4/04/08 — For the last month Climbing.com contributor Bruce Willey and his wife Caroline Schaumann have sent dispatches from Sardinia—an Online exclusive. This is the conclusion to their story: A story of average climbers, with average means on an average quest to explore the uncommon island off the coast of Italy.
Dispatches from the Island of Sardinia: Supramonte
The best thing about a hanging belay on a multi-pitch climb is the promise of a nice, semi-spacious belay ledge above. A place where you can kick off your shoes, have a sip of water, look around. That, and the hope that when you’re swinging leads with your partner, your pitch ends at one.
We’d gotten a late start due in part to losing our dirt road after some misleading signs led us astray over the farmland and vineyards. After a few weeks of one-pitch sport routes we started craving a long route that would get us in the air a ways. By the time we got to the base of Compagni di Viaggio (6a+) and pondered the next sustained twelve pitches above, it was late morning.
So we headed into the limestone valley of Sùrtana and quickly lost our feeling of disappointment. There, on either side of us rose perfect limestone walls. A small trail led through the valley and more than once we commented to each other that it felt like Yosemite. And more than once we were loath to compare the two.
Over long after-dinner chats out on the porch we had mused over the tendency of the traveler to find the similarities to another place. After all, no place is a metaphor of another place but wholly distinct. Nevertheless, the impulse to categorize is unavoidable I suppose, part of an essential need to encounter the familiar wherever you are. Not unlike the Spanish who, upon seeing the Sierra Nevada for the first time, thought it looked like the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain.
So we started up a seven-pitch route Cervo di Piazza (6a), one of the longest and most classic lines in the Sùrtana. The rock was perfectly clean, and we found ourselves in one of the most remote areas in Sard that we’d been. No little towns below, no sight of roads, no sign of civilization save for the sunken cave of Triscoli where it is thought a tribe of Nuraghic people hid out from the Romans.
Two pitches up we reached nice belay ledge and looked around. I knew Caroline first through her words. In the beginning we seduced each other with long and crafted emails. She lived in Georgia; I lived in California. And we found ourselves Online looking for a steady climbing partner. She wrote about Joshua Tree which gave me nothing short of thoughtful feelings in my loins. Timidly, I wrote about being up high on a multi-pitch climb on a ledge with a life-long climbing partner. Someone like her, preferably. And it must have worked. We met in person in Joshua Tree and a few weeks later got engaged at the top of JT’s Heart and Sole (5.10b). Soon after we were literally tying the knot in our rope at a small wedding ceremony in a High Sierra marriageable meadow. Since then we’ve been spending a lot of time on belay ledges together. But looking out over the Supramonte and the valley below we concede this is one of the better ledges we have encountered in our lives.
I hand her the rack. She hands me the small pack. And she’s off, going up slightly overhanging arête, then lured around the corner to some perfect jams. For an island in the middle of the Med it feels surpassingly alpine. My thoughts wander. A swallow fighter pilots by, whizzing inches from the rock. I think of friends back home (wherever that is these days) and find a strong urge to wish them here. That’s always the conundrum with travel. You want to tell them how great it was, but not so great to sound as if you have a bad case of gloat. It is a disease that affects many travelers, even seasoned pros.
Which is, I suppose, where the usual sign-off on the back of a postcard comes from—Wish you were here—a cheap and rather insincere gesture. Especially Sard postcards, which nearly always feature a white beach, a sea cliff, and the brilliant blue-green water that is so clear it makes your eyes ache. But in some ways I mean it. In Sardegna I’ve found myself wishing I could bring many friends and a highly select group of family members. Just for a few days. And yet at the same time is doubly satisfying to be climbing with Caroline.
We wander up a limestone pillar, jutting out from the slab. It’s airy and the sun is intense and warm. It’s one of those climbing days you live for, a day that keeps you motivated to search for more perfect lines.
We top out on a well-rounded summit, the unearthly limestone shaped by wind and water. It’s a moonscape with small trees and bushes in keeping with the guidebook’s title Pietra di Luna (rock of the moon). We rap the route paying particular heed to the core-cutting edges. We’re down in time for the walk out without headlamps, blissed out with the satisfaction that only comes from doing longer routes.
