Progress

Sometimes it’s hard to measure your own progress in anything. As a teacher I’m aware that I’m getting better at my job, but it usually takes someone else to point out to me the things that I’m doing to help that. After a while things become instinctive, and you don’t really notice the things that you do out of habit.

It’s similar with my climbing. In the last few years I’ve tried hard to recalibrate my self-perception. I decided that in order to progress as a climber I had to see myself as a work in progress, and apply the same principles from my pedagogy to my climbing that I would if I were giving feedback to a pupil. I had to view myself as an athlete, and work hard to maintain the things I was already doing well while all the time thinking about what minor changes should I make to do them better. The minor part is important – I see my pupils making progress in the classroom all the time, but I also see them getting disheartened if they can’t access a problem immediately. The minor changes are themselves a motivates, making micro adjustments to what you’re doing gives you a constant stream of achievable goals, and while measuring your progress might be hard (especially for me in the limestone off season) it’s easy to at least see you achieving something.

Last summer I put a winter of reasonable if slightly disjointed training to good use. I threw myself at a range of different routes, I onsighted quite a few E4s, and a couple of E5s. I succeeded in breaking the spell that the grade had, but not completely. I was terrified setting off on Resurrection at the Cromlech. I’d psyched myself up to try Right Wall, which was unfortunately wet. The change of focus was hard, although Resurrection should be easier, and safer, I’d always been nervous of attempting it. I climbed very cautiously, I spent a long time on the route and got the onsight, but I was a mess of lactate by the top. A confident approach and I’d have flown up it.

Body Machine

I ticked through routes at the Cornice – losing a bit of focus in the process. The point of the Cornice was to get fit to try Body Machine again. Throwing laps on some of the easier routes would have been ideal, but I got sucked into redpoint projects, with some success. I made quick redpoint of a bunch of routes I’d once considered hard. Cosmopolitan, Bored of the Lies and Cordless Madness (second go – although I grabbed the chain at the top, I couldn’t face doing it again.) A return to Body Machine saw me feeling strong on the moves, doing the crux statically and consistently, and still getting my arse kicked on the top section. Eventually I got ill just at the point where success was near, it had to be put off for another year.

Yukan II at Nesscliffe

After accepting temporary defeat again from Body Machine my mind turned to what I should focus on for 2015. I realised I hadn’t really be focussed on the goals I wanted. I had a very successful summer, but there were a few long term objectives in the back of my mind that were beginning to feel more possible. I redpointed Yukan II (E6/7 6b) at Nesscliffe in August, the gains in strength from a visit in June were massive, and I realised that I could aim higher if I wanted. I went home disappointed at not having investigated Gathering Sun in the upper quarry, or brushing one of the big E5/6 routes to try for a flash.

There were two routes that surfaced from the depths that had always fascinated me. Master’s Edge at Millstone and Point Blank in Stennis Ford. I went to investigate ME in October, and after a couple of sessions did it clean on toprope, only to not yet find an opportunity to return in the dry to finish the job. Point Blank had been simmering for years – this is probably the one line which has inspired me more than any other. I remember seeing the face on my first visit to Range East in 2005. It’s such an obvious feature, and I wondered why it hadn’t been climbed, perhaps it was just too hard? I could pick out the line that I’d follow on the face, although I never looked any closer to see if it was possible. It turned out it wasn’t too hard as Dave Pickford made the first ascent, and it’s seen a slew of ground up ascents since. At the time it was certainly hard enough to be off my radar, but when he made the FA and gave it a grade of E8 my first thought was that it didn’t seem totally ridiculous, not as high a grade as I expected anyway.

Salmon Left Hand at Bamford

I made a point of telling people my plan – that I was going to spend the winter training with this route in mind. I felt that if I shared it then I’d be committed – I’d feel stupid if I didn’t at least make a good go of getting it done. As it stands I think I’m making progress towards this goal. The sort of fitness that might see me up Body Machine would also get me up this, and a brief foray on an ascender in December confirmed my suspicions, that it’s a feasible objective for me. Whether I can pull the whole thing together remains to be seen, but I’m pretty motivated, and having looked at the route more closely now it feels within reach. Here’s hoping for some good weather at Easter.

