Bob Wightman

Gone Cragging

Steve was playing catch-up with the Mercedes that had just passed us. The speedo showed 140 going downhill but the Merc was pulling away. So much for a nice quiet drive across Europe. It doesn't matter how quickly you are going, there is always someone going faster. Like alpine climbing

Subscribing to Tilman's view of trips short on organization, we had only decided to go six days before. Steve's idea.

I had attained the finely honed body of a jellyfish by working in the Middle East for two months. Seven short rock climbs in the past two weeks had failed to persuade my body to come out of retirement. Steve is a professional diver - no tan, no brain but lots of balls.

Chamonix for a short summer trip? You must be joking! Naff conditions, crowds and too much bull. Lack of initiative drives many there. The Dolomites used to be the starting point for a traditional Alpine season, working Westwards as fitness progressed. Having never been, what an ideal time to go. Steve's idea.

Rain mourned our arrival in Cortina. A traffic jam North of Innsbruck had already dampened our mood. The weather would continue like this for the rest of the trip.

The campsite is an Italian version of a refugee camp. Itinerant travellers crammed together cheek by jowl, each fiercely protective of their own exorbitantly priced plot. The Babel effect ensuring complete unfamiliarity.

Opposite the campsite lay a huge rambling piece of rock, The Pomagognon, among which lay The South East Arête of the Punta Fiames. It was in our big tick book, otherwise known as Extreme Alpine Rock, and would do for an Hors d'oeuvre.

There are two starts to the route, the normal way that meanders around to the left for a while or the arête direct. Needless to say we did neither. Wandering up the face between them we thoroughly scared ourselves before stumbling onto the line of the route proper.

Steve leading the first of the steep pitches on the Pomamagnon

Steve leading the first of the steep pitches on the Pomamagnon.

On route we move quickly. Each pitch leads naturally into the next, sometimes on this side of the arête, sometimes on that. The exposure, after gritstone edges, mind-numbing. Behind us dark clouds were gaining, their lights flashing. Soon we would be overtaken. Go faster! The guidebook thoughtfully left out a pitch in its description and three pitches became four.

Finally as I pull onto the summit, belay and begin to bring up Steve, the rain starts. Struggling to belay and put on my cagoule at the same time I get wetter and wetter. Steve arrives quickly, having started the pitch before I had finished it, he was in no mood to get wet. (But he's a diver?)

The descent was a hoot, a short walk then a huge gully full of scree just the right size for running. Five minutes of whooping and general mayhem and we are back down in the trees facing the long wet trek back to the car.

The Cinque Torre near to Cortina are a bit of a misnomer as there are about ten of them plus several rather large boulders. It is the Klettergarten for the Cortina climbers. It is also extremely popular with visiting climbers being only five minutes walk from the top of a chairlift. Just right for a short day or poor weather.

Our initiation Grade VI turned out to be a pumpy polished sandbag. Tail between legs we walked round the corner to the crowds.

Chatting with the locals we discover our climb is given 6b+! Taking pity on us we are shown some reasonable routes. One in particular was excellent; 30m of delightful moves with good bolt protection. The name had something to do with a porn actress!

They (the locals) also gave us a topo guide to the crag and it thus became an excellent wet weather alternative for us.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo from The Paternkofel to the north.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo from The Paternkofel to the north.

The Tre Cima seemed like a good idea. 20,000 Lire grants us the privilege of driving upto the car park at the ... hut. We wander among the crowds along the foot of the spires. Steve wants a rest so I head off to do a Via Ferrata on the Paternkofel. Alone, I move quickly and in half an hour am on the summit with fantastic views of the North faces of the Tre Cima. Apparently the tunnels here were dug during the First World War and the summit was a battleground! The ridge is all of 2m wide in places.

Steve meanwhile has wandered around and taken a liking to the Comici Route on the Cima Grande. Later when we are fitter. Mmm this could be fun! Show Steve a route I'd like to do, let him take a fancy to it, then go and do it. No persuasion necessary! Nice idea.

