The Dolomites with Steph Abegg
Also posted on CascadeClimbers here
The Dolomites - Three fun climbs with Steph
TLDR; Me and Steph Abegg climb the Comici on the Salamiturm (5.9, 14 pitches), the South Face Dimai/Eoetvoes on Tofana (5.6, 20 pitches) and the “Mariakante” on Piz Pordoi (5.6, 10 pitches) in three good days.
Here are the things Steph can’t do:
She can’t drive a stick shift, a real bummer in Europe, where the prejudice against automatic transmission is sneering and palpable. She can’t bring herself to eat a meal in a restaurant, since the prices are scandalous. In Italy, where things are done a certain way, I had some real awkward moments ordering food while the woman with me skulked away outside to heat her meal up herself. Oh man, I got some withering looks! Finally, and most damningly, she can’t be counted on to press the snooze button for one or two extra “z”s in the pitch dark before dawn. She’ll just chirp Reaganesque platitudes: “Welp, at least it’ll be cool for the hike in!” or “Yep, we’ll beat the crowds!”
But despite all that, she is kind of a superstar. So I dithered about for weeks, bugging my wife and kids about what routes I should climb with this visiting dignitary of the Northwest. Too common, too obscure, too crowded, trying too hard? Non-committal responses. Sigh. Route and peak obsession seems to begin and end with me around here. In truth, obsession has been harder to come by than it used to be. So happily I remember those rainy November nights, curled up with the Green Bible and some string cheese, thinking about the Napeequa or the dripping slabs of Darrington. I’d get to meet Steph and visit a previous version of myself too.
The kind of kid you want to have, Steph had just finished hiking the Haute Route with her parents, a 10 day trip from Chamonix to Zermatt. She arrived in Munich, and we set off for Groednertal, the valley below the Langkofel and the Sella Towers. I’d picked the route on the cover of my guidebook to the area, which was the Comici Route on the Salamiturm, roughly 5.9 and 14 pitches.
Our route is along the line of shade and light on the yellow tower in the center.
We hiked to the base of a long gully to find a couple guys worried about hard snow. Let us Nor’westerners lead the way!
Picking up sharp rocks to carve steps, we bashed up in our tennis shoes with the others following. Then a long rocky scramble in slabs and gullies followed. Suddenly, the locals were everywhere, descending on the start of the route from odd directions. There are other gullies? I’d just been lecturing Steph on how truly uncrowded the place is, but mid-lecture I had to alter things by allowing that it’s Saturday, and I guess this route is probably a major classic or something. We were third in line, and once we dealt with some awkward traversing on the first pitch we kept our place with dignity among the locals.
A small crowd, aggressive to start.
A protectionless 5.7 traverse followed, only because I overlooked all the pitons. Steph followed the route most of the day, which also meant she carried the heavier pack. I looked around, smiling queasily. Whats up with a big-boned man like me essentially carrying a fanny-pack while this wisp of a girl lost in her down jacket carries all the gear? Heh. But I was way too scared to shoulder my load, now there was a 5.8 overhanging crack. Aw, fun!
A view back after the 5.7 traverse.
Steph coming up the 5th pitch.
At a belay.
A few more pitches led to the crux, a long vertical pitch leading to an overhang. We could see a couple guys atop the overhang, their ropes hanging casually down into space. Steph took pictures of everything, cataloguing the whole thing in a unique way. Only later as I scrolled through pictures would I notice how many textbook flower photos she managed to take on these “forbidding” walls. I never noticed the flowers at all, but apparently I’m romping through a botanists wonderland.
If I can’t sling it, I can’t see it :p.
Somehow her down-jacketed appearance was comforting, so I broke the crux pitch up into two sections to reduce my own mewling. The overhang was nice, kind of like the crux on Sleese with the traverse by the piton, only it was longer and there were more pitons. I chortled at the aid slings people had attached in the roof then nearly handed my ass to myself in a slippery frankenstein lieback. Whew, that was close. Steph found the crux underwhelming, thus ruining my evening plans to constantly re-enact the sweaty final moves.
