Pala del Rifugio, "Castiglioni/Destassis"
We decided to head down to the Pala Dolomites. We had time because Tuesday was predicted to be bad weather everywhere. Actually it wasn’t bad until evening, then there was a massive thunderstorm like we’d never seen. The rain started as we made the short hike from the car to the Rifugio Treviso, which is right at the base of the climb. It didn’t let up for hours, and eventually tiny harmless streams on the mountainside turned into frightening torrents with rolling boulders. Later, we met an American couple who were stranded by one of these torrents (certain death to try and cross), and forced to reclimb to a bivouac box 2000 feet above! I’d never seen anything like it.
Our plan was to climb this route then continue along the West Ridge of Sasso d’Ortiga for a really grand day. But several things happened to derail that. First, the hut warden may have been concerned about too many parties trying to do the same route. He suggested we climb to the summit of Pala del Rifugio via another route, a bit shorter but harder. He also pooh-poohed our request to get up really early, saying that the normal breakfast time should be good enough. Perhaps feeling like we were behaving over-cautiously we agreed to these changes.
We set off in the morning with others, noting that vegetation and rock were still soaked from the night before. After a tough 45 minutes we stood below the alternate route, not liking our chances at all. Above was a black, dripping chimney, supposedly the crux of the route at grade V+. Now I’ve been in grade IV chimneys that scared me to death when soaked, and I lost my desire to do battle with this thing very quickly. Jesse felt likewise. I was upset that our “monster” day might be taken from us due to bad advice (that I truly felt like ignoring before anyway, but didn’t say anything). The weather was beautiful…should we wait for the rock to dry? Should we ignore the lower 16 pitches in favor of just doing the upper 9? I wanted to do neither, and immediately set off to speed down and get on our original route in hopes of salvaging the day.
We did this, but I’d become kind of sour and uncommunicative as I mulled over all these factors. Jesse wanted to stop and talk it over a few minutes but I wasn’t hearing him. I’d gotten the idea that it was “my job” to “save the day,” and didn’t see the use. My foolishness on this point cast a pall over the first hours of our climbing, and it was only after a long discussion later that we could finally understand each other. I was abashed at having been disrespectful, and admired Jesse’s forbearance and patience with me. I’m always nervous until we are properly on the climb (my other friends can attest to this too!), and really have to learn to take early setbacks in stride. The day is long…the chances for success are many…
So anyway, we eventually made it to the other side of the mountain and the Northwest Ridge. An Austrian (Styrian) party of four was getting ready to climb. Along with them, we scrambled the first two easy pitches, made a little sketchy due to wet grass and rocks. They were very kind and offered for us to go first. Two or three pitches of mediocre climbing led to a ledge right of the ridge and an obvious chimney that must be one of the grade V cruxes. I led this, very happy that it was dry! Another long pitch with some simul-climbing, slightly easier, got to the First Shoulder.
Spirits lifting a bit, we simul-climbed easy terrain up to where the buttress steepened again. Here, I made a route-finding error that had us climbing a rather unpleasant variation for a few pitches. My topo said “climb gully left of the arete” and showed a broad, deep “gully,” that could only be the enormous gully right above us. I saw a face climb that could (if you squint just right) be characterized as a very shallow gully. It looked better. I should have taken it. But I was a slave to (a poor interpretation of) the topo!
So I led us into the dark gully, eventually a dark, dripping gully. While the Styrians watched far below, telegraphing their opinion of my route choice, I stemmed up to the crux: an 10-inch slot with smooth walls. In a moment of unexpected (later) hilarity, Jesse was making small talk and I blurted out “CANTTALKRIGHTNOW!” surprising myself at the ragged edge of fear in my voice. I had one foot pasted on a sloping wall and was pawing unsuccessfully for anything positive above the slot that awkwardly held part of my body. I was too far above protection to prevent crashing onto a ledge. Slow down and breathe. Eventually, micromovements that brought my foot a couple of inches higher got me something I could use. I built a gear belay and breathed the tension out, straining to see what we had above us. Would overhangs choke us off?
Jesse came up and wished me luck. Happily, fears were overblown and we entered a realm of quality climbing again. After traversing a short vertical wall the sight of a piton cheered me up. A fun face climb with another piton allowed me to climb out of our “massive gully” and join the regular route. Jesse came up and we looked sadly down what appeared to be nice climbing to the right of our gully. We don’t recommend our three pitch “adventure variant!”
Soon we stood on the Second Shoulder, and it’s only here, for the last 4-5 pitches of the route that it becomes a wonderful Dolomiti climb. Swapping leads, we enjoyed steep terrain marked by enormous holds and lots of incredible, bomber natural protection (natural columns in the rock called Sanduhr, which you can wrap a sling securely around).
These pitches were amazing and we could smile now after all the hemming and hawing and difficulties below. On the summit we had an amazing vision of the Sasso d’Ortiga behind us, looming like a smooth South American buttress. I quite wanted to continue, but eventually it became clear that we’d miss dinner and stumble back pretty late. Now…I wish we had just done it…but at the time the thought of dinner did have a strong hold on us!
We descended carefully, having to negotiate some extremely exposed 4th and low 5th class in tennis shoes. We would think “man, this is a tough traverse!” and suddenly see a piton in front of our faces. “I guess people belay this?” But with care, we made it through to the notch where the Sasso d’Ortiga route begins. Firmly in descent mode, we bade it a reluctant farewell.
On the way down we talked with another party who had done the climb we gave up on. Indeed, it had been tough in the lower part. We continued down to a good dinner and a reunion with the Styrian party. They had been very reticent, looking at us funny when we’d say something (like “hello”). But now they were different. Jesse described how we won them over in such a hilarious way: just relentless cheerfulness from both of us. Ignoring the cold or blank stares…offering advice about where to belay, etc. By the end, they were smiling too!
So this climb has some minor flaws. But I think it was good for us to have some friction with each other because it was an opportunity to see how we deal with conflict. We want to do bigger climbs together in the future, and having seen each other in a bad mood is already helpful for that (well…Jesse saw ME in a bad mood. I don’t think he’s ever been in a bad mood…that’s a compliment people sometimes give me…but I’ve met my master in that regard!).