Summer 2015: Going big, reclimb the classics

As always, life is too busy to write blog posts. More precisely, I tend to organize life’s events way too narrow to write blog posts. And events, even more precisely, equal climbing trips, as of speaking. With a new occupation on the horizon, I decided to make best use of the students’ flexibility remaining, which means in plain English: Organize as many great climbing trips as possible in a row. Now, I could easily write ten different blog posts about the happenings of the last months, but also I need to move to a new city, which is why I’m happy to type only a few lines instead. But a few lines are necessary, at least, as summer 2015 seems to have a very bad conscience about the rainy something the year before, so apparently, it’s only sunshine and heat this year. Which, for any climber with sense, means an escape upwards, into the greatest rock-faces of the Alps. And escape, we did!

What follows is a subjective list of what I found to be the most impressive routes and the ones I do recommend to anyone without the blink of an eye.

May: Oceano Irrazionale (VII, 525m), Bergell / Val di Mello, Italy

So I feel quite fortunate to claim that I have seen some very beautiful places around the world, especially those where huge rock faces grow out of the earth. I’ve heard people talk good about the ‘Mello’, especially boulderers who, for some reason, think it’s cool to define and find a lot of problems, sometimes even solutions, when they come here. I bet that’s fun, too, but look at the 800m faces of perfect granite just behind those boulders! Wah. What a place! Not even a proper road finds its way into the Mello, half of the valley is a nature reserve without even hiking paths, and waterfalls nurture the crystal-clear Mello river. To call this valley idyllic would be an understatement, this place is beyond idyllic. Coming there in May on the weekend after the famous Melloblocco boulder festival, we basically had the valley for ourselves with only very few other climbing folk in sight. Even if you’re not a climber it is worth going there, simply for you will have a totally new experience of the color green. And it will be a good one.
As of the routes, we had to tackle the big classics, of course, so we started with “Luna Nascente” (7, 300m, E3) and “Il Risveglio di Kundalini” (7-, 400m, E3). Two incredibly fantastic routes finding their way through, I have to repeat myself here, incredibly fantastic granite. Generally, the long Mello routes tend to be an exciting mix between well-protectable cracks and (almost) non- protectable run-out slabs. You’ll learn to trust your rubber here.
On our last day, we decided for the route with the neatest route-name of all times: “Oceano Irrazionale.” First ascended by Ivan Guerini (coolest dude in town!) in 1977, Oceano introduced the 7th grade to the Alps and is for this historic reason more than worth such a name, as is the impressive piece of rock it tackles (“Precipizio degli Asteroidi“). The line is incredibly logic and diverse, leading through perfect cracks (the 5b’s feel like 6c’s here) and roofs up the the ‘Eremit’, a lone tree mid-way the wall. From here, the Oceano gets slabbier and easier, but still some way to go; we just managed to reach the foot of the crag by the very last rays of the day’s light, descending and then going for a horribly tiring 5h drive back to Innsbruck: no fun. Luckily, we all survived and somehow managed to stay on the road before dropping dead in our beds, so now we can keep this journey as a perfect climbing trip in our memories. Mello Love!

June: Le Marchand de Sable (TD+, 6a+, 300m), l’Envers des Aiguilles, Mont Blanc Massive, France

The next course on the menu was crossing pretty much the entire Alps length-wise to get to the Western part and the place where the rock is so good that it plays in its very own category: Chamonix granite. Golden-red cracks and green-orange slabs lure the engaged alpinists up to higher grounds, the ever-strenuous glacier approaches are the price to pay. As last year, Seb and me decided to venture up to the massive walls behind the Refuge d’Envers des Aiguilles for we still had some open tabs there, getting rained out a bit too soon. This year, we arrived at this gem of the alps early in the season, the hut still closed and other climbers rarely seen. We knew that pretty much all routes done by Michel Piola and friends were *****-lines, so more of this drug!

