident had changed something in the way I climb. I still haven't quite figured out what, but it was crucial that I manage to climb the route. I think it’s something mental. I don’t think I’m stronger than before, so evidently something has been released psychologically. I started climbing again just three months after my fall, instead of the four/five that my doctor had told me, and I completed an 8c+. During my rehab, I was terrified by the idea that once I started climbing again I would be scared of falling, seeing as how I’d hurt myself falling with the rope. So I purposefully spent a month in Spain climbing and doing small falls to get used to the feeling of letting myself go into the void again. In the end, I was able to get myself to a point where I could handle these horrible feelings and the flashbacks to the accident. Even on the Bellavista, I was in a different state of mind compared to the year before. I wasn't afraid, but the first day didn’t go very well because I was out of practice climbing overhangs and I’d just got back from ten days of bolting, cleaning and climbing in Kosovo, so I was a little tired. I would have preferred to rest the next day, but my friend convinced me to go back because it was the day with the best conditions. That evening I took all the salts, vitamins and supplements I had, but I still woke up tired. On top of that, it had rained and thundered all night long. We decided to go for it anyway and I took my first pitches slowly, making sure not to dislodge even the tiniest pebble, and a little scared about spaced-out bolts and holds that could come away at any moment. But I overcame the block and realised that, compared to the day before, I was managing to rest well and my body was recovering, and perhaps even remembering the steps. Every three/four quickdraws there’s a little rest, which lets you shake yourself out a bit, and so, by setting myself small goals, I was soon at the top. It was one of the few times in my life that I’ve shouted for joy. It was like a release and the opposite of how I am usually, seeing as I’m rather introspective when climbing. When I do something that’s at my limit, I don’t tend to show it. I don’t like to make a scene. I struggled most with ropes getting stuck, and the setting changes the sensations you feel when climbing. But I was happy that I was able to free climb on all the difficult pitches after just one day on the wall. Nik caught up with me really quickly on the static rope and so we carried on with just the essentials and a light backpack. I did the 8a really quickly: after such a long, difficult route, even an 8a seems easy. Having done all those tough pitches, we decided to abseil where the route joins and follows the old Via Cassin, because the Bellavista was soaked from the violent thunderstorm during the night before and I didn’t want to risk it, even though I was really upset that I didn’t manage to climb to the top of the Lavaredo. Touching the peak would have been really satisfying – the cherry on the cake after a great climb on a great face – but after what happened to me, I don’t think that risking your life for a few V grade pitches is worth it. After two hours of arduous abseiling, we returned to base. Perhaps one day I'll go back to attempt the Panaroma, which is another Alexander Huber route that has always interested me on the north face of the Ovest. I’m happy nonetheless. My goal was to succeed in climbing the Bellavista, without fear and with peace of mind, and in the end I did just that.
Logistically speaking, how did you tackle this wall?
We climbed all ten pitches from the bottom. All four of the times that I did the route, I started from below, because I thought that if I could do the pitch, I would have wanted to have already climbed the previous bits.
What is the first thing that comes to mind if I say “aesthetics in climbing”? Do you think that “aesthetics” are important in climbing?
For me they’re everything: I pay a lot of attention to aesthetics, perhaps even more so than the difficulty. Mount Fitz Roy immediately springs to mind. It's beautiful and every climber dreams of doing it at least once in their lives. The athletic side of things is also important. That’s why I prefer more technical climbers over physical ones, a little Manolo-like. They’re really wonderful to watch. I’m not very strong. I’m more technical than physical. I heel hook every two seconds. It’s my way of climbing. When I broke my heels, I was devastated because I thought that I wouldn't be able to climb ever again, but in actual fact I’m back to heel hooking with no problems.
What is your favourite Salewa product and why?
It’s the Agner Hybrid Down jacket, which has down on the chest, while its sleeves are made from perforated softshell fabric for breathability. Mine is light blue – my favourite colour. It also has a side pocket that you can stuff it into so that it’s easy to pack into your backpack. It’s really handy. I love it because you can use it as a sweatshirt, a down jacket or a windbreaker, and it protects your front well. It’s also light and you can hang it from your harness. It’s a good compromise that I go for when I can’t decide between several jackets.
Upcoming short-term projects?
In August I’m heading off on a lovely trip with Nicolò Bartoli. We’ll be opening new routes in Kyrgyzstan, which gets called the Asian Patagonia because of the vast granite walls that are reminiscent of Patagonia, although there aren't any incredible glaciers, just snowfields.
Is there someone who you’d like to be reincarnated as in a hypothetical next life?
No, I’d rather be an eagle. My favourite animal is the polar bear, but I wouldn't want to be reincarnated as one because times are tough for them.