Jetrunner and 2013

I realised the other day that I’ve got a tally of 92 E-points for the year. Quite a few more than last year without really meaning to. I’ve been pretty consistently ticking through the low E-grades all year though, with a few E4s and quite a lot of E3s thrown in.

Jetrunner, E4 6a, Bamford

I made it up to 96 today, finally climbing Jetrunner at Bamford. All of the food and beer at Christmas hasn’t done too much harm it seems. It wasn’t totally straightforward though, requiring a few up and down attempts (although I never fell off, I nearly did when I reversed part of the crux). After reversing a couple of times I realised that I was being pretty stupid really, since I was just as likely to fall off reversing as trying the move, so I went for it, and it all came together. Pretty chuffed. I’ve tried  this line a couple of times over the past few years, but always backed off at the crux as I was nervous about the gear. With a bit of fiddling today, and a couple of pieces I didn’t have previously (mostly from my partner who placed it on his attempt) we got the gear in a state I was happy with.

Jetrunner

Weather tomorrow looks good too, so have a chance to make 100 before the year is out.

Tor, Targets and Tendu

One I wrote a few months back, mainly for my own benefit I think:

I’ve always had a vague notion of targets for my climbing, but in the last few years they’ve become more concrete. I started to view myself more as an athlete, and tried to take that attitude towards achieving the goals I have. In the past 4 years I’ve realised a lot of those goals, and a great number more have shifted as I’ve realised how naive I was about what I could achieve if I put the effort in.

For the past couple of months I’ve been at Raven Tor quite a bit. I wanted to get Tin Of done, as it seemed the next logical route to do, and one I should be able to do quickly (I actually had a bit of a nightmare with it). I’ve made forays onto a few Peak 8as this year, primarily to get an idea of how much fitter I need to be to get up them. My conclusion was that my fitness is probably ok for a lot of the short, bouldery routes the Peak has to offer, but that I was lacking strength to actually do the moves. Most of the routes I’ve been on (The Sissy, Unleashing, Little Plum) have boiled down to a hard boulder problem, around F7B. I concluded that if I wanted to do them there wasn’t much point in just laying seige to them, and I’d be better off getting more mileage and then training strength over the winter in the hope of being able to do a couple of them next year.

So, I decided that I needed to get on a project to really test me, and just a notch below that target grade of 8a. I wanted something iconic, and something which would really beat the hell out of me when I was working it. The choice here was totally obvious for me – Body Machine at Raven Tor. I’ve always been inspired by the line and the history. When I started redpointing a few years ago Body Machine was a route which was right at the limit of my imagination. At the time it started by climbing 25 feet up a tree, and then stepping onto the rock into a F7c pitch. I was really inspired by the F7b+ next to it, Indecent Exposure, and that grade seemed like it would be attainable. I wasn’t so sure about Body Machine.

Then, in 2008, some bugger chopped the tree down. I was gutted. For me that probably wrote off the prospect of doing Indecent, and it surely meant that Body Machine was too hard? It meant that you had to add in a short, cruxy F7b+ and then climb most of the F7c section above that. It nudged the grade up to F7c+, which was off the chart as far as I was concerned. I didn’t write it off altogether, but I thought it was unlikely I’d ever be in a position to do it.

The last few years I’ve got a lot stronger though, and a lot more mileage on harder sport routes. My “pyramid” of routes building up to this grade looks about right, perhaps a little skinny by some folks standards, but on paper at least it looked possible.

I had a first session on it earlier this year. It felt desperate. I didn’t put much effort into the first section, since it has a really hard move using a nasty sharp crimp, and I thought it would either injure me or ruin my skin. I figured that the first objective should be to do the route from the third clip, to simulate the original.

