So we started driving. Stress stayed behind. Work stayed behind. Problems stayed behind. But driving is boring – from behind one truck to in front of another truck. White scenery changes to many words in Germanic script, most of which I can’t make out with all my French and Cyrillic background. With a couple of navigational issues, a couple of sausages and a many chocolate treat, Munich is in site. That’s where another internet friend is waiting to provide me with German (again! this language is starting to make me unhappy –I wish I applied more effort than just calling my teacher the grünes Schwein during the 4 years in high school…) guidebooks and last-minute suggestions on routes to do. My research is far from exhaustive, no huts preparation, no exact idea what the week will be like, just a place on the map and an image in the head.
It’s been there for a while – maybe even before I started climbing altogether. Maybe that Stallone movie, or the name from Breashears’s book, or the mountain call made it all up in my head. I need mountains. This whole Europe move idea was to get closer to some of those old heroic deeds, ascents full of unknown by bearded guys with balls and pitons and balls again, those names with German (!!!), Italian or French connotations that I keep stumbling upon on paper and still have trouble imagining. Like Bonnatti doing a route up a Cima in winter, sleeping there in his bivy sack, proud, hungry and alone. Or a Messner looking up a new line over his brother’s shoulder. But let’s get back to the already stinky car, or rather get out and start the sleep part on some bike road under Innsbruck. Not too bad of an idea – and the moment we are out of the car I can feel the mountains around me. It’s been dark for a while, but they are there, breathing under the starry sky.
The wake up call comes up in a cruel, wet and dark shape. Oh well, let’s drive again. We make our triumphal entry to the country of pasta under torrential rains and empty stomach. Only when we finally get to the Passo di Sella do we stop to get the stove out and courageously start cooking. Walls. They are there. Despite the clouds, the rain and the total absence of any humans – or because of it. Yeah, that’s the place.
But that’s not the time. We pass the day in the car, exploring the valley, having good pasta, getting wet and all those things over again. Driving through a couple of passes, figuring out where the Viajolet towers are (can’t see anything anyway, some old Rosengarten sign and postcards make us feel better), wondering at the snows of Marmolada (picture left) and crossing paths with some unhappy tourists like us makes the rain finally stop. Back to Passo di Sella (picture right), we finally get a look up our first objective – First Sella Tower. A pimple for mountain goats, that’s what it is compared to the bystanders such as Piz Ciaves or Piz Pordoi. 22 pitches of UIAA grade 6 (5.9) to get to the top of one or 26 to the top of the other. MMM, let’s camp.
Saturday is sunny. Oh my, and cold. When we get to the top of the pass, it’s around freezing, down jacket is out, sun is out, and somehow both go together. Dolomites’ approaches are just great. The roads are there in the best places – that’s what having a couple of wars in a good setting does to you! After hours passed scrambling and bivouacking under the routes in Red Rocks this is a piece of cake. 20 min later we are under it – still alone and cold – Trenker crack. Dummies’ introduction to climbing 101. 6 pitches of fun, the hardest at 5.8
with a reassuring A0 possibility. Let’s do it. The rock is a bit similar to the limestone I’ve been climbing in Freyer for a while now, although the pro is thin and the climbing gripping. Cory gets the hardest pitch due to some screw-up with route finding (not the last one on this trip) and deals admiringly with it. A couple of pitches later we are taking in the view around (picture) and downwards, with numerous ants following in our foot prints. The climbers are out! Cold, but fun experience. Now let’s start the walk down. From what I hear, the best part of the dolomites experience. Not too bad, and a couple of hours later we are at the base again. Yup, guidebook is optimistic with its timing, but we’re still down one way or another.
So there is this other, apparently bolted line calling my name. But I see no bolts. No problem, let’s look for those later on the climb. Cory goes up, he’s supposed to find a bolted belay under the hard (10ish) pitch. I follow him – through 50m w/o pro to an anchor w/o bolts. So WTF does this go??? Oh well, I’m in a curious mood, I see a sling threaded through rock above me, let’s go up. I do. The going is not hard, but not exactly reassuring. The anchor below is not solid either. And pro isn’t there. Finally I do see a piton to my left. Maybe that’s what the Italians (or Germans in case of my guidebook) mean by bolts. Anyway, stop thinking, just get there and clip. I get there and clip. The piton almost gets out of the crack with my draw, and continues wobbling attractively in my hand. MMM…in sweat and stretch, long look up. Finally an anchor materializes some feet above. No pro. A TCU, I know it won’t hold. But let’s go. Just shut up and go. When I get to the anchor (two very old and rusty-looking bolts) I start doubting this whole Dolomites idea. The bolted climb had one piton on it. The belay stance however has cigarette butts all over it, thus reassuring me softly. I take my spirits into one hand, belay Cory up with another. Yeah, you explore now. That’s the best thing about switching leads. The mental rest is there, give up all authority, let him decide and be the man. We do look miserably off route. After some discouraging looks up, then down to that piton, than back up to the blank face, we decide to sacrifice the first gear of the trip, rap and downclimb. That’s it, the day is done.
