Did someone say Gran Pilaster

Did someone say Gran Pilaster

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 46.25680°N / 11.84721°E
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 10, 2008
Activities Activities: Trad Climbing
Seasons Season: Summer, Fall

Let's go! (Gran Pilaster, UIAA IV, YDS 5.6, 20 pitches)

The Gran Pilaster on the Pala di San MartinoOur route on the "detached-looking" pillar in the center.

This is part of a week-long trip Carlos, Theron ("OZNID") and I made in the Alps. Theron wrote his version of the trip report here.

After a difficult late night trying to get down to this southerly Dolomite region (I'd never been this far south), we crashed on the ground for a few hours of sleep. Our guidebook warned us against trying this climb from the ski lift, probably because it doesn't open until 8 am, but there was no way we were going to walk up after our previous hard hiking days. So we slept until almost 7 am, then started getting ready.

I had mentioned a lot of different climbs to Carlos and Theron over the months before their visit, but this one, the Gran Pilaster on the iconic Pala di San Martino really seemed to stick. In my mind, it didn't stand out especially, but at any opportunity one or the other of my friends would mention it: clearly it was a goal not to be passed up! So I got into the spirit too, and the heroics of the night before were our way of living up to that dream.

What had happened was, we came running down from the mountains on the south side of the Ortler Range, did everything right and ended up at my car by 6 pm, ready for the drive east back into the Dolomites and hopefully bed by 10 pm. But we didn't count on the random closure of the Stelvio Pass just on the north side! But no way that would stop us...we turned around, drove back to Bormio, got some gas, and mapped out a southerly escape from these high mountains. Of course we managed it, but I'll never forget the chilling views down from the southerly pass above Santa Caterina! And the granite mountains bathed in alpineglow and strafed by cloud further south were absolutely breathtaking: the Ademello!

After a good pizzeria stop, we were finally making our way down to the Autostrada in the deep valley of Bolzano and Trento. Not before another heart-stopping mountain view of the Presanella. I had no idea how beautiful those mountains were, and you can bet I'll be back!

Carlos finished the long drive over more passes, dodging rabbits and deer on the final approach. We had done it - we were in position with a good weather window on what would probably be one of our favorite climbs ever! Now to execute...

After the lifts, we walked briskly to Refugio Rosetta, then got right on the trail that would take us down then left into a side valley. I was nervous, as usual, hurrying ahead, scouting for crowds or approach hints. Carlos and Theron came along after, unwilling to break their knees to start 15 minutes earlier! A few other parties turned out to be heading for a via ferrata that traversed off to the south. Happily, we only had to walk a few minutes up a trail in scree to reach the snowbanks that girdled the lower face. Eager to begin, we scrambled over the snow, up and right on the rock, hoping to gain a hoped-for piton belay 50 meters above. But after 30 meters of scrambling the climbing got a little too serious to go on without a rope. Belaying in a little nook, Carlos sent me up while Theron scanned the face with the video camera. I was glad we belayed, because it wasn't easy.

Before the climb we'd worked out how we'd climb very quickly. Basically everyone would stay busy. Eating was done only while belaying. Unless we got more time, or one of the guys got a "wild hair," I would do all the leading. When they came up to me, either Carlos or Theron would have me on belay with my rack in less than a minute. Although it made the climb a little bit lonely for me, it really was quick. As it was, it took all the daylight we had to get off technical ground, so we were really glad we thought about how to keep the momentum going.

We only simul-climbed when I ran out of rope before finding a suitable belay. This was because we weren't all at the same skill level. Carlos was very new to alpine climbing, and Theron had been working in China all year, with nary a cam placement or finger crack to grapple with.

We climbed on one 50 meter rope, with Carlos and Theron about 15 feet apart. We also had an emergency static 50 meter rap line stowed in Carlos' pack. I definitely feel that a long rope is not worthwhile on long Dolomite moderate or "classic" climbs. With short pitches and many traversing features, it's as likely to lead to shouting matches, puzzlement and wasted time as anything else. Since belays are usually just one or two cemented pitons, or a slung horn, you aren't losing much time by stopping early. It's also good to have a second (or third) pair of eyes to confirm route finding decisions, which can be tricky, especially on your first climbs in the area.

