A Fish as a present. Attraverso il Pesce by Maurizio Oviglia
A legendary rock climb as a birthday present: via Attraverso il Pesce, the Fish route up the South Face of Marmolada. A pretext to remember once again that climbing and alpinism are a never ending evolution between dreams and reality.
I understand that climbing Attraverso il Pesce, the Fish route, may well be the dream of a lifetime for someone born beneath the ragged Dolomite peaks, it might represent the epitome and culmination of a climbing career. But I, born and raised below Monviso in the western Alps, was attracted to other routes and the Dolomites seemed further away than California. In the modern era of internet, forums and facebook message boards, the climbers from the West and Wast poke fun at each other: the Westeners (this term makes me laugh now but back then that's how people were classified) provoke the others by saying that the Dolomites are nothing but loose slopes. A bunch of slabs, so smooth and slanted that you can drive up them on a motorbike! The others rebut, mentioning Val di Mello and the Orco valley, the hallowed ground of western climbing! This may sound daft, but back in the days when Italian climbing magazines were based in Turin it really was difficult to read about climbs carried out in the east, so close yet so far away. Climbing the Philipp Flamm route for a climber from Turin was already a massive undertaking and sufficed to then be able to say "I've been in the Dolomites, I even climbed a route there, but the rock quality, well... it's much better in the Calanques!" In 1981 it would have been nice to read about the route put up by Igor Koller and Sustr on Marmolada, but as it was at the time Giampiero Motti looked to the west, to the Vercors, to California and the Verdon Gorge. And so we put a headband in out hair and started to climb cracks, entirely forgetting about what was happening in the east...
Yet one September 30 years ago I found myself hanging out at the Sella Pass, right in the middle of a meeting for instructors of the Italian Mountaineering Club. I'd just finished school and my ideas about what to do with my life were rather confused, and so I mingled with feigned indifference among those "pataccati" all dressed in red, hoping that someone would notice me... Being a little cheeky sometimes works wonders and in the end I exclaimed: "anyone here up to a bit of climbing?" And so, aged 20 precisely, I climbed my first route in the Dolomites, via Abram on Ciavazes, followed by Maria on Pordoi, back in the days when the cable car return was still free of charge. "So do you like the Dolomites?" whispered the instructor from Bergamo. "Yes, and I'd like to do some great climbs" I replied to which he said "You can come with me if you want, I've got another week off, we can repeat some classics. Let's meet up on Saturday in Val Brembana and we'll trave together..." I felt I'd won the lottery, but things turned out differently and I've got a terrible recollection of that week. My parter, a talented climber with an enviable curriculum, probably needed to solve some problems with himself or his family. Something that, for a 20-year-old mountain junkie, was absolutely incomprehensible!
As a starters we chose Via Comici on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and after a few pitches my tutor climbed off route onto a variation. These things happen, nothing serious, but at the next belay he said "I'm sorry, I've never climbed off-route before, I'm not in the right frame of mind, if you don't mind I'd prefer if we bail." For me it was like being hit by a hailstorm, well that at least would have given us a good excuse to abseil off! After a day hanging out at Canazei he suggested the Conforto route up the South Face of Marmolada. I was in seventh heaven, I was about to climb the rock face of all rock faces! Admittedly 30 pitches of chimneys, but a great outing nevertheless! We ascended to Rifugio Falier, quickly ate dinner in the dimmed lights of the hut and then went to sleep beneath a pile of blankets in the full dormitory. When the warden woke us up my climbing partner sheepishly exclaimed "I'm sorry, I don't feel up to it, I don't wanna go. I've got to think about some things." Once again the world collapsed around me. Completely pissed off I left the hut and raced up to Passo Ombretta. Marmolada lay there in front of me, a silver sheet, unattainable and now devoid of any meaning whatsoever. I wouldn't be able to climb up her and who knows when I'd get another chance! I vented my anger on the wind and returned to the hut far calmer. I couldn't even get angry at my climbing partner! We descended to Agordo and my partner finally recovered. "I'd like to climb via Andrich up Punta Civetta" he told me. Whatever, I replied, the important thing is that we climb something! Needless to say we never set off for Civetta... I let bygones be bygones and forgot the Dolomites for a good half of my life...
