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A Week in the Dolomites


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published in from Climbing #95

After three days' "relaxation" in the sweltering, crowded environs of Venice I was more than ready to return to the cool, green meadows of the Dolomites. I'd already gotten in some good climbing with my German friend, Bernd Weissgerber, culminating in a rather unpleasant ascent of the PhillipFlamm on the Northwest Face of the Civetta. This famous route involved about 40 pitches (most on poor rock) and included a cool bivy, 150 meters below the summit, when we took a longer, but drier, variation to avoid the wet exit chimneys of the regular route. Afterward Bernd left for the firm granite of Chamonix and I ventured south for my obligatory cultural experience.

On my return to the mountains I parked my Volkswagen van next to the Auronzo hut below the crumbling back sides of the Tre Cime. The next three days were spent hiking, photographing, and looking for a climbing partner. The hiking was pleasant, photography good, but climbing prospects looked dim. Zeke, a fellow American from Utah, and I were whiling away a rainy afternoon in the hut playing Scrabble, when a tall dark fellow in a Patagonia jacket came up to our table inquiring if I were Jim. For a moment I wondered how this stranger knew my name, then remembered the note I'd taped up in the hut's entrance.

After introducing himself as Alan Bradley, from Boulder, he sat down and we began to talk. My North wall hopes soared when Alan mentioned El Capitan, the Diamond, Genesis, and Psycho. His competence established, I assured him I was competently leading German VII (5.10) and up to following anything (slings at the ready). We made a competent team, but in the end Alan spoiled our friendship by stealing $100 from me.

We had to wait out two more days of rain and hail before our first climb together, the Cassin on the Piccolisimo. It has one pitch of VII (5.10) on which Alan was eager to test his mettle against the steep limestone. A cold wind humbled me into resting and warming my fingers on the first hard pitch, but Alan powered up the crux with little trouble. We quickly rappeled the descent gully, dodging pieces of falling ice.

Upon reaching our packs the sun broke through the clouds, brilliantly illuminating the sharp "Yellow Edge" of the Comici Route on the Cima Piccola. We had talked about doing both routes in a day, but the morning's wind and clouds had discouraged us. Now, however, it looked quite inviting, only five minutes' easy walk. The numerous parties on it were well up so we wouldn't have to wait in line. Alan was leading the well worn, smooth and slippery first pitch by 3 p.m. Thirteen enjoyable pitches, and three hours later, we were teamed up with a friendly Italian couple who shared their 100 meter rope as we raced a threatening storm down the rappels.

We were off to a good start, with two summits and 23 pitches in a day, but we were eager to rack up one of the classic North Faces. The next morning was spent in leisurely preparation. That afternoon we clipped the pack into the belay one pitch up the Hasse-Brandler on the Cima Grande and rappeled off. We fixed the pitch more to secure the pack above any hiker's slippery fingers, than to gain a climbing advantage. The biting wind on the shadowed north wall convinced us to pile on the clothes the next day. I even wore a pair of sweats between my polypro and knickers.

When we left the bus the next morning we were greeted with a beautiful sunrise. I couldn't get the old adage, "red sky at morning sailor take warning" out of my mind as we jogged along under crimson clouds. Surprisingly the wind didn't pick up as we came over the shoulder and under the north faces. It was the warmest and calmest day yet. Despite my anxiety, it didn't look too threatening to the south, where most storms blow up from out of the Mediterranean. Good weather was an important factor because we had decided to commit ourselves by going for it with a single 11 mm rope. Due to the traversing and overhanging nature of the climb, retreat would be difficult at best anyway.

We cruised the lower pitches with little trouble. It took Alan a few initial tangles to orient himself to his borrowed European aiders with aluminum steps and fifi hooks. The previous day's cold had convinced Alan that a free climbing attempt was futile, so we came mentally and physically prepared to aid much of the route. Livesey had reportedly pushed it free, with only three points of aid, at VIII+ (5.11+), an incredible accomplishment due to the continuously overhanging nature of the 100 meter mid-section. The crux of the climb for us turned out to be following these strenuous pitches (almost all fixed with rusting old pegs) with the pack. We both found it disconcerting to find ourselves hanging free over 350 meters of space, moaning in agony with severe arm cramps. Amazingly neither of us dropped anything when our spastic hands convulsed, refusing to follow directions.

Mist enveloped us on the final easier section. Again, we raced an approaching storm, arriving at a large ledge, 100 meters below the top, to the accompaniment of thunder and occasional sprinkles of rain. Foregoing the summit we quickly traversed around, then scrambled and rappeled down the rather complicated descent, arriving back at the car by 7:30 p.m.

With aid climbing out of our systems, we drove out of Cortina the next day toward the Falzarego pass. I turned off up a narrow winding road (the summer's crux for Alan, who has a phobia for mountain driving) which eventually led us to the Dibona Hut, situated just below the South Face of the Tofana Di Rozes. Our objective was the Constantini and Apollonio Route, a 19-pitch free climb on good rock.

I was up early the next morning to photograph the sunrise, but let Alan sleep in. The perfect weather and easy approach, made an alpine attitude unnecessary. Alan was in good form, cruising the two crux roofs (VII+ and VII) on sight, red point. I managed them "alpine free," with a rest on the lip of each. Just below the first we passed a friendly guided party of five Frenchman. This was one of the few times that European climbers have obliged and let me pass at a convenient ledge.

We were back at the hut by early afternoon, and soon on our way to the Sella Pass for some relaxation and easy climbing. We spent the next day sunbathing, reading and writing postcards. In the late afternoon we wandered over to the North Face of the Second Sella Tower and cruised the Messner Route: seven pitches of sustained V+ runouts on excellent rock.

