An Adventure in the Dolomites
During my many years in the mountains and my numerous trips abroad, I’ve had the good fortune of living quite a few adventures. Today I’ll tell you my most recent adventure, so you think about how an alpine guide earns a living, especially if you think he does so in the most casual manner, without any effort, having only fun spending his days in the beautiful fresh air.
June 2008: An unexpected e-mail informs me of the arrival of Tony. “Terrific” I’m thinking. Beyond being an excellent client, Tony Scott is above all a friend and an unusual person; born on the 21st of June 1944 in Stockton, On Tees, in the countryside on the north of England, he attends the west Hartlepool College of Art and the Sunderland Art School. In the 80’s Tony starts his career as a film producer. His success comes with the film Top Gun, which is followed by many others (Beverly Hills Cop - Revenge - True Romance - Crimson Tide - Enemy of the State - Spy Game - Domino -Déjà Vu). His latest work will come out in 2009: The Talking of Pelham 1 2 3. Notwithstanding his high social standing, Tony always behaves like a regular person without putting on airs. But Tony is also a true alpinist, who in his youth has climbed with friends many peaks in the Alps and in the Dolomites; climbing routes that even now are test pieces. This time he will be coming to Cortina with the family: his wife Donna, his two twins 8 year old Max and Frank, and the babysitter Lucy; and all of them want to climb. Obviously, we will need more Guides, and so I ask my friends and colleagues Davide Alberti, and Paolo Da Pozzo to give me a hand. They accept gladly.
The Scott family arrives on the 20th of June and the next day we are on the Five Towers outside Cortina, the ideal place to get your climbing legs back after a long period of inactivity, in Tony’s case, and to see how the rest of the party will do on those walls. Over the next few days Paolo and Davide will be guiding Donna, Lucy and children, while I will tie in with Tony: everyday something more demanding, going from the Campanile Dulfer in the Cadini di Misurina, to the Via Cassin on the Cima Piccolissima di Lavaredo, to eventually crown the end of his vacation with a classic and difficult route on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Tony is good, you can see that he knows his way around the cliffs, but the fact that he climbs only occasionally and his 64 years are elements that cannot help but affect his performance.
Forty years ago, with a friend, he climbed the famous Via ComiciDimai, on the great north wall of the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, and he would like to repeat it. I’m a little reluctant; I think that route is too difficult for his present state of fitness. Ultimately we decide to take with us Paolo as an additional guide: if Tony finds himself in a difficult spot, on a route such as this one, two guides guarantee greater safety. We also decide that, if necessary, a helicopter will pick us up at the top. Even if easy, the descent route is long, and could be very long and very tiring if undertaken by someone already exhausted from the climb. Thus we alert the pilot to be ready, and we set the time of departure the next morning at 5:00.
The Adventure July 2, 2008
It’s 5:00 am. The early dawn is beginning to lighten the clear sky. There is not a cloud to be seen and the air is dry and clean. Still sleepy, we travel by car towards the Lavaredo hut. From here we walk towards the pass of the same name, which we reach in 15 minutes and which offers a spectacular view of the north walls of the Tre Cime. Another 15 minutes bring us at last to the starting point of our route; an easy approach if you compare it to many others in the Dolomites.
While we are getting ready for the climb, three Spaniards join us at the base with the intent to climb the same route. One of them asks me very politely if they can go first, and I respond to him equally politely: no. All climbers know how unpleasant it is to have someone above you while you are climbing; furthermore, Paolo and I know the route well and we think we will be faster than they. At the end of this brief conversation, Paolo starts to climb. The day before, in fact, we had decided that he would be the leader, while I would climb with Tony, standing near him to better help him in case he needed it. The first two rope lengths of this route are easy, just the thing to loosen and warm up your muscles before the real difficulties. Quickly, we reach a comfortable little terrace dominated by the imposing north wall of the Cima Grande, and from here we become aware that another twosome has arrived at the base of the wall.
Yesterday, Davide told us that he too might be coming on the north face with his client Galileo, and in fact there they are getting ready to get on the route. We greet them from up high and Paolo is off. Ideally, the wall can be divided into two sections: the first half of the ComiciDimai is very difficult, often overhanging, which requires an athletic style of climbing and good technique. The second section is clearly easier (but always in the 5th grade of difficulty), and the route follows a series of cracks and water conduits to end on a ledge that encircles entirely the upper part of the Cima Grande. While I belay Paolo, the Spaniards and Davide arrive at the little terrace. They seem quite good and are very likable; we exchange a few humorous remarks. Now it is our turn: Tony leaves first and I follow shortly thereafter. The first difficult pitch proves to be truly that for my friend. He labors quite a bit, and when we get to the belay point his arms are already tired and he is beginning the doubt the outcome of the undertaking. We talk about it and we decide to continue for another couple of pitches, since further up there is a possibility of escaping the wall without too many problems.
