Dolomites in May - far from the crowds, by Adrian Nelhams
Right foot hard on the boards and our economy class Fiat Panda’s now at full tilt! The world isn’t exactly flashing by, but it will do fine. ‘Do you think it’s got enough grunt for the Alpine passes?’ Will muttered. I looked across at him, smiled and pressed my right foot down even harder.
Milano airport to Canazei in 2hrs 45mins – with the wind behind us! We found a cheap B&B on the edge of town and headed in for a pizza and much sought-after beer to help settle the dust.
The village of Canazei sits in the heart of the Dolomites beneath impressive rock towers boasting huge intimidating steep walls and snow-capped peaks. Piz Pordoi is to the north east, the great Marmolada to the south east and the Rosengarten to the west – a rock paradise. The town gives easy access to the Passo Sella and then on to Val Gardena and also to Cortina (via the Passo Pordoi) and the great Passo Falzarago.
This is limestone climbing at its best – no bolts, just trad climbing up huge walls to real summits, giving full-on adventures.
Weaving across the road we made our way up to Passo Sella beneath the massive 1000m NW wall of Piz Pordoi. We strained our necks to work out the Fedele route which works its way up the black water-stained streaks on its right-hand edge. Next, the huge 500m vertical face of Piz Ciavazes – fantastic, it looks like beautiful steep face climbing. ‘We’ve got to go and climb that sometime this week’ we said to each other. Now on to the Passo Sella and the famous Sella Towers – awesome!
We jumped out, loaded up with kit and headed on up the track. Patches of snow still lay on many northern and some western flanks which added an alpine feel to the whole ambiance. We kicked steps across snow to the base of the 3rd Sella Tower.
The W Face, Vinatzer route was our first adventure. We sorted the ropes, I racked up, Will put me on belay and then paid the rope out as I headed up.
The climbing here draws on all your climbing experience – the often difficult route finding up huge expanses of limestone, the sometimes friable rock, the occasional lack of protection and long run-outs, the exposure, the technical nature of the route, the sheer size and scale of the faces, the speed required…..
You need to carry a full rack with plenty of slings as you can’t rely on fixed belays or fixed gear on the route – I did find plenty of great threads though. The pegs that are there are hard to find and often old and rusty - but this adds to the very adventurous and exciting nature of the climbing here.
You climb very confidently but with caution, always checking the way on, reading the rock, checking every hand hold, looking for protection, keeping an eye on the time, the weather ……. it’s all encompassing. But this is what we’d come to the Dolomites for, real adventures, big walls, traditional climbing with few bolts, real summits, exposure, big mountain days out, difficult descents and some hard climbing.
We summited around 7pm - 14 pitches of continuously steep climbing.
The descent was abseiling down to the north and then a scramble down and around onto Spiral Terrace. The top of the tower was marked with a cairn. The square top dropped away in every direction with broken nondescript ground everywhere, making where you topped out on the route hard to distinguish.
With the weather changing for the worse and the light fading we went to the north side and looked over. Oh no!, the whole place was completely snowed and iced up! We had to make a decision quickly and there was only one choice, back down the way we’d come. 14 pitches, a meandering route to follow and no fixed belays! We’d better get on with it!
Firstly, we had to retrace our steps exactly and find the point closest to the edge where we had topped out – but it all looks the same! Tired, hungry and thirsty we started to abseil "we can buy more kit tomorrow" I said as I left another sling and wire behind. On the way up it was into the unknown, feeling your way up the undulating limestone and all the difficulties and dangers that it poses and the emotions that it stirs. Now it’s a slightly different feeling but in reverse.
On the 2nd abseil I looked down at the rope tails floating in the breeze and hoped we were in the right place. No turning back now as I headed down. One rusty peg, a wire in a shattered crack and a wobbly flake for good measure - perfect. I shouted up for Will to follow. The ropes tighten and become hard to pull through. I think if I’d missed anything on the way down, a crack perhaps – but great! they pull through. The ropes drop down and we repeat the whole process.
It goes more smoothly than I thought as we traversed off left into a snowy gully and descended it. My new approach shoes weren’t doing so well now on the frozen snow beneath them. Soaking wet, tired but elated, we followed our tracks back across the snow just as the sky was going a beautiful deep purple and the light faded out.
Wow I thought, day one climbing in the Dolomites, what a welcome!
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