Cristian Brenna climbed 10 feet before deciding against wearing sunglasses today.
“Here, catch,” he said, tossing the shades down to me, belaying on the ground. “I can’t see with these!” The sun was blasting the south face of the Cima Piccola, reflecting off the famously pale limestone and making it blindingly white.
I hate climbing with sunglasses, too, but today I couldn’t see without mine.
Cristian’s coffee-bean-colored eyes squinted as he scanned the blank rock for footholds. Crow’s feet emanated from their corners, crinkles of bronze Italian skin seemingly ascribed to 42 years of a perpetually smiling face. He took off up the first pitch of the Gelbe Mauer. He climbed very fast.
The Gelbe Mauer is a modern classic of the Italian Dolomites, bolted and eventually freed ground-up by the legendary climbers Kurt Albert and Stefan Glowacz in 1996. Its 1,200 feet of sustained, technical 5.11/12 crimping on continuously overhanging stone has, I’m told, cleaned up quite well. At only 11 pitches, it’s short by Dolomites standards, but with every pitch clocking in at 5.11 or harder, it requires a much larger effort than its length suggests.
Though I knew I was fortunate enough to be able to climb this rad route with one of Italy’s strongest climbers, I didn’t know much about Cristian himself, other than he used to compete in World Cups in the 1990s. I had surely seen his name in the top rankings of various post-comp reports, but I normally pay little attention to this type of news. A competition on plastic all the way in Europe does little to spark the typical American stoke.
But I had seen his name somewhere else … I just couldn’t remember.
On the third pitch, I hung from a rare jug, recovering my pumped forearms, and it suddenly came to me that I had first been introduced to Cristian’s name in an old guidebook to my home crag, Rifle. The guidebook mentions that Brenna had blazed through the canyon in 1996 and onsighted one of my all-time favorite routes, Sprayathon (5.13c). The guidebook had dubbed it the hardest onsight to date at the then nascent Colorado crag. I climbed to the anchor, eager to ask Cristian about this flimsy but singular connection that we shared.
“Si, I onsight Sprayathon,” he said in his accent, the memory causing him to momentarily desist flaking our double ropes. He smiled broadly, his face spreading around the strong centerpiece that is his round nose. “I onsight many routes there. For World Cup climbers, onsighting is not so hard.”
The way he said this did not seem like he was boasting, but rather like he was stating a simple fact. Brenna was indeed one of the earlier climbers to onsight 5.14a, with Mortal Kombat in 2002. He continued flaking, and soon set off on lead, dispatching yet another technical pitch with an efficiency more typical of a seasoned mountain guide than a man who has spent the majority of his climbing career training on plastic for World Cups—a period of his life in which he consistently ingested not more than 1,000 calories per day.
We were about 800 feet up the route when we heard the growing sound of a helicopter approaching. Soon the great machine materialized from a distant valley, climbing up through the tremendous relief of this incomparable range, and in no time it was hovering with a deafening hum directly below us.
Adjacent to our route, some hikers had somehow, apparently, gotten trapped on a ledge in the middle of a sheer face. How they gotten themselves there, or why they couldn’t get themselves out, I have absolutely no idea. The helicopter buzzed wildly close to the rock face. A figure rappelled out of the chopper, unclipped from his line, and free-soloed up the bluff to reach the stranded noobs. Soon, the helicopter returned and plucked the humans off the mountain and disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.
From our belay ledge, Brenna took a deep interest in the rescue effort. Since his retirement from competition, Brenna has become a certified mountain guide who works in the Italian army on helicopter rescues around his home town of Arco. During his years as a competitor, Brenna was sponsored by a branch of the Italian army/government: the “sport group” of the Guardia di Finanzia. In Italy it’s actually common for the army to sponsor Italian athletes engaged in competitions such as skiers and climbers. After their competition careers are over, the athletes are often offered opportunities to work for the army.