Sunday. The weather is cloudless. Still freezing in the morning, but beautiful. Piz Ciaves. We camp right underneath. The arête has been staring at us for the whole 2 days already. There is no way to ignore it, even looking the other way I can feel it pointing upwards. It sure is a route. Abram Kante, not too bad for the 30s, UIAA 7- or 5+ A0. Sounds like my type of climb – and definitely looks like one! 12 pitches, and an unnerving-looking descent. Let’s do it. After sharing the road with more than a thousand bikers making their long way up the pass, we get to the beginning of the route (they are the real heroes, we’re just some show-offs with tinkling metal things hanging around our necks). After the first pitch some Italian dude, putting no pro for the first pitch and stretching it all out to the second belay, effortlessly passes us. Yeah, I know we’re weak, rub it in man. After admiring the bikers and the morning sunlight for some more, we start our journey up too. My turn again – the pitch looks not too bad, but quickly after the start I’m already sweating – good and bad, means my hands won’t get cold, but also means the leading is getting harder. Supposedly it’s only 5.6, but the last piton was rusty, the next pro looks far away and the corner is off-balancy just enough. Oh this trad thing, haven’t done it for a while now, breathe in and out a couple of times, remember why I’m doing this again, and finally get to a belay after what seemed like an hour. MMM way to go on a 12 pitch route on one of the easiest pitches, Julia…Ok, Cory’s lead, let’s rest. I actually have set up the belay too low, not even finishing the crux of my 5.6 pitch. Very glorious. Cory decides to take the next couple of leads.
It’s great when you start following blindly a pitch and then slowly the realization comes that the climbing is what they call ‘a classic pitch’. Beautiful yellow rock, awesome cracks, stemming and corners. The holds are big and far apart. Wow, this is good! I think I’m finally warmed up and know why I’m here. That’s in time as next pitch is mine and it’s the famous 7- or 5 A0 one. Things go smoothly and my fear is finally under control. The A has quickly its win over me, even without a battle, and the 15 meters of crux are gone in minutes in a monkey-with-the-trees style. Wow, this is awesome climbing. This is also the point where I know that we’ll make it – the crux is behind us, now only some route finding remains a challenge, and ….mmm only 7 pitches to go…
Another 60 meters and 2 pieces of pro later I take the lead. Easy terrain and good pro lead me up to an attractive open book above. But approaching the open book my enthusiasm perishes and sweaty hands make their way in. This looks like shitty rock. This looks like psychological I-need-this-worthless-TCU terrain. After half an hour of up and down, I finally realize my mistake, find a piton and the route. Sure enough, the parties behind us are already all at the same belay Cory is at, looking pissed, hot and have this what-an-incapable-is-it-out-there look I practice so often myself. Yup, that’s me…A couple of pitches later, the followers appear to be a couple of Slovenians here for the w-end, rather relaxed (with a cigarette box stripped to a helmet for better rock repellent) and chatty. After a couple more route finding moments we do get to the top.
Top is always sweet. This one is also sunny and offers a splendid view. What more to ask from life?! A cheerful descent, that’s the recipe. It’s a traverse. At least an hour’s worth of traverse following the wall on a terrace a couple of feet wide with moving rocks all over it, and looming walls above and below. A perfect spot to experience vertigo under a desert sun. The last part of the traverse is the most impressive – looking at it from a distance I start having ants down my spine and have to sit down to get back the combative spirit. What a joy when we get there and realize that it’s actually equipped with the famous via ferrata cables – just clip and go! Oh, those Italians, I appreciate them more and more. One more good day.
The next day is cloudy, our energy supplies are low, and we decide to drive further. After a couple of picturesque Italian towns we get to Falzarego pass and the Tofana (picture). Wow this mountain is calling too! After a lunch at Refugio Dibona and some mystic vues of the Ghedina route, we decide to push it to our final destination, the Zinnen. Lavaredo is a famous area, and a postcard landmark. No wonder than that we have to pay 20 euros just to be able to drive the last couple of kilometers to it. Everything is still covered in clouds, and we venture on a hiking exploration that in some strange ways takes us up to the col between Cima Grande and Cima Ovest, right in front of the Dulfer route. Fun fun places. Not fun downclimbing all that scree – at least we know now how bad the descent can be…
Next day is totally awry with constant rain and then snow until 5 pm (picture). But afterwards the weather miraculously clears up and we are even able to hike the loop road and take tasty pictures in total solitude. The Cimas look better than ever, more unapproachable too. It is hard to stay optimistic about our route plans as it is cold and windy despite the sun. The walls look very intimidating, long, high and daring. But the morning is always a better starting point, so sleep time again.
