Each time I venture out for a climb I feel like a mule with all the equipment, food and clothes that are packed in and around the backpack. My girlfriend usually carries nothing since years ago I decided I would consider lugging that stuff a kind of sport. For a day 3 liters of water, warm clothes, food, sweets, two cameras, maps and my GPS receiver have to be packed. In the mornings it has become quite a routine.
Usually we always take all maps and guidebooks with us into the car to be able to find our trailhead. You never know. Having arrived we sort out the maps we don't need as well as all the books and pack the remainder in the backpack. Always! We have forgotten to take our hiking poles but never the maps.
The story I'm about to relate starts at the trailhead to Vallaccia, in Val di San Nicolò on July 13th 2005. As always we have all our maps with us, Judith has directed me to a non-existing parking lot I have driven back and forth along the road until I find a proper spot to leave our car. Today is the day we finally climb Vallaccia which has featured high on my list ever since I first got a glimpse of it in 2001 when we circled the Langkofel Group. On the maps the group looks difficult but we don't expect any real problems. All trails are marked in solid or broken lines. No dots, no stylized ladders - this is hiking territory. Still from my old shot from 2001 I have not been able to locate the trail which leads from the outside of the group to the inside. In three hours we will know why.
The plan is to follow Val di San Nicolò to where Valle dei Monzoni turns of to the south and do a large loop to climb Punta della Vallaccia from the south. Several of our guidebooks describe this route - it will go over dirt roads most of the way so we don't expect problem. No book tells us about the descent into Vallaccia (again) but going down can't be that much of a problem.
So we set out along the road and find our trail, which will cut short the bends of the road and keep us from breathing exhaust. We congratulate ourselves for that decision as there is much traffic in Val di San Nicolò. After several minutes we start to doubt whether everything is as marked on the map and want to check. Nothing! Nada! The map is where all the others are - in the trunk of our car. "Shall we return and fetch it?"
We decide against it - the route was straightforward and I have studied it for years. No turning round. At the next intersection we need to go left and then: no problem. Now we reach that intersection but the trail to the left is not marked! Some trees have blue signs but assume that these display the border between hunting areas. The real trail must be further along!
20 min later we start to realize that the trail probably would have been right but again decide against turning around. We don't want to lose time. This year the weather is acceptable only in the mornings and on we press. If there won't be another trail we'll do the hike the other way around. Entering the Vallaccia Valley the walls start closing in on us. It is still quite early and the valley floor doesn't see any sun at this time of the day. Good that I packed warm clothes!
After a few switchbacks we reach Bivacco Zeni, almost in the centre of the Vallaccia Cirque. Huge walls surround us, jaws drop, cameras click we are feeling quite happy. The decision to climb Vallaccia was a good one. Content faces all around. But now - where is that ascent trail to Forcella Vallaccia?
The cirque is dominated by a tower, the north-western pillar of Punta della Vallaccia. Our eyes are drawn towards it we measure it up and down until it dawns upon me that the narrow couloir to the tower's eastern side is what we are headed for. I see the marks of other people on the scree. Judith has seen it as well and now she has that grim expression on her face - she doesn't like it! Neither do I but what is a little scree to me? I have been through the Scree fields from Hell on Pico Viejo (Tenerife)!
The bottom part is easy enough - a large scree slope, not too steep. But once we reach the base of the tower this will change. Somehow we drift to the east of the couloir - the slope seems to be much more stable there. But we lose sight of the main couloir as the "trail" we are on leaves it to head up a separate gully. And there is a second one even further east which I start to explore. Judith takes the other one.
We try to keep in contact by calling out to each other but soon I don't get any replies. Worried I turn around and head for Judith's gully. She is nowhere to be seen. I call out - no answer. I start rushing up the scree as fast as possible but here I soon am at my limit. Two steps up mean one step back.
I huff and puff and sweat my way up this gully and finally get a reply to all my calls. She is at the top of the gully and says we need to turn around. There is no way out. Still, I go on and reach her to see what she means. Her gully ends a full 5m above the main couloir which seems to be at its steepest in exactly this location. There is a way down but that means climbing UIAA II+ with no protection. The backpack is so full that we cannot get rid of the hiking poles - they have to be carried while climbing. Any misstep will have us careering down that main couloir!
I go ahead without the poles - after 2m I find a resting place and Judith reaches the poles to me to follow me. We repeat this routine three or four times and make it safely to the "solid" ground of the couloir. Take a deep breath and head up, again huffing and puffing. It is 10:30 a.m. as we reach Forcella Vallaccia but we are both done for! No climbing of Punta della Vallaccia for today. Disappointing but it can't be done.
Instead we head down from the Forcella towards Rifugio Vallaccia. We reach an intersection with a sign to Sas Da le Undesc. Should we try this? Guidebooks describe it as a hike along grassy slopes. Maybe we can have our lunch up there. Exhausted as we are this rather easy ascent stresses our limits. We lose the trail once again but the sound of other climbers on the summit leads us in the right direction.
And now we're happy that we did this short climb: a perfect 360° view (see main page) of all the western Dolomite Groups on display. We can look deep into the Marmolada Group, a place I have never seen before (last time we had fog). We take a long lunch break enjoying ourselves.
Getting down we find that our original plan would have been easier by far. The Gardecia Route is as easy as the guidebooks make it. We find the blue marked trail we had seen in the morning but again are insecure if it is the right one. There is a little map (Tabacco 006) attached to a sign. I take a photo so that finally I carry a map, if only in my camera. As has to be expected we don't need it. We get safely without any further problems down to our car.
For me the climb ranks as a great experience, for Judith is was plain terrible. She says she will never climb this route ever again. I guess I would.