Obsessed by a Mountain
Climbing the Tofana di Rozes' Dimai-Eötvös, Dolomites, Italy
How can a grown, educated man, be obsessed by a mountain? This is what I have experienced and want to describe. It is a mountain I know well, the Tofana di Rozes. I have been going to Cortina since I was a small child, and I have been taking countless hikes around it. It cannot fail to impress any passer-by: you see it as soon as you enter the valley of Cortina, towering as the leftmost of the most famous massif in the valley (the 3 Tofane). You see it on your right when you drive towards the Falzarego pass, and its huge mass is almost hanging over you. But then you can see it from anywhere if you rise high enough in the Dolomites: it is simply one of the biggest in that very remarkable group of mountains. It is so fascinating because it is so big and at the same time it is so well defined, detached from the others. It stands on its own.
I do not consider myself a mountaineer. I love nature and the mountains, I love hiking, and I love climbing. But I am not a mountaineer because I do not have the confidence and the sense of orientation that a true mountain person has when hiking and climbing. I do not feel capable of safely finding my way round in areas that are difficult and/or risky and that I do not know well. This lack of confidence most likely comes from my taking up serious hiking and climbing only as an adult, maybe 40 years old or so, but it has not prevented me from enjoying mountains to the full, following the lead of mountain guides. And this has a very important benefit added to it: “going outside with guides” (meaning going to hike or climb with them — I am using here a wonderful phrase I once heard from a very old and very smart woman of this valley) combines a number of different experiences: the physical experience of the effort it takes to reach your target, nature’s contemplation and the conversation with the guide.
The mountain guides I know are a combination of wisdom and experience, subtle psychological skills, and a fascinating display of local culture. Most of all, they are your guardian angels, they make sure you complete your excursions safely, they encourage you all the way to the top. You become bound to them by one of the best kinds of friendships: the friendship the bounds together the teacher and the student, the protégée and the protector, the people who have same passions, though practiced at different levels.
Though I have known Rozes since I was a child, I never thought of climbing it. I remember vividly when the idea was planted in me. I was on the top of one of the 5 Torri, a group of small peaks that is the training ground for climbers in Cortina. I had just completed the Quarta Bassa route (UIAA IV or 5.5), one of the easiest routes in that group of mountains, a typical ascent for the beginners, with Davide Alberti, a skilled guide. As I was gazing around with satisfaction and some apprehension (it is the nature of mountain peaks to be sloping down, often very steeply, in all directions), Davide points to me the huge mass of Rozes, which, though on the other side of the valley, dwarfs the 5 Torri. The huge southern face is the one that you see from the Quarta Bassa. He said: “A guy like you should climb the Rozes on the Dimai-Eötvös (UIAA IV+ or 5.6), a classic route of the beginning of last century,” and he pointed to me the way the route covered the entire southern face of the mountain, its most imposing side. I was frankly flattered that a guide who had just seen me climbing and knew my (limited) skills and stamina, would suggest that I would be able to complete such a task: the route he was suggesting me was roughly 20 times longer the one we just completed!
The following years I have asked a lot of people about that climb, thus building my obsession. I remember a guide describing the experience as a truly exhilarating one: “It’s a huge mountain; in no time you find yourself up in the air with 600 meters under your feet; you feel like flying, touching the sky with your finger!” The question in my mind was: when am I going to be ready to do it? I have been climbing with two exceptional people in Cortina, Paolo Da Pozzo and Enrico Maioni. Two extremely capable and experienced guides who have taken me to places I would never believe I would go, and have taught me to deal with fear, fatigue and all the emotions that make climbing and hiking such a unique experience. Naturally, I had been bugging these two poor people a lot about the Dimai-Eötvös. And they were always slightly, and politely, reluctant: “You need to be very fit” they said. “It is very long” “It is a true mountain ascent”, “Weather is a real factor, because it is so long”. And so, every Summer season would finish with me getting fitter, but not fit enough to try the Dimai-Eötvös. That is how my obsession was built: the mountain came to represent my physical limit, but at the same time, on its own, a huge, beautiful monument.
