Climbing Marmolada’s South Face: First Big Wall, First Big WOW!10 min read
I tried to create my first graffiti in the summer of 2015. The canvas—a wall. The art—a dream.
They say people enter our lives with a purpose, leaving nothing to pure chance. Yet, it is often only when we look back that we see the pattern. Who would have guessed that my first graffiti attempt would become the signature under a pact. One destined to come to life when least expected.
The law of attraction dictates that whatever can be imagined and held in the mind’s eye is achievable if you take action on a plan to get to where you want to be. And so, two years later, Sasho and I find ourselves at Rifugio O. Falier, looking at Marmolada’s South Face. My partner—inspecting in detail the line through binoculars, me—enjoying the bigger picture.
To get to the essence of this great adventure, I need to explain that we love climbing and enjoy every style it offers. Trad climbing, however, hasn’t been very present in our lives. Nevertheless, here we are—off to climb a 1000 meter face with a CV of a few trad lines. Teamwork flow emerges on the go.
On July 15th we check out the weather forecast for the Dolomites. Only rainy days ahead.
“It is what it is, man.”—we smile at each other, fill up the car and off we go.
Welcome to the Dolomiti
First stop is Tre Cime di Lavaredo. A mind-blowing start that requires a story of its own. We arrive just in time to set up the tent. The cruelty of the wind makes us search for an alternative to the parking lot and the surrounding ares. We find shelter in a war tunnel in the rock. On the following day, there is a queue for the line we have chosen, followed by a traffic jam on the stances.
Confusion, search for the abseil line, one forgotten head torch, another almost out of battery, smartphones saving the night with light, and thousands of stars—those that belong to the sailors, were just some bits of the adventure that day. Well, we are back at the car in daylight but the date is different.
The forecast shows thunderstorms for the next all days that fit on the screen. Most climbers change their coordinates but we stay. We have a goal, plus it’s not like we believe the forecast. It turns out, our disbelief opens an umbrella, as there were thunderstorms but somehow always in the surrounding areas.
Our next stop is Cinque Torri—another kind of a Disneyland. A place where you can go trad climbing for breakfast, grab lunch at the parking lot or the hut, spend the afternoon sports climbing, and dine with the opportunities the next day offers.
On July 21st, we are sitting on the bench in front of Rifugio O. Falier. Sasho is becoming one with the binoculars, while I am looking for the forecast prophesy. I keep clicking on the refresh button until I find some sort of hope. And there it is—a window opens on July 27th and 28th. We believe the forecast now. After a quick detour to Sella Pass, we end up at the Malga Ciapella campsite. There we strategically park our car, just a stone throw from the cable car, with which we are expected to come down.
The morning sun is promising. We carefully lay down the gear and start packing as the trill for adventure bubbles in our veins. Meticulous preparation is crucial as each gram matters and so we manage to downsize all the gear. We leave the parking lot with a backpack full of positive vibes and a determination set in stone.
Tuesday, July 25th—hike up to Rifugio O. Falier before the usual afternoon storm and stay the night.
Wednesday, July 26th —go to the base of the face, leave our stuff, check the route and stay another night at the refugee.
Thursday, July 27th —go up Vinatzer route and bivi on the ledge midway.
Friday, July 28th —top out via Messner and possibly catch the last cable car at 16.30h.
Without much fuzz we head up the path that leads to our adventure’s gateway. The first view of the face reminds of tales, lords and rings.
The beginning is normal—Sasho, the duffle bag and me, three dots plotting an escape from the flat life, in an attempt to blend in with nature’s perfect imperfections. Before leaving we are told:
“You guys, do the first six pitches and assess whether to continue or not, as his is the last point of possible return”.
We reach the spot, I check the time—it’s 4 p.m. It’s late. Go big or go home? Our decision is somehow easy. We go big, for big is where home is.
The next pitch acts as a preview of what would follow. As I belay my partner on a technical clean cracked corner, a rock with the size of a fist falls on my helmet. Darkness, followed by a reedy sound in my ears put me in shock.
– Are you ok? Shit, how did this happen?!
– Yep, yep, conscious and alright. So, those helmets serve their purpose after all.
It might be wiser to turn back and rappel down. But as Terry Pratchett would say:
Wisdom comes from experience. And experience is often the result of lack of wisdom.
Instead, we dive into the survival mode of the unknown. There, we find both comfort and pleasure. That night by no surprise, we are far from the bivi ledge. Using hammer and wedges, we build what becomes a home for the night. And surprisingly, we sleep. This is for both of us our first hanging bivi. Ans you never forget your first one.
