Several years ago, after three months of sport climbing in Spain and France, I climbed Plenitude, a nine pitch 6c+ on Les Vuardes, the big crag high above the small town of Magland and the river Arve that flows a milky grey, down the valley from Chamonix. You would think 6c+ a doddle. I fell off the 6c pitch soon into the climb, and it was then I realised what this crag was about. The crux pitch needed binoculars to see, not only the holds, but where the next bolt was. Successfully climbing the crux pitch without falling was almost the highlight of my summer. A whole load of hours later (about eight from the start), I pulled the top pitch of physically and mentally battered.
So, it started a few weeks ago. Maybe it was more. Van, ferry, van, toll road, toll road, aire, toll road, Servoz. The Walker Spur was the plan but that was not happening because of the weather, so Keith Ball and I took the next best. Well no, of course it wasn’t next best, it wasn’t even second best, but multi-pitch rock climbing down the valley from Chamonix always gives a thrilling outing as long as the ego can be controlled.
Ten exhausting days later, my cunning plan to get a kicking on Aravis limestone, before heading to the Dolomites, where everything would be easy in comparison, came to fruition. Two visits to Les Vuardes did the job. A serious beating was dished on day one, but Keith and I were gluttons, so we returned for a second bruising the very next day joining the family of kestrels skimming the grey while hunting the young martens. We took the grade down on this second day, managing to climb the easiest route on the crag without floundering or pulling on the very spaced gear or falling. Wonders will never cease. La Costa, my first climb of three on Les Vuardes without a fall. If someone said I would not be pleased to climb 6a without a fall, they would be wrong, both Keith and I were very happy.
I picked Zylo up from a very busy Geneva Airport and a frenetic journey heading towards the Dolomites ensued. I adore my new van and I have named it Betty Blanc (my van is white and French). I have waited long in life to own a van like Betty, and taking her onto the Italian roads was something I could have done without. *Generalisation alert* Italian drivers are fucking crazy! Almost without exception, Italians dive very fast, and without any forethought or apparent notion of consequences. And as the storms hit Milan, and the rain bounced from hot tarmac, the traffic turned to a warm wet mass of one hundred mile an hour mental. To say I find driving in Italy stressful is very much an understatement.
Zylo, Betty and I eventually reached Cortina in one piece and we headed to the hills. The roads were still crazy, in fact, in some ways, they were crazier, because they now had a million cyclists and motorcyclists and buses and cars and camper-vans, and all of these vehicles were weaving and whizzing while attempting to negotiate a million hairpins and taking selfies and talking on their mobile phones. Mental.
At last we found a pull in away from the road and peace ensued. Speckled nutcrackers with large and sturdy beaks balanced on the very top of the pines. The thin and single branch swayed as the robust bird balanced while grinding out a rhythmical, almost electrical buzzing call, which was music after the constant drone of traffic. A Three Toed Woodpecker tap, tap, tapped its way up the trunk of a mature pine.
The Dolomites are busy. In fact, the Dolomites in August is so busy as to be avoided like a sexually transmitted disease. But the climbing is exceptional and worth putting up with a mild infection, because antibiotics are available and can cure most things, as long as the full course it taken.
Zylo and I climbed for two weeks and the climbing – multi pitch and single pitch, was exceptional. Ottovolante on Torre Brunico coming out on top. But all good things come to an end, Zylo had to leave and go back to work, so back to the motorway madness heading towards Venice Airport and another motorway service station doss.
We had only been parked for a short time when a family pulled up in a blue Audi. Mum, Dad and teenage son. Son had a plaster cast on his arm. Making an assumption, I would have guessed they were refugees travelling up through Italy. They pulled matting from the rear of the car and laid it on the grass beneath a massive brightly illuminated road sign. After a short time, Dad came over and in broken English asked me if I had any bedding he could borrow. I leaned into my van and pulled a sleeping bag. He was grateful and asked me if I had another. I did, so I loaned him that as well explaining that I wanted them back. Zylo and I sat in the grass eating our tea when Mum came across asking for more bedding. Unfortunately, we only had the duvet, which we wanted for ourselves and apologised. Mum walked away disappointed. Both Zylo and I felt guilty, but later, as we walked back from the service station we saw the three of them all tucked up beneath the two sleeping bags. We joked that that was the last we had seen of them, and when we woke in the morning, the family had gone taking the bags with them. I must admit to been disappointed, maybe it was a misunderstanding, but it was only a couple of sleeping bags and their need appeared to be more than our own.
That evening I met Matt Helliker on a bend in the road above Cortina. Matt is a Dolomites regular and suggested we start on Tofana with the five hundred metre and twenty plus pitches of the Constantini, Apollonio. Both Zylo and I had repeatedly looked at Tofana with its dramatic orange and black striped South Face, but once warmed up, the weather became unsettled and getting off the top of Tofana is tricky if shroud in cloud. I jumped at Matt’s suggestion and we headed to the car park near the Tofana Refuge which was much like the others, busy and noisy but with a great view.
