The 5 Towers: Break it down!
As you all know, I’m a bit of a gear freak! So you can imagine how I got when planning our attempt at the 5 Towers (LINK HERE to the blog). I wanted to give us the best chance of success, which would mean making sure we had our skills down as well as having the right gear for the job. I have also been thinking about how others may be psyched to try and replicate our objective to the same or lesser degree e.g. even doing the 3 Towers of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo would be an amazing accomplishment. Some of you may know that we had attempted climbing the 3 Towers first (LINK HERE to the blog) and failed… the reason being we didn’t have the skills to move fast enough; such as:
- Bad route reading (getting lost on some of the routes and not knowing the easiest ways)
- Bad tactics (not using the right climbing system)
- Not knowing the descents
- And a bit of bad luck (weather…)
I’ve already been contacted by a friend who wants to do the 3 in a day, and the knowledge I now have would be really valuable to them, so hopefully this blog post could be of some use to more of you.
In the name of Efficiency!
We had decided in the name of efficiency to climb each tower in “Simul-Climbing” style – this would mean a much faster ascent because both me and my climbing partner Calum would be moving simultaneously for most, if not all of the towers. This approach adds a great deal of risk to it – our systems have to be flawless to make it both efficient and safe (as much as it could be anyway). But I also wanted us to have our rack down to an absolute minimum to save on weight thereby making the ascent smoother and in some respects safer. In my eyes, taking the option of simul-climbing was already a pretty risky style where falling is really not something we want to happen – so by making us both lighter, we reduce the risk of a fall thereby making the situation somewhat safer in a roundabout kind of way.
I spoke to a friend of mine who reckoned the 5 Towers could be done by pitching them out in a normal multipitch way, perhaps by linking some pitches together. Looking back at what we did, I think if you did that, you would have to be REALLY on it, moving fast but also you’ll be climbing throughout the day for much longer. It’s likely you’ll be climbing for a minimum of 20 hours… we simul-climbed them in 15 hours including descents and some unexpected mishaps, so I’d expect someone to be pitching the towers out to be taking probably at least 1.5 times this even if you’re moving reasonably fast on them.
The main issue I can see with pitching out the towers is the tiredness aspect – if I’m climbing constantly for more than 15 hours straight, I don’t think I’ll be in a good place. I’d be really worried about both my physical and mental state after 20 hours. If I was trying to cram 5 towers into a 24-hour window, I think the risk of making mistakes is much higher than the simul-climbing method personally.
Descents + Linking
On our first attempt at 3 Towers, one of the big mistakes I made was taking the wrong descent on Cima Ovest. The descent took hours, it was riddled with falling rocks and bad abseil points… it basically felt like death. This not only slowed us down, but it also tired us out, ruined our mental state (shattered as it was from being hit by a storm on a hanging belay only an hour or so prior) and lastly, ruined our ropes (our ropes got cut when rocks landed on them).
For the 5 Towers objective, we did a run up most of the towers before even if just to check the descents. This was really great as we discovered the best abseil points to come down, where we could avoid ropes getting stuck and also how the descents could link to the start of the next tower if we were clever with how we came down. We discovered that by doing Cima Ovest “Cassin” first, the descent could then take us straight to Cima Grande “Comici” if we made sure to descend in between the two towers. Then Cima Grande descends to the start of Piccola… and so on.
In the end, we had to change our plans due to unforeseen circumstances – too many parties on “Comici” – so the linking of descents and the start of the next routes didn’t entirely work out, but it would on a different day.
We opted for “Cassin” on Cima Ovest first because we had had problems being delayed by other parties on it on a previous day. This was a great decision as the climbing is more technical than on the other towers making it much harder to pass parties on the move.
“Comici” on Cima Grande was 2nd, but that was already busy when we arrived. If I could do it again, I’d suggest starting even earlier than we did so that you arrive at the base of Cima Grande around 6-7am-ish just after you’ve already climbed “Cassin” and descended. It took us 2 hours to climb “Cassin” simul-climbing it all and the descent was maybe 40mins or so to the base of “Comici”. If you started “Cassin” at 4am, you could certainly do this!
Originally the plan was to do “Innerkolfer” on Cima Piccola next as the start of that was literally 10m from the descent of Cima Grande – that didn’t happen. Instead we did “Preuß” on Cima Piccolosima (40mins) followed by “Comici-Fabjan” on Punta Frida. For us this was a good decision as we hadn’t been on “Comici-Fabjan” before and having the light to guide our way instead of worrying about doing it by head-torch was good.
My one recommendation to anyone who would do any link-up including the tower Punta Frida would be to watch for loose rock and sudden rock fall – it happens, I have first-hand experience of this! I wouldn’t do Punta Frida by head-torch, it’s a really shit tower and getting to the summit has it’s own dodgyness. It’s also tricky to find the descent on this one even in the day… I’d just do it by the light of day if possible.
Of course this meant we did “Comici” on Cima Grande last. Doing this sucked! We were really tired and having the biggest tower at the end of an already long day was not fun… I would have much preferred to have “Preuß” as the last of the day. We did also take the much harder and more sustained direct finish to “Comici” which might have added to the difficulties we experienced on it.
