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.


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.

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 ;-)


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.


Sass Pordoi (2952m) via Gross Führe (UIAA V-, 360m)

For our first "proper" climb in the Dolomites Luigi suggested Sass Pordoi. It features an extremely short approach via cable car and the climb ends right at the gondola, so the descent is equally comfortable. The route we originally had in mind was in the shade and a biting North wind made it bitterly cold. It also looked slightly intimidating and we preferred an easy route to get acquainted with the local rock and trad climbing. Routes in the dolomites are not bolted but feature only a few rusty old pitons so that it's your responsibility to secure large parts of the route. A fun challenge, but it does require some mental and technical training.

Comfortable approach. We'll climb the corner on the left just right of the pillar.
Marmolada in the distance.

Long story short, we changed plans and went 50 meters around the corner to climb an easier route in the sun. Our first choice, Maria, already had a party of five queuing for it. We watched them for a while and they seemed exceedingly clumsy and incompetent. The leader took not one, but two, falls to the ground right from the start. Luckily he didn't hurt himself, but we figured it would be better for us not to get stuck behind that party. This turned out to be a wise call as only on pitch two they dropped a rock on one of their own and the entire group aborted the climb. The rock smashed into the thigh of a woman in their group and she could hardly walk afterwards.

Hiking in. We were following a trail of blood stains to the base of the wall.
Luigi on the beautifully structured rock.

Instead, we started up on the Gross Führe behind an Italian party of two. After a few pitches they lost their way and deviated off route. We climbed back and forth a bit and regained the proper route. Lesson learned: if you only get a single bolt as a hint on a 40 meter pitch route finding becomes an issue. Especially if the terrain is easy enough that there's no single one obvious line but multiple possible approaches. Careful study of the topo is required.

A typical anchor: hour-glass, old sling and pitons.

We made fast progress and quickly become used to the splintering yet surprisingly solid limestone rock and placing our own gear for protection. Fun! The last few pitches were easy enough to simul-climb them and sprint up to the cable car. We were well advised to do so as thunder rumbled in the distance and the first few snowflakes were swirling around our heads. The final belay is literally the fence of the cable car station which leads to surprised stares of tourists in flip flops ;-) After a quick ride down we met with the wives and kids who were waiting in the cafe at the base. A great start!

The Italian party off route. They were super friendly and super chatty. Their leader was constantly talking to himself, the wall and us. He was commenting his own very move, seemingly to calm his nerves.
Easy but brittle scrambling terrain up to the cable car.
Experts call this bomber gear ;-)
Luigi coiling rope at the final belay stance.
Time to leave! Menacing clouds over the Sassolungo.