You can basically break the route down into 3 sections. The first gives strange, off balance climbing leading into one powerful move using two small crimps, before a few easier moves to a good shakeout. Up to this point is supposedly F7b+ on it’s own, but it’s tricky to grade since it’s all about that one move. The next section is the meat of the route, a few tricky moves lead to a large undercut flake and the infamous rockover move. I don’t think the rockover is that bad actually. It’s a very powerful move, but mostly on your right leg and I find it more psychologically challenging than anything – I never expect to do it, but I’ve done the move far more times than I’ve fallen off it. After this move you get a quick shake and two powerful sequences, separated by a clip, which lead you to the jugs at the break, and a possible hands off rest if you’re daft, or have amazing core strength. For me it’s a pretty good rest, with my foot shoved behind a block in the hole. Most of the rests on this route are frustrating in that they’re probably really good if you climb just a couple of grades harder, whereas for me they’re all a bit time limited. I can’t hang around in that position forever, so I can’t recover completely for the next section.

From the break the third section is for me the hardest. The moves are no harder than what’s already done, but you’re tired and the sequences are tricky, it’s very easy to make a wrong move. On first acquaintance this section felt impossible. This was mainly because it’s quite hard to pull back onto the rock if you fall off, so you waste a lot of energy this way, and also that there are a lot of holds which are clearly well used, but aren’t necessary. After doing a few explosive campus style moves out of the break you end up with your right hand in a reasonable pocket. The next few moves are very drop-able as you work your hand rightwards and get your left hand in the pocket. Footwork is really crucial on this section since the handholds are pretty poor. The move from the pocket to the next good crimp is my favourite one on the route. You leave a reasonably secure position to reach out right for the Tendu hold. This is a small, sloping hold, 4 fingers wide and less than a fingertip deep. I feel like I’m levitating as I get this hold, because I can’t pull very hard on it, so all of my faith is in my feet. When I get the hold I have to move my feet across, gingerly and then hang the hold while I move my left hand. If you’re fresh this move is easy, but by this point you’ve already done 20 metres of climbing and your core strength is sagging. The next few moves are a real tease, with decent holds in awkward positions, requiring you to really focus on your core. The worst point of the route for me is the break by the final clip. You finally reach good jugs, but in a position where you know you can’t recover properly. The next moves are easy really, but they’re on big rounded holds, and it’s still steep. You need to recover a little and then just go for it. Basically if you can get your left foot onto the hold at the lip of the overhang you’re golden, but it would be frustratingly possible to fall here!

2013 round up

I’ve not posted on here in ages as a result of starting a PGCE – I’m now training to be a maths teacher. It’s great, I love the time in school, the kids make me laugh, occasionally exasperate me, but it’s also reminded me of just how much I like maths. Far from being tedious, going over the same topics repeatedly and not exploring anything new, teaching actually gives you a chance to look very deeply into topics you would otherwise consider fairly simple.

On the climbing front I’ve suffered a little as a result if this. I never got up Body Machine, hopefully I can rectify this in the Spring. I hit a high point several times, and was completely powered out by the time I got there. I just didn’t have the extra I needed to push through. I was an odd feeling, and not one I’ve experienced much in climbing. I wasn’t really pumped, I just had no power left, and on the most powerful bit. It’s given me a lot of confidence though, I know it will go down with a little power training, and it makes 8a a realistic target next year. I also managed a quick (for me) tick of Obscene Gesture as a direct result of the fitness gains on Body Machine.

In the autumn I’ve focused on ticking off classic trad routes. The list has been good! Wall End Slab Direct, Tower Face Direct, Goodbye Toulouse, Left Unconquerable, Erb, Elegy (always wanted to do this, and it still frightened me despite being within my comfort zone). I also got round to trying another grit E5, taking a decent whipper from the last moves of Nature Trail (with gear in the Wings pocket). Was happy that I gave a good go at least.

So, plans for next year? There’s a lot of potential on the cards. Sport 8a would be great, and achievable if I get a few weeks sport climbing in during the summer. There’s also talk of some more exciting objectives, granite routes in Chamonix, Verdon, Spain. Who knows at this point. One thing’s for sure, I need a long weekend in Pembroke to settle some scores there.

It’s not all climbing. Enjoying a walk in Longnor.