We'd been on the go for six consecutive days of good weather, and were beginning to feel a bit self satisified and complacent, but I talked Alan into one last hurrah. Two weeks previously I'd hiked up to photograph the huge South Face of the Marmolada and found myself strongly attracted to its sunny smooth looking walls. Alan agreed to give it a go, but only if we tried the hardest route, "Moderne Zeiten" (Modern Times). First climbed in the summer of 1982 by Hans Mariacher and Luisa lovane, this climb lives up to its reputation for modern style. Unlike most Dolomite climbs it was led all free at VII+ on the first ascent, with a minimum of pitons, and no bolts.

After a pleasant hike, Alan and I spent the evening at the Bianco bivy, munching sandwiches, and trying to scope out the route on the steep lower wall. We were up rather late the next morning, not wanting to confront the difficult first pitch in the cold of dawn. We couldn't believe it when we spotted two parties at the start of the route. They had hiked up the opposite valley and slid in under our noses. On this, of all climbs, we thought we'd have the route to ourselves.

Alan was fuming as we scrambled the first bit to a large ledge where the second party, two Germans from Stuttgart, were just starting. We watched with ill-disguised impatience as the leader took 40 minutes to clutch his way up the pitch, pulling and resting on every piece of protection. The second man did no better. We waited more than an hour before they were established at the belay. I was wondering where we could pass them when their ropes came sliding back down and they prudently backed off.

Alan's pent-up energy fired him up the lower, well protected section in minutes (with four fixed pins it contained about a third of the fixed pro on the 2,400 ft. route!) but he took a small slip (his only weighting of gear on all our free climbs) on the steep upper crack, where he had to hang from strenuous finger jams to set protection. With the advantage of watching his well executed sequences, I was able to quickly follow with the pack, using two 'biner handholds, and a short rest on tension to remove the stopper Alan had fallen onto. As it turned out, this was the only aid used on the climb, due to the fact that subsequent cruxes had little protection for me to pull on, and leader falls were often out of the question for Alan.

Eight pitches of easier climbing put us up on a broad sunlit rib of smooth grey rock. Alan led off up what the guide described as Vl+. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful and difficult pitches of the route. Twenty five meters of very sustained, technical face climbing led up a steep, compact wall. A fixed sling through a hole was the only protection for the last eight meter runout up a vertical layback groove. The belay, as usual, was from nuts.

Three more pitches and we were on the "Grosses Band", or halfway ledge. Luckily I managed to collect some melt water, solving our logistical problems. Well sated, with renewed strength and confidence Alan started up a diagonal pitch through an overhang, listed as VII- with four fixed pins. What he found was one of the most serious pieces of rock he had ever encountered. It wasn't technically much harder than advertised, the problem was that some sweet joker had removed all the fixed pro! Alan found himself 20 meters up, clinging from small edges below a bulge, with nothing much to prevent a fall to the ledge. He cammed the tip of the nut-cleaning tool into a pin scar, then rigged a series of four manky nuts into seams. Our "modern, clean approach" to the climb was looking dangerously flip. Downclimbing or resting without any trustworthy protection was out of the question.

Somehow, he managed to keep his cool and move through the last steep and fingery section, finally sinking a good Friend just before it eased off. It had been a tense belay. I let off some steam, giggling as I followed and removed the funny rotating Friend with only three cams biting, and the hilarious stoppers jutting halfway out of shallow pockets.

Just above the overhang we intersected the Gogna, then cruised up lower-angle easy slabs. We didn't find anymore fixed pins, and so were rarely sure if we were on route. One pitch of VII though, had to be right on target: a long traverse under an overhanging band led around an edge and up steep inside corners. Alan reveled in the elegant and relatively safe lead. I, on the other hand, got mildly gripped following the initial descending VI traverse on questionable rock, my first protection 15 meters horizontally left (second man's crux).

Somewhere above this we apparently wandered off route, missing the last pitch of VII-, doing instead an incredibly rotten and dangerous lead which put us on a good belay ledge just below the top of the Gogna. The profuse and sturdy fixed pins on the next two short, enjoyable pitches were quite a contrast to the previous 800 meters. Alan was disappointed not to have finished properly, but I was quite satisified to have done the wall any which way.

The German climbers we met on top pulled boots out of their packs and set off down the north face snowfields. Alan and I put on our tennis shoes and walked over to the summit tram station as the sun dipped toward the horizon. We happily settled down for a relatively comfortable and civilized bivy. An hour later the custodian spied us on his walk to the generator room and let us in. He gave us each a blanket and let us sleep on benches in the warmer upstairs waiting room. The next morning we thanked him as best we could, none of us speaking a mutual language, and hopped on the first of three trams which carried us free of charge down to the car.

After a shower at a campground we cruised back to Germany, where I lived near Nurenberg, working as a teacher for the Department of Defense. Alan came to crag climb a bit in the nearby Frankenjura, but the "fire" just wasn't there. The summer vacation was over for me, and I was shifting into work mode.

Alan though was still psyched for more alpine climbing, so I drove him to the train station and wished him well in Chamonix. Our relationship ended on a very sour note. When we figured out the money situation it worked out that Alan owed me $100 (I had paid for all food and gas on the trip, then gave him a $20 to make it an even $100!), which he said he would send as soon as he got to his stash in Stutgart. I never heard from the theiving jerk again. If you ever meet up with this egotistical ass, go ahead and climb with him, he's quite competent, but don't trust him (count your gear carefully) further than the end of the rope.

What a week we'd had! Almost 100 pitches, and six summits, squeezed into eight days of beautiful weather. It all left me feeling happily burnt out, ready to settle back into my homebody routines, and begin the enjoyable work of sorting, labeling, and printing the slides.



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