Wednesday 3 January 2024

Sognando aurora, Tofana di Rozes: 5 year blogging hiatus - long live the blog!

If ever there was a route that embodied the spirit of Fairly Long, Moderately Hard and Mostly Free, well, damn, this is it!

If you've ever been to the Dolomites, you'll know the feeling of looking up at the wild expanses of rock between the classic aretes and cracks, thinking "does anything go up there"? And then you'll recall the looseness, lack of protection, route finding and general seriousness of the situations and probably back away, browbeaten, thinking - "nah, those faces are for the real heroes".

Are you a real hero?

A real hero: a local in his 60s casually soloing the Comici on Cima Grande

I am not. I've had moments of relative boldness, and been on some big faces, but in reality I'm a fairly middling climber who dreams of air beneath his feat, and unlocking the mysteries of the unknown above. And I'm not getting any younger...

This year's plan for foreign adventure was a single week in the Dolomites with my mate Simon, who trains harder than me and has a better six pack than me (i.e. actually has one) but sometimes needs his enthusiasm tempered to keep him on the straight and narrow (aka not wandering off route onto the nearest E7).

I had signed up for this one as "master belayer, follower, potential jumarar and heavy pack carrier". He's been sewing the seeds for years, trying to get one of us to relent to his lofty dreams of attempting something big and hard in the alps, but as yet, none of us have been mad enough to oblige his desires. This time I submitted fully, and basically said "so long as there are no psycho traverses, seracs and nothing on the Eiger, I'm in". In the end we settled o the Dolomites. We've both, separately, done the Brandler-Hasse, and I'd also done ISO2000, which, despite it's terrible name, is a very good sister route to the BH and quite well bolted. That route was the gateway drug for me, when it comes to the modern face routes out there - plumb vertical to mildly overhanging, edgey, technical and intricate climbing smattered with bolts...but still with some good old runouts. Magic.

Andy Inglis somewhere on ISO2000 back in 2015

In the run-up, we discussed the Fish (Il Pesce) on the Marmolada, but heavy rain at the start of the trip stacked the odds against it being dry enough on the first of the better weather days, and going later meant putting all eggs in that basket. We wanted something that could potentially give us top class outing, but without monopolising all our good weather days, leaving the option to go up to the Tres Cime and swing about on Camilitto Pelissier, a 500m 8a on the Grande. (I would be firmly in the belay seat for that one!)

We settled on going up to the Tofana de Rozes for a look. The main face where Sognando L'Aurora is positioned was still dripping, so we spotted  Il Vecchio Leone e la Giovane Fifona which is a shorter, 8 pitch, sportingly bolted/semi trad 7a. 

Tofana de Rozes, with large wet streaks still visible just above the treeline.

Simon leading somewhere on Il Vecchio Leone e la Giovane Fifona, an excellent F7a on the Tofana de Rozes 

Back the next day we went for the big one. Sognando l'Aurora, a relatively new (2005/2006) addition from Massimo Da Pozzo and Marcello Menardi, that snakes its way up through stupendous roofs and steep to overhanging walls of grey, pale yellow and orange dolomite. 

The first four pitches are wandering, minimally bolted and surprisingly taxing. It took us a while to identify the start - no bolts in sight! At a maximum given grade of 6b, they should really fly by but we were a bit slower than we would have liked, and we overtaken by a speedy duo from Spain/Italy up a parallel, more classic but slightly harder line. No worries, they were off and away above.

3rd? Pitch of the lower slabs - long runouts with little chance of extra gear and unobvious route finding.

Simon leading the last of the lower slabs, with the upper yellow walls looming above.

The first of the steeper pitches was quite long, rightward trending, and doesn't take the line direct above the belay bolts, but actually is 5m right on a second set (not marked on the Rushforth/Rockfax topo, which is plain misleading and clearly hadn't been adequately fact checked - the planetmountain topo is accurate). An enjoyable, little bit pumpy, but fairly mellow pitch and a great warm up for what's to come...

Simon led the 6c, which was more of the same, with a traverse left over the lip of the first massive roof - really starting to feel the air beneath you, and looming roofs above.

Simon on P6, 6c, weaving through the roofs.

I took over for the first 7a pitch, which eased you in to a fairly forceful move, then some steady crimping above. I followed the chalk of the team ahead, which led you directly up to a loose ledge, requiring a little care and a bit of a runout. From the belay you could see the line we should have taken, which actually moves a little right from the last bolt, via another bolt and some more face climbing, oh well.

Next up was the first stern test - the first of two 7b+ pitches. The sun was warming the face nicely, and the slightly chilly start was long behind us. The team ahead had taken a couple of falls and pulled through, which was ominous given their speed and fluidity on the lower ground. Simon was clearly both nervous and motivated, sizing up the fingery and technical traverse, pull through a roof and fierce slab above. 

P8, first of two 7b+ pitches.

Digging deep for the first time, he milked the kneebar rest and moved up towards the bolts above, but quickly reversed when he saw what lay ahead. 

Simon hiding in the roof, kneebar rest between the two cruxes on P7.

More milking of the kneebar and a couple of sorties further left gave him the information he needed - back to plan A, and engage some try hard!

I seconded most of it clean, but grabbed a QD in the traverse so save the chance of a swing into space -  bit lame, but it was a big face and time is always ticking. When I got to the crux above, I decided with the benefit of the top rope to take the slightly more circuitous route out left, which was less savage, but would be a good bit more spicy for the leader, as I traversed back right, I recalled some words I had digested a few days prior, while researching the route: "if you go out left it's easier...but you can't reach the bolt"....  oh dear, now with my rope going down and right to the bolt which I had no way of getting to I had to take a little swing to unclip. It's the only section of the route, except maybe the first 4 pitches, where the bolt position could maybe be improved - not bad for 500m, ground up bolted!