An ultra-classic of the Envers is “Le Merchands de Sable” (Sandmännchen) as it was among the first routes in the alps where a brand-new invention changed the course of our beloved sport: the expansion bolt. Drilled in 1983, the Merchands suddenly opened up totally new grounds for climbers: Slabs, previously not protect-able. And how tricky they still are! Rated with 6a+, a grading that we’d both climb as an easy warm-up when sport climbing, we had to fight pretty hard to hold on to the tiny nobs and crystals that prove to be your holy chance of not slipping down the wall. Ingenious climbing, but this can be said true for pretty much all routes at the l’Envers: We could also do “Guy Anne” (6a+, 370m, TD+), “La Piège” (6a+, 200m, TD sub.) and “Elle a du le Faire” (6b+, 140m, ED-). Beyond all those perfect cracks, thanks for those bolts, Michel.

June: Noli Me Tangare (7a+, 270m), La Maladière, Vallee de l’Arve, France

When driving from Geneva towards holy Chamonix, one tends to be almost too focused on the granite giants straight ahead and thus ignoring the limestone cliffs to the left and to the right. But wait, give them a chance! You’ll soon find out that not only the granite in this area is superb, but so is the limestone. And also here, in the Vallee de l’Arve, Michel Piola envisioned climbs that are of the same quality than the famous ones higher up: Five-star-potential everywhere. Noli Me Tangare translates to ‘touch me not’, but touching, we did. Being incredibly sustained throughout its ten-pitch-entity, namely 6b+, 6b+, 6c, 7a, 6b, 7a, 7a+, 7a+, 7a, 7a, (!!), I found this line to be the perfect on-sight challenge.

July: Tschechenplatte (8-, 200m), Schnittlwände, Speckkarpitze N-Wand, Halleranger, Tirol

Why travel far when the best lines are just around the corner? On ‘the list’ since long, and described as the “best crack climbing in the entire eastern Alps” (I would add: best limestone crack climbing), in July all conditions finally aligned (a few days of hot & stable summer weather, a few days worry-free days to spent bivouacking up in the mountains, personal fitness, and above all, a strong & motivated partner) and we gave Tschechenplatte a go. The route itself is not too long, but very sustained and self-protected climbing in all its six pitches. Put your jamming gloves on, water-eroded limestone is especially rough on your palms. Incredible to have such a line in the otherwise mostly (heavily) brittle Karwendel. But many of the routes here have comparable quality: We also climbed “Hundertwasser” (8, 200m) and “Coach Crack” (8, 200m); priceless experiences, magic place!

July: Comici (VII, 550m), Große Zinne N-Wand, Italy

For the grand finale, the grand-est of all names: Comici, north face of the infamous tre cime; it’s not a regular that when you see a rock face for the first time, you go something like this: “…. uh ….”, but this one definitely causes effect. Again, the weather in July was simply amazing, so there were finally no excuses left, Comici we had to do! A bit scared by the aura of fame surrounding such a big name, we thought strategically and decided to start later than all the other teams to not get into a traffic jam on the route, and climb fast thereafter. Well, we started late, but we didn’t climb all that fast, so we got to ‘enjoy’ the most beautiful sunset from the top of this massive piece of rock, just not too happy to have a horrible three-hour grade III downclimb ahead of us … quite likely in the dark. But what comes up goes down, so we managed to get down safely just with the very last of this day’s light. But what an up-climb it was!

These were the great classics climbed in summer 2015, May ’till July. Summer goes on, but Simon goes back to work now, so the available time for big walls will be more limited. So long, and thanks for all the fish; but even more so, so long and thanks to you restless souls venturing on the above adventures with me! Good times, good times; best of times!

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L’Opium du Peuple! Tour Va Mal!

It’s probably not overly exaggerated when I say that I probably never put as much effort into climbing a route than into this one. Or two, to be precise. The first and almost most difficult effort was to wait in Chamonix. Wait for stable weather, which was rare, this summer. Wait and look at the topos. All those topos! All those routes! All this perfect granite! And us, stuck in the valley, condemned to do some sport climbing. Bah! What an effort. But then, finally, our new favourite site meteocham preached no rain, for three days! Off we go. Quite slow actually, because as it happened, we had to carry our massive bags containing topes, trad gear, tent, sleeping bag, mats, food for three days, cloths, but no beer. Still heavy. Seb was dubbed ‘the walking barrel‘ as the sheer size of his haulie almost exceeded his body size.

