The Yellow Edge
An honest alarm clock is better. BEEP BEEP, or perhaps BRIINNNGGGG. Take your pick. These tones don’t lie about their motives, don’t pretend to seduce you with progressively louder expressions of dawn, or pleasant-yet-noticeable songbird recordings. Rather, they take pride in their job, interrupting sleep with the urgency of life to be lived, where things are rarely soft but often direct and harsh.
Gentle forest melodies permeate through layers of unconsciousness, soft natural tones designed to nudge the dreamer slowly and pleasantly into wakefulness. It doesn’t work of course, not when the body and mind protests so vehemently to the ingratitude of a world that requires it to rise from a well earned slumber. Even the sweetest, most natural rhythm is eventually perverted into an awful cacophony by the unwilling dreamer, creating a terrible sense of being dragged from a soft, cushioned world into a harsh, gritty reality. Honesty seems preferable.
The grit in this case formed the floor of the car park upon which we pitched our tent the previous night, assembled half blind in a billowing cloak of water vapour. Up here in the stupendous cirque of the Dolomites, this clinging, swaddling mass of insubstantial grey matter can’t be referred to as fog; we’re too high for that. This is cloud that can’t be arsed, satisfied, much like the hundreds of tourists that arrive during the day, to creep with a glacial pace around the edges and bottoms of the Tre Cimé, tickling frustratingly close to the edges of those grand faces without summoning the motivation and madness required to rise up above the sheer walls and spill, waif-like, across the summit.
Cold water interrupts the melancholy of the 6am alarm with a rude attempt at intimacy, leaping aerodynamically from the entwined layers of our poorly pitched tent and splashing across my face, quickly followed by a succession of suitors with the same idea. If nothing else, it inspires movement from my current position, where I’ve spent the previous six hours drifting in-and-out of sleep amongst the vocal, kinetic weather of the Italian mountains. Much like the locals, it seems to express itself loudly and with much gyration, whipping the thin walls of our tent around in a chaotic dance throughout the darkest hours of the night.
Now, though, a glimmer of bright sunlight sparkles through the water beads trapped under our flysheet, offering the prospect of future warmth and routes to be climbed. It doesn’t feel worth it yet - but it will be. On sticking my bedraggled head out of the tent I see that the lazy cloud has retreated down into the valley, inverting spectacularly to ensure the holiday-makers in their huge white camper vans get a decent lie-in without the sun coming in the windows. Many of them are selfishly ignoring this gesture, however, a steady tramp of boots crunching on gravel already breaking the morning air as the long snake forms from cars and vans, bound for picture-perfect conditions at the base of the great towers that stride the skyline directly above our wilted shelter.
Moments later, an Italian official drives past at walking pace, piercing me with the special evil eye reserved for people working in busy tourist spots.
“No tents. Il campeggio è vietato. You understand?”
A glum nod provides sufficient response, and he rolls onward, safely insulated from the biting wind behind the wheel of his Peugeot. I pull back the door of the tent and give Hannes a kick, discontented with not being able to share the discomfort of the frigid morning.
“Come on. Let’s get the tent down and find somewhere sheltered until later.”
It’s shortly before 9am, and the emerged sun has long since banished away the morning chills. Golden rays beat down from the sky with the promise of moderate temperatures on the South walls, beckoning other climbers to sprout with dandelion swiftness from their vans and move into a frenzy of racking, ready to beat vertical ground en-route to some of the most impressive summits in Europe. We join them, less hesitant now after demolishing a pot of coffee and a packet of hazelnut biscuits. It’s quickly decided that the North faces will be too cold, which writes off the hard classics of the Comici and the Hasse-Brandler. Tomorrow, though; the weather would be warmer, free of cloud and perfect for a long North-wall adventure.
