Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Fish

The morning after driving eight and a half hours from Ceuse to Malga Ciapela and bivying on the side of the road Alan and I started to get organised. We had illusions of grandeur  thinking that we would onsight all the crux pitches in super fast time and finish the 38 pitch, 1220m route in a day. A feat that has only been done a few times by exceptional world class climbers such as the Pou brothers and Nico Favresse. We decided we would stash gear at the summit so that when we arrived late at night we would not have to walk down the glacier on the north side but instead wait for the cable car, which runs from the summit to the town below, the following morning. Luckily for us we were forced to change plans when there were no stash spots to be found easily accessible around the summit lift station which was crowded with tourists.We were way off in our understanding of exactly how long and difficult the route would be and being forced to abandon this tactic and change to climbing with a haul bag containing our bivy gear greatly contributed to the success we ended up having.

Marmolada Ombretta cable car overview.
Picture of the summit station at the top of the south wall.
The easy way up!
After arriving back into town after our cable car ride to the summit we put the rack and bivy gear together. One of the changes we made after our failed stash attempt was to climb with a single rope and tag line instead of our original plan of using double ropes. This was to facilitate hauling, and climbing on a single rope ended up being much better than if we had of had double ropes. Alan had borrowed Alien cams of friends so we used doubles in those replacing the Black Diamond C4s where possible. This was due to Aliens having a shorter axel and so fitting into limestone pockets better, which is key to protecting the climb which doesnt have the long cracks found in granite walls. We also took a fair few slings, a small selection of nuts, some kevlar threads and two skyhooks (key to protecting and/or aiding through the cruxes).

The same day Alan and I walked with all our gear for an hour and a half from the town to the Refugio Falier, a hut at the base of the south face of the Marmolada. We told them our plans but I got the feeling they were thinking "oh yeah, just more punters about to bail off The Fish". We did meet some young guys from Innsbruck who also had plans for the route the next day. I felt a bit disapointed we wouldnt have the route to ourselves and I told Alan that no matter what we wouldn't be held up by them and would be the first on the route in the morning. Instead of staying in the hut we walked for 45 minutes towards the base of the wall and bivuaced ready to go at first light.
The first view of the wall.
Looking up from Refugio Falier.
The last meal before the big climb.
We woke about 4:30 am and put the coffee on. Before the first coffee had perculated the guys from Innsbruck walked past on the track. We said good morning and they raced up the hill while we put on another brew. "We might as well give them a bit of a head start" I thought. In the end I had underestimated them, they were fast and motivated. In fact for one of them it was his fourth route on the wall. Alan and I moved with slow steady confidence, it was our first. We certainly weren't fast but the loose starting pitches slowly went by and our confidence grew on the rock. We had started by skipping the original first pitch which is very loose and dangerous instead opting to traverse in from the right which Arnoud Petite had suggested to us while in Ceuse. We had been seconding the leader through the lower easier pitches with the haul bag on our backs but after I almost fell on pitch 6 seconding a dihedral, due to the bag not allowing me to lean back on the holds and smear my feet while fitting into the corner, we decided to start hauling.

Only two pitches later I started to hear voices from above. "Theres no way we could have caught up to the other team" I thought. After moving so fast and confidently they had started to bail. It turned out that on a sandbagged 6b+ pitch one of them had made a wrong move far above his last piece of gear. He tried to reverse it but as he downclimbed his foot slipped off a smear and he came unstuck. To make things worse two of his cams skated out of their placements. 20 meters later he hit the wall and was lucky not to break anything. I watched a bruised and in shock climber rappel down. This was 'The Fish' I had heard about.
I think this was seconding the 6b+ pitch.
The difficulty stepped up a notch at pitch 11. I could handle sandbagged 6's but pitch 11 was the first of the four crux pitches of the route. Graded 7a+ I knew by that stage of the route it was going to be harder. The start of the pitch was a traverse in which your handholds disappeared and you had to commit to tiny smears for your feet trusting they would hold. It took me a while to commit but after a lot of effort I found myself on the other side thinking about how solid that was for 7a+. I then realised I had a hard layback on poor holds and slopy feet to do. I went for it clipping two rusty pins on the way before ending at a completely blank section of rock rediculously pumped. There was a huge reach to a slopy pocket just before the anchor. It took 100% of my energy but I had onsighted the first crux. The small glimmer of hope I had of onsighting the route was still alive.
Alan seconding the 7a+ pitch.
Alan led pitch 12, the nails 6b+, that the other party had the big fall on but found plenty of good gear. Neither of us fell anyway. I geared up for the famous open corner pitch following. It is graded 7b with the crux above an old tricam with a rotted sling and just below a skyhook placement in a small pocket. I really wanted to onsight this pitch. With my nerves fraid from a run out at the beggining of the pitch I entered the crux. I hadn't found the skyhook pocket so I was standing above the tricam with the sling that would surely snap with my only other nearby protection a rusty pin meters below. I had my fingers in a tiny two finger pocket and couldn't find the stupidity to just go for it. I didnt want to end up another one of the stories that give the route its reputation. I placed a skyhook balanced in the two finger pocket and kindly asked if Alan wanted a go! Alan found the lower skyhook placement but also balked at commiting to the crux. He managed to aid through on the hooks and unlock the sequenceof the crux using bad smears and a small finger stack pocket. He ticked it up for me and I did the pitch clean on second. Now that I know it I dont think I would have a problem leading it and it felt very reasonable for 7b.

