Friday, 24 March 2017

Blind Date at Orco

Ed Drummond on Itaca Nel Sole: 'Possibly the most beautiful route at Orco':  Original Photo Dave Cook
'I 've broken my ankle bouldering at Hobson Moor Quarry," Pat Devine said apologetically over the phone. "So you won't be coming to Orco?" was my unnecessary and selfish reply. After a wet fortnight at Verdon and nine arm wrenching days at Finale on my cycle journey to the East, I was rather keen on some Alpine granite and my impatience showed. "No, but Ken's got a replacement from Tuesday night with whom you'll be delighted. I'm sworn to secrecy about the name. Just be at the sports fishing campsite as arranged." I feared the worst. Having closely observed the mischief making potential of the various climbing "hubs" with which Wilson has been associated, whether as axle or spoke, a link that extends back through Altrincham, the Crown at Highgate, Wolverhampton to Shirley in South Birmingham in the '50's, and now looks set to homogenise both sides of the Pennines via the "Tuesday Team". The idea of Ken Wilson playing Cilla Black filled me with foreboding.

In the days when records had flip sides, "Blind Date" was coupled with "Stood Up-Broken Hearted". My own experience had been a bit like that. On the other hand, who could it be? My imagination ran riot as images of some of the climbing characters I knew flicked through my mind. The telephone's warning clicks brought me back to reality. "OK, I'll be there," I said, none too sure. Some days, several hundred kilometres and thousands of feet of steep pedalling later, it seemed my worst fears were about to be realised. I had shared the brutally steep ascent from Noasca to Ceresole with a fair share of Turin's Sunday drivers, most of whom seemed to imagine themselves at Monza. The normally tranquil campsite rendezvous was adjacent to a major road widening scheme along which JCB's thundered. What's more, at 9pm there was still no sign of my "delightful partner". With a start I remembered it was Tuesday. Would the Tuesday Team be chuckling at this very moment over their beer?

Suddenly powerful headlights flooded the field and a lorry coughed to a halt.Vast amounts of gear thudded to the ground  from the cab followed by a tall figure anxiously scanning the darkness for a red bike. It was Ed Drummond. You could have knocked me down with a proverbial feather. Although I had met Ed briefly I knew him more by reputation — major new route pioneer, poet and politic who combined his sport with "climbs for causes." Pat was right in his judgement. I was delighted. Ed's name had not featured in my wildest fantasies.

And nor had Fissura Della Disperazione as a first route. As I had waited in the field below, looking up at the climbers on El Sergent's great southerly face. One thing had become very clear; this six hundred foot crackline, the best looking line on the cliff, had remained deserted. Al Churcher's guide book, "Italian Rock", provided the explanation, "man-eating off-widths and a grade of E 10 5b." (Yes E10!) There did seem to be a certain implication here. It didn't take us long to discover that if the grade was a printer's error, it was definitely a Freudian one. Ed, whose climbing at the time was restricted to soloing gritstone routes he had done many times before, was anxious to get on to the big ones, "the more like Yosemite the better." Disperazione fitted several bills. It was big, butch and very Californian. The so called 5b pitches were cruel, unrelenting, strenuous and poorly protected. We learned later that Galente's first ascent in 1974 had used gigantic bongs for aid. No wonder the Friends wouldn't fit . . .

Fortunately, the guide book described other, easier routes that ascended big cliffs, and next day we hitched down to Noasca and hiked up through glorious beechwoods to Torre Di Aimonin, another magnificent granite bastion further down the valley. Our objective was Pesce D ' Aprile, (April Fool), a six pitch Hard VS with an attractive dierdre as its crux. An old friend, Mike Kosterlitz who, while living in Italy twenty years ago had been an important pioneer of free climbing at Orco, had done the first ascent. The Curbar style crack by the campsite which bears his name is one of the most famous boulder problems in the country, and is highly at risk from the road works. Italy is reported to have been a "jam-free zone" before his arrival, although this is hard to credit. How did they get up all those towering cracklines in the Dolomites more than 50 years ago if this was the case? Pesce d'Aprile also introduced us to another Orco regular, the mid-afternoon thunderstorm. From then on no day, and usually no crux, was complete without the sudden building up of cloud, menacing tension and the sudden release of exploding rain. We saw too our first glimpse of the incredible wildlife for which the Gran Paradiso National park is famous.

A file of Chamois tiptoed across a vast bulge of holdless slab, breathtaking in their beauty and their audacity. It was at least E10! In the course of the next few days we saw Ibex, beaver, martens and several varieties of deer, foxes and goats. The Italians tend to shoot anything that moves, and some of these species would be extinct without the haven the park provides. In complete contrast to National Parks in Britain, there was an absence of regulation notices, waymarking and information points.

