Not everyone gets to live their lives traveling and climbing year round and for us normal working folks there are trips that you can go on, ones that you want to go on, and the giant once in a lifetime ones that you dream of. Each journey requires are particular skill set and planning. In the past, I have normally chosen trips that have been more of the want/dream kind. Fortunately, I have enough support from Arcteryx to make my trips come to fruition. After missing a year’s trip to take care of my newborn son two summers ago, I got back on track with some traveling/climbing this summer. As I was longing for beautiful mountains, big walls, easy access, and lots of options, I headed to my happy place, the Italian Dolomites.
The last two weeks of June ended up being my only portion of free time during my summer break. Being a teacher in a place where they keep extending the school year decreases the glory of the jobs previous description. It wasn’t until Chris (my climbing partner for this adventure) and I arrived that we realized that it was an epic snow year in the Dolomites. One meter of snow a day for seven consecutive days, buried the mountains and made some approaches require crampons and ice tools. Since we left our axes and crampons back in the states that information was hard to swallow after we had already arrived. Other information that would have been nice to know was which gondolas were in operation in June. We discovered that the normal way to descend the Marmolada was to ride the lift back to the valley floor. The problem was that it was not in operation for another week or so. Finally, knowing which mountain towns were actually closest to the climbing that we wanted to do, really can’t be understood until you are immersed within the country. This posed to be a constant challenge as we chased the best weather around the area.
All that aside, it was a wonderful trip. It had to be, I was in Italy rock climbing for 2 weeks! Our main objective was a climb called Attraverso il Pesce on the Mamolada (The Way of the Fish). A big wall climb that was way ahead of its time and a true testament to the men who forged ahead and established it ground up! At 900 meters tall with a difficulty of 5.12c this route is not to be underestimated. http://www.planetmountain.com/english/rock/routes/itineraries/scheda.php?id_itinerario=374&lang=eng&id_tipologia=38
When I first learned of the climb about 10 years ago, I was drawn to the size and the difficulty. At that time, heady leads were extremely challenging for me (they still are) and this route would be a real test. Not only with respect to the difficulty, but with the route finding and protection too! I was in for the challenge. In 2006, I moved to Austria to teach science at the American International School of Salzburg. I had big dreams of climbing in the Dolomites on the weekends and working during the week. Unfortunately, I moved there just 2 weeks after breaking my back while attempting a first free ascent on Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome. I was going to be out for at least 4-5 months. There went the perfect conditions of the fall. It turned out that I was back climbing by early winter when the mountains were already getting snow. I had missed my window, not to mention that I had a MAJOR fear of falling and sketchy leads since my accident on Half Dome. (Part 1 of the story is located on http://www.climbing.com http://www.climbing.com/route/arcturus-part-1/ ).)
Even by March, my lead head was not back. I found out while in Sweden climbing on a heady, but classic 5.6 in Bohuslan. (See the following article for a summary of that adventure: http://www.climbing.com/route/american-meatballs/ ) Time was quickly disappearing and I was not in the proper head space to attempt the Fish while working in Europe. Additionally, most of my climbing partners had no idea how to climb multi-pitch, vertical or low angle technical slab in the mountains.
So, here I am nearly ten years later ready and confident that I can rise to the occasion, which is to on sight (or climb it without falling/hanging on gear without prior attempts) The Fish. I had been watching the weather for weeks from Colorado and had seen many poor weather patterns and hoped that it was not going to continue while we were in Italy. Our first day was perfect, too bad we arrived in the middle of the night and still had to drive a few hours to get to our first campsite. After checking the forecast on the following day, we knew that we had to move. We got a little cragging in and then hiked to the base of the Marmolada in the late afternoon. The map described an hour and a half of approach and we quickly realized that if you hike in the mountains regularly, that Italian approach times are exaggerated. Upon walking up the valley with the massive mile long Marmolada on our right, we quickly realized that the wall was enormous and incredible. Add to that fact that it is anywhere from 1000 – 3000 ft tall, the place was no joke. We settled in at the Refugio at the base of the wall and prepared for our best window of weather.
The biggest problem that we had to solve was whether or not to get on the route as our first climb on the Marmolada. Trying to do your best, while also climbing for the first time on the rock is not the best strategy for success. After many looks through the binoculars and talking with the man who ran the Refugio, we decided to try a climb near The Fish in order to gain some knowledge of how the wall felt and how it protected with gear. The climb was called Don Quixote and was nearly 200 yards down wall.
Personally, I was bummed and happy at the same time. I really didn’t want to waste my only possible good weather window for climbing the route, but I also didn’t want to blow my chance for the onsight of the route because I rushed into climbing it without proper preparation. Chris and I understood that we might not get to climb the wall again due to the forecast for rain the next few days, but we also didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We ended up cruising Don Quixote enjoying the wall and even a little be of off route questing. At the end of the day, I knew that we had made a good choice. I had a better understanding of how the wall climbed and protected and I could easily get into the proper mental and physical state for my next attempt.
The rest of the trip was an up and down, drive around northern Italy looking for dry weather and rock. I never got my second chance on the big stone and was chomping at the bit for just one day without rain. I can’t say that I am upset, I was able to go climbing in Europe (more sport than bigwall) and met a lot of wonderful climbers and people along the way. Now I am driven even more to accomplish this goal. Next year will be a good one.
Piz : )