Something easier for today, then. South facing, basking in the Italian sunshine, bracing and preparing us for the brisk North faces to come the following day. Spigolo Giallo, the Yellow Edge, seems ideal. A healthy 13 pitches with a maximum grade of ‘6+’ - plenty to stir the spirit, but presumably well protected and manageable even if not. A predominantly German team, we consult our German-language guidebooks, turning to the illustrious pages of ‘Im Extrem Fels’, amongst which one can pore over some of the best and boldest ‘classic’ routes to be found in the central European mountains.
At this stage it’s worth mentioning how the word ‘classic’ differs between the British and German climbing scenes. For the Brits, the word conjures a wonderful mosaic of quality rock, solid placements and well travelled holds. ‘Best line in the area’ may be spouted euphorically by an overly-enamoured guidebook author, and reports will speak of the committing but ultimately amenable nature of the climbing. When attempting a classic route in the UK, one can expect, generally speaking, a throughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable climbing experience.
The German ‘klassisch’, however, has a rather taciturn meaning. Rather than denoting a wonderful, well-travelled route that should be climbed by all who tread, goat-legged, across the scree below, it simply refers to the age. Pre 1980 equals classic, simple as that.
A simple difference, but an important one. I learned early in my German climbing career that a ‘Ganz Klassischer Route’, or a ‘Very classic route’, was not to be trusted as a measure of quality - or perhaps should be, if the route you were searching for was to be bold, dirty and often outright dangerous. This lesson was taught once again in the comparatively seldom-trodden wilds of the Austrian Alps on Hochkönig, or ‘High King’, during an attempt to climb Gloria Patri, another route found within the pages of ‘Im Extrem Fels’. Massive runouts, homemade bolts and often questionable rock combined with a long, dangerous approach to offer a formidable experience at the given grade of 6+, and proved too much. We retreated after 4 pitches and down-climbed the loose approach scramble, hearts firmly in mouths.
All that being said, Im Extrem Fels wove a different tapestry for the Yellow Edge - one of occasionally broken but ultimately solid rock, plenty of pegs and the occasional bolt all backed up with the possibility for solid trad placements, followed by a quick dance down the west wall to Terra Firma. With our team having collectively climbed up to 8a+, E7 and 8A on routes up to 30 pitches, we reasoned it would make for a steady day. Having comfortably delayed with our pondering of routes, we racked up and set off around 11am, striding confidently through the crowds of tourists that thronged together in bunches along the path that runs a meandering route from the Refugio Auronzo around the southern base of the Tre Cime towards the Refugio Lavaredo, where one must merely crest the brow of the hill to witness the north walls in all of their considerable majesty. We, however, planned to cut from the path shortly before the second Refugio and take a stern line up the hillside towards Cima Piccola, and onwards to reach the base of the Yellow Edge.
This plan was curtailed fifteen minutes into the approach when both Lando and I realised we’d left our helmets in the car. In some locations this might have inspired a blasé ‘it’ll be reet’ attitude, but this was the notoriously loose Dolomites - not the place to be ‘unterwegs’ or ‘underway’, as the Germans say, without adequate head protection. Eyes were rolled, rucksacks ditched, and the two of us sprinted back to the car at full pace to fetch the forgotten headwear. Upon arrival we were hailed promptly by an official who informed us of the atrocious nature of our parking and requested we shift it into a more amenable position; little did we know when parking in the soup of the previous night that this particular car park only functioned properly at a 45˚ angle!
With reorganising, reparking, helmeting up and jogging spiritedly back to our rucksacks, we reached the base of the wall at a not-quite-so-relaxed 12 midday. Still, there was no real rush. The route was steady and we planned to link many of the pitches anyway. A 5-6 hour ascent would put us at the summit with plenty of light left to descend comfortably. I racked my harness high with cams, wires and quickdraws, tied curiously petite bowlines into the brand new 8mm ropes that Lando had produced from his rucksack, and after adjusting the laces on my Anasazis, set about punching a route through the polished, blocky terrain that formed the first pitch.