And what a pain it was. Frankly, the walk up to Refuge de l’Envers des Aiguilles (2700m) is breathtaking by itself, surfing the mer the glace, but with that damn haulie on your back … different story. Well, a few hundred curses later we arrived up there and found the snow retreated just enough to give way to a few flat square meters, setting up basecamp! Then, the route we planned to do that day didn’t quite happen; just as we roped up, it started to rain. And my stomach got bad. Seriously? After all that hauling? Mpf. Back to tent. More rain. One thought: La misere. Eyes close.

Only to open up the next day to, yes yes yes: blue sky! Finally we’re in granite-heaven, we decide for an easier introduction and an intriguing route name: L’Opium du Peuple (300m, 6a). Getting to the actual climb proved to be an adventure for its own sake, there are some cravasses to pass and then, the infamous bergschrund: depending on the season, route length can vary up to a pitch or so. Some routes are simply impossible because you can’t get to the rock at all. Climbing at altitude is a different game. But L’opium we got, a magnificent climb situated in a unparalleled and isolated scenery. And to watch avalanches play right beside you is interesting, too. Also, our decision to extend the route and to climb the second tower as well made for an adventurous abseiling action: through snow. Wet climbing shoes guaranteed. Back to base camp to witness a one-of-a-kind sunset, großes kino without an entrance fee.

Our big project is scheduled for the next day, Tour Va Mal (600m, 6c+) on the Auguille du Roc. And what a climb this one is. Starting out as a bolted slap route, it quickly steepens and the bolts make way to perfekt orange-coloured Chamonix granite cracks, occasionally streaked by 40m long quartz veins. Each pitch a beauty (as dirty as it may sound), each friend a bummer, each nut bomb-proof. But 600m are a long way to go, and the last pitch makes you pay your tolls. And cold, cold it get, at almost fourthousand, as soon as the sun disappears. Finally, what comes up has to come down again: All the way. Not too pleasant, considering that the entire route is named after a malheur while repelling after the first ascent. The cracks eat ropes. Ours too, but just once. Anyway, exhausted and no earlier than by sunset we arrive back at base. What. A. Climb. I won’t go into length about our cursings the next day when the clouds moved back in, and we had to haul all our stuff back to Chamonix. So were the efforts worth it? Judge yourself:

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Beer and Sauna, Beer and Sauna, Beer and …

If you have ever wondered how it feels like to be on the highest peak of the Alps a little bit before sunrise, then let me tell you you’ll have two things constantly and repetitively crossing your mind whilst enjoying this most wonderful view and waiting for the very first sunrays in all of central Europe to hit your face: beer, and sauna.

Try if if you don’t believe me. The summit of Mont Blanc, 4810m above sea level, is by its nature quite exposed to the elements as it towers high above all surrounding materiality. This means quite some wind, and the minutes before sunrise are traditionally the coldest minutes of the day (or night). Well, those two factors in combination with the above mentioned altitude make your brain inevitably repeat: beer and sauna, beer and sauna, beer … for this is the state of luxurious comfort that you left behind, way down in the Chamonix valley.

Of course, mountaineering is not about comfort. There has to be another reason to answer the question of why on earth we left beer and sauna behind to adventure up the Alp’s highest peak during complete darkness just to see the sunrise from up there, exposing ourselves to serious danger, exhaustion, cold, and the lack of beer. The answer is this:

Sunrise on Mont Blanc

To put pixels into words: Why not. And yes, there was a strange feeling of success when, finally, you, gasping for air, kick the crampon into the hard snow one last time, gaining a view unparalleled: the view down on everything. Being on the very top of it all. Yes, one does feel superior for a second or two. And no, there isn’t an après ski bar up there, selling beer. Yet.