Theron was, rightfully enough I imagine, frankly appalled at the amount of runout the leader has to put up with. The problem appeared worse on the knife-edge of the Fuenffingerspitzen, but was still obvious here: you might go 20 meters before finding a good horn, nut placement or piton for protection. However, when you found "natural" protection, it was likely to be of the very best type: a "Sanduhr." That's a natural column of rock, firmly held at the top and bottom by the rest of the rock face. Many of these would hold a trunk. Plus, who is thinking about protection when surrounded by such "ideal" holds as the Pale Dolomites offers? Just reach around a corner to find a wonderful handlebar. And when the rock looks blank and slabby, then the smallest crease is likely to be so in-cut as to transport even the leader 30 meters above protection into a contented dream. The phrase "there is always a way," seems to have been invented for these mountains!

Enough meta-discussion! For our first 8 or so pitches we remained in or alongside a great chimney system. Only once was the climbing especially engaging in here: a vertical corner where the walls pinched down. Delicate stemming and balance, with a nice piton right where you think to yourself, "whoa this just stepped up a notch!" I guess someone else thought so too...but how old are those pitons? Never mind!

We were cold in the chimney, and for more than an hour longed for the sun we saw above. Finally I stepped into surprisingly hot glare and relished the sun on my back as I belayed. A short food break and we started on the middle third of the climb: a somewhat nebulous trip up and left away from the chimney and onto a vague pillar yet to be found. I remember we felt like we could "relax" when we finished this section.

The scenery in here really began to open up. Looking down we could finally see how far above the scree fans we'd climbed. Across to brown, black and yellow faces. Unfortunately, looking up revealed increasing clouds girdling the upper towers. Hmm. Let's keep moving and see what happens.

I'm actually surprised that we got these pitches right, the directions are pretty vague and there are several possibilities to veer to the side. But we emerged on a postcard small ledge with a 20 meter leftward traverse: surely there is only one of those on a given face? The sunny ledge looked like a great place to linger. "On belay!" said Theron...it was time to move again!


I decided to combine two pitches, betraying a little nervousness about the weather. Sure enough, only a couple of pitches up from the sunny ledge it started to hail. "Oh...wow," I thought, quickly imagining all the worst case scenarios. But for now, I just got my shell jacket out, put my gloves in the pockets and imagined my friends below were doing the same. Unless it got noticeably worse, we'd keep going.

But at that moment I nearly made a wrong turn. Not quite done with the vague section of the climb, I knew I needed to get on the crest of a shallow buttress. But which one? Several humps might qualify in the roiling clouds above me. My first thought was the one where Theron hunkered under an overhang, urging me leftward to easier ground. But he was right, it was dead vertical above him. Still...

Tugged in two directions, I paused. The hail stopped and the cloud seemed to dissipate with great speed. Without being able to enumerate why now, I knew I should curve back right and up. I climbed a corner, rewarded with a piton as possible route confirmation. Above, I found no belay, so I led our team another 15-20 meters on a hunt. The perch I found, with a solid {\em Sanduhr} belay was one of the best eagle eyries I've had the pleasure to visit. I sat and looked down into murky gray. Then, as if unable to bear my frustrated gaze any longer, the cloud melted to reveal a cavern of space so deep I could only curse hoarsely. I saw crazed switchbacks of a trail descending to the valley. I saw rock plummeting ever downward in a vertical scream. A crow came out of a cloud below then disappeared into another one. Carlos and Theron came up, then enjoyed this perch for a time. That was one to lock in the memory chest, I thought.

Like fleas on the face!Carlos and Theron huddle on the face!

The climbing was at it's best in here: made exciting by the air beneath, and by the natural steepness of the blunted buttress. "This is f$*#in' awesome," I kept saying to myself. Not even an astronaut on Mars could experience the wonder and discovery I felt in this place. The sun and a horde of clouds played across the face. In fact, for the last third of the climb, and much of the descent, the clouds would take center stage because of the mystique they brought with them. We never got hailed on again, and always had good sight when we needed it, so they weren't unwelcome intruders. But in this range they did seem to have a life of their own. Though we might should have, we didn't fear them.

We came to a dihedral marking the boundary between steep yellow rock and a more moderate buttress that we would follow to the top. A Nutella sandwich in the hot sun, watching the clouds boil around a lesser peak, then it was time to finish. Very good nut protection on that pitch, then a hand traverse out left to avoid a bulge. Above, a long simul-climb pitch as the terrain eased. Two more rope-lengths got us to a false summit where we put the rope away and scrambled to the top: a broad flat place with a red bivouac box at the far end.

