La Vita Senza Barriere: Classic Climbing in the Italian Dolomites

We were finally approaching the Marmolada, 2,700 feet of vertical rock and one of the biggest rock faces in the Italian Dolomites. As we hiked the two hours up the trail to the Falier hut, I could hear cowbells jangling as herds of cows grazed in the alpine meadows. My climbing partner, Timmy O’Neill, gazed up and said he could only see the very bottom of the face; the rest was hidden from us in a shroud of mist. Dark clouds loomed around the surrounding peaks. “Looks cold and wet up there,” Timmy said, and I immediately felt our chances of summiting slip away.

I had dreamed about the Marmolada ever since I visited the Dolomites for the first time in 2004. The history of this region is storied – the place where climbing began. Reinhold Messner, the first mountaineer to solo Mt. Everest without oxygen, honed his skills in these mountains, leading hundreds of ascents. Other legends fell in love with these mountains, inscribing their stories on the historic and enticing rock faces. I had the good fortune to meet one of these legends, Ugo Pompanin, a local climber from Cortina D’Ampezzo who is now 90 years old. When Ugo was a youth, he put up bold routes all around the Dolomites, often walking 30 kilometers, climbing challenging faces, and banging in pitons in hobnail boots and woolen knickers. His nutrition for the day: a piece of ham, a chunk of cheese, a loaf of bread, and a boiled potato. It’s hard not to feel like a wimp in comparison to these tough and courageous pioneers!

Photo: Rifugio Lagazuoi

Our two-week trip to the Dolomites had started out in Innsbruck with pouring rain and below-average temperatures. We heard that the weather had only recently changed for the worse; the month before we arrived had been clear and dry. “And I’m sure it will be great again,” I thought - “just as soon as we get on the plane back to the States.”

Our Austrian friend, Heinz Zak, known around the world for dozens of stunning first ascents, as well as a free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, met us at the airport. Despite the weather, Heinz spirited us away to his mountain hut above his village. A 20-minute hike up a wide valley brought us to his second home, a rustic sanctuary surrounded by tall mountains. A cold spring delivered water via hollowed-out tree-trunks. “It’s the purest water you’ll ever drink,” Heinz stated, and he was right. With the rain still coming down, we sat around a sputtering fire catching up on old times and getting climbing recommendations from Heinz.

With the Dolomite forecast looking grim for the next several days, we made the long drive south to Arco, Italy. Arco is an adventurer’s paradise, a stunning valley surrounded by huge limestone rock cliffs, as well as clear rivers, huge lakes, and medieval castles perched on the tops of surrounding mountains. 

Here we found dry rock, and our first day of actual climbing was on a face that took us up near one of the looming fortresses. It was exciting for me to climb these classic faces with my two partners, Rob Pizem and Timmy O’Neill. Dubbed “The Urban Ape”, Timmy is a wild and hilarious climber and comedian. He is also the co-founder of Paradox Sports, an organization dedicated to helping disabled athletes live a life of excellence. Rob Pizem, dedicated and energetic, teaches high school science by the week and crushes world-class climbs on the weekends. If we were going to get rained off the walls, I was at least in the best of company.

Studying the forecast each night, it looked like the rain was subsiding. Saturday looked partly cloudy before another front was expected to sweep in for another week. At least there was a chance, although slim. I remembered, though, climbing the Costantini Apollonio, a 2,000-foot classic face on my first trip to the area. With ten rope pitches completed and five still to go, the sky opened up and cold rain pelted us, making the already slippery rock even more treacherous. Even worse, lightning exploded around us getting closer and closer. I could feel my hair actually crackling with electricity. Although we were down safely by midnight, I never wanted to repeat that close call again!

Driving back into the Dolomites, we met up with our local partners for the Marmolada. Sadly, we were losing Rob, since he needed to get back to his classroom. Our Italian team would now be photographer Manrico Dell’Agnola, and two climbing guides- Marco Bergamo and Fabrizio Della Rossa. With afternoon rains still persisting, we decided to warm up together with a short six-pitch classic on the Cinque Torri, or “Five Fingers”, so named for the five jutting peaks that rupture the landscape. I was also deeply moved by our tour of the bunkers below the towers, the basecamps for the Italian Army regiments in WWI.  It is humbling to reflect on these soldiers surviving the winters in deep snow, wind and cold, with insufficient clothing, scarce provisions, and lice infestations. Here, more soldiers died from exposure and malnourishment than from guns. To top it all off, I imagined cannon-fire exploding around me, the walls collapsing, and fellow soldiers dying- all in the midst of that misery. It gave me perspective to understand that we were climbing through a place so fraught with history, through the remains of a conflict that profoundly affected the world as we know it.

