Do you crave big trad climbs? Do you want something that gives a real mountain day out, combining a sense of history, climbing variety and ever-changing vistas, yet all at the amenable grade of VS? If so, look no further - Craig Cook has the answer.
Imagine enjoying pitch after pitch of exquisite moves. Gradually making your way through majestic rock architecture via the occasional piece of historical protection - a relic of previous passage of so many hands and feet. Your solitude on these limestone towers only broken by the gentle tinkle of roaming cow bells across the lush green alpine meadows far, far below. It’s everything a British adventure climber should want, but strangely Dolomite climbing seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years. So here to whet your appetite for the coming season are five classics to inspire, and a hearty dash of hard-won local knowledge.
It was a trip six years ago to tackle some of the sterner Via Ferrata that really opened my eyes to the jagged horizon of peaks here. These well-equipped iron-ways gave an introduction into the deceptive topography of the rock walls, first appearing vertical and unforgiving but in fact strewn with features; ledges, aretes, slabs and chimneys. I’ve returned each summer since, discovering the many delights within the Dolomites range, from the mighty Tre Cime di Lavaredo and secret Cadinspitzen in the east, to the more central, orange giants of the Tofana group overlooking Cortina. Then further west is the king-sized glacial Marmolada, the Cinque Torri playground and the twisting Sella Pass with its infamous three towers. And just a stone’s throw away to the north, east and south of here stand the majestic peaks of the Val Gardena, Sassolungo and Catinaccio areas.
It’s an immense playground popular with Austrian, German and Slovenian climbers, but pretty devoid of UK visitors. Perhaps an unjustified reputation for loose rock and hazardous descents, coupled with a general lack of English guidebook or magazine coverage puts people off. But where else can you recuperate après-climb at your hut or valley base with a glass of Forst, watching the sun set across today’s route as you eagerly await the delights of fresh pasta and pizza emblazoned with the legendary speck ham?
Stepping through history
It is fair to say that for the most part, the climbs here are far from demanding by modern standards. Any modest VS climber with sound multi-pitch and/or alpine experience and the ability to move quickly over ground with minimum protection (apart from the in-situ pegs and plentiful natural thread and nut placements) will be in their true element. And treading in the footholds of legends such as Comici, Dibona, Trenker, Preuss and Dimai is an ultimate pleasure - they had a wondrous capability for unlocking passages through these peaks. Each line is rarely without a notorious crux pitch, which all too often keeps you wondering for the majority of the ascent until its arrival. But when it does, often at the point of no return, its usually quite amenable. We’ve got sticky rubber and advance protection to thank for that.
Each spring I duly create a tick list of intended daily classics for that year, each route being worthy of a single trip alone. The lines ever enchanting; steep faces with pocketed holds, delicate airy traverses avoiding the major hurdles above, and juggy cracks and chimneys that always deposit you on welcome summits. So why not join me this year? Here are five classics, an introductory and progressive tick list for any future daring Dolomite debutant. Come on - what are you waiting for?
Piz Ciavazes, 2831m
South Face, Little Micheluzzi route (IV+/V-)
A sunny introductory climb. Situated below the Sella Pass, Piz Ciavazes has a magnificent southern wall below its Chamois Terrace, or Gamsband, containing many classic lines. The Little Micheluzzi is just a 15-minute approach from the road, and has 8-9 pitches in its 300m height. The climbing is steady up to the steep, central wall which then offers UK 4b/c moves in exposed positions. Just as you get accustomed to it, you emerge onto the wide terrace and the busy road now seems far below as you take the spectacular hour-long traverse left along the terrace to abseil back to the roadside.
Punta Delle Cinque Dita, 2998m
Thumb North Ridge Traverse (IV)
From the Sella Pass (2180m), your eastern horizon is filled by the majestic trio of peaks in the Sassolungo group. Two massive peaks stand astride of the dwarfed and central Punta Delle Cinque Dita, itself 3000m in height. The Cinque Dita (five fingers) is well named, as its north-south ridge is made of five proud rock towers. Your objective is the most singular of these towers, commonly known as the Thumb. Starting from the very doors of the delightful Toni Demetz Hut and its neighbouring cable car station, this provides over 250m of climbing. The climbing is quite amenable - at around UK 4a at its hardest moments - however the exposure is breathtaking with the northern snow-filled couloirs behind and the opening Marmolada glaciered vista in front. A summit gendarme is turned before you reach the final belay and a choice - to descend or continue to traverse the other four fingers.
Sasso Levante (Grohmannspitze), 3126m
South Face, Dimai Route (IV)
Cinque Dita’s big brother is the mighty Sasso Levante or Grohmannspitze. Its 500m south face towers over the town of Canazei and is our next classic tick. The hour and a half approach walk ensures solitude on this soaring, clean line. Its first ascent took over 18 years, before Antonio Dimai finally found a breakthrough to the overhanging roof sections - now forebodingly known as “The Man Trap”. Again the climbing is consistent around the UK 4a/b grade. However there is a feeling of isolation and commitment, and it would be easy to become intimidated at times by the surrounding scenery, route finding, exposure, and long pitches with little protection other than ample threads. Once you’ve commenced the delicate hand traverse right to gain the infamous “Trappola Umana” there is a feeling of walking the plank - much like on our very own Tower Gap. With modern peg protection the bark is worse than the bite but you still only have just passed halfway and will need to keep your foot firmly on the gas as once you reach the summit the descent is as committing, exposed and not obvious. In fact I recall that oblivion was lurking at the end of each rappel. Keep focussed until you reach the col with Cinque Dita and finally make the couloir descent in search of carbohydrate overload in the valley.
