Friday, 15 August 2014

Climbing with Vultures

Mark Radtke climbing the Blue Mountains test piece Hollow Men grade 27 in 1988. Photo Glenn Robbins.

Eight years later and I was back in the Dolomites with a small team of trusted comrades intent on the Hasse.  I was the architect of the trip and had formulated the plan as a birthday treat for Dave Barton. It was Dave’s sixtieth year and he’d swallowed the bait that it would be good to get another alpine north face under his belt. He’d climbed the classic Walker Spur on his first visit to the Alps forty years earlier when I was just five. He’d followed this with the north face of the Dru and Piz Badile, but the icing on the cake had been a storm - strafed ascent of the Eiger north face in 1973 with Martin Burrows Smith. ‘The Hasse will be a walk in the park Dave, think of it as a road side crag’ I’d persuaded. The rest of the team consisted of Jerry Peel who qualified on the basis of his Yosemite Valley experience and Terry Holmes who was in because ‘he’d always wanted to do a biggish alpine wall’. We had a week to pull the stunt off, but already things weren’t looking good. 
A walk round to recce the north face revealed a steady stream of water pouring out of the base of the overhanging diedries and spattering the screes. It had been raining for several days prior to our arrival, but the forecast looked fine for the week ahead. It was Monday and optimistically we agreed that if it stayed dry and sunny we might have a stab at the route later in the week.  We penciled in Thursday and walked back to the Laverado hut for a beer. As we sat on the verandah we surveyed the yellow edge of the Cima Piccola. From a distance the route looked to follow a beautiful and impressive line up the left arĂȘte of the slender spire, but in reality we knew that it meandered it’s way up the wall right of the arĂȘte and the pitches themselves were reputed to be somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, it was still regarded as a classic product of the golden age of Dolomite development. It had been climbed by Comici, Varale and Zanutti in 1933 and as such it represented a piece of climbing history.  We decided to do it as a warm up the following day.

We enjoyed a laid back ascent. The route was a bit loose and broken in places, but one or two pitches left us paying respect to the early pioneers who’d first climbed the route. After a few hours, we were back on the verandah of the hut quaffing cold beer. We decided for a quick walk under the north face of the Cima Grande to reassess conditions.  Things were looking up, water was now dripping rather than pouring from the face and the whole lower section looked dry and that was after a day.  We returned to Cortina and spent the following day sport climbing at the Crepe D’oucera. We returned to camp and prepared our gear for an attempt at the Hasse the following day and then walked up into town for an early meal. After a liter of wine a piece washed down with several beers, our war council had concluded that we would go for it no matter what conditions we found on the face.  Midnight saw us back at our tents with the alarm set for 4.00am. 

On the ledge that marks the start of the overhanging diedries on the Hasse North Face of the Cima Grande. Terry Holmes and Jerry Peel. Photo Mark Radtke

The beep beep of my mobile phone signaled the start of our adventure. I struggled out of the tent into a cool and dark September morning, the universe was studded with a billion white diamonds and huge peaks could just be discerned against the blackness.  We parked the car at the Auronzo hut and made the familiar walk round to the north face, each of us isolated in our own pool of head torch light, content to keep our thoughts to ourselves. As I walked, I drank from my bottle, I’d made the decision not to carry water on the climb, so I wanted to imbibe at least two liters before I started climbing. The others had adapted ‘camel backs’ in their rucksacks and would drink on route.

As the four of us waited at the base of the mountain for first light, two young Slovenian climbers arrived. ‘You will do the Hasse ? they stated and asked at the same time.  We nodded our intentions. ‘Will you try to climb free’ they continued with a degree of scepticism.

‘We’ll try’ we informed them. We were going to climb as two independent pairs, I would partner Dave and Terry would partner Jerry.
After weighing us up, they declared ‘We go first, we know the face, we will climb much faster than you’.  Ordinarily Dave would have said something to the tune of ‘On yer bike’, but on this occasion he stood aside and let the young guns take the lead.
I pulled onto the belay Ledge at the top of pitch twelve and was greeted by one of the Slovenian lads.  ‘Did you manage the steep section free’ he enquired.
‘No, it was too wet, how about you’ I said
‘The same, I gave it everything, but the holds were too slippery’ he said in a disappointed tone.

‘C’est la vie, but the rest of the route has been superb’ I suggested.
‘Yes’ he agreed and then continued  ‘Anyway, you climb clean and very fast for old men, in England your friend must be very famous no’. With this somewhat backhanded compliment, he left the belay and disappeared around another overhang on his way to the summit. More like infamous I thought with a chuckle to myself, if only he knew the half of it. The Slovenian hotshot was of course, referring to Dave Barton. Much to the surprise of the Slovenian team, we’d been hot on their heels all the way up the face. As we exchanged pleasantries at the belays, we’d learned that the two lads were both 8a climbers. It was their second attempt at free climbing the route. The face is home to several hard routes, sometimes way marked with old bits of ironmongery and tat. The year before, the lads had strayed off the Hasse onto the Sassoni route and had then been stormed off. It was good to be following a couple of handy pace setters.  In turn, they had gathered the celebratory nature of our ascent.  I think this had prompted the comment about Dave’s fame.