15 years later it was Rolando Larcher who brought me back to the east. I've never been in love with the Dolomites and they certainly aren't my first love, but having the opportunity to discover them with a partner like Rolando - a man used to acting before speaking - meant that I'd certainly discover their charm. In truth I'll probably never fully understand the relationship that a local has with these peaks, but for a foreigner it's easy to get taken in by the climbing history and, sooner of later, you feel the irrepressible desire to repeat the great classics you've read about a thousand times in the mountaineering books. Rolly has climbed in the Dolomites since he was a child, has made countless first ascents here, in short, these mountains are his "home". As for me, well, I've only recently learnt how to distinguish Tofana from Monte Pelmo and understand where the Tre Cime di Lavaredo are located, even if you can't see them from anywhere! Yes, for me the Dolomites is a world just waiting to be discovered! Come on Rolly, take me to Marmolada, any route will do, perhaps Tempi Moderni as starters. Come off it, you've been up there hundreds of times, has established just as many! It's not as if I'm asking you to be my guide! Just a route together, a day out on this face to finally live out one of my childhood dreams
Even if I'd never climbed on Marmolada, in all these years I'd nonetheless remained informed about what was going on. And if there's one route that bordered on perfection, both in terms of beauty and style, and that therefore fuelled my dreams, then its Tempi Moderni, Modern Times by Heinz Mariacher. But why not il Pesce, the Fish route? is the reply I always got from those with whom I shared my thoughts... The Fish is a great route, I'd reply, but it was partially first ascended with the use of aid! I want to climb free, do a route that was first ascended free, not something that was climbed with the help of hooks and aiders! I've probably always had a partial view, or biased if you prefer, of climbing and alpinism, but we are all products of the air we breathed when he first started to climb, no? Formed and shaped by the books we read, what we experience first hand, by our personal legends and masters. Well, I started climbing in Val di Susa, just as the western wind blew strong, just as we began to realise that there was a big difference between resting on pegs and failing. Every time we climbed we tried to climb everything free, giving it everything we had, regardless whether we were leaders or climbing as seconds, and every peg we pulled on was regarded as a defeat. This is how things remained for years to come... Climbing a multi-pitch with A0 or a rest meant not having sent the route, surely it would be better to climb an easier route all free, no? I realise that not everyone feels this way, that in the mountains many prefer to "do" things no matter how... But that's not for me: I could have done many hard routes, I mean wel beyond me, but what's the point if I don't do them free? I even missed out on some, of course, but I say this without being ashamed... And in the past some have told me: "You're exaggerating, it's not as if we're at the crags." But maybe they haven't taken in that air of revolution that blew throughout the early eighties, at the crags and in the mountains? Or perhaps those lessons have been lost or perceived and interpreted only by today's top climbers? Are all others exempt from this? While others rebuke, somewhat annoyed replies: well I'm certainly no pro! I'm a Sunday climber! But what's that got to do with this? Surely an amateur should, all the more so, choose things that are within their reach. Or am I wrong?
So when Rolly said, OK, let's do the Fish route, I began to feel uneasy. I'll never manage to free climb it all, wouldn't it be better to try something a bit easier? But the Fish route is the Fish route and an invitation like this, that only comes along once in a lifetime, simply can't be refused! So here we are, at 5:30am, two teams at the start of this famous route. "Do you feel the hole in your stomach as you look up?" Rolly asks me. " No, not yet. All I feel is my rucksack weighing me down! And my worry of saving enough energy to get to the top!" The first pitches are described as being poor but, all things considered, they're fairly pleasant and the rock isn't too bad. Higher up I even get to lead some pitches and I suddenly find myself catapulted into this ocean of slabs without knowing in the slightest where to go. On my harness, as my partner had requested, there weren't any aiders, pegs or cliffhooks, just a rack of friends and nuts, because this is how Pesce is climbed nowadays... So you need to invent things, comprehend, enter into the minds of those two who forged this line in 1981. In this ocean one pocket is just like the other, but I've never placed a tricam before, and I've always placed friends driectly into cracks, certainly not pockets! "How are things going" Rolly shouts from below... "I'm trying to fill that famous hole in my stomach!"
