2017-08-01

Vajolet Towers (2813m) via Piaz ridge (UIAA IV+) and South face variant (UIAA V)

Picture perfect blue skies and an absolutely stable outlook for the entire day. Also our last opportunity to go climbing before having to head back home. I fall in love with the Comici route on the Langkofel North face, also known as the Salami tower. It is featured on the cover of the local guide book and is one of the great classics in the area. Luigi has different ideas however and an argument I cannot refuse.

The beautiful Rosengarten valley. Great rock everywhere you look.
Approach to the hut.

He has the Vajolet Towers tattooed to his back and has not climbed them yet. Can't argue with a tattoo, so we head for the Rosengarten group. A spectacularly beautiful high valley right behind Luigi's vacation home. The winding mountain road that leads up to it is not accessible to the public so we queue with a bunch of other climbers for the first mini bus at 7 in the morning. We dispatch the 2 hour approach in less than 1.5 hours and stop at the Gartlhut at 2620m right at the base of the towers to take pictures of the guide book and get some last information about the routes. Well prepared as we are, we had arrived with just a bunch of low resolution images downloaded to our phones and no clear idea of the route.

Vajolet Towers. We climbed the two on the left.
Luigi's first lead on the West ridge.

We climb the first tower via the Piaz ridge. The first pitch is trivially easy and would be doable even unroped. But then you traverse out from the anchor onto the West ridge and enter an entirely different world. You step out into huge exposure over a ~300 meter tall overhanging face. It's suddenly icy cold because you are in the shade and a biting wind. Sweeping vistas over the much more modest mountains around Bolzano make you dizzy. It is absolutely beautiful. It is also slightly intimidating. Even Luigi starts chanting a little song of encouragement to himself while leading his pitch: "Don't look down, don't look down, don't look down".

Very exposed.
Very very exposed.

The rock is super nice. Solid and white almost like marble. Climbing it is sheer joy. The route is over far too soon and we find ourselves on the summit of the first tower. We rappel into the canyon separating it from the second tower and scramble around easy terrain to find the start of our next route.

Summit! Bolzano in the distance.
Summit! Second tower behind him.

I eyeball the rock and head straight up. I find the occasional piton, reassuring me that I am still on "a" route. However, it feels way harder than it should according to the topo. I struggle through a pumpy overhanging sequence. When Luigi joins me at the anchor he commends me "Great lead, not sure if I'd want to do that!". Turns out we climbed a direct variant of the intended route.

The rappel route onto a giant boulder jammed between the two towers.
My direct variant pitch up the second tower. First half: trivial. Second half: WTF? This is not class IV terrain anymore.

We are back on the original line and arrive at an anchor in a cave. The topo describes a traverse out of the cave only to circle back on top of it. An inelegant detour. Luigi instead tries the direct variant straight up and out through the roof of the cave. It is eminently climbable but also very hard to protect. A crack takes gear well but is moist and a fall would still end on the bottom of the cave with a sprained ankle or worse. Luigi gives it three attempts, his body dangling almost horizontally from the crack, backpack pulling him down. In the end we decide to play it safe and go with the line the topo suggests.

Super enjoyable corner.

On top of the cave we catch up with another party. They've built a mess of an anchor and generally seem to be in a bit over their head. Their leader is already out of sight while his two followers are waiting with us. They use cell phones as walky talkies to communicate. Cell phone lodged to the rock in front of him, speakers turned to maximum volume, they are essentially keeping up a non-stop conversation. Once they get ready to follow he shouts up "Tiramisu!". This makes me chuckle and I shout after him "Spaghetti!". Turns out Tiramisu means pull me up in Italian. Who knew? ;-)

What counts as an anchor in these parts. Decades old rusty pitons.

We chill out on top of the second tower, waiting for the others to get a move on with their rappels. They fumble badly and set up a long traverse which overwhelms the less experienced in their group. So Luigi volunteers to manage their ropes for them and they rappel the final sixty meters on our ropes instead. Once we finally regroup at the base of the tower we've lost a lot of time, so we decide to call it a day and forgo the third tower.

Summit II!
The tattoo that won the discussion of where to go.

We use the extra energy to run down the trail back to the valley where our wives are waiting with the babies and a picnic in the shade. The run makes us feel young and strong again - the approach to the hut is almost a via ferrata, secured with steel cables. People are clumsily struggling on it with both hands on the wire while we jump past them at full stride. Same for the gravel road further down - running past people who shuffle down sideways step by step. Fun!