The next pitch was what I live for!  Given 7a+, but in reality, on the ground, you'd be hard pushed to go above above 6c+. 45 meters of gently overhanging rock, mainly on good holds but with multiple intricacies, usually with a bolt to guide the way and protect the sterner sections - but only 9 or 10 bolts in the entire pitch, with sections runout sections up to 8 metres of continuous 6b+ and just miles, and miles of air beneath you. Brilliant.

Up next was the second 7b+ pitch (conveniently placed for Simon to lead). Starting off with steep and sustained 7a climbing to a moderate rest below the obvious crux. A large, chalky undercling below the bulging roofed section, and a bolt well out of reach with a long section of very weathered, core-shotted rope looped through the hanger. 

P10, 7b+, continues up into the widest section of roof just right of Simon.

Simon knows what to do and gets established with both hands on the undercling, not overly concerning himself the with the usual profusion of cracks all around the block. In an instant I hear him shout, watch him explode backwards, fighting and juggling with the 20kg lump of aged and solidified sea creatures, both of whose trajectories are directly at me. Autopilot kicked in and I caught the fall while swinging into the small cave in front of me. Close.

The next sound to break the tension was the sweet female voice of some fellow climbers over on the classic South East Arete checking to see if we were alive. 

Climbers on the classic Southeast Arete

Fortunately, our only damage was a fairly bloody chunk out of Simon's thumb. After he'd given himself a once over, he asked if I wanted a go. "Shit, hell no" I think "I'm here for a low-stress holiday belay session" but I can't say any of that. "Give it a few minutes and see how you feel, you've made so much ground - I'll send you up some finger tape for the thumb".

Phew...the blood stopped, and with it most of the adrenaline. Once rested, he made the, now significantly harder, pull through, clipped the bolt and....what the fuck...WHY ARE YOU GOING LEFT my head screamed, oh, wait, maybe he's seen something I haven't. Stay calm. Further left the goes and pulls over a small roof.  

"I can't find any good gear, and there's a fair bit of loose rock"

No shit.

20 more metres of slightly loose, quite bold new ground got him to the anchors. After hauling (we'd being hauling a small pack on the steeper pitches with a microtraxion, and actually belaying the second on a lot of them with a 2nd trx too - very energy sparing!) I got up to the crux, pulled on the shitty rope but was really out of position and the single sport rope was sawing wildly over the sharp lip of the roof. At this point, just after Simon's fall, with time ticking on, it suddenly felt a lot more serious than the "fun multipitch sport" is had been to that point, I didn't fancy my chances of repeating the traverse left so called for Simon to throw down the second rope so I could double my chance of survival. 

Pack haulling on the last 7b+ pitch.

Monkeys need thumbs?

After regrouping, re-taping his newly incapacitated thumb, I stretched out two big pitches of 6a and 5+, leaving him below the next 6c pitch - one of the lesser quality pitches and, again, very poorly described by the Rushforth topo. We were a bit confused about the belay location. The pitch goes up and left, then quite boldly back right a little up and, before a long traverse left to a sort of cave below a roof. 

P13, 6c. Wandery and a bit friable - don't stop in the cave!

I shouted that it looked like the belay positon, but the gear wasn't amazing. We took it anyway. This left an awkward and poorly protected stance, with a tricky and poorly protected move straight off the belay to kick off the last hard pitch at 7b, with a poor cam in the best pocket... The 7b that Simon was meant to climb, but now I found myself on the sharp end, with a bit more "Alpine Anxiety" and already 400 metres of climbing in my arms. 

"That wasn't so bad for 7b"....oh, two bolts and a stance, the true belay. Lesson learned.

Continuing up into very steep and 3 dimensional climbing, with a few good jams to subdue of the pump - wild stuff! Some clouds had now rolled in, adding both to the ambience, and also the humidity. From an awkward rest, thinner and punchier moves led up and left and I was scraping the barrel of reserves, but still just staying on, improvising sequences and generally shaking my way up the pitch. Hoping the crux was behind me, I was relaxing a bit, but then another chalked short wall on the left, with a steep corner bounding the right side and a capping roof looked hard. Up and down, up and across, more pumped, greasing and getting sweaty, panting due to the thinner air at 3000m, I was maxing out and running out of ideas. I saw a potential lower sequence, which would cross the crux bolt at waist height, and if there was anything I'd learned by that point was that the bolts often hinted at the way. Thin feet, spanned out, pulling hard into crimps I got established on the face, reached through to clip the next bolt and then was stuck, slightly wrong handed with no chance of reversing or switching - airtime it was!  From a hang, the move was fine with recovered fingers and bit of chalk, but there was still a steep pull to the easy ground and good ledge belay. Simon walked up it sans thumb.

From here on it's another 5+ and 6b, which Simon linked into a rope stretcher. Bit of looseness to manage but nothing too concerning.

The descent was fairly uneventful, but the described descent is now out of date as a section was swept away - you need to descend a bit then head to the north col (i.e. after descending/traversing to the wide gully, turn left and go back up hill).

We got back to the Rifugio just in time to grab a beer (bottled, not draft, as they had just cleaned the taps and nearly said they were shut for the night...) and after a few sips, a group of female climbers, sitting with Aperol spritzes said "hey, are you the two that took the fall with the rock?".  "We're so glad you're ok". After a bit of chit chat, and some slightly more intense dialogue we toddled off back to the car to find a tent spot for the night. 

"Simon, were those girls hitting on us?" "Aye, massively" "Oh, that's what that was - it's been a while...."