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The Epic Of Epics—The Topo Has Two Pages? You Forgot The Headlamp?

The author was just 16 and a rookie climber when he was invited by a climbing legend to partner with him for a big north-face ascent in the Dolomites. "I'm the luckiest boy in the world," thought the author. He'd soon regret those words.

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Armand drew the short straw. The first 10-pitch block up the dihedral that comprises the start of the 6,000-foot north face route on Monte Pelmo was his. The wall—the first Grade VI in the Dolomites of the Italian Alps, the cradle of Europe’s big-wall free climbing—was established over two days in 1924 by the German Felix Simon and Roland Rossi of Austria. Fredi, the senior in our group, would deal with the final, vertical 2,000-foot buttress, while I, only 16, would lead the eight or so easy traversing pitches on discontinuous ledges, a task that my two partners thought was more than enough.

The Simon-Rossi ascends the dark north wall of the King of Dolomites, as Pelmo is known by locals in Forno di Zoldo, and is considered—together with the Solleder on the neighboring Civetta northwest face—a free-climbing milestone and a must-do Dolomitic route. Black streaks ribbon down the sheer face that rises from jumbled scree and gray snow slopes. The shadow of the face makes short days in the Cadore valley below it. Despite the route’s historical value and its relatively low difficulty of 5.11b, it is climbed no more than once or twice a season. Our team was an unlikely one composed of Armand Ballart, lean as rawhide and the most accomplished and best all-terrain climber in the Barcelona area, Fredi Parera, stocky and strong as vinegar, aged 35, five years Armand’s senior and an expert rock climber and alpinist, and myself. We were there to bag the first Spanish ascent.

I first met Armand in May of 1985. For two years I had been trying with my buddy Lluís to establish new routes up the small limestone outcrops close to home with no success at all. Everything we knew about rock climbing we got from a how-to book that somehow ended up on the shelves of the public library of Tivissa, our small hometown in Spain’s Tarragona Province. We trusted the book, but in no way trusted ourselves, and anytime we managed to get 10 feet above the ground our legs started shaking in big style. Lluís’s father, tired of our ridiculous exploits, asked for help from a friend who knew Armand, Barcelona’s renowned climber, and we were introduced to him. Lluis and I wouldn’t have been more shocked if we had been introduced to the soccer great, Diego Armando Maradona instead.

By luck, Armand was short of partners. Lluís moved to France that same year, and I was ready to take the job. I progressed quickly under Armand’s instruction. In the glorious June of 1987 he declared my learning process complete and, as a reward, announced that I was joining his little Dolomites expedition planned for the end of that summer.

“You cannot say no to such an opportunity: A climbing trip to the Dolomites is a goal for any serious rock climber,” he said.

“Josep,” I said to myself. “You are the luckiest boy on Earth!”

Blind of an eye and with a lame leg as a result of that accident with the crevasse, Fredi said that he “would not miss daylight much.”

For budget purposes, we illegally camped between two boulders hidden deep in a black pine forest at the base of the Pelmo wall. We would use the North Face drainage as the natural access. Pine scent and bird song filled the air. Tucked as we were nearly inside the Earth, we were confident the carabinieri would never find us.

We started no earlier than 9:00 a.m. because Armand, the expedition chief, had read in the guidebook that the whole business of climbing 38 pitches, descending 1,000 feet of the regular route into the valley opposite, then hiking around the formation back “home” would take about 12 hours. Besides, the route was partially fixed and only one set of wired nuts would be needed to “back-up fixed pins and stuff,” consisting of typical fossilized wood blocks and slung chockstones.

At 10:00 a.m., after an hour of strenuous approach, we leapt over the crevasse from the dirt-covered snowfield to the Pelmo’s cold rock face.

Armand was an excellent climber, and a really fast one. He raced up the easy starting pitches, jumping like a mountain goat, placing no protection other than a couple of directionals to keep the rope off loose rock.” He couldn’t wait to get to the dihedral above, which was, according to him, as big as Montserrat’s biggest wall.

Flowing up the corner with the ease of a fish swimming up a creek, he found the first five pitches easy to protect, on solid and reliable rock, and he dealt with them in less than two hours, but the remaining ones took their toll on him. The climbing was much more difficult, hard to protect and ledge-less. By mid afternoon Armand had finished the dihedral and it was my turn to lead.

Finally my hour had arrived! Armand and Fredi tied me fast to the rope’s end, and proclaimed that I was ready.

Strangely, the easy pitches that I was to lead grew steeper, the ledges narrower, and the short distance I was to climb took on a galactic size that I had not been aware of only three seconds earlier. Detecting my doubts, my two partners gently pushed me off the belay stance and onto this brave new world. Before I could swallow even once I was on my own, leading on a world-class route. Late in that afternoon I finished my easy turn that was mostly linking the ledges and terraces, and belayed on a ledge sheltered by a roof and a man-made rock wall. An obvious bivouac for teams not fortunate enough to have Fredi in the lead!

I was about to tell myself I did a good job when Fredi arrived and pulled the guidebook from his rucksack.

It says the climbing should take 12 hours to this bivouac,” he announced.

Since we had already climbed the better part of the day on a route that was supposed to take 12 hours total, including the descent, this bit of information didn’t make sense.

Fredi just climbed over the obstacles, using the permanently flexed middle finger of his left hand as a grappling hook, another souvenir from his incarceration within the Mer de Glace.

Apparently, Armand had neglected to turn the guidebook page when he was planning our ascent.

“Fifteen more hours to go,” read Fredi. “A hammer and pitons necessary.”

