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A Day's Grace: A Near Disaster in the Dolomites


by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published from Climber and Hill Walker Feb. 1989

Climbing is dangerous. This simple maxim seems obvious to the layman or neophyte, while experienced climbers often argue that modern equipment and technique virtually eliminate risk if used properly. Years of accumulated skill, success, and fancy new gadgetry can breed complacency. Even more insidious are reports in the climbing press touting the latest amazing free climb, oxygenless ascent, or super fast solo which builds a mind set that such feats are the norm. If you don't climb near these standards you're just mucking around. You might as well stay at home, buy a VCR, and rent the latest climbing video.

Every couple of years this type of faulty thinking catches up to me. Four years ago a storm halfway up the Walker Spur burst my bubble. During the descent a young Frenchman just above us fell to his death. I can still hear the muffled thud of his body bouncing down the icy rock. It took another successful season to get my anxiety and fearful sense of mortality under control; compartmentalizing it in the back of my mind where it wouldn't unduly hinder concentration and commitment.

Over the years I seem to tread a mental tightrope of judgement and self-analysis, wavering between over-confidence on the one side, and paralyzing fear and doubt on the other. This is a story about a seemingly easy climb on which hubris nearly lead to disaster. A day (and night) which once again brought me firmly back to earth, reteaching valuable lessons I've vowed to never break again.

After two seasons in the Western Alps a summer in the Italian Dolomites promised to be relatively safe and relaxing. Free from the danger of avalanches and snow storms I could concentrate on pure rock climbing. I viewed the range as a huge Klettergarten, and looked forward to sunny days of rock gymnastics on some of the famous classics.

I met my German friend Bernd Weissgerber at the Sella Pass in the last week of July. Car problems delayed him a couple of days so I warmed up with a solo of the easy S.E. face ramp route on the Ciavazes, and a free ascent of the Abrams Ridge (5.10-) with two friendly Italians.

The weather was perfect, the rock excellent, and I was fit and climbing well. Bernd had recently done some very hard crag climbs, so was also psyched. We spent a pleasant evening drinking warm pina coladas, reminiscing over our summer in Chamonix together, and planning the next week's climbs.

On my first visit to the Dolomites, for skiing that winter, I'd been strongly impressed by the south face of the Ciavazes. The road passes directly below this huge vertical facet of the sprawling Sella Group, so the approach is very simple. I had my heart set on the "Drop of Water" line of the Bhuhl Route to the summit, but Bernd had heard that the Micheluzzi, with its long traverse, was better. The upper wall and summit didn't attract him. Most parties traverse off on the large Gamsband ledge at half height. We finally decided to try the Bhuhl to the summit the next day, then return for the lower 250m of the Micheluzzi .

We started fairly early the next morning, packing a water bottle, extra jackets, and a bit of food into a small pack. Half an hour after leaving the car Bernd was leading up the first pitch on compact, dark grey limestone. We carried a set of Rocks, a couple of Friends, and many quick draws. Due to the numerous fixed pins typical of the Dolomites we used only a few nuts on the often climbed lower wall. The rock was steep and firm, with small ledges conveniently spaced for belays. On the first pitches we moved fast with scarcely a pause or hesitation.

The character of the climbing changed dramatically when the Micheluzzi began its traverse and we continued up a vertical wall of yellow rock which looked crakless and crumbly. Since it wa my big idea to go for the directissima, this was my lead. I backed up a couple of rusty old fixed pins low down with a stopper, before commiting myself to the unpleasant looking wall. Five metres of unprotected 5.9 brought me up under a small overhang which thankfully had a hand crack under it which I could undercling. After a bit of awkward fumbling I clipped into a Friend, but had used too much nervous energy, tight with anxiety over the runout to uncertain pro. The next bit looked like the crux. After a hesitant start I came back and asked for tension to rest. The pitch is rated VI (although I'd give it 5.10-) so I was disappointed with myself, especially after completing the traverse around a corner and finding a good ledge. C'est la vie. Two more nice wall pitches brought us to a ledgy area beneath the final dihedral. This had looked clean and classic from the ground, but proved to be dirty, loose, and not very difficult.

Bernd vociferously complained all day about the pack, feeling it was ''unnecessary", slowed us down, hampered freedom of movement, and took away all the joy in seconding. He was right to a certain extent, but I'd always brought a small pack on routes of this length, so it seemed normal and didn't faze me.

After a short rest for a snack and drink on the Gamsband we continued up the blocky dust covered rocks of the upper wall. Our route description from here was sketchy. The few fixed pins were old and had slings which made it look like a rappel route. Bernd was openly happy when I accidentally dropped the pack. It stopped on the Gamsband and I secretly breathed a sigh of relief we weren't going to continue into the steep uncertainty rearing above us .

Changing into running shoes on the trail we discussed plans for the next day. My mountaineering mentality still set the summit as the ultimate goals so I wanted to try a different route on the upper wall. This didn't attract Bernd, but he agreed on the condition that we climb without a pack. We hadn't really needed it. The lower wall had taken only a few hours. Hopefully, the Micheluzzi would go equally fast, and the route on the upper wall didn't look too hard. We could also move a bit faster unburdened by the pack.