In the Dolomites, the rock is heavily featured and full of surprisingly deep pockets, cracks and square-cut jugs, meaning even very moderately graded terrain can be remarkably steep and 3D in nature. It’s very common to find yourself bridging up a slightly overhanging groove, or pulling athletically on good holds through a plum vertical wall or rounded bulge, all the while staying within 4th or 5th class terrain. It’s a complete antithesis of the UK, where steepness is almost universally associated with strenuous grades and a distinct drop in comfort. In Italy, one can spend fifty metres ascending in the most outrageous positions, plugging in gear or clipping fixed pegs with a widely varying patina of the colour rust, beginning with a light speckling against weathered steel through to the full monty of flexing, flaking, utterly-untrustworthy relics of a bygone era when brazen mountaineers had the audacity to first quest, hammer in hand, up these crumbling remnants of tectonic battles, searching patiently for the pathway of solid(ish) rock through the shattered yellow stone that forms much of the Dolomitic spires. The closest British comparison comes, certainly, from the wild sea cliffs that flank the borders of our windswept island, often having been first conquered ground-up with a near identical approach, first-ascentionists enduring outrageously bold positions and piteous belay stances in order to lay claim on the sweetest trophy in climbing and mountaineering; the first ascent.
With time the outrageous lines of days past mellow, due to improvements in hand placed protection such as cams or the placing of further fixed gear by future ascentionists who deem the rigour of the first too rich for their blood. ‘Spigolo Giallo’ promised to be just such a route, the bold character and commitment numbed somewhat by the addition of extra pegs and steady attrition of loose rock at the hands of those who had gone before us. The first couple of pitches did indeed prove mellow, although with rather fewer pegs than expected. I trod confidently through the 5+ and 6- pitches, linking them comfortably with spaced gear on extended alpine quickdraws. Soon enough I heard a call from the ground that I was coming close to the end of our 60m ropes, and so threaded a couple of microtraxions onto solid pegs that formed an intermediate belay stance before continuing, now moderating my pace based on the tension of the rope as Hannes and Lando both entered vertical terrain two pitches below. Simulclimbing, which the Germans call ‘laufenden seil’ or literally ‘running rope’, is another once serious technique which has been softened by the advent of new equipment and techniques. Where previously the seconding climber knew with certainty that a fall would result in terrible injury for both themselves and the leader, the simple addition of a multidirectional protection point such as a peg, bolt or arrangement of cams and wires, clipped with a threaded rope capture device such as a microtraxion, means a seconding climber can now risk falling without affecting the leader beyond a lack of further slack rope to climb with. This means the technique can be employed on much more serious terrain than would have previously been considered acceptable, and on moderate terrain presents barely any difference to leading normally, other than that climbing pacing needs to be considered carefully to ensure that large amounts of slack rope don’t build up between the leader and follower. The potential benefits in terms of time spared on long routes combined with the frank joy of romping up pitches hundreds of metres long cannot be overstated enough.
In this situation, however, the steeper terrain down low had sucked up most of my moderate rack of trad gear, so after around five to ten metres of proper simulclimbing I found a designated belay point and clipped the pair following swiftly into my guide plate, allowing me to properly take in the freshly reached exposure for the first time. The sun having reached its zenith, the snake of tourists treading the pathway below had engorged, swallowing the white gravel greedily into a fat band of bright lycra hues that slithered lazily across the base of the horizon. The occasional bead of colour would break off from the beast, gesturing upwards at our corresponding dots pressed against the wall, occasionally letting out a whoop in the hope of grabbing a climbers attention for a brief moment.
The responding cry of another group of climbers echoes from the resounding walls, the sound too diffused to pinpoint their location. I know though from our earlier recce that the party is already high on the Yellow Wall, a sustained and fully bolted 7a+ line that takes the south-west face of Cima Piccola through rock that the old boys would have considered far too blank to even contemplate. Satisfied, the tourist below rejoins the mass, vanishing swiftly as the snake shifts.
