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In addition to their many other difficult sends (up to 9a/5/14d sport and 5.14 trad for both of them), Jacopo Larcher and Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl are perhaps the world’s premier big-wall free-climbing couple. At least before COVID times, they’d make an annual pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley, where they essentially fired off one free El Cap wall a year:
2015: They both freed El Niño (VI 5.13c)
2016: They both freed Zodiac (VI 5.13d)
2017: They both freed Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), for its second free ascent
2019: Zangerl freed Pre-Muir Wall (VI 5.13+)
2019: They both freed the Nose (VI 5.14a)
This summer, climbing closer to home in Europe due to COVID travel restrictions, they turned their sights on the “Yosemite of Europe,” Val di Mello, a granite valley in the Italian Alps known for its wealth of boulders and walls with classic granite features: slabs, cracks, seams, etc. There, in July, they made the third ascent of the 2,600-foot 8b/5.13d Joy Division, climbing its first 10 pitches (pitches 1 and 4 are the crux ropelengths) to link into the final 10 pitches of Con un Piede in Paradiso, a neighboring 8a+. Here, Larcher gives the inside view of their ascent, and why they chose the variation finish.
Val di Mello, Italy, is mostly known for the “Melloblocco,” the famous event that for many years has been an important meeting point for climbers from all over the world. This big “party” is a unique opportunity to meet other people with the same passion, enjoy the beautiful valley, and climb on some old classics and a lot of new boulders brushed especially for the event. It has been something special for many people and so was it for us, as it was the place where Babsi and I first met.
Three years ago I got to witness for the first time the valley outside the event; it was a strong yet beautiful contrast to how I knew it. I was astonished by its quietness, the kindness of the local community and, last but not least, the incredible amount of climbing it had to offer! It doesn’t matter if you want to go bouldering, cragging, trad climbing, or enjoy some longer routes: Val di Mello has it all!
This June, after our trip to Norway got cancelled due to COVID restrictions, we started to look for a place closer to home where we could enjoy longer granite routes. Val di Mello immediately came to mind. We packed everything in the van and drove there without a real plan, as we were overwhelmed by the amount of routes in the guidebook. We had some ideas in mind, but we first wanted to get advice from the local legend Simone Pedeferri, who basically freed 95 percent of the hard climbs there. After a good coffee and a chat with him at the Bar Monica, the meeting point for the climbers in the valley, we opted for Monte Qualido, an impressive 800-meter granite wall. Simone has obviously climbed a lot of routes there, and in 2004 he freed a combination of two old aid lines (Mellodramma and Melat) and Forse Si, Forse No, calling it Joy Division (8b/5.13d max; 800 meters). Even if the route had had just one repetition (James Pearson in 2011), we heard a lot of positive things about it and we opted to check it out. We also had to film for a documentary project about “life on the wall,” so we thought this route would be perfect for it.
A First Foray onto Joy Division
Unfortunately, we had just two days’ time, so we hiked up to the wall with the idea of scoping the initial pitches, which were also supposed to be the hardest, before driving back home. (Pitch breakdown for Joy Division: 8b, 7b, 7b+, 8b, 7a, 7a+, 7b+, 6a, 7b+, 7a, 7c+, 6b+, 6b, 6a, 5, 6a, 6a+, 6a+, 4.) When we reached the wall, both of us were amazed by the beauty of the place, and we quickly realized why a lot of friends were thrilled about it! The cherry on top was definitely the freshly renewed “Hotel Qualido,” a big bivy spot situated just below the wall; you really can’t wish for a better place to stay.
The wall gets in the shade after 2 p.m. so, as it was too hot for climbing in the sun, we had plenty of time to observe the wall from the bivy, trying to understand the line of the route and dreaming about other possible projects. We realized that just before the last steep part of the wall, Joy Division makes a big traverse right to finish on Melat, skipping two really steep aid pitches on Mellodramma. We started to wonder if it was possible to continue straight through that section, instead of exiting right. Obviously the only way to know was to climb up there and get a closer look.
The first pitch of Joy Division is probably the hardest, and definitively one of the best of the entire route. An easier start gets you to a really technical traverse on small crystals, which ends with a perfect 20-meter crack. The climbing is insecure and hard to control, making this pitch a head-game until the very end! The next pitches follow a crack in a big right-facing dihedral and, even if they are rated “only” 7b/+, are really hard! I’m sure they won’t get downgraded 😉 On the fourth pitch, Joy Division starts to follow the aid line Mellodramma; it’s pretty easy to distinguish, as the newish bolts stand out from the old, rusty, handmade ones. This pitch (8b) looked impossible at first, but once we figured out the tricky beta, it felt not too bad and the moves were really cool. We checked out some more easier pitches, which were still hard (!), and drove back home.
A New Finish?
One week later we were back at the base of the wall, armed also with some aid gear, as we wanted to see if the upper pitches of Mellodramma would go free or not. Just before the last 7c+ pitch of Joy Division, we wrongly climbed too far right, following an obvious dihedral that led to a hard slab followed by a steep crack: an incredible pitch! We thought it was the most obvious line, but, speaking with Simone, we later realized that we’d ended up on a newer, neighboring route: Con un Piede in Paradiso (With One Foot in Paradise; 8a+).
Unaware of our mistake, we climbed up to the ledge where Joy Division traverses on easier terrain to the right and started to explore the possibilities for a more direct exit. From below, the original, steep aid pitches of Mellodramma, our original goal, looked impossible, so we started to play on another line. Even if it was climbable, we quickly realized we didn’t have enough time for free climbing it, so we opted to finish on the route we’d wrongly ended up on before—Con un Piede in Paradiso—as it climbs straight to the top of Qualido. We were aware that it wasn’t the original finish to Joy Division, but for us it was the more logical way to finish, being also more sustained. We should also mention that Con un Piede in Paradiso was put up years after Simone freed Joy Division, and at the time there weren’t any other routes on that section!
After a couple of rest days and filming in San Martino, we hiked up again to the “Hotel Qualido,” ready to give the line a real try. As usual, the plan was for both Babsi and I to lead the hard pitches (8a or harder) and swing leads on the rest. We started in the late afternoon and, accompanied by two filmers (Hannes and Juliane), climbed the first five pitches and set up our portaledge. It felt so good to hang on a wall again after all the lockdowns, and it reminded us how much we like to “live” on the wall.
The next day we again had a slow start, climbing up to the ledge we’d bivvied on before and setting ourselves up to climb to the top the next morning. The last pitches were amazing; after some really technical slab pitches, you get to enjoy perfect, long and steep cracks, which lead you to the top of “Il Martello” of Qualido, the iconic huge mushroom on the top of the wall: the perfect end after three days without falls.
Looking around from there, you quickly realize the potential the place has to offer, as all you can see are big. beautiful granite walls. The area looks so wild and beautiful! Even if we left with some projects undone, we had such a good time up there, getting to climb an amazing route, connecting with the local climbing community, and seeing the valley from another perspective than we were used to. It still remains a very special place to us—one we’ll definitely visit more and more in the future.
So what did we climb? We don’t know what to call it, but it was definitely a Paradise of Joy!
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