Tre Cime – 3 in a Day

Climbing began in the mountains; but over the years as climbers strived to better themselves, improve and explore new styles, climbing itself evolved, changed and became an all encompassing term for so many things. Today, climbing is not just on mountains; it’s at crags and on boulders. It’s on rock, ice and plastic. It’s even done on buildings! Climbing has become so much more than it was 100 years ago and it seems to me that every time I blink I see the development of the sport take yet another dive in a different direction with even more possibilities.

My love for climbing started indoors as it does for many of my generation; but just like climbing has, my own climbing found new paths and directions. As I grew older and more experienced, they ironically led me back to the mountains.

Calum looking on at the Tre Cime with the same total and utter awe of their majesty as I had when I first stood before them

At this moment, I’m sitting in the van with a cup of tea; we are in the Dolomites and the rain is beating hard of the metal roof like thousands of tiny steel drums. Today I tried to go climbing but I was to exhausted from a monumentally massive day I had only a couple of days ago. My climbing partner, Calum Cunningham and I attempted to climb all three peaks of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 24 hours. On paper this seemed reasonable enough, but in practice it was a different story.

Our goal was to climb the peaks via the “Comici Dimai” on Cima Grande, “Cassin” on Cima Ovest and “Spigolo Giallo” on Cima Piccolla. The individual pitches of these climbs are nowhere close to our limits, but the seriousness of these climbs is not to be underestimated. They are big walls of up to 500m in length with mixed protection (mostly pegs and Trad gear); the main issue with linking all three in a day for us is being able to ascend fast, descend fast (and safely) and get the right weather conditions, which can be hard in the Dolomites. Getting stuck on a wall in the middle of a storm is a worry; three years ago I experienced first hand what a night on Cima Ovest in a storm is like when my partner (Logan Barber – AUS) and I were held captive by the storm during our ascent of “Bellavista”. I can vividly remember being unable to feel my legs for the entire night, hugging Logan for warmth and trying to be strong, as my mind drifted towards reasons why I would never be doing this again. And yet here I am; obviously one night on a stormy ledge was not enough to deter me. In fact it may have planted a sick seed of inner love for tormenting myself in such places.

We started in darkness and caught the early morning sunrise high on the wall of Cima Grande – The only better location would be on top of the wall!

At 2am we began our attempt at the Three Peak Challenge. The first climb was “Comici”, the biggest of the three and the most famous, being a classic climb on Cima Grande, one of the six north faces of the Alps. We climbed fast and efficiently making only a few route-reading errors that cost us some time; we topped out earlier than expected and within the next couple of hours had descended and were ready for the next tower.

I stood atop Cima Grande pretty psyched with our time – I wasn’t in too much of a rush that I couldn’t stop to get a hero pose!!!

Confidence is imperative to success. But confidence is never too far away from arrogance, and this leads to complacency. I was confident we would be successful; in fact I didn’t think we could fail. We had climbed “Comici” in what I thought was an unbelievable time and I really didn’t see how we could be slowed down.

“Cassin” started as well as “Comici”; we made quick progress up the first section of the climb, even managing to link pitches together that sped us up significantly. By the time we reached the crux pitch of “Cassin” I felt we were going strong. It was Calums lead and I was hoping he would just run through this pitch. But just as he started, a vicious wind picked up and I could see that this wasn’t making it any easier for him. This pitch in particular is extremely exposed and protected solely by old rotten pegs on bad quality rock. In the distance I was watching as dark clouds poured over the mountains and something hazy in the distance distorted the air; what was it? I thought it might be rain, but it looked different… As it drew closer, the wind picked up even more and this really affected Calums confidence on the pitch. But despite everything he kept it together and dispatched the crux. I seconded and met him at the hanging belay; the ropes were being thrown horizontal across the wall and I could tell he was feeling the exposure and was still shell-shocked from the epic pitch he had bravely lead.

Calum leading out the crux roof pitch of “Cassin – Direct Finish” 7a. Despite the relatively low grade, this pitch is extremely exposed on suspect rock and given the windy conditions, was a bloody impressive lead!

As we got higher the weather began to change and I could see a front coming in. Like a massive tidal wave, the clouds rolled over the mountains and slowly the wind built up bringing eventually the downpour of rain that we had see from afar. We sat at our hanging belay, feet dangling hundreds of metres of the deck, helpless like two tiny insects splatted on the windscreen of my van. We sat there laughing, finding hysteria in the situation. I thought for a second back to the last time I was in the Dolomites stuck in a storm; I didn’t find it as funny back then. Maybe this is what happens with prolonged exposure to the extremes… is this insanity? But I know now that finding the funny side is not a bad thing; if anything it only makes us stronger and better at dealing with the situation. The storm passed, relief set in and we continued to the top; another tower complete.

Calum seconding one of the final pitches of “Cassin” before the storm set in and locked us down on our hanging belay for the next hour or so…

We had lost some time due to the storm, but I was still confident we could continue for a 24 hour ascent of all three towers. We only needed to quickly descend Cima Ovest and finish on the much shorter Cima Piccolla as our final tower; but life is never that simple. The descent of Cima Ovest turned out to be the bullet that would finish us. I would find out later that I took us down an abseil point on the opposite side of the tower that is rarely used. This sent us through seriously dangerous terrain where falling rocks and dodgy abseils were standard. The descent took us another 2+ hours where the standard descent would have taken us 40minutes. Not only that, but the constant dealing with harsh scree and falling rocks drained us of energy. We arrived at the bottom of Cima Ovest drained; and as the final rays of light left, we walked along the base of the towers, arriving finally at the bottom of Cima Piccolla in complete darkness. As we racked up for our next route, Calums headtorch made a flash and the low battery warning came on… No spare battery; rooky error!

There are times in your life when you find the energy to keep going; to keep pushing beyond your perceived limits in pursuit of a goal. I think we pushed ourselves pretty far that day; not as far as we could have, but at the point of Calums head torch running out of battery with no spare left, I decided to pull the plug on this attempt. We were tired; we were empty; and we had 10 more “easy” pitches to climb in complete darkness with 4 hours to go. This is how accidents happen; the kind of accidents that are hard to return from and we weren’t willing to take that risk today.

This ain’t sport climbing! What I’ve learned from climbing in the Alps is that sometimes you have to trust things you really don’t want to trust…

Having not taken on a challenge like this before, I was really happy with how we did considering the lack of experience and knowledge of the routes. The original idea for the challenge came from a friend of mine, Fritz Muller (Alpine Guide and Professional Alpinist) who had completed this before. With knowledge and a review of better tactics, Calum and I want to attempt to repeat a much harder goal on the Tre Cime for our second round. Instead of climbing three peaks, we want to attempt a repeat of the Belgian Claudio Barbier’s five routes in a day on the Tre Cime (which he did in 1961, solo!) including “Cassin”, “Comici”, “Preuss”, “Dulfer” and “Innerkofler”. We won’t attempt it solo, but using faster team tactics, we believe we can pull this of, thereby completing our initial goal of “Three in a day” and hopefully upping it to “Five in a day”!

Have we set ourselves up for a massive fail taking on once again more than we can chew? Perhaps… but I’ve never been one to go in half-arsed. I’ll stick all my eggs in one basket, chuck it of the side of a cliff and hopefully by the end of summer, they won’t all be broken.

Inside Cima Grande, the glimmer of the setting sun turns the rock orange and makes a pretty testing situation feel a lot more relaxing.

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