The MountainAlthough my wife and I have been climbing together for 40 years whenever possible in the Alps, Norway, and Wales, for the last ten years we have been concentrating on the Dolomites (Südtirol/Alto Adige, Italy) which are very well represented with photos at Summitpost. This has mostly been on ferratas (German: Klettersteige), that is routes that are provided with permanent steel cables which are anchored firmly (most of the time) to the rock. You then only have to clip yourself unto the cable with a karabiner and are thus protected against falling any longer that the last anchoring point – rather like the way Everest nowadays is commonly climbed with a fixed rope laid out by Sherpas.
These routes, that are available in any height up to 1000 meters are very frequently used and allow others than the younger generations to climb on steep rock. The “Klettersteigführer Dolomiten” by Höfler and Werner divides them into groups from A to G according to difficulty. Having begun with A we had gradually reached D and didn’t expect to go any longer, as age is beginning to show its effects, when you have reached the age of 67. But then la Mèsola crossed our plans.
If you drive south from Corvara at the foot of Sassongher over Passo Campolongo, you will at first see the highest Dolomite Mountain, the Marmolada (3347 m) rise above the pass with its white snow dome, but as soon as you cross the summit of the pass it is completely covered by a dark rugged mountain that somehow looks out of place among the golden Dolomites: La Mèsola (2733 m). This isn’t really a Dolomite mountain either, for it is a part of the 230 million years old volcanic formation, the Pàdonkamm. All the way down from the pass and in the village of Arabba at its foot, la Mèsola is the dominant peak and for several years it had been tempting us. But as the ferrata that crosses the mountain from west to east is of category F, we hadn’t really dared to tackle it.
First AttemptIn the summer of 2004 we were again in the Dolomites, but for the first time the weather was mostly bad and had only permitted us to do some easier tours with a good prospect of being completely soaked. This gave us more time to study the Klettersteigführer, and we found out that the crux of the Mèsola ferrata is a 35 m high vertical slab with few grips along which the ferrata cable hangs loose with no anchorings. Especially the latter deprived us of any real wish to try that route, for what is the advantage of a ferrata if you risk a free fall of 35 meters?
But since the ferrata crossed all of the mountain, it had to go down somewhere, perhaps the climb would be easier from there? Hoping that this would be the case, on one of the few days with good weather we climbed from the ski lift at Porta Vescovo (2478 m) via a steep scree slope to the col in the middle of the mountain – only to be met with a sight that was just as forbidding. From the east the summit rose like a near vertical pointed tower, which at first appeared quite difficult. We sat down in the col and began to study the tower in our pocket binoculars. In these most of it didn’t seem too hard, and we felt that we might be able to make it. However, in the middle there was a maybe five meters long narrow crack with few grips, which might perhaps be a bit dangerous for us, as even a fall of a few meters isn’t something you really look forward to. Having discussed the matter back and forth for a while, all the time surrounded by a large number of young British climbers, who evidently all were going to climb to the top or had just come down from it, we reluctantly decided to give it up.
In return for this we climbed a bit up towards the eastern and not much lower summit of la Mèsola where we found a small side summit on top of which we sat down and had a bit of lunch while we continued our examination of the main summit which looked even more impressive – and tempting – from here. Maybe we ought to have tried it anyway? The weather remained good, we were rested and in good shape. Karen, especially, was eager to do it. After a good deal of discussion we finally agreed that we lacked a younger and stronger person, who could belay us with a rope from above the most difficult spot. Since we had failed to bring someone like that (our son has married a non-climber and is no longer available for such exploits), the only solution we could find was to hire a mountain guide, something we had never done before in the Dolomites. We didn’t even know how expensive it might be, and if there would be a wait here in the middle of the climbing season.
Having reached this decision we could relax with a clear conscience and admire the view which was outstanding towards the Marmolada, Sella, Rosengarten and Langkofel groups. Having enjoyed this for about an hour, we leisurely descended to the ski lift again and drove back to our hotel in Kolfuschg (Colfosco). In the evening we asked the manager if he could recommend a guide, and he gave us the name of one whom we called the following day. It turned out that he was engaged for a week, but he promised to try to find a colleague, who was free. The price turned out to be € 275 (about $ 350)!