The only one we saw stated simply, "These fields belong to the mountain people — Respect please." Usually on a holiday in a new climbing area there is a route you cannot dodge. Guide book recommendations, compelling line and general reputation impel you towards it. In Orco, Itaca Nel Sole, on the SW face of Caporal, is the one. Indeed, Churcher's guide implies that you would be a halfwit not to do it. "A stupendous route . . . the most sought after classic in the whole of Orco . . . there is little on this side of the Atlantic to rival the experience it offers." Well, I suppose that's what guides are for! Itaca is really two routes, and this ideally suited our party. Ed could use the modern name Tempi Moderni and the completely free grade of 6A and I could revel in the old fashioned original E2 5c/A 1 .

Of course all routes have this option, but few have it legitimised in guide book print in quite the same stark way. In the event the rains came early on our first attempt, and we abseiled off after only one pitch. Saturday followed, and this time we were not alone. Indeed every climber in Turin seemed to have joined us. However, we were first. Picture the scene. Two elderly Brits head the queue; one of them determined to free climb every move, the other making less resolute efforts. Behind them a lengthening file of Italians grows, at first respectfully interested in this strange obsession, but later, especially as the afternoon thunderstorms threaten, increasingly impatient. The Brits take a belay in the wrong place. Smiling politely, the Italians begin to climb over them. The younger of the two Brits, wearing a beret, is at grips with the second 6A pitch. His friend, anxious that there should at least be the option of an unoccupied foothold for his partner, begins to speak harshly to the Italians.

To no avail. Clearly the race is on ...Ecco . . . Ecco. Amazingly, Anglo-Italian relations survive the conflict. On the summit Ed was soon negotiating a translation deal for his book, A Dream of White Horses, with those who minutes before had been elbowing him in the ribs. Our two main rivals for handholds insisted in showing us a brilliant descent route and pointing out Diedro Nanchez, another mega classic from the boots of Galente. They waited for us at the road, and soon we were exchanging beer instead of gloves. Nor was Italian kindness over that evening. As we cooked supper on our building site field a lone figure approached us out of the gloom. "Are you Cooki and Drummond, les Inglesis con bicyclette?" At least that was the gist of what he said. Loved ones back home, alarmed at our lack of contact had phoned Ken, who having been portrayed in a somewhat Machiavellian part hitherto, can now adopt a very commendable role in this story. A long series of international calls had followed, involving the Alpine Club, Italian Guides, and eventually our lone messenger who had driven up the valley in search of two Inglesis in a haystack.

We phoned home, heartened by this brilliant example of international climbing fellowship, not to mention detective work. Next day saw us back at El Sergent, to sample some of the shorter climbs. Orco is a conflict zone. An older, adventure climbing tradition rules this fantastic valley, but it is under pressure from modern sports climbing ways. The huge plaques of granite are climbable, but without bolts there will be few takers. With them, they will fall at the rush. Sergent, closest to the road, is where the issue will be decided.

Incastro Mania gave me the 100ft S-shaped 5b jam crack of my dreams, and Nichia Della Torture, E2 5c, another Galente 1970's classic, gave us both whatever a torture chamber gives you. So far no problem. We placed our own (ample) protection. Next came Paperinic Colpisce Ancora, E3 5c, no natural pro, but brilliant slab climbing. The ethical dilemma smote us in the head and below the belt. We clipped. We enjoyed. Fired up by these successes we wanted a big one for our last day. Ed, exultant at the re-discovery of his old "real climbing" form, suggested Casa Degli Specchi (The House of Mirrors) back on Torre di Aimonin. Myself, exultant at the possibility of discovering it, agreed.

Fissura Della Disperazione: Ed Drummond leads the 5c Chimney: Original photo Dave Cook

Although graded no harder than some of the things we had done already, (E4 6a), it obviously was. You just had to look at its first pitch zig zagging up an impending wall to know we were contemplating a different league. Ed led the crux in majestic fashion, and I, thrilled beyond belief at the spacewalking moves, managed to keep my hands away from the oh so tempting quickdraws. The next pitch, a big overhang, was my lead. Fortunately, right on cue, the downpour came .. . We met in Courgne that night, for a bye bye meal, Ed flying back to Derbyshire and myself pedalling East to Valle di Mello. The test of a blind date is if you make another. We already have. 

Dave Cook 

Originally published in Climber and Hillwalker-October 1989