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Category Archives: Travel

Swiss Preview

By Mark Anderson

I just returned from an amazing and exhausting 2 weeks in Switzerland with my family. We experienced easily the most diverse set of adventures yet among our trips to Europe, which I will recount in detail over the coming months, but first, here is a quick, whirlwind photo preview of the highest of the highlights!

The Matterhorn

The trip revolved around three major activties:

  • Hiking & Sightseeing
  • Via Ferratas (called “Klettersteig” in German)
  • Sport climbing

We accomplished all three several times over.

On the way to sport climbing at Lehn, with the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau in the distance.

We hiked below the legendary Eiger Nordwand and around the northeast flank of the Matterhorn. We enjoyed incredible sunshine and torrential rain, rode more cable cars than I can count, and stumbled upon fields of wild strawberries.

Below the many summits of Monte Rosa. The three most obvious summits are (from L to R) Dufourspitze, Lyskamm and Breithorn.

Strawberry fields forever!

Goat

We completed three outstanding Via Ferratas, including one on the side of the Eiger and one that traversed the lip of a 2000-foot deep limestone gorge. We swam in alpine lakes and skipped stones across many more. We scoured the country for a palatable granola bar.

Logan braving the unparalled Murren VF.

Swimming in Grunsee.

Ama cruising the Brunnistockli VF.

We climbed at four incredible sport crags (and one passable slag heap in an incredible setting), thrashed through fields of stinging nettles in search of others, and picnicked at the world’s most iconic bouldering destination.

Gimmelwald sport climbing.

Off the beaten path in Elsigen.

Fontainebleau

We cruised alpine slides, toured a chocolate factory, played Big Chess in a car-free village, spent quality time with old friends, and traversed the digestive tract of a Trojan Cow.

This Rodelbahn is so good someone died on it.

Apparently this is the Willy Wonka-est of Switzerland’s many chocolate factories.

Big Chess in Murren

How would you describe this, other than a “Trojan Cow”? Kids climb up a ladder through the cow’s butt, and slide down its throat. That’s the north face of the Eiger in the background.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a technical descent of the whitewater “Nala Inferiore” canyon, including a 50-meter rappel down a raging watefall—a totally wild and surreal experience.

Rapping a 50-meter waterfall in Nala Inferiore.

It’s daunting just thinking back on all the ground we covered, but I guess that explains why I’m so tired!

Stay in Zermatt long enough and you get sick of looking at the Matterhorn. This is from Riffelsee.

Corner Pocket

By Mark Anderson

The small town of Ouray, in southwest Colorado, is one of my family’s favorite places to visit. The town has everything we look for in a vacation spot—good climbing, endless rest-day activities, and a place for the kids to swim. With extra sweeteners like a great bakery, plentiful ice cream, the best scenery in Colorado, and heated pools, it’s the perfect road-trip destination.

The 4th of July parade in downtown Ouray. If you stand on the sunny side of the street, expect to get soaked!

This year our climbing focused around the aptly-named Pool Wall, an angling cliffband that looms above Ouray’s legendary hot springs pools. The rock appears to be stuck somewhere in the geologic process between sandstone and full-on quartzite (which is metamorphosed sandstone). It looks like the former, but feels and climbs like the latter. The rock quality varies a fair bit depending on the sector, but where its good the rock is quite good.

The Pool Wall. The Bay of Pigs sector is the clean lower wall in the center.

We primarily spent our time at the killer Bay of Pigs sector, which features a number of super-high quality face climbs. The Ouray community seems to have a proclivity towards stiff grades, and this was certainly on display. Some of my favorites were Empire of Dirt (5.10d), which culminates in a classic but no-joke slab crux right below the anchors, and the namesake Bay of Pigs (5.12b) which has excellent rock and weaves up the center of the sector on generally crisp edges (and a few committing slaps).

High on Bay of Pigs.

The highlight of my first day was scraping my way up Matt Samet’s standout route Breaking the Waves (5.13a) on my first try. The crux climbs over a Rifle-esque blocky bulge with powerful underclings that lead to a committing dyno, but the upper headwall is stacked with desperate stabs to thin edges. It’s easily one of the best sport climbs in the Ouray area, and perhaps the best of the grade.

For my next climbing day, I set my sights on an open project on the far left end of the Bay of Pigs sector. According to Jason Nelson’s fantastic book “Climbs of the Million Dollar Highway,” the route was bolted by my friend Luke Childers but never sent, and features a “small, sharp pocket” at the crux. When I stumble on opportunities like this, I’m both intrigued and apprehensive—I would love to contribute a first ascent to an area I enjoy so much, but I also don’t want to “waste” a few precious vacation burns on a route I may not be able to finish.

Pulling onto the headwall on the “open project.”

With a few good sends in the bag I figured it was worth the risk, especially considering how good the route looked from below. After an easy approach, the route climbs a slightly overhanging arête with well-spaced, rounded edges. The rock was a bit “muddy” from neglect, but with a light brushing, it cleaned up really well.

The business is a 12-foot bouldery stretch along the prow. In the middle of this section is a slightly incut mono pocket that angles to the left, creating essentially a PIP-joint-deep sinker sidepull for the right hand. This pocket was actually pretty easy to pull on, but it was also a “Keeper.” Meaning, if you fall with your finger in that pocket, you better yank it free before your weight comes onto it or else that pocket is going to “keep” your finger!

Yarding off the keeper mono.

The opening boulder begins with a big incut edge, but then nothing for the next 4 feet except an out-of-view, sloping 2-finger dish. Right off the bat I struggled to get off the ledge and established onto the prow. It’s really important to be patient in situations like this. When you know a route has been climbed, and you know the approximate grade, even if you can’t figure out how to do a move, at least you know the move goes (and should be within a certain range of difficulty, or else you’re “doing it wrong”). With a first ascent, you really have no idea. Maybe it’s been left undone because the move is V14?

Pulling past the sloping dish on the lower arête.

Fortunately having gone through this countless times gave me just enough confidence to keep at it until I figured out the right footwork to snag the dish. The upper boulder, yarding off the mono thread, is probably a bit more physical (certainly more finger-strength intensive), but much more straightforward to figure out. After sussing the final panel I gave the route a final brushing and rested for a redpoint attempt.

I climbed quickly to the ledge below the prow, bouldered up a couple moves to clip, and down-climbed to rest and chalk one last time. I powered easily up to the big edge, moved my feet onto the prow, and slapped for the 2-finger dish. I came up empty-handed, but got enough friction from my grating right hand to stop my descent before I sagged onto the rope. Try again: same result, still managing to arrest my fall with a hard left arm lock-off. I took a deep breath, leaned back to get a better view of the target, and tried one last time. This time I got just enough of the dish and bounced my fingers in. I made a quick slap to a rounded edge, snagged the mono thread and gingerly clipped.

The next crux is moving off the clipping stance with a huuuge reach off the mono. Fortunately due to its orientation I could lock it off below hip-level. My Mundakas did their job and I snagged the distant edge with minimal drama and all fingers intact. After a brief shake I snaked up the brilliant 5.11 headwall (well, 5.10 by Ouray standards, haha) and clipped the chains.

Unwinding from the big mono reach.

People often ask something to the effect of “The places I climb don’t have pockets, do I still have to train pockets?” Obviously, we don’t have to do anything in the context of training, but I try to encourage people to train a wide variety of grips and this route is a perfect example of the reason. If you aren’t training comprehensively then you are training weaknesses into your climbing. I haven’t had a goal-specific reason to train pockets for at least 5 years. Had I decided not to train pockets over that time I seriously doubt I would have been able to do that route, and certainly not 2nd go.