Last week we picked up and moved about 60 miles inland near the town of Oliena. We’re staying at a Refugio (refuge) of Monte Maccione, a co-op started in the 60’s by some Barbargios, the Italian equivalent of the American hippie. Above, the majestic walls of the P. Carabidda, which look almost, like the Dolomites—with apologies for lack of a better comparison. We stowed our belongings and immediately hit the Monte Maccione crags above the Refugio. Historically, this is the taproot of Sard climbing, the place where it all began thanks in part to the alpine military school of Predazzo who first opened many of the routes.
One our way uphill through the old holm oaks and pine forest we encounter the military training ground. The climbs are stiff, made stiffer by countless climbers polishing the limestone to its stone cousin marble. We find it unsatisfying even without the presence of a noisy German family and their five screaming children.
So we move higher up and discover the Marantonio Slab, a fine piece of rock featuring a rare splitter that practically calls out to us when we spot it. We’re losing sun, but spot a nice little dihedral leading two pitches up over a bulge. Caroline is on fire as is her usual and starts up Magico Spettacolo (6a). It’s so good I make her climb it twice. Her personality is one of contracted calmness. But when she is climbing sometimes I find it necessary to encourage her to wear herself out the way terrier owners do with their dogs. I’ve been doing a lot of this recently as the shoulder I fell on in Alabama last December is starting ache. I suspect I have torn a ligament in my rotator cuff. And with 19 days of climbing with but one rest day, it’s not getting any better. I need help just getting my left arm into the shoulder straps of my pack.
The next day we head out to the Sùrtana again, this time approaching from the west. We pass the massif of Punta Cusidore with its trad climbs on arêtes that reach nearly 3,000 feet above the olive orchards below. Once again the comparisons filter in and I can’t help but think this feels like driving Highway 395 under the late afternoon shadow of the High Sierra—that is, before Los Angeles stole all the water in the 1930’s and turned Owens Valley into scrubland and high desert. We’ll be living there in three weeks, and I promise Caroline that the comparisons will soon reverse, and it will be impossible to forget this incomparable place. That, and we must learn enough Italian so we can understand the Italian-only trad guidebook so we can one day get up some of the classics on the Punta Cusidore and its lip-smacking arête jutting into the sky.
Rounding a bend in the dirt road, the Vallata di Lanaitto stretches out before us. On either side huge, mostly virgin walls jut out of the landscape. Sheep and goats graze between the haphazard rows of olive trees, and we are quickly lost, both in the beauty and literally lost of the maze of roads leading (hopefully) to some semblance of a trailhead. At last the road gets too much for our low strung rental car and we ditch it in the weeds. Setting out on foot, we head into a canyon that at least feels right and soon meet a trail dipping in and out of a rocky wash.
An arrow etched into a boulder points the ways. And we have lunch in a meadow, contemplating the sketchy weather that has come up out of the west. The minstrel winds are gusting hard again, and our multi-pitch plans are slowly being dashed to the fast-changing Sard weather. We should have been here hours ago. Or yesterday.
From our climb two days previous we had looked down on the Nuraghic village of Tiscali, and now with the weather being unsettled I prevail upon Caroline that a cultural detour might be a good thing. She’s reluctant. She has a whole ticklist of climbs to do. Adding to the urgency is the fact that we must leave tomorrow and catch a flight to rainy Berlin. She wants to squeeze as much Sard limestone into one last day as she can. And I honestly can’t blame her.
Still, I nudge her up the trail in the direction of the ancient village, impatient to get an estranged hint of the original Sard people and how they lived, but hoping this diversion doesn’t impinge on climbing. After we’ve climbed nearly a thousand feet out of the valley, Caroline starts to wonder. A sign stating twenty minutes to the village does nothing to convince her this is a good idea. It will only be a pile of old stones, faint vestiges of a culture long disappeared to time. We make it in seven minutes. The sign must have been in tourist time.
And there we enter a huge collapsed cave, stalactites hanging from the lip of the ceiling. Small stone huts shaped like hives nestle in the bottom of the cave. It’s a small town right out of the Bronze Age, and we walk slowly in awed silence.
It’s difficult to peg the Nuraghic culture without falling into broad generalizations simply because they were around for such a long time. It is thought they begin somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 to 10,000 B.C. and went through many metamorphoses and conquests before being nearly wiped out by the Romans. To call them hunter/gatherers is correct to a certain extent, but they also grew crops. Wandering through Tiscali I am reminded of what I read about them on a Website. I am also reminded of Camp 4.
