06 Dec 2009

Via Romantica (VI+)

Also posted at Summitpost here

“Via Romantica” (VI+, 12 pitches)

As luck would have it, a week of unusually warm and sunny weather held winter at bay for a spell. Uli invited me to climb on Saturday, and we decided to visit the south facing wall of the Kopfkraxen in the Wilder Kaiser. A very popular route called "Via Romantica" (VI+) climbs straight up to the summit in 15 pitches. Uli had seen web cams which promised very little snowcover. So, wearing our regular summertime gear of tennis shoes, double 50 meter ropes, a small rack (the route is mostly bolted), and just clothing and gloves a little warmer than usual, we found ourselves hiking up from the Jagerwirt at 7 am.

Talking about work and other things, we reached a beautiful waterfall at the base of a cliff and reorganized to leave one pack here. Above, we stomped out steps in the snow to reach the base of the route which is quite obvious.

Suddenly a man and a woman were nearby. We had thought we’d have the whole face to ourselves, but the warm weather had brought people out. I think in the end there were 4 parties: 2 on “Via Romantica,” one on “Blue Moon” and another on “Gemini.” Another pair worked on slabs at a sport climbing area below the waterfall.

The man and woman proved to be none other than Herbert H., and his wife. Herbert established our route along with most of the other routes on this broad face. Living nearby, and perhaps also thanks to his occupation as a mountain guide, he’s put this whole western section of the Wilder Kaiser on the climbing map. From a distance, the face doesn’t look that appealing. Rather grassy and gravelly, perhaps. But the incredible dihedral and corner crack pitches he’s found here more than make up for the occasional grassy band. In a funny exchange at the base of the route, he asked if I’d climbed this route before. I said no, and he kind of laughed. I asked him the same question, already guessing by his manner that he might be the creator, and he modestly replied “a few times.” We had a nice conversation about some climbs in the Dolomites, his favorite area as well as my own. He said he’d climbed the Adang route on Sas Ciampac “about 20 times.” Dan Protz and I climbed it two weeks ago.

Another nice thing about Herbert H., was that we had reached the route first, and he allowed me to offer to let him pass ahead of us. That was very gentlemanly of him. Anyway, I’d have to say, if you are ever looking for a mountain guide, he would be an excellent one. With more kind words, he and his wife took off, and were later seen only once again, high high above!

Already Uli was just wearing a T-shirt. It was around 9:30 or so when we got started. Uli led up clean rock to the V+ crux at two shallow twin cracks. I got the next pitch was was a “Piazriss” (layback crack). I’m very nervous with laybacks, especially if I don’t know where the laybacking comes to an end. I was able to climb the lower section as a straight ahead jam crack, which was super enjoyable. The upper part has the crux (VI+) overhanging section, which I passed with more good jamming. Fantastic! Though I’d torqued a little too hard on the last jam and had a small cut on my right hand from the sharp rock.

Uli came up and found serious difficulties trying to traverse up and right at a bulge. Small pockets for feet on a bulging wall, with rather insecure handholds made it hard to get up and over the bulge. He rested and tried again.

After a few times, he suddenly made the move perfectly. I came up and managed to get it in one go thanks to watching Uli work and the significant psychological aid of a rope from above!

A long fairly easy pitch followed which avoided grassy rock by staying on a steeper prow. We had a “pitch” of walking on a ledge to reach the base of a beautiful corner crack. Pitch 6 on the topo, rated V+, this striking line wouldn’t look out of place in Yosemite if it weren’t for the switchover from granite to limestone. The bolts were widely spaced, and Uli was happy to be able to place a nut and a cam along the way. He did a super job on the lead.

As I climbed with the pack, I switched at some point from stemming to jamming in the crack, then my right side was leaning on one wall. It took me a while to realize it, but I’d opened the valve on the Camelback and before long the wall and my right leg were covered in water! It was too dicey of a spot to do anything about it, I just had to keep jamming up and over a bulge. Even when I stopped pressing on the valve it stayed open for some reason. I was glad nobody had to stem on the big expanse of water I’d left on the face!

