Dolomites Diary 2018
So, after some slight hitches, here is the first real blog post. (I accidentally deleted the nearly-finished version while I was trying to work out how to embed instagram posts - Grrrrr!!! I did at least manage to do that in the end, with the help of this shell script and a lot of fruitless googling.)
This story harks back to August 2018, a simple time that feels very distant: the chaos unleashed by COVID-19 upon society was unthinkable, Brexit still hadn’t happened, Nadia had short hair… I could go on. It was also when Nadia and I went to the Dolomites for two weeks of climbing and walking, and we had a great time. We had first visited all too briefly the year before en route to Austria after climbing in Orpierre, and were completely blown away. The Dolomites are an absolute paradise for anyone with an affinity for mountains: the rock faces are utterly sheer and improbable in their vastness, and create the jagged skylines we associate with mountains. The light colour of the limestone lulls you into a false sense of security, and makes the peaks seem much friendlier than the Mordoresque granites and gneisses of Chamonix, for example.
As soon as you get up close, however, any pretensions of clemency are dispatched. The sense of history you feel as you move through the rock architecture and see the scars left by the combat during WW1 is quite grounding. I found an excellent skiing video which shows the terrain in winter and some very ballsy skiing (and also shows some skiers using slings as via ferrata cowstails - pointless. Why not get Petzl or whoever to sponsor you some?):
Imagining myself holed up in the rockface with that amount of snow underfoot, barely fed and clothed, shooting aimlessly at the expanse of cold stone opposite your side of the valley is some thought. The landscape also conjures up thoughts of all of the great climbers that graced the cliffs in times past: Comici, Cassin, Messner, Hans-Joerg Auer (who sadly died in an avalanche last year). These human histories that we attach to such places establish a different connection than that felt by connecting to nature alone; I find both to be hugely comforting in different ways, and difficult to separate from one another.
I kept a diary of the entire trip, which is unusual for me, but in this instance highly fortunate as I was able to reproduce the ‘massive, irretrievable data loss’ quite accurately. I’ve reproduced what I wrote at the time below, along with some pictures we took to stop you from nodding off (you can see all the pictures from the trip here). Enjoy!
Early plane to Venice. Very hot. People pushing, jesticulating, jostling, paying. Everything costs money. Try to seek sanctuaryby venturing into the backstreets, but decide it’s still too much, so a train and a bus later I arrive in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Queen of the Dolomites.
Last time I had seen Nadia I was adorned with the Birdman mask after The Crash in June, so it was a relief to find that her previous fretting and disquiet regarding The Nose had been mostly dispelled. A few minor issues remained to be resolved: the absence of a stovce, a coffee producer and an eating recepticle for myself. We decided to freeze solving these issues until tomorrow.
Shopping, campsite, salad and beer later and we contentedly retired to sleep. Oh, and no guidebook. Ordered one, didn’t come. Always add at least four days to any expected postal delivery date in the Republic.
Awoke at leisurely half nine. Cappuccino in the campsite bar. Then off to town to stock up for the next few days. Camping in Cortina is molto espensivo, so we planned to form some sort of base camp in the forest en route to Cinque Torri (CT).
Yesterdays’ problems were all dealt with, albeit at significant cost. I got my first proper exercise in weeks by running back to camp for my wallet. Then my second proper exercise by walking all the climbing gear and some of the food up to 1500 m, stashing it near to a lovely little hut with a spring. Hurried down the hill with the sound of thunder hot on my heels for gnocchi, wine and much-needed sleep ahead of the planned walk to the Lago de Sorapiss (aka SourPiss) tomorrow.
Early start, packed up tent and paid a whopping €64 for two nights camping. Rinsed. Then off into the forest where we soon stashed the tent and helpfully found a spring. We slurped greedily; it was going to be a long day.
A substantial slog ensued; three hours later we still hadn’t reached the middle lift station. Once there the views were spectacular and some fine structural geology was seen: beds tilted, folded, faulted; all visible on an unprecedented scale.
A quick romp down to the col and the uphill scree skating started in earnest. This section of the day made Nadia very unhappy after being deceived by the scale of the contours on the map (a recurring theme throughout our partnership). She began to make the wailing face that simultaneously makes me laugh guiltily and feel very remorseful. After a rest and some consolement we pressed on for the top and the start of the first section of via ferrata, where the use of harness and lanyards was entirely unnecessary.