Below the crux.
Approaching the overhang.
The view from here.
Another steep crack, then a zone of awkward traversing, followed by a pitch of “cottage cheese” rock, acceptable only because it paved the way to easier ground. Finally we came into the sun and Steph could put her huge jacket away. Steph led the last pitches to the summit, gradually getting used to the rock. The thing is, the Dolomites are not difficult at all, it’s just that you can’t protect all that often, and the rock is steeper than what you expect for “easy” ground.
It was gorgeous on top, we were on one tower of dozens, some higher, some lower.
Steph is taking a picture at this exact moment to sync the timing of our cameras.
Steph led some alpine rappels with weird traversing and bad anchors to a notch, then we scrambled and skied down two thousand feet of scree to reach the hut in the cirque of the Langkofel towers.
Finally on a trail.
Whee! Take that, shoes.
Steph will indulge in one thing, and that’s coffee. But she never figured out the difference between an Americano, a regular coffee, a cappuccino and a Milchkaffee. We had a bunch of theories about it, involving number of “shots” and other things, but gee, it was hard, and thinking isn’t what I like to do on vacation. All the people around here order combination drinks anyway. Like, never order a Coke, but a Spetzi, it’s half-half Fanta and Coke. Never order a beer, get a Radler (part beer part limonade i shit you not it’s delicious). I think I had a Radler which allowed me to kind of float down on the combination beer and sugar high.
Drinks are helpful.
The hut warden brought us this book to sign.
We got back to the car to find a 41 euro ticket for parking in the wrong place, just when I’d been explaining how great it is that we don’t have “pay to play” around here like the corporate fueled US of A. Just keep that in mind. We expat-types love to talk up where we live, and hell we do love it. But there is bullshit over here too. However the healthcare system rocks. (runs away).
We drove to the Falzarego Pass above Cortina, me making Steph just a little carsick with the 7000 180-degree switchbacks. After a picnic dinner (greasy pizza for me, healthy sandwiches for Steph), we geared up to climb the 20 pitch South Face of Tofana di Rozes, the peak that dominates the skyline above the Cinque Torre cragging area.
The route, long, easy, but requires routefinding savvy.
I’d been on the route before under less than ideal conditions and was happy to come back. Hilariously, in the morning below the base, I couldn’t remember which gully to take. The face dissolved into 4 or 5 different candidates. Steph found it, a vaguely obscene traverse above a really frightening moat that I briefly tried to climb directly. You know that thing where you are on snow, and are contemplating a step across to slabs with wet shoes, and the edge of the snow harrows down into darkness? Yeah, I hate that.
In case you climb it, just remember the baby.
So the traverse avoided the moat, AND, as a bonus, Steph found 2 shirts and a locking carabiner! She didn’t have room for these items in her pack, so she attached them all on the outside in a kind of window-display style.
The Alpine Peddler.
We wouldn’t see anyone else on this route. Steph led all the way up the lower buttress into the Great Amphitheater. We got some water and she kept going up to and beyond the traverse into the Second Amphitheater. This is a strange, atmospheric place. When I was here before, there was a rope hanging down from the overhanging walls, which was somehow frightening. That was gone now, but you got the impression of flakes creakily attached, a sort of pregnant pause before the deluge.
In the unsettling Second Amphitheater.
Escaping to the chimneys.
Steph led out on what I thought of as a crux pitch, traversing right into a wall, then back left on an overhanging flake. But she was like, no way, too dangerous. She came back and espied the “direct variation,” which I’d forgotten about, a pitch of grade V+ (5.8) climbing a crack that avoids the loose-flake traverse. She did the first half, then felt weird, and I tried it. A couple of committing moves on decent cams allowed me to pull the lip and find some jugs. We were happy to be done with this strange area!
