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.
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.
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.
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.
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 piss. 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.