Classic Dolomite Climbs

Review by planetFear
Thursday 1st July 1999

There’s nothing like a new guidebook to get you dreaming. I have only seen a few photocopied preview pages of the one in question, but it is already whetting my appetite. It is by two Tyrolean climbers, Anette Köhler and Norbert Memmel and the new English translation appearing this summer is to be called Classic Dolomite Climbs, published by Bâton Wicks. I last went to the Dolomites 24 years ago and I have been meaning to return ever since. Glancing through the list of just over 100 routes in the new book, I naturally looked to see if the few I have done are there and, yes, all four of them are included — all classic routes by famous pioneers of the ’30s.

There is something about those Italian names that immediately conjures up visions of glorious soaring pitches of hot, baked limestone, which must have been fiercely intimidating 60 years ago but can now be enjoyed by the averagely competent climber able to keep up steady speed on 10 to 20 pitch routes: Hans Vinatzer, who led the West Face of the Third Sella Tower; Bruno Detassis and Enrico Giordani, whose famous ‘Guides Route’ on the North East Face of the Crozzon di Brenta I didn’t do, but have always wanted to try; Luigi Micheluzzi, who with Castiglione found the wonderful 90m traverse on the South Face of Piz Ciavazes — one of the most famous Grade VI climbs in all of the Dolomites.

I did the Ciavazes route on a sunny September morning with Bob Milward, otherwise known as Christopher Robin, who is the most talkative person with whom I have ever climbed. As well as talking a lot, he had a fine spirit of adventure and agreed, when we reached the huge ‘Gamsband’ ledge where most parties walk off, to continue up the upper wall, where the pegs suddenly became rather sparse and the rock — well — more varied. The reward for a good deal of fear was a spectacular descent on the far side, down one of the first Via Ferrata ever to be constructed in the Dolomites — the dizzy Posneckerstieg.

Names in the South Tyrol come, of course, in Italian and German. The guide includes the traverse of the Punta della Cinque Dita, or Fünffingerspitzen, if you want a more heel-clicking sound. Towering above the five digits is the massive bulk of the Langkoffel (which always makes me think of lumpen kartoffel) or, more lyrically, the Sassolungo. I was glad to see included the original Pichl/Waizer route up the North Face, but what really caught my eye was the decorative but clear diagram of the convoluted descent. I remember that we were there on a sunny afternoon, with Milward talking us volubly through a wordy guidebook description. On the rare occasion when he ran out of words, we let instinct take over, but it would have been nice to have had Köhler and Memmel’s diagram, particularly if the summit had been in cloud.

Getting off Dolomite summits can be notoriously difficult and one of the great strengths of the book is that it does not leave you stranded on top. As for the way up, each route is illustrated with a photo and a UIAA style topo. I have never quite come to terms with these topos, but the English publisher, Ken Wilson, assures me that they bring the routes alive. As he put it, in his usual forthright fashion: “As far as I’m concerned, when you look at a photo it’s just a great lump of crumbling limestone.” I suppose he has a point, once you’ve learned what all the hieroglyphics mean, the topos must be very helpful.

Another strength of the book is its odd flashes of humour. For instance, in discussing the need to be competent in retreat, the authors mention the ‘Prussian Law of Descent’ — a reference to the extraordinary turn of the century solo pioneer, Paul Preuss, who never climbed anything that he could not reverse.

This is a guide for people who want to climb competently in the mountains, but who want it to be fun. Grades range from III to VII, but with the emphasis on the V to VI range. Old classics predominate but there is a sprinkling of offerings from such modern pioneers as the Messner brothers and Heinz Mariacher. There are surprising ommissions, for instance, the Cassin Route on the Cima Ovest. The reason? The authors haven’t done it and it’s dangerous anyway. They have only included routes they know personally and which they consider to be of high quality, without excessive objective danger.

Their mention in the preface of discussing the routes each evening ‘over spaghetti and red wine’ seems to embody the holiday spirit and, when describing the Rifugio Vassoler on the little known south side of the Civetta group, they don’t neglect to mention ‘the garden of alpine flowers right next to the hut’.

In the same enticing blurb that exhorts you to sample the ‘incorruptible climbing’ on the South Arête of the Torre di Babele. It conjures up wonderful visions of hordes of exuberant Italians on every belay ledge, drinking, eating, making merry and all talking at once.

Returning to those early pioneers, one of the surprises of the guidebook is the inclusion of some less familiar names, including some remarkable women pioneers. Now, I have occasionally in the past banged on about the formidable Gertrude Bell, whose 1904 attempt on the North East Face of the Finsteraarhorn, in the Bernese Oberland, was so far ahead of its time. What I did not realize was that she also climbed in the Dolomites and that there were other women instigating climbs there, every bit as futuristic as the Finsteraarhorn.

Two climbs in 1901 stand out in particular. On the Tofana di Rozes, the first route up the South Face, at IV+, was put up by the Hungarians, Ilona and Roanda Eötvös, with the guides Antonio Dimai, Giovanni Siorpaes and Angelo Verzi. More remarkable was the first ascent of the South Face of the Marmolada di Penia.

The line of this first route up the wall was not as direct nor as hard as the Direct Pillar Route put up nearly 30 years later by Micheluzzi, but it still warrants a grade of V- and it resulted from the determination of a woman from Brighton called Beatrice Tomasson.

In 1900, she employed Luigi Rizzi to reconnoitre the face but he retreated from 150m. In June 1901 she returned with two more guides, who failed on another line. Undeterred, the 42 year old Tomasson hired two well-known guides from San Martino di Castrozza — Michele Bettega and Bortolo Zagonel — returned with them to the Rizzi line and this time succeeded on a 650m route of sustained IV and V-, with bad weather and snowy conditions thrown in for extra measure.

Another Bettega client, Edward Broome, repeated the Marmolada route in 1906, finding some pitons. It is interesting to see that already in 1901 pegs had been used but it seems that at that stage they were only employed very sparingly, usually as safeguard against possible retreat. Protection was minimal. Ropes were made of hemp and froze to stiff hawsers when wet.

As for the women, some, such as another of Bettega’s ‘brave Signori’ Adeline Edwards, were still climbing in skirts. Beatrice Tomasson seems to have been more feisty and a contemporary photo shows her in what look like below-the-knee culottes, woollen stockings and lightweight boots. The single rope, tied painfully round her waist, gathering in a voluminous blouse, makes you conclude that she could not have stood much tight-roping. Not only did she instigate this major new rock climb, she was also fully competent to climb its sustained hard pitches, heading into the unknown on a major unclimbed wall to the top of the Dolomites’ highest peak.

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