It might seem odd, referring to climbers and tourists as separate, but I do believe that a definition can be drawn between the two, at least in the region of the Tre Cime where the contrast between casual holiday hiker and seasoned mountaineer is particularly striking. One could argue that we are all partaking in adventure tourism, but in my mind the key difference comes with purpose. A tourist by definition is someone who engages in pleasant distraction, comfortably seeking experiences which seem worthwhile, especially in the context of the Tre Cime where, for the vast majority, the experience is purely visual. An attractive spectacle, to be viewed and photographed but ultimately remain beyond reach. The mountaineer, in contrast, moves with purpose toward the grand spires. Discontented with simply looking, they seek to interact with the landscape itself, forming intimate experiences to the rock as they ascend, in the same moment tremendously exposed and unavoidably close, macro and micro entwined in tandem as they dangle by fingertips, hundreds of metres of air skirting beneath their feet. There is nothing touristic about this experience, no sense of quiet relaxation in the presence of greatness; rather, the mountaineer seeks out the difficult path, moving with skill and desire through a maze of vertical terrain to emerge, jubilant, in a place that few are bold enough to witness.
My thoughts are stirred by the arrival of first Hannes, then Lando to the belay stance, popping up suddenly from the final overhanging crack of the 6- pitch and cruising swiftly up the 3rd class terrain, forcing me to abandon any contemplation and focus on rapid rope organisation as we prepare for a swift switchover of leader. Hannes grins, gesturing to Lando’s feet which are still clad in approach shoes.
“He’s forgotten his climbing shoes. We are well organised today!”
Lando shrugs, apparently at ease with the increased challenge.
“It’s not so bad, considering how the first pitches went. Shall I take the next lead?”
A few minutes later he sets off, traversing precariously into exposed 5+ terrain. Being a classic line, the route doesn’t take the arete as directly as one might expect from a more modern creation, instead weaving between the bands of solid grey rock and occasionally crossing the more questionable yellow, crumbling limestone layers. Emile Comici and Mary Varale took a careful path, climbing as they were in solid boots and laying pitons for progression and protection where necessary. The audacity of the first ascentionists, crossing this terrain in the early 1930s, really hits home when following in their footsteps. Lando, quite by accident, was getting a more authentic experience than the rest of us with his far less precise footwear.
That being said, the route was proving to be considerably more ‘authentic’ than our guidebook had mentioned. The pegs were genuinely few in number, requiring plenty of trad placements to plug the gaps in-between and a conservative mindset when pulling on holds. A four metre runout on a modern, overhanging sport route is par for the course in the modern testing grounds of Spain or France, but the same runout on slab-vertical 4-5 terrain is an entirely different prospect and prompts a far more circumspect attitude towards falling. One particularly crystal moment came when I set off on the 7th pitch, aiming for what looked like a fixed belay some 10 metres above as the initial guidance point. The climbing got steadily more serious as I got more and more runout from the slightly questionable belay stance consisting of a thread and an old peg, until eventually I mantled precariously onto a hand-width ledge to realise that the rock above and in front of me was total choss. The ‘belay’ was still another 2 metres up, but from my current stance I could already see it consisted of a wire threaded directly into a newish looking sling, alongside another fixed point that I couldn’t see from my current vantage point. This was clearly not the way.
After consulting the topo whilst I wobbled precariously on my ledge and tried not to pull off any loose rock, the two concluded that in fact, I should have stayed right and trended towards more solid ground. This subsequently led to a harrowing down-climb whilst I reversed the mantle and steadily made my way back to solid rock, all the while conscious that I had no pieces in other than the Jesus piece on the belay, the rock in between having been too compact to place any wires or cams. It was only later that Lando admitted they were both terrified that I would fall off, because they were sure the somewhat suspect belay stance would not have held the factor 2 fall. In these situations I think it’s best to be circumspect - yes, it would have been very bad had a fall occurred, but ultimately as far as I was concerned that simply wasn’t an option. Experienced climbers will know that sometimes in the mountains, you find yourself in a position where you simply need to stay on the rock, and so you do. The concept of falling can’t be contemplated, because it isn’t an option. Stay on, stay solid. That’s it. Nonetheless, I was exceedingly pleased to find myself slotting in a bomber wire on a solid rock and once again following a track of well travelled holds, rather than edging nervously across loose terrain with a huge fall as punishment for a single mistake.
