Toes of Steel: Nicola Gatti climbs his first 8a – and then repeats it BAREFOOT

This is the third article in our series focusing on a slew of hard climbs accomplished in Malta during May 2021. Stephen Farrugia catches up with the man with toes of steel, the venerable Nicola Gatti, who nabbed a first ascent of The Farewell, a route which has been tentatively graded at 8a, at Radar Point, Qammiegħ. If the grade is confirmed, this will be Nicola’s hardest climb (so far!).

Nicola Gatti working out the moves of The Farewell (8a) under the winter sun.

MCC: First 8a, first ascent! How did this send come about?
Nicola: To be honest, I never thought I would be trying, and even less sending, an 8a in my climbing career. After all, I’m not getting younger, despite my wishes, and as my wife always reminds me, I’m almost 60, which is not an age for peak performance… But let me tell you the genesis of these trials at Radar Point:

I started on The Beauty (7a+/b). Just a few days ago, I found a short video in my PC, of myself trying The Beauty, falling on the first move, and finding the route so hard that I was hang-dogging at every bolt. I checked the date on the video: February 2020.

However, I loved that route: long, slightly overhanging, committing, not necessarily requiring pure strength but rather a lot of technique to optimize every move to achieve the send; despite the endurance it requires.

After I sent The Beauty, I turned to The Beast (7c): could be it be as good as The Beauty, I asked myself? It was, if not even better. Five stars out of three!

So, I got curious and finally progressed onto The Farewell, to see how it was. It took quite a long process and effort, this latter, but I finally did it as well. So, in 15 months I went from 7b to 7c to 8a (if confirmed, of course, by future ascents).

The moral is that I really must love a difficult route to motivate myself to work on it.

Hanging out in the roof of Għar il-Munqar (Spooky Cave), Żurrieq

MCC: You recently told me that the pandemic allowed lots of time for you to climb – is that how you got to the holy grail of the 8th grade? Or was there also some structured training involved?
Nicola: No structured training (I’m too old for that!), but a lot of climbing on this and other routes, and a lot of mental training: in that, I am a firm believer.

Visualizing the route, every single move on it, every single hold and foothold, and always trying to improve something, even if progression is only millimetric. I don’t know how many times I envisaged slightly different beta on the ground and in my mind, and tried it out later on the route, to find most times that it worked!

I must confess that the pandemic gave me a lot of free time, for the simple (but not so nice) reason that my whole family (wife and two kids) got stuck abroad, in Wales, so suddenly I found myself alone in Malta for months on end. That’s why I recently adopted a doggie, who is the joy of my lonely life now: Bonnie.

Wot’s In it for Me (7a) McCarthy’s Cave, Għar Lapsi

MCC: The Farewell – a name that surely has a story behind it. So who was the artist, what’s the style of route? What about your new / alternate start to the line: Barefoot Beast?
Nicola: The Farewell was bolted by Diego Salgado, in summer 2019 if I remember correctly, just before he left Malta, with the support of the Malta Rock Climbing Club (MRCC) who provided the tools and bolts (titanium for long duration). The name comes from that circumstance of Diego’s: leaving the island after having lived here for several years, but also leaving something valuable behind, this new, unsent route. I know that Diego was very close to sending it. Actually, Diego was taking the direct line of the upper crux, so he was super strong at the time, however his attempts were cut short by his departure. To date, I have not known anyone else capable of doing the direct version of the upper crux, including me: I take a circuitous way around and to the left, which is a hard crux in itself, but not as hard as going directly up.

So, how is the route? The first half is in common with The Beast (7c): a few meters up a slab that weighs in around 6a, then a traverse into a marked overhang around the 6b mark, and just after that, BAM!, a hard sequence on finger pockets on a slight overhang. I solved the sequence by slotting 3 fingers in the first pocket, 2 fingers in the second, 1 finger in the third and then dynoing into a crimper-sloper-pocket far away. (Editor’s note: Literally 3 – 2 – 1 – Lift off!)

That is the crux of The Beast (7c). The Farewell veers left, into a sequence of long and not-so-easy moves (7a/b) until you reach a couple of good holds, from which you launch into the second crux, which is the way out left described above. After the second crux, the moves are relatively easier, possibly 7a, but you can’t take your foot off the gas pedal – a lot of endurance is needed after all you’ve been through, because the route never stops overhanging for a good 20 meters of its 30m length. Six stars out of three!

The direct start to both The Beauty and The Farewell is quite logical: instead of the current start which is a zig-zag right and left, causing a lot of rope drag and being aesthetically awkward, you can now take The Barefoot Beast and continue into The Beast, on a pin-straight line up this incredible 30m face, overhanging from start to end. Of course, it adds to the difficulty of both routes, as it is 6b/+ and offers no rests, as opposed to the original 6a with a full rest before the hard work begins. Whether this justifies increasing the grades of the upper portions remains to be seen – I’m eager to see repeat ascents to get consensus on the suggested grades.