Logan enjoying another of Luke’s routes, California Stars (5.10a) at The Alcove sector of the Pool Wall.

Grade-wise, I always struggle to grade tweaky routes, but comparing it only to the mono-intensive routes I’ve done, I’d say its much harder than Manly Bulges at Shelf or One Love at Sinks, about the same as Todd Skinner’s Smoke Shapes (13d), and maybe a bit easier than Ghettoblaster (13d/14a) in the Frankenjura.

Many thanks to Luke for putting the route in. Luke’s done a tremendous amount of development all around Colorado, including at the Pool Wall, and we enjoyed a number of his routes during our trip. We always have a blast in Ouray and this trip was no exception. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to visit.

The northern San Juan mountains from the summit of Wetterhorn Peak.

Corner Pocket

By Mark Anderson

The small town of Ouray, in southwest Colorado, is one of my family’s favorite places to visit. The town has everything we look for in a vacation spot—good climbing, endless rest-day activities, and a place for the kids to swim. With extra sweeteners like a great bakery, plentiful ice cream, the best scenery in Colorado, and heated pools, it’s the perfect road-trip destination.

The 4th of July parade in downtown Ouray. If you stand on the sunny side of the street, expect to get soaked!

This year our climbing focused around the aptly-named Pool Wall, an angling cliffband that looms above Ouray’s legendary hot springs pools. The rock appears to be stuck somewhere in the geologic process between sandstone and full-on quartzite (which is metamorphosed sandstone). It looks like the former, but feels and climbs like the latter. The rock quality varies a fair bit depending on the sector, but where its good the rock is quite good.

The Pool Wall. The Bay of Pigs sector is the clean lower wall in the center.

We primarily spent our time at the killer Bay of Pigs sector, which features a number of super-high quality face climbs. The Ouray community seems to have a proclivity towards stiff grades, and this was certainly on display. Some of my favorites were Empire of Dirt (5.10d), which culminates in a classic but no-joke slab crux right below the anchors, and the namesake Bay of Pigs (5.12b) which has excellent rock and weaves up the center of the sector on generally crisp edges (and a few committing slaps).

High on Bay of Pigs.

The highlight of my first day was scraping my way up Matt Samet’s standout route Breaking the Waves (5.13a) on my first try. The crux climbs over a Rifle-esque blocky bulge with powerful underclings that lead to a committing dyno, but the upper headwall is stacked with desperate stabs to thin edges. It’s easily one of the best sport climbs in the Ouray area, and perhaps the best of the grade.

For my next climbing day, I set my sights on an open project on the far left end of the Bay of Pigs sector. According to Jason Nelson’s fantastic book “Climbs of the Million Dollar Highway,” the route was bolted by my friend Luke Childers but never sent, and features a “small, sharp pocket” at the crux. When I stumble on opportunities like this, I’m both intrigued and apprehensive—I would love to contribute a first ascent to an area I enjoy so much, but I also don’t want to “waste” a few precious vacation burns on a route I may not be able to finish.

Pulling onto the headwall on the “open project.”

With a few good sends in the bag I figured it was worth the risk, especially considering how good the route looked from below. After an easy approach, the route climbs a slightly overhanging arête with well-spaced, rounded edges. The rock was a bit “muddy” from neglect, but with a light brushing, it cleaned up really well.

The business is a 12-foot bouldery stretch along the prow. In the middle of this section is a slightly incut mono pocket that angles to the left, creating essentially a PIP-joint-deep sinker sidepull for the right hand. This pocket was actually pretty easy to pull on, but it was also a “Keeper.” Meaning, if you fall with your finger in that pocket, you better yank it free before your weight comes onto it or else that pocket is going to “keep” your finger!

Yarding off the keeper mono.

The opening boulder begins with a big incut edge, but then nothing for the next 4 feet except an out-of-view, sloping 2-finger dish. Right off the bat I struggled to get off the ledge and established onto the prow. It’s really important to be patient in situations like this. When you know a route has been climbed, and you know the approximate grade, even if you can’t figure out how to do a move, at least you know the move goes (and should be within a certain range of difficulty, or else you’re “doing it wrong”). With a first ascent, you really have no idea. Maybe it’s been left undone because the move is V14?

Pulling past the sloping dish on the lower arête.

Fortunately having gone through this countless times gave me just enough confidence to keep at it until I figured out the right footwork to snag the dish. The upper boulder, yarding off the mono thread, is probably a bit more physical (certainly more finger-strength intensive), but much more straightforward to figure out. After sussing the final panel I gave the route a final brushing and rested for a redpoint attempt.

I climbed quickly to the ledge below the prow, bouldered up a couple moves to clip, and down-climbed to rest and chalk one last time. I powered easily up to the big edge, moved my feet onto the prow, and slapped for the 2-finger dish. I came up empty-handed, but got enough friction from my grating right hand to stop my descent before I sagged onto the rope. Try again: same result, still managing to arrest my fall with a hard left arm lock-off. I took a deep breath, leaned back to get a better view of the target, and tried one last time. This time I got just enough of the dish and bounced my fingers in. I made a quick slap to a rounded edge, snagged the mono thread and gingerly clipped.

The next crux is moving off the clipping stance with a huuuge reach off the mono. Fortunately due to its orientation I could lock it off below hip-level. My Mundakas did their job and I snagged the distant edge with minimal drama and all fingers intact. After a brief shake I snaked up the brilliant 5.11 headwall (well, 5.10 by Ouray standards, haha) and clipped the chains.

Unwinding from the big mono reach.

People often ask something to the effect of “The places I climb don’t have pockets, do I still have to train pockets?” Obviously, we don’t have to do anything in the context of training, but I try to encourage people to train a wide variety of grips and this route is a perfect example of the reason. If you aren’t training comprehensively then you are training weaknesses into your climbing. I haven’t had a goal-specific reason to train pockets for at least 5 years. Had I decided not to train pockets over that time I seriously doubt I would have been able to do that route, and certainly not 2nd go.

Logan enjoying another of Luke’s routes, California Stars (5.10a) at The Alcove sector of the Pool Wall.

Grade-wise, I always struggle to grade tweaky routes, but comparing it only to the mono-intensive routes I’ve done, I’d say its much harder than Manly Bulges at Shelf or One Love at Sinks, about the same as Todd Skinner’s Smoke Shapes (13d), and maybe a bit easier than Ghettoblaster (13d/14a) in the Frankenjura.

Many thanks to Luke for putting the route in. Luke’s done a tremendous amount of development all around Colorado, including at the Pool Wall, and we enjoyed a number of his routes during our trip. We always have a blast in Ouray and this trip was no exception. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to visit.

The northern San Juan mountains from the summit of Wetterhorn Peak.

Maui Mixed Plate—Part II: Pacific Heat

By Mark Anderson

When we planned the Maui trip, I assumed it would be my climbing off-season, and I would be content to spend a week laying around in the sand and sipping mai tais. Silly me. Various factors contributed to me being smack in the middle of a particularly productive hangboard phase when we departed Denver, so I was desperate to get some type of climbing in during the vacation.

If anything, the Hawaiian Islands are known for their lack of climbing. However, Maui has, by far, the best climbing opportunities, thanks to prolific author and former Rock & Ice editor (and current Editor-at-Large) Jeff Jackson. Jeff moved to Maui a few years ago and has been scouring the island for climbing potential ever since. You will rarely encounter a more dedicated lifer than Jeff. He eats, sleeps and breathes climbing. His positivity and drive fuels the stoked and resilient Maui climbing community and I felt incredibly fortunate to climb with him.

Climbing in Hawai’i? It’s even better than it looks! Photo Jeff Jackson.