The rappel route down the second tower. You can see Luigi helping the noobs.
After running down the mountain and joining the picnic with the women. Satisfying exhaustion.

Now Luigi needs to get an "achievement unlocked" tattoo on top of the existing one ;-) Thank you so much for being the perfect climbing partners, travel companions and guides during our time in the Dolomites Luigi and Silvia! This was a very worthy finale of a fantastic vacation!

2017-07-30

Climbing Sella Towers (2696m) via Spigolo Steger (UIAA IV) and Diedro Kostner (UIAA IV-)

The forecast predicted thunderstorms in the afternoon so we couldn't go for too committing a mission. We still wanted to climb a multi pitch. Our choice fell to the Sella towers which would give us the option of bailing after each one should the weather turn on us. Almost a week into our vacation the familiar drive up the Sella pass started to feel like the daily commute to work. Exhausting manual labor, occasionally dangerous and no pay whatsoever. Why do we climb again? ;-)

Clouds around the Sassolungo. We've climbed the needle in the middle a few days ago.
So much rock! You can see the grassy band and trail that served as our way down from the Spigolo Abram behind me.
Looking back to the top of the first tower.

The approach is just 20 minutes and Luigi had already climbed the first tower a few years ago. We still managed to miss the proper start of the route and climbed an extra 50 meter pitch to get to the first anchor which we could have reached by just staying on the ridge. The reason nobody climbs our variation is quite obvious - it's a shooting gallery of loose rock. Luigi led the pitch and a rock dislodged by our ropes hit me right on the back of the helmet. I chose a smarter belay position after that wakeup call, somewhat to the side of the gully he was climbing.

Luigi scrambling up to the second tower.
The dihedral of the Kostner route up the second tower.

We bumped into a couple from Scotland on the second pitch of the route proper. It was their first day of climbing in the Dolomites and they were agonizingly slow. He was leading all the pitches and she got stuck in a chimney, trying for minutes to wiggle her way out and up. I took the first opportunity to race past them and link two pitches to the summit.

Our way down.

We topped out with no thunderstorm in sight, so we rappelled down and scrambled over to the second tower. An easy but fun dihedral got us to the top of that. The descent is an unprotected scramble back to the same trail we've used to get off the Spigolo Abram. Bad weather finally caught up with us safe and sound in our hotel room. Booming thunder was enough to shake our windows. But we had enjoyed another great day out ;-)

"Walking" terrain.
Hiking back to the pass to meet up with our wives and kids who were enjoying the sun with a good apple Strudel.

2017-07-28

Piz Ciavazes (2828m) via Spigolo Abram (UIAA VII, 370m)

For our third multi-pitch route in the Dolomites we chose the Spigolo Abram up Piz Ciavazes. It is a much harder, more sustained and longer route than the ones we did before. We hiked to the base of the climb with one party two pitches ahead of us and another on the approach just a few steps behind us. A very popular route. The two guys behind us turned out to be from Slovenia and let us go first.

Luigi leading the first pitch with the roofs of the route looming menacingly above us.
Me happy to have made it through a difficult pitch off a less than trustworthy anchor.
The views are getting better!

We quickly dispatched the first few easy pitches and arrived at a less than ideal anchor: a hanging belay from some ancient wobbly pitons. Luigi put in some nuts to back it up, but I would not have liked to fall on it. It was my lead off that anchor into the first hard pitch of the route. The first few moves were slightly overhanging with no idea where the next piton or good gear placement would be. I have to say I was very happy once I finally had some gear in.

Luigi in an easy pitch where I missed the anchor (if you squint you can actually see a piton in the lower section).
A UIAA IV pitch that features vertical and slightly overhanging (!) terrain.
Another IV pitch up a super exposed and beautifully structured pillar.

Luigi's lead on the next pitch was the crux of the route. If you free climb it cleanly it is graded as UIAA VII. However, it is obvious that almost nobody does. There are pitons every few meters with slings hanging off them to facilitate dangling from one to the next. There are even some ancient wooden blocks jammed into the cracks as nuts. Luigi put in a valiant effort and made it cleanly through what we thought was the hardest sequence: a series of moves on underclings where you pull hard to keep pressure on tiny foot placements. It was the steep traverse that followed this that finally shut him down and required a single grab for a sling. Even as a follower I failed on the exact same move. It's one thing to puzzle out something like this on a single pitch crag - an entirely different matter to do it as part of a 370 meter climb with a backpack on your back...

