“Bellavista” – Where it all started…
We travelled back to the Dolomites after a break in the bad weather would allow us to have a bit more time working the crux pitch. We had only had 2 days on the route so far and it had already seemed very possible to free climb, however the prospect of doing the whole route including all the separate pitches in one single push still felt like it would be a lot to ask – so many things would have to fall into place for this to happen.
Alpine and Big Wall climbing is approached in a very different way to other disciplines. It’s not about doing the climb free; it’s about getting to the top and experiencing the adventure that the climb takes you on. You can approach both with a multitude of varying styles i.e. free, aid, team, individual or mixed ascent. Each has its own merits and are impressive in their own way depending on the route. It does vary a lot with the conditions you get on your ascent as sometimes it’s just impossible to complete free or indeed can become very dangerous to attempt if the conditions are not right. You have to learn to take what you get sometimes and if your preferred style of ascent is not possible, then you just have to go with the most sensible option… My desire was to fully-free the route, climbing the most difficult and personally challenging pitches that I felt made the difference to the overall experience and to top out on the summit of Cima Ouest.
We spent our third and fourth day simply working the crux pitch, a really tough traverse that was already 6 pitches up on the face hundreds of feet from the ground on the most exposed face of the Dolomites and probably one of the steepest sections of multi-pitch climbing in the world! This pitch is famous for being the toughest in terms of technical difficulty and has proven to be a stand out test of ability compared with every other pitch. But saying that; the mental aspect of other pitches is far more demanding.
So, the idea for day 3 and 4 was for me to become immersed in the crux pitch. To learn it’s secrets and to become comfortable climbing it so that when we went for a full free ascent, I would be able to climb it on demand without too much hassle. What actually happened was that I struggled with the damp conditions those two days. I could link large sections of the crux pitch together, but I would find myself holding back simply because I was uneasy with the greasy nature of the rock. Unfortunately, the rock up there is very susceptible to damp conditions; it sucks in the moisture becoming almost permanently damp and slimy. It’s the kind of conditions that if you were at a sport crag you just wouldn’t bother climbing… However, Alpine Big Wall climbing is very different and you have to learn to just take what you get.
On the 4th day working the route, we bumped into Dave Macleod who was scoping out a potential new line (“Project Fear”) and trying the crux pitch of “Panorama”. It was good to chat to Dave briefly about “Bellavista” as he had done the crux pitch with Alan Cassidy on a previous trip. Dave told me that the conditions he had when he was successful where “Very windy and freezing cold”… So far all we had got was “zero to light wind and quite warm humid conditions”. It’s been the wettest summer in the Dolomites for 30 years and despite a number of professional climbers stating they would be out trying “Bellavista” now, they hadn’t bothered to show up on account of the weather…
On Day 4, I made some good links and realised that if I broke through the first 15m of climbing of the 55m pitch then there was the slight possibility that if I tried hard enough and pushed on through it, I could climb the remaining 40m even in bad conditions… I would just have to try BLOODY HARD!!! We had a day to rest; I said to Logan that I felt it might just be worth having an attempt to free from the ground on the assumption that all I needed to do this thing was the pressure to send! I already felt that I was holding Logan back slightly with this route as he wasn’t trying the crux anymore, just belaying me… Our ambition to climb this relied on my ability to free the crux pitch; I knew it was possible, the only thing holding me back was myself… I needed to be put on the spot, I needed to have to do the pitch, not just to prove I can do it, but to actually be in the situation where when I do it, we keep busting through the upper pitches to the top of the wall!
We spoke about what the best approach would be for us to climb the route… I wanted the full tick i.e. to free every pitch. In my eyes, that was by leading pitch 1 (7b), Pitch 6 (8c) and Pitch 7 (8a) then swinging leads of the rest. I had already lead the other pitches free onsight anyway and I didn’t feel they had as much to offer as those three. So it was decided that I would lead those on the day and Logan would lead the rest. I ended up linking pitch 1 (7b) and 2 (6c) together and Logan linked pitch 3 (6a), 4 (7a) and 5 (7a+) together. Logan getting excited at the belay… For me, there really was only two pitches that I was worried about (the 8c and the 7b). Pitch 7 (8a) was actually very easy, I thought it felt like a low-end 7b+. There was one tricky move after a huge rest and then it was good holds the rest of the way.
