Hexenstein South Ridge (IV+)
Dan and I had been hoping to hook up for a rock climbing trip for a long time. The weather was continually bad on weekends. Finally, we decided to go and steeled ourselves to climb in the rain. It would be good training after all, right?
The forecast for the Dolomites was “okay,” though Sunday was better than Saturday. We drove down Friday night and slept near the Tutti Institute, a kind of hospital I guess. We decided to climb the Punta Fiames via the famous Spigolo Jori (Jori Ridge). At grade V, and 15 pitches, it seemed like a good early season challenge. Dan had some warm coffee in a thermos, and as we drank a woman in a wheelchair came out on a balcony and watched us.
We hiked up through soaking grass, happy at least that it wasn’t raining. Before long we found an obvious rocky gully that we thought must be the way. After some spicy moves near it’s head, we emerged in little latschen trees, then came to the only obvious looking starting point: a narrow ledge below an easy-looking black slab. We roped up and sent me off for the first lead. It didn’t seem to match the route description, but we thought we must find the belay bolts up there somewhere. It’s just wet, so we thought the extra caution of roping up a pitch below the true start was the right thing to do.
If you sense trouble you are right!
I girth-hitched a sling around a chockstone and started up a slab, probably 5.5 or so. Happy to be done with that, I crabbed leftwards again to eventually reach a corner where we thought belay bolts should be. “I don’t see anything!” I called out. Now it started to rain. I tried to climb a little higher. Then, at a delicate move a foothold broke or my foot slipped, I’m not sure which. I had a tense moment there where I could easily have fallen. Realizing my protection was laughably far away, I simply had to stay attached. After a fraught minute, I was secure enough to downclimb. I’d made two cuts on my left hand as I caught myself.
Dan low on Hexenstein. (link)
The rain finally stopped on the Hexenstein. (link)
Descending Hexenstein in better weather. (link)
Still unwilling to give up the day (despite the rain…desperation really screws with your head!), I found a lower ledge system and traversed into the corner at a lower point I couldn’t see from above. In there was a deaths-head of stacked, teetering blocks. I pushed one down (Dan was belaying safely far to the left) and surrounded by the rich smell of cordite, I attempted a finger traverse above and past the other loose blocks to what I hoped might be a belay around the corner.
But it was foolish as hell. All at once I gave up. “I’m coming back immediately, this is unjustified,” I said, having made up my mind. That took significant time, now that the rock was soaking with rain. Eventually Dan could lower me from the fixed piton.
I felt bad, like I was making a bad “first impression” for climbing with Dan, because the slab was tougher than it looked. Knowing that the book calls this easy ground, I wondered why I found it so difficult. I never suspected the truth: that we were not only on the wrong route, but on the wrong mountain!
We hiked down. Dan was freezing and needed to warm up. Our thought was that we could eat some lunch at the car, then climb something with a very short approach at the Falzarego Pass. Once at the car we got a surprise. “Oh my god…we weren’t on Punta Fiames…look!” And so we realized that we took a parallel and wrong gully, ending up on Punta Croce. We mistook the deep gully on it’s right for the deep gully on the right of Punta Fiames. The sun came out and we could clearly see the weeping black slab where I’d desperately tried to reach “the first belay.” Feeling like I deserved a Darwin Award, but at the same time relieved to have an answer to the perplexing situation, I could only shake my head at my foolishness.
Here’s what I love about Dan. By the time we got to the Falzarego Pass, it was raining again. Harder than ever. But I wanted to climb. And he wanted to climb.
“We’re gonna climb,” he said, zipping up his rain jacket. “Yeah!” I was right there with him. We moderated our plan to climb the 6-8 pitch Hexenstein which went at an easy IV+ that we thought we could manage when soaked. Still, grimly kicking steps up slippery snow to the start of the route, water pooling in the creases of my jacket, I was apprehensive yet curious. What could we achieve?
Dan took the first pitch, up a straightforward gully that led onto a ridge with a bolt. As I followed the rain finally let up. We continued like this for several pitches, sometimes in cloud, sometimes with local views of the soaking black road and buildings of the pass. Movement kept us warm, and we began to feel glad about our choice to go out.
“I mean, I hear it rains all the time in Wales. They must just go out in the rain. I’m happy to see that we can still do some climbing anyway.”