Between one pocket and the next, yet another flashback. To Christmas 1983, in the Verdon, on Pichenibule. Three of us were on the starting ledge, deciding on who would climb what Daniel said: there are 8 pitches, the two of us will climb seven, all you've got to do is climb one, the bombè roof. I naively think is a great idea and accept. I second all the pitches and even have fun, Pichenibule isn't that terrible after all... But later, on that damn pitch that I had to climb, I really did see the stars! I risked a 15m drop (which my friend later took) and with my fingertips I grasped for a yellow sling that was clipped to a small overlap. My feet smeared on the smooth slab and while I got ready for the fall into the void I somehow managed to curl one finger into the sling. I don't think I've ever been so scared in my entire life. Nowadays that section has been bolted, but at the time it was 6c, 6c+ obligatory climbing... And to think that I'd never sent 6c at the crag and there was no mention of this in the guidebook! Now though it's common knowledge, Ron Fawcett even confirmed it in his biography, the French liked to pull people's legs... and if you weren't a local climber or called Fawcett or Livesey you were in trouble! But, I thought, Pichenibule was in part established from above, and with bolts! And is darn similar to the Fish route. So why did I admire Pschitt's courage and not that of Koller and Sustr?
And yet I managed to climb it, even the flare corner, admittedly as the second and risking huge pendulums fearful (I'd clipped my rucksack to one of the two ropes an the thin half-rope that I was tied in to was only clipped to half the gear), but I hadn't rested yet. So I began to think that I might manage after all. To climb the Fish route free, the dream of all dreams, would it be possible for even me to do this? Higher up my energy inevitably began to ebb, the needle showed I was in reserve and I started to get cramps. After the wonderful niche the real crux hits you like a sledgehammer, a terrible 7b+ traverse. I clung on with my teeth even, my feet were so painful from having smeared on nothing all day and thanks to Rolly's precious beta I managed to climb this section without falling, too. Dodgy traverses, rounded cracks, we really didn't understand how Hansjörg Auer had even thought of carrying out a solo climb like this. Truly out of this world! Higher up, by now exhausted, Rolly asked me if I want to lead again. It's an upside down crack that needs protecting entirely. Stuff that, were it in Valle dell'Orco, I'd dispatch with before breakfast. But now I had little gas left in my tanks and my arms as heavy as lead. But somehow I clung on, out od desperation, and reached the usual bunch of slings and rotten pegs at the belay. My partner continued to the ledge and even he, who has experienced a thousand adventures in the mountains, was exhausted. He wedged a knee into the last overhang, like on a sports climb. I need to do the same I tell myself... surely I won't fall here, and ruin the entire route? 6c crack, well protected.... But what sort of fu... 6c is this?
At climbed taking things easy and reached the ledge at 19. Too late to continue as planned, and anyway the others were waiting for us at the niche to abseil off together. My "Fish all free", having been climbed mainly as a second, is nothing special, simply a bet against myself. The talented ones are others, Koller and Sustr in the first place, those like Heinz Mariacher and Bruno Pederiva who first had the vision to free the little aid there was, those who managed to lead and onsight the entire route, and last but not least that madman who soloed it all. Having said that, what ultimately counts is giving it all you've got and today I really did have very little energy left and managed to climb banking on "experience only"! Who knows, perhaps if I'm fitter, and now that I know where to go and where to place the gear, perhaps I'd even manage to lead it all. Perhaps even free... but it would be the second time, and a bit of magic would be lost. But that's a different story and one needs to accept presents for what they are, and today really surpassed all my dreams! Thanks Rolly, I'm now indebted to you for life, what a nice present you gave me for my 50th! Hey, let's just say we're quits now for when I belay youd on that route you craved to redpoint, that line that was impossible for me, OK? I, we do the same with the time that I went with you to make you crave the redpoint , on a street impossible for me, okay? Ha ha!
TOPO: Attraverso il Pesce, Marmolada, Dolomites