Community Spotlight: Julia Vella

In this post we present Julia Vella, a climber whose journey embodies the essence of our sport. Join us as Julia delves into her experiences on the rock, from her recent ascent of the challenging Niminy Piminy in Gozo to the lessons learned in her climbing pursuits. Through highs and lows, Julia’s story is one of unwavering spirit, where she continually pushes her limits and embraces the vibrant climbing community. Words by Julia Vella.

Niminy Piminy, defined as an adjective, means affectedly delicate or refined; mincing; effeminate. The term is perfectly coined for the 7c climb  situated on our sister island, Gozo at the Black Slabs of iċ-Ċnus. It had only ever been climbed by the infamous Stevie Haston, and as of the 11th of May 2023, I became the second.

This 10 metre route is as smooth as you can imagine a slab of this grade to be. It has small and smooth mono pockets in the first few moves, forcing delicate and precise footwork to be able to balance your way up to credit-card crimps, tiny pinches and a questionable dead-point. It’s a very technical climb that tests body management and ends on a nice plateau that looks over the fields of Gozo.

The smooth slab that is Niminy Piminy (7c). Photo by Julia Vella

I first tried this route in April 2023 during a weekend break with some friends. It immediately caught my attention because of its evident style and almost invisible holds. I started projecting it, going up to Gozo every few days, taking leave from work whenever there was a sunny day and about a month after first touching that route, I had the crux dialled and finally joined all the sequences of moves. The following week I successfully climbed Niminy Piminy, making me the first Maltese female climber to ever send a route of this grade.

That’s not necessarily were this story ends though. I was so excited when I got to the anchor that I was not concentrating as much as I needed to. After setting up my safety, my usual process would be to attach a bight of rope to my belay loop for extra security; untie the figure of eight to pass the rope through the anchor to yet again tie a figure of eight through my harness. On the day, I decided to use the method of pushing a bight of rope through the anchor, tieing a figure eight on a bight and clipping this to my belay loop, except I only used one quickdraw to attach the knot to my harness; rather than two opposing quickdraws or a locking biner. The moment I took my safety off I realised I had not double checked to make sure it was fully secure and clipped fully into my loop, and to my horror I saw the quickdraw unclip. The quickdraw had only half closed onto the harness loop. I fell down the route quite a bit faster than I climbed it.

Julia working the moves on Niminy Piminy (7c). Photo from Julia Vella collection

Don’t ask me how but my belayer caught me and I left the crag with only burns on my hands. This episode taught me a proper lesson in not letting emotion, good or bad, get in the way of basic safety procedures and it also taught me not to clean a route immediately after a hard send. Beyond that, it taught me to not change the usual methods I am used to because muscle memory is what we rely on when we have heightened emotions, and I was using a technique I did not make use of regularly.

I took a break over the summer, partly to recover from the injuries and partly because the incident left a small dent in my mental game. I didn’t want the episode to take away from the accomplishment. Our group managed to squeeze in a short trip to Vienna to visit Kletterhalle Wien where we tried auto belay for the first time and even practiced some whippers! I had a blast getting back into the swing of things, but that was just about the only climbing I did all summer.

In late September, I received a message from Simon Alden to ask if I was competing in the National Bouldering Championship which was being organised by the Malta Climbing Club (ClimbMT). I was nervous to say the least since I was out of it for so long and I hadn’t bouldered in even longer. I had not even considered participating when I saw the event being publicised but after going back and forth for about a week, Simon kindly (and patiently) let me make a late registration and I promised myself to just have fun. The routes were probably the best I’ve ever experienced in our local climbing gym, with a nice array of styles and challenging setups. Kudos to Dan, Yerman, Mathias and Steve McClure for making them so well rounded and challenging. After the three-hour qualification round, I placed first in the Open competition. In the finals I competed in a pool of the best 6 females across all age categories and managed to secure 1st place again.

Julia topping one of the final boulders at the 2023 NBC. Photo by Inigo Taylor

Besides the obvious happiness on the day, this really meant a lot to me both on a personal note since it reinforces my passion and what steps I am taking to maintain an overall fitness level but even more-so for my climbing journey. Even though it sounds cliché, it really is about not giving up or letting unfortunate episodes get in the way of overall progress. Climbing is as mental as it is physical and I don’t think I ever truly appreciated that until this year. We have some fantastic potential all round the island, to push our mental and physical limits, enjoy the outdoors and mix with such a beautiful community. MCC also organized for Steve McClure to come down that weekend and we had the pleasure of attending one of his talks where he discussed the very question ‘Why do we climb?’ which was also a nice way to end this little mental journey.

I would also like to note that as sport climbers, we should not only make use of the bolts and anchors that are set up so well for us at crags, but we should try and give back in any way we can, whether it is in the form of volunteering, donating to the bolt fund, or at least making sure the gear (particularly anchors) is used optimally so that it is not worn down unnecessarily.

Julia on Outer Zone (6a) at Wied il-Mielaħ. Photo by Gianluca Agius.

Julia’s recommended crags for fellow crimp enthusiasts
Mistra gully (Irdum Rxawn) for technical climbing, Blieqa for introducing subtle overhang feels with crimps particularly on Kenshiro (7a+), Ix-Xaqqa for stunning slab introduction, 46m routes and multipitches, Għar Lapsi for a wonderful view and day out, Iċ-Ċnus Slabs (duh) and Mġarr ix-Xini for vertical technical climbing.

About Julia:
I started climbing casually in 2018 but only began to take it seriously in 2021, where I sent my first personal milestone grade Crimp on a Rose (6c+) in the Mistra Gully. That summer, I committed to climbing every other day and when the opening of our bouldering gym Gebla was announced for October, I also supplemented some training sessions there together with a regular weightlifting gym for specific exercises. We all have different and unique ways of training for our goals, but I find this mix to be super fun and perfect for keeping up a routine during the hot summer or wet winter months.

Editor’s Footnote:
The route Niminy Piminy was originally given the grade of 8a at the time of the publication of the 2013 Sport Climbing in Malta & Gozo guide book. Unbeknownst to Julia and the wider community, since then the route’s grade has been revised downwards, first to 7c+ and then to 7c after some holds were enhanced. The official grade for the route will be 7c in future editions of the Sport climbing guide book. Julia’s ascent remains the second known ascent, and the hardest sport climbing redpoint by a Maltese female athlete.

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