Marmolada

The Marmolada: Tempi Moderni

For married couples like Caroline and I, “dating” usually has an entirely different meaning. Throw in a child, and just the term “dating” itself is like a distant memory from some far-off land. All things considered, we get out a lot—individually.  Most often it is for work (we’re both mountain guides), and we rarely get out and do things in the mountains together. Recently however, the stars aligned—read: babysitter, weather, work schedule—for my wife and I to get out for a classic climbing date. We had “gourmet” food, plus a “private room” all in a “romantic mountain location.” And yes, there’s a reason for the quotation marks.

We’d been talking over the summer about going to the Dolomites to climb the Marmolada, a limestone wall close to 3,000 feet high and stretching more than a half mile in width. It is certainly one of the most famous walls in the Dolomites and undoubtedly one of the great walls of the world. Our plan was simple on paper: Drive on Day One (8 hours) and approach the hut, climb Day Two, and drive back home on Day Three, hopefully in time for lunch?

Alas.

The long drive gave us time to flip through the topo and choose a climb. While our final decision would be based on crowds, we temporarily settled on a route: Tempi Moderni (“Modern Times,” 5.11, 900 meters).  This route was established in the late 1980s by Heinz Mariacher, a name that many people, especially in North America, may not know—but almost every climber has worn climbing shoes he has designed. To be honest, I fell in the latter of the two categories, but this route is known by many to be “the line” on the face, and far from the easiest way up. I was a bit intimidated that I had worked too much over the summer instead of climbing, but it’s not every day you get a perfect forecast and a motivated partner for one of the great climbs of Europe.

After a long drive, it felt good to stretch our legs as we approached the Rifugio Falier. The climb starts about an hour from the hut and we hiked up and left some gear so we could find the route in the dark the following morning. Our gourmet meal, very important on any date, came next with polenta, wild mushrooms, sausage, wine—everything you would expect from Italy! Sleeping in a dorm room with a dozen other people wasn’t the romantic suite we had envisioned, but hey, the trip wasn’t over yet…

Getting up early the following morning, we were surprised to see not one, but two, teams up and gunning for the same objective. We made our way up in the dark and arrived at the base with one other team. Everyone was friendly but, of course, busy sizing each other up. The other team casually told us how they had just done the classic “Fish” Route (Via Attraverso il Pesce, 5.12b, 900m) only a week before, one of the harder routes on the face, onsight no less. They were ready quickly and asked if they could go first. We conceded and I was quite happy to let some “local” climbers find the way on the route, which was known to have some tricky route finding. They set out while the third team arrived. This team informed us that they would each be leading the first pitch of the route, which was technically the crux, this way they could both claim the “true send.” Why not, I thought, with 900m of climbing you might as well get a good warm up…

While the first team climbed, I was busy making my own mental calculations. The locals had a piton hammer and packed an … ice screw? The ethics police had high performance shoes and was planning on running laps on the first pitch. And here we were, the middle-aged couple, parents, and I was wearing shoes marketed for beginners. Somehow, despite more than 20 years of climbing experience, I was feeling a little out of place. I even quietly suggested that perhaps we go for a different route, but it was too late. The second climber was already starting so it was my turn to go.

Once on the rock I regained my confidence, despite a quick pull on a piton that unfortunately I think the other climbers witnessed, and soon enough I was at the anchor with the first team. Our timing was good and soon I was heading up pitch two. Luckily, the pitch traverses a lot because as I was climbing, the first team dropped their pack. It was very close to hitting us, but the unfriendly “whoosh” of a falling object put me on my toes. If I wasn’t awake after the first pitch, I was now! The team, rather proudly I thought, decided they would go down and retrieve the pack then continue. I immediately thought: Great, now I get to route find.

I figured we wouldn’t see this team for a while as they lowered down off the route to retrieve the pack. We climbed a couple of pitches only to look down again and see the original team back on our heels! In some ways this helps motivate you to move a bit faster, but I was really hoping they would catch us and take over the route finding. Nonetheless, we made good progress and they stayed just behind. They were a friendly group and our timing worked well. By the time their second was arriving at a belay our second was climbing.

The pitches cruised by offering some exceptional climbing and positions. In 27 pitches of climbing there are a number of fixed pitons, but no bolts were placed. It may not sound impressive, but remember it is not a granite crack climb. The line follows natural features, but tackles some bold, steep, faces with seemingly little for holds—let alone anything to hold gear.