“Colin Haley goes out in the stormiest weather at night to climb. If he can do that, then we should be able to stand a rainstorm.”
With comments in that vain, we made it to two pitches from the top. We had some trouble after Dan used the full 70 meter rope on the next pitch. I had to downclimb a bit from the belay, but the rope was tight and I couldn’t. Without some slack I faced an awkward fall into a crevasse of jumbled rocks should I fail on a friction traverse. And it was raining again, so I had no friction. I yelled my head off asking for slack, but 70 meters of rope was an almost hopeless distance to traverse by shouting. Finally he figured something was up and gave me some rope. I was just about to untie and solo!
This was a hard pitch, and a great lead by Dan. There was a dripping, sopping overhanging chimney to climb, and he must have had nerves of iron. “Good lead!” I said, before complaining a bit about the rope being too long. He was at the top, having stepped around the crux IV+ crack. Again, what an incredible partner, he was willing to go along with my idea to rappel and lead that pitch. “Sure!”
I owe him one or two beers for that. Man, it was pretty tough. Without friction, it felt more like a VI- crack (that would be 5.9 or so) instead of IV+. A few good hand and foot jams saw me through some difficult parts. At the top I was completely tired and satisfied with the day. Dan came up and enjoyed it too.
Some blue sky came out to play, and we saw Tofana des Rozes emerge from a cloud with an ample dusting of white on the upper screes. I thought about the ominous vertical wall dropping to the south and remembered.
We had a good time walking down a via ferrata and trail, back to the road and the car. In Cortina we ate at the Cinque Torri Cafe, trying to dry our things around us. It was a good restaurant, and they filled our Thermos with coffee for the morning. Yes!
“What should we do tomorrow?” Dan said. “If it dawns total blue sky, we’ve got to go back to the Spigolo Jori.”
“Otherwise something back at the Falzarego Pass,” I said.
Punta Fiames “Spigolo Jori” (V)
Amazingly, the day did dawn warm and blue. We packed the tent and enjoyed the still-hot coffee. We ate pastries while we sorted gear. The old woman in the wheelchair came out again and watched us leave.
A steep chimney/crack begins the Jori ridge pitches. (link)
Belays on the Jori ridge were often stunningly placed. (link)
Looking across to the Dimai route in deep chimneys on Punta Fiames. (link)
Looking to mountains in the west. (link)
A spectacular grade V pitch on the right side of the ridge. (link)
Michael enters a crux chimney on the ship’s prow. (link)
Dan leads a tricky IV+ crack pitch. (link)
Looking south to snowy north faces. (link)
Michael with Cortina behind. (link)
Dan descends the “Strobel.” (link)
Michael descends the “Strobel” via ferrata. (link)
Another party was behind us on the trail, and another ahead, so it felt “crowded.” A great chat about economics, goals and value systems made the time pass quickly. Today we found the “earth gully” we needed. It was off on a side trail marked with cairns. The base of the route was much easier to find than the incorrect route we’d gotten on Saturday.
We decided to double one of Dan’s 70 meter ropes for the first section, and keep the other rope in a pack. Dan took off, combining the first two 30 meter easy pitches. Then we carried coils a ways up to a headwall. More enjoyable pitches followed, not too hard, just a warm-up for what would follow.
From Dan’s belay on the left side of a band, we left the domain of several parties and crossed the face to reach the “Jori” Arete. We had a great view there of several parties on the Dimai route, climbing in and out of chimneys. After a rest, I started up a steep stemming crack/chimney. Dan took over, climbing a featured face to a belay below an impressive yellow roof. There was a funny metal bar to use as protection at one point on this pitch. Otherwise, it was the occasional cam or nut. We kept hoping to combine a few pitches in one, but didn’t get the chance until the first grade V pitch. I climbed a short, easy pitch below, then went around the corner and decided to head up into a broad face. I followed my nose to the center, then entered a striking crack on the left. Gulp. It felt kind of scary for some reason, I think because Dan was far out of sight at a belay 40 meters below. For a pitch like this, it’s nice to have your belayer visible. But anyway, no turning back now. Traversing a slab into the crack, I found it too wide to hand jam, so I awkwardly placed a large cam from an arm barring position. Higher, I found a piton, and then a hand jam now and then. Ah, they are so nice! I crept up, realizing it was the hardest “trad” climb I’d done since moving to Germany. I breathed carefully, pasting feet on nubbins or jamming them securely in the crack. The pitch was kind of a wake up call to harder climbing. I was apprehensive about 3 more grade V pitches!
