5 Towers : 15 Hours
It’s impossible not to be stopped dead in your tracks by the pure awesomeness of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. When I first gazed upon them, I can remember feeling the sick uneasiness of their immense size – the idea that I would be trying to climb up one of them seemed a crazy impossibility. Of course the day eventually came on that first Dolomites trip, when I climbed up through the steep foreboding roofs of Cima Ovest and up over onto the final stretch of grey slabs that would take us to the top. But that wasn’t to be; my partner Logan and I got hit by a storm and were forced to shelter below a roof only half way up the massive face. That was one of the coldest nights of my life and one I would never forget. The wall seemed even more intimidating after that as the prospect of getting stuck up there again has always kind of terrified me…
Flash forward to the summer of 2017, Calum and I have already had an attempt at climbing 3 towers in a day (Link to Blog Here), which we failed at, and now we are back for Round 2 – this time we want to climb 5 towers in a day! Seems a bit of a strange way to do things, to try something, fail, and then return for an even BIGGER and HARDER variation of the same project!
Well, there is a good reason for this…
When I first started to contemplate our return to the Tre Cime for Round 2 of the 3 Towers Link Up, I wanted to make sure that our climbing systems would be as efficient as possible. We wouldn’t be wasting any time! We’d need to know the routes, know the descents and be moving constantly. No wasted time at belays, just pure efficiency. After mulling over different conceptual systems, I eventually came round to the idea of using “Simul-Climbing” systems to improve our efficiency on each tower.
Simul Climbing (Explained)
For those that don’t know, simul-climbing stands for “Simultaneous Climbing) – it’s a method of climbing where both the Leader and the Second are climbing at the same time i.e. Simultaneous.
Imagine belaying your partner on a 200m wall. When they reach the end of what rope you have available, instead of the Leader setting up a belay stance, you (the belayer) just start climbing. In theory, the gear between you and the leader acts as the protection in case of a fall. That system works out well so long as the leader falls off, because then the second is only pulled up a bit, just like when they are belaying, but… imagine if the second (belayer) falls off! In that scenario, they would drag the leader off the wall in whatever position they are in – hence the dangerous aspect of simul-climbing.
This turned out to be an amazing system to improve our speed on the towers. We first experimented with it on Cima Piccolosima via “Preuß”. What would normally take a fast team probably anywhere between 3 and 4 hours to complete took us little over an hour.
We next experimented with it on Cima Ovest via “Cassin”, only pitching out the 7a pitches because we were worried that we might fall on those. We got slowed down by other parties on the route that day, but to give an idea to how fast we were able to move; when we started the route the first party was already half way up the climb and within an hour we’d reached them! Needless to say, Calum and I were seeing the benefits of simul-climbing, realising then that if we used these systems for a second round at the 3 Towers challenge, it would in fact be way too easy – we’d need to up the game otherwise we’d be finished the 3 towers before lunchtime!
I had been in touch with Rolando Garibotti, a local to the Dolomites and extremely knowledgeable of the routes we were doing as well as the history of climbing here. He had told me of an incredible link up made by the Belgian Claudio Barbier in 1961 where he Free Solo’d the 5 main Towers of the Tre Cime (Cima Grande, Cima Ovest, Cima Piccola, Cima Piccolosima and Punta Frida) in a day! This blew my mind as not just an incredible feat for the day, but also one that in the present day would be considered a world-class level in the art of Free Solo climbing. This was how I came up with the 5 Towers link – to try and replicate Barbier’s incredible day out, not Free Solo, but partnered up with Calum for what would be one of the biggest days of our life.
Having spent a great deal of time in the mountains, I’ve learned just how true the phrase “Knowledge is Power” actually is. With knowledge comes confidence, with confidence comes commitment, and with commitment comes the potential for success. I wanted to know everything about the climbs in the 5 Towers link; I didn’t want there to be any more room for potential failure to exist.
Cima Ovest – “Cassin”
We decided to climb the “Cassin” once on Cima Ovest to scope out the line and see how our Simul-Climbing systems faired – this was a great success bar the extra parties which was why we decided to make this our first tower of the day (hopefully nobody would get up as early as we did). We had previously had an epic on Cima Ovest with the descent, so we scoped this out and found that it was actually a really easy descent and that I’d just fucked up on the first time.
Cima Grande – “Comici”
We had climbed “Comici” once before and knew what to expect so decided that we didn’t need to climb this again
Cima Piccola – “Innerkofler”
We surprised ourselves with this one by basically soloing it. We kept on expecting some harder terrain, but actually every pitch felt very reasonable to just solo and we only roped up for the final chimney which was really polished and exposed… we definitely didn’t feel like risking our lives for 10m of polished squirming.
Cima Piccolosima – “Preuß”
This turned out to be the most enjoyable climbing we’ve done all summer; essentially a 200m chimney, “Preuß” was an amazing pitch of climbing when you simul it the whole way!