Since leaving the world of plastic, Brenna has transitioned into the big hills, with first ascents from Patagonia to Pakistan. In Pakistan, he and a group of Italian climbers freed an 800-meter pillar in the Chogolisa Valley at 5.12d.
After topping out the Gelbe Mauer, Brenna and I went back to the refugio and ordered up some giant heffeweissen beers. We clinked glasses and I pulled out the tape recorder to find out more about Brenna’s ascetic life during his years as a competitor, and his transition to climbing “for fun” outdoors.
When I first started I was focused competition, and I spent a lot of my time training. Maybe 70 percent plastic, 30 percent rock.
Then in 2002, I began climbing more outside.
I realized that winning a World Cup became pretty impossible after this year because I was too old. So I started projecting routes. I eventually climbed 9a with Underground (5.14d) at Masone.
What kept you going as a competitor for all those years?
All of these years I was so close to winning overall. I was always super close to winning, but I never did it. But I knew I was capable of winning. But I think I never won because of the mental side of it. Too much stress. In the finals, I never climbed as well as I did in semifinals.
I didn’t understand this side of it until after I was finished competing, and I could look back and see what went wrong. I never knew how to manage the pressure. Winning the whole thing never happened.
Who was your biggest rival?
I have three periods: First it was Francois Legrand. After that it was Yuji Hirayama. Then it was Alex Chabot.
You’ve redpointed Underground (9a), and onsighted 5.14. Why is onsighting easy for World Cup climbers?
To compete in the World Cup means you must have so much endurance and power. Routes outside are just not nearly as intense as a competition route. You get rests outside. World Cup climbers train to rest on bad holds, so if you are really strong at resting, you shake a lot and you recover with lots of power.
Competition teaches you to climb really fast, and this is good for onsighting, too. A lot of time, the best competition climbers climb fastest. This is important. You read the beta really well. When you compete, you work a lot at reading the moves from the floor, and this helps even though reading the route is more difficult outside.
Have you read Jerry Moffatt’s book?
In it, he said he would trade any competition win for a first ascent outdoors.
Yeah, but Jerry won the World Cup! I didn’t! Easy for him to say. I was so close to winning. Jerry was a phenomenon in the 1980s—really strong. He arrived, he won, he went on. After you win, I can see how you’d prefer first ascents. But he arrived, he won, and he moved on. Also, in the book, he revealed that he had read sports psychology books for mental training. “I’m the best. I’m the best!”
Did you ever do anything like that?
Do you feel the same pressure to redpoint a 9a outdoors that you would feel in the finals?
No, at the crag, you don’t feel any pressure because you know you have another chance. In competition, you have one go, and then you’re finished. Maybe for onsight attempts, there is a little pressure. But if you fall, ok, you can go and do another route. In a competition, when you fall, you’re done. A lot of pressure. Also, there is a lot of pressure when you’re sitting in isolation.
How so, among the other competitors?
Si. In the finals, there is a lot of tension. You could cut the tension with a knife.
Dani Andrada once observed that some of the most competitive people in climbing don’t compete, because it is too much for them.
Yeah, sure. We have a lot of this example. Manola. Pietro dal Pra, one of the strongest in the world. Too much the pressure for them. Pietro was competing in one of the first Rockmaster but he couldn’t manage, it was too much.
One climber, who I won’t name, put his legs into casts …
What? Why? To make them skinnier/lighter for climbing?
What advice would you give to young climbers who are competing now?
I don’t know. Focus on competition, but when you win, go do something else. But I don’t know … It’s different now. Strong people come up every year, and staying on the top is even more difficult now than ever before. Now the sport is closer to the limit.
Adam Ondra is in the future with respect to other climbers. He is the next step, on another planet. In competition, we have a lot of strong climbers, but outside he is on another planet.
Adam is interesting because he has won World Cups and is obviously pushing the limits on real rock. Why aren’t other comp climbers pushing it outside?
Adam spends most of his time climbing outside. Most competition climbers spend all of their time inside training. But look at Ramonet. When he finishes the World Cup season, he can also climb 9a+ in four or five tries just like Adam. But for many, I think after the World Cup season is over, they’re too mentally and physically drained to do anything with their fitness outdoors.