Oh well. The next pitch was a very enjoyable grade 5 romp again on a prow of rock with steep grassy terrain on either side. Some more walking up scree led to the base of the “schoene Verschneidung,” or, “beautiful corner” which really did look great. We had some lunch then started up. I was really keen to climb it.

I ran into a kind of mental problem here that really bugged me, and made me realize I have some work to do. Trying to reach the second bolt required laybacking moves for about 10 vertical feet. The edge of the layback crack wasn’t very good, and the crack was too wide to jam. I went up a few steps then came down, pretty much stuck. Complaining that I just didn’t feel right, I just felt pretty much defeated. For some reason all I could think about was falling, realizing that the 2nd bolt (actually an old piton with kind of an aid sling attached to it) was far enough above that I would deck if I fell. I know this is one of those places where thinking about climbing rather than falling would carry me through. But I couldn’t reach that mental stage. Sadly, I rigged up a sling to stand in, but still couldn’t reach the piton above. I was able to switch back to free climbing here then grab the sling and clip into the piton. Rather disgusted, I asked Uli to lower me so I could at least try free climbing those moves. I almost managed it but still (why?) grabbed the sling attached to the piton. Oh well.

After a rest I headed up for the rest of the pitch. A never ending series of jams, laybacks, traverses and stemming, it was really incredible. I rested on the rope once more before a final move to get around a bulge. Uli took a picture of me here, capturing the “taut rope of shame,” and what I like to think of as the consequences of climbing in a fear-based kind of way.

Anyway, humbled but still enjoying myself, I belayed Uli who followed the pitch very well. That pitch was only rated V+ but I found it so much harder than the VI+ pitch below…it was also strange because at three points there were slings hanging seemingly for someone to grab. There was no such detritus on any other pitch of the climb. The “schoene Verschneidung” has teeth! My mission over the winter is to learn from the experience.

Uli led a nice IV+ pitch that ended with an interesting slab. Then I led a pitch that seemed like it would be boring…rated III and marked with the word “schrofen” (scree/gravel/grass) on the topo, it was unexpectedly long and enjoyable.

Some more walking brought us below a long kind of chimney/gully, but it’s actually easy to lose the route here. I thought we should climb a cleaner gully right near the belay, but Uli was correct that it was a dirty slightly ominous looking gully far on the right. He found two bolts on the 50 meter pitch, and supplemented with some gear.

My belay was ill-positioned, as I had four occasions when stones whistled down landing right near me. I would recommend belaying at the first bolt of this pitch instead, as the official belay is positioned at the base of three different gullies and below a cliff: somehow it’s the most likely place for stonefall in the area.

I led the last pitch, an interesting IV+ line up steep rock, only becoming a bit loose at the end. Marked as 40 meters in length, I ran out of rope a bit before the belay which is found after an 8 meter walk along a ridgetop.

But soon Uli came up and we could put the ropes away and change back into shoes. We wandered over the Kopfkraxe (actually the true summit was about 5 minutes walk to the east), and started down a snowy trail. It was neat to have a view into the dark gully below the Gamskarkopf. The 600 or so meters down to the waterfall where we left a backpack were marked by mud and slippery snow. The comedian of the hour, I slipped and fell at least 5 times. Uli didn’t have his headlamp, so we had to hurry and make it to the pack before dark. Losing the trail for a while, we eventually were walking beneath imposing cliffs and knew we were on the right track. Uli loaned me his pair of dry socks because mine were absolutely squelching. As we decended, we made a wrong turn about 200 meters above the car getting onto a strange dirt road we didn’t remember. By the time we got the map out and figured out what went wrong, we’d lost about twenty minutes. Some clear-cutting had been done in this area, and the confusion engendered by those indistinct slopes, the dirt road and the darkness reminded me of Washington State. There are some climbs where navigating the obscure dirt roads is the crux! (think Twin Sisters).

We reached the car around 7 pm, making for a twelve hour day. It really felt warm enough that it could be a September evening. This climb feels like “unfinished business” to me, and that’s just as well. It’ll be one of the first alpine climbs to open in the spring :-). A big thanks to Uli for the day!