A quote that fits the situation“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end”.
This quote came to my mind while i was hanging at a belay point on the Ago di Villacco in the Julian Aps, hoping that the rope would somehow come free, so that we could finally get off of that face and back to the trail that runs just under the route.
Not that we were ever in a real emargency situation, in one of those “do or die” moments that make for such a great part of climbing stories. Actually we were on a pretty easy climb, a safe climb i could add, but the series of small mishaps we had to face, had the effect of making me think about how thin and not easily detectible the line between ordinary climbing problems and a serious situation can be.
Had they happened on different days, as single events, none of these problems would have had much effect on our... ...on my mood, concentration, and ultimately on the climb. But they were not single events, they were a sequence. And that sequence, concentrated in few tens of meters hanging on a face in a sunny morning of a saturday in May was enough to make me think “I want to get off”.
We had decided, Taddo and I, to head for the mountains to “do something”, as we were both free that saturday. We thought it might be a nice idea to tackle some classic routes in the Julian alps, and Taddo had found some tasty information on the Jof Fuart Group, information that became even more interesting after we saw there were some easy and not too long climbs where we could take another friend, Talal, a beginner at climbing.
Preparations and excitementWe left for the mountains at the end of the work day, reaching the beginning of the trail at about 8 pm. After something more than an hour hiking through the trees, we reached a clearing from where we could see the peaks we were hoping to climb the next day. We set our tent, had supper and prepared for the night, while talking and making plans.
We took good looks at the lines drawn on the maps we had printed from internet. Some were long, some shorter. Some went up straight, some had curves some seemed more interesting than others.
They all were routes drawn on the faces of the peaks surrounding us.
We thought about various options for the day after, and went to sleep quite excited.
By 5.30 am we had packed up all our stuff and were back on the trail, toward the Rifugio Corsi, where breakfast would be waiting for us.
Along the road, we happend to pass by a dead chamois, that had obviously fallen off of the vertical, over 100 meters high cliff that was above us. I wonder if passing just a step away from that shattered body had an effect on the thoughts i had later during the day, as i know for certain, since he told me so, that it did have a strong effect on Talal.
After drinking coffee at the hut and talking to some other climbers who were heading for a face nearby, we set off in good spirits, with the sun shining in the warm morning, toward the route, that lay only 5 minutes by foot from the hut.
First problemsA scramble of approximately 20 meters in a gulley took us to the first belay point on a comfortable terrace. We had decided that Taddo would lead on the first pitch, and then belay us. I would be right behind Talal, so that i could help him out if he found some points to be too hard.
The first pitch was going to be the most delicate, as the crux of the whole climb consists in a tight chimney, almost a crack, with not very good holds and requiring some technical moves half way up the pitch. After some time, finally Taddo was ready to belay us, so we started. At the beginning of the chimney, Talal started having some trouble, so i tried giving him some advice. He went up a meter or more but then slipped and ended up hanging on the rope. The situation was uncomfortable, but still in control. Since he was saying he couldn't make it through, and i knew from reading the reports, that this was the only point of some difficulty i told him to step on my shoulder and try and reach a hold, or grab on to the next quickdraw so that he could make it up the chimney. He unclipped his rope from the first quickdraw and went up about one more meter, when i realized that his rope was cought on mine, that was still connected to the carabiner. I asked him if he could reach down and unclip it so that he could go up but while trying he fell again. This time though, as he was actually above the anchor where his rope was blocked by mine the fall was longer, maybe a meter and a half or two. It was enough for him to land on my head and shoulder and to get him scared and asking to go down.
I realized there that knowing how to do things in theory, from books, videos, or by safe practice at the crags or in a controlled enviroment is absolutely not the same thing as knowing how to do them while hanging near a person that isn't feeling comfortable, is scared and just wants to get down or during an actual emergency.
I prepared a belay point on two pitons in the crack, tied him off with a clove, retrieved the rope and lowered him to the ground using a munter hitch. There were some problems doing this, as the chimney is tight, and he and the clove hitch were above me and the belay, but we managed to get him down, a few centimeters at a time, until he was comfortable and i could undo the clove and lower him.
Tangles and knotsGetting up that chimney with my backpack was no joke, but eventually i reached Taddo at the ledge where the pitch ended.
