The allure of climbing

Climbing. It’s a strange thing. You go up a cliff or a mountain, stand at the top for a while and then come back down again. Climbing is a useless endeavour. Nothing so encompasses this as George Harding’s answer to a reporter when asked why do you climb?

“Because we’re crazy!”

I’m sure at one point or another, every climber has found themselves in a sticky situation. Whether be it hang-dogging up a sport climb much harder than they expected, or having an epic on a multi-pitch halfway up a 350m cliff wondering how they got there. I’m sure at one point or another, we’ve all asked ourselves “Why am I doing this?”

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The dolomites 

As Jon Krauker put it in the documentary Meru, “the rewards of climbing are immense… if you come back”. Is it insane that we put ourselves in what many might call unnecessary risk? Those who have never climbed before may call it crazy, asking for a death wish but I daresay they have never reaped these rewards.

It instills perseverance and self-efficacy. When you’re faced with an obstacle and the uncertainty of whether you can conquer it, are you going to crumble? Did you make the right judgement five hours ago to keep climbing instead of retreating? Do you have enough faith and confidence in yourself?

It teaches trust. To trust that your equipment is going to save your life, that that cam you placed three metres ago is going to hold if you fall on the crux move, to trust that your partner is going to catch you if you fail that move.

It teaches confidence. That you can surmount a physical and mental challenge, come out on top. Exhausted, but victorious.

Of course, there is also the feeling of achievement and general bad-assery. When you look at a sheer vertical cliff face and you can say “yeah, I climbed that.”

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Kalbarri, Western Australia

We work in safety margins, some larger, some smaller but nevertheless we work within personal safety tolerances. Reducing our risk with placed (cams/nuts) or fixed (bolts, pitons) protection, testing our judgement every step of the way. Did we make the right call? Should we have linked those pitches? Is that block I slung going to hold if I take a whip? Each experience we have, we learn from (hopefully) and each epic we survive we pour from the glass of luck and into the glass of wisdom.

It’d be stupid to say that we are not putting ourselves at risk when we climb. A bolt may shear off, a rope may snap and we could very well find ourselves hitting the ground and breaking a bone, dying or worse, paralysis. But then again, we put ourselves at risk whenever we step into a car and no one questions that. At the very heart of climbing is risk management, reducing the risk to a personally acceptable level. Ropes are made to withstand at least 5 factor 1.77 falls, of which one occurs extremely rarely. Carbiners rated to 20kN or more, slings rated similarly. I don’t believe we are taking careless. unnecessary risks with our lives as the uninitiated may think. I believe the greatest risk is not putting yourself out there and to realize that you never actually lived.

I believe one of the real allures of climbing is the ability to manage risk. To be able to believe in your skill, ability and judgement to save you from harm. Climbing is much more than just a physical act, it’s a mental challenge. Sometimes to dig deep and find out what you’re really made of when push comes to shove; when you’re 200m of the ground and been working for the last 8 hours, can you find it in yourself to keep on going, to shut off that part of you that’s saying I’m tired, I need a rest.

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Darran’s mountain range, New Zealand

Another allure of climbing is the problem-solving aspect, relating more to big wall and multi-pitch climbing. How do I get up there? Or more importantly, how do I get up there safely? Going to where most people would never even dream of, let alone actually getting there. As Petzl’s slogan so nicely puts it “to access the inaccessible”.

Community. While climbers are typically a odd bunch, the saying that the odd ones are the best is never truer here. Climbers are the friendliest, funnest and warmest bunch of folks to be around. Idiosyncratic with memorable personalities, we may all be a bit different but we all share the same passion. A passion that brings us together, our shared love of the outdoors and being high. The best people I know are all climbers, the best experiences I’ve had were because of climbing, but then again I’m a little biased.

And After all the grueling tortures of exhaustion, dehydration, sleep deprivation of epics endured, you come down back to safety and exclaim “Never again! Never!” But by the next day (or maybe two depending on the severity of your beat-down…) you’re already planning the next epic, the next peak, the next big climb because you realize it’s all worth it.

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Wye Creek, Queenstown, New Zealand
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Dolomites

Week four of our tour took us into the land of pizza and pasta, we took a bus from the seaside town of Koper in Slovenia to the domestic airport of Venice, where we were to pick up our rental car (a very manly Fiat 500 it turns out). After four hours on the bus and an hour of fluffing about trying to find the car rental place at the insanely crowded Maco Polo airport, we were off to the Dolomites!

Like straight out of a movie, we drove through quaint old ski towns (The Shining comes to mind for some reason). The mountains started to come into view and the sheer faces were huge and demanded respect. Cliff after cliff, peak after peak, every corner offered endless amounts of amazement and climbing potential (well not potential since the routes are already established).

Driving in the Dolomites however, is a well pain; the windy roads are enough to give you motion sickness with numerous hairpin turns; absurd amount of cyclists blocking you and random bike races means some sections of road are closed unexpectedly; numerous motorcyclists make you shit your pants as they speed around bends, narrowly missing your car.