After passing the Poo Hole we were soon at the Turning Point, where after some deliberation we elected to bail and bivy at the lago. Following a final annoying section of scree we arrived at suitable camping spot where we prepared an excellent chickpea salad. We were treated to some of the best shooting stars I’ve ever seen, then fell into a surprisingly warm sleep.
Woke to a beautiful sunrise over SourPiss. The lago looked very excellent and Nadia looked very cute.
Two coffees, some biscuits, some crunch and some cheese, then down to the lago where many tourists had already assembled to be loud, smoke, shit everywhere and take shit photos. Quick progress down the path to the road, where we had lunch. Then hitched a ride partway back to town with a friendly Polish couple. They dropped us off at a carpark where they planned to meet their friends, which was busy with very expensive looking vehicles. We waited a while, then the Poles appeared again. Their friends were actually in town, so they would take us there. Hooray! The couple’s names were Simon and Aga, and they were very enthusiastic when they discovered our interest in caves and karst. They had explored the gypsum karst in Romania and Ukraine; sounded very cool.
Shopping, packing then another slog uphill to the little hut, near to which we established camp. Pasta slop for tea. Wine, much needed. Feeling quite unfit. Rain during the night, the first time.
Woke to sunshine. Decided to go sport climbing at a crag near the road not too far away. Sky becoming grey, we packed and left. More slogging until we met an old lady picking mushrooms (the eating kind). An initial enquiry in my pidgin Italian revealed that not many were to be found, but she did show us a specimen of the ‘good stuff’ in her basket, an orange mushroom that I had seen before in Sweden.
The slog then continued. I found a nice looking path that seemed to afford an appealing shortcut. Amazingly, while trudging along this six shrooms were found! We soon arrived at what seemed to be the main crag, which was extremely polished. I did a climb that was a total sandbag (meaning harder than promised) and upon reaching the ground it started to rain. Typical. This combination of weather and guidebook treachery may not have stopped the very strong-looking elderly couple also there, but it was enough for us, so we decided we would spend the rest of the day moving the camp closer to the crag and hunt for more shrooms on the way. Though the renewed search was not fruitful (we found no further fungi), our spoils were still more than sufficient for an excellent mushroom risotto accompanied by the last of the wine.
By the time we had come to set up camp, it had stopped raining, which was much appreciated. Some stars even began to twinkle; promising for tomorrow.
Lazy morning after the rain of the other day. After further laziness over breakfast we eventually shuffled off to the crag. We were hoping to find some less sandbagged climbs than the previous day, but this endeavour did not begin as soon as had been hoped as the crag’s lower sector proved frustratingly tricky to find, necessitating bashing through pine forest and stumbling over steep scree for around an hour. Once there we quickly got in the swing of things. The second climb was also rather sandbagged, which started to give us a bit of The Fear. We decided to have lunch and worry about it later. Pesto, pasta and seeds. Yum.
The afternoon’s climbing more than made up for the earlier apparent stiff grading, except for one which was significantly harder again. Then home for another stew, this time potato and lentil. I started to read aloud from Nadia’s book, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, but the unnecessary absurdity of it all, along with the stupid songs, soon saw me off to bed.
Another rather lazy morning. After a long summer of pushing herself and chronic undernourishment caving in Austria, Nadia’s body was starting to catch up. We decided to head to yesterday’s venue for some relaxed single pitch sport climbing again, but after two climbs it was clear that it was all becoming a bit too much so after some soul searching and snoozing in the sun we headed back to camp.
The sunset promised to be glorious so after food I decided to leave Nadia with her ridiculous book and run up to the Cinque Torri to catch the evening light, with a thought to having a go at the Averau via ferrata. The uphill section to CT was over much quicker than expected and soon I was at the foot of the via ferrata, which was rather busy despite the time (7 pm). There was more scree than cable action and soon I was back down after admiring an excellent gold-drenched, rose-hinted view of the Tofana massif and Croda di Lago. Some climbers were hurriedly abseiling off the CT as I passed on my return and the track back down was pleasantly deserted.
Awoke at a much earlier hour than previous days with a plan to go for a walk around Croda di Lago (CdL). Soon after beginning the walk we were able to branch away from the thronging crowds heading up to the Rifugio, which we aimed to arrive at later. Instead we headed up along a far more peaceful path past the amazing spires of the CdL towers. Some folk were climbing what looked to be long and difficult routes on two of the towers, got me pretty psyched. An excellent bivy spot was located en route as well. I still dream of sleeping down there and climbing a route on the towers one day; would be an awesome alpine adventure.