It was getting dark and we where still a pitch away from the niche shaped like a fish that gives the route its name. There was no time for Alan to lower down and do the pitch clean so I started up the 6c pitch leading to the niche. It is described in Arnoud Petites topo as a one move wonder and at night by head torch I couldn't work out the crux. "Maybe its just reachy" I thought. I went for the dyno to a jug I could see but totally missed it. I was off. I had a bomber cam below my feet and it held as Alan got pulled up into the rock at the belay ripping open the sleeve of his down jacket. I aided through to the niche disheartened about my possible free ascent. Things were falling apart.
The red arrow shows the fish shaped niche we bivied in.
We bivuaced on the right hand side of the niche which is equivalent to the tail of the fish shape. There was enough room for us to half lie down, half sit on top of the ropes while clipped in to an old bolt belay on the wall behind. The floor was wet in places but at least we were partly protected from the wind. Overall not a bad bivy. Some cold sausage and chocolate with water were all we had before a poor nights sleep.
Sitting in the Bivy.
There was no need to get started too early the next day. We would need to be warm and rested to perform well enough to free the coming difficult pitches. Well after it had become light, and after more chocolate for breakfast, I lowered down to the crux I had fallen off at the night before to work out what I had done wrong. I found a good one pad mono, that I had missed, and got excited realising I could do the move before realising with disdain I would have to start the day warming up by cranking on one finger. The pitch went easily and soon I was back at the niche having climbed all the pitches below. I lowered Alan down all the way to the start of the 7b pitch and he easily seconded clean back up to the niche. We were both still on target.

Above the niche things got harder. The wall was steeper, close to vertical, and the pitches wandered through the line of least resistance. Route finding was confusing and it wasn't uncommon to climb up, then left, then up, back down right, up, left again etc. Alan led the 7a that started out the right side of the niche but ended up above the left side. A long move to a shallow two finger pocket near the end of the pitch got the better of him and he fell. After a cold nights sleep, not drinking enough, and a massive day previous Alans resolve had weakened. He decided to continue the climb happy to free all the moves but not the individual pitches. On long, hard routes in the alpine you set your own rules and up there the only judge is yourself.  Generally you strive for a balance between what would be considered the purest ascent (ground up, onsight, in a day, all free, solo) and what you are actually capable of. In the end being happy with your achievement and making it down safely are the most important things. With Alan pointing out the pocket I managed to climb through on second without a fall.