I think you have to be really, really motivated to do well in competition. For some climbers, competition is not really important. Maybe in the Europe the mentality is more focused on competition, while in the U.S. they are more focused on being out there and having fun. When I see American climbers such as Dave Graham, they have a lot of talent for climbing outside but are not focused on competition. It’s different in Europe.
In Europe in general we have a lot more competition. In running or soccer, you go to compete and that’s the only point. In climbing, you get to choose: compete or “do it for fun.” In Italy, people don’t just go ski touring—they go ski touring as training for ski-touring competitions. It’s all about training for comps.
Also in Europe, we have a lot of infrastructure such as sports clubs, that are well organized and host competitions.
Tell me about your work as a mountain guide.
I work in the Guardia di Finanza. It’s a military department that controls things like taxes, and imports through our borders. They also have a very strong rescue team, originally because people trying to smuggle goods across the borders would often get stuck in the mountains and need to be rescued.
And not just the traffickers would need rescue. Often the officers going into the mountains to look for the traffickers would get into trouble, too.
In Italy, especially in fringe sports like climbing, the government doesn’t provide direct support to athletes. They offer them the opportunity to join the army and be athletes representing the army. When they quit competing, they often go to work in a real job in the army. Somehow they can make a living.
And that’s how you supported yourself while competing?
Yes. They supported me for competition. And now I work in rescue.
Many Americans believe that one reason European climbers are so much better is the financial support here, either through sponsors or competitions.
No, I don’t think so. If you win a World Cup, you would earn 2,000 euros. It’s nothing. You can’t make a living out of it. In Europe, we have a really high level for climbers, so getting sponsored is really hard. In sport climbing, there are a lot of strong sport climbers. I think only in Italy, we have only 50 people who can climb higher than 8c, and nobody really makes a living doing it. In Spain, I don’t know, maybe there are 2,000 people climbing 8c. The climbing scene in Italy is a little stagnant right now.
You see a lot of climbers with badges sewn onto their pants, which gives the impression that they are professionals, but they get like five carabiners and some shoes. Yeah, they are sponsored but they don’t get money.
In Tyrol, sport climbing is really popular, and I think people like Kilian Fischhuber, Anna Stohr and David Lama have good contracts and make money with their sponsors.
Gabri Moroni is the strongest climber in Italy right now, and he might get a little bit of money. But not money you can live on.
What is the climbing scene like in Italy?
At the moment, it’s not really well. It’s a little down. The Rockmaster competition isn’t what it once was. And the military support that I was a part of has pretty much disappeared. So, basically there aren’t really any future prospects for young climbers here.
I don’t really hear of any strong female climbers coming out of Italy. Is this true?
Yes, but I don’t know why. Maybe they are too busy shopping.
Do you think it’s possible to have a job and be competitive in the World Cup?
No. Also, you can’t be competitive in the World Cup unless you spend all of your time training. Last year, Adam Ondra was really disappointed with his third place finish. He told me, “Fuck, I spent two months training only on plastic just for this competition!”
And I told him, “Adam … Ramonet started training on plastic in January!” You can’t compete unless you are that dedicated, even if you’re the best climber like Adam.
Did you have coaches helping you train?
No, I didn’t have coaches. A friend gave me some tips. But he was not a trainer.
When I competed, three hours in the morning, and three hours in the afternoon, every day, five days a week. I spent the weekends climbing outside. Sometimes, I would train in the morning and then go climbing outside in the afternoon, and then maybe train again in the evening. For competition you have to train a lot. It is really a job.
Training for bouldering competitions is easier because you just have to train power. To train maximum power, you need a lot more rest so you spend your time doing short, very intense sessions.
For lead, you train power and resistance. It is really, really hard. Time consuming. You have to climb a lot.
Was it difficult for you to transition out of competition into mountain/trad climbing?
No, it wasn’t really hard for me.