Wall Without End Part 2


So I couldn’t stay in north Wales anyway. I had things to do, a cat to feed, revision for some exams. I did all of that and looked at the forecast: Totally stunning for the next two days. I had to go back. I saw a friend had posted on UKC looking for a partner in the Peak, so sent him a message. “Cloggy? Gagging to do Great Wall!” My luck was in, and a few hours later we were back in the car heading west.
Cloggy Corner, Vember takes a series of grooves and cracks up the walls in the foreground to the left.
 This time there was no messing. Get to Llanberis, grab a pint in the pub and walk up the hill. We arrived at the crag at about 2am under the stars and pitched up for the night. By the time I woke properly there were people arriving at the crag. A pair were already on Great Wall and we decided to warm up with another Hard Rock tick, Vember.
Early birds. Chris and Dunc on Great Wall
When we returned to the base a queue was starting to form, and it didn’t stop. Great Wall was occupied for most of the day until it was finally free in the evening, when I felt too tired to get on it. Tomorrow would be different, we’d just get up and get on with it. So we did. I set off up the first pitch after stretching my legs and swinging my arms around a bit, and was surprised to find the start a little bold. Not to be deterred I pressed on in the hope that better gear would appear. It did, and the climbing became steeper and more technical. I bridged my way up the ever shallower groove until a move right to a flake and into an undercut constituted the crux. The next hold looked a long way off. I arranged protection and took a look, but my calves were pumping and I was tired. I stepped down a move to shake out and drop my heels, before taking another look. Still too far, I decided to reverse a little further for a better shake, and felt my legs wobble as I moved down with smears for feet. I was gone. Before I’d had time to think my left foot popped and I was airborne. I fell all of ten feet, but I think most of the people on Snowdon heard my profanity as it echoed round the cwm. I could have cried. It meant a lot to me to onsight this route, and I was totally gutted to have blown it in such a stupid manner. I was worried now that maybe it was too hard, if the top pitch was harder and bolder I really didn’t want to fall off up there.
Great Wall pitch one.
Either way, I had to get to the belay. The crux passed in a breeze second time up, landing on a huge jug with tricky but positive climbing for another 20 feet to the belay. John followed up easily, only having trouble with the gear I’d fallen on and I started to look up at the well chalked top pitch. It didn’t look too hard from here, and unusually, by this point I wasn’t at all concerned about it. Perhaps the tension had been relieved by blowing the onsight already?
John following pitch 2
I swapped over on the cramped stance with John and set off. I was concerned about the possible lack of gear, so took every placement I could get, with about 10 pieces in by the time I got to the crux. It was small gear, but reasonable placements and I felt pretty sure that most of it would hold a fall. My calves were starting to pump as I approached the crux. As I placed the wire before the move right I realised that it was such a good bit of gear that I should just go for it. So I did. I moved up into an undercut with high feet and slapped up right for the start of the sidepull, it was small but positive. Pasting my feet on I edged across and brought my left hand to match. It was a bloody jug! I was in! The ledge turned out to be a little disappointing to start, being slopey and a little unhelpful, but I didn’t care now, I swung carelessly across for another 15 feet to the jugs at the end and pulled on, elated. I slotted home a good wire and composed myself, but I was giddy with excitement at what I’d done. I wanted to make sure I didn’t blow the easy climbing to the top, but it was fine and I made it to the Green Gallery with a huge grin on my face.
Great Wall from Bow Shaped Slab
John followed the pitch clean. I’d been hoping for some ego-boosting yells of “Take!” and more huffing and puffing, but he breezed up it. We finished the day by scrambling up to the Pinnacle to climb Shrike. (Actually, John had wanted to climb Octo, but my inability to read a guidebook landed us in the wrong spot.) Shrike was another route I’d always wanted to get on, I was surprised at how many of the holds creaked and that the line was slightly odd, but the position is amazing and it packs in a few great moves.
Shrike pitch 1
I don’t feel too disappointed on blowing the onsight on a route which was so important to me. I guess the consolation is that the first pitch was well within my grade now, which is good to know. It’s frustrating to make elementary mistakes on big routes, but it’s all part of the experience. I was lucky to have a second who was willing, and to get to lead both pitches and given that it’s taken me so long to get up there I’m just glad to have been! I revelled in being on that face and finally seeing its intricacies up close. There’s also still the prospect of climbing the direct start and finish to get another taste of the wall. Another line up there has also caught my eye, which still has aid points on it, I’d love to investigate closer and it would be brilliant to be able to add a little to the history of the cliff with a first free ascent.