The following day we had a call from a mountain guide who only gave his name as Edi. We presented our problem to him, and he began by asking us about our experience with ferratas. He seemed to be satisfied on hearing that we had made the Kleine Cirspitze, Vallon-Klettersteig and the Paternkofel alone, and we began discussing the more practical arrangements. He would bring his own climbing harnesses and rope, apart from this we would be using our own equipment. We agreed to make the climb the following day, weather permitting, and that the climb should proceed at our pace.
SuccessLuckily the weather was fine next morning, 20 degrees centigrade at the height of the hotel, 1700 m, and we were picked up by Edi 8.30 and driven to Arabba. 10.40 we started the climb from Porta Vescovo. In spite of our agreement Edi kept (in our opinion) quite a good pace which made it a bit difficult to keep up with him on the steep scree slope. Numerous reminders of our agreement about the pace had only a short term effect (it was rather like asking a Frenchman to speak more slowly). A bit out of breath we thus reached the col at the foot of the summit tower where Edi carefully put us into the harnesseses, fastened us to the rope and took the time to instruct us well. During the remainder of the climb we would still be able to clip unto the fixed steel cable, and thus wear both belt and braces.
There weren’t any other climbers yet on the tower (perhaps this was what Edi intended by moving so fast). The first part was not so difficult, the grips were good and we moved upwards fast, although already here we felt the difference between climbing on dolomite and on volcanic rock. The latter is more smooth and with more rounded shapes, where dolomite almost bites into the rubber soles of the boots with its rough surface. We climbed in the classic way, one at a time while Edi belayed us from above where normally on ferratas we both move at the same time and closer to each other. About halfway up we took a small break on the single larger shelf we met on our way, unfortunately the weather was now becoming cloudy, and the best view was that down to Arabba, 1200 meters under us.
We continued and soon came to the crack. As we had expected it now became a good deal more difficult. We had to wedge the toes of the boots into the crack and use very small irregularities in the rock as grips. Everything went well, however, and soon we reached the rather easier rocks above the crack. Shortly after that we were on the summit, a long narrow ridge, which barely gave space for the three of us to sit down, but we were lucky enough to be alone up there. Edi expressed his satisfaction with our climbing, and remarked that we had only taken one and a half hours for the whole climb, which wouldn’t have been too bad for younger people – this was mainly due to himself, however, we would have preferred a rather slower pace, especially to begin with, during the actual rock climbing the pace was quite suitable.
We remained on the summit for about 20 minutes, during which we took a good number of photos, although the weather had deteriorated further, only the Marmolada was now reasonably free of clouds. Then we began the descent by the same route. While we had been alone during the ascent, it now began to teem with climbers, some on the way up, others on the way down after having climbed the summit by the more difficult western route. Most of them were in their twenties or thirties, few were on our side of the fifties, and of course we were the oldest, as we have experienced on many other mountain tops. It didn’t make it easier that we had to move aside all the time to let them pass, but still every thing went smoothly, even the crack where we were lucky enough not to meet anybody, the easier stretches below went swimmingly and soon we had arrived at the col once more. When we looked back towards the summit we saw that the upper parts of it was now completely shrouded in clouds out of which the climbers swarmed like ants.
After having eaten a bit we proceeded steadily downwards. Edi now took the time to tell us about the plant and animal life in the Dolomites, and point out various geological formations. He also told about World War I, when the front went right through the Dolomites and la Mèsola for instance had been held by the Italians all year round. There still were a few remains of brick shelters here and there on the scree slopes, but clearly they were going to disappear in a few decades more. We went so slowly down that we just missed the last depart of the ski lift before the long lunch break that is found all over the Dolomites.
Instead we went over to a refuge close by and got ourselves a little more to eat and drink. We sat on a large sun terrace outside, but the sun was no longer to be seen. Edi told us about all the places he had been climbing, for instance the Himalayas, the Andes, Canada and the Sahara, he had also climbed new routes in the Alps, and we told him about our more modest exploits in Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Wales, U.S.A besides in the Dolomites.
At two p.m. we went down to Arabba with the first ski lift to run after the lunch break and drove back to the hotel in Kolfuschg. On the way up to the Passo Campolongo we several times had very good views of la Mèsola, which we now viewed with very different feelings after having climbed it. We had hardly crossed the pass, when it began to rain harder and harder. At two forty-five we were back at the hotel, said goodbye to Edi, and expressed our satisfaction with the climb.