Babsi Zangerl: Summertime Sends in the AlpsMonday, January 16, 2017
Why do I always like to stay in the Alps during summer? Because there is so much to climb! The Dolomites are special because of the long climbing history. For more than 115 years people have been climbing on these imposing rock formations and there are tons of classic old-school routes. In 1901 the first climber—remarkably a woman named Beatrice Tommason—made the first ascent of the Via Classica, the first route on the south face of the Marmolada. Many years later, Reinhold Messner made the first free-solo ascent with the route Vinazzer-Messner over two days in 1969. In the eighties Heinz Mariacher and Luisa Lovane brought the style of hard sport climbing to this wall with Tempi Moderni, which is still one of the most famous routes on Marmolada. Only the line of the young and wild Igor Koller, who is well known for his demanding routes, got more attention and fame. He established the “ultra-classic” on this face, The Fish, probably the most famous route in the whole Dolomites range.
For me personally, the wildest thing I could imagine was the free-solo ascent of The Fish by a good friend of mine, Hansjörg Auer, in 2007. This was so inspiring and unbelievable for me that it fixed the thought in my mind to climb The Fish at least once in my life—of course with ropes. But back in 2007 I was far away from climbing a route like that. Not because of the difficulty of the route, which is in the range of an uncompromising 7b+ (5.12c) and feels more like 7c+ (5.13a), it is more because it is a real alpine experience and all that comes with it—bad protection, falls that will likely end up with an injury and hard route-finding on the upper part of the wall. And last but not least, you have to be fast to climb 32 pitches in one day at about 3,300-meters’ altitude. That really makes this route an adventure. And I didn’t feel prepared to climb it in 2007 when I spent most of my time bouldering.
Later came my experience with Hansjörg in 2010 on the north face of the Western Cime when I belayed him on the first repeat of Panaroma (5.14b). At the time that was the hardest route in the Dolomites. I got my first introduction on using jumars and I climbed on loose rock for the first time. I was scared shitless just by climbing on toprope in this exposed roof—the biggest in the Alps. Experiences like that told me that The Fish had to wait until I had climbed at least a few easier Dolomite routes.
So the first experience I had on the Marmolada’s south face was back in 2014 when I climbed Tempi Moderni (5.11d) together with Jacopo. It was our first real alpine undertaking together as a couple. We started at 3 a.m. After a two and a half hour approach we reached the base of the wall. The goal—and we were totally sure we could make it—was to get to the top of the wall that day and to catch the last cable car at 4 p.m. to get down.
Later, on pitch 26, we lost our way. It was getting dark, and we had to abseil down the whole night on really bad gear—26 pitches. It felt too cold to sleep on the wall. The scariest moments were rappelling down on the shaky, rusty pitons. After 25 hours on the wall, we were able to sleep while standing on the belays. And Jacopo (Italian, but speaks perfect German) was so tired that he couldn’t speak German anymore. That was a real test of our partnership, but it worked out well—we didn’t have time to fight and it brought us even closer together.
After that I really got stoked for this style of climbing. Some years of collecting experiences on big walls made us feel ready to push our limits. Finally, after doing Bellavista (5.14a) on the Tre Cime, I was in need of something different/new without projecting for so many days, and I wanted to go for some “always wanted to climb” lines.
The goal for this summer was to climb routes like The Fish, Steps Across the Border (5.13b), AlexAnna (5.13c) and Cattedrale.
At the beginning of the summer the weather wasn’t stable enough to climb on the Marmolada, so we spent a few days sport climbing in this region. We didn’t want to leave empty handed without trying something longer, so we went for a route nearby just on the way back home—non ci resta che Piangere (11 pitches up to 5.13b/c), which was a cool line on the “Piz Ciavazes” and a good preparation for the Marmolada. (It was probably the first repeat after the Riegler brothers did the first free ascent 2012).
Finally it was time for the Marmolada … we thought!
AlexAnna is a route established by Rolando Larcher, which has about 17 pitches/700 meters and difficulties up to 8a+ (5.13c). For our first attempt we carried up all the gear to the bivi. We got really tired from carrying heavy backpacks, reaching the bivi in the middle of the night with strong winds and the day after we realized that it was way too cold to climb in the shade after it had been snowing just days before. We were too optimistic to start on the first good day in the beginning of July. Our day ended lying in the sun, eating all the food we had packed for two days on the wall and going back to the car in the early evening without any climbing.