Cima Grande, 2999m
South Face, Normal Route (III)
The Tre Cima di Lavaredo or Drei Zinnen group is a legendary set of peaks. They protrude from the moraine like huge molars, each with a chillingly overhanging north face. However for us lesser mortals there is still plenty of opportunity, none more so than the magnificent South Face of Cima Grande. With over 450m of ascent incorporated into 20+ pitches, this route although tame in grade at HVD should not be under estimated, and a first light start is highly recommended. Depending on your confidence much of the route can be either soloed or you can move together to save on the clock. Anyone attempting to pitch all 20+ pitches is likely to have a torrid time and get caught up in the descending traffic too. But a confident approach will pay dividends and ensure you have plenty of time to take in the summit panorama before retracing your steps for tea and medals in the hazy afternoon sun.
Gran Piz da Cir, 2592m
South East Ridge, Demetz Route (V+)
The first four classics could be called obvious, but even to seasoned regulars my final candidate may be unknown - it’s a real hidden gem. It’s unlike any of the previous routes and I only discovered it when our tick list plans were abandoned last September when a massive dump of snow left us freezing under the Vajolet Towers. We needed to find sub-2700m routes and fast, so ended up running north to the Gardena Pass with a sample copy of the new Alpine Club Dolomites guidebook to defrost on a few Via Ferratas. There we saw the impressive Gran Piz da Cir, the daddy of this range and we sat below it, feeling the need. It’s an impressive peak with a subsidiary tower on its south east ridge and later that afternoon we found a topo lurking in a souvenir shop - our destiny was set. The route gets going from the off with steep crack climbing to belay under an overhanging canopy. The crux is then clear to see - a well-pegged overhanging niche offering a break right in the roof. A bold approach is required (UK 5a moves, worse case A0), then you’re free, confronted with good holds up a steep wall to the top of the tower above. A short 15m abseil then deposits you off the tower and beneath the 250m summit headwall, the climbing is again steep and at times intimidating, but good holds and protection abound. Before long you’re in the swing of things as the huge summit iron cross comes into view, and it’s time for a rather more gentle cable-protected descent home.
So when you’re racking your brains for your next summer rock adventure, don’t overlook the Dolomites. Make that long overdue trip and let your dreams rekindle themselves. Just remember to “feel the Forst”, and always “respect the Speck”. See you out there.
Northern Italy is well served by the likes of easyJet and Ryanair, and sometimes cheap charter flights. Head for the east (Treviso and Venice) or the west (Milan-Bergamo, Brescia and Verona). Hire a car (not that cheap, Hertz as good as any) and it’s usually a 2-3 hour drive to your chosen destination. For longer trips you could drive from the UK (approximately 12 hours).
The season is late June to mid-September depending on the area, altitude and the previous winter’s snowfall. However some ranges hold snow on approaches and in couloirs most of the summer. August is the peak Italian holiday period, but later in the month things ease off and it can be an ideal time to enjoy routes.
Italy must boast some of the best accommodation at altitude, and whether you use the private hotel-like huts or the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) refuges you’ll not be disappointed. Most offer a menu to rival your local restaurant, draught beer, and a truly welcoming greeting. The extensive hut network allows you to climb routes and then traverse to another hut within most areas. Camping is available although you’d be advised to book in advance since sites are scarce.
The lack of English language guidebooks has probably been instrumental in the decline in the Dolomite’s popularity, however this has been solved with:
The Dolomites West & East, Ron James, The Alpine Club. A definitive two volume selected guide.
Classic Dolomite Climbs
A perfect companion to the AC guide. Translated from the original German. ISBN 1-898573-34-4.
Both these guides are available in the BMC online shop.
Local guide Mauro Bernardi has also created two outstanding colour volumes in his Dolomiti series, one for Cortina and one for Val Gardena. Although only available in Italian and German they are quite simple to interpret, see www.val-gardena.com/maurobernardi. There are also a number of locally available guidebooks covering trad and sport, most with English sections. See and www.loboedition.de.
If unfamiliar with the Alpine/UIAA grading system, the grades can be a little confusing. In essence, Dolomite climbing requires steady progress with protection being taken when available, sometimes this can be just a handful of pieces in a 50m pitch. Comparison to UK traditional grades cannot be exact however a grade V route should be ideal for the VS 4c leader and a grade IV route applicable to the S 4a leader. Generally the “half-an-hour-per-pitch” rule will stand you in good stead, so start off within your limits before you get the measure of things.
You need to move quickly so streamline your rack. A good set of nuts is essential, perhaps supplemented with some smaller tricams for water worn pockets. Good threads are the staple protection on most routes, so you’ll require a selection of thin slings. Most crux moves and belays have pegs but leave the sport draws at home and opt for some of the extendable variety. Double ropes would seem sensible especially for the abseil descents, but personally I’ve found a single, thin 60m rope to be ideal. Rarely are the abseils more than 25-30m at a time and most of the ascent lines are pretty direct. You’ll also need your helmet, head torch and a comfortable pair of rock shoes. You will be carrying a rucksack, so a water bladder is essential to keep hydrated on the move, and we’ve found that small walkie-talkies save a lot of time in communication. Finally, a lightweight shell jacket helps to beat the breeze the higher you get.
The larger villages often have supermarket stores, while most towns will have gear shops offering most of your wants. Huts and refuges usually offer souvenirs, postcards, snacks, maps and some guides.
BMC member Craig Cook is a creative and marketing professional. As one of the next generation of members of the Alpine Club (AC), Craig used his design skills to assist with the newly published AC Dolomites East/West guidebook and is currently working on a selected Alps 4000m peaks guide.