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21st pitch of Masada
Photo by arch. R. Larcher

Photo by arch. R. Larcher

Photo by arch. R. Larcher
Fabio Leoni and Rolando Larcher on the summit, with the shadow of Sass Maor cast onto Cima Canali
Photo by arch. R. Larcher
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Masada Sass Maor, first winter ascent by Larcher and Leoni


From 27 - 28 February 2009 Rolando Larcher and Fabio Leoni carried out the first winter ascent of via Masada (1260m, VIII, A0) on the East Face of Sass Maor (Pale di San Martino, Dolomites). The story by Larcher and video of the ascent.

There are few rock faces as beautiful as the East Face of Sass Maor. Few give the impression of climbing up an immense missile, 1200m directly into the sky. It was here that on 27 and 28 February the two Italian mountaineers Rolando Larcher and Fabio Leoni added the missing piece to the Masada puzzle by carrying out its first winter ascent. The route was first ascended in 2001 by Marco Canteri, Davide Paoli and 61 year old Samuele Scalet, one of the legendary climbers in the Pale range and perhaps one of the least famous. Masada is a beautiful 1260m high route with difficulties up to VIII- and an A0 section which still hasn't been freed. Larcher and Leoni needed two days and one bivvy for their winter ascent, to which another bivvy was added during the descent. As becomes clear from their report, the climb was marked by a sort of "light heartidness" which the two have matured during their adventures in the Dolomites and in Patagonia. Despite this lightness, the ascent was anything but a walk in the park...

by Rolando Larcher
The story about this winter ascent on Sass Maor started in 2006. Fabio Leoni and I are great friends and what we share is that primordial need for adventure which only mountaineering manages to satisfy. We wanted to break from the routine of every day life and decided to climb one of the biggest walls in the Dolomites, the East Face of Sass Maor. Of all the routes which reach the summit, only three climb the silver slabs starting from the base right at the bottom: the historic Supermatita first ascended by Manolo and the two splendid climbs ascended by Samuele Scalet, Onix and Masada. Supermatita had been climbed in winter by Lorenzo Massarotto while the other two remained unclimbed. We opted for Masada, the more difficult of the two.

We went for a reconnaissance in January 2006 and after having deposited our gear at the base we figured out how to go about things. We descended enthusiastically, ready to climb on the first occasion, but that winter it hardly snowed and while we waited for conditions to improve the season suddenly changed and spring arrived. During the two successive winters we decided to invest our energies in projects in Patagonia until this snowy winter, when finally this old project blossomed once again.

At the end of December 2008 we returned to the base of the route, this time though there were three of us as we were joined by Michele Cagol. He's a joint friend, my brother-in-law, Fabio's partner and, like us, academic of the Alpine Club. This was only a false start, important to leave a deposit at the base, judge the conditions and facilitate the next start with fixed ropes up the first three pitches plastered in snow and ice. Everything was set, all we had to do now was wait for a good weather window.

The waiting game is definitely the less fatiguing thing to tolerate, but it's unquestionably the most nerve-racking. It was a continuous procrastinating of hypothetical starts, an attempt to organise the thousands of family and work duties around the uncertain weather forecasts in one of the worst winters in decades, with the fear of being derided once again by spring. The last two days of February seemed to be the right ones, we decided to go for it. Unfortunately Michele came down with the flu: we hummed and hawed for a moment, but given our joint aversion to winter ascents in March, we departed heavy hearted, just the two of us accompanied by his "good luck".

We departed in the night from rifugio La Ritonda with small skies, snowshoes, head-torches and an enormous desire for action. It wasn't too cold, but it was windy and stormy up high. We reached the base at first light and were greeted by the first surprise: the cave where we had stashed out gear had disappeared beneath meters of snow. Fabio dived in head first, digging a tunnel like a mole and luckily he reached the gear bag. We jumared up the first three pitches and then the climbing began. I reached the next belay and told Fabio to unclip the haulbag. As I began to pull it up I suddenly heard him swear. I couldn't see what had happened and he told me that the rucksack had unclipped and fallen due to the swinging haulbag.

Fabio was furious but I took things philosophically, thanks to our fixed ropes we could still remedy this setback. I don't believe much in omens but perhaps this mistake might help us to keep worse things at bay. Fabio sped down and in an hour he was back again, panting for breath. The only thing missing from the rucksack were the pegs we had intended to use in an emergency. Who cares, this meant that we'd simply do without. We started the climb again, more concentrated then ever before since we still had plenty of climbing ahead of us, today we had to climb 14 pitches. This is where the route crosses the Solleder and thanks to Sameule we knew that this was the only place where we might be able to bivvy.