We'd actually gone to suss out The Yellow Edge on the Cima Piccola, Steve liked the look of this too. The following day and another 20,000 Lire poorer, and we're at the start with a party of three in the initial diedre ahead of us. "German" says Steve authoritively.

The first pitches of the Yellow Edge

The first pitches of the Yellow Edge.

The diedre gave steep moves on slightly dubious, but certainly polished, holds. Somehow I miss the belay and belay halfway up the second pitch by a sparrows nest. Whether they resent the intrusion into their vertical world I don't have time to find out as Steve storms up, muttering something about the war, and passes me barely pausing to take gear. The next pitch is similar and leads to easier ground.

Two long, long pitches up this gains the start of the traverse line back to the arête itself. It also allows us to catch the party of three. We have to wait, eyes flashing, as the stances are too small for five. Eventually Steve shuffles out on the traverse, the exposure snapping at his heels.

My turn and a steep wall gains a good stance. The Czechs, for ‘tis they, pull over.

The line of the Yellow Edge on the Cima Piccola

The line of the Yellow Edge on the Cima Piccola.

The crux lies above, an overhanging diedre, Steve’s lead. Towards the end of the pitch where it traverses left Steve suddenly announces that he is going to come off, despite imprecations to the contrary, he does. And again a few minutes later. Eventually he belays, it turns out that he couldn't grab the peg that was staring him in the face! I look at the Czechs, "Bad idea," they're thinking "letting us by."

The excitement over with, the pitches on the upper arête lead airily towards the summit until one last 60m pitch up loose and dusty rock gains the top.

We should have stayed roped up for the start of the descent, but things being what they are we don't. A very awkward step down in a highly exposed position would feel much more comfortable with a rope. The rest of the descent goes smoothly apart from the oncoming rain.

So far despite the unsettled weather we aren't doing too badly, however Steve wants a rest day of all things. We compromise and opt to do a Via Ferrata. Not just any Via Ferrata you understand, it has to be a harder one to get the adrenalin flowing. We settle on the ... on the Tofane di Mezzo, it's only five minutes walk from the top of the chairlift. Our eyes pop out of our heads at the exposure as we race towards the summit. Again it rains before we can finish it. At least we get the Cable car down.

Whereas The Mont Blanc Massif is a well defined whole, the Dolomites are scattered hither and thither each group with its own character. Getting from one area to another is by exceedingly tortuous passes which have the gall to tell you how many bends are left before the top.

Three alpine passes away, each with its own tick list of bends, lies our next objective, The Micheluzzi Route on Pic Ciavazes. The route is actually one of many on this crag most of which are worthwhile for a short day, some are highly recommended.

Despite the crag's appearance from the road the climbing was surprisingly slabby. Delicate footwork rather than brute force being the order of the day.

The highlight of the route is the so called 90m traverse providing a link between the lower-left and the upper-right slabs. It is a spectacular though relatively easy piece of climbing. Actually it has the most sustained three pitches on the climb. It didn't matter who led here as it was no harder than seconding, just keep moving right. The next hand and foothold appearing as if by magic. The third pitch

of the traverse has a possible aid move though it isn't as hard free as at first appears. Leaning out I see good pockets and move down onto the lower line. Easy with above the head protection.

Once the traverse is over upward progress begins anew. Here though finding the line is slightly harder and the correct route is at times difficult to follow. A bit of sense and keeping our eyes open leads us rapidly to the top of the lower band.

Having started the route at the ridiculously early hour of 11am we decide to have a short day and traverse off left along the Gamsband, back to the car and those road passes back to Cortina.

Rest days seem like a waste. However the afore mentioned lack of pre-trip climbing was taking its toll. My arms were complaining from overuse. So another rest day but with plans for the day after.The Tofane di Rozes rises cathedral like above the road its features as buttresses and spires combine to give a whole greater than the sum of the individual parts. Our chosen route was on the second pillar, The Pilastro di Rozes, The South Face Route.