After a morning of snorkeling that included close-up encounters with a reef shark and several sea turtles, I joined Jeff and his buddy “Coco” Dave for an afternoon of climbing. We hopped in Dave’s pickup for a bouncy, twisting, white-knuckle drive on one of Maui’s many under-developed highways. I was never quite able to extract the latch for my seatbelt, and spent most of the drive wondering if the next corner was the one that would send me through the windshield. The scenery was gob smacking as usual, and before I knew it we were on the trail.

The hike flew by as Jeff excitedly pointed out various boulder problems and aped crux sequences. The narrow canyon was lined with bullet basalt and stacked with Jeff’s inventive problems, from obvious classics on free-standing blocks, to hundred-foot traverses and even a 30-foot roof crack. A raucous heard of feral mountain goats observed our march from above, and provided questionable entertainment throughout the evening, complete with loud farting noises and a high-speed demonstration of their procreation methods.

Raucous goat party.

The cave itself is a basalt/lava rock* version of the Arsenal at Rifle, with big tiered, stair-stepped roofs and corners (*Wikipedia tells me that 90% of the Earth’s “volcanic rock” is technically basalt, so I’m assuming all the black rock you see on Maui is basalt. That said, calling it “basalt” is a bit misleading since it feels and climb so much different from most mainland US basalt). The climbing is quite steep, physical, long and pumpy, with many burly undercling moves and long reaches or throws to generally big holds, often split with strenuous rests. The rock was incredibly solid and formed a wide array of novel shapes. Typically lava rock comes in two flavors: Razor Sharp and Just-Go-Ahead-and-Order-the-Blood-Transfusion-Now. For whatever reason, the rock here was far more—well, I’m not gonna say “skin-friendly,” so let’s just go with “climbable”—than typical lava. There was the odd spiky hold, but for the most part the rock was smooth-but-featured, and I didn’t get any flappers or cuts the entire trip.

Climbing a stellar 13b in the big cave. Photo Jeff Jackson

Then there was the heat (which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans). It was just damn hot, apparently unusually hot, even for Maui. And surely humid too. I would guess it was well into the 90s, but with the humidity it seemed by far the hottest conditions I’d ever climbed in. I like to think I’m training myself to be resilient so I can climb through Colorado winters, but really I think I’m just adapting increasingly towards colder temps. Jeff, Dave and Justin (who joined us at the crag) showed me what it’s like to really be tough. I took the initiative and led off the complaints, but the local hard men did their best to coddle my ego by joining in periodically (thanks guys!). If you consider the wind chill on Grand Sentinel, and compare it to the Heat Index in Maui, I suspect I’ve climbed in conditions spanning more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the past year!

Dave cruising the 12b, just about to enter the unusual crux.

Once the approach sweat evaporated it was time to climb. I started up an excellent 5.12b, the crag warmup, whose name had something to do with goats. A boulder start led to an easy middle section and a no hands stance below what appeared to be an easy exit pulling around a short roof. Not wanting to appear soft, I pretty much skipped the big rest and charged into the devious finish. I dug deep into my bag of tricks, including clipping mid-crux for extra credit, ultimately resorting to a head jam behind a protruding flake. Higher I chimneyed into the same feature and my back was so thoroughly drenched in sweat that I thought I might Slip-and-Slide right out of it. I appreciated the guys’ letting me climb first, since I’m sure my sweat upped the grade to at least 12c for the followers.

Approaching Crux #1 on the 13b. Photo Jeff Jackson.

After a nice long break to cool down, I jumped on a brilliant 5.13b that climbed out the center of the cave. This was the type of climb that would be a 4-star classic at any crag in the country, even the Arsenal. It was essentially a series of five boulder problems split by rests of varying value. The rock is nearly flawless, and sports some of the most unusual holds I’d ever encountered. The route gets going right off the ground with a burly boulder problem to reach the first bolt and a no-hands shake. In classic Smith Rock-style, the locals have elected to ignore this when considering the route’s difficulty, and instead refer to the next boulder problem as “Crux #1.” This crux comes after a questionable, scrunchy, power-sapping “rest,” and involves a big, committing move to a protruding jug and a tenuous sequence to unwind. “Crux #2” was even harder, with another long move to an incredibly featured hold, before a fun exit of interesting stems on killer rock.

Sticking the long reach in the middle of Crux #1. Photo JJ.

Before we knew it, the sun set and we made the short walk back to the truck. Dave treated us all to a round of fresh-from-the-husk coconut juice, and Justin passed out some delicious fresh lychee fruit. Mercifully, it was pitch-black on the drive home, so I couldn’t see all the road hazards we surely narrowly-missed. Before saying goodbye to my new friends, they graciously shared beta another crag I really wanted to experience, known to the locals simply as “PK.”

The left half of the incredible PK wall.

PK is a totally different experience than the cave we visited, and shows how varied Maui’s basalt can be. The cliff is more columnar and vertical, but it is covered in strange, bulbous mushrooms of protruding stone that climb a bit like tufas. The rock was impeccable and the setting was serene, right on the beach under a canopy of short trees.   The climbing here was much more fingery and less physical—right up my alley.

Warming up on the right end of PK. Some of the bulbous mushroom features can be seen to my left.

Since I was climbing with the family, time was short, but I jumped on a set of excellent routes. Each one was better than the last, with perfect stone and interesting climbing. I quickly learned the mushrooms were all a bit worse than they looked thanks to sloping topsides and generally rough textures, but they were still super fun to climb.

Climbing a 5.12(?) on the steeper, harder, left side of PK.

It’s not often I get a truly new experience on rock, so I try to appreciate it when I do. Climbing in Maui was completely unique. I feel like I barely scratched the surface and I look forward to the opportunity to return and explore a bit more.

Thanks to Jeff, Dave and Justin for showing me around and sharing their little slice of paradise with me, I hope to return again soon. Fingers crossed for a Southwest-Airlines-instigated price war!

See you next time!

 

Kid-Friendly Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

By Mark Anderson

When Kate and I were debating European vacation options last spring, a big factor in the decision was Via Ferrata. During our last trip (to France) I introduced Logan to the activity and it was one of the highlights of the trip. What I love about it is that it provides a practical way to take the kids up something relatively big.  Why not just climb a multi-pitch route? To do that the follower (who is at-best seven years old in this scenario) would need to belay the leader (me). With Via Ferrata, I can belay myself using a VF lanyard to a logical stopping point, then belay the kid(s) up.

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Leading Amelie up the final section of “stemples” on VF Sass de Rocia.

The Dolomites were an obvious destination for our trip, since they are literally the birthplace of Via Ferrata. The first “iron ways” were installed during the grizzly Mountain War—the battleground between Austria and Italy during the first World War. Confrontations occurred all across the Dolomites, and various relics of that horrific conflict are dotted throughout the range. Both sides created VFs to enable troop movements, and the work that went into them is incredible. In some cases, troops tunneled through miles of rock, to the summit of mountains, to little effect. The Mountain War was one of the most futile ventures in the history of armed conflict, resulting in the death of ~600,000 Italian and ~400,000 Austrian troops without achieving any strategic objectives (despite the fact that Italy was “awarded” significant lands from Austria at the end of the war, which explains why so many towns in the Italian Dolomites look, sound and feel Austrian).

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Presumably a Machine Gun nest, near the trailhead for Lake Sorapis.

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A Mountain War bunker and trench system at Cinque Torri.  These fortifications were primarily used by the Italian side for long-range artillery operations against the Austrian lines on the Lagazuoi peaks, which are the distant mountains across the valley in the upper right corner.

