Masada, Sass Maor, Dolomites: first free ascent by Riccardo Scarian
Interview with Riccardo Scarian who on 27/10/2009 climbed the second half of Masada on Sass Maor (Pale di San Martino, Dolomites), and freed the crux pitch at 8b.
In August Riccardo Scarian and Luca Boninsegna carried out the first ascent of "Skyluke for Alex" (7b, 300m) on Cima Canali at the Pale di San Martino, Dolomites. Scarian obviously developed an even deeper love and understanding for the area, so much so that just a few days ago he carried out the first free ascent of Masada, the fantastic route established in 2001 on the East Face of Sass Maor by Marco Canteri, Davide Depaoli and Samuele Scalet. Readers may be familiar with this line: in February we roprted about its first winter ascent at the hands of Rolando Larcher and Fabio Leoni. The route had one section of aid on the 18th pitch and Scarian has now freed this, believing it may be 8b. As he recounts in our interview below, he experienced a great, unforgettable adventure on one of the largest rock faces in the Dolomites. After 4 attempts starting last summer, Scarian has now succeeded in freeing a beautiful route up what he defines as being "his mountain", the mother of all rock faces in the impressive Pale di San Martino mountain range.
Masada, a jewel in its own right among the jewels of Sass Maor... How long had you thought about this route and what pushed you to try to free it?
Yes, Masada is a little gem, like almost all the routes on Sass Maor, the mother of all rock faces - at least here in the Pale di San Martino, but also further afield. Well, I'd thought about it for quite a while, since the first ascent in 2001. It hadn't been repeated much and everyone said it was a grandiose outing, exceptionally exposed, but everyone had to resort to aid to get past the crux section through the intense overhang on the fourth-last pitch... people immediately sait it might be 7c! This got me curious and got me thinking about giving it a go, perhaps even on-sight!
For those who don't know this face... can you give us an idea about Sass Maor and its routes?
Ever since I was a boy Sass Maor has been "the mountain", every time I went into Val Canali I remained enchanted by its imposing and majestic appearance. The east face is really imposing... It's a marvellous missile, 1000m high and the second half with its yellow overhangs is extremely worrying. All the routes on the east face are true masterpieces, never straightforward. Furthermore the approach and return from the routes are really long.
Now to Masada. 1100m hight difference, 1260m in length... can you describe the main characteristics of this big wall on one of the largest rock faces in the Pale di San Martino range?
As you mentioned, it really is a big wall! The east face can be divided into two sections, the lower and upper, split naturally by a long diagonal crack called "banca orba" climbed by Via Solleder. All the routes that start at the base of Sass Maor have relatively easy first halfs, no harder than 6b/c, and this holds true for Masada as well: up to here the hardest pitch is 6b and the grey rock is fantastic and extremely solid. In the upper section things become more interesting and the void beneath your a.. really is big, the technical difficulties soar relentlessly and even if on a couple of pitches the rock isn't "verdonesque"... on the whole it's OK. Even if Masada was first climbed with few "heretic bolts" it definitely remains an alpine outing in all effects.
Yes, the bolts... Masada was first ascended in 2001 by Marco Canteri, Davide Depaoli and Samuele Scalet. What do you think about the style of the first ascentionists...
I think they used a good style, they climbed from the ground-up and used the "heretic bolts" only on belays and where there was no other alternative. I think this is OK... no?
And what do you think about Samuele Scalet who did so much for Sass Maor?
I think Samule is a Great Man, and not only for the route which runs next to Masada established in 1964 with Giancarlo Biasin, but above all because he always lived the mountains with great humility and infinite passion. Marco Cantieri, his nephew, told me that during the summer of the first ascent, as they climbed Samuele set off laden with gear and he reached the route by soloing up the "banca orba", this included an exposed pitch up rock which isn't the best quality... and he was way older that 60!
What stages finally led to the first free ascent? What was your style and what were your objectives?
Well, as I said before I was very curious about the A1 crux pitch, I wanted to attempt it on-sight. Last summer the right moment finally came about and I set off with Marco and Walter. We decided to omit the lower section and go directly to the upper half. I quickly reached the crux pitch, concentrated and then set off but unfortunately at the third bolt I fell. I tried for a bit and realised immediately that it wasn't 7c... I worked the moves for an hour and in the end, exhausted, I managed to do all the moves except for one, but I saw that this was possible, too. It was late so we decided to continue, but it sufficed to give me an idea about the pitch, which I reckoned was about 8a/a+
What were the greatest difficulties?