Like many Brits I have always been loathe to use huts, seeing them as expensive and not worthwhile. Having got older it was time to become wiser and we booked into the Dibona hut situated about 45 minutes walk below the route. We even had a plan, a cunning one of Steves'.

After most people had come down off the hill we would walk up to the foot of the route drop off our gear and come back to the hut. Then in the morning we could get to the route a bit quicker. It would also give us the chance to suss out the route. Nice idea, it worked.

We had just started the climb the following morning when two local youths arrived. Now I always thought that I was a quick climber. Indeed despite being unfit for rock climbing all the routes we did on this trip were done in under guidebook time.

These two lads though were mustard. Despite having a lead of two pitches, in three pitches they pass us and are long gone. Their only explanation; that they had done the route five or six times already and were off to do a new route.

Left again to ourselves we make good time up the lower wall. The solid grey limestone a delight to climb on. Before long the wall begins to rear up and change colour. It appears that rock less than vertical is nearly always grey, while steep rock is yellow. There is also a difference in rock quality with the yellow being more brittle.

The central section of the climb is dominated by two overhangs and an overhanging chimney. Now Steve had it all worked out that if he led the first pitch of the route then I would get the two overhangs and he would get the chimney. Unfortunately for him one of the pitches above was only 15m and could be run with the next. Thus Steve gets the first overhang.

According to Steve the only aid climbing he'd done was "Cheating on routes too hard for me." Well we've all done that. So off he goes puffing and panting until eventually he's over the roof. A belay comes soon enough for him but too soon for me. My turn. It has to be quick, undercut out, grab the sling on the lip, stand in it then pull onto the wall above with the help of the next peg. Phew! Easy!

The next pitch and possibly the second roof are mine. Now pitches in the Dolomites are pegged in direct proportion to their difficulty, ie hard pitches have lots and vice versa. This easy pitch has a peg every two metres, something smelt. Steve says it's me. Ignoring him I set off, the reason for the number of pegs becomes clear. Steep and continuously hard with non obvious moves I run out of tie-offs before I reach the roof. So Steve has to lead that as well!

The belay is the problem. It doesn't look as if it was meant to be one. The pegs bend and it's hard climbing to reach the roof. I ease back onto the pegs and bring Steve up. The exposure was terrific, the tension also as he strains to reach the first peg above the stance. "Got it!" Relax as he grabs the peg and clips into it. The roof is smaller and easier than the first and soon he's on the large ledge above.

I follow in similar fashion to the first roof. So now it's the chimney and me. Oh dear. Flared and overhanging 8m in the first 15m! After a Mars bar and a drink I set off. The first few metres are OK, then things get tough. Chimneying out to the lip I manage to avoid most of the steep climbing until the chimney narrows. A sling hangs down from the back of the narrows. Too tempting by half, I stand in it with a struggle, heaving myself up I look for the next hold. There aren't any! After much cursing I establish myself in the continuation chimney. A few more metres and the standard drops.

Above this pitch the cliff leans back and grey rock again predominates. A couple more chimney pitches then pleasant stepped slabs and we're at the top. The descent was the usual knee jarring whoop over scree.

Back at the hut with a well deserved beer we look up at our biggest route yet. The two speed merchants are still on their new line.

Still time to go for another route before we go home.

Liking huts so much after our first experience we headed for the Civetta and a night in the Rifugio Coldai. At least it was a new area to us. Might as well get some variety in. Once the daytime crowds have disappeared from the hut and the surrounding area, no doubt helped by the afternoon thunderstorm, it's a pleasant relaxed atmosphere. A good meal, some wine and to bed.

That night it rained. The following day is wild. Cutting our losses, we head back to the car and a pleasant drive across Europe. No rush for the ferry we've got plenty of time.