Robbie Philips blog
On the 5th Day.... Bellavista
All photography by Robbie Phillips
Well… Long story short… Logan and I were successful in our attempt to free one of Europes toughest multi-pitch challenges and indeed one of the world’s most famous, hard, alpine style rock climbs. But the short story long is a far better tale to tell, so that is what I will tell now…
Photo: View from our tent ;)
We travelled back to the Dolomites after a break in the bad weather would allow us to have a bit more time working the crux pitch. We had only had 2 days on the route so far and it had already seemed very possible to free climb, however the prospect of doing the whole route including all the separate pitches in one single push still felt like it would be a real challenge, and would require us to be on top form, climbing everything exceptionally well and especially to have the crux pitch dialed.
Logan had already decided that for him, it was more about the experience of doing the whole climb as a team and had reserved to take the second on the more difficult pitches to allow me to get the free ascent of those. For me, I wouldn’t really be satisfied with anything other than to free the crux pitches ground up… Alpine climbing is approached very differently than other forms of climbing I feel. It’s not about doing the climb free solely; it’s about getting to the top and experiencing the adventure that the climb takes you on. You can approach alpine climbing with a multitude of varying styles i.e. free, aid, team, individual or mixed ascent. Each has its own merits and are impressive in their own way depending on the route. Also, it varies a lot with the conditions you get on your ascent as sometimes it is impossible to complete free or indeed becomes very dangerous and stupid to attempt if the bad weather hits as is often the case in the alpine environment. You have to learn to take what you get sometimes and if your preferred style of ascent is not possible, then you just have to go with what is the most sensible option…
My desire was to free the route, climbing the most difficult and personally challenging pitches that I felt made the difference to the overall experience of making the free ascent and of course, to top out on the summit of Cima Ouest.
We spent our third and fourth day simply working the crux pitch, a really tough traverse that was already 6 pitches up on the face, hundreds of feet from the ground, on the most exposed face of the Dolomites and probably one of the steepest sections of multi-pitch climbing in the world! This pitch is famous for being the toughest in terms of technical difficulty of the whole route and has proven to be a stand out test of pure climbing ability compared with the rest of the climb which is relatively easy in technical terms. But saying that… the mental aspect of other pitches is far more demanding… I will go into this later…
So, the idea for day 3 and 4 was for me to become immersed in the crux pitch. To learn it’s secrets and to become comfortable climbing it so that when we went for a full free ascent (which we had scheduled for the Monday, after a rest day from day 4) I would be able to just hit it on command without too much hassle.
Photo: Leading one of the 7a pitches... As you can see in the background, we are in a cloud!
What actually happened was that I struggled with the conditions of the rock during those two days. I could link large sections of the crux pitch together, but nearly always I would hold back and not try as hard as I could simply because I was uneasy with the slippy nature of the rock. Unfortunately, the rock up there is very susceptible to humidity and sucks in the moisture becoming almost permanently damp and slimy. It’s the kind of conditions that if you were at a sport crag, you just wouldn’t bother climbing it and you would pass it off for another, better day… However, Alpine climbing is very different and you have to learn to just take what you get.
On the 4th day working the route, we bumped into none other than Dave Macleod who was there scoping out a potential new line and trying the crux pitch of “Panorama”. It was good to chat to Dave briefly about “Bellavista” as he had done the crux pitch with Alan Cassidy on a previous trip, however I was a little dismayed when he told me that the conditions they got where “Very windy and freezing cold”… So far all we had got was “zero to light wind and quite warm humid conditions”. We weren’t going to get freezing temps and so far the wind had been minimal. It’s been the wettest summer in the Dolomites for 30 years and despite a number of professional climbers stating they would be out trying “Bellavista” now, they hadn’t shown up on account of the weather… I basically decided that the best I would get was what I had already been experiencing, and although it wasn’t completely terrible (i.e. the route wasn’t soaking wet), it wasn’t ideal. On Day 4, I made some good links and realized that if I broke through the first 15m of climbing of the 55m pitch, then in reality, if I tried hard enough and pushed on through it, I could climb the remaining 40m even in bad conditions… I would just have to try BLOODY HARD!!!
Photo: At the belay of the crux pitch... CHECK OUT THAT ROOF!
We had a day to rest; I said to Logan that I felt it might just be worth having an attempt to free from the ground on the assumption that all I needed to do this thing was the pressure to send! I already felt that I was holding Logan back slightly with this route as he wasn’t trying the crux anymore, just belaying me… Both of our ambitions to climb the route relied on my ability to climb the pitch, and I knew it was possible; the only thing holding me back was myself… I needed to be put on the spot, I needed to have to do the pitch, not just to prove I can do it, but to actually be in the situation where when I do it, we keep busting through the upper pitches to the top of the wall!