Some worry and annoyance occurred when I fell on some scree and hurt my hand in what at the time felt to be a very painful fashion. Banndaged it up in a buff and continued. Lots of immersion in cold water over the next few days and sufficient rest meant it was fine to climb on later luckily. We pressed on to arrive at the top, and a new view - always nice.
We decided to investigate some fabled climbs on the Lastoi de Formin. This led to some confusion and me running up and down the path shouting ‘Nadia!’ but soon we were reunited. Some good examples of drumlins were seen. We wandered along to the Rifugio for coffee and cake, and then it started raining very heavily so we had a wine. Some young men arrived at the hut with their dripping gear slung around them; they had clearly made a hurried exit. After the rain died down a bit we headed off, and saw the Rifugio dog which was enjoying tormenting a donkey that was situated in the yard. Nice peaceful walk back to camp; the last time.
Finished up odds and ends for breakfast then swiftly hitched a ride into Cortina to restock. Caught the Dolomiti Bus up to Col Gallina near the Falzarego Towers and soon found a campsite with an excellent view out towards Averau and Cinque Torri. Plus not far from the road: good for my back as my load was getting on for 30 kgs!
No water so we headed down the hill to the Rifugio there for a beer and topped up on water in their toilets. Back up to set up tent, eat and get an early night: we planned to do the Comici the next day, so wanted a headstart on the inevitable queues.
Awake at 7am (early for us!). Sky was very clear and the weather promised to be excellent after yesterday afternoon’s storm. Despite our attempted promptness, there were several teams already kitting up at the base when we arrived. Much hotter than expected. Eventually got going, but as it turned out to the right of the true line. After a bit of a shaky moment when I found myself off-route and showering rocks on people, I found an alternative belay and we settled into a rhythm behind a Canadian couple. The man, also Rob, seemed pleased about his partner doing all of the leading.
From here on the route was a total pleasure, with amazing movement and exposure. Some of the first trad climbing that Nadia had ever seemed to truly enjoy! I think because of this our speed was pretty good, which left us with time to do another route after lunch, called Lussato, which finished on the top of the Torri Grande, the larger of the two Falzarego Towers.
Rain did threaten during the ascent of Lussato but never materialised, and when the sun came out it really made us sweat as we had layered up. Like the moon, according to Nadia.
After the ease of route finding and logistics on the Comici we may have got ahead of ourselves in our decision to try and tacklet a larger and much further away route on the Lazuguoi West face. Later start than planned, then walked the wrong way (despite Nadia’s warnings). Over an hour of scree bashing later and all we had to show for it was a rusty ice screw (I kept it and cleaned it up at home, works fine). We persevered for a bit, but after eventually locating the climb (from above) and seeing the amount more walking that would be required to get there Nadia entered a motivational vacuum. We headed home, after a bread and cheese break, to console ourselves with pasta.
We decided that the day could not be allowed to become a total failure, however, and went for a nice walk up to the CT for coffee and icecream. The sun exploited cracks between the monoliths of cloud, immersing the landscape in a majestic melancholy. The views on the way back to the tent were an unlikely and perhaps undeserved reward for such an unproductive day. We resolved that tomorrow would involve more climbing and less walking. And probably less eating.
The night was host to the most spectacular storm thus far. Lightning pierced the darkness of the tent and raindrops the size of marbles warped the flysheet.
We emerged unscathed, however, at a chilly 7am. The pots and my toothbrush were very clean. Brisk breakfast, saving some final biscuits for tomorrow. Then off to the Falzarego Towers, this time taking the correct path to the base of the crag past the ruins of a WW1 military hospital.
A German pair showed up and were more efficient than us getting kitted up so we let them go first. Mistake: they proved much slower at climbing than at unpacking. The woman was not observed to smile or look at the nice view once whilst I was sharing the belay ledge with her. We overtook them soon after.
Nadia led first, and shortly after she started a pair of old Italian men turned up and began motoring up behind, their speed owing to the fact that they carried no protection other than some slings and one #2 camalot (big yellow). Despite us running it out a lot more than we would usually and me stringing two pitches together they soon tired of our slowness and abseiled off just before the harder pitches started, of which Nadia led the first, a nice slab with good gear.