The following day begins with the freshness of a morning far from the civilised vanity. We climb in the shadow and cling to the warmth of the thought that the sun is shining somewhere on the other side. The pitches become suspiciously abstract. The day is clumsy. Clearly, there will be another bivi. We take it easy and enjoy the hell of it.
From a helicopter’s point of view, it becomes clear that the three Bulgarian dots (both climbers and the duffle bag) are no longer in the trajectory of the line they are supposed to climb. Could it be a first ascent? Clearly not, but there is a masterpiece in the heart of it—one which we draw with our fingers up the crumbling rock. The afternoon is wrapped with clouds whose texture becomes a playground for the wind. Surreal forms dance in the sky, while we dance our way, lost in the void of the wall.
We reach the ledge in the afternoon, about 20 hours out of schedule. Why the rush? Who knows when we get to experience something similar again? We are almost out of food and water, but we have 2×50 ml mini shampoo bottles filled with homemade rakia—a traditional Bulgarian spirit, carefully placed in the medical kit. We carry that for disinfection, of course.
That night we don’t sleep roped up the wall. What a comfort! Until the wind blows the “comfort” and turns it into “the front line”. The wind is merciless. We use the falling apart rocks to play an afternoon game of Tetris and build a fortress with them. Later, an exploratory walk at the base of the gully allows us to fill some water from leakage on the wall. We are happy to find the unexpected source of water, because we are yet to find out that instead of saving the day, that leakage will be sabotaging the following. The sunset spills like nectar on the horizon. Exhaustion puts us to sleep.
Dawn cracks the third day with its poetry. Hope crawls in the air with the promise that today might just be the day I get to put my hands around a cup of cappuccino. Unfortunately, hope remains an illusion of a parallel world which we abandon the moment we enter the gully. The third day, that gully and Sasho’s heroism are a tale which can hardly be described with words. Rock fall, waterfall, mud, ice, a cocktail of horror without any possibility to place protection—this is what the third day is all about.
– What about the next pitch?
– Follow the gully!
And so we follow the gully in a daytime nightmare. Thirteen pitches of war, us against all the bullet-like rocks. We make our way up, soaked in icy water and mud. Thirteen pitches of what is anything but climbing. From all the ancient gear that is left, one can deduct that this line was climbed for the first and last time decades ago. Midway the gully, we find ice. The climbing shoes are no longer in handy, neither are the approach shoes. Where are the crampons and the axes? In the car.
We come out of the gully and reach the top at around 3 p.m. Of course, we top out at a different from the intended location. Even though we could see the cable car, it takes us another 3 hours to do the traverse. It is on that final put that we reach the climax of the story. Sasho negotiates a crumbling pitch which starts with a few hard boulder moves. We have neither visibility, nor audible communication. What we have, though, is a stuck rope.
No rope communication.
I try to call him.
In the meantime, he tries to call me and drops his phone to the void below.
Half an hour goes by.
I try to do the boulder moves but my backpack is too heavy and drags me back. The elongation of the rope contributes to a few falls on my but. There is an easier but more dangerous way on the side, as it crumbles. The rope length won’t allow me to reach it, so I consider unroping and going up solo.
After hundreds of attempts to pull out the rope from the place where it was stuck, some magical force of nature and physics makes it happen. Maybe we both put force on the rope at the very same moment as if orchestrated and that creates a wave which untangles it. Maybe, something else. As we continue, luck smiles at us and we find Sasho’s phone on the edge of a crevasse on the glacier. He rappels and saves it.
When we reach the cable car, there is no one left. It is just us and the storm, bubbling up the clouds which remind me of the cappuccino I am craving. After climbing up the facade of the building to check for open windows, we take shelter next to the cabin. With neither food, nor water (though there is plenty pouring down—a treat from Zeus), that final night we don’t get much of a sleep. Euphoria and nostalgia dance the tango in our minds.
On the fourth day, we welcome the first cabin looking as dashing as one could look after three days and nights on a wall. The staff is laughing, our looks are nothing they haven’t seen before. The story ends with me having that cappuccino—subjectively the best I’ve ever had.
Someone once said that what we hate can shrink and destroy us just as much as what we love creates us again. If a man is a skeleton of fears, dressed in the flesh of hope, then we break every single bone to dress our existence in sense. Don’t be careful what you wish for and let it just be, after all:
It is what it is, man!