After more rope stretching pitches and short bouts of simulclimbing, we gathered once more at the lower stance of the crux 9th pitch, a spectacular 6+ corner that was visibly peppered with large amounts of fixed protection, probably more than we’d seen on the whole of the rest of the route thus far.
Lando, upon arriving, clips in his personal safety and settles into a comfy stance.
“I’m out for this one. The 5+ pitches were exciting enough with these shoes!”
I glance at Hannes, raising my eyebrows.
“You want the lead?”
He shakes his head, still visibly stressed from the high pressure belay on the 7th pitch.
“You take it.”
Fine by me. The crack beckons invitingly, and so I quickly rerack and set off without a glance at the topo, swimming up comfortable jams and clipping pegs with abandon. After all, the line is obvious. Who wouldn’t climb the stupendous crack from start until what looks like a spectacular grovelling offwidth finish? Rockfax, for one.
‘(9): V+, 25m. Do not carry on up the corner but, instead, move left under a small roof.’
‘(9): V+, 25m. Do not carry on up the corner but, instead, move left under a small roof.’
Ultimately, the upper crack is just as rad as imagined from below, with the noticeable lack of fixed gear leading to some long runouts between pieces and some classic offwidth udging as I coax myself higher, loath to let my knee leave the safety of the crack for more than a move or two. One particularly exciting five metre runout culminates in a spicy move on thin face holds to manoeuvre round a bulge, not an attractive prospect considering the tendency of the rock in this region to snap unexpectedly. After some considerable faffing I manage to slot in a purple dragon cam deep in the recesses of the offwidth and with this, gain a little mental fortitude. An awkward pull and grunt brings the feet out of the crack and onto smearing edges above the bulge, and one strong motion is enough to reach more vertical terrain and the solitude of the kneebar once more. Eventually I crest the upper lip and find a terrible, corroded stance. This doesn’t even bear thinking about so I press on leftwards, traversing under a small roof with such strong rope drag that I have to lean almost my full bodyweight into the rope with each move in order to make progress.
By this point my rack is utterly empty of quickdraws and all I have left is a few wires and my bits and bobs necessary for belay building. The traverse is longer than expected, however, and so when I reach a knackered looking peg I know I should clip it, otherwise the rope will get tangled up under the rough edge of the traverse ledge and make the situation for the lads below a lot more sketchy. First I thread it with my prussic as this has a small snapgate attached, but this is too short. Hmm. Time for some proper tactics. Moments later I continue on my way, the rope now clipped to the prussic snapgate, which in turn is clipped to the prussic, itself larks-footed to a big green wire that I’ve slotted through the eye of the peg. Bomber.
Finally I arrive at a solid looking stance, three relatively new pegs protruding from the same vertical crack. I’m short on kit so clip the two that look best, settle into my personal anchor and let out a massive cry of:
Thankfully Hannes can still hear me and takes me off belay. I set my feet into the rock edge, grasp the ropes tightly and start to haul; nothing. The drag is too much, and without my full bodyweight I can’t shift the double 8mm lines through the system. Shit. I’m already contemplating having to reverse to the crap stance from earlier when a quick check of my remaining kit provides much needed inspiration; the microtraxions are still on my harness. I quickly clip the ropes into my guide plate and hang it on the power point of the belay, slot a microtraxion onto each of the lines and clip the ropes back through the same biners that the microtraxions are attached to. I give my double z-rig a cautious test and… Yes! The rope now moves easily through the system with only a bit of weight shifting required. Game on. When the lads finally arrive at the belay they’re already wheezing with laughter from the threaded peg, and the z-rig is the final nail in my sketch-coffin. Still, it worked. Hours of rescue training at uni finally paying off, although we’re a long way from the grit crags around Hathersage now.