Sebastiaan and me left our cosy bivouac at Col Maudit (4000m) a bit after midnight, wrapping out of our sleeping bags after a few minutes of napping to enter a perfectly still night. I’ve never seen as many stars anywhere in Europe as that night, and the full-moon was constantly looming above the summit, kind of guiding our way, luring us to get closer, as close as possible in this part of the world, allowing us to walk without headlamps when there was no obvious crevasse danger. Yes, after two weeks of waiting and uncertain weather, we were rewarded with the perfect conditions, at last. We, quite exhausted and breathing hard, reached 4810m at 5:13 a.m., and what followed were minutes of bitter cold; we wished for sauna and beer more than ever. But all we got was this magnificent sunrise. Good enough, we said, and departed for a long, long, long walk down into the valley. Beer and sauna we got, at last. Prost & Santé.

long walk downAnd because the scenery quite generally is not the worst and quite worth picturing, here a gallery for your enjoyment.

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Briançon, 2013

Summer retrospective #3: Briançon, Hautes-Alpes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France. Pretty sure it’s one of Europe’s most diverse climbing places, especially when it comes to long, bolted multi-pitch climbs. There’s just everything a climber’s heart desires. Fullstop. (And good weather.) Pictures:

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Balkan Summer

No, I really did try. I did try to come home. It just wouldn’t work for me. There was a mysterious voice in the air, calling: ‘Leave! Go travel some more! It’s summer here in Europe, after all!’.

So I had to. Italy & southern France to warm up, the climbing was as excellent as always. Just a bit cooler that year, but this only meant that we could head straight for the south faces. And get a good tan, too.

What followed a just few days later was an adventurous journey through the Balkans, a region I long wanted to pay a visit. I added ‘adventurous’ with a purpose there … have you ever tried to take a night train from Beograd to Sofia? You should. Anyway, the trip started off with a real proper train up to big Berlin, examining some great graffiti there. Then, by now we (that is, Maria and I) headed down to Dresden just to hear the accent (and some very knot-y climbing in the Elbsandstein) before following the call of Budapest. I’ve been dreaming since years to check out this praised city, and this year, our timing was even perfect: Sziget Festival! Being one of the biggest music festivals worldwide, it also proved to be the most amazing one I’ve ever attended. A whole island, literally in the middle of a stunning city, filled to the bursting point with world-class gigs and people rejoicing at the sun. Beat that!

The next stop was Beograd, capital of proud Serbia. Once again, wandering around and getting lost turned out to be a superior tactic to explore the very heard of it; At the end of the day, we’ve had a cheerful (and also considerably hungover) group of locals showing us all around their city, inviting us for local food and, of course, beer & home-brewed rakia. We even ended up driving to the favorite local ‘pool’: A dammed up side-arm of the Danube. Where all we planned to do was to lie in the shade of a tree to take a rest from the train ride … well, didn’t quite work out that way.

But after that, we’ve had enough of big cities and the Bulgarian mountains were luring us into their endless serenity. To start things off properly, we unexpectedly found ourselves (by utter random chance, as so often) amidst the annual gathering of a nature-worshiping cult, praising the sun. Nice people, though; Quite fascinating to witness a few hundred people dressed in pure white dancing and jumping around in huge, concentric circles. And so we wandered on, worshiping the sun, too. Besides that, the Rila and Pirin mountains of Bulgaria seem to have a liking for crystal-clear mountain lakes – perfect to pitch your tent just right next to (anyone agree with me that there is no such thing as getting up at sunrise and splashing ice-cold creek water all over your face?).

Turned out that it is actually really hard to communicate with people in Bulgaria; Furthermore, it doesn’t really help what everything is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. At one point, we ended up in a border town and our plan was to cross over into neighboring Macedonia, through Albania, and up to Montenegro. But all we got was a lot of ‘No bus! No bus!’ and so we figured what the situation probably won’t be much better in the countries to follow. And we needed a shower anyway. Thus, we decided to take a route a bit less complicated and headed south towards Istanbul, the promised city (by, well, just another night train). What we experienced there was once again mind-changing. The hostility of the Turkish people was simply incredible and CouchSurfing turned, as so often, out to be an unforgeable experience. Great folks, great days. And that is in a mega-city of 13-or-so million people; I’ve only heard the stories of other traveler’s experiences in the countryside. There’s a lot to learn for you, Western Europe!

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