I understand better now Drummond’s finishing statement on the wall, commenting on Pete Crew, the first ascensionist: “He was still in love with that wall. Lovely boy Crew, arrow climber. Wall without end.”

Wall Without End Part One

Clogwyn Du’r Arddu
I’ve wanted to climb on Cloggy for almost as long as I’ve been climbing. When I started out, indoors, I was naive enough to not realise the amazing resources Britain has for rock climbing. I remember some friends heading to climb “near Sheffield” and being a little baffled, I didn’t realise there were any mountains near Sheffield? I suppose there aren’t really, but I was totally clueless about the vast amount of climbing that central England possessed, and oblivious to the fact that I might want to live here.
I put this naivety right by reading voraciously. Any magazine left lying around, posters on walls and what limited information there was on the internet at the time. I spent a year working in a relatively quiet gear shop, and basically got paid to read the bookshelf. Yosemite, by Alex Huber and Heinz Zack was one of the books newly released, and I gawped at the terrifying photos in it, but it all seemed a little beyond me, and a little far away. I bought a copy of Hard Rock, and was instantly enchanted. Here were routes I could definitely do. I’d already climbed harder than the majority of the routes in the book.
One route in particular caught my eye: Great Wall at Clogwyn Du’r Ardduon the northern flanks of Snowdon. Known colloquially, with black humour, as “Cloggy”. This imposing north-facing cliff is home to numerous classics, most of which looked reasonable. Great Wall was another matter. It was harder than anything I’d done, but still seemed within the realms of possibility. The evocative write up from Ed Ward-Drummond sucked me in, his self-effacing and emotive account is part metaphor and part reality. It captured perfectly what I was looking for in hard climbing. The whole thing filled me with the queasy sense of unease that I’ve always had before a big lead. “Seal cold in my shorts I was feeling a little blue.” He talks of the wall as having a drawing force upon him, an intimate relationship guiding him upwards, tricking him, consoling him and ultimately permitting him. The piece was accompanied by a photograph that I found almost slightly disturbing. A black and white shot of Drummond, stretching for a hold at the limit of his reach, with the wall sweeping off into blackness beyond him. I instantly knew that this was a route I would have to do one day.
The East Buttress of Cloggy, with the Great Wall lower centre.
When I started climbing I had very few real life role models. I didn’t know anyone heading off to the Alps, or the greater ranges. I knew a couple of people in passing who’d climbed E-grade routes, but didn’t realise that the difference between them and me wasn’t natural ability: it was hard work and experience. But E4 seemed attainable for a few reasons. They seemed to be generally 6a, which as far as I was concerned was the living end, but I could do 6a problems at the wall, so it had to be possible, right? I genuinely thought I would never do a 6b move, so wrote off anything as hard as that. The other thing which had caught my eye about the E4 grade came from reading the history section of the 1997 Wye Valley guide. E4 seemed to be the grade that everything got once it was freed from artificial aid. It seemed to be the natural point that the previous generation, with more acceptance of the odd aid move, had given up on free climbing. That, to me, said that this was where real, modern, hard climbing began. I wanted in.
Over the past decade I’ve climbed in north Wales several times a year, I’ve done classics on Anglesey, in Ogwen, the Pass, and at Tremadog. But Cloggy was where I really wanted to be. I’ve owned the guide for 10 years, yet every time I tried to visit something got in the way: a partner who couldn’t face the hour and a half walk in, an injury induced from putting a roll mat in a tent, poor weather, a broken down car. It was starting to get ridiculous. On seeing the news about the ascents of the Indian Face a couple of weeks ago, and finishing work for a few weeks, I knew now was the time.
Electric Blue
We headed over to north Wales last Tuesday afternoon, and spent a great evening climbing at Rhoscolyn, ticking off Electric Blue, an E4 DWS that I’d fancied for a while, but assumed would be too scary on closer inspection. We opted to stay in a friend’s house near Llanberis to get a good night’s sleep and walk up to Cloggy in the morning, rather than carry more stuff to walk up that evening. The walk was hot even at 7.30am, and we sweated our way up the tourist track to the point where you arc right for a half lap of the shallow cwm beneath the crag. This was the first time I’d even seen the crag up close and I was amazed by the architecture. The main lines are strong, defining features, and the faces between are blank and brooding. We got stuck in with an ascent of Jelly Roll in two pitches. I revelled in leading up the Drainpipe Crack that I’d read about with dread so many years before. A queue was forming for Great Wall, and we were weighing up whether to go for it. Rather than queue we opted for another E2 classic, The Troach, a bold wall climb with ample holds but airy situations as you climb out above suspect gear.
Dave on Silhouette (c) Will Hardy
On returning to the base we looked again at Great Wall, and felt the ache in our calves and the butterflies in our stomachs. We talked about which pitches we’d take, the first being well protected but strenuous and technical, the second apparently bolder and the ultimate crux. We delayed a decision, Dave had seen another E2 he fancied, so we swarmed up Silhouette as the crag’s shadow passed beneath us towards evening. On finishing Silhouette we were faced with a dilemma – If we leave now we can make it to the pub for tea and still have a good day tomorrow. If we stay and do Great Wall we might ruin tomorrow, we might miss our tea, and, worst of all, we’re tired enough that we might fail.