Pitch 16, following the 7a, is regarded as the crux of the route with a boulder problem ending and weighing in at 7b+. I was tired and didnt think I had anywhere near the energy I needed to do this pitch first shot. I made the strategic decision to climb the pitch resting on the abundant fixed gear as I went. In doing this I worked out all the moves without expending a lot of energy. After working out where the line actually went, a big S shape, I arrived at a difficult bouldery traverse to the anchor. I used widely spaced slopy footholds while pulling down on some monos and then a big span across to a small crimp. I lowered back to Alan at the anchor and pulled the rope. After five minutes rest I managed to climb through the pitch clean. Alan raced up the pitch on second and only fell when the beta I had given him about holding the monos in the traverse boulder problem didn't work for him. I have a little more power but less slab technique than Alan so I needed to be able to pull down on something to stay on the wall. After going back to the jug before the crux Alan used a different sidepull crimp and crossed his feet through on smears doing the sequence easily.
Leading the 7b+ pitch.
Alan seconding the 7b+ pitch.
Alan in a sea of limestone.
I was overjoyed at the fact I had done the three crux pitches until Alan informed me that a very good climber had onsighted all the pitches up to our present point but hadn't even been able to work out the following 7a pitch. It is called the pendulum pitch as most people clip a high piece of gear, lower on their rope and pendulum across a blank section of slab to a corner that is easier to climb. To do a free ascent you need to get across the blank section of slab without resorting to your rope. Alan led bold ground to some fixed gear and sat back on the rope.
"Theres no holds!" Alan said.
"There must be. Its only 7a!" I replied.
After a while Alan unlocked a sequence moving down while traversing left on insecure smears for your feet and huge cross overs on half pad slopy pockets for your fingers. After linking the sequence and making it to the belay he shouted down, "You better flash this Logan!". We were running out of time. There was still two pitches to go to a large ledge which was our target for the day and the hour was getting late.
Approaching the slab traverse on the 7a pendulum pitch.
I psyched myself up and my confidence was high. "I am on top rope, Its only 7a, Alans probably just tired which is why he found it hard" I told myself. I raced through the first part of the pitch since I was on second and the bold aspect of the climbing had been taken out. Arriving at the blank traverse I still felt strong. I put my foot on the first smear and committed my weight to it. Hanging on the rope a second later I realised strength alone wouldn't get me through this. Despite Alan implying I only had that shot I hung on the rope and tried to work out the sequence. Alans beta would not work for me. I really needed something to hold onto! I found some tiny monos and ticket every little pocket and anywhere below me the wall slightly angled out and I could smear my feet. Still I couldn't do the traverse. I cursed with frustration and probably scared Alan with a side of me he hadn't seen before. I had made it this far up the route only to be shut down on the final 7a. The time for me to pull through and finish off the pitch so we could make the ledge had already passed.

I gave it one last try and scrambled my way through the traverse. I felt lucky to not have had a foot pop off and didn't feel at all solid. I sat back on the rope and still didn't think I could do it from the belay. I considered continueing up to Alan and being happy that I had got the sequence but then I thought about the rules I had placed upon myself. "I must free from belay station to belay station and lead at least half the crux pitches". It was a long shot and I am sure Alan must have been getting frustrated with the time I was taking but I asked to be lowered back to the belay. It was a fine balance between crushing the little pockets with my fingers and putting enough, but not too much, weight on my feet but I managed to shake my way across the slab and found myself in the corner. A pumpy layback led to Alan and I was exhuasted. We agreed that this pitch was actually the crux pitch at hard 7b+. The topos were giving it 7a which included using the pendulum as aid.

I led what was to be our final pitch, number 18. It looked nails. A traverse along a flat wall under a roof with bad rock. I set off and found that under the roof where large holds which led to an easy pull around the lip to the anchor. The grade of 6c is spot on. Alan started leading the final pitch, possibly 6c+, to our target ledge but we were both very tired and deteriorating rock quality combined with loose pitons made our decision to start rapelling down easy. We had just enough light left to make the12 rappels down to the ground while constantly worrying about getting our ropes stuck and rockfall which would turn our simple descent into an epic. On the way I convinced myself I was happy with where we ended as I had made it through all the bold and difficult pitches of the climb that give the route its reputation. In the back of my mind I knew I would only be truely finished with 'The Fish' when I had stood on the summit after having climbed the entire route without a fall. There is 18 more easy pitches (3s, 4s and 5s) after the ledge that most likely contain loose rock and are possibly icy. The route tops out on the Marmolada Ombretta summit next to the cable car station. Now that we know the harder pitches we will be able to move much faster on them and continue on to the top for the full ascent. Alan and I are already talking about a return visit.

Alan rapelling down.

Goats chillin' on the tables at the refuge.

A rest break at Refugio Ombretta on the walk out.

Refugio Falier.
After the climb with the refugio in the background..

1 comment:

Lee Cujes said...

Super impressive Logan. I bet you were constantly thinking of the guy who soloed it. Mad!