In preparation for our trip I got a pair of proper Lanyards for me and Kate* and rigged up a temporary VF to the top of the Gaudi Wall for the kids to practice on. I learned early in the planning stages that Dolomite VFs are much more utilitarian than the designed-for-kids route we did in France—they are generally designed to get people to a destination, not necessarily to provide a Type-I-Fun experience along the way. Generally they involve big spaces between rungs, a high element of adventure, and long, steep hikes to approach (especially in early summer when most lifts are closed). It took quite a bit of sleuthing to track down some kid-friendly options, but they are out there if you know where to look (and come prepared to hike!) [*Standard VF lanyards are not safe for kids, because kids don’t weigh enough to activate the built-in shock absorption systems–kids should be belayed on a dynamic climbing rope].

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The Schuss is the steep snow slope between the towers.  The left tower is Ra Pegna. The VF route starts in the vertical shaded gulley on the left, then traverses up and right along the obvious cleft, then zig-zags up the bushy ledges on the right side.  There’s also a VF on the right tower (Ra Bujela), but by the time we finished Ra Pegna we had had enough for one day.

The first VF we did was located right outside of Cortina on a famous ski slope called the Schuss, which is often used as a World Cup Downhill race course. The Schuss is a narrow chute between two steep rock towers, and our objective, “VF Ra Pegna,” ascends the east face of the southern tower. I learned of this route from Guidedolomiti.com, which turned out to be a key resource for our trip planning. It was designed to be family friendly, and would have been a great introduction for our kids if I didn’t totally hose up the approach beta.

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Amelie leading the descent from the summit of Ra Pegna.

We didn’t have any driving directions, so we just drove to the base of the ski run and attempted to drive up the service “road”. This was basically like trying to drive up a black diamond ski slope, and fortunately we quickly realized our two-wheel drive rental car, with it’s 8 cm of clearance, was seriously out-matched. We parked along the track and walked the rest of the way, which was still quite difficult given the steepness of the pitch. We arrived at the start of the climb already exhausted, but after a short break we were ready to conquer the tower.

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Logan on the last vertical stretch of the descent from Ra Pegna.  Frankly, the descent was more interesting than the ascent, and if I were to do it again I would consider climbing up the descent route instead.

The VF itself was uneventful, but a bit tedious due to a long traverse in the middle. Traverses are the bane of any VF-with-kids. It’s really easy to belay kids on straight-up pitches, and even haul them up if necessary, but not so on traverses. When traversing, our kids clipped into the cable (in addition to the rope belay) to protect against pendulum falls. This works great when the kids can reach the cable easily, but most of the time the cable is placed such that an adult can stand on the best footholds (usually some kind of ledge) and easily reach the cable, around chest-height. That puts the cable well out of reach of a 5-year-old girl most of the time. Despite these challenges, we made it to the top, but we were VF’ed-out for the next few days.

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Entering the first slot canyon on the VF Sass de Rocia.  Yep, still wearing the same shirt!

The next adventure was the perfect objective for a family on a sport climbing trip. The outstanding sport crag Laste is in fact a big plateau of limestone with a series of slot-canyon-like chimneys weaving through it. VF Sass de Rocia ascends these slots to reach the top of the tower. I got my fill of sport climbing in the morning, then the whole family did the VF at the end.

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Kate and Amelie heading up the first set of stemples on VF Sass de Rocia.  You can see one of the route’s bridges in the upper left.

VF Sass de Rocia was pure fun with zero approach and all the elevation gain spent on the wire. There were some wooden steps, several sets of metal rungs (aka “stemples”) and a couple of bridges. The round trip adventure took about an hour and culminated in a great view from the top of the broad tower. It is exactly the level of commitment you want for VF with young kids.

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From the top of the ladders, looking up at the first stemples and Kate on the first bridge of VF Sass de Rocia.

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Amelie and I descending VF Sass de Rocia.

We saved the best for last, but not by design. VF Grotte di Volpera wasn’t described in any of my guidebooks or online. I figuratively stumbled upon it while researching sport climbing destinations. The Cortina tourism board put out a series of short videos touting the various sport crags around town. In one of these videos I spotted a fun-looking ropes course in the background, so with some sketchy approach information I wandered through the forest until I found the crag.

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Logan on a long section of stemples on VF Grotte di Volpera.

The ropes course had been replaced by a proper VF, presumably installed by local guiding companies to introduce newbies to VF, because it was perfect for Logan. It had several sets of ladders, some exposed ledges, a slack line crossing and a “monkey bridge”, all zigzagging across the same small gorge, making the descent trivial. Logan had so much fun on it that he did the slack line 3 times, once as a zipline. As soon as we finished he asked if we could do it again. It was a great father-son experience and the perfect way to end our trip.

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Logan on his first trip across the VF Grotte di Volpera slackline.  After this he went back across walking the line, and then back to me using the safety cable as a zipline.

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The VF Grotte di Volpera Monkey Bridge.  This is the last obstacle before the easy descent path.

All told, I can’t say the Dolomites are an ideal destination for kid-friendly Via Ferrata. To be fair, there were a few routes we were interested in that were inaccessible due to snow pack (if you are looking for more options in high season, others that sounded plausible and interesting include VF Grotta di Tofana, SA Galleria del Lagazuoi, & VF De Luca/Innerkofler, described in this post).  On the bright side, we never ran into another VF party on any of the routes we did.  Apparently crowding can be a big problem on VFs in high season, but not in May!

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Logan near the start of VF Grotte di Volpera.

If kid-friendly VF were my primary consideration I would probably start with some of the newer VF setups in other parts of Europe (such as in the Haute Alpes of France, which, based on my research, appear geared more toward providing a fun and low-commitment experience for adventurers of all-ages). However, with some digging and careful selection it is possible to string together some great itineraries that kids will enjoy in the Dolomites.

Sport Climbing in Canada Part 2

By Mark Anderson

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The impressive east face of Mt. Lefroy.

The primary purpose of our short trip was to share this beautiful place with our kids and reacquaint ourselves with the range—the backdrop for many of our fondest adventures. After the Grand Sentinel day we took the kids to Lake Louise and up to the Plain of Six Glaciers.  It ends just below the massive hanging glacier on the east face of Mt. Victoria, and the scenery was just plain spectacular.

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Near the end of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike. Lake Louise and the Chateau are visible at center.

The hike was ~17km roundtrip, with ~2000 feet of elevation gain. Amelie did the entire hike without any assistance—easily the highest and longest hike she’s ever done (which got the wheels in my head spinning about options for higher objectives on future trips!)  On the way back I got a chance to route-stare at the legendary “Back of the Lake” crag—a big cliff of super-high-quality quartzite, offering both sport and trad lines.

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At the turn-around point of the hike, with Abbott Pass to the left.  The Abbott Pass hut is a popular jumping off point for the ascent of Mt. Victoria (the big broad glaciated peak on the right).  Mt. Lefroy is left of the pass.

Besides dragging our kids up a bunch of endless hikes, I also wanted to scope out the Bow Valley rock climbing scene, which has really exploded since I last visited. I had climbed at Back of the Lake a couple times, as well as Grassi Lakes, but that was it.  There were now many lifetimes of new sport crags around Canmore and I wanted to get a feel for the options.

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Passing “Back of the Lake” on our way to the Plain of Six Glaciers.

