July, 2008. Many/most of the pictures were taken by Carlos or Theron.
It was their first climb in the Dolomites, first climb in the Alps. It had to be a great one, right? These were my best buds...Theron, veteran of so many climbs with me. Carlos, in some ways an alpine "newbie," but damn tough and strong under his saintly demeanor.
Despite 3 years apart, coming together was just like the last time we saw each other. Is it climbing that does that, or the internet, or is that just friendship? You pick up where you left off, happy to slide into your old role,
like a well-known stick shift.
Because it's part of the game, I offered no quarter! Vacation officially begins Saturday morning...that means a Friday night drive, sleeping beneath the Sella Pass. I couldn't wait for my friends to see the gnarled ridges on the moonlit shapes above. Soon enough!
We set off very early, the day looked fine. A 50 meter rope, a few stoppers and slings. We made for the Punta Delle Cinque Dita, the Fuenffingerspitzen, the "Five Fingers Peak." Our guidebook promised 22 pitches, the first 12 or so gaining height, the rest slowly losing it through complex traverses and rappels on the nether fingers. (nether fingers? Okay, I've had some wine). None of the ground difficult, topping out at about 5.6, but as we would find out, massively exposed!
Blowing on freezing fingers, we roped up and Theron sent me up a snowfield with a rock to cut steps. I anchored to a balcony and brought Theron and Carlos up. Another pitch, then simul-climbing brought us to a stunning vertical pitch on the ridge. Time to get serious! Rock shoes on, good belay anchor found.
One of the steepest and most runout pitches I ever climbed followed. A few "sanduhr" (hourglass) slings for protection, but, wow it was exposed! But what a gift. Enough with the anticipation and jabber. If you fall it'll end the vacation real quick. One hold. The next hold. A good foot. Finally the mind is quiet.
We were on the thumb, a relentless knife edge. The sun blessed our left side, and the dawn winds calmed down. Pitch followed pitch. I kept leading, really proud to show off my "backyard."
Look at the concentration!
My mojo ran out at the summit of the Thumb. "How do we get down?" A confused ox, I let a guide and client pass us, watched where they went. It was better than scrambling back and forth on the face looking for anchors, as I'd been doing! We found the anchors and descended. From the gap we started up the Index Finger, following two long indistinct (that means no protection) face pitches to a corner. Carlos and Theron witnessed a drama when someone got their rope stuck on the Thumb after the rappel. This fella soloed up a face, then did some sketchy aid moves before he reached an end of the rope. From there he could belay himself the rest of the way. Thank goodness it worked out okay. As we rounded the corner they found their way down a dark gully with several abseils.
We threaded through a guided party descending the way they came, following that curious style of traveling right next to each other on the rope...some of the women seemed completely unhinged! Maybe my single friends could impress them with a calm demeanor? Alas they were gone. We relaxed on the summit of the Middle Finger with some local South Tyrol folks. They taught us some Ladin and took our picture.
Rappelling is supposed to be easy!
Theron led us down the first of many short but strange rappels. There were a half-dozen short, tricky rappels among lesser fingers of the peak. Several times we relied on careful balance to lean to the left or right and avoid getting stuck like a bug on a pin on a featureless face. By leaning to one side, we could reach a little anchor at a notch. In one case which I still shudder thinking about, we had to rappel-slash-downclimb far to the right, lest we end up at ropes end far below a chockstone in a vertical shaft. It was the strangest descent I ever saw. At another point, Carlos and I downclimbed while Theron was on the other side of a notch, swinging lonely and trying to grab the anchor. "Hey!" he shouted. We climbed back up, feeling like idiots for not pulling the rope in for him. He was okay, but as he wrote later, he was "definitely not having fun anymore."
Finally we seemed to exit the zone of elevator shafts to nowhere. Who's up for 1000 feet of 4th class downclimbing? I guess we are. Evening was approaching. Theron and I worried about Carlos, new to such unforgiving terrain. He was a trooper though, slowing down carefully to compensate for mucho mental strain. We kept going.
After an eternity, we saw the great gully that divides the Five Fingers from the Sasso Levante (Grohmannspitze). It looked a long way down. Finally we got out our emergency 7 millimeter 50 meter static line for a double rope rappel. Nervously, I set off, wondering if even 50 meters would be enough to get us down from the isolated anchor we found on a crumbling precipice.
But it was. And soon we put the rope away and began descending scree and snow in the great gully. Our first climb of the trip was in the bag. We made away with ourselves, with our pictures, memories and crazy ideas of fun.
Skip this unless you like technical details...it's more for me to remember if I go back!
1. II. 45m. Cross snow moat and get onto rock. 2. III+. 55m. Climb up and right, then steeply straight up. 3. III. 60m. Simulclimb on short rope to notch, then continue 30 meters up the ridge. 4. IV. 25m. (Though book said III+, I don't believe it). Very steep and exposed pitch! Sanduhr protection, right on a vertical knife edge. 5. II. 25m. Traverse small towers to belay where ridge steepens again. 6. III+. 45m. Up and right into an easy crack/gully. Then back left along the crest. 7. IV. 50m. Very steep on the crest again. A tough move 10 meters up, just left of the crest. 8. III+. 30m. 9. IV. 35m. 10. III. 30m. Not difficult to just below summit. Chose a poor belay station. [Then off-route downclimbing looking for the anchor to rappel into a notch below the Thumb. Costly!] 11. II. 20m. Short downclimb to rap anchor. Rappel 1. 20 meters to 2nd anchor Rappel 2. 20 meters to chockstone in gully between Thumb and Index Finger. 12. III. 20m. Easy pitch to belay on north face of Index Finger. 13. IV-. 55m. Long upward traverse to shoulder of east face. 14. III. 40m. Traverse east face to gully and chockstone. 15. III. 25m. Cross face of middle finger, climb crack to under chockstone. Belay on the other side of the chockstone. 16. III. 15m. Easy finish to summit of Middle Finger. [After summit, exposed scramble to rap anchor] Rappel 3. Awkward rap to reach a narrow notch. 17. III-. 40m. Traverse (exposed) of the Ring Finger. Rappel 4. 15 meters. Extremely awkward, must go diagonally to prevent rappeling "into space." 18. II. 15m. Slabby, exposed traverse on the Little Finger. Rappel 5. 15 meters. Awkward, kind of dangerous rappel. Must go diagonally to reach a notch. Rappel 6. 25 meters. Down gully with ice and snow.
[Much exposed downclimbing II/III-] Rappel 7. 45 meter rappel. Double rope rappel to reach Fuenffingerscharte. [Descend snow/scree]