The rock was fantastic but the cold and wind slowed us down. Given the difficulties we should have been able to climb quickly but the pitches were extremely long, without any reference points, protected only by threads. It was easy to climb off route and miss the belays altogether. We climbed like robots, fighting and swearing at the haulbag which continuously got stuck. We missed some belays beneath the snow but finally, in the last light at 18.00, we reached the place we had aimed for. But it wasn't as we had hoped and we were disappointed: the ledge wasn't level, there was only a small snow slope.

Fabio said he had noticed a good niche slightly lower down, so we backed up the old belay and descended with our head-torches on to check it out. I know Fabio well and at times his great enthusiasm plays nasty tricks. So when we reached it, my disappointment transformed into dismay while I admired the niche where he wanted us to spend the night. By now it was late in the day, we were hungry and so, crouched over, we somehow managed to prepare something to eat. Once I had eaten I didn't resign to spending the night like that and jumared back "up". The layer of snow wasn't particularly thick nor was the snow particularly consistent, but I decided to dig until I managed to excavate something the size of a small mattress; I was safe! Perhaps it would be large enough for the housemate from "below", but he opted to sleep in the kitchen, the rock beneath his bum comforted him more!! I turned off the lights at 22.30, it was a shame that we'd sleep in two different places since bivvies are some of the best moments on a route, but tiredness quickly got the better of us.

The good things about east faces is that they provide breathtaking dawns and the one we saw on Saturday we'll remember for a long time yet. And the sun immediately kisses you and alleviates the shock when you get out of your sleeping bag. When I descended to the kitchen I found breakfast already served. Leoni's insomnia has its advantages. The day had all the makings of being fantastic, yesterday's darting wind had died down and the sun did its job in the indigo sky. 10 pitches separated us from the summit, the hardest ones, since the rock face now began to hang over, but the rock remained excellent in the best of Pale di San Martino traditions.

I continued on-sight to the fateful 19th pitch with its A0 section. I managed to climb past the first three bolts, but was then forced to give up. The difficulties, weight of the gear and the shade were simply too much. Freeing this section seems really difficult, according to Riccardo Scarian who attempted in last summer it's nothing less than a bouldery 8a+.

By now the shade had reached the face but this was still a thousand times better than yesterday's combination of sun and wind. We continued easily without further problems and reached the summit at 15.00, happy to be in the sun once again. We were surrounded by a natural wonder, it was a privilege to admire it... The mountains were enchanting, laden with snow like never before... Then, less poetically, we turned our phones on and attempted to share our joy with our apprehensive loved ones. We were surprised to discover that there was no signal, not only on the route but also on the summit and despite being right above Fiera di Primiero we couldn't even send an sms. Fortunately our guardian angels we watching us from below with binoculars, Gianpaolo Depaoli from the Ritonda hut and Manolo just a touch lower down.

We hesitated before going back down, enjoying the moment and storing heat by simmering slowly in the sun. In the end we descended without difficulties and reached out suspended beds just before sunset. We spent our last night on the wall feeling satisfied and relaxed. The stars accompanied the doziness, just like Fabio's hammer blows as he attempted to enlarge the "kitchen niche" just that bit more so that he could stretch his legs. Good night miner...

Dawn was a repeat of intense emotions, bad weather began to come in from the west but by now we'd done most of it and we abseiled unscathed to the base beneath a milky sun. Just one thing worried us: how to carry the heavy gear back down to valley? We looked at each other quickly and immediately found the answer....talk about being being a close-knit team... We filled the bag to the brim, chose the optimal path and, with our best wishes, let it roll down the gully. Watching it fall headlong towards the valley was the most exhilarating moment of the entire climb.

Many asked us why this sort of ascent and even we asked ourselves the same question. Many think that ambition is motivated by something greater, I disagree. Perhaps this was the case in the beginning when I was younger, but now, after so many intense and important experiences, ambition no longer justifies the effort. Winter ascents are experiences which few climbers still carry out, they belong to something antique, almost nostalgic, but they are at the same time truly fantastic adventures. It is precisely this desire for adventure where most of our motivation lies. From the need to evade, to put ourselves to the test and the need for natural environments which only winter renders uncontaminated and wild once more. Intense sensations and emotions which are addictive, which need to be renewed every once in a while, but always and only with one's best friends.

Rolando Larcher, C.A.A.I.





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