Dan and I were hoping to go rock climbing for a couple of days in the Dolomites. There had been an extended period of incredible, high pressure weather. But “that’s life” as they say, so inevitably as the weekend approached the high pressure ridge crumbled and rain and clouds pressed into Italy from the north. Reading the forecast closely, it appeared there would be showers and clouds here and there, but there wouldn’t be a sustained frontal system. Also, temperatures would be well below average for the next days. A cog turned in my mind: this is a perfect forecast for north face climbing! A phone call to the Tabarettahütte, and we were reserved for Sunday night there. Climbing the North Face of the Ortler was on our “tick list” for the summer, and we had high hopes that we would get to do it now.
[img:518329:aligncenter:medium:The 1200 meter (4000 feet) north face, taken in July 2007 on the way down from another climb.]
We still left Munich fairly early. I wanted to be able to scope out the face before clouds came in (one feature of this kind of unstable weather situation is that mornings are often clear, evenings are rainy). We drove to Sulden and ate some sausage by the car, wondering at the oddly deserted town, stuck between seasons. I spent a long while sharpening my tools and crampons, knowing how hard the ice can be on these avalanche-pounded walls.
It was sunny, but by the time we were walking it grew cloudy and a bit cold. My dim understanding of the trail systems there had us hiking up a low angle trail below the Langensteinlift. But then we grew impatient and took narrow, steeper trails that shortcut the interminable switchbacks. But a side effect was that we missed a turn off for a gradual trail going into the huge basin below the Martltferner (Glacier). Finally we reached the top of the lift and it began to snow.
We’d climbed about 600 feet too high, and had to descent to the west. Oops!
In sometimes heavy snowfall, we made our way to the Tabarettahütte. Two parties came down, having enjoyed a climb of the Via Normale. They said another party had climbed the North Face too. We had the hut to ourselves, along with the caretaking family, who were very nice. We passed the hours listening to “This American Life” on Dan’s iPhone, looking out at the snow gathering on the benches, and peeking at the route whenever we could. A hearty meal of Spiegeleier and Kaiserschmarm sent us to an early bed with warm bellies. The caretaker told us we needed to leave by 2:30 am for a safe climb, and left out tea and bread for the “morning.” Paranoid, I borrowed an extra alarm clock from the caretakers.
I slept well, and woke up with some reluctance. Sleeping is nice! But our things were ready, we just had to eat. Seeing the cold blue peak under a starry sky outside got our engines going, and soon we tromped off on a trail that traversed the hillside to reach the Marltferner below the face. Eventually the trail disappeared, and we clomped more clumsily across steep scree, and then finally continuous snow. We climbed a massive avalanche cone beneath the “first constriction” on the route, and enjoyed the way things steepened pleasantly as we passed through this constriction. It was typical “3 o’clock position” terrain: one boot front pointing, another resting sideways, with two tools in the “piolet panne” position.
But in here we made a mistake that seems curious now, and especially when looking at photos of the phase from a distance. We got the idea that the main gully, which went around a corner, was a dead end, as in going around the corner it seemed peter off into snowy cliffs. So we climbed up and left to cross over a ridge, thinking THAT was the main couloir. Steadily up for 200 meters, then reaching the ridge and trying to find a way down, we realized we were as uncertain about THIS side of the ridge as the other side. Sigh. The seemingly uniform face had, for us, broken up into a maze of gullies and dead ends. Trying to sort out what we saw with a picture of the face brought no success. After a somewhat random pitch of rock and snow on the buttress, we decided to turn around and investigate the “false” couloir. 20 minutes of sometimes tense downclimbing brought us back to a point we could reclimb. What joy when we recognized it was the right way!
Now we were climbing the “middle third” of the face, staying to one side or the other of various avalanche runnels to enjoy good hard snow and “snice.” It was full light now, and we realized we’d squandered our very early start with the wrong turn, but if we could get through the second constriction on the face before long, we’d be reasonably safe to continue. At this point an awkward situation reared up: Dan had to “deliver a package.” But it required removing his harness, pulling down his bibs…all things that just don’t make sense on a (now) continuous 60 degree wall! I hoped (in vain, as it turned out) that at the base of one of the seracs above we could find an ice cave.
Along in here we became acquainted with the occasional buzzing missile of rock or ice. There were three or four of these that came pummeling by during our time in the middle third, each making a slightly different fluttering/buzzing sound, never pleasant to hear!
Finally we made it to the base of the second constriction and decided to get out the rope and belay from a safe position well to the side. Dan sent me off and I climbed a 70 degree ice pitch on the right side of the narrow debries funnel. Fantastic! I placed two screws and brought Dan up to the base of another ice pitch 65 meters above. From here, tied into two ice screws, for the first time I could relax a bit and admire our surroundings. Huge ice cliffs loomed above and to the right. Nasty-looking walls with snow and ice filled the frame on the left. I made a little video while Dan climbed. It was 8 am, and we were two-thirds of the way up. The summit at noon sounded about right.