I was really tired and somewhat shocked by the unexpected delay and by the mental effort i had to make to stay calm in a situation i had never faced before, but i thought that, as the diffulties were over, i would try to get my focus back on the climb by leading the second pitch.
A few nuts and pitons placed or stuck in the wall took me to a wide ledge, with a piton and carabiner jammed into a crack on a block of stone. I wondered if that might be a belay point, but an anchor was missing, and belays were supposed to be bolted, so i looked around for where the route might continue. At the hut they had told us at some point there would be a traverse to the right, but i couldn't see it. On my left there was a slight overhangand i couldn't see anything either. I tried a few holds, looked around some more and then, although i didn't really like that single piton, I asked Taddo to lower me, maybe he could find the route.
I got back down, secured myself with two slings to the belay, and then i unroped to retrieve the rope and belay Taddo on his way up.
Nothing. The rope wouldn't move. It was caught. We sweared, we pulled, we tugged, but it wouldn't move. I had left the other rope with Talal, because it would have been impossible for me to climb the chimney with both a rope and a backpack, so the only solution was for Taddo to lead up the pitch using the part of the rope that wasn't caught somewhere up there. I belayed him, he finally reached the ledge and disappeared from view, after a second he had freed the rope and thrown it down to me.
Finally, i thought.
I pulled the rope, to get some tension and lower him, but now the rope he had thrown down in my direction was caught somewhere between us, and i couldn't do anything about it. He tried pulling it back up, but it was stuck for him too. Now we were both caught, out of sight from eachother, and unable to free the rope. At this point i started thinking that maybe our situation might be more problematic than i thought, and i started visualizing many different ways things could go wrong. All of them were more ralistic, in our situation, than i would have wanted. Suddenly i felt the presence of that thin line. Big problems were not near yet, but they had begun to be one of the possible outcomes.
Finally we decided that the only way down for Taddo was to rappell down what was left of the rope, hoping it would be enough to reach the belay where i was. At that point i was unroped again, waiting for my partner to appear, looking at the slings that held me on to the wall. They looked so thin and weak by then. It also crossed my mind that now that we were not conncted by the rope, there was nothing i could do if Taddo happened to be in some sort of trouble. This was really a frustrating situation, to be a spectator, unable to be of use, if not with words. The line was always closer. I could feel it.
And i could see Talal and other people down at the hut, looking at us. It felt so strange, and i wanted to be there sitting at the table, drinking a beer too.
Being alone on the wall, with nothing to do but wait just felt like shit.
Finally Taddo appeared, picking up the tangled rope as he came down.
Finally, i thought again, now we're heading down.
At a meter from the belay anchor, we realized one end of the rope was too short, but still we were able to secure him with a sling and we were both safe at the belay. We freed the rope from it's knots, and pulled to bring down the end he had used to rappell.
Nothing, it was stuck again. Our swearing got really loud and strong at that point. We pulled with anger in all directions. We thought out loud about solutions, we shut up, we pulled again.
My idea would have been to cut the rope, and use what was left of it to rappel down to the scree that was below us, but for some reason i didn't say it out loud, after all that was his rope (strange what problems you think about when you're in trouble), but then he said he would try again. I bealyed, he went up, freed the rope again, and as he thought it was the position of the piton that was blocking the rope, we decided that it would be best for him to downclimb to the closest piton just under him and get lowered from there. This piton too was in a position that choked the rope and made it impossible to be lowered, but adding a carabiner to the steel ring solved that problem, and finally he was down again. As i pulled on the rope, we both looked up, in dread that it would get caught somewhere again, but this time everything went well.
Taking it all homeWe had been stuck there for over four hours.
We rappelled down, gathered our stuff and walked back to the hut. We drank a few beers looking at the rock that had made us back off. We gathered our thoughts, apologized to Talal for the less then pleasant experience and headed down to the car.
We had some other minor mishaps, like getting caught by rain and losing Taddo on the wrong trail, but a few hours after we were back in the car heading home.
We felt defeated and beaten, but still, as we talked about it we felt the day hadn't been all wrong. Something had made it worthwile.
Thinking about it later on, i think the explanation to these mixed feelings lies in the words a French guy that was at the hut said once we got there.
He asked ”How did it go?”.
“Like shit...” we said.
He smiled and said “At least you are back”.