We ploughed on up the face and eventually gained the exit chimneys by about 6.00pm, one of these proved quite awkward. It was oozing water and the green algae which coated the walls made the rock as slick as ice. I chimneyed my way cautiously upward only finding one peg on the whole pitch. Dave arrived at the belay and suggested that it might speed things up if we threw a rope down to our compadres,  suggesting that the leader would climb much faster with the security of a rope from above. From below, Jerry had watched me grovelling up the chimney slowly getting myself covered in muck and slime. I was carrying a bright yellow rucksack, when I’d finished in the chimney it was dark green. By the time Dave and I had finished the pitch, the other guys we’re feeling the cold. Jerry had bought a smart looking thermal top for the trip. As he prepared to climb he removed his top and packed it in his rucksack. A shivering Terry turned to him. ‘What are you doing aren’t you cold’. 
To which Jerry replied. ‘Of course I am, but you don’t think I’m going to get my new top dirty do you’. As all four of us gathered at the top of the pitch, we realised the light was fading fast. We’d lost count of where we were on the face. I thought we had perhaps two pitches to go to reach the summit band. We mounted our head torches and tried to press on in the dark, but the chimney terrain ahead was not easy to read and a mistake here could have proved serious. Other than the guidebook description, we didn’t know the way off the mountain either, so we decided to bivouac where we were and finish the climb in the safety of daylight. We cleared as much rubble from the sloping ledges as possible and settled down for a long uncomfortable night. Jerry and Dave occupied the most palatial bit of the bedroom, a ledge about three feet long and two feet deep. I had a bucket seat at the back of the gully, whilst Terry slumped in slings on a sloping ledge with both feet dangling over the abyss. It was a fitful night, drifting into sleep and then waking up shivering.

‘What time is it ’ someone would say.
‘Ten O’clock’ was the answer
‘What time is it now ?’
‘Twenty past ten’
‘How’re we doing ?’
‘Nearly eleven’ and so the time crept past.
Suddenly a low growling rumble echoed round the mountains. ‘What’s that ?’
‘Thunder’ said  Dave. A few minutes later the mountains were illuminated with a yellow flash. This time the rumble was louder.
‘What time is it’ I asked
‘One O’clock’ someone answered. 

Dave continued, ‘I think the storm is quite distant at the moment, but it’s definitely creeping this way. If it hits us here, this gully will turn into a death trap, we’ll have to climb on in the dark and risk it. If we get to the summit band, we’ll have a better chance’. With that we sat and waited in tense silence. For the next twenty minutes the lightening flashes grew brighter and the thunder louder. I was resigned to the inevitable. Being caught up here in an alpine storm, with only a thermal T shirt and light weight thermal top to stave off the elements was an unsavoury prospect. To our relief, the intensity of the lightening flashes and volume of the bangs began to fade. After about an hour the occasional weak yellow flash signalled that somewhere in the massif some unfortunate souls might not be sharing the luck that we’d had on this night. 

            A weak grey light signalled the end of a long night. ‘Did you enjoy that lads?’ Dave was having the crack, it was Jerry and Terry’s first proper bivouac. ‘It took me back to my days with bivouac Bill’. Dave was referring to his formative years climbing with his alpine mentor Bill Bowker.  Bill was notorious for his views, he’d often say; ‘You haven’t done a proper alpine route unless you’ve had a bivi’. 

In the growing light we eased stiff and aching limbs into life.
‘Whose lead is it’ someone announced. Furtive glances suggested how everyone was feeling.
Terry, ever the stalwart, stepped up. ‘I think it’s my turn to do a bit’. He led off up through the overhang above us and after about two minutes we heard ‘Safe’. We found Terry belayed on a wide ledge the led off round the mountain to his left. We’d bivouacked a mere twenty metres below the summit band.
As we descended the south face we met a guide and his client. The guide interrupted the song he was whistling to himself. ‘Where have you come from’ he asked.

‘The Hasse’ we informed him. He gave Dave a slap on the back and turned to his client.
‘See these men. These are hard men’ he turned back to us ‘ Arrividerce’ he said with a big laugh and continued on upwards whistling his song as he went.
Terry turned towards us ‘Did you here that lads. It’s official, we’re hard men’ We all cracked out laughing. Three hours later we were at the foot of the South Face, it was 10.00am and had been a thirty hour round trip. I hadn’t had a drink since starting the climb at 6.00am the previous day. That first beer was going to taste good.  
That evening we were back in Cortina enjoying a fine meal in our favorite pizzeria and we sat out, eating on the terrace enjoying fine views of the surrounding mountains.  It had been fine all day, but now the skies began to darken and the wind began to billow. Suddenly a ragged fork of blinding electricity sprang from one of the summits, seconds later an ear shattering crack shook the buildings and rain hit the canvas awnings above us with waterfall force. The storm raged long into the night.

Enjoying a beer at the Laverado Hut after a quick warm up on the Cima Piccolo. L To R. Radtke, Jerry Peel, Dave Barton.  Photo Terry Holmes.

Mark Radke: From A Canvas of Rock:2QT Publishing