Our second try was much better ... and we also had a better strategy—to take less food. We started climbing in the sun around midday. After a nice bivi in the middle of the wall we reached the hardest pitches and both of us redpointed every pitch including the 8a+ (5.13c). But it was late (3 p.m.), I was really tired and we still had 6 pitches to go. We were slow on the easier pitches before, which were quite spicy to protect because of bad rock quality. And the problem was I had to be back home for work the next day. (I couldn’t allow myself to be late again, I had done it once already after Bellavista.) Overall, I’m not really excited about this route and even more so because we didn’t make it to the top. We expected the usual Marmolada “bomber” rock and it wasn’t. The line itself is for sure a really cool and logical one, but the climb was not really our favorite. Anyway, we wanted to go back to finish that one, but for now we had other plans.
After a short break, climbing another route on my all-time ticklist was on and we headed to the Rätikon to try an old Beat Kammerlander testpiece called New Age, with 4 pitches up to 8a+ (5.13c). I teamed up with Eric Massih, a good friend from Sweden, to have a great and lucky day redpointing that one.
A few weeks later, after some small jobs at home it was time to go back to the Marmolada with Jacopo. We had two weeks time and two routes on our minds. Now we had a stable weather forecast and we played with the idea to try to onsight The Fish.
After a night in the “Falier Hut,” we started around 4 p.m. We were quickly impressed by the first pitches of The Fish. The rock is so amazing, just like an ocean of quality gray limestone with incredible features on it. There was not even one pitch that wasn’t fantastic. The closer we got to the “Fish bivi” (after the first third of the wall) the more serious the climbing became. I got nervous for the first time when I started to climb the first 7b (5.12b) pitch as I only saw a broken tri-cam sling hanging out of a pocket. And the runout in the middle of the pitch seemed to be stressfully long. When I started climbing I wasn’t relaxed at all and I got to the crux a bit shaky. I wasn’t sure how to link those moves. But anyhow, it turned out to be OK and wasn’t as scary as I thought. Jacopo lead the next hard pitch without any problem and I followed. We thought that we had done the two hardest pitches of the route. But as it turned out, the 7a+ (5.12a) directly after the two crux pitches was the real crux of the route. I climbed up and down, rested on good jugs and tried again and again to find a solution for this crazy slab where you have no footholds and barely any holds to hold on to. There are a few options where you can traverse to the left to get to the good final crack, but to find the right way took me approximately one hour. Yes, it was still onsight, but it was so close to failure at this point. And Jacopo had a similar impression about it. We were always thinking about Hansjörg’s solo ascent ... (I still can’t believe how someone could climb something so technical and balancy, where you really have to stand on friction with nothing in your hands—without a rope).
We still had a long way to go, but the hard part was done and we could enjoy the rest of this great route to the fullest. After a “hard” night in one sleeping bag together without any pad, we were totally exhausted … and happy to rest for two days before we started for another day/night trip on that wall.
In 1983, Graziano Maffei, Mariano Frizzera and Paolo Leoni climbed the Cattedrale. Cattedrale runs up to a pointy pillar, which is called “Canna d’organo” on the Marmolada’s south face. You climb 21 long pitches to the top of this pillar. Most warmly recommended by Pietro Dal Pra who first free climbed the route in 2004—Jacopo started with a good friend Ben to have a first look on that line.
That was a few weeks before. Jacopo had told me how cool it is and I was super excited to climb on another classic route two days after The Fish.
Our battle plan was to sleep at the base of the wall and start early in the morning. Weather conditions seemed to be perfect and we had a good fast run up the first pitches. Jacopo gave me the beta—he already knew every single pitch—which was a plus to our speed.
When we reached the crux pitch, in the middle of the 700-meter wall, I was sure it would be a big challenge. Compared to all the pitches before, this one was untypically steep for the Marmolada. We were hanging on the belay below a yellow roof. I went first to check out this pitch, spent some time figuring out the single sequences in the roof before Jacopo cruised through it.
There were quite a few pitons to protect this pitch but most of them looked rusty and old and the climbing itself was insecure and powerful.
After Jacopo’s redpoint of this pitch the weather started to get bad, and in a short time the sky was covered with dark clouds. While I was fighting through the last crux I felt the first rain drops on my skin. As soon as I reached the next belay it was raining.
Our optimism was blown away and we were thinking the happy-game was over at this point. But neither Jacopo nor I really wanted to rappel down. Jacopo had also been unlucky twice before and didn’t want to turn around another time. So we waited for some time at this little corner. And luck was with us. The sky cleared up after an hour and we surprisingly could keep climbing.
Around 9 p.m. we reached the last big ledge before the route runs into a constantly narrowing pillar. There we spent a good night, each in our own sleeping bag under the star-bright sky. The next day we stood on the tiny point at the very top and ended our season in the Dolomites with this great experience. It was the middle of September and the season for the Marmolada was coming to an end. To experience so many great routes with a lot of bivi action—it couldn’t have been a better summer for us.