Dressed in shorts and t-shirts we were going to be benighted on a big north face above 10,000 feet. Besides that, I had an additional nightmare: I had told my parents nothing of the climb. For all they knew, I was on some shady little crag in Montserrat. Once they learned the hard way what I had really been up to, my climbing days would be over for a long while.

This is too bad to be true, I thought. How can the great Armand Ballart blunder like this, up here? But then I realized that I was with two of the best climbers in all of Spain. At any moment one of them would pull a trick out of his ragged white cap.

Damn! exclaimed Fredi, as he leaned out to get a clearer view of the upper wall.

He closed the guidebook as carefully as a family Bible, and slipped it inside his 15-liter backpack, between a one-half liter water bottle, one cotton sweater, and one last-generation mini headlamp—our only possessions.

Everybody knew Fredi. He’d claimed the first Spanish ascent of many big classics across Europe, and in the Alps especially. He could climb anything from steep ice to hard free rock to high-tech aid, and his strong fingers—able to do one-arm pull-ups pinching a 2-inch thick beam—were legendary. He was also famous for ending up at the bottom of a crevasse on Chamonix’s Mer de Glace glacier while descending from a solo of the Jorasses’s Walker Spur. Fredi spent nearly a week in the crevasse before emerging blind in one eye and with a lame leg for life. Fredi had been Armand’s longest-lasting partner until one day he vowed never again to climb with Armand, claiming “safety reasons. Indeed, while Armand thought Fredi was too careless, Fredi believed Armand was too careful. They had been on non-talking terms for several years but decided to team up again for this one occasion, giving me a chance to meet another climbing legend.

With no time to lose they decided to run for the summit. I agreed completely.

Fredi, watch your steps, but hurry up, man!” was Armand’s command.

Oh, Mr. Armand is such in a hurry that he didn’t have a minute for the guidebook,” Fredi said. “First, this is all your fault, Armand, and, second, I do not like to hurry up!” He then turned to me, keeping an eye—the bad one—on Armand. Don’t worry, we’ll get through it.”

Blind of an eye and with a lame leg as a result of that accident with the crevasse, Fredi said that he “would not miss daylight much.”

He climbed as a devil, placing no gear and body-belaying on ledges. Usually, Armand would criticize Fredi for getting off route, but that day he did not and instead of losing time going around blank rock and impossible ceilings, Fredi just climbed over the obstacles, using the permanently flexed middle finger of his left hand as a grappling hook, another souvenir from his incarceration within the Mer de Glace.

The sun set, taking its heat with it. I looked to the road nearly 7,000 feet below and watched the trucks from a nearby coal mine come and go. To help comfort myself, I clicked on the headlamp only to have it flicker and die. I sent that mini piece of shit flying down into the dark abyss.

I fell twice trying to follow Fredi’s lead up 70 feet of blank face with water running down it and no protection at all. It was then that I would have exchanged all my belongings to be sitting beside one of the truck drivers in any of those trucks—with the heat on.

In the moonless night we got lost 1,000 feet below the summit, physically annihilated and psychologically broken. Climbing as we were, the rope clipped to nothing, it would have been a complete disaster had any one of us fallen. To prevent such an outcome, we unroped and followed one-eyed Fredi, who claimed that he could see as well during the night as during the day.

Cold and soaked from the ice water that ran down our arms and into our shirts, we stepped onto the summit at 2:30 a.m.

The first Spanish ascent of Monte Pelmo was history.

We did not celebrate. We were simply relieved, at least until we were unable to find the rappel anchors. Armand began downclimbing the Regular Route, and with the ropes still coiled, we followed him, slipping down 5.7 chimneys to a catwalk ledge and the end of the difficulties.

We took a five-minute break and pulled off our climbing shoes—we had left our approach shoes behind in order to travel lighter.

I will never talk about this back at home. I will take good care in not going into anything like that ever again. These were the thoughts that echoed in my head hours later when we met four happy climbers low on Monte Pelmo’s Regular Route. They were fully geared up with backpacks overflowing with whatever they might need.

The four-hour hike back to the tent went quite smoothly compared to the ascent and descent, and we had hidden our camp so well that even we could not find it. Crazy with thirst—we’d had only the half liter to drink between all of us—we at last stumbled upon the tent. It was then that I realized that if something had gone wrong for any reason, nobody would have ever known what became of us.

I was more than tired but could not sleep, so walked to fetch water from the artesian fountain by the road. Filling up my bottle, I turned around and looked for a final time at Pelmo’s North Face. Although it was 11 a.m. and the valley was bathed in sun, the wall we just climbed was sleeping in everlasting shade. It looked enormous, 10 times bigger than when we squeezed like poachers into our secret forest patch less than two days before. Did we really get up that thing? It seemed incredible that so much could have happened to us in so little time. I considered giving up the sport, then decided that I was just too young to start swearing off things.

Two days later we went on to bag the first Spanish ascent of the Civetta’s North Wall by the Polish Route, a massive rock known by locals in Forno di Zoldo as the Queen of Dolomites. That time, I was in charge of the guidebook.

Final Note

On August 31st, 2011, Aldo Giustina and Alberto Bonafede, members of the San Vito di Cadore Search and Rescue Team, jumped off a helicopter and onto the top of Monte Pelmo to rescue the Germans Robert Wollmann and Franz Setald Forster, who were stranded three pitches short of the summit. While they rappelled to assist the Germans, shortly past 5:00 p.m., their ropes were severed by a massive rockfall and both rescuers fell to their deaths. The two Germans were rescued later, slightly injured.

The rockfall erased the entire Simon-Rossi forever.

Josep Castellnou of Tivissa, Catalonia, began climbing at 12. Thirty years later he has established more than 500 climbs and published guidebooks on local areas.