Paolo takes off again, he climbs quickly and confidently. He is a “son of the trade”; his father Luciano, born in 1939, was a very accomplished climber but died prematurely in 1996, when he was still climbing 7a, something unusual for a man his age. Then it is our turn again, but now I decide to climb ahead of Tony in order to better help him by placing some slings in the more critical passages. He appreciates this choice, which in fact turns out to be a good idea. We continue for two more pitches; Tony has gotten his second wind and is doing well. In order to help him, Paolo pulls on the rope and this tires him out more than the climb itself; he is beginning to feel some cramping in his arms. After another pitch, I propose that we change leads. My arms are still fresh and I feel well. But he refuses saying: “Let’s go up another couple of pitches and we’ll see”. And so we continue to climb. We are going well. Already we have put some distance between the Spaniards and us. Tony continues to take many photographs, and he is very satisfied on how the climb is going. There is only one more rope length to the end of the real difficulties on the ledge where the first climbers bivouacked. I propose again to change leads with Paolo, but even this time he does not accept, telling me he feels better. And so a little before noon we arrive at the beginning of the “easy” part.
In the last ten days we have climbed everyday with beautiful and stable weather. Even today the local weather forecast did not indicate any significant changes, though the sky has gotten darker all of a sudden which does not please us at all. We skip the usual rest stop, and while Paolo starts to climb again, Tony and I eat a candy bar and we drink thirstily. As we leave the belay stop, we feel the first few raindrops and in the distance we hear the sound of thunder. We try to move quickly but, though Tony is very capable, he has already given much, and he simply cannot go any faster.
We stop for a moment to put on our rainproof jacket, but the first drops have already been transformed into a continuous rain. We reach Paolo who takes off in a hurry. We are climbing a long series of cracks and water channels, the worst place to be when it is raining. The water finds these deep grooves in the wall, loosening up rocks and small stones; furthermore, climbers know well that these lines are also the principal discharge points for electrical currents when the wall is hit by lightning. We are getting worried! Now the rain is mixed with hail, the wall is getting whiter and lightning is happening more frequently. We are up high, having climbed 2/3 of the wall already, and at this point there is no way back. We do not have that much more to go before the end of the route, and we know that these violent thunderstorms tend to be over quickly, so we hope. Furthermore, a descent in these conditions would be very risky and difficult.
While we are climbing, an electrical shock hits Paolo who is belaying us. It is not a violent discharge, but it is enough to force him to release the ropes. This is the biggest danger: to let go of the hold while you are leading can be fatal. In fact, on the more difficult part of the wall protection pins are more numerous, and a fall results in a flight of a few meters in empty air. Here, on the other hand, we are on a 5th grade wall and the pins are few and far between. One risks falls of 35 meters on a wall which is very articulated and where a fall would surely result in slamming violently on protruding rocks and ledges. Then it is my turn; I also feel an electrical shock, it is not very strong, not much more than the 220 volts that you feel touching regular household current, but this certainly doesn’t help in making me feel at ease. I would like to climb more quickly but I have to stay close to Tony, who luckily is not showing any fear and is staying very calm. We reach Paolo ensconced in a niche formed by the widening of the crack in which we are climbing. The little cave offers minimal shelter but unfortunately even niches have to be avoided during thunderstorms, thus we leave quickly. Paolo takes off again; he is climbing very skillfully, especially under these conditions. I don’t ask him if he wants to exchange leads anymore.
Exiting from the cave there is a long traverse, but it is raining so hard that we cannot see the route and even though we know it well, Paolo makes a mistake and goes off route. He climbs, he descends, he climbs again, and after a while finds pins on which he belays Tony and I. A sea of water is flooding the wall; I cannot wait to see the end of this climb. I join Paolo on the small terrace and turning back I see Tony having difficulties: “Don’t fall,” I am thinking “Not here on the traverse” but Tony is exhausted, he slips on the holds covered with hail and falls. The “Friend” that Paolo had put into a crack does not hold, and after a long pendulum Tony is below us. Luckily he is not hurt, and somehow he manages to climb up and join us on the small terrace. Now it is hailing fearfully. It is impossible to continue; we have to stop. We are completely soaked down to our underwear and it is getting much colder. The temperature has plummeted and the three of us are shaking uncontrollably. No one is speaking; all of us have retreated into our own thoughts. I look below trying to find the Spaniards and Davide but the overhang underneath us hides them from view. Surely they must be going down. You would have to be crazy to continue climbing under these conditions.