Once we returned from Lake Louise, I scoped out the hike to a new-ish crag called “Planet X.”   The wall is super tall, apparently over 40m in places, with angular limestone fins reminiscent of Rifle, though generally not super steep—in other words, perfect for me!  My favorite aspect of the cliff is that the approach passes some 20 other crags along the way, with a nice, non-threatening creek trickling along the base of most, which would make a great hang for the kids. The climbing itself looked fantastic too, and definitely worth many trips despite the somewhat heinous approach (“heinous approach” is a relative term—Canmore climbers are not at all deterred by 1-hour-plus, uphill approaches to sport crags, which is quite a contrast to the endless whining I hear from compatriots about the 20 minutes needed to reach crags like The Bunker or Aftermath.). We only had one day budgeted for sport climbing, so I chose not to spend it there, but certainly plan to climb there on future trips.

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Acephale is the angling band of limestone.  This is typical of the last half of the approach.  Steep and rocky!

For our sport climbing day I decided to visit Acephale. This is a world-renowned crag, recently making its way back into the news thanks to Adam Ondra’s visit in July.  With the promise of flawless, Euro-style limestone, I had wanted to check this crag out for a long time.  The crux of the day was the approach, which was really easy to follow thanks to detailed instructions, but super long and involved for our weak Colorado legs.  It took 70 minutes to get there, which was definitely a record for longest-approach-to-sport climbing-with-kids, and made for a very disappointing “rest day” for Logan and Amelie.

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Where’s Mom, 5.12a, Acephale.

However, it was well worth it! It took me a while to get warmed up to the style, but the climbing was phenomenal.  It was easily the best limestone I’ve climbed in North America.  Every route I did was excellent, although not always super fun, if that makes sense.  The rock is not terribly well-featured, which can result in really technical and sometimes insecure climbing, often on polished slopers.  The rock is quite hard to read, making for difficult onsights but really engaging and rewarding redpoint climbing.

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Deal With It, 5.12c, Acephale.

The more I climbed, the more familiar I became with the style and the more I liked the climbing. The movement involves lots of crimping, pinching, and thin footholds—all things I really enjoy.  Highlights of the day were Where’s Mom and Last Dance, which is one of the best limestone 5.13s I’ve climbed in a long time (and I think my first Canadian 5.13!)  I haven’t been this stoked about a crag in a while and I really look forward to returning and trying some of the harder lines.

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Last Dance, 5.13a, Acephale.

That night Jeff and his family had us over for dinner. It was a great time talking climbing and getting to know each other, highlighted by a delicious meal of home-made lasagna courtesy of Jeff’s charming wife Christa.  Jeff and Christa also have a boy and a girl, a few years ahead of Logan and Amelie, but they all got along great despite the age differences.  Jeff was an incredible host to us and I feel really fortunate to know him.  After climbing Grand Sentinel, on the hike back up to Sentinel Pass we ran into a pair of young bucks from BC hoping to climb the tower.  We talked about conditions and gear, and Jeff noticed they didn’t have any gloves, which we felt were critical to our success.  He literally took the gloves off his hands and gave them to these young kids so they could have a shot at the spire—that’s the kind of guy he is.

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Bow Lake.

We tried to keep the next day “easy,” but that’s always tough when there are so many incredible things to see. We opted for Bow Glacier Falls, which is the source of the Bow River and about a 45-minute drive north of Lake Louise.  The hike offered a nice mix of scenery, skirting Bow Lake, hiking through the flood plain of Bow Creek, and passing a nice little slot canyon before climbing up onto the Bow Glacier moraine.  The hike ends in a big cirque with curtains of waterfalls, the coolest of which spring right out of the middle of the cliff.

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Investigating a short slot canyon along Bow Creek.

The hike was uneventful until halfway through the return when we saw a wall of snow/rain mix heading our way and decided to hightail it back towards the car. We all got wet and cold but nothing a cup of hot chocolate from the Bow Lake Lodge couldn’t solve.

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Bow Glacier Falls.

On the final day we did a relatively quick hike up Johnston Canyon, which was the only let down of the trip. The hike is unbelievably crowded with tourists, and even on a frigid Tuesday morning in September it was rather spoiled.  Fortunately once you pass the falls the crowds thin out significantly, culminating in a gorgeous view at the “Ink Pots”—springs of water bubbling up from the ground—with jagged, snow-capped peaks in the background.

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At the “ink pots”–natural springs that feed into Johnston Creek.

The highlight for Logan was stopping at the Calgary Olympic Park on the way back to the airport to experience their version of an Alpine Slide. This one was unique in our experience (having done Alpine Slides all over Colorado, and in Italy and Germany), because you aren’t confined to a narrow track that directs the sled.  Instead each driver gets to steer their cart down a 12-foot-wide, curbed concrete road that winds down the hill.  Logan thought it was the best Alpine Slide he’s done.  I think the Rodelbahn’s in Germany are also in the conversation, but that was 4 years ago so I doubt Logan remembers them.

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The alpine slide at the Calgary Olympic Park. The side rails seen here are only to corral the sled at the end of the run. The track itself is about 12′ wide, allowing for lots of maneuvering and passing of slower riders. Also visible in the background is the Olympic Ski Jump. We’ve seen 4 of these–in Salt Lake, Garmisch (Germany), Cortina (Italy) and here.

All told it was an incredible whirlwind trip! I reckon the kids hiked almost 40 miles in five days, and it felt like we crammed the best parts of a typical two-week vacation into one long weekend.  We are most stoked about how well the kids did.  They’ve never hiked so much or handled it so well.  For years I’ve been telling Logan if you want to do cool stuff you have to be willing to do a little more work to make it happen, and it finally seems like he’s starting to understand that.  He kept saying how much he loved Canada and wanted to live in Canmore.  We are really excited to return and explore more of this unparalleled region.   Now that we know how quick and easy it is to visit we expect to return often.

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Sport Climbing in Canada Part 1

By Mark Anderson

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting long-time climber and developer of the Sloper Climbing App Jeff Moore. The Sloper Climbing App is the next big thing in smart phone climbing tech. It’s definitely worth checking out, but that’s not what this post is about.

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The incomparable Canadian Rockies.

Jeff lives in Canmore, Alberta, the epicenter of Canadian climbing. He visited Denver recently and I mentioned to him how much Kate & I love the Canadian Rockies and longed to visit. As kids, Mike and I traveled there several times on family road trips, and between 2001-2004 I made three climbing trips to the area, but sadly I haven’t been back since then. It seems like every year Kate & I would make vague plans to return to Canada, and every year some other trip would take its place.

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Amelie and me, with my new friend Jeff Moore on the right.

Jeff mentioned cheap airfare from Denver to Calgary, which I relayed to Kate off-hand. She took it seriously and started making plans for Labor Day weekend. I had to re-work my training schedule a bit, but within 24 hours she had the trip booked, commencing only 4 days later! That’s some seriously alpine-style trip-planning by Kate. After a two-and-a-half hour direct flight and an hour of driving we were in Canmore.

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Above Lake Louise, with Mt. Aberdeen, Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Victoria.

Kate offered to hang with the kids the first day so I could climb something with Jeff. I knew immediately what I wanted to climb. My previous forays to the Canadian Rockies all revolved around alpine climbing—ascending the big peaks, by various routes. During those trips I climbed Mt. Temple twice, by the classic East Ridge, and the neo-classic Greenwood-Locke route on the imposing North Face. Both routes descend the southwest ridge of the mountain, returning to Sentinel Pass and then down through the Valley of Ten Peaks to Moraine Lake.

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Mike following high on the North Face of Mt. Temple in 2003.

Just on the other side of Sentinel Pass stands an incredible spire of teetering quartzite dubbed the Grand Sentinel. This is surely one of the great rock towers of the world, and I would know.  There are others that are skinnier (height relative to width at the base), but considering its position, the environment in which it stands, and the quality of rock in these mountains, its truly incredible this finger of stacked choss is still standing. The fact I had climbed and descended Mt Temple twice meant that I had passed this remarkable feature twice, gazed upon it in awe twice, and longed desperately to climb it ever since!

