Nina Caprez is one of the world’s best free climbers. She no longer cares about competition or rankings. But the 30-year-old Swiss is still climbing mountain routes that few women have mastered. To live her life and passion the way she wants, Nina left Switzerland eight years ago and lives in Grenoble, France. swissinfo.ch met her during one of her rare visits to her native village.
The snow has arrived. “Isn’t that nice?” Caprez says as she opens the door. It’s the perfect mountain idyll.
We’re in a big wooden house in Prada, a village in the Küblis district near Klosters, eastern Switzerland. There’s no doorbell and visitors have to use the heavy doorknocker. This used to be Caprez’s home when she was still living in Switzerland. Today, she is just visiting her mother. It’s been eight years since Nina moved to Grenoble, France.
The snow has indeed turned the valley and the mountains around Küblis into a fairytale winter landscape. But it has upset our plans; the roads are blocked. We wanted to drive even further up, to the family’s alpine hut.
“We won’t be able to drive,” she says. Even her mother’s four-wheel drive would be useless, she says. So we walk. A steep climb through the forest lies ahead of us. We reach a clearing with a spectacular sight of the valley below and the mountains on the other side.
“I used to come here quite often when I was a kid,” Caprez says. “That’s why I know how it feels to be out of breath after this walk.” She smiles, watching her visitor trying but failing to catch up. The small wooden bench comes as a relief. We brush the snow off – there’s more than four inches – then we sit and talk.
Why Grenoble, I ask. “It started with my desire to move to France,” she replies. Back then, she was certain that “if you want to do something serious in my sport, Switzerland is not the right place”.
This sounds odd. Switzerland isn’t a paradise for a climbers? “We have a tradition of alpine mountaineering. But there isn’t one for sport climbing,” Nina explains. “I knew I had to leave. Otherwise I couldn’t find fulfilment.”
Eight years ago, she felt a lack of respect for her passion. People would say “yeah, you climb. But what do you do for a living?” Today, things seem to have changed for her.
“I’m well-known. Nowadays I can say that the Swiss like it if you carve out your own path. If you turn your passion into your profession, they admire that. That’s why, being in Switzerland, I feel home again.”
One of the reasons she went to Grenoble was that it’s where her major supplier Petzl is based.
It’s not a very welcoming place at first sight, Caprez admits. “It’s a town you usually drive around on a motorway that’s quite often jammed. It’s the Old Town you need to see. That’s when you realise how cool the city actually is.”
And that’s exactly where she lives. It was easy for her to fall in love with her new home.
“I had no problems getting to know new people. They are candid – and not so deadly serious. They seem to live for the moment, I liked that immediately. And I already spoke French. That of course helps to open some doors when you move there.”
What’s really important is that nature and the mountains are very close. “It’s only a ten-minute ride,” she says. And even better: there’s a climbing area inside the city! The ancient via ferrata at the Bastille is well-known in Grenoble.
Caprez has met many like-minded people. “In my business you rarely find job opportunities in Switzerland. But here there are climbing teachers, canyoning guides or speleologists.”
She would never consider herself “just” an alpinist – so what would she call herself? She thinks for a second, then laughs and says: “a connoisseur of the art of living”.
It’s Swiss reliability that Caprez misses in Grenoble: “people following the rules, trains departing on time.”
Living in Grenoble, she has not only adjusted to these differences, she has even come to appreciate them. “Of course, there’s so much you just can’t rely on in France. But on the other hand, people aren’t stressed out all the time. They take time to chat. They love to go to bars and cafés. You look each other in the eye. I like that.”
That said, she still sometimes misses Switzerland – but never things. “I’m not into material things at all. It’s the connection to people that I care about. That’s what people who like me appreciate.”
In Küblis she gets to see other contrasts with her life in France. “It’s a big house, it’s isolated. Here I feel a general peace. I can meet old friends. But I also like to be on my own sometimes. I can do that here. I feel balanced and can just enjoy myself. Being here, it’s like the holidays.”
Happiness and joy of living
We walk back to the house. Her mother is already waiting. She won’t stay for long. Three more days, maybe four, then it’s back to Grenoble.
Caprez is constantly on the go. It’s just been three days since she returned to Europe from the US. She spent a whole month overseas with friends, doing some “easy” sports climbing.
“It was loads of fun. And also a sort of back-to-the-roots experience,” she says. “I don’t want to do only the ‘crazy’ stuff with the elite climbers. There wouldn’t be a point in doing only that. And without a point, I wouldn’t want to continue doing what I’m doing.”
Right now, quitting climbing is not an option for her. Even when she admits how simple her sport might seem.
“Basically you just go somewhere and climb upwards. But doing it you feel so much happiness and joy. You really feel alive. I mean it’s pretty intense, hanging on a thin rope on some rock,” she says.
But then again, to Caprez, climbing is not “just” a sport. “While climbing, you get to know people. Climbing can even reveal some of a person’s character.”