Photo: Daily Mail UK

Finally, we thought we had our day. It wasn’t perfect by any means; it had been raining the night before, so the rock would be wet, but this was the best chance we’d be given. At 3 AM, we left the hut and humped two hours up the steep scree field to the base of the Don Quixote route of the Marmolada. It was still dark and, despite local knowledge, we wandered around the base trying to figure out where the route actually began. The beginning of the Don Quixote is a sea of slabs that require traversing and weaving up the rock using the path of least resistance. I’m not the fastest climber, to say the least, and we would most likely need all our daylight to reach the top it, so it was vital not to lose time by getting lost.

We now ascended into a misty world of slippery limestone, loose rock holds, and wet overhanging cliffs. As I reached out, scanned my hands, and latched onto seemingly solid holds, they would break off in my hands. Each time I regained my composure, I’d realize I had just squealed in a way unbecoming to a proud bold climber. At other times, I’d feel a delicate seam and stand up on it, only to have my foot slip off the wet surface. More squealing ensued.

By 9 AM we’d overcome the “easier” climbing and reached the large ledge half way up. We still had ten pitches to go, and the hard crux pitches waited above. The mist settled in around us; it was like climbing through a cold steam shower. Over my fleece, I put on my synthetic jacket, followed by a rain shell. I even put on my fleece cap beneath my climbing helmet. Despite that, my legs began to shiver. Timmy and the others were putting on gloves at each belay station and loudly beating out their hands to bring back warmth. “Weather’s feeling worse,” I mentioned to Marco. “It’s perfect Dolomite weather for August,” he responded and then laughed. We kept ascending.

 

As we climbed the difficult pitches, Timmy climbed above me, coaching me on vital holds and techniques to speed me up. “Feel my foot to the right,” he’d say. “You’re going to need this one.”

“There’s not great holds in this chimney. You’re going to need to stem your way up.”

“There’s a key hold for your left hand. When you get to the third piton reach above it a couple feet to the left and you’ll feel the pocket.”

With this communication, we moved efficiently, or as efficiently as a blind guy can move on vertical and overhanging rock.

The last pitch was the scariest, traversing across a blank face, then above broken and loose terrain, up into a steep, wide chimney with fragile, decomposing rock. Here, the holds pulled off without warning, crumbling away into the void. At 6 PM, we finally reached the top and breathed with relief. We had been climbing for 13 hours through twenty pitches.

In many moments throughout our trip, I’d doubted whether we would even get our chance to touch the face, and now we were standing on top. Manrico, Fabrizio, and Marco all met me with hugs, and then I embraced Timmy, who’d been my ally to complete this dream. Ironically, the clouds finally parted and I felt the warmth of the sun on my face for the first time that day.

We all trudged to the hump of rock that signified the actual summit, smiled, hugged, and snapped a few pictures. Then, it was back to business, rappelling down the north side over a huge crevasse, and onto the Marmolada glacier, the same glacier where more Italian soldiers had been stationed in WWI, embedded in the ice. Many had died beneath my feet: in 1916, hundreds had perished as an avalanche swept down the slope. To this day, the bodies of soldiers are found as the glacier retreats and the crevasses open. I was again moved to be trudging over history, in this place where so many lives had been lost before they had hardly begun.

Somehow, the news of our climb reached the Italian press. Exhausted in our hotel rooms the next morning, I was awakened from a terrific sleep by a reporter from Il Gizzettino, who profiled our adventure. Later, our Italian friends translated the writeup for us. Timmy was described in the article as “mostro sacre,” translated literally as sacred monster, but the definition is more like, “legend.” I was described as “superfina”, translating to super fine. At least I know now what to name our boy-bands when I start up my music career.  

The Dolomites gave us not only amazing rock climbs, but an unforgettable experience. Climbing in the footsteps of legends, exploring historic sites along the way, and making memories with great friends capped off the summer in the best way possible. 

Photo Credits: Manrico Dell'Agnola, Rob Pizem, Timmy O'Neill

Special thanks to my sponsors Mountain Hardwear, Scarpa, Leki, and LifeProof for keeping us geared up and ready for whatever the Dolomites threw our way.