The "Rampenführer", IV+, 17 pitches (attempt)
It was the most relaxed of trips. I guess that makes sense. When you are "geared up" physically and mentally for a struggle a thin layer of paranoia and heightened sensitivity protects you. I can say I'm proud of every time I backed off something like that due to a bad feeling. Happily it wasn't all the time!
I'd done a full round of climbs earlier in the summer and planned to stay home most of August. But Danno and I had one day to climb together and the chance couldn't be missed. He hadn't been out at all this year so we sought something easy. We decided on a somewhat obscure route on the Langkofeleck. As the name implies, it's a "corner" of the Langkofel, the furthest left side of that amazing bulk when seen from the Sella Pass. The "Ramp Route," well named, reaches the summit in 17 pitches with lots of easy ground, and difficulties to IV+ (about 5.6 YDS). We awoke early and drove away from our secret bivy site, munching on apples. The hike in took less than an hour, and we were very surprised to see two guys reach the base right when we did.
"I thought this was an obscure route!" I said.
"What, on a day like today?" said the other guy, holding his arms in the air and gesturing.
Danno figured out what was wrong, he was listening more closely to what they said. Turns out they wanted the famous Nordkante route of the Langkofel, way over on the right side of the massif. That explains it! I gave them directions, and they set off a little disheartened to have to climb down and back up somewhere else. I silently wished them well, remembering how much I enjoyed that route some years ago. I've promised to climb it again with Danno, and look forward to that day.
I would lead the whole climb, and started out in a rather uninspiring loose grade IV chimney. The next pitch offered some interesting moves, and soon we gained the "ramp," which leads for a few hundred meters up and left to steep towers. We traveled in coils for about 5 easy pitches, making a couple of quick belays here and there. The ground steepened at a gray wall where a horizontal seam splits the mountain for a hundred meters in either direction. This was a great rock climbing pitch, probably the first of the day! Steep and solid, with decent protection. We climbed up into a gully then traversed right on a ledge to a somewhat intimidating chimney. But it's bark was bigger than it's bite. Nice stemming between walls, then we sat down for a sandwich and looked out at the Boe massif and the Sella Towers already far below. What a great place to be!
I hastened us on, as we were climbing up into a cloud that darkened the mood. First we simul-climbed up a gully then for several confusing pitches up an easy but indistinct face. I was proud at the end of these pitches to have kept the route. Overall, there were few signs of passage. I think we'd seen about 5 pitons total on the climb, always at belay points, and we never saw any intermediate fixed protection. I was thinking how neat this was, and that this forgotten route with guaranteed solitude deserved a special place in memory...a place to come back to.
We entered the last portion of the climb, a spectacular traversal of a narrow ridge crest that goes up and back down to a point below the summit block. In blowing clouds we got a glimpse of the final obstacle, a dark and dreary-looking chimney. The guidebook said it was "often wet" and in case of bad weather could be icy. We saw fresh snow in the tortured gullies on either side of our ridge and wondered what we would find. The chimney is the crux of the route. "It's just two 20 meter pitches," I said, sure that we would find a way through.
After the chimney we would walk 50 meters to the summit and enjoy a relatively moderate descent by local standards, certainly much shorter than that required by a climb of the main Langkofel summit. With these happy thoughts Danno put me on belay at the base of the chimney and I started up.
Only to go nowhere. I was immediately intimidated by the surroundings. High above in a bomb-bay configuration a 3 meter long fixed rope hung with a knot in the end of it. It had been placed there to help get through an often icy section, I guessed. Danno and I talked about the topo and looked at the walls around. It looked a bit easier on the right side of the chimney, more on the face, but that might strand you somewhere. I found a piton a ways up, then made a decision to go left and up a hand-crack with a fixed cam at the base. This would lead me to the fixed rope above. I couldn't understand how I would get through that section, but I trusted it would work. It's only 5.6, I thought!
The accident site, in the darkest part of the chimney.
An accident is just a progressive narrowing of options. Whether self-imposed or brought by external forces, backdoors, retreats and alternatives vanish like doors swiftly closing with a click. The hand crack was dripping icy water. I decided to put on gloves, and tested to make sure I could jam well with them. I could, so I made some moves, which immediately felt like 5.7 or 5.8. After about 10 feet my fingers were frozen and I needed some gear. It was difficult to fumble for cams with the gloves on so I took one off and held it between my teeth. Then I took the other one off and stuffed it in the crack. I was tiring rapidly. It wasn't apparent to me below, but it seemed that the crack was overhanging. The fixed rope was still a few moves above.
I needed to think about what I was doing and where I was. Before it's too late!
None of the gear would fit. The jams were good because the lip of the crack pinched down to a good size, but the walls inside were flaring. No good for nuts or cams. I thought about climbing down but discarded the idea (too quickly, I think now). Finally, I found a chockstone in the crack that seemed solid. Often these are the best anchors on a chimney pitch. This one wasn't absolutely perfect though. I held onto it and tested it in various ways...but I was out of time, I needed to get a sling around it and rest soon.