A steep chimney and some easier ground led to the stellar traverse pitches, way above the valley floor and completely exposed. The traverse is easy and well protected, but it’s still fantastic. We signed a little route book hidden in a cave, then made our way to the exit pitches. Steph led the final pitch, a 5.6 devious face and chimney where you climb behind a big chockstone, then get above it with stemming. Oh yeah, time for tennis shoes! Actually, Steph switched to her approach shoes halfway up the route but I was way too scared to do that. Now we scrambled up a ridge for almost an hour, doing a few climbing moves halfway, and eventually scree-plodding to the summit, marked by a huge cross.
_Okay, your lead, Steph.
On the hike down it started to rain. Then to rain really hard. Then the hail started, and oh man it got bad! We had everything on and plodded down miserably, descending little ledges that were now streaming with water and ice chunks. We saw boulders rolling down in torrents. My helmet protected my head from the sharp pellets of ice, but sometimes I’d get one right in the ear which made me shriek like Flanders. At least we weren’t alone, there were about a dozen other miserable people somewhere in the area, having climbed up different ways. Finally, when every pocket and gully was full of graupel it stopped. 30 minutes later it was like nothing had happened at all. We couldn’t stop remarking on what it would have been like to be in the route with a storm like that. Half of the route would have become a waterfall. On the positive side, there were a fare number of cave-like overhangs, and we would have probably muddled our way through to one of those.
Ow, my frickin’ ears!
Everything is fine *now*.
Old people are happy inside buildings.
I felt like a really old guy back at the car,
stiff, sore, sunburned. I had to have some hot food, but Steph was happy to
munch on leftovers. Pathetically, I sat inside wolfing down soup and bits of
chicken like the Steward of Gondor while she heated up some mashed potatoes on a
stove outside. Thinking about it, I’d say it’s that kind of persistence and
sticking to her guns that has made Steph great at the things she does.
We returned to a secret spot to sleep. It had a roof, which we were so happy about because now it rained harder than I’d ever heard it rain anywhere. An angry “Old God” with a firehouse was painting his fury on the country with short, savage strokes. Aside from a few more mice and spiders than usual, we were undisturbed and I slept like the dead.
For our last day we chose something easy. We’d do the famous “Mariakante” on the Piz Pordoi, at 5.6 and 10 pitches, with the chance to take a lift down to the car.
The view to the Marmolada from the Mariakante.
I was pretty beat, especially when the first pitch required me to visibly man up and pep talk myself past some slabby, polished cruxes.
Me tired. Me sore and weak!
Steph got the actual crux on this route, a wet vertical step onto sloping ledges. Higher, she got to experience the full galaxy of runout hilarity the Dolomites can provide, by following the obvious (and protectionless) dihedral above our belay. Apparently you should know better and beetle off to indistinct ramps well to the side. Pleasant enough climbing followed, but the main joy of this route is the novelty of the lift going by full of aghast people wondering when you’ll fall or “do something crazy.” But here we see why climbing will never make it as an x-treme sport. If you look at us long enough, everything we do appears entirely reasonable. And we just move too slowly, darn it. I’d call our game Disappointingly Rational.
We think the little girl in blue is a ghost.
A short scramble to the lift station.
After the awesome novelty of giving Steph a hip belay braced by the steel girders of the lift station, we were ready for coffee, cake and lift tickets. On the drive home Steph bought an ice cream sandwich with a cartoon on it. I think she even bought another one to see if it had a new panel, and it did.
The cartoon-laced ice cream sandwich.
Amazingly, Steph completed a whole serious of diagrams and route overlays on the way back to Munich, tapping away at her computer, filling in spreadsheets with german/english climbing terms and names of plant species discovered. All she had to do was get the Breath of Life (wifi) at our place, and her report was uploaded.
It was really, really neat to host Steph over here and do some climbs with her. She made me work harder than I’m used to…the European way got to me more than I thought it would! We were super lucky with the weather too. Thanks Steph!
Steph’s TR is here
My photo gallery from the trip is here (includes my photos and Stephs photos, which are marked).
Lots of slings, medium cams, draws. We mostly used a single 50m rope.
If it takes more than an hour you’re doing it rong.