Punta Frida – “Normal Route – by Dülfer”
We had an epic trying to figure this one out! The first day we tried to ground up from the base of the North Face. We climbed to the point I realised that simul climbing on this shit quality rock was death on a stick! After pitching out a bit further and realising that this was actually not fun at all and just felt like climbing on compacted mud, we made the precarious escape of the North Face to return the next day via a different entry point.
We had found out that by descending Piccolosima further right on the West col, we could reach the base of the start of the “Normal Route” on the saddle between Piccolosima and Punta Frida – this was the beginning of our second day of nightmares. Turns out the “Normal Route” on Punta Frida is just complete choss and should be kept at viewing distance, never to be touched or considered climbing by all those who value their lives.
We were recommended another route on the South East face, “Comici-Fabjan”, promised as a much higher quality climb than those on the North Face with solid rock and enjoyable climbing, I decided that instead of trying to replicate exactly what Barbier did, I’d be satisfied with a more modern link-up with the apparently much better route on Punta Frida. We didn’t bother trying this route under the assumption that it was nothing like it’s North Face counterpart.
The BIG Day!
We rested up for 2 days, spending more money than I’d have liked in a supermarket in Cortina and gorging ourselves on delicious Pizza from the neighbouring tourist spot of Misurina – the next day we would be waking at 4am for the push! I don’t find it easy to get up early, but with a prospect of all-day climbing and a project like the 5 Towers to complete, I’m a little more motivated. All I really need is a cup of Yorkshire tea and I’m ready to GO!
At the base of Cima Ovest I was feeling a little nervous. In numbers, this was the hardest tower to complete with pitches up to 7a (5.11d) to complete – not only that but we’d decided to simul-climb the whole way. I was on second meaning it really was up to me NOT to fall off; however we had a backup… We were going to use a micro traction (a rope grabbing device with metal teeth) clipped on to a piece of protection after the hard climbing, so in the case of a fall from me, the rope would be caught by the device and hopefully wouldn’t drag an unsuspecting Calum viciously of the wall.
We started to climb…
About 150m into the climb Calum shouts out “I’m at the 7a pitch!” – it’s OK for him, a fall is still safe and he climbs without any issues. Before long I arrive at the 7a pitch and begin traversing on the small single pad edges, pockets and slightly insecure blocky pinches that looked as if they were held on with not much more than a slither of compacted rock. I tentatively climbed through this, smearing on the blackened feet that several generations of climbers have been polishing over the last 70 years. Unknowingly, Calum was watching me from afar, secretly shitting himself that I would fall – he’d forgotten he’d placed the Micro Traction, but thankfully we didn’t get to test it.
After the 7a, our climbing sped up and we flowed through the pitches where previously other parties of climbers had held us back. We topped out Cima Ovest in 2 hours!
The descent didn’t take long – we’d agreed to meet Eadan and Marie at the base of our next route on Cima Grande where they would supply us with food and water, but when we arrived, they weren’t there. Not only that, but already on the wall were 5 other parties not including a 6th racking up. We looked up at the busy wall and decided that we didn’t want to add to the confusion already going on up there, and so headed direct to “Preuß” on Piccolosima which we knew we could get out of the way fast.
There was one party on “Preuß”, a couple of friendly South Germans who allowed us to move past them without a hitch. We moved faster than we’d ever moved before; at the top I put Calum on belay, and as he topped out on the 220m high tower I could see he was out of breathe. We summited Piccolosima in 40minutes!
We moved onto the next tower, Punta Frida, the one tower we had had problems with but were sure we wouldn’t experience the same again on the South Face. When we arrived at the base we saw one party ahead and so hoped we could move past at the big ledge system, but when Calum arrived it became clear it wasn’t one party, but three! We saw an opportunity to bypass the others by taking a different route up the tower, which we were successful with only meeting one other party after the two lines met again.
Then disaster struck…
Calum had climbed up a section of wall well above where the normal route leaves for the descent and had put me on belay. We were worried about rock fall here; it seemed the quality of rock declined from where we had just been. I was moving slowly and carefully through the terrain when a rock fall occurred. A block the size of a TV fell towards me; I managed to dodge it but it fell down onto the ledge below and shattered sending shrapnel in all directions, scattering down over the edge of the rock face where we had just come from. Absolutely shocked, I hurried to Calum to see how he was – he was also in shock for he had just watched as I had almost been hit and sent of the side of the cliff. Not only that, we were both worried for the climbers below. I hurriedly fixed a line and abseiled down to meet the climbers below and see what the damage was.
A German couple sat about 3 pitches below us, the guy was nursing a sore leg but the woman was OK. I asked how they were and if they needed support – they were OK but just wanted to come up to the next ledge to assess the situation. One of their ropes had been melted by the falling rocks and was in no state to climb on. They said they were OK to descend on their own as another team they were with was coming from below and that they would go down together. I joined Calum at the belay and assured him they were all OK – Calum was still not in the best state of mind after the rock fall and so I needed to ask him how he was to continue. He wanted to push on, but I could see that he was not in the same fit confident state as before.