Nearly there now.
Summit!

The pitch that followed was a slab with luxuriously many giant jugs. I cruised up until I felt like I should be at the anchor. The topo indicated it should be right there. I climbed back and forth a bit and retreated a few meters before improvising my own anchor. Luigi came up and finally spotted the anchor not three meters from where I made camp. I had climbed past it a few times. Ah well. The party that used to be ahead of us was now at the same height, but completely off route. They were out of sight around a corner and were struggling to find their way. Compared to them I think I did rather well with overlooking just a few pitons but otherwise staying on track ;-)

The band is our hiking trail back down. You do not want to slip on this one!
A short crawl section on the trail.

The final 8 or so pitches proved no significant challenges but sustained difficulties and steep climbing with fantastic exposure on great quality rock. We topped out happy but tired with a long hiking descent still ahead of us. We worried a bit about the Slovenians behind us because we hadn't heard or seen them in hours and it was getting late on a route that doesn't really allow for bailing. We saw them again much later, so they turned out to be OK, only much slower than us.

Luigi pointing at the crux roof of the route.
This is where the ladies were waiting for us - with nice views of the entire route.

The hiking trail requires two rappels to get back down to street level. On the second one we met two Russians who graciously let us use their rope for a faster process. When Luigi was about to go first without using a prusik as a backup one of the Russians pointed out with a thick accent: "Big risk!". He was right of course and Luigi obliged. The expression "Big risk!" stuck with us for the rest of our vacation and we intoned it many times in climbs to come.

Another fantastic day out. I think at this point we've graduated the Dolomites intermediate climbing class ;-)

2017-07-27

Cinque Dita (2996m) via Spigolo del Pollice (UIAA IV, 250m)

For our second multi pitch in the Dolomites we chose another easy route up a signature mountain: the Spigolo del Sassolungo graded at UIAA IV. Again a super comfortable approach using a cable car. This time a funky one though - super old mini gondolas that only fit two adults standing up. Basically tiny phone booths hanging of a wire. Where a normal chair lift or gondola will be unclipped from the main line and slow down for entering/exiting, this one would just continue at full speed. This requires a carefully timed running entry. Funky.

Floating phone booths.
Me following the first pitch.

When we arrive at the base of our climb there's already a party preparing for it. Thus we spent a few minutes in the nearby hut to have a breakfast consisting of hot chocolate and apple strudel. We also took the opportunity to take some pictures of the guide book available at the hut because as properly prepared mountaineers we of course didn't bring a topo.

Luigi proud of his improvised anchor.
Weeee! This is fun.

The first pitch is easy and quickly dispatched. It is followed by an annoying walking traverse on loose scree. Then we finally reach the meat of the climb, the beautiful and exposed ridge. The rock is luxuriously juggy and a joy to cruise up. A cold North wind is tugging at us and belays in the shade are miserably cold. There's still a lot of ice in the gulleys below us. This wouldn't be a problem if we could just keep climbing to stay warm, but unfortunately for us the party ahead of us is really slow and makes us wait at every single belay. In the end it'll take us about twice as long as if we had had the route to ourselves.

German military topping out on the neighboring tower. A significantly harder route. You can also see the normal route up the Langkofel - the faintly visible diagonal trail from the bottom middle up and to the left. Crazy!
Luigi following on the ridge.
Holy halo.

Slow as they are, the other party is very friendly and we have nice conversations at the belays. And to be fair to them, they in turn had to wait for the party ahead of them. The four of us shake hands on the summit and decide to rappel together in order to speed things up. After the first rappel the descent route merges with the descent for several other routes and there's a proper traffic jam at the anchors. To make up for the time lost Luigi and I run down the trail below the cable car. A lot of fun speeding past all the regular hikers who dryly comment that there must be free beer at the base. Almost - our wives and kids are waiting ;-)

Cool exposure on the summit ridge.
Luigi playing marionette on the summit.
Sharing a rappel with the other party.
Overhanging rappel route.
A scrambling traverse before rappelling again.