Matt hadn’t climbed in the Dolomites in August and he suggested leaving the carpark at 8am. I said I thought it may be a tad relaxed for a route as popular and long, but being lazy I went for it anyway.
In the morning, I looked up and counted five parties on the climb and none appeared to be moving quickly. To give them, and us space, a relaxed start became even more relaxed and we eventually started the climb at ten. At around midday, the climbing became steep and we caught the people ahead. Ah well, a relaxed start meant a relaxed climb and we kicked back for an hour on a ledge but still reached the summit with plenty of daylight.
A second route on Tofana was fun, although like Les Vuardes, a pair of binoculars were needed to see the next bolt, but unlike much of Les Vuardes, the rock became interesting, in a terrifyingly loose Craig Dorys kind of way, so after this climb we decided to head for the higher and hopefully more solid ground of Cima Ovest’s North Face!
Matt and I arrived at the Tre Cima car-park late, as do many, by driving in through the out gate at the toll booth that closes at eight thirty, but leaves the barrier up on the exit. It was clear and peaceful and bright as we parked above the camper-vans. Caught in the cone of Betty’s headlights were names and comments and phrases written in small stones by people who had now left. White limestone rocks, rocks made of the dead, placed in a pattern that said something by people that had gone. In the morning a short walk from the carpark, something akin to the walk to Gogarth Main Cliff, found us looking at some very impressive and shady rock. Two vast faces rear from the tons of silver scree that brush their base like snow. And like snow, there are tracks made by humans that form zigzag patterns. Both the Ovest and the Grande overhang in their lower sections and have bands and lines running horizontal and vertical. Looking at these shadowy monoliths it’s like they have been photo-shopped with the antique filter. The bells of cows grazing in the meadows below chimed almost making music.
Cima Ovest is at a higher altitude than Tofana, no disputing that, although I’m not so sure about the more solid than Tofana that Matt had been selling. Cragging on a large scale without much of the hardship that is normally involved with climbs so big. I would call the climbing style on Tre Cima fast food mountaineering, but that would possibly be showing disrespect, as both the Ovest and Grande North Faces are gobsmacking. Matt and I decided to climb as far as we could and in whatever style on a route called Pressknödel, then we would abseil. If we liked the climbing, the intention was to work the route and try for a clean ascent. I had never done anything like this on a big face, a sort of redpointing on a grand scale, but after climbing loads over the last month, and knowing I was meeting Rich Kirby on the 30th of August for three weeks in the Gorges du Tarn, I thought what the hell, it would be a laugh hanging out in such spectacular territory and getting fit at the same time.
Pressknödel is a sustained twelve pitches, the easiest pitch being 6a+ the most difficult 7c and a few in the middle of 6c, 7a, 7b and 7b+. The climb covers a distance of four hundred and eighty metres and is athletic. What could go wrong. Well, for those that would like to try and climb all of the route without pulling on gear, but are not good enough to on-sight and free the harder pitches like me, abseiling the line, after working the harder lower pitches is not as easy as you may think, because the climb is quite overhanging and weaves a cunning way between steep sections.
Matt and I climbed the first four pitches, which were tremendous, before deciding we had done enough. Matt led the abseils and clipped everything while abseiling back down pitch three – a fifty metre, more meandering pitch than the others, to reach the next abseil/belay station. I had a haul bag hanging from my waist, and set off down the ropes, unclipping quickdraws while shooting miles to the left before having to do it all again and again. This was not my idea of fun and reminded me of something I was told a long time ago by Stuart, a friend and PE Instructor from the Prison Service in my first few years of climbing. “Nick, there have been more mountaineers die abseiling than of lung cancer”. This fun outing had suddenly become very serious. Don’t be fooled by Matt and the way he looks – big and blond, more suited to the beach that the office, he is as sharp as an unripe kiwi fruit and by going first played an ace! Fortunately, I’m still here to get my own back by writing this, but it was a tad touch and go. Now, we both hung clipped to what had been the second belay station looking down at more, very overhanging. It was impossible to tell if the ropes were on the ground. The first pitch was fifty metres and the second was thirty, but with rope stretch and a direct line? “I’ll go and clip-in, to get to the first belay” Matt said. I looked down and imagined myself swinging around with a haul bag again while the ropes twanged across more sharp edges. Fuck that! “They’ll reach, look they’re down – stretch will do it, they reach that ledge just above the ground anyway.” “No, I’ll clip in to the first belay,” said the man who wasn’t about to risk his life. “No way, just abseil.” I said. “Ah, so you want me to go.” “No problem, give me the ropes, you take this stupid bag, I’ll go, it’ll be fine.” “Have you got a prussic, in fact do you know how to use one, here have a sling, here is a mini traction? “What the hell is a mini traction? I’ll be fine,” And with that I clipped in to the ropes and launched into space.
As predicted the abseil was fine. I did have to down-climb a little from the ledge but that was OK because I didn’t have the stupid haul bag. And after Matt reached the ground only complaining a little about the down-climb, it was decided we should continue with our endeavours of attempting to free climb the whole of Pressknödel, but we both also decided it would be prudent to fix a few of the abseils.
And some random abseiling pictures from working the route…