We bailed for a disappointing dinner in the Vaynol and I was left wondering what might have been. The next day we trudged up to the Cromlech and managed Foil, the classic E3 crackline, before the sun came round and we abandoned for the shade of Pen Trwyn sport climbing. We headed home content, with a fantastic haul from 3 days of climbing. 
Dave at Pen Trwyn
But I felt there was unfinished business.

The Dolomites

I never really did a proper write up of this trip last year. I spent a week in the Dolomites with a friend (Sam). We had a great trip, a shame it couldn’t have been longer, but I hope to return at some point. This is from the University of Nottingham Mountaineering Club’s Journal as an account of our trip and some tips for anyone considering one:

If the Dolomites had cream tea it might just top Pembroke as my favourite destination. Fortunately for Ma Weston pizza and beer don’t quite cut it on their own, as consolation though how about thousands of rock climbs up to 1500m in length? Yes, that’ll do nicely.


I’d heard a lot about the Dolomites from others over the years. There was mention of long walk ins and very optimistic guidebook times, as well as awkward snowed-up approaches. There’s definitely an element of all of this, but we were very lucky with the weather, there was hardly any snow and we only had one spectacular thunderstorm.


Passo Giau
There are a number of things you could do on a trip. For maximum mileage via ferrata would seem to be your best bet, you could spend a great few days traversing peaks between the mountain huts. We went for some adventure – big committing rock routes. Having heard the horror stories about walk ins we were fairly cautious with our initial objectives. We climbed around the Sella Towers and, realistically, mountain cragging doesn’t get much more convenient – 20 minutes to walk to the base of the crag, barely uphill and a 400m rock route to go at. The towers have loads of routes from VS upwards, the classic Dolomites guide covers hardly any of them, but there’s enough in it to keep you busy.