While we are waiting in silence, we hear a great thunder, a blinding red light illuminates the wall that seems to catch on fire, and rocks and stones fall all around us. Tony is still calm; he actually finds the time to take some photographs. For us guides it is a great fortune that we are with a man of such character; if we had found ourselves with a person who had given in to panic, the situation could have ended in a very different way. We are stuck, impotent, on this small little terrace for more than a half an hour, but it feels like more than two hours. Paolo and I look at each other, we know that we must get moving soon because we are risking falling prey to hypothermia. The storm slows down a bit, now it is only raining. As I said before, in climbing to this terrace, Paolo has taken the wrong route and now we find ourselves too high relative to the right route. Fortunately, we know the wall and we also know that a few meters below us on the right there are a few pins on the right route. So I lower him and he traverses to the correct belay point, on route. I also lower Tony and he quickly joins Paolo. Now it is my turn, but no one can lower me down and down climbing under these conditions is too difficult and dangerous.
The maneuvers for the descent are complicated, I have to think which technique to use, and I really have to concentrate in order to avoid making any mistakes. While I am getting the ropes ready, I look at my hands and see my skin is shriveled as would happen when in the water for too long. I finally get to the others and Paolo takes off immediately. From the belay point above, Paolo calls for us to climb. This must be the last rope length I think and I take off feeling a little bit better. My feet feel like two pieces of wood. They are completely numb and I have to find the larger holds in order to trust my climbing shoes. Tony has fallen a bit behind. I stop and wait for him and shortly the three of us are reunited. Paolo takes off again. We can’t be more than 20 meters from the end, I can’t wait to get to the top but Paolo is taking longer than expected. The exit on the inclined gravelly ledge is full of hail. One last trial for Paolo; Even the final meter of the climb is adding to our difficulties.
Finally! We reach the end of the climb and it is no longer raining; all we have to do is walk along the ledge towards the south side of the Cima Grande and call for the helicopter. We sit for a moment; we have to change our shoes. We open the backpack and we are disappointed to find that there is absolutely nothing dry. We have to empty the shoes like one would a glass of water. Well, the important thing is that we are on top, tired, but alive. We would like to get moving quickly but the reality is that even the ledge that, under normal conditions one can follow easily without a rope, is now slippery and demanding because of the many centimeters of ice. So we have to proceed roped up.
It takes us longer than a half hour to do what normally takes 5 minutes. Still, we reach the end of this great effort at the point at which the helicopter has enough space to touch down with its skids. I find my cell phone and call Hansi the pilot, but with bitterness I realize the water has irretrievably ruined the telephone. I try a couple of times, I open it and dry the contacts of the battery, but nothing works. In the meantime, Paolo realizes I have a problem and tries his cell phone and… it doesn’t work. We can’t believe it, descending along the normal route in these conditions would be a very tough trial. One last hope: we try with Tony’s telephone and… it works. Thank God.
We’re ecstatic! Ten minutes later we hear the noise of a helicopter getting closer sweet music to our ears. With great skill Hansi touches the skids on the ledge with the same speed and facility we park a motor scooter. We get on board and with a dizzying dive in less than a minute we are at the hut where we are warmly welcomed. I will always remember the pleasure of eating the steaming bowl of hot soup. I could not hold the spoon because my hands were trembling so much from the cold, so I had to use pieces of bread to dip into the soup in order to eat it. Then, finally, we are in our car heading home. Now it is raining again.
In the evening I call Davide. He tells me that during his descent he didn’t think he was going to make it either. He had to help the Spaniards who had completely lost their minds and didn’t know what to do. Once at the base of the wall he tried to call us with yells and screams, but it would have been impossible for us to hear him. After calling for a half an hour he stopped, disconsolate. He confessed to me that he thought we were dead. And what about us? I think the fact that Paolo and I climb at a level of 8a on the cliffs in the valley is irrelevant. Instead, I am convinced that the difference was the experience accumulated over the course of many years and many outings in the mountains, hundreds upon hundreds of easy routes and difficult climbs, under the most disparate conditions. And I would like to think, to conclude, that an old instinct transmitted to our genes from generations of alpinists and mountain people helped us and guided us in making the best decisions.
Enrico Maioni / guidedolomiti.com