Feeling really proud that we'd pulled it off together, we shook hands and took some video footage. We were in the sun, with groups of pillowy clouds below, and I think it was around 6 pm.

Carlos nears the topCarlos near the top.

We looked in the bivouac box and realized we could sleep there comfortably if we wanted to. I was against it, because the weather was supposed to turn bad the next day. Theron really, really wanted to stay and Carlos and I broke his heart by insisting on going down for safety. It sure would have been great though. He was thinking of sunset and sunrise video and still photography. "The chance to sleep on a Dolomite summit!" As it turned out, he was completely right: the morning was blue sky and cloudless. He gets to tell us "I told you so" for some years, I guess!

But, decision made, we had to hurry down. The guidebook warned that it would take a while. They were right! First, scrambling without much difficulty to round a tower, all marked with red paint. We came down into the clouds, so never saw an overview of what we were doing, but essentially the key is to traverse 5 towers as you descend, eventually reaching the vast plateau that stretches out behind the peak.

We made many rappels and traverses. Eventually Carlos insisted on a belay. He was getting tired, and the exposure had a cumulative effect: he didn't trust the rock or his climbing any more. Wisdom consists in knowing yourself, and I'm glad he spoke up. However I was grumpy at the time, leading us on tedious rope-dragging "pitches" around corners to find yet another rappel station. The usual flaking and coiling...repeat ad infinitum as darkness descends...

But finally we were done. It was almost full dark, and Theron took the lead to hike up a knoll where we could see the lights of the Rosetta hut far below on the plateau. We didn't even bother taking off our rope or harnesses, we just hoped to move quickly enough to make it down before full dark, or before they turned off the lights and we'd be adrift on the big plateau.

I was completely confused as to where we were, but somehow Theron knew the right way to go. "Go left!" he would call to me in front on the rope, and I would, marveling at how turned around I was. But his directions worked great, and fortune smiled on us again with a half-moon bright enough to cast shadows.

We reached the hut at 10 pm, just as the warden turned off the lights for bed. In retrospect, it was pretty funny sitting there eating delicious hot soup while the warden and his family sat around us sighing loudly. Every time I was say "this is great soup!" or "thank you again!" in whatever language, the girl would snort and snicker loudly. I was too pleased with the epic day to take offense. What a great thing life can be!

We couldn't help but gloat at our luck. Back in the Cascades, our reward would have been a tiring bash out to the car at 2 am. But here we were, just out of our helmets, and already in bed with warm bellies. Sleep came quickly, to visions of the clouds playing among the rocks.

Huge thanks to Carlos...new to this game and always eager for more. Same to Theron, it was great to climb with him again!


A silly video

Theron set up his video camera in our hotel room the next day. He captured these roiling clouds. I made some cheesy synth music and stuck it up on YouTube. Viola!

Our climbs is right in the middle. The music is simple a G chord, alternating between augmented (so a D# for the 5th) and D. I think I play an F natural in there too, giving a hint of "whole tone scale" modality. Good times!


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Viewing: 1-4 of 4
Gangolf Haub

Gangolf Haub - Jul 21, 2008 2:38 pm - Voted 10/10

Pala di San Martino?

I would guess you climbed the Pala di San Martino - Pale is the plural which applies to the whole range. At some point one of the Italians told me it means something like "shovel".

Anyway - if I understood correctly - you should attach the tr to this page by uomodeimonti:


And then: congratulations to that climb! The Pala is one astonishing piece of rock, isn't it? Congrats also for the picture of Cima della Rosetta thru the clouds


mvs - Jul 21, 2008 4:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Pala di San Martino?

Ah...thanks for the enlightenment. Okay, I've made that adjustment. Thanks for the kudos, I really want to go back to that range as much as possible!


rpc - Jul 29, 2008 6:23 pm - Voted 10/10


as though so many Dolomite routes are 12, 15, 20+ pitches....these babies got some length to them! Amazing photos, now onward to reading the TR!


mvs - Jul 31, 2008 4:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: seems

That is what is so great about the range. At whatever grade of difficulty you like, you still get to spend all day, pitch after pitch climbing. Thanks for your thoughts!

Viewing: 1-4 of 4