With turgid fingers barely working I got a Dyneema sling around it and asked Danno to take the rope. He did. I may have started to complain about the difficulties I faced, but my attention was soon distracted when the rope slipped a bit. I looked up and saw the sling had bunched up on the left side of the chockstone. Before I could finish the thought that something was wrong about that a mighty crack! sounded and the chockstone flew out of the crack. I was falling, wondering what would happen. I slammed into something and knew no more.
* * *
I came too half sitting on a ledge with my weight held uncomfortably by the rope. I heard Danno talking on his phone. I didn't know what the fuss was about. It was a curious sensation to know that you were climbing (because of the obvious gear around), but have no memory of where you are or how you got there. But eventually I saw my hand...my palm was a bloody mess that looked more like a steak than anything human. It didn't hurt though, contributing to the dreamlike atmosphere. I guessed Danno was calling for a rescue, which, to my addled brain seemed like overreaction. I really wanted to get to him. My knee was banged up somehow, but I was mentally together enough to ask if he had the half-way marker in the rope. If he did, then he would have enough rope to lower me to him. Leaving bloodstains on the walls, I asked for some slack and shuffled over to the piton I'd found earlier. At that moment the helicopter appeared. They signaled to me, asking if I could go down to Danno. I said yes, he said no. The pilot kind of shrugged and flew away.
"I can definitely reach you Danno, just lower me. The rope is through a fixed cam that caught me and it looks solid." Slowly the memory of falling was coming back. I was worried about my mental state, I knew I'd been hit in the head somehow. But the fact that I remembered the technical details about how to safely lower comforted me that I was basically sane. My gloves had fallen with me, and I was shivering. Danno told me to put on my jacket and I did, and then I sorrowfully pulled a glove over my wounded hand, putting a dark cloud of worry out of my mind.
Danno lowered me on the rope. I felt much better to be standing with him. We heard shouts from above and moments later a man and woman in rescue gear abseiled down to us. They were very nice, giving me a quick once over for hidden wounds. The man climbed a few meters out onto the ridge we'd used to approach the chimney, then sent Danno and I over on my rope which had been repurposed as a fixed line. A moment later the helicopter appeared. The woman attached me to her harness with one of my slings girth-hitched through my harness (it made me a little nervous that my own gear became integral to the rescue operation!). The cable came down, she clipped in and unclipped the anchor (a sling around a rock), and we were up in the air. I was too uncomfortable to enjoy the view very much due to a broken rib, but it was certainly fantastic. Overall though, I was sad to be in this situation, a bit worried about my hand and everything that comes after. Once safely in the helicopter I cried. I experienced a swirl of emotions...sorrow, remorse, gratitude. Danno stayed close to me and the feeling of safety I got from everyone was very helpful.
Danno was dropped off at the car, promising to find me at the hospital. We flew on to Brixen, and I limped out to lay down on a stretcher. Then it was hours of xrays, ultrasound, discussions taking place around me and I grew sleepy. I shivered for hours despite a blanket on me. Gradually my hand started to throb. In the worst moment, a doctor injected my hand 5 times with a numbing agent. It was by far the most excruciating event of the day. Again and again...ow!
They kept me overnight because of the head injury. I was finally able to call home and talk to Kris around 7 or 8. I was making noises about quitting climbing forever and she shut me up real quick. Basically, her idea was that the system worked. Something went wrong (and I would continue to gnaw on what I could have done better), control was lost, and the systems came into play. The total health damage was a broken rib, a hand with many stitches in the palm, a bump on the head and a bruised knee. This was, from my point of view, a very lucky break. I'd call it minimal. Now, a few weeks later, the stitches are out and I'm able to hike and run a little bit. Climbing will have to wait a month or so.
Danno came to chat a while, then I slept, chatting with my roommates a bit, they were nice guys. We finally got away around noon Sunday, driving back north to Munich. I particularly enjoyed a fantasy conversation about how we would have gotten down if we didn't have access to mountain rescue services. We decided we could have done it, though we might have been benighted near the bottom. There would be some elevated risk for Danno, as he would probably end up climbing down much "easy" ground unsecured by rope. I could be lowered down technical pitches and climb down the ocean of moderate terrain with some difficulty. The problems of shock and eventual pain represented a significant unknown. We also puzzled over the correct route, favoring the line we'd seen to the right. But the rescuers said that you needed to climb very far back in the chimney. It was absolutely black and dripping wet back there. Now I wish I'd investigated better.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Danno, the rescuers and the doctors and nurses who took care of me. Danno is an avid outdoorsman, but not primarily a climber. The facts that he held my fall, tied off the belay, made the phone calls, identified exactly where we were, and did his best to take care of me speak very well of him.
If there is a lesson, I guess it's an old one. An accident can happen to anybody at any time.