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Martina Mali

posted by dpm on 09/02/2013

Interview by Jackie Hueftle

Slovenian transplant Martina Mali is a doctor by trade, but you wouldn't know it if you saw her cranking her way through double digit roofs in Hueco Tanks. She supported her winter lifestyle by helping run the Hueco Rock Ranch, knitting colorful Double Dot hats, and assisting her boyfriend Jason Kehl with his various creative projects. Enthusiastic and loudly supportive of her friends' climbing, but humble about her own, Mali initially declined to be interviewed because she "doesn't want people to think she's strong." Kneebars or no, after watching Mali hike climbs like Schwerer Gustav (V11), Purple Flowers (V10), and Flower Power (V10/11) this winter, I don't think the word strong even covers it. Mali's technical prowess and creative approach to beta took her to a whole new level in the last few months of the Hueco season, and her off-day training gave her biceps to match a ticklist which also includes climbs like Un Point De Bleau Dans Un Hueco (V11), Bush League (V10), and the long and surprisingly cruxy Moonshine Left (V6). She and Jason spent a significant amount of time exploring for new lines, and one of her favorite new climbs is her FA Slovenian Classic (highball with a challenging landing on West Mountain). The crowning achievement of her season was one of the few female ascents of Rumble in the Jungle (V12*), which she surprised herself by climbing in early May.

*Rumble was originally climbed by Chris Sharma and stood for a long time at V12. Now that several women have climbed it, the grade is given at V11 or V11/12. Duh.

More recently, Mali and Kehl have gone to Slovenia to check out the climbing on the other side of the world. It took some doing, but I talked Mali into letting me interview her about girls, grades, training, beta, and how a Slovenian medical professional ended up running a climbing ranch in the west Texas.

Martina Mali sits below Rumble in the Jungle in Hueco Tanks, Texas. All photos by Sam Davis. See more of his photography at his website. 

You're a doctor?! What kind of doctor are you?

Hmm, that sounds so funny. Back at home I can call myself a doctor, because the rules for working after finishing the school are a bit different than in US. I finished school and worked for a year and a half in the emergency department, so I have been a general emergency doctor (without speciality for now), but here in the US I would still have to finish my residency to work independently, so I guess I am only a half doctor here in US.

So you've finished med school and had some experience in an ER but haven't done a specialty residency yet. Are you going to do your residency and work as a doctor now that you are back in Slovenia?

I am not sure yet if I will stay in Slovenia forever or travel a bit more, so it is really hard to say right now. I have been home not even a month so for now everything seems like a really perfect dream, and in this dream there is no job word for another month or so. I definitely miss medicine and am excited to step back into the real life, but I am not sure if I am ready to say goodbye to climbing for next 5 years due to residency obligations yet. 

Makes sense. Five years is a long time to not climb much, especially when you've been climbing stronger than ever. Have you been out much in Slovenia?

Yes! I always thought there is no really good bouldering back home, but actually it is totally opposite. One of my best friends, Luka Podbreznik, has been developing a limestone bouldering area just 8 miles from my home and it is absolutely amazing, there are even some really awesome roofs! It is a valley where Alps actually start and the nature is absolutely gorgeous. The season is right now (summer) so we couldn't wish for more! We are climbing outside as much as we can and we can't wait for our trip to Magic Wood in August and to Macedonia in October.

What about next year? Will you be back in the US anytime soon?

After spending so much time in US, meeting so many people and even finding new best friends I guess I could say US almost feels like another home away from home, so yes, I will definitely be back maybe even this upcoming winter and maybe for even longer than the last time.

Flower Power (V10/11)

Let's talk about last winter. How did you end up running the AAC's Hueco Rock Ranch?

I was lucky enough to get into guide training last summer, so actually I couldn't wait for another season in Hueco, but definitely Jason and I didn't plan to stay from early November until late May. We went there and had the opportunity to stay and work so we did.

How did your season go? Did you start strong or did you progress over the course of the season?

I definitely didn't start strong. I had a pretty bad spring and summer season full of injuries and obligatory rests so I didn't really expect that much out of it. I think it was around end of December when I met this awesome lady Sarah Heath, we connected right away and started climbing and training together, and for the first time after a long long time I started so see progress, and that really motivated me.

Were there other girls this year that inspired you?

Yes, definitely I got inspired by other girls this year. I have seen you doing your project like it was a piece of cake, with no mental block, just wishing it and doing the first go after the sandwich. When I was guiding Team ABC I watched a 9 year old doing a V11 and a 50 year old topping out of a V12…both for me were quite shocking. Back at home 50 years old would be considered as a granny, and 9 years old as a baby, but here they became my biggest heroes. I realized I needed to lose the stereotypes and fences in my head that are keeping me back. I have climbed way more with girls this year than any year before and basically I realized one thing: it doesn't matter if you are in your 30's or 50's or if your biceps are not the biggest or not big at all, all that matters is that you start doing something towards reaching your goals and if your goal is this crazy hard roof, well then it is time to build up those abs and figure out the smartest way how you can use them.