I then took on the next two pitches in one, and skipped out the suggested traverse by going direct; less of a faff to protect but technically harder. Nadia had the next lead, an awkward chimney with skant protection, good lead from her. I took the final headwall slab quickly enough and we topped out and ate lunch at 3pm; 10 pitches in 6 hours. Upon finishing lunch it began to hail and thunder earnestly, and we decided to abseil the slippery descent gully. Shortly after reaching the bottom it became glorious sunshine once more and we took in the view well pleased with our efforts.
On an evening walk to look for water we found a great bivvy spot in an abandoned house with a plumbed tap and several camper vans parked up. (We stayed here during our 2019 Dolomites trip, very handy.) On the way home Nadia also found a €20 note on the floor! Highly successful day :)
Even earlier up this morning as we had a much further walk to get to Lazuguoi Piccolo, the scene of our aborted mission two days previous. We had the final biscuits (five) and some almonds before setting off; meagre breakfast rations today. After following a path in a WW1 trench for a while the sun finally began to offer some warmth and the climb was located rather easily.
Another pair were ahead of us (with walkie talkies to communicate, great idea) so we took our time on the first pitch, very nice climbing despite being slightly wet. We came to regret not having a nut key when Nadia couldn’t prise one of my placements free. I abseiled down to get it and plucked it out easily after her strained efforts; typical. During the delay, two Spanish pairs had turned up and begun climbing super fast behind. The next pitch was also great, sustained climbing (though also quite wet). However, I didn’t feel my normal self and terrain that I would normally have revelled in was instead making me feel nervous and unsteady. I set a rather uncomfortable hanging belay, which made my stomach feel cramped.
Nadia did the next two leads and then we swung leads for a bit on easier ground. A few cumbersome hours later and we had arrived below the top crux pitches. The Spaniards had passed us by now and had deviated off-route to the right. They encountered an area of loose rock, and decided to share some of their findings with us. This, combined with closing weather and my mental fatigue, left us with one logical progression: a sneaky abseil down to a big ledge, from which an inviting descent path led off to the North.
After exploring some of the military tunnels peppering the Lazuguoi, we followed an easy via ferrata up to a wonderfully deserted summit. Soaking up views of the Tofana and Tomaselli, with peaks further afield buried in clouds and the last of the years’ snow clinging to the slopes of the Marmolada near its distinctive glacier, we felt we had made the right choice. We walked home via a beautiful alternative route over the back of the Laguzuoi summit, and decided en route that tomorrow would be our last climbing day.
As we approached camp, the sounds of wind, stream and sheep were replaced by the roar of the road below, reminding me of what I treasure most about getting out exploring in the hills - the silence of escape.
We had decided to save the longest climb of the trip until last. Hopefully we would be up to it. Awoke to glorious sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, which put us in a good mood as we ate our lentils for breakfast. In hindsight, the high-energy, calorific food, as opposed to running solely on coffee and biscuits until lunch, may have made a difference to performance.
There was, however, some confusion as to where exactly to start (guidebook a bit of a letdown on this), but we decided to just start going up and assumed we would find it somewhere. Soon we were at a point that matched pitch 3 of the description, an excellent foray up a big crack system. The free, wandering style, with plentiful holds and protection and awesome exposure, was characteristic of the climb as a whole, whose only negative in my view was the somewhat over-enthusiastic use of large cemented rings as protection. With the abundance of natural protection, they detracted somewhat from the adventurous aspect of the climbing compared with other routes in the Dolomites.
Some more fine traversing and weaving amongst big boulders continued, and we felt rather as I imagine Jack felt, ascending a fascinating living thing towards a mythical castle at the top. The mood on the mountain began to change as the day progressed, however, and as I set off from the 8th belay lightning struck less than 4 seconds before thunder. Not far away! I hurried on upwards, running out the rope a lot and yanking on an old iron peg before hastily assembling a belay from some sub-optimal anchors in an uncomfortable stance.
Then the skies opened and purged it’s waters in an apocalyptic cascade. I was quite glad that Nadia had the next lead; she prevailed heroically in the slippery, scary onslaught. As she brought me up the torrent subsided and we enjoyed a very well-earned lunch at the top on a lovely grassy platform, with a powerful view of the storms wake and the ominous noises of its onward journey. Looking back, it wasn’t that bad, quite fun really.
As we arrived back at the tent the rain returned. Next day, we caught the bus back to Cortina then arrived in Leeds two days later with fat ankles from the blood pooling in our legs during the long coach ride. We felt rather vindicated in our decision to jump ship in the coming days as the rain persisted very heavily all across the Alps.