As I mentioned, I didn’t know much about Heinz Mariacher, the first ascensionist, but I know a bit more about him now. He was one talented rock climber, bold, visionary and had a strong feeling for clean climbing ethics. What I loved about this route most was although it has been done probably hundreds of times, there is still a lot of adventure to be had. The line is hard to find at times and there is not enough fixed gear to show you the way always. You still need to commit to moves, often unprotected, to see if you’re going the right way. There was, at times, some uncertainty—only a fraction of what the first ascensionists experienced, but these moments really make a climb stay with you for a long time.

As the day pressed on it was obvious that we would not make the last cable car down, but we wouldn’t get caught out in the dark, either. The last few pitches are quite steep, with poor belay stances and the gear is often quite spaced. These pitches seemed to take longer than they should, but we arrived at the summit of the feature to catch a bit of remaining sunshine before setting out on the descent.

You have three options for the descent of the Marmolada. One, you make the last cable car, which for $20 transports you effortlessly back to your car. Two, you bivy in an emergency shelter in the station and wait for the first lift, which comes up at 9:00 the following morning.  Three, you hike down the glacier in your sneakers to the pass, and hitchhike back to the car, which takes about three hours. To be honest, we hadn’t given much thought to the descent and figured we would just improvise. While option two was quite inviting, we still had some daylight left and thought we would just walk back to the valley and maybe get a hotel room to finish off our romantic date.

If you have ever been in a situation where you make a decision and quickly realize it was the wrong one, but you’re too lazy to correct your error, you might understand how we felt. The snow was in the shade and starting to refreeze, making the descent very delicate if you were, say, wearing sneakers. If that wasn’t bad enough, the snow soon disappeared and we were left to navigate hard glacial ice just in time for darkness to set in. The locals had told us an ice screw was necessary to get off the glacier and finally I was starting to believe them. Before one of us got hurt, we decided it was time to throw in the towel. There was a mid-station lift that we could traverse to and I had seen “Rifugio” labeled on a map. We would cruise over to this hut, spend the night and then take the lift down in the morning. With any luck, the food would be as good as in the hut where we’d stayed the night before!

Perhaps at some point there was a “Rifugio.” Or maybe “Rifugio” had a different meaning than what I am accustomed to, but we never found a hut when we arrived at the mid-station. What we did find was the wind. And, oh, did it howl. Considering how light we had packed, it was shaping up to be an interesting evening—a far cry from some chic Italian hotel that we had envisioned. The term “epic” was starting to come to mind, but we were thinking of two other teams that we saw on a different route on the face, who were a long way from the top and our situation didn’t seem too bad.

The lift station was locked up tight, but we did find enough space to crawl under a door into a run-down garage that housed a snow cat and some other heavy machinery (the north side of the Marmolada is a ski resort in the winter). I uncoiled the ropes and made a nest for us on the dirt floor, which promised to be uncomfortable at best.

Fortunately, my wife is smarter than I am and checked to see if the snow cat was unlocked. Luckily for us, it was and there you have it, our fine private Italian accommodation. We tried to convince ourselves that it was like sleeping in a plane, but I was quick to point out that it was going to be a long flight since we had more than 12 hours before the lift station opened in the morning! One thing I learned is that the seats on these machines are not designed for comfort, presumably so drivers at night are not prone to fall asleep. Nonetheless, we were protected from the wind. Things could be worse.

At first light the following morning we emerged from our honeymoon suite to get some sun on the south side of the station. We were joined by one of the other teams on the route who had spent a few hours trying to get off the glacier during the evening only to be thwarted by the last couple hundred feet of steep ice. They had spent the night trying to keep a fire going in some run-down shack close to where we were. We had some laughs and enjoyed the sun’s warmth after the chilly evening. When the lift opened we made it down to the car, and without pause started the long drive home.

Nice Italian meal: check. Private accommodation in a romantic setting: check. Unforgettable adventure: check. Not to mention some quality time doing what we love to do. All in all, it was a getaway that neither of us will forget for a long time and we managed to fit in all the criterial ingredients for a successful date. I would like to say that next time we’ll just check into a nice hotel by the beach for our romantic getaway but, more likely, there will be another adventure calling.

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