Pitch 1 (7b) I was really nervous about… The 7b pitch was scary; it had a 10m run-out to the first piece of gear (a rusty peg) then more run-outs between more rusty pegs (all suspect and one of which I know already wouldn’t hold a fall). Not to mention the rock quality here is terrible… foothold and handholds crumble off practically every couple of moves, you basically just can’t trust anything completely. Finally, the crux is a bit of a lunge around a small roof which you get to via a run-out from a very bad peg that pops out if you so much as look at it the wrong way… the rock quality in the roof is the worst on the route and I must have sent a good few kilos of choss down on Logan when I was on my lead here. Climbing this pitch for me was probably the toughest mental battle I faced on the whole climb. I knew in some places that if I fell, it wasn’t going to be a learning curve; falling at the roof would be a bad fall if that peg snaps.
I think I learned more about myself climbing that pitch than any other climb I have ever done… I discovered what I can handle and what the potential for me to do in that style is. After leading that very scary 7b and the following 6c, I was amped up for the crux pitch but still had to wait for Logan to follow me up and for him to lead the remaining few pitches, then I would follow him on second. Logan breezed through these alright but the conditions weren’t the best and both the 7a and 7a+ pitches were wet… I followed him with a rucksack on with all our gear and was finding it a really intense warm up for before the crux pitch. I managed to get through but took a fall on the 7a+ when my hand slipped out a massive wet jug just before the chains! I lowered down and repeated that pitch again just so I could claim the whole route free…
We were now at the belay of the 8c pitch… I wasn’t really nervous, I was psyched for giving this thing my all! I went up once just to pad out the holds with a fresh layer of chalk as the holds on the first section were all damp. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting for a successful attempt but I knew it wouldn’t get any better…
I just had to try!
I attempted to replace a broken pin that I had fallen on after the crux from a previous day but unfortunately the sky hook failed and I took a big fall onto another suspect peg… Nervous enough as it was, I decided not to try that again and came back to the belay. At the belay I took a 5 minute break, joked with Logan a bit and got myself prepared for the attempt… I was going through the sequences in my head, I had it all dialled. I knew if I got through the first crux then I could get through all the next section as well. And so, I went for it!
I climbed through the initial traverse section easily; it wasn’t hard, just damp! I wasn’t going to fall off here but the dampness of the holds doesn’t help for the upcoming crux sequence on the smaller more rounded holds. I rested on a couple of 3 finger pockets before committing fully on for the first part of the crux! A series of tenuous moves on damp sloping edges with smeary feet, and before I knew it I was resting on a jug pocket and positive crimp. I rested for a brief moment; long enough to recover some power but not too long to tire me out for the next hard boulder. I had fallen here a few times before when my hand would just slip of them without warning. I was slightly nervous about doing this sequence because I didn’t really want to have to go back to the beginning to repeat this all again, but I knew in my heart that all I had to do was fully commit!
I was quick, I took the pinch hard, through my feet out right, pressed the small gaston and screamed as I went for the jug! BOOM! I had it and I was pulling up to rest at the next big jug. This was my moment… I knew it! I had one opportunity here to take this to the end and to successfully free this pitch. I shook out here for about 5 minutes just trying to get as much back as I could. The jugs were damp but on each chalk up and shake the jug would feel slightly better to hold onto. I got everything back in that time and I just had to hold it together for the next section. I pressed on into the headwall of crimps and pockets… I was moving confidently despite the insecurity of wet feet and damp handholds. I knew I wasn’t going to be getting anything back if I started to over grip or distrust my feet, so I just focused on giving them all my weight where needed and hoping that my body tension would hold them in the right place.