First up was the Messner Route on the north face of the second tower. This was billed as “serious and committing”, which wasn’t wrong, but the guidebook does seem to have a habit of elevating you to the status of a demi-god for even considering some of the routes. In reality it was a runout HVS, 12 pitches, with the first 6/7 being the hard ones. Basically you start the day with 6 HVS pitches back to back, most of them with 20 foot runouts between old pegs, with the odd nut and some tricky route finding. The route was covered in jugs however and although the pegs were old they usually looked in ok condition, and occasionally there were 2 or 3 right next to each other. The route gave fantastic climbing on solid rock, and the descent was a relatively easy scramble down the back. I’d highly recommend it. This was definitely the best route we did on the towers. The others being the Tissi route, which was interesting but not great, with some polished chimney climbing leading to an exciting crux pitch. We also climbed most of the “Big Micheluzzi” route on a nearby face, another 12 pitch HVS, more sustained than the Messner, but with bolted belays and no real commitment as you could easily abseil off at most points – which we did when a disgruntled storm cloud appeared and we thought it better to get off the route than find out how secure the scree slope over the top of it was.

Messner Route
Most of our week was spent waiting for a weather window to attempt a route on the Marmolada, the biggest peak in the Dolomites. It’s south face is 800m high and sports hundreds of routes up to 40 pitches long. We had hoped to do the Vinatzer-Messner route, a 30 pitch and very sustained E1, but unfortunately our only weather window was the last day of the trip and we needed to be in Venice to fly home by 9am the next day. We figured we’d probably manage it, but if anything went wrong or delayed us then we could have a proper epic and miss our flight. We opted instead for the equally classic Don Quixote, a 22 pitch HVS on which we would have more margin. There was a key deciding factor in all of this, namely that there’s a cable car from the summit and it stops running at 4pm. We figured the Vinatzer would take at least 12 hours and we’d probably miss the cable car, adding at least 3 more walking off – and that was provided we didn’t go off route!

South Face of the Marmolada
The Marmolada is simply stunning. We walked up to the hut underneath the south face on the Friday afternoon, which took about an hour, and spent the evening lazing around reading in the sunshine. The face looms over you, but it’s not foreboding like the mountains in the Valais or the Mont Blanc range. In fact, the Dolomites felt a lot friendlier overall. It could be to do with the more objectively straightforward nature – lots of peaks can be attempted from the valley in a day, there aren’t glacier crossings to worry about, the altitudes are modest and the climbs are in “condition” more regularly. We had a hearty meal at the hut and were pleasantly surprised by the bill, before trying to sleep with 30 school kids running riot occupying the other rooms.

Don Quixote

We set off early the next morning, our aim was to be on the rock by 6am (we had a 1 hour approach over scree slopes to wake us up) and to make sure we got there before any other parties from the hut. We succeeded and were a couple of pitches up when the next party started. Luckily there were only 3 teams on the whole route that day. We were followed by a guide and his client, who caught up with us on some of the easier pitches since they didn’t have to do any route finding! The lower wall passed by quickly with some fantastic VS slab and crack climbing which leads to the halfway ledge. What looked from the hut like a decent sized ledge was in fact the size of a non-league football ground. We tried our best to keep the rope off the scree on the ledge and tread carefully to avoid knocking rocks on the other parties and had a short lunch break until we spied the guide appearing at the far end of the ledge.


Crux of Don Quixote

The next section had some good solid pitches leading into a great belay stance in a cave. The way out? Straight through the roof! It looked hard, but was only about VS in reality and there were several pegs and threads to clip. More interesting climbing up shallow grooves led past some loose slabs to the final hard section. The guide was catching us again as we struggled to find the route up featureless rock, cheering every time we found a piton since there really wasn’t much else. I climbed the pitch leading to the 2 crux pitches and thought I spied another belay 20 feet higher. With the guide hot on our heels and complaining about the incoming cloud I thought it would be good to have our own stances. Unfortunately the ledge I thought I’d seen was an illusion, and this belay, while solid, was a hanging one on a clutch of pegs 700m above the valley. Also unfortunate was that the guide was fulfilling the arrogant Italian stereotype and once Sam had set off on the crux pitch (about F6a+ with more pitons than we had quickdraws) the guide arrived at the first belay and rather than take my advice to use the comfy ledge, he climbed up to my belay and clipped his slings through my gear. In this intimate hanging position he decided that he needed to pee and lit a cigarette (Marlboro, naturally). He complained a bit about Sam taking a while, but then quickly disappeared into the mist as we finished the route. We topped out on rotten rock to the final pinnacle and made a couple of exciting abseils down to the glacier on the north side before running for the cable car. As we rode down we saw the satisfying sight of the guide and his client topping out just a bit too late to catch the ride down.

