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Marmalised on the Marmolada

rock wall Dolomites
South Face of the Marmolada in the Dolomites

11-12 Sept: Vinatzer-Castiglioni Route, Punta Rocca, Marmolada: The South Face of the Marmolada has a mythical status in European climbing. Fully 800 metres in vertical height with unremitting water-worn slabs and cavernous chimneys, the routes here are between 25 and 30 pitches in length. “Not to be underestimated” was the prevailing sentiment in our guidebook’s descriptions!

Neither Ian or I had been on the wall before. We warmed up with two routes on the nearby Sella Pass – 16 pitches of grade V, VI and VII- climbing, building confidence that we could master the Marmolada’s wall. After this pre-amble we should by rights have taken a rest day to recover and reconnoitre the face. However, the weather was set fair only for two days with rain and even snow forecast thereafter. If there’s one place you don’t want to get caught in a storm it’s in the Marmolada’s notorious exit chimneys. We had to get on with this one.

We made a brief camp at Malga Ciapela down at 1450m. Ian prepared the kit and I slapped together a food stash that largely comprised of mushy sandwiches and fruit pastilles. Fateful decisions were made that evening. We could never hope to walk in and climb the face in a day at our ages. A bivouac was inevitable, but we knew there were caves in the terrace two-thirds of the way up the wall. I opted to take my 2-season sleeping bag. Ian responded by packing his 4-season model. For two days we’d need 2 litres of water each – that’s 4kg in the bags! Before we knew it our loads got out of hand.

  1. Walking in to the wall up the Val d'Ombretta

  2. Martin leads the first pitch up the red chimney

  3. Ian follows pitch 3

  4. Beautiful slab at top of pitch 4

Then came the choice of route – a modern VI+, Don Quixote,which is easy to start but has the crux near the top and promised some heart-pumping leads, or the longer and more sustained Vinatzer-Castiglioni route, which was described as well-protected and offered the option of doing Reinhold Messner’s direct finish to complete the wall. We chose the latter, hoping that ‘traditional’ would mean ‘soft-touch’. Little did we know that the Vinatzer-Castiglioni is widely accepted as the hardest pre-war climb in all the Dolomites – surpassing the Comici or the Cassin routes on the Tre Cime. To reach the cave sanctuary we would have to climb 16 pitches, eleven of them at grade V and VI.

We walked slowly and calmly up the track to the Falier Hut in dawn twilight. The South Wall emerged from the shroud of night, overpoweringly impressive as was promised. The hut nestled in the pines, a model of rustic peace. The guardienne was baking cakes. Her husband asked us to sign a book of outgoing parties lest there be need for a later search. After three hours of walking and near to 9am we unloaded our bags at the foot of the deep red chimney that offers the only way through the overhanging lower tiers.

This first chimney could not be climbed with a sizeable sack. I back-and-footed over a growing void and wriggled up to a hanging stance at 30 metres, then hauled both bags while Ian climbed. A second grade V+ lead took me out on to a steep wall then teetered back into the chimney on smeary holds, 5a in UK trad grades with promise of a forty foot fall if I slipped. An old bolt hole was conspicuously left unthreaded in a statement of clean ethics. We might have expected a respite on the next pitch – a IV+. However, the route mounted a vile and unstable chimney with no pegs before gaining a more pleasant traverse out to a sunny rib.

Already, Ian was troubled.

“We’re not going fast enough, are we?” he asked.

With 16 pitches to dispatch in 10 hours of daylight we had to average 40 minutes a pitch. The three we’d done had taken an hour apiece.

A sensational bulge yielded only to a couple of aid points and moved straight into beautiful but delicate slab-land. Again the sacks were hauled. Now there came a soaring corner, 35 metres of wonderful laybacks at V+.

Pitch 6 presented the VI+ crux. I left my sack at the stance and got up an awkward crack in decent style – at UK rating of 5b. Thinking the hardships over I belayed close above and hauled the bags. Ian was too tired after seconding each pitch to contemplate swinging leads.

“We’re not going to reach the bivi cave at this rate,” he observed.

“We may as well try; the weather’s fine so there’s no point giving up until dark.”

I pushed on five metres to a slight easement in angle, but instead of breaking up, the limestone became smooth and featureless. A line of pegs stretched up a thin crack. Off came my sack yet again, and I aided up the pegs.

I imagined the utter commitment of Castiglioni and Vinatzer in 1936, pegging up this lonely crack with no obvious outcome. Hans Vinatzer was a local guide from Val Gardena. He published nothing and left only the briefest notes of his climbs. Clearly, he was a brilliant free-climber and a minimalist in use of pitons. He and Castiglioni did this whole route, presumably on-sight, in just two days. Tellingly, the Marmolada South Face was last new route he ever did. At age 23 he gave up the game and lived on to 81.