In 2005 I went to Pakistan. It was my first serious multi-pitch expedition. Ten climbers and I went to the Chogolisa Valley, and opened a new route. They were all pretty strong local Italian climbers, but not world famous climbers.
And then I went to Patagonia in 2007/8. We open a new route on Cerro Pier Giorgio. Really good. Mostly an aid climb. We were hoping to free climb, but it was a lot of bad rock, expanding flakes.
What have you climbed in the Dolomites?
I don’t really climb so many routes here.
You tried BellaVista [the Alex Huber 5.14b on Cima Ovest], correct?
I worked it and almost onsighted it but I fell on the third pitch. Then I tried the pitch two more times, and climbed through the crux on the third attempt. But then I stood up and bumped my helmet into the wall and I fell. I never went back to it.
In 2003, I tried trad climbing for the first time and ended up free climbing a 5.13d trad route in Valle de Orco that was really runout and had really bad, old pitons. It was my first experience in the mountains and it was a really fun experience. I went with a friend who also had little experience. We forget the hammer, the most important piece of gear!
You have children?
Two. One girl, Sophia, 3. And Philippo, 1. Jana, my wife, climbs a little bit.
When I started going on expeditions, I had to learn how to ski. I decided to become a mountain guide. Now I am almost a mountain guide. Next year I have my final exam.
What is the scene in the Dolomites? What is going on now?
There aren’t many young people. Most who climb here are over 40. I don’t see people 25 to 40. There are some young climbers from South Tyrol who are putting up good, hard routes, but nobody knows about it; they don’t report their routes.
Would you like to see climbing in the Olympics?
I don’t know. Sure, why not?
You mentioned being unenthusiastic about last week’s RockMaster competition. That you didn’t enjoy watching it.
Yeah, because Rockmaster in the ‘80s and ‘90s was THE competition. Now the winner of the Rockmaster is nothing. It’s just another competition.
What is the big competition to win these days?
I don’t think we have one single event. There are individual World Cups, but they all blend together. And I think this is not good for the sport because I think it’s important to have one competition that everyone wants to win once in their lives because it is THE competition. Now we don’t have this.
Why is this?
Too many events, with money spreading out between them. A few competitions have had to shut down because of no money. The Rockmaster has money, and a lot of power. But I think the organizer made some bad choices this year with route-setting, promotion, prize money for climbers. To bring all the best climbers you need to offer something. This year we didn’t have a strong field in Rockmaster.
So when you think back on the mental pressure that was holding you back from getting first place, how have those realizations helped you in life? What have you learned?
Now I’m not so aggressive, not so nervous. I can approach climbing more relaxed. When I competed, I put a lot of energy—maybe too much energy—into getting that end result. Now I am finding a balance with the right amount effort.
It’s true that sometimes if you want something too badly, it drives you further from getting it.
Yes, if you are too much focused on winning or redpointing that project, you become blind to what you have around you. This is not good.
Are you happy your life as a competition climber is over?
Yeah, sure. I think it’s good to have a period of your life where you are really focused on one thing, but then you have to change and move on. Sometimes, people in France are really focused on competition when they are 45 years old, but I couldn’t imagine this.
In one sense, I respect and admire them a lot because they can still focus and train hard, even after 20 years. But on the other side, they don’t have anything else going on. If you take the competition out of them, there is nothing left.
What do you think you have learned from competition that has been most beneficial?
Competition taught me to be decisive. Make a decision and go. Choose the sequence and do it. This is beneficial in sport climbing and also the in the mountains. You have to decide fast in the mountains, and in competition, too.
But, in addition to being decisive, you also be very flexible in case you decide wrong. Maybe you see the route, but maybe when you are on the route you understand you’ve made the wrong decision, and you have to turn to a new idea immediately. I have to be open-minded enough to change. In life you have many situations where this is useful.
Thank you, Cristian Brenna, for the interview. Also thanks to Jesse Mattner, Riky Felderer and CAMP for the support.