Why did you try the climbs you tried? Many harder Hueco climbs are so well traveled the beta is practically common knowledge--how come you always made up your own?

Now that I think about the climbs that I did this season I realize that all of them are mostly roofs with at least one kneebar. It is funny because I always thought of myself more of a Font-slab climber. I fell in love with Hueco roofs this year, there is just more space for movement and beta creativity in the roofs. Also I am really stubborn, I like to do things my way. I think figuring out on your own how to solve a problem opens up totally new dimensions of learning and visualizing the solution. If you can visualize all the possible solutions, there has to be one that will work for you, and that is my motivation--to figure out the way not only to do the problem but also to do it the easiest and the most beautiful way as possible. Of course, sometimes at the end there is nothing beautiful with all the shaking, cursing, and scary screaming, but sometimes everything is just right.

Rumble in the Jungle (V12).

Your beta often involves a kneebar, sometimes kneebars no Hueco locals have ever seen before. Why kneebarring?

I can't explain why I always find a kneebar, it is not like: "Ok, here is a new problem, let's find a place to put some knees in." Usually I am not strong enough to do a move, but I like the line too much to give up, and then I get the drive to sneak around the powerful beta by using my knees. I don't know if it is better in the long run to keep avoiding my weak points, but it definitely feels the best when you solve a problem which at first seems completely impossible.

What kind of kneepads do you use?

I never thought a kneepad would be almost the most important thing in my climbing bag besides climbing shoes... I don't think I even did a proper kneebar before coming to Hueco, so when I bought my first kneepad here I didn't think much of it, all I was thinking of was "Put a kneepad on if you want to wear that mini skirt" [i.e. a kneepad would protect the skin on her knees and keep it from getting all scarred up]. I bought the Send kneepad, not because I thought it is the best but just because I wanted to support local community (which I think it is really important), and after a year of using the Send downgrader kneepad, I wouldn't trade it for any other, it really is the best  and truly lives up to its name--The Downgrader.

You keep saying you're not strong, but you did a famous horizontal V12 roof. How different did you think Rumble was with your beta vs original beta?

The standard beta is definitely the stronger beta, I would like to think mine is the smarter beta, but I think it just depends on your height and span and if you are a kneebar lover or not. The standard beta didn't really work for me because I was just a bit too short to reach the good pinch in the middle of the roof and there is this nasty undercling at the end that was just killing my wrist, but I could do the end coming out of the roof and slab quite easy and that was enough to give be the drive to figure it out completely. For me with my beta the grade definitely drops down for a grade or maybe even two, but I really really like kneebars, and the harder it is, more psyched I get.

The first kneebar on Rumble is the hardest of all, probably the hardest I have ever done, mostly because I couldn't really determine what made it stay or fail. It seemed like it was always up in the air if I would stick it and with that thought in my mind it was really hard for me to focus and be able to try hard. With my beta, the problem gets definitely more acrobatic, it requires more of a full body work than just stronger upper part. My beta feels more creative and more free with movement, with turning and spinning it almost felt like dancing.

Was it ever hard to find motivation?

Yes. Really, really hard. In general every time I fail I feel like everything is over, so I can lose my motivation really easy if I am not consciously aware of the real situation. At the end of this season in Hueco I was also quite pressured because of the weather conditions--every time I didn't finish the problem I was scared that this might be the last day before the summer would kick in so it was really hard to stay focused and believe that I could actually finish what I started. Of course, here my man proved his wisdom and excellence again with right words and his good advice always gets me back on track. It might sound really stupid, but I think turning 30 and finding my first grey hair this year really got me motivated--I felt like now is the time, the last season before I get old and I dry out like an old plum, so this is the season to make it count! Hehe it worked.

You worked hard for it as well. What kind of training did you do in Hueco? What was your schedule?

I was really lucky that I spent most of the last days in Hueco climbing and training with Ana Burgos. Sam Davis and Ana were getting ready for their big trip to South Africa so we trained together most of the days. Training with Ana is just one big ball of fun, so it really wasn't hard--most days we couldn't wait to do it. I guess we made a really good team and that made it way easier. I climbed 3 times per week--one day on one day off and then rest two days for weekend (it depended on the weather, but that was my general schedule). The thing in May is that it gets hot really early so I could stay out max until noon, after that was just torture with the desert heat so I climbed about 3 hours in the morning and then I trained the same day in the evening for another 2-3 hours, mostly on fingerboard and rings with a lot of core exercises. I didn't do any dynamic or max power fingerboard training, mostly just static locks and hangs (because I sucked at that the most). It turned out to work out perfectly with morning climbing.

