Written by Jono Hawkins on 01 Jul 2017
In the same manner that all good stories begin, we met at Clackett Lane Services and bundled into Ash’s family car and started our journey to Dover. Adam, Ash, Duncan and myself were heading to Cortina D’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, Northern Italy. A monster drive lay ahead of us to get to Ludwigsburg for our overnight stop with Adam’s Uncle and none of us had anticipated the nightmarish roadworks that we would encounter on the Autobahn. In true German style, the roadworks themselves were very efficient but with no diversion signs on the roads we spent a lot of time driving in circles trying to take the right sliproad! As the night drew in, we finally arrived in Ludwigsburg just before midnight to a fantastic home cooked meal and beer.
Sleeping in to avoid the rush-hour traffic, we drove into Austria and stopped just outside of Innsbruck for lunch. With mountains looming in the distance, we made it to Cortina in the afternoon and set up in the International Camping Olympia campsite. Our main goal for the week was to complete the Sorapis circuit, however unsure about the looming thunderstorms in the afternoon our plan for the next day was to head up to the Col di Bos and have a go at the Via Ferrata Degli Alpini. We started the route at 7:30am and overestimated how long it would take us. By 9:30am we were finished and began to head back to the Rifugio Ospitale, an abandoned First World War field hospital. Just down the road is the convenient roadside crag of the Sass de Stria (East Face). After a couple of hours climbing the rain finally began to set in, however the promised thunderstorms didn’t come with them.
The International Camping Olympia is situated perfectly for some of the more famous Via Ferrata in Cortina and you are able to complete the routes straight from the campsite. Having stayed in the same place last summer, I was keen to tick off a few more of these Via Feratta. We set off early again and after a steep climb out of the valley arrived at the base of the Michielli Strobel (VF3B) sweating profusely. The route itself was enjoyable and twisted its way up the face of the Punta Fiames. The ladder on the route at three-quarter height makes the route famous, but in reality felt a bit underwhelming. Topping out at lunchtime we had beautiful views over Cortina and then headed back to the valley. The descent winds its way down an enormous, loose scree gully and should be taken with care if there are parties below you! We made it back to the campsite just in time to miss the shops before they shut for the afternoon.
Waiting for the shops to open, we checked the weather forecast which looked good for the next two days. We decided to push ahead with the Sorapis circuit and stocked up on couscous and powdered soup for the next few days. Planning to stay at the Bivacco Comici on the circuit overnight, we started a bit later than previous days and began the slog up to the stunning Lago di Sorapiss.
With our bags heavier due to the sleeping bags, cooking equipment and extra water the walk seemed to take forever but we eventually rounded the corner to the Forcella Sora where an exposed scramble along perilous limestone scree galleries led us to the first Via Ferrata of the day VF Francesco Berti (VF3C). The Via Ferrata finishes at the first Bivacco on the circuit and we couldn’t help poke our heads in to see what lay in store for this evening: the shelters are basic but provided with bunkbeds and blankets. We descended down an unmarked path to the valley floor.
Following the Sentiero Carlo Minazio (really a protected path, not a Via Ferrata) to the Bivacco Comici we arrived tired and ready for food. Despite our initial concerns about lack of water on the circuit, we had been able to refill out bottles throughout the day at various springs. We wolfed down couscous, biscuits and tea before getting ready to sleep in the bivacco. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep, however the suspended bunk beds provided something difference from the hard floor of the tent which was welcome. After a quick breakfast and further slog to the top of the VF Alfonso Vandelli (3F3B) we were treated to a beautiful view over the Lago Sorapis and the Dito di Dio (Finger of God).
Descending the final via ferrata, it became apparent that completing the circuit in an anticlockwise direction (as recommended by the guidebook) was the best choice. Ascending the VF Alfonso Vandelli would be fine, but it was much easier to descend than the VF Francesco Berti might be. We stopped for a drink and lunch at the Rifugio Vandelli then made our way back to the car passing a continuous stream of tourists making their way to the stunning turquoise lake.
We stayed one more night at the International Camping Olympia before heading over towards Canazei and the Sella Ronda area of the Dolomites. In spite of some rather frustrating Italian road closures and a scare with the car overheating, we finally made it to the Citta del Sassi (City of Rocks) in the afternoon shadow of the Sassolungo for some afternoon cragging. We cooked in the car park and as dusk set made our way back into the boulder field to bivvy. The sky was painted with stars and satellites until an overnight mist began to set up. The next day we continued to climb (or sleep) until midday when we got back on the road and drove to Chamonix. After several hours of truly atrocious Italian motorway driving we arrived and the Mont Blanc tunnel and made our way into Chamonix.