Until last year I discovered the way to break the deadlock: Paolo and Enrico told me that they had climbed a challenging route on the Torre Grande of the 3 Cime di Lavaredo (as I am writing this piece it is dawning on me that the most famous mountains in the Cortina area have numbers in their names) with a client: two guides and one client, because the ascent was very challenging and in this way the two guides could ensure better safety. So, I proposed, why don’t both take me to the Dimai-Eötvös? This proposal made them much more amenable to the idea. From my perspective, their feeling safe made me feel safe. And, last but not least, climbing with the two guides I feel most close to is a natural way to celebrate such a beautiful ascent.
And this year, as I started climbing with Paolo, I told him that I was still interested in the Rozes, but that the call was his: since he knows me well, he could tell if and when was the best time to go. To which he replied, “We go the day after tomorrow.” And that is when the excitement started. The plan was to leave home at 5:00 am, so as to start climbing shortly after 6:00 am. Needless to say, it was very hard to fall asleep the night before. But the mood in the morning was very good: the day was clear and all three of us, Paolo, Enrico and myself, knew we were going to have fun. We left the car at the Rifugio Angelo Dibona at 2083 meters, and hiked to the start of our climb for another 300 meters or so. This means that when we started we were looking up a rock that rised about 900 meters above us, to the peak at 3225 meters. The route takes its name from two Hungarian baronesses: Ilona and Rolanda Eötvös. In 1901 they were guided by Antonio Dimai, from Cortina, together with Giovanni Siorpaes and Angelo Verzi. The climb is a route about 1000 meters long and requires 21 pitches of rope. Ahead of me were 1000 meters of walking and climbing, perhaps close to 3000 steps. Each one of these steps had to be thought about carefully. First because a wrong choice of rocks can make me fall, but also because the nature of Dolomites is that all ascents are full of loose rocks, large and small, so that a climber has to care not only about his own safety, but also about not letting loose too many rocks, for the safety of climbing companions and anybody else approaching the route.
We started easily and moved steadily upwards. It is fun to go with two guides: while in the standard ascent your guide is always ahead of you, and you meet him only briefly as you complete every pitch, the way Paolo and Enrico organized the climb was that the leader would carry two ropes, and therefore I would always have a climbing companion with me. That helps a lot to release the tension. As we ascended, some mist enveloped the mountain, giving it a more mysterious air, and taking away some of the stunning views that can be enjoyed during the climb. The face of the mountain is huge, ad sometimes mist makes it a little spooky. However, this feeling tended to go away as we reached higher. Perhaps the most famous part of this climb is a long traverse (about 50 meters) over a straight wall falling 600 meters below. The traverse was not very difficult but the exposure made it thrilling, though clouds partly hid the ground below. After the traverse, a couple of pitches appeared harder than usual, perhaps because fatigue started making itself felt.
One peculiarity of Dimai-Eötvös is that the end of climbing is not the end of the route. After the climbing there are about 200 meters of scrambling along the ridge of the mountain, and at the very last stretch we needed to cross a very steep and very slippery scree that falls all the way to the valley below. That was probably the spot where I was most concerned: the typical situation where standard techniques do not apply, but only a good sense of equilibrium and cold blood are of assistance. As we reached the normal route, on the north side of the mountain, we started our descent, which was interrupted by a stop in the Rifugio Giussani, about half way down. There we were met by the manager, a well known and experienced climber himself who very politely and elegantly greets us with the question: “Where does this gentleman with two of the best guides in Cortina come from?” We told him and he seemed to give a nod of appreciation: Dimai-Eötvös is a serious climb! I realized in the Rifugio how tense I had been, as I found it hard to swallow a simple vegetable soup I had ordered (by contrast, cold beer seemed to go down very easily). We continued our descent to our starting point, the Rifugio Dibona, where we arrived almost at sunset.
The sense of accomplishment for conquering my obsession was strong, but not as strong as I had expected. After all, my obsession was a largely irrational feeling which only the physical experience of the climb could bring to its true dimensions. Hence, I have perhaps grown a little wiser, though I fear that, as I grow older, wonderful experiences like Rozes can improve my character only so much. I am nevertheless ever grateful to Paolo Da Pozzo and Enrico Maioni.