We slept in the next morning, so didn't start until 10:30. I felt funny starting a climb of over 500 metres without a pack, food, water, or extra clothes, but I decided, "What the hell, let's get a bit radical. It's the modern style and I've still got what it takes." It was hot and sunny so we were in T-shirts, and I wore my prescription sunglasses.

Bernd had been right, the Micheluzzi was much better. The long traverse that looks ridiculously illogical is in fact superb. Four horizontal pitches 5.7&emdash;5.9 (V-VI) on fantastic rock above jagged overhangs. It proved so photogenic I repeatedly stopped for pictures while leading.

We arrived on the Gamsband a little later than anticipated, but still felt confident enough for a long rest. The route I'd checked out above didn't look as steep or compact as the lower wall so we anticipated little difficulty.

The first pitches went fast until a rotten chasm, dripping black with melt water, brought us up short. One look at the ugly beast brought Bernd back to my belay atop a small pinnacle. ' Wet, no protection, impossible &emdash; let's get out of here." I was convinced it would go, and that better climbing lay just beyond. After some persuasion Bernd agreed to continue. He relinquished the lead and I backed down into the gully. The unprotected forty foot zig-zag up and down traverse looked horrid, but as I tentatively worked my way across, enough sharp edges poked out of the slime to provide positive holds. I found myself perversely enjoying the complexity of this unappealing pitch where gymnastic skill and strength took a back seat to cooly applied experience and care. Bernd wasn't happy following. By the time it was all over we'd spend over an hour for sixty feet.

The next pitch was loose, and protection hard to place. Bernd took a long time to climb eighty feet to a ledge. When I reached his belay we wasted more time debating the options. Our pace had slowed to a crawl with five pitches to go. The afternoon sun had gone behind the corner so belays were getting cool in our thin T-shirts. The steep, shallow chimney above us bristled with loose chockstones which threatened to crash directly onto the belay if brushed by a careless leader. In the end the alternative prospect of backing down and across the wet gash decided the issue.

Try as I might to hurry, the next pitches demanded slow careful climbing. I'd hoped that around the edge above the chimneys the angle would ease, but we found another steep loose corner that ended on a ledge below a large roof. The summit slopes of the Marmolada turned rosy pink and dark shadows enveloped the valleys as I began the strenuous undercling under the roof. The lack of food and water all day caught up with me, forcing two rests. I hung in the gathering gloom, willing strength back into my wasted forearms. We managed to finish scrambling up the last easy pitch in time to see the purple light fade to black above the towers of the Sassolungo, a crescent moon accenting the etheral beauty of the moment. We paused just long enough to prop my camera on a boulder for a photo, then set off across the talus in search of the trail with cables and ladders Bernd had hiked with his parents as a child. Fatigue and darkness disoriented him, and I wasn't much help with my prescription sunglasses. An hours search proved fruitless, but Bernd vaguely remembered a hut on top we could make for. Luckily, we found a trail with occasional cables through the final tier of cliffs.

It must have been around midnight by the time we huddled together in the meagre shelter provided by a large rock. The wide, starkly barren summit plateau stretched out before us in a series of low rounded scree ridges, alternating with low lying snow patches. There was no sign of a hut. Even a large boulder with some kind of an overhang or crevice we would crawl under to escape the biting wind would have been welcome, but there was nothing. When we sat for more than a couple of minutes violent fits of shivering wracked our exhausted bodies. Tightened jaws twitched with uncontrollable rapid fire tooth chattering that sounded piteously feeble in the stony emptiness.

With no choice but to move we got up and began shuffling along the trail. I pulled my arms inside my T-shirt, twisted the sleeves closed, hitched up my sweatpants to cover my belly, then pulled the neck of the shirt over my mouth to trap my warm breath. I was managing fine until my feet got wet in some snow, then I stubbed my toe and fell head long onto sharp rocks, my arms trapped as if in a straight jacket. When I got up my shirt was ripped, an elbow scraped and bleeding, and my side sore and brused where I'd rolled to avoid hitting my face.

We continued in this slapstick manner through the night, traversing the entire summit plateau before we came to the hut at dawn. The door was locked, but a bit of hoarse shouting and banging brought the keeper, incredulous that anyone would be stupid or crazy enough to be wandering about that time of morning. With bellies full of water we gratefully crawled into bed for a few hours dead sleep.

Another couple miles hiking the next morning brought us to a tram surrounded with tourists. We managed to finagle a ride down without return tickets, then hitchhiked back to the car. After showers at a campground in Canesei we stuffed ourselves at a Pizza parlor. Feeling quite content we drove back up to camp below the wall, spending the evening sipping beer and surveying the scene of our little fiasco.

I went to bed early, but was sharply awoken a few hours later by an explosive clap of thunder followed by a long clatter of hail. Continuous heavy rain followed, pelting cacophonously on the roof of my VW van. When I snuggled down in my sleeping bag I felt deliciously safe and warm, but couldn't get back to sleep, thinking what it would be like on the summit plateau. It had been a perfect clear day. If Bernd had been another day late we'd be up there right now.

The storm continued without abating into the next afternoon. I later learned that four Italians died of exposure on the Cima Grande that night.

Buddha told a paraable in a sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. He plucked the berry with one hand. How sweet it tasted!

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