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Grand Sentinel!

The tower is about 100m tall, involving 4 pitches of climbing, with two route options that I know of—the classic 5.9 crack route of the South Face, and the fully modern, fully bolted Cardiac Arete (5.10d). The “problem” with the route—the reason I never got around to climbing it—was that in my alpine days, it was “too small” to justify a proper climbing day, and “too big” (with ~3000’ of hiking to approach and descend) to pull off on a rest day. But it was just right for this trip, and Jeff graciously agreed to do it again (for the 5th or 6th time?)

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Light shining through the upper 15 meters of the Grand Sentinel illustrates just how precarious this spire is.

We rolled out of Canmore just before 5am, anxious to beat the holiday-weekend crowds to this uber-classic route. The parking lot was already swarming with cars when we arrived just after 6, well-before dawn. Anxiously we raced up the brutal approach trail by headlamp, up and into Larch Valley. The area was experiencing unseasonably cool and wet weather, which must have dissuaded other suitors because we arrived at the icy pass totally alone.

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On the approach, looking back toward Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks from just below Sentinel Pass.  Note all the white stuff…in August!

The tower was every bit as staggering as I remembered. We picked our way down the snow-covered talus on the north side of the pass and made our way to the base of Grand Sentinel. The weather was absolutely not what either of us had expected—Sub-freezing with persistent wind and the ever-present threat of more precipitation—in August!

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The ominous view to the north from Sentinel Pass, just after sunrise.

Jeff and I had only recently met and never climbed together, so neither was sure what the other was thinking. We kept asking every 5 minutes or so, “Are you still psyched?” The answer was always yes. Both routes can be easily rapped, and we brought gear for either option, we had raincoats, so we figured we would keep going until we reached an impasse. Personally, I was brimming with stoke. I wanted to climb this thing desperately, and if the experience itself was miserable, I figured that would only make it that much more memorable. Plus I felt like I had to represent for Colorado—show our friendly neighbors to the north that we can handle a little bit of bad weather.

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Grand Sentinel from the little pass just south of the base of the tower. The classic “South Face” route follows the obvious dihedral system at center.

Fortunately the wind was relatively calm huddled in the col below the south face. We chose to go for the Cardiac Arete. Ascending the SE prow of the tower, the arete is certainly more exposed to the elements, but also a much better-looking line (and much better quality, according to Jeff). We racked up and donned every bit of clothes in our packs. Jeff cruised up the first pitch, only stopping to shake blood back into his fingers periodically.

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Cardiac Arete pretty much follows the right skyline, with a few excursions onto the (hidden) east face.

The first pitch is pretty much an endless series of horizontal breaks, offering big jugs, with the occasional long reach between them. A small roof at mid-height is the crux. Jeff commented often about the cold rock, but it didn’t seem to slow him down much. I brazenly reasoned all my years of climbing in Clear Creek through the winter had me well-prepared, and grew eager to show my Canadian friend how it’s done.

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Jeff cranking over the crux roof on the first pitch.

I followed the 1st pitch in full-on sprint mode, figuring I could stave off numbing by minimizing my time on the rock. At the belay I re-racked the draws and then went right into leading the 2nd pitch. This pitch was much different, starting up the south face with some fingery face climbing on incredible rock, then turning the arête to the east face for some more intricate face climbing.

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Jeff cruising the second pitch.

By the time I turned the arête I was completely numb, more so than I can ever remember. It’s pretty typical for my fingers to numb out on the first cold day of each winter season, but often it’s only my finger tips and rarely an entire finger. On this pitch my entire HANDS were numb, from the wrist up! It was like climbing with clubs. I thumped my hands against the rock and felt absolutely nothing. It was like my hands were gone. I could see them, but that was the only feedback I had that they were still there.

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Jeff on the second pitch. This last stretch to the belay was desperate for my frozen hands!

To make matters worse, I was short on draws and had to skip a couple bolts at the end. I wanted to shout “Take” sooo badly, but again, I had to represent for Colorado, so I sucked it up and tried to pull through. I would grab a hold, have no idea how big the hold was, if I had it well, or if I had the strength to pull on it, and just crank up towards the next one and repeat. It was the strangest feeling—like watching someone else climb. At each move I half-expected to pitch off into the void, but fortunately the holds were big enough to scrape through. It was easily my most desperate 5.10 lead of the last decade!

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The view from the top of the second pitch into Paradise Valley.  The big broad peak is Mt. Aberdeen.

Finally I reached the luxurious ledge atop the 2nd pitch. I mumbled to Jeff that I needed a minute, curled into the fetal position, and experienced the worst case of the screaming barfies I can remember. After a minute or so of agony I could feel the blood coursing back into my hands. Within a couple minutes they were back to normal and I was good to go for the rest of the climb. Jeff came up quickly and offered to let me lead the rest of the route since he had previously led all the pitches. I happily agreed and set off for #3.

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Starting up the third pitch. Note the puffy! Photo Jeff Moore.

The third pitch is relatively straightforward except for a big roof in the middle. This obstacle is awkward and scrunchy, but ends in killer jugs, once you can reach them. I hesitated a bit, unsure how to tackle it, but eventually unlocked the sequence. The fourth pitch was hands-down the best. It climbs right on the arête the entire way, often using the arête as a hold. The exposure and setting are spectacular, and it offers a tricky crux just below the summit. It’s one of those sequences that is at first perplexing, and so that much more rewarding once you figure it out.

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Starting up the premier fourth pitch. Photo Jeff Moore.

I cruised up the slightly chossy last few feet (despite appearances, the only bit of poor rock on the climb) and balanced my way up onto the summit block. The views were spectacular, despite the sub-par weather. The route was truly fantastic, with excellent rock throughout and engaging climbing, surpassed only by the incredible setting. The stone is really varied and so is the movement, with each pitch offering something unique. It’s truly a world class route at the grade.

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Jeff on the summit (that lump of rock to the left is another formation west of Grand Sentinel.

One of the most common questions I get is whether or not I am still able to enjoy “easy” climbs. Absolutely! I just plain love climbing, and I love it at any grade. Certainly, more difficult things can be more engaging and offer a bit more to sink my teeth into, but I will always love being in the wild, moving over stone, in whatever capacity the day has to offer. This was an incredible day in the mountains, up a stellar route, on a spectacular feature, with a great new friend. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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Rigging the first rappel from the top of the fourth pitch, just a few feet below the summit of Grand Sentinel.

We made the descent without any issues and worked slowly back up to the pass. For one brief moment the sun peeked through the clouds to shed a glimmer of warming light onto the Grand Sentinel. It would have been nice to see the sun while we were climbing, but we were happy to have the tower the way we did—with the entire valley to ourselves and an unforgettable experience to go along with the tick.

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Also, we saw a Gorilla (the North Face of Mt. Fay).

Just below the south side of the pass I was stunned to meet Kate, Logan and Amelie hiking up. This was easily the hardest hike Logan or Amelie had every attempted, and considering the weather I was certain they would have bailed. Kate and Logan continued to Sentinel Pass while Jeff and I continued down with Amelie. A couple hours later we all rendezvoused at the Moraine Lake Lodge for a well-earned cup of hot chocolate.

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Isn’t it fun when you run into someone you know? Kate and Logan just below Sentinel Pass.

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My little geologist Amelie collecting rocks at Moraine Lake.