When we summited Punta Frida, it wasn’t with the same empowering fit of glee and motivation as the other peaks, we were just glad to have this fucking tower over and done with! On the descent, a second block got knocked off when my abseil ropes pressured itself against it; this time was even closer than the last and I started to question whether Punta Frida was indeed out to kill us?
The thought of whether the first rock fall was caused by my movements came into question. Did I cause the suffering of a fellow climber below me? I didn’t know? It all happened so fast… The idea has since haunted my mind each and every day; I haven’t been sleeping well on that thought.
The 4th tower was Piccola, a perfectly simple and fun climb to try and ease the mind back into the game. We summited within half an hour and were back on the ground within the hour.
We met Marie and Eadan for some much required feeding and watering – I can tell you now, food has never tasted so good! Calum and I were starting to feel the tiredness kick in; but with only 1 tower left, we weren’t about to give up now. We walked to the base of Cima Grande with a spring in our step; energy was returning, I could feel the workings of the food we had just devoured and there was some form of motivation where before there had been nought but the desire to curl up in a ball under a boulder and sleep.
Cima Grande was my lead… “Here we go!”
I had forgotten how sustained “Comici” was. All I could remember of this wall was a tricky first pitch and the rest being kind of easy, but for some reason it all felt hard. I was racked up with around 28 quickdraws, five small cams and a couple of micro-tractions to place when I felt it would be wise. Before long I could feel the weight of the rope weighing down on me, I was placing a few too many quickdraws and the rope was catching drag from the sneaky snake-like winding of the route. I decided to move out of simul-mode and put Calum on belay for a bit; when he reached me he put me on belay again and we did another long stint of simul. Once again though, the winding of the “Comici” line got the better of me and I could feel the drag before the final pitch of the first half of the route. I belayed Calum up to me again when he said in a drowsy voice “Man, I’m so happy you put me on belay for that section because I thought I was gonna fall off!” – he was feeling the effects now too.
As we sat at the belay I knew there was only one pitch to reach a ledge, but it was getting dark and I was so tired. I asked Calum if he would take this one lead just to get me to that ledge because I didn’t want to feel the exposure of the sharp end for just a bit…
He happily took the lead. And then it was dark…
On the ledge we put our headtorches on and I continued upwards. I took the direct line through the enormous fissure – not the classic “Comici” finish as it had rained and we worried that the more popular easier line would be wet. That was probably a mistake…
The fissure didn’t have much gear; I was slinging rickety blocks inside the crack that seemed like they should hold a fall, then running it out twenty metres or something? I could feel the drips of rain occasionally blow into the crack and the idea that it might start raining properly filled me with dread. Calum was always about 50m below me, connected via the life-line such that it was; a part of me considered it more like an anchor waiting to drag me down through the deep dark crack should Calum fall off. The more adventurous side of me told myself that if Calum did fall off, I could hold him by squeezing inside the crack acting as a sort of human cam… maybe I should ask Andy Kirkpatrick about that one?
The crack just seemed to never end; I couldn’t remember it being so fucking long! Eventually I reached a ledge; drained and unable to consider climbing any further for at lest 20minutes, I brought Calum up on a makeshift belay. I couldn’t recognise where we were, but Calum figured out we were only a few pitches to go, and so I continued on up. I got to the top of the crack and Calum lead out for the final pitch. I couldn’t hear whether or not I was on belay, but the rope went tight and I didn’t really care anymore, it was always a big solo anyway…
On top of Cima Grande we were just relieved that it was finally over. The sensation of accomplishment that I’ve had from other big climbing objectives couldn’t be experienced; I was just too knackered. Not only that, but we still had to get down (the next challenge)!
Getting down took longer than expected; the darkness changed everything. Familiar features and shapes seemed to manifest everywhere I looked; the wind was howling, the rain was pelting and Calum was shivering in his t-shirt (what a numpty).
When we finally touched the ground, it was like an enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders; it could piss it down for all I cared, we could get back to the van in half an hour, we would survive!
The 5 Towers Link in a day is a phenomenal amount of climbing that equates to over twice the size of El Capitan. To think that this was done in 1961 completely solo by Claudio Barbier is insanely impressive and a testament to how far ahead of the pack he was. Saying that, the game of climbing back then was different – they were more like Alpinists and less like focussed Rock Climbers, meaning his technical level might not have been as high as ours, but his ability to move on dodgy rock fast whilst dealing with insane exposure and all without the security of a rope, would have been far superior.
Completing the 5 was an incredible insight into what Barbier did, but not only that, it was also a wonderful introductory challenge to the game of mountain link ups and fast Alpine style ascents. I am already thinking about what to do next for my next big Alpine challenge…? I have some cool ideas already for some seriously hard new links in the Dolomites, but I’m actually really keen to see what I could do back home in Scotland…