As for the name of The Barefoot Beast:knowing me, do I really have to say where it came from? The nice thing is that if you stop at the maillon rapide just before the 7c crux, you have done a nice 6b/+ route; entirely enjoyable in its own right if the upper sections don’t tickle your fancy.

Nicola climbing barefoot through the roof of Granny’s Seat (6a+), Terry’s Cave, Għar Lapsi

MCC: And for the possibly greater achievement – Malta’s first barefoot 8a! How did your fascination with barefoot climbing come about? A few years ago I was foolish enough to try to climb a very easy slab barefoot, and the pain was unbearable – I think I only got through it on pride!
Nicola: Haaa haaa! I started to try out barefoot climbing quite a few years ago, but it became a definite passion for me only recently. When I first sent The Farewell with shoes on, one of the well-wishers (a strong climber himself, though lately a bit absent from the crags, Nicolas De Wilde) said: next one is barefoot. That got me thinking! I started trying the route barefoot and, after ten or more tries, I was able to pass it barefoot, with the added pleasure that on that day, by mere coincidence, some of the strongest climbers in Malta were there at the crag to motivate me: Charlie, Kako, and Jeffrey.

Full disclosure here: at this point I had already climbed The Beauty (7a+/b) and The Beast (7c) barefoot, so I kind of felt that I stood a chance to succeed eventually. Nonetheless, as I always say, I’m the first one to be surprised when I get to the chain and realize I have not fallen or hung on the rope!

MCC: I was lucky enough to witness your barefoot climbing recently on what I consider a route with very poor foot placements – tiny edges and lots of smearing. When I think of barefoot climbing, I imagine featured rock with lots of easy placements … how did you develop your toes (or is it big toe) of steel?
Nicola: It is definitely useful to have strong toes, and you develop strong toes by climbing on them, so it’s a kind of virtuous (or vicious?) circle. But I think the key is, once more, technique: barefoot technique is quite different from shoe technique, and that’s the main reason I love it. You must re-think every single one of your toe placements, often using different holds than if you were wearing a shoe, and sometimes even changing the beta altogether.

I am lucky to say I only hurt my toes once up to now, in all my barefoot climbing, and it was just a 6b route (but very, very sharp holds – the route Henry recently bolted by Sean Cassar and Justine Borg at Terry’s Cave).

Nicola’s toes of steel being put to the test in the sharp pockets of Just Like Nothing on Earth (7b), Terry’s Cave, Għar Lapsi

MCC: Any advice for would be barefoot bandits that want to follow in your footsteps?
Nicola: Be careful the first times, in fact be careful every time: the key to climbing barefoot, and to enjoying it, is to carefully regard every foothold as a complex structure where you have to place up to 5 toes, just like you would regard a handhold where you place (up to) 5 fingers. Having said that, some routes are nicer to climb barefoot than others, and in general the more slabby, and less overhanging a route is, the tougher it is to climb barefoot, at least for hard grades. On easy grades, everything goes!

MCC: What next for you? An easy summer by the sea sipping beers?
Nicola: You said it! Sipping beers but still enjoying climbing, as I’ve been doing for over three decades, as well as helping others to discover and enjoy this sport, in cooperation with both climbing clubs on the island, the MRCC (in which I act as a Committee Member) and the MCC: maybe install new routes (like The Barefoot Beast), improve access to the crags, introduce newbies to the sport, teach safety and best practices, belay others (especially Philippe, who is my climbing mate and my senior by 2 years, and is amazingly close to sending The Farewell), and of course climb for my own pleasure on all grades.

Bouldering in Qammiegħ

MCC: Any last words to fellow climbers?
Nicola: Yes: please play it safely! This is a wonderful sport, and very safe if you’re careful, but mistakes can happen, even to the most experienced climbers. Last month, for the first time in 34 years, I forgot to tie the knot properly into my harness. I was top-roping the overhanging route Mr Boombastic (6b+), in Crucifix Cave, and right at the end of the overhang, on the crux move going out of the roof, I saw MY end of the rope dangling free in front of my eyes. I got the fright of my life, and my belayer’s, too! Luckily, I kept my cool, took a quickdraw and used it to secure myself to the nearest bolt, directly into my harness. I could then grab the dangling rope, tie my knot properly and carry on up the route. If the rope had slipped away from my harness at the chain, instead of half-way up, I would probably not be here to tell you! So: ALWAYS double check yourself and your partner. Safe climbing everyone!

Barefoot on the sharp, overhanging Er Capolavoro (6c), Learning to Fly Cave, Għar Lapsi

Photos: Nicola Gatti / Facebook

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