Dan came up well, getting a chance to work on crack climbing skills. “Good job, Michael!” he said. “Thanks, it was tough!”
Then I carefully gave him the flaked out rope and impatiently started up a vertical crack off the belay. Foolishly, we’d forgotten that because I was taking the next pitch, the rope was flaked the wrong way. Then I, in my tension (also worrying about the gathering clouds), cursed mightily when Dan needed me to wait for him to fix the rope. Stress!
After another fraught minute, Dan lowered me to the belay and we started working to untangle the ropes. What a nightmare! But it was a good exercise for our patience. 70 meters of two 8.1 mm ropes can really be tough to deal with. By the time I set off again, we could pretty much laugh about the mishap, and I definitely felt sorry for being so irritable. Dan “handled” things really well. Clearly, he’s been in tense situations before and knows the right thing to do. Good learning experience!
Soon we were at the base of the crux pitch, also grade V, but it looked very steep. After initial easy terrain there was a thin finger crack with some kind of fixed sling. Then a wide-looking chimney/crack that didn’t overhang as long as you squeezed in the right way. After the finger crack, I also found a neat intermediate belay bolt…what a spectacular ledge it stood on! But I continued on, and found the chimney very awkward with my pack. I had to stop and rest a couple of times, once on a piton and once on a Camelot I hid in the crack. “Man, I will sleep well tonight!” I said.
Above this we had an easier V- pitch, then Dan led a couple of IV/IV+ pitches. On the last one, he dealt with a steep chimney by moving out right onto a face, then climbing a grade III shallow chimney to reach a belay. This maneuver felt pretty hard, and I was glad we only had one pitch to go. Easy ground led to a kind of tricky frost-fractured chimney, and then I crabbed left at the top where it started to overhang. Above this was the summit cross, and I could belay Dan from a slung block.
At the top, heartfelt congratulations all around. No one was here, as the Dimai parties certainly got ahead of us. We were hoping (idealistically) to get back to Munich by 10:30 pm to get Dan’s girlfriend at the airport. After we added things up in the evening light, it was clear we wouldn’t make it. We tried to hurry down anyway, taking the “Stroebel” via ferrata, which seemed to go on forever. It was pretty interesting, especially because it gave great views back on the Jori ridge and the Dimai face. We finally reached a dirt road and followed it back to the Putti Institute.
The long drive home was, well, long. I think Dan drove the whole thing. I just replayed great pitches in my head and dreamed of future trips. Thanks for a great time, Dan!
Detailed description of pitches on Punta Fiames:
- P1 - III. Dan. Combined first two III pitches in one.
- – 300 meters of walking/scrambling –
- P2 - IV. Michael. Short. Climb up to a chimney and worm up it to a belay.
- P3 - III. Dan. Traverse across a ledge to reach the next belay. 35 meters.
- P4 - IV. Michael. Climb a steep gully then get onto a broad, featured face.
- P5 - IV. Dan. Continue up the face and left to a belay.
- – walk across the ledge to the right, to reach the Jori start –
- P6 - IV. Michael. Steep chimney leads up to a belay.
- P7 - IV. Dan. A steep face leads to a belay under a yellow roof.
- P8 - V. Michael. Combined two pitches. First a steep gully up to a ledge, then around a corner to a big face. Climb up the center, then work left into a steep, wide crack. Follow the crack up to a belay ledge.
- P9 - V. Michael. Steep crack climbing off the belay, then easy terrain around a corner to a belay.
- P10 - V. Michael. Easy ground led to a steep finger crack. An intermediate belay station is passed, and an awkward vertical chimney climbed to another fantastic ledge belay. Very hard pitch, had to rest a few times.
- P11 - V. Michael. Go around a corner to the right, climb a crack with an overhanging exit, then easier ground to a belay. More like V-.
- P12 - III+. Dan.
- P13 - IV+. Dan. Tough slabby start getting into an off-balance crack. Variation accidentally pioneered in the upper part, crossing a slab to the right.
- P14 - IV-. Michael. Easy face to awkward roofed crack, escaped it on the left.