  1. Ian tops out from the crux crack

  2. Martin relaxes at the bivi

  3. Rest at the cave terrace at 470m

  4. Ian enjoys the easier terrain before the exit chimneys

After extricating myself from the aid crack and hauling the bags for a fifth time my fingers and elbows were locked in spasms of cramp. Regular infusions of fruit pastilles brought brief relief. We had done far too much climbing in the past two days and not nearly enough in the preceding two months!

The next pitch – another V+ forced me to climb six metres above the belay with no gear, uncertain of the correct line, fighting cramps and slowly relinquishing my mask of determination. With a despairing pull over a bulge I reached comfortable ledges, the first of the route. Thankfully, Ian now took up the reins and led two further V+ pitches to reach a sloping promontory.

“It’s half past six – we could stop here,” said Ian. I was only too pleased to agree. Though five pitches short of the snug bivi cave we couldn’t risk pushing into the night and then finding nowhere to sit.

We slung a rope above us and tied in, semi-hanging above the shaded abyss of the lower wall. The setting of the sun brought resplendent light over every jagged range of the southern Dolomites. We munched tuna and egg sandwiches, took a slug of water and settled down to a night of Mediterranean warmth and stillness. Sleeping bags were superfluous to survival but provided a cosy nest. After a couple of hours shifting my body between projecting flints of rock I found a sweet spot and dropped off.

At first light we entered another system of austere chimneys. Whether V, VI-, or IV+ in standard every pitch required a confidence that we didn’t really possess! At regular intervals stones fizzed down the chimneys, of size and speed that could maim. Perhaps a team was working up above us. The grip factor was unrelenting.

Come 10am a party who had started from the Falier hut that morning reached us. Martin was a young local guide and bridged over my head while I grovelled in a cleft trying to extract one of Ian’s cam placements.

“This climbing is just so fantastic,” he said.

I marvelled not at the climbing but at Martin’s level of talent and confidence. His client was no slouch either – a university professor from Zurich who seemed happy padding up the route in approach shoes.

Though mildly humiliating, the encounter gave us new resolve. Young Martin confirmed that the weather was set to hold for another 24 hours. No more did Ian question our timing. All we had to do was keep fighting and hold our nerve.

We stooped into the shade on the cave terrace, snacked and drank, and emphatically declined to attempt the Messner finish, which is open and slabby with two grade VI pitches. Instead we headed out right into the Vinatzer chimneys, reputedly nightmarish in wet or icy conditions but surely reasonable in the dry. No pitch in the top 200 metres was posted above grade V in difficulty.

The first section was genuinely easy – grade III with the occasional step of IV. We moved together with the odd running belay between us.

“I could climb this stuff all day,” I remarked, but we couldn’t escape notice of a vertical canyon that reared skywards blocking our exit from the face.

The rock became crumbled; the air noticeably chilled. Seeps of water crept down the left wall. The first chimney was devoid of pitons. Ian part-wriggled, part-aided and part-screamed his way through the cleft. I led through up two further substantial bulges, alternately bridging extravagantly on sloping biscuits, then thrutching desperately through squeeze passages. The only peg on the second pitch fell out when I clipped the rope in. The third pitch, advertised as a IV+, seemed solid E1, 5b in UK grading nomenclature, but at least sported some pegs and cam placements.

The stringy remnants of my triceps throbbed with pain from the continuous bridging manoeuvres and knee tendons stretched close to tearing point from endless Egyptian contortions, but every little pitch brought us closer to victory. Around 5pm a final step brought us into a wider gully under an open sky. Grade III subsided to II and with a long scramble we mounted the summit of the Punta Rocca, 2nd highest of the Marmolada’s summits.

  1. Ian at the summit of Punta Rocca

  2. Monte Civetta from our bivouac

  3. Other climbers topping out from the south wall at sunset

  4. Dawn from the summit

  5. Post-climb relaxation - a swim in Lake Garda

We’d missed the last cable-car back to Malga Ciapela by some margin so could savour the warm evening and feast our eyes on the jagged ranks of Dolomite peaks that marched to the horizon in every direction. We scrambled down to a snowy col at the head of the Marmolada glacier and sauntered over to the cable-car station, hoping that we might get inside and find a warm nook, but entry was barred by metal-roller doors.

The privation of another night in the open was hardly a bother. We laid out on rubber matting, slurped the last of our liquid and watched the stars. Marmolada had inspired reverence and humility in equal measure, its status as one of the greatest climbing arenas of the world enhanced by exacting grading and impeccable ethics – definitely a place that’s “not to be underestimated”. Go when you’re either young or fit, preferably both!

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