This was really just a taster and I hope to head back to the Marmolada, but also Tre Cima in the north at some point in the future.

Logistics

Alpine climbing can be a bit of a dilly to get your head around. Some of the guidebooks are really not very clear and the hardest thing is sometimes figuring out where you start, where you finish and how long it will actually take you.

You won’t need to know crevasse rescue techniques (except descending the Marmolada), but you will need good general climbing knowledge and fitness. The climbing is on regular limestone, or Dolomitic limestone which is similar and the climbing style is quite similar to many Peak limestone venues. There are big routes with long descents, but also lots of shorter stuff and a decent amount of valley cragging, Arco isn’t too far away either. Don’t expect a Rockfax topo for every pitch as though! You’ll be lucky to get more than “Climb the crack”, if that. A route finding error on some of the big faces could be serious, especially if you didn’t realise for a few pitches (perfectly possible!) and perhaps the most important lesson in these environments is that if you mess up keep it simple and don’t rush getting out of any situation – and also, abbing off isn’t always the easiest or quickest option when the routes get big.

Most of the routes in the Dolomites were described as starting from mountain huts. However, many of the huts are accessible by cable car, taxi or even in your own car (definitely hire one, or drive out). If you’re used to elsewhere in the Alps this is a little confusing, but luckily it means things are simpler as you don’t have to plan to walk in the day before for most routes. The walk ins for our routes were fine and the times seemed reasonable. It gives you a good chance to soak up the surroundings too.

Camping was slightly expensive, but not horrific. A van would be ideal as there are loads of good dossing laybys, although technically wild camping is illegal it seemed to be tolerated if you didn’t take the mickey. With a group I’m sure you could rent a cottage for a decent rate.

You need to be efficient. We took 8 hours to do the 22 pitches on Don Quixote, the Messner route took 4 hours for 12 pitches. We didn’t actually pitch anything below VS since it was quicker to move together provided the terrain wasn’t complex. The reasons to be quick are numerous – thunderstorms predominantly happen in the afternoon for one thing, on bigger routes fitting them in during daylight hours could be tricky if you’re slow. You’ll need a few grades in hand to feel comfortable. That said, it’s easy to just select shorter routes and ones with abseil descents already equipped if you’re concerned.

We were lucky with the weather generally and had limited snow. We took a pair of trail running crampons each on the Marmolada in case we needed to descend the glacier. These are very light and will fit on your regular approach shoes. In years with more snow you might need these to get to the routes safely in some areas.

Other kit we took: 1 ½ sets of nuts, 15 quickdraws including long ones, 5 cams. We also took prussiks and couples of 120cm slings and screwgates each. Helmets are essential, there’s a reasonable amount of loose rock on ledges. There are lots of pitons, some better than others and it’s impossible not to rely on the to some extent. Lots of the belays are in situ on popular routes. Despite the fixed gear this is not sport climbing, the runouts can be big and pegs aren’t as solid as bolts. Usually the harder pitches will have more pitons, we didn’t take any extras but if you were climbing something less popular it would probably be a good idea.

Clothing wise, for the routes around Sella I packed a windproof, a fleece and a light survival bag – a lightweight Primaloft wouldn’t be a bad idea too. It can be very hot in the sun, but it’s cool in the shade – I generally climbed in a couple of t-shirts. On the Marmolada the altitude means it’s colder. We each packed a decent belay jacket, hat and gloves, a waterproof and we took a blizzard bag instead of the lighter weight option. On this I wore a windproof fleece over a base layer, which was fine for most of the day, but a little chilly near the top. We got everything into 20 litre packs. If you were keen to do the harder things on the Marmolada it seemed like taking a lightweight sleeping bag and stove and taking 2 days over it might be the way to go, meaning you could climb at a slightly more leisurely pace and save money by not staying at the hut, you would probably need to take a lot of water though, as there isn’t much on the face.