Getting the gear right…
So lets start of with the cold, hard, metal stuff that we clip ourselves to. The routes we were taking had lots of fixed pegs; often not great in quality, but if you’re not planning on falling off, then that doesn’t really matter too much. You can increase the margin of safety by clipping more pegs, but when your simul-climbing a 500m tower and don’t want to have to stop the “simul-climbing” to bring your partner up just so you can get all the gear back, your best bet is just to run it out 15-20m at a time… which is exactly what we did.
For example, on Cima Piccolosima via the “Preuß” we clipped 9 pegs in 220m.
When it comes to the gear you hang of your harness, every gram counts; this is why I went for the lightest mix of carabiners I could find – a combination of Edelrid “19g” and “Mission” carabiners with a 60cm 8mm Dyneema sling that will help reduce the rope-drag. We climbed with a rack of 28 of these self-made quickdraw sets and I barely noticed them on the harness.
Compare this to even a standard set of quickdraws and you’re looking at a HUGE difference in weight. I’ll be honest, it felt like cheating.
I didn’t want to put everything on just clipping pegs as I knew some of the towers might feel safer with the occasional cam to back up a dodgy looking peg or for when there are no pegs at all for 50m. I took a small single set of Totem Cams from size Black up to Purple of the standard set (Smallest to Largest: Black – Blue – Yellow – Purple) – in the end I think I placed the Purple piece once on the very final stretch of “Preuß” and I built a belay somewhere on the final stretch of “Comici” – if I did the Link again, I’d still take this small set of cams just in case.
I could have gone lightweight on my belay device by using the Mega Jul, but for the simul-climbing system I used a Gri-Gri 2 because it was much easier to take in and let out slack when I needed to on second – I did however take my Mega Jul for abseiling with. A really key thing I should mention is that I saved a bit of weight by using the incredibly lightweight “Pure Slider” carabiner. I have already been spotted on Social Media by folk who thought I was using a standard carabiner (not a screwgate/twistlock) with the belay device. This was in fact their misunderstanding, as the “Pure Slider” is an incredibly lightweight and slim locking carabiner which manoeuvres as easily as any standard carabiner; believe me when I say this, you won’t regret having a few of these babies in your arsenal! Use them for belay devices and clipping approach shoes or pack-away jackets to the back of your harness – you’ll never drop anything from up there ever again!
In the back of my mind I had this warning call… “What if it gets cold?”, “What if it starts to rain?”, “What if you get stuck in a storm and have to wait it out all night in the cold and wet?” – to be honest, these questions float through my mind on most big climbs which is why I usually take a good belay jacket in a small pack or climb with my Nano Air Hybrid (a really breathable jacket for long days of constant climbing). Sadly my Nano Air Light Hybrid was stolen from the base of a climb the week prior and to be honest, I was off the opinion that I could do without anyway.
How do you stay warm on a cold belay? Sometimes you have to get inventive. Especially when your climbing partner is in board shorts and a t-shirt 😫 . I wrapped us up on rope to try and keep us at least a tiny bit warmer and drier. It worked! . . . @patagonia 🌄 @patagonia_climb 🏞 @scarpa_uk 🇮🇹#NoPlaceTooFar @team_edelrid 🇩🇪#Team_Edelrid @eica_ratho 🇬🇧🏰#EicaRatho #Edinburgh @clifbar 🍫#FeedYourAdventure @frictionlabs 🖐#ChalkMatters @urbanuprising_climbing 🦊 @climbscotland ⛰#ClimbScotland . . . #AlpSesh2017 – #Climbing – #Climbing_Pictures_of_Instagram
I ended up going pretty much as light as you can go without being naked or in board shorts. I had the new “RPS Rock Pants” – they are a lot lighter than the previous models and for me, a step forward in construction. On top I went really light with the “Capilene Lightweight T-Shirt” – this was a decision I didn’t regret at all. It was SUPER lightweight, but I was moving so fast the whole day I would have been overheating badly in anything more.
And the best decision on that day (and every other day all Summer) was bringing along my “Alpine Houdini Jacket” – I knew it would come in handy, and it did! On topping out it was blowing a hooly (Very Windy!) and spitting with rain – the “Alpine Houdini” kept me protected from the heavy wind gusts and rain, keeping me toasty so long as I kept moving. I couldn’t say the same for Calum who was only in a t-shirt. I can’t really stress enough how effective even a lightweight windbreaker is in these situations; as soon as I put it on, I felt the warmth all over and it’s not even got an insulating layer. It takes nothing to clip the “Alpine Houdini” to the back of your harness, you won’t notice it when climbing and when you top out, it will keep you warm all through the descent.
This shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s actually something I think a lot of people don’t think about when they’re getting ready for a long day. Having the right approach shoes for me was vital – I wanted something that could get me to the base of the crag, that I could attach to the back of my harness without noticing and that I could easily manoeuvre safely on the rocky scrambly descent.