The only difficulty is that the crux pitch is 800m above the ground and you need time, partners willing to climb with you, good weather and a lot of determination.
So it was just down to the grade?
No, it wasn't just a question of the grade. Knowing that no one had managed to free it was certainly a stimulus, but as I said before, Sass Maor is "the mountain" and every time I go there I'm really excited.
Can you explain to us what it means to free a bit wall like Masada?
Since there is only one difficult pitch the difficulties are concentrated exclusively in this point. On the rest of route you're fairly relaxed because the difficulties are far less (ranging from 6b to 6c+) than the crux. But the fact remains that the crux is up there, you're on Sass Maor, not down at a crag. What is certain is that had there been another two pitches like this, things would have changed... considerably!
Can you describe this crux pitch?
The crux is on the 18th pitch, 200m from the summit, it's a 35/45° overhang with the world beneath your feet! It's circa 15m long and after the first five meters the difficulties set in, there's a sequence of 15 intense moves on tiny crimps, slopers and small pockets, protected well by bolts (A1), of which one is really hard to clip.
Why did you settle down for 8b?
I initially thought it was 8a+, but after the winter ascent by the extremely strong duo Rolandone and Fabio (Larcher & Leoni Editor's note), Rolly told me about his experience on that pitch and so I began to think that perhaps the grade was a bit tight. And on my second trip there, after having tried it a fair bit, all doubts faded: Rolly was right! When I managed to do it I compared it to other routes and so I settled for 8b.
What's the most beautiful thing about your Masada?
Definitely the memory of the day when I managed to climb it! The weather was marvellous, clear skies, colours of both autumn and winter: if you looked down you could see red, orche yellow and the green hues of the most beautiful season, while if you looked towards Pradidali you could see the lake totally frozen over, snow all around it and above us an intense blue sky. Fantastic! When I sent the pitch I felt an emotion, an energy and happiness I hadn't ever felt before, so much so that I still can't fully explain why. Perhaps because I was up there... on my mountain.
A day like this should be recounted from start to finish...
It's 27 October, I'm with my friend Fabio Testa. The weather forecast has predicted clear skies and zero degrees at 3400m, but at this time of year the sun remains on the wall for only a short while and this worries me. Nevertheless I want to give myself one more chance, at worst we'd simply descend. We set off along the path in the dark, then as if in a magic spell the first rays of light touch the summit of Sass Maor... stupendous! We literally race up and at 11 we're already beneath the pitch but, err, the sun has already bid its farewell and it's cold. I try to warm up, OK... I'm ready. I set off, concentrated, but unfortunately I do exactly the same as I did with Paul a month previously, once again I fail to locate the foothold and down I go. Fabio lowers me, I pull the rope, rest a bit and then set off once more... I know this could be my last chance this year and I want to give it all I've got, I even consider skipping the really hard clip... OK, let's go! I reach the crux again, stretch as far as possible to see the foothold out of the corner of my eye, this time I get it and the next moves flow smoothly up to the biner. I don't know why but at this point I change plans and clip... perhaps I felt really in control. But immediately afterwards my arms feel like lead, all the warning lights turn on and I'm no longer capable of carrying out the sequence the way I'd rehearsed it. No! I can't fall here! Instinctively I improvise a new sequence with four dynos right at my limit and suddenly I'm on the lip, suspended above the void! An adrenaline powered scream is followed by a mix of emotions, energy and satisfaction, intense like I've rarely felt beforehand. Fabio congratulates me and I congratulate him. I really am a meter above the clouds, better still, a thousand meters above the ground... It's done!
One often talks about climbing, ethics and style... what type of climbing do you like?
Ethics...! For me this is synonymous with honesty. It's a great word but unfortunately not always put into practice. We live in a world where the biggest lie reigns supreme and this is a real shame... The climbing I like most is the one I do for myself, the one which has always given me exciting moments and satisfaction. A good example of ethics and style is Nico Favresse, simply a great person.
Particular thanks to Marco Canteri, Walter