Exploring the Tre Cime

By Mark Anderson

As we wandered over the many passes and marveled at the gob smacking peaks of the Dolomites, I definitely got “the itch” to climb something big. I’ve become a true sport climber over the last decade, especially since my kids arrived, but it hasn’t always been that way. I was first drawn to climbing by a love of the mountains and a desire to stand on top of the snow-capped volcanos I could see from my childhood home. That led to many adventures on the big walls of Yosemite, the alpine peaks of the Canadian Rockies, North Cascades and more remote areas of Alaska and Canada.

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The Tre Cime di Lavaredo from the VF De Luca/Innerkofler tunnels.  From left to right: Cima Piccola, Cima Grande, and Cima Ovest.  Also known as the “Drei Zinnen” (in German).

I wasn’t prepared to do any proper multi-pitch climbing, nor was I interested in ditching the family for an entire day, but the Via Ferrate offered the opportunity to do something that would normally require a partner and a long day in just a couple of hours. Hands-down my favorite day in the Dolomites was the day we explored the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. These “three summits” are notorious among adventure climbers, and have figured notably in the history of alpinism across many decades.

Cima Grande, the central and tallest of the trio, was the first to acquire notoriety with Emilio Comici’s 1933 ascent of its North Face, which is now regarded as one of the six “Great North Faces” of the Alps (along with the north faces of the Eiger, Matterhon, Dru, Grandes Jorasses & Piz Badile). The incomparable Walter Bonatti left his mark in February 1953 with back-to-back winter ascents of the Cima Ovest and Cima Grande. In 2001, gymnastic free-climbing took center stage on Cima Ovest when Alex Huber established his gob-smacking roof climb Bellavista (5.14a) , followed by Pan Aroma (5.14b) in 2007. More recently, the peaks featured briefly in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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Early on the trail to Rifugio Lavaredo.

We had a big day planned with lots of hiking, exploring, and some Via Ferrata. We arrived at Rifugio Auronzo at sunrise and struck out for the Rifugio Lavaredo and the Forcella Lavaredo pass just above. The trail winds around the unremarkable southern sides of the Tre Cime, and is more like a graded road with a few patches of snow here and there. Some liability-minded authority had barricaded the road with a small hand-written sign that warned: “Danger Street.” Fortunately I thought to bring an ice axe and helmets for all, so we were pretty much prepared for anything (ironically, on the return hike a washing machine-sized boulder spontaneously cut loose from the steep scree slope above and tore through the “danger street” only a few hundred yards in front of us—fortunately Kate thought to yell “ROCK!” and nobody was hurt).

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The “Danger Street” warning sign.

We made quick progress to the pass where we got our first clear view of the north faces, and they were incredible! We hung out for a while snapping pictures and assessing the snowpack. Our ambitious “Plan A” was to complete the VF De Luca/Innerkofler. This uber-classic route cuts along, over, and through the Tre Cime-adjacent Monte Paterno (thanks to a series of war-time tunnels and lots of wire).

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Monte Paterno, just left of center, from Forcella Lavaredo.  The Rifugio Locatelli is barely visible on the left.

The standard approach is to traverse the west slope of the mountain to the Rifugio Tre Cime-Locatelli, then clip into the wire for the return trip over and through the mountain. This slope, and pretty much the entire basin below the Tre Cime, was packed with snow, so we ditched Plan A. The usual exit route from Monte Paterno was only a few hundred yards from where we sat, so we roped up, strapped on our helmets, and set off to do the route in reverse, out-and-back.

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The Tre Cime in profile, from the start of the VF DL/I tunnel system.

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In one of the tunnels on VF DL/I.

The route is immediately interesting with a 50-foot stretch of dark tunnel (and in this case, somewhat snow-packed, with an icy floor and wet, dripping roof). The tunnel ends with long stretches of exposed ledges that were carved in the rock. We snaked around several ridges until we were stopped cold by a couloir filled with snow. We decided this was a good spot for the kids to turn around, but Kate generously encouraged me to continue.

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On the wire after the first tunnel section.

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Kate and the kids at the exit of a short tunnel (in the lower left).  The snowfield to the left is actually part of a snow-filled couloir that forced them to turn around.

Beyond the couloir the terrain eased again, then turned the ridge to the east side which was spectacularly bathed in morning sun. I made quick progress until I came across a big steep snowfield several-hundred feet high. It was pretty hard to follow the path at this point (and impossible to clip in since the cable was buried), so I just front-pointed straight up the slope using my icetool and surprisingly-effective hiking shoes with “ice cleats”.

Eventually I topped out the snowfield and got a nice view down the northern slope to Rifugio Tre Cime-Locatelli, which, predictably, was even more snowy! There was no way we could have completed the loop-route as planned in these conditions. However, if not for the snow, I think the kids would’ve had a good shot of making the summit, at least as an Out-and-Back the way I did it. The climbing is loose in places but never very difficult and the vertical-ish sections are only a few feet long.

From the col, it was only a couple hundred feet of snow-free climbing to the glorious summit. The views of the Tre Cime were phenomenal—it’s the perfect vantage point to admire these legendary north walls. I snapped a couple pics then hustled back down the route, even enjoying some glissading on the way down.

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The Tre Cime from the summit of Monte Paterno.

When I returned to Forcella Lavaredo the family was gone, but I could make them out at the Lavaredo Hut a few hundred feet below. By then the place was teeming with tourists, a stark contrast to the solitude we enjoyed at 6am. I wasn’t ready to return there quite yet—I still wanted to get a climber’s view of the big north faces, especially the massive roofs of Cima Ovest.

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The Tre Cime from Forcella Lavaredo.

Half-running, I traversed rapidly across the snow-covered slope.   Like most big walls, they weren’t quite as intimidating from directly below, but I was stunned by the poor quality of rock. Cima Grande in particular was a spider web of fractures, towering like a brick skyscraper without any mortar. I could see how face climbing on this wall could be both unlimited and terrifying at the same time. There’s a neo-classic 8a free climb on the left side of this wall that I can only imagine would be mentally ravaging.

On the right side, the classic lines of the Comici route and its variations weaved between ledges, linking weakness to reach a massive and drenched chimney. Physically, it was easy to see how a route here was possible, but it was hard to imagine venturing up on such a face with 1930’s-era equipment and techniques. Even with modern equipment, I cannot honestly say the route looked appealing. Still, I’d love to do it someday, with a Gore-tex jacket!

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Looking up at the North Face of Cima Grande, from the couloir between Cima Grande and Cima Ovest. The classic Comici route roughly follows the series of gray/black ledges, up into the long, wet black streaks.

The toe of Cima Ovest’s north face is a couple hundred feet lower than that of Cima Grande, and figuring the kids must have been getting restless, I stopped short of traversing all the way to its base. From the couloir between the two peaks I had a nice profile view of the big roof of Bellavista, and it looked spectacular. This wall is also known for poor rock quality, but from this vantage point it looked significantly better than the stone on Cima Grande. I could only imagine what it would feel like to pull into the roof, some 50m out from the toe of the wall, and a couple hundred meters off the deck. Nothing else compares to it in the world, and someday I have to figure out a way to try one of these routes.

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Cima Ovest in profile.

If there is a key take-away from my time in the Dolomites, it’s that I have to go back! This is not the sort of place that can be absorbed in just two weeks. For the time being there are other places to explore, but I will definitely return here, in the fall, with a rack on my back and adventure in mind.

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More Sport Climbing in the Dolomites

By Mark Anderson

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Fantisilandia, 7a+, Becco d’Ajal

Now that I had figured out which characteristics to look for in Dolomite sport crags I was much more psyched for the upcoming crag days.  One crag that piqued my interest is called “Rio Gere” and was merely 4 Km from our Condo in Cortina. Though the book raved about it, a quick recon of the area left me skeptical.