I had a pair of Zodiacs, one of my favourite Approach shoes for most things, but they were a bit bulky for what I wanted. I had one pair of Iguanas – a really lightweight approach shoe which I’ve always (on first glance) kind of thought they would be best kept for REALLY light approaches… like to a Club or Bar?
I went of course for the Iguanas, which ended up being one of the best decisions of the trip! They’re really light at 620g a pair, flexible making them easy to stash away in a pack and best of all, they’re super slim and tuck away nicely on the back look of a harness, streamlining your body and not getting in the way at all. Considering two MASSIVE sections of the 5 Towers Challenge included extreme chimneying, this would be important! The last thing you want is being held back down by your bulky sticky out shoes hanging of the back of your harness (I’ve been there before!).
Of course there is always room to improve on this sort off stuff. One thing that was recommended by me from a number of climbers is using Running Shoes for this. Having had a look online, even the lightest running shoes seem to be of similar weight to the Iguanas and they have the downside of not having a clipping point, but this easily remedied with a knife (or other sharp pointy object). Running shoes would also be designed for moving on wet ground, something thats really important in case your approach or descent is wet.
All in all though, I was mega impressed with the Iguanas for the light approaches of the Tre Cime – they held their own on wet rock that I had to scramble down on the descent of Cima Grande and if they had fallen off the back of my harness during the ascent, I still wouldn’t have noticed they were that good (I made sure they didn’t with the Pure Slider carabiner from Edelrid).
I’m looking forward to getting a pair of Gecko Air Flip’s this week – yet another super light weight approach shoe from Scarpa and seeing how they would fair compared to the Iguanas.
On the climbing part, I chose the Instinct Laces. This was a no brainer for me – a really comfortable shoe that performs well on technical climbing as well as when I need to wear them for hours on end – the laces are just great for being able to adjust when I want a looser fit. Saying that, with the upcoming release of the NEW Maestro’s, these will most likely replace the Instinct Lace in this area… Watch this space!
Earlier in the trip we were testing different rope systems to see what would be the most effective.
We started of with two Half Ropes (Apus 7,9mm) – a brilliant set of ropes for sure, but for the simul-climbing this wouldn’t really be an option.
We then tried taking a single rope (Eagle Light Pro Dry 9,5mm) and carrying a tag line (Rap Line 2 6mm) for abseiling using a full length single line, but we found the tag line got tangled too much causing unnecessary time wastage.
We then tried climbing with a single and using a half rope to double for abseils hoping that that would be a better option; but we found yet again that longer abseils caused more problems with ropes getting caught in cracks and crevasses, even occasionally pulling rocks on top of us if we couldn’t see where the ropes were coming from or if they got snagged on things on the way down.
I wasn’t sure what the best solution would be until I got sent the new “Canary Pro Dry 8,6mm” (Single/Half/Twin Rope). I decided to use the 70m 8,6mm line as a single and just doubling it up to make shorter abseils on descent… BEST DECISION EVER! The “Canary Pro Dry” is hands down the best rope I’ve ever used; handles like a dream, remains relatively unkinked and because we weren’t tying ropes together, we managed to avoid the knot getting stuck the entire day. Also, I’ve never seen a rope float through the air so effortlessly without congealing in one big massive fuck off knot… That might be my bad coiling, but then the “Canary Pro Dry” is immune to my shit coiling technique, which basically means it must have been made by Elves.
Sure we had to make a few more abseils not having a second rope to do longer 70m runs, but the speed of descent from not having to deal with ropes getting tangled and stuck more than made up for that.
The “Canary Pro Dry” was the unsung hero of the day – I can’t recommend this rope more highly!
Nutrition (and the support team)
OK – so you probably won’t have a team of dedicated professionals keeping you hydrated, fed and massaged… but neither did we. We had Eadan (Calum’s brother) and Marie (my girlfriend) carrying a small pack to the base of each route with water and food. Annoyingly, we were too fast (but more likely they were too slow) and they kept missing us at the base of the climbs which meant we didn’t drink water or eat food until three towers in!
For those without support teams (which is probably easier than having a shit support team like ours), I’d recommend stashing a bag with water and food at the base of the climbs so you have the option to take when you need it. Having a water bottle on the tower weighs you down and if you’re climbing them in 1-3 hour blocks, you can probably do without if you know you have water at the base.
Having a good source of Carbs to fill you up is good about mid-way through the day – we had a LYOFOOD pouch after the 4th tower.
ClifBars were great as quick fast energy throughout the day, but what I thought were exceptional were the ClifBloks we had which were filled with +30mg of extra Sodium to prevent muscle cramping. I used these all Summer in the Alps to huge success!
Extra caffeine would have been good – I had a pack of the +50mg Caffeine ClifBloks, but something extra would certainly have been nice. Before the 5th Tower (Cima Grande), I downed a can of Coke and that gave me a brilliant sugar/caffeine boost before the epic last climb; I did however notice that within an hour or so, all the effects had faded and I was climbing tired again. There is certainly room for improvement in Nutrition for future objectives.