Greeted at the campsite to the rest of the UBES gang, and fully intending to rest the next day after an exhausting week in the Dolomites, Duncan and I inadvertently signed up to do the Cosmiques Arete the following day with Meg while Adam and Ash would attempt Point Lachenal. Setting off to make the first lift, we bought our passes and stepped out onto the Midi Arete. It was a beautifully clear day and there was significantly less powder and wind than the last time I was there!
Heading at a brisk pace across the glacier, we caught up with the other UBES groups at the start of the route. Duncan conveniently deposited his ice axe here, however within time for it to be picked up. Progress was quick – after Adam and Ash’s account of the route from last year, I wasn’t too keen to be stuck behind groups of guides and confidence-lacking clients. We finished the route by 11am, and felt truly grateful to be back in some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Unfortunately, the others were stuck in a queue at the Crux Pitch for quite some time.
The next day we forced a rest day upon ourselves, however were itching to get back up into the mountains. The next objective for Duncan and I was Pointe Lachenal. Following the same routine as the other morning we made our way to the first lift, roped up with Faye and Alex, and stepped onto the Vallee Blanche. I was surprised by how open the crevasses were compared to last year – a result of the poor snowfall over the winter. Eventually we reached the base of the route and split into pairs. The climbing was straightforward again until a brief icy section before the crux which itself was loose and clean of snow. Waiting at the summit for Faye and Alex, Dunc and I photographed anything and everything – including views across the Vallee Blanche of Peter and Nathan climbing the classic Rebuffat-Piere.
Two days later, Ash and I tackled the Chapelle de la Gliere (South-southeast Arete of the Index). I’d be wanting to do this climb since the previous year and it was a magnificent route! We moved together for most of the route, pitching a few of the harder sections and were at the top of the Chapelle by lunchtime. On Monday, when the Aiguille Verte lift had opened we headed up to complete the Northwest Ridge Integral of the Petite Aiguille Verte. The route was stripped of any snow and should have sent alarm bells ringing, however we were at the summit before we knew it.
A friendly guide and his two Eastern European clients were keen to chat at the summit. As Ash and I began to descend, they followed our route. Stepping onto the demi-lune snow arête, the guide abseiled after his clients and knocked down a rock the size of my head. With barely any time to react, I plunged in my axes as hard as I could and tucked my head against the snow. With a deafening crack, the rock glanced off my helmet and bounced into the Bergschrund of the north face below. As one of the clients above shouted to check I was okay, adrenaline surged and I moved quickly but carefully down to Ash’s stance.
Keen to get off and back to the lift, Ash and I descended and met the guide at the bottom who offered his apologies. This really brought back the reality of the risks that are present when alpine climbing and that we were incredibly lucky to be alive. A Poco Loco was in order for lunch and we made our way into Chamonix to meet the others.
Days flew by with cragging and other shorter days. On Thursday we attempted the Voie Caline, then visited the Aiguillete d’Argentiere for some cragging with a view. The climbing was great and we were treated to a display of Chamois fighting before heading down to avoid the rain. The next day, I walked up to the Mer de Glace with Dave, Anna, Ash and Duncan to try a bit of ice climbing. After the walk to Montenvers and visiting the ice cave, we were watched by the crowds of tourists as we stepped out onto the glacier. The glacial retreat compared to the year before was saddening and left an impression for the remainder of the trip. The claggy weather drained our mood for ice climbing and after practising our Abolokov threads, headed back to the train station for a hot drink before returning to the valley.
We were running short of days left in Chamonix, and headed up to the Index again the next day to climb Frisson Roche on the Aiguillette de la Floria for Ash’s birthday. Despite the incredible dampness of the rock, Ash led strongly for what was our first TD alpine climb. With one lift pass left, we had a rest day and prepared for the Papillons Arete before we drove home. Arriving for the first Midi lift on Tuesday morning, Ash and I powered to the start of the route and began climbing. Moving together for almost the entire route apart from the 5c letterbox pitch. Incorrectly understanding what was meant by the ‘letterbox’, we climbed the wrong crack system however with the aid of some big-wall style pendulum-ing we go back on route fairly quickly. The climbing was fantastic and at just the right level.
Descending down the Papillons Couloir we took a slightly less travelled descent route. This meant the descent took longer than expected, however we still arrived back at the Midi Plan before lunchtime for a drink at the Buvette. The Papillons Arête was a fantastic way to end the trip and provided encouragement for taking on harder routes back in the UK or the next Alpine season. The following day we packed back in the car and began the long drive to Calais. We pulled up in a car park by Le Cap Blanc Nez and cooked dinner, before sleeping in the car and catching the ferry home the next morning.
Cheers again to Ash, Adam, Duncan and the rest of the UBES gang in Chamonix for a fantastic trip!