The Nuraghic culture is not classic but “impulsive,” avoiding the perfection and the finished, favoring the lack of harmony and equilibrium, the rough improvisation. The villages have no peculiar planning elements. They’re a sort of blocks irregularly spread, underling a temporary community, not really felt but accepted only for need not for a common interest. This sort of ‘building insularity’ is the result of a strong individualist philosophy of the Nuraghic families and clans.
And so, no doubt, a kinship forms as we walk amongst the ruins. And no doubt they climbed (they had to get here) this beautiful limestone, felt the bite of this moon rock on their hands. We leave the village, walking down the trail wrapped in our own thoughts of a civilization that is lost to time but fully centered in this space. We feel as though we have thread on our own precious and infinitely finite time on this fine planet. The fact that we are mere flecks of highly disposable carbon in time and space offers little comfort. It brings forth a biological urge in me. All told it fills me with a mixture of perpetuation and survival. Or put more aptly, a boneheaded boner. I am passing soon from this life and I must mate with my wife. Pull her into the bush under a 300-year-old oak, and mount her with wild Nuraghic abandon.
But Alas! She wants, nay, needs to climb. We head down valley then up to the Sùrtana and do a host of climbs before darkness falls. Must say, even with one arm, it’s nearly as good as sex.
Our flight isn’t until four p.m. and on the way to the airport we stop off at a crag near the town of Siniscola. We climb a few mad hours, a constant, irritating eye on the time. It would be easy to miss the flight, to fall into abandonment of whatever you thought was your previous life. It would be that easy to simply just stay until the money ran out. Caroline fires off an onsight of a climb not found in the guidebook, an overhanging arête that meets an exposed and run-out roof. I couldn’t be prouder of the missus, though I pass on following the route in favor of healing my gimpy shoulder.
We reach the airport, repack and are soon lining up to go through the dreaded airport security. Dreaded because last time, Hitler’s Italian girlfriend forced me to throw away our rope in the trash when we tried to pass through the first time in Sardegna. It was a prized rope, one that Doug Robinson, famed father of clean climbing, had given us as a wedding present. Beside that, we’d grown attached to it in more ways than one.
I don’t know why she thought it would be a flight hazard. I certainly hadn’t entertained thoughts of tying up all the passengers and crew so we could commandeer the jet and fly it into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But for some reason, and against the more kindly wishes of her security cohorts, she thought it best to hassle us. Thankfully, my mulish wife refused to give up the rope and prevailed upon an Easy Jet employee to check the rope just as the plane was supposed to kick back onto the tarmac. It was close and I dutifully wrote the airline encouraging a raise for the woman who went out of her way.
Second round: Because our bags weighed too much with all the trad gear we’d brought, we were forced to put it in our carry-on. Walking up to the security detail we met eyes with Hitler’s girlfriend and immediately knew we were in trouble. She took out the cams, the biners, anything to do with climbing and told us to check it. “Can’t take this danger,” she said. Then preceded to tell me I couldn’t take my computer for which all my Sard notes were on. Caroline went back and checked another bag, lost some money, and then had to go through the whole rigmarole again with gloves and bomb-squad immediacy. Once again, her cohorts were laughing at her paranoid thoroughness. Somehow she forgot about the computer that I had re-stowed while her back was turned.
Which is all to say, don’t bring anything that even remotely resembles climbing gear into your carry on luggage. As a cautionary tale, you will be made to feel like you are nothing short of a terrorist. I suspect that this woman (who has a severe bob haircut and lousy makeup) has suffered some great injustice. Perhaps, like Hitler, she didn’t get into art school. Perhaps her only son died a horrible death while attempting to rock climb. Perhaps she is simply the embodiment of pure evil. But know this: she is the only Sard we met who doesn’t deserve the beauty of her country. May she rot in Dante’s Inferno.
Ranting aside, we made the flight and rode to Berlin with many of the same snooty Germans (see Part III) we had seen overwhelming the crags of Cala Gonone. We lifted off the ground with leaden hearts, watching the Sardegna coast give way to the windswept sea. We vowed to be back at some point in our lives, vowed we would never forget the place, the Pietra di Luna, or the friends we’d met. And we knew these things to be true.
(If anyone would like more information on Sardegna, where to climb, where to stay, how to get there, etc…. please do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to help.)