The area was absolutely huge, spanning something like 80km and we only had time to explore the immediate areas of where we were staying but that already left us plenty to do. Luckily, we ended up in an area known for short approaches and easy descents (my fav).

The first day we arrived we were quickly introduced to the alpine weather where the temperature had dropped at least 15 degrees from Venice and had started to rain. Nicky had picked a random campsite earlier on Google Maps and we were headed. We ended up at Camping Miravelle in Campitello di Fassa, a 5 minute drive west of one of the larger ski towns Canazei. We quickly learned from all of the posters that the IFSC Europe Rock Climbing Championships were being held that day! We went for a stroll outside the campsite and by chance saw the an indoor rock climbing wall and found out the championships were being held at 9pm that night.

Later that night, we went to watch the championships unfold as the climbers alternated between female and male leads. Around 8 competitors later we were on our way out, in the sea of Italian from the announcer we picked out the very distinctly recognizable “Adam Ondra!“. In disbelief, we quickly abandoned our plans of leaving and went to get front row seats (or stands I should say.) The crowd was in suspense watching Ondra climbed and roared as he got a no-hands rest with a knee bar! Sadly, he ended up taking second place to a strong French climber. We perchance saw Ondra hanging out by the side once the comp had ended and quickly went to snap a photo squealing like little fanboys.

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Adam Fuckin’ Ondra

Still in disbelief, we recollected the string of unlikely events came together.

  1. Choosing the exact date of the championships to arrive
  2. Choosing the closest possible campsite to the championships
  3. Deciding to take that walk and stumble upon the fact that the finals were on that very night
  4. Staying just long enough to realize that Adam Ondra was there
  5. Staying just long enough (again) to see him walking around after the comp

Needless to say, this was one of those travel stories that you can’t believe happened!

Anyway, back to the climbing!

The next day we scouted one of the larger climbs in the area on the Northwest face of Sass Pordoi. The climb I wanted to do, my big prize, was Fedele, a 500m route on a two tiered face. I wanted to link it up with the 200m Dibona Upper Wall to reach an ultimate height of 800m. A huge undertaking no doubt, I had already forgotten the trauma of Anica Kuk and was looking to go bigger. On our recon, the face looked immense. It was also, wet, very, very wet. Not confidence inspiring when the description in the guidebook states “The route crosses the black streak several times, most infamously on pitch 14, which is usually soaking at best and an impassable waterfall at worst.” 

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Intended Fedele and Upper Dibona Wall link up

With the rain from the previous day, there was definitely flowing water on the face and I realised that plan was not going to come into fruition. Wanting to see what a dolomites “equipped” belay was like, I free-solo’d the first pitch of the climb stumbling upon a collection of random objects along the way like an old T-shirt, memorial plaque and the “belay”. Which was two slings around a thread, solid.

After abandoning our dreams, we went to climb up the Trenker crack at the first Sella Tower. Just as we got to the bottom of the climb, it started to rain (Yay). Undeterred, Nicky led the first pitch and I followed up and upon looking up from there into the crack, realized it was not going to be worth the misery of climbing wet and cold; we decided to bail (making intelligent decisions! Hurrah!). Shortly after on the way back in the car, it started to pour.

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Next day, we went back to our unfinished business and glad to have abandoned it yesterday as the crux pitch would have been impossible wet as it was already incredibly polished. We finished the 6 pitch, 130m climb in around 2 hours rather uneventfully.

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Sweet summit photo

Mostly easy climbing with lots of run outs and fixed gear when you need it (sometimes), definitely some monster whip potential on the climb as placements were not as plentiful or obvious. Advice? Be prepared for the “equipped” belays to be a stark contrast from your standard two bolts as they were all large iron rings cemented into the wall, often with no possibly for other protection so you’ll find yourself of one bomber piece of fixed protection belaying. Pitches are easily linked (which we did on a single rope but had to cut short due to rope drag) but thin twin ropes would definitely have been easier with all the meandering of the route (hey we’re not used to twin roping!)

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Our cool descent photo with the immense face of Sassolungo/Langkofel in the background

After returning to the car, we went to do some single pitching at Citta dei Sassi as we didn’t have time to commit to another long multi pitch (it was already mid afternoon). The single pitching was rather uninspiring, but then again no one comes to the Dolomites to single pitch.

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I should totes be a model

The following day we were rather lazy and only got climbing at around 11pm, this time tackling a larger, slightly more serious 250m on Piz Ciavazes. A 8 pitch route, Little Micheluzzi direct. Efficient climbing saw us catch up to the New Zealand pair in front of us who were probably two or three pitches up before we started. A couple of route finding issues and delays behind the forward pair saw us complete the climb in a respectable 4 hours and 20 minutes, relatively uneventful. Seems we were getting the hang of multi-pitching! The descent was probably the more interesting part of the climb, descending down a scree gully followed by six or seven rappels/abseils. The continuous challenge of finding the rappel stations was amusing but we got down insanely quickly in about 100 minutes with little trouble (a great contrast from our time in Croatia).

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Little Micheluzzi Direct