Finally a day of good weather arrives. We decide to bank it all with Gelbe Kante (picture below, the route is on the yellow arête of the tower to the left), 14 pitches, 8 of which are grade 5 or 6 UIAA (5.7 to 5.9/10ish), up the Cima Piccola – the third and smallest of the Cimas. The pictures look very appealing though, and each time I see a Kante in the name of the route, I want to do it – somehow each time the word means ‘song’ instead of arête to me, and this one is the swan song.
We are at the start of the climb around 8 and the first thing there are a couple of Italians. We hear them chatting away already during our hour’s scree approach. When we finally get to the base, the second is still half way up the first pitch. He talks endlessly and moves s l o w l y. After an hour of snail-like progress, his partner and he decide, to my certain happiness to rap. When on the ground, the first thing they do is try to convince us that it is ‘durro’ ‘durro’, or even ‘difficult’. There was also an English party behind us that looked like real mountaineers, tanned, fit and full of humor. Determination started to fade in our little party. Then I decided I wanted to risk it. Durro or not, let’s give it a shot. Cory bravely went up the first pitch, a stiff 5.8 that felt all 5.10 to me while following with a pack. Slippery and sustained. A pleasure to climb, but the pack made things rather nasty. However I was surprised to find myself full of energy the moment I did take the backpack off. Next pitch was the first crux of the route – an overhanging crack-chimney. Slowly but surly, with an awesome #4 placement, great feet and those oh so good jams, I got to the belay. Wow, we’ve done the first hard part, which means maybe we’ll be able to affront the 2 crux pitches up higher. Anyway we have one rope and retreat will be harder and harder the further we go. Let’s do it. Next 2 pitches go by quickly and I proudly set up a belay at a fixed anchor – for once I found it without a problem and didn’t even get off route. Cory comes up, looks up, and doesn’t feel good about the 5.3 above. Actually it looks overhanging. Jugs are not in site. And no, we’re not in the Gunks so 5.3s should not look like that. Exploration time, some more exploration time, the English guys are at our back again, and I realize that I did make the belay at a wrong place, again. I take over the lead, traverse way right, and finally see the route clearly. Sometimes I can be blind, but sometimes the topo also thankfully makes sense. In the meantime the English guys loose a bit of their mountaineering shine when they tell us that they lost their topo, and would love to follow us "the experienced ones" up the route, as anyway it’s their first really long route etc. We do find the right pitches and start coming closer to the hard stuff. English guys are lost behind us again, we hear sometimes their desperate "Coooory", apparently they found their topo again, but not the route. Next pitch is a traverse. It’s a climber’s dream traverse, with a disappearing overhanging face below, crazy exposure, and
good pro. Makes me think about Fiddler on the Roof, much easier, but more exposed (picture). I know I’m climbing the best route of the trip. That’s what this whole rainy waiting was for. In another pitch we get to the real business – another overhanging crack. My baby. The pro is awesome again, pitons are plenty, climbing is gripped, slow and cruxy. Breathe in and out, the usual thing, hang on just a little longer, figure out just one more sequence. And here it is, the dream hanging belay. The good thing about switching pitches on a long route – total mental rest awaits me, I look up the continuation of the overhanging offwidth, and feel relieved. I’m done with my hard leading of the day, one more pitch and we are done with the cruxes. Just another 4 or 5 pitches left. Cory does wonderfully, and there we are at another spectacular traverse. Definitely this climb just keeps getting better. Some route finding business still is ahead, some snow on
ledges, a never-found last hard pitch, and we are at the top.
A quick look around reassures me that the clouds are coming up, the dark times are close, relaxation is no more, it’s time to look for the rap route. Some scrambling and more traversing gets us to the rap ring. The book talked about ‘solid rap pitons’. Here we have one huge rap ring. It looks a lot like a ring I would imagine a huge bull has in its nose during a Spanish bullfight. It also looks like one of the best rap rings ever. I do love these Italians or whoever rebolted or reringed this route. Many rappels later we are down to the snowy descent, our favorite scree, the refuge and our canned food. Only now does the realization start entering my mind – we actually did it!
Unconquered walls remain out there…