Kneebar beta on Rumble in the Jungle.

Do you have advice for other girls hoping to seriously up their bouldering ability in a short period of time?

It is important to find your weak point and try to make it into your strongest asset. If you don't know what your weakest point is just choose three things that annoy you the most and usually that is it. Me, for example: I could do abs all day long but you would have never caught me doing lock offs or pull ups on pinches, so I knew those were my weak points and I began training those things. Another thing that really changed my way of thinking was Jason explaining to me that it is really important to try harder things, even if you think they might be too hard for you, because if you don't try anything hard then you can climb anything hard. Since you are trying something that is crazily hard for your abilities, you have to know that it might take way longer to figure out the moves and finish the line. That, for me, sounded like Klingon. My climbing mentality was always do small steps, first do all the fives, than all the sixes, than all the sevens, but of course you always find one V4 that kicks your ass, even if you can do a V8. If you see a line that looks awesome, has interesting moves and you think you could do it and then you realize it is three grades above you limit, try it anyway and get psyched to finish it. Grades rule too much of our perception of what we are really capable of doing. If there were no grades and just lines with names, people, especially the girls I think, would climb way harder.

Ana also gave me really good advice that was and is really useful for me, especially because I am the most impatient person alive (according to Jason). Ana said that it doesn't really matter what you do or how much you do it, what is important is persistence, to stay constant with your training and finish the cycle that you started. And that is it.

This would normally be the beginning of the interview, but we'll do it at the end. Take me through your experience with Rumble. It represented a great personal leap for you and is a significant ascent in women's climbing in general. What gave you the courage to try it, and what did you go through to climb it?

The first time I saw Rumble was at the start of this season when Jason was working on it, it looked amazing but for me it was just one of Jason's hard problems. I wasn't so drawn to it, I didn't even think about it too much, probably because it was graded four grades higher than I was capable of doing at that time and at the time way hard problems turned me away. Also at the start of the season I wasn't really in love with Hueco's roofs and all the possibilities that they offer, so it remained just another problem I wished to climb one day when I'd hopefully be stronger.

The second time the name came up was when we [Martina and the author] wanted to try it together in January, but unfortunately we ran out of time. When Ashima came down for spring break and we went there on her 'fun easy' day, my romance with Rumble really began. I didn't really try it, I just wanted to see if there would be an easier solution for the painful move at the end and I found a knee scum for it which made it way more pleasant and even without trying out any other moves I knew it it would be my next big project. I was in love, in love with the thrill of solving out the next big problem.

I did almost all the moves and figured out the rough beta quite fast so I expected to do it faster that I did at the end, but when I started giving it send burns I just couldn't connect the middle part for days and days. For me was quite a big problem, a mental problem, and here I have to a say that Jason really helped me. Basically, up to here I never tried anything so hard that I would have to work on it for more than two or three days--usually when I did the moves I just had to have a good go on it and I could finish it. If I couldn't do the moves I usually would stop trying and save the problem for when I'd be stronger.

With Rumble I kept trying and there was a lot of bad moods and bailing out thoughts, I even had my first real wobbler before I realized that this one is a bit different, that it is really really hard, and that I might not even be able to finish it. When I realized that it became an even bigger problem in my head. Jason was explaining to me that I should appreciate every small detail that I have learned during every session and that it takes time and that I should rest between my goes and all that very true nonsense, but at that time all I wanted was for him to shut up and all I could think about was: I want it now, I want to finish it today, finish it and do everything right, next go!! That didn't work, of course.

At the end, after all the days I put in, I have realized that it does take time--time to wish it hard enough and to learn how to block out all the other thoughts and pressures that stand between you and your perfect go--at the end after all the time and learning and working hard that is all you need, one perfect go.

While working on this problem I also learned two other quite important things: even though climbing might be your life, climbing is not like a box of chocolate; if you want that specific chocolate you have to try god damn hard, just unwrapping the box won't do it, and tasting everything from the box might not even get you the one you want, it will just make you fat... The second thing, and this is quite hard for me to admit, is that in the end Jason is almost always right, at least climbing wise. 

Finally, I think it's important to say that I did Rumble because of the problem itself and not because of the grade. I am not sure how hard it is with the kneebars, but I know there are a lot more options now for beta on the problem and I am super psyched I found this beta, because it worked for me and I got to climb this beautiful problem.

Pulling the lip on Rumble in the Jungle

Click the image for video of Martina on the send.