Lando takes the last of the route, linking two pitches of 5 into one mega pitch and a single 5- to finish, with a quick belay in between. The sun has dipped considerably by now, the evening chill starting to permeate the air, giving the wind teeth that it proceeds to make good use of on climbers foolish enough to hang around on the exposed walls late into the day. Shivering on our exposed stance, Hannes and I are grateful to set off up the last pitch, moving as swiftly as possible across looser terrain as the summit comes in sight. A final crumbling groove leads to a stance and a small plateau beyond, the first proper flattish terrain since we started hours earlier.
A cursory glance at the time indicates that we’ve taken around seven hours to climb the wandering line, unsurprising considering my vision quest into the choss on pitch 7, followed by the drag-athon on pitch 9. Still, it leaves us tight for time if we want to descend in the light. The antics, however, aren’t over. The approach to the abseil point on the west wall requires extremely careful scramble-traversing above the yellow wall with absolutely horrendous exposure hundreds of metres down to the scree below. Now there are no ropes, no security of chalk or gear or climbing shoes - a few harrowing unprotected moves prove stark reminder of just how much of a margin, mental or otherwise, our modern gear offers.
Thankfully, the abseil rings offer comfort in the form of a fat steel ring on an absolute monster glue-in bolt which has clearly been recently installed. The snake below has starved with the waning light into a broken centipede, disconnected segments weaving a path towards the car park we’d left hours earlier. This is no time for messing around, so we pack one of the ropes and slide down the first few of the twenty metre abseils in tense succession, one eye on the rock and one on the waning light as the sun, now painted the same rust-orange as the pegs, slips traitorously below the horizon.
Somehow we’ve ended up with only one headtorch out of three, a foolishness that I thought I’d cured myself from one night long ago in the depths of the Verdon Gorge, but apparently time and complacency have slipped in and stolen my sense once more. Still, one is better than none, and the battery is full. The next few rope lengths descend into a rhythm of German efficiency, quickly clipping out upon reaching the next stance and immediately starting to thread ready for the next ab, letting out a powerful cry of ‘SEIL FREI!’, indicating a free rope for the following abseiler.
Eventually, gloriously, approach shoes crunch against loose, level scree, and the abseiling is over. By this point the night has dripped down from above and spread, inklike, across the Dolomite spires. Our final abseil leaves us perched like tiny jockeys on the great saddle between Cima Piccola and Cima Grande, draped in the dead silence of night in the mountains. By this point the clock reads 9pm, and the fatigue of the day is starting to drag on our weary muscles, leaving shaky legs for the unprotected scramble descent. An initial slip-slide down a scree slope steepens into a 3rd class downclimb, sore, tired hands gripping harshly to polished holds as I lead the way into the gully, keeping the headlamp high to light the way for Hannes, as Lando follows behind with a phone-lamp clutched between his teeth; another technological crutch that the first ascentionists had no access too. The gulley below is half-filled with old snow, a great white worm hiding from the summer heat between the high walls of the Tre Cime. The right side looks more passable, so we slither and slide along past the wet skin of the worm, wiping hands on trousers to remove the cloying black mud that clings to its hide. The right passage narrows sharply and we begin to wonder if we’ve made the wrong choice, until the headlamp reveals a metre-wide hole passing through the belly of the beast, allowing access to the other side. A quick clamber, and we’re through, with a straight shot down to the open trail below.
Soon the rough track is flying under our feet, racing downwards in a barely controlled sprint brought on by the joy of merely steep, rather than vertical terrain. Previously tired legs surge with adrenalin, our hearts beat like drums under chests that rise and fall with a swift rhythm. Cima Piccola melts away into the night as we pace furiously towards warm clothes, coconut curry and the final release of sleep that only truly comes after a long, daunting day. Here we come, the serpents tail, the last of the last, shouting our joy to the night with ragged breaths and wild grins. Moving with purpose.
|6am cloud inversion on a very chill Dolomite morning|
|The team at the first belay stance|
|Absolutely mega exposure|
|Hannes on one of the many 'gripped' belays|
|Tactics. Rescue techniques coming in handy!|
|Down scrambling in the dark|
|Through the hole!|