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Rio Gere–a massive boulder in the forest just east of Cortina.

The cliff is a mixture of yellow, fractured stone and (at that time) heavily seeping pocketed flowstone. Since I was unsure of its quality, I left it for the afternoon of a big hiking day when I was already tired. I began the session with the old strategy of climbing the dry yellow stone, which went as expected—I sent everything, but felt dirty afterwards. I decided I would have more fun slipping out of muddy water-sculpted pockets than teetering up dusty choss, so I climbed a set of flowstone lines that all turned out to be incredible, despite the mud.

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Climbing rad (but muddy) flowstone pockets on Che Pizza, 7b+, Rio Gere.

I also learned that by taking my grade down a few notches I could pretty much climb through a shower head without falling, and when I clipped the chains I felt a real sense of accomplishment. There was no question—I was having more fun climbing the best rock, even if it was wet. That made the choice of the next crag obvious.

IMG_1774aEasily my favorite crag of the trip was Beco d’Ajal—a group of massive boulders just outside of Cortina. Of the crags I visited, this is the other contender for “best sport crag in the dolomites,” and really, the distinction would depend heavily on taste. While Laste is more of a vertical technician’s dream, Beco d’Ajal is all about the steep overhanging pockets. The best comparison I can think of is Sector Cascade at Ceuse. Though not as tall as Ceuse, the cliffs are completely covered in sculpted flowstone jugs.

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No Worries, 7a+, at Beco d’Ajal

The crag is guarded by a burly 45-minute uphill trudge, but it was well worth it. As expected, pretty much everything was wet, but by now I was quite used to climbing through it. The scenery from the cliff was spectacular, looking onto the Tofana Group and Cortina, and the climbing was incredible. If I had one day to be teleported to any cliff in the world, I would go there (when its dry!), Becco

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Fantastic, 7b+ Becco d’Ajal.

For our last day we were all pretty tuckered out, so I selected a cliff with a short drive and even shorter Approach. Crepe de Oucera (Alti) was not quite up to the level of the previous three crags, but it was really good. It’s a favorite of the Cortina locals thanks to its short approach and southern aspect. The climbing here is generally near-vertical with lots of pockets, reminding me of the more pocketed rock at Sinks or the less-featured walls at Ten Sleep. This felt like a more traditional European crag with easy access, well-worn stone and lots of options. Though only one route really blew me away (a 12b called Cuba Libre), it was refreshing to climb some high quality dry rock for a change.

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White Line, 6c+, Crepe de Oucera.

There were a number of other intriguing crags we didn’t visit due to seepage. If I return in drier conditions I would definitely make return trips to Beco d’Ajal and Laste, but based on what I saw, I’d also like to climb on these crags:

– Sass Dlacia: steeply overhanging walls of pockets

– Malga Ciapela: less-steep, techy flowstone

– Tridentina/Eiszeit: Overhanging pockets

– Cinque Torri: Well-traveled/historic collection of large boulders tilted in wild directions

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Cinque Torri

All told, I really enjoyed the sport climbing. Given the amount of rock and variety I think it’s a very worthy destination for sport climbers, certainly worth considering for those looking for a holistic vacation with options for other adventure-oriented activities. That said, try to visit in the Fall when the rock is presumably less wet!

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Fantisilandia, 7a+, Becco d’Ajal.

Coming Soon: more non-sport-climbing adventures in the Dolomites!

Sport Climbing in the Dolomites

 

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People Mover, 7c+, Laste.

By Mark Anderson

Despite its staggering collection of world-class, bolted multi-pitch lines, the Dolomites aren’t known for sport climbing. In fact I’d argue the sport climbing in the Dolomites is pretty much completely unknown, evidenced by the heck of a time I had finding information about it when I first set out. But I knew a range of thousands of (essentially) limestone peaks had to have a few killer sport crags sprinkled about. It was just a matter of uncovering them. As I suspected, they were there in abundance. Once I found them, the challenge was wading through the endless possibilities to identify the most-worthy crags.

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Rope-swing at Salares, with Passo Valparola on the right.

After scouring the internet, I collected a couple guidebooks. The Rockfax guide claims to be a combined Trad, VF and Sport guide. This book is absolutely stunning, and I recommend it to any climber visiting the Dolomites, for general orientation if nothing else. However, it is NOT a sport climbing guide. It only includes a handful of over-used crags, none of which seemed particularly appealing. I ended up using “Sportclimbing in the Dolomites” by Vertical Life. This book is short on details but provides the bare minimum needed to visit more than 50 distinct crags of all varieties, with text provided in three languages including English.

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Prepping the photoshoot at Salares. The cliffs of Val Badia are off to the left.

In the end we visited six different crags. I’d like to say we saw the best in the area, but it’s hard to know for sure when there are so many options. We arrived the last week of May, which is definitely early-season, and the biggest downside of this was that many of the best crags were seeping. In fact, all of the best crags were seeping. I dare say all of the best routes at all of the best crags were seeping! If you want to visit the Dolomites primarily for sport climbing, I’d guess early Fall is the best time to go, but we had to make the best of our window.

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La Chica Bonita, 7a+, Salares.

I started by looking for crags that promised to be dry. These were fairly easy to find (the yellow stone tends to be dry), but I quickly regretted this strategy. We visited two dry-ish crags in a row, Franchi (aka Scheweg) and Salares, and both were disappointing. Granted we arrived at Franchi in a rain storm, and were lucky to climb at all. Only a couple lines were dry, neither were remarkable, nor were we impressed by the appearance of the wet lines. The defining memory of that day was an interminable game of keep away we played with a local crag pup (I absolutely could not leave without my left Oasi—it was only the first day and those shoes are king on overhanging polished limestone!)

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Achtung Baby, 7a+, Salares.

Salares was a distinct improvement, but I quickly noticed a pattern—the dry yellow stone tended to be heavily fractured. I mean egregiously fractured! In fairness, I never broke any key holds, but it was unnerving to be constantly teetering on what appeared to be vertically stacked rubble. It certainly made me think twice about the alpine rock routes. The saving grace of Salares was the incredible view of Val Badia off to the left and an exciting rope swing. So after two days of disappointing rock, I decided we would go for what looked like the best stone, and just deal with whatever wetness we encountered. This turned out to be a great compromise.

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Laste.

We turned our attention to an incredible table-top of limestone below the Marmolada called Laste. Laste is in the discussion for “best sport crag in the dolomites.” The setting is idyllic, with stunning views of the north face of the Civetta, among rolling hills of lush green grass. The rock is excellent but…weird. It’s very reminiscent of the lower left cliff at Rifle’s Anti Phil Wall. The holds are generally angular pinch fins, with lots of underclinging and sidepulls, a few pockets and only rare horizontal edges.

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Trippa per Gatti, 7a+, Laste.

The rock quality was flawless, though spider-webby in spots due to lack of traffic (I even found a mini-scorpion in one pocket). The stone is very light grey making chalk virtually invisible and onsighting incredibly challenging. The west wall of the formation was pretty-much completely dry and the climbing here was phenomenal. All the routes were long, sustained, cerebral and rewarding. I really felt like I accomplished something every time I clipped the chains at Laste. This was also one of the only crags where we encountered other climbers, on a weekday no less, surely a sign of its quality.

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Cilum, 7a, Laste.

It took three days, but I felt like I finally figured out how to pick the crags. We still had most of the trip in front of us and now that I knew what to look for, I was really excited to check out some more incredible-looking dolomite crags….

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Picnicing at the Laste parking lot, with the north face of the Civetta in the distance.

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