I broke through the next crux! This was a relief because it was the one place after the main crux here I felt I really could fall… I continued the progression making it further and further along the wall. Occasionally I would do a committing move and scream for it just to bolster the confidence. I arrived at a mega rest where a heel toe lock allowed me to hang of backwards hands free with nothing but 400ft of air below me… The liberating feeling of hanging upside down from one of the most exposed pieces of rock on the planet was amazing! There is nothing else like it… I felt my energy return after a few minutes of carelessly dangling. I was psyched and ready for the upcoming climbing!
Only 15m from the chains now, it was almost over… I ran through the next sequence of moves in my head, then committed! My body flowed with the rock… everything felt in control. There was one move to a jug where I moved dynamically for it and accidentally punched it, but latched on as I fell back… close! I rested up again… 5m to go! I felt good and went for one last burn… the last 4m… 3m… 2m… I saw the chains… I pressed a gaston crimp, the index finger broke of a small chunk… SHIT! I matched it with my right hand… the pinky broke of something else… SHIT!!! I shifted my weight out left on some small crossly feet… I had run it out here skipping the last 2 pegs and was looking at a 10m run-out since the last rusty peg… I reached out and grabbed a slot in the wall, turned the right hand into an undercut and clipped the chains!
I was howling with happiness!
I couldn’t believe I had done the 8c pitch… We celebrated at the belay before deciding to lead the next 8a pitch. I tied in and went for it straight away managing to dispatch quickly without much effort (it’s probably only 7b+ anyway?). This was when our EPIC started… We accidentally climbed the wrong way and after an 8m run-out on terrible rock and no sign of gear, we realized something was wrong. We spent an hour trying to find the way before I decided to try traversing onto the Swiss route out right. The Swiss route was a good 10m unprotected traverse away, but I decided that that was better than climbing into the unknown above me…
We finally reached the bivy ledge only shortly before a huge thunderstorm hit us… The rain was heavy and the thunder and lightning terrifying! Logan and I huddled together for warmth and survivial from 7pm to 5am the next morning… That was the coldest night of my life!
I couldn’t feel my legs and at one point I was seriously wondering the likelihood of ever feeling my toes again? In the morning the rain stopped; the wind was strong and the waterfall raging over the top of the Cima Ouest had grown over night becoming a torrent over our line of ascent. We had not much option but to try and escape the route… We traversed under the waterfall getting quite wet, Logan especially as he had to belay under the freezing waterfall as I made the chossy traverse of the pillar! I was searching for a way to make an abseil. After traversing around 90m rightwards along a loose, chossy and scary runout ledge, we eventually reached a decent belay and made three double rope abseils off the tower.
When I finally touched the ground, I felt like kissing it!
Although we hadn’t summited the tower we had accomplished something amazing for us and were overjoyed to be able to revel in our experience back at the refugio! This experience has left me with no doubt in my mind that this style of climbing leaves something with you unlike that of any single pitch climb. Its a true battle with your body and mind. You have to be strong enough to do the route, mentally strong enough to deal with the fear, but more than anything, you must have the undying will power to keep going despite what happens. When shit hits the fan and things get wild, you have to be clever and decide what its worth. It’s not like giving up is even an easy option in any case, because escaping the route in bad conditions can be as hard as summiting. We were lucky when we traversed the right way and found the belays…
…but we might also have been unlucky!
If we hadn’t had found them, we would be in a worse scenario… If we had decided to press on the night before in an attempt to summit, we would probably be climbing in the dark in a thunderstorm and even if we reached the top, we would be wet, freezing, and spending the night up there with no way of getting down before 5am! I was strong enough to do the route which is a product of training, but equally, I am not an experienced Big Wall climber and I need to do more of this before I can really make a mark in this field (something I am really psyched about).
I am very happy that Logan was with me on this route, I don’t think I could have done it without him and I’m really psyched that we did this as a team – hopefully the first of many future adventures in the alpine!
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” ― Phil Jackson