We spoke about what the best approach would be for us to climb the route… I wanted to have the full tick, i.e. to free every pitch, but on the actual send to swing leads and for me to climb the pitches that we both felt made the difference to claiming the individual free ascent of “Bellavista”. In my eyes, that was by leading pitch 1 (7b), Pitch 6 (8c) and Pitch 7 (8a). I had already lead the other pitches free onsight anyway and I didn’t feel they had as much to offer as those three in particular. So it was decided that I would lead those on the day and Logan would lead the rest. I ended up linking pitch 1 (7b) and 2 (6c) together and Logan linked pitch 3 (6a), 4 (7a) and 5 (7a+) together.
Photo: Logan getting excited at the belay...
For me, there really was only two pitches that I was worried about (the 8c and the 7b). Pitch 7 (8a) was actually very easy, I thought it felt like a low-end 7b+. There was one tricky move after a huge rest and then it was good holds the rest of the way. Pitch 1 (7b) I was really nervous about... The 7b pitch was scary; it had a 10m run-out to the first piece of gear (a rusty peg) then more run-outs between more rusty pegs (all suspect and one of which I know already wouldn’t hold a fall). Not to mention the rock quality here is terrible… foothold and handholds crumble off practically every couple of moves, you basically just can’t trust anything completely. Finally, the crux is a bit of a lunge around a small roof which you get to via a run-out from a very bad peg that pops out if you so much as look at it the wrong way… the rock quality in the roof is the worst on the route and I must have sent a good few kilos of choss down on Logan when I was on my lead here. Climbing this pitch for me was probably the toughest mental battle I faced on the whole climb… I knew in some places that if I fell… it wasn’t going to be a learning curve… Falling at the roof would be a bad fall if that peg snaps. But I think I learned more about myself climbing that pitch than any other climb I have ever done… I discovered what I can handle and what the potential for me to do in that style is.
After leading that very scary 7b and the following 6c, I was amped up for the crux pitch but still had to wait for Logan to follow me up and for him to lead the remaining few pitches, then I would follow him on second. Logan breezed through these alright but the conditions weren’t the best and both the 7a and 7a+ pitches were pretty wet… I followed him with a rucksack on with all our gear and was finding it a really intense warm up for before the crux pitch. I managed to get through but took a fall on the 7a+ when my hand slipped out a massive wet jug just before the chains! So I lowered down and repeated that pitch again just so I could claim the whole route free…
We were now at the belay of the 8c pitch… I wasn’t really nervous, I was psyched for giving this thing my all! I went up once just to pad out the holds with a fresh layer of chalk as the conditions on the first section were pretty bad. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting for a sending try, but I knew it wouldn’t get any better, so I just had to try bloody hard! I attempted to replace a broken pin that I had fallen on after the crux from a previous day but unfortunately the sky hook failed and I took a big fall onto another suspect pin… Nervous enough as it was, I decided not to risk that again and came back to the belay.
At the belay, I took a 5 minute break, joked with Logan a bit and got myself prepared for the attempt… I was going through the sequences in my head, I had it all dialed… I knew if I got through the first crux, then I could get through all the next section as well.
And so… I went for it!
I climbed through the initial traverse section easily, it wasn’t hard, just damp. I wasn’t going to fall off here anyway, but the dampness of the holds doesn’t help for the upcoming crux sequence on smaller sloppier holds. I rested up on a couple of 3 finger pockets before committing fully on for the first part of the crux! I managed to break through and before I knew it, I was resting on a jug pocket and positive crimp. I shook here a few times… the next section was the boulder. Only a couple of hard moves, but the holds are quite small and very damp. I had fallen here a few times before when my hand would just slip of them without warning. I was slightly nervous about doing this sequence because I didn’t really want to have to go back to the beginning to repeat this all again, but I knew in my heart that if I committed fully, I would be able to break through this as well! I committed… I was quick, I took the pinch hard, through my feet out right, pressed the small gaston and screamed as I went for the jug! BOOM! I had it and I was pulling up to rest at the next big jug.
This was my moment… I knew it! I had one opportunity here to take this to the end and to successfully free this pitch. I shook out here for about 5 minutes, just trying to get as much back as I could. The jugs were damp, but on each chalk up and shake, the jug would feel slightly better to hold onto. I got everything back in that time and I just had to hold it together for the next section.
Photo: Hi... from the Dolomites :) Postcard Perfect!
I pressed on into the headwall of crimps pockets… I was moving confidently despite the insecurity of wet feet and damp handholds. I knew I wasn’t going to be getting anything back if I started to over grip or distrust my feet, so I just focused on giving them all my weight where needed and hoping that my body tension would hold them in the right place.
I broke through the next crux! This was a relief because it was the once place after the main crux here I felt I really could fall… I continued the progression and made it further and further along the wall. Occasionally I would do a committing move and scream for it just for that added confidence to my movement, every time I was successful! I soon came to a mega rest where I did a heel toe lock and could hang of backwards, hands free hundreds of feet in the air… The liberating feeling of hanging upside down from one of the most exposed pieces of rock I have ever been on, hundreds of feet from the ground was amazing! You feel like you are flying up there… I felt all my energy come back to me after a few minutes. I was fresh again and ready for the upcoming technical cruxes. I was about 15m from the chains now, it was almost over and I had never fallen off this section before on link.
I ran through the next sequence of moves in my head, then committed! The moves flowed and I was flowing with them… everything felt easy and I was making sure I was continuing to trust my feet. There was one move to a jug where I moved dynamically for it and accidentally punched it, but latched on as I fell back… close! I rested up again… 5m to go!
Photo: Freezing cold at the Bivvy... COLDEST NIGHT EVERRRRRR!!!
I felt good and went for one last burn… the last 4m… 3m… 2m… I saw the chains… I pressed a gaston crimp, the index finger broke of a small chunk… SHIT! I matched it with my right hand… the pinky broke of something else… SHIT!!! I shifted my weight out left on some small crossly feet… I had run it out here skipping the last 2 pegs and was looking at at least a 10m run-out since the last rusty peg… I reached out and grabbed a slot in the wall, turned the right hand into an undercut and clipped the chains! I grabbed the rope chains, through my arm around them for added security and clipped hard into the bolts! YASSSSSSSSSS!!!! I screamed! I was howling with happiness! I heard Logan screaming back and even a few dots from the ground screaming stuff up at us hahaha! I couldn’t believe I had done the pitch…
Logan followed up on second, we were celebrating at the belay shortly before I decided to lead the next 8a pitch. I tied in and went for it straight away and managed to dispatch quickly without much effort (it’s probably only 7b+ anyway).
This was where the EPIC started… We accidentally went the wrong way and after an 8m run-out on terrible rock and no sign of gear, we realized something was wrong. We spent an hour trying to find the way before I decided to try traversing onto the Swiss route out right. The Swiss route was 10m off and we couldn’t see any gear apart from that of the Swiss route, but I decided that that was better than climbing into the unknown… However, about 5m into the traverse, I found a peg and felt happier knowing that somebody had done this traverse before hahaha I realized soon after that this was the way we were supposed to go and was confidently moving upwards on 7a-ish climbing.
Photo: We reached the bivy ledge shortly before a huge thunderstorm hit us…
The rain was heavy and the thunder and lightning was terrifying! Logan and I huddled together for warmth and survivial from 7pm to 5am the next morning… It was the coldest night of my life! I couldn’t feel my legs the whole time and at one point I was seriously wondering how likely it would be to ever feel my toes again…
In the morning, the rain had stopped, but the wind was strong and the waterfall coming over the top of the Cima Ouest had grown over night and become a torrent over our route. We had not much option but to try and escape the route… We traversed under the waterfall getting quite wet, Logan especially as he had to belay under the freezing waterfall as I traversed the chossiest rock I have ever seen. I was searching for a way to abseil off the tower, a good belay point and an obvious line below where another route might be coming up. After traversing about 90m rightwards along a loose, chossy and scary runout ledge system, we eventually reached a decent belay and made three double rope abseils off the tower. When I finally touched the ground, I felt like kissing it!
Although we hadn’t summited the tower, we had accomplished something amazing for us and we were overjoyed to be able to revel in our experience back at the refugio with a nice warm cooked lunch!
This experience has left me with no doubt in my mind that this style of climbing leaves something with you unlike that of any single pitch climb. Its a true battle with your body and mind. You have to be strong enough to do the route, mentally strong enough to deal with the fear, but more than anything, you have to have the undying will power to keep going despite what happens. When the shit hits the fan and things get dangerous, you have to be clever and decide what its worth. It’s not like giving up is even an easy option in any case, because escaping the route in bad conditions can be as hard as summiting. We were lucky when we traversed the right way and found the belays… but we might also have been unlucky… if we hadn’t had found them, we would be in a much worse scenario… If we had decided to press on the night before in an attempt to summit, we would probably be climbing in the dark in a thunderstorm and even if we reached the top, we would be wet, freezing, and spending the night up there with no way of getting down before 5am!
I was strong enough to do the route which is a product of my training over the years, but equally, I am not an experienced alpine climber and I need to do more of this before I can really make a mark in this field (something I am really psyched about). I am very happy that Logan was with me on this route, I don’t think I could have done it without him and I am really psyched that we did this as a team… Hopefully the first of many future adventures in the alpine…
What’s next? Well we are in Zillertal now sport climbing and trad climbing. We want to do the trad finger crack line “Ganja” 8a+ which will be my hardest trad route and my first ever finger crack haha I also tried “Love 2.1” (8c+) which I was really keen to work. I felt like it was a good route for me to do here and that it would go down quick after a couple more sessions on it, but unfortunately there was not as lot for Logan at that crag, so I have left it for another trip. We are now planning a few more days here in Zillertal to finish of the crack project and visit a couple more crags before heading to Grindelwald in an attempt to summit the Eiger and to climb one of the mega routes up the North Face. If we are lucky then the weather will be on our side… So far it has not…
Wish us luck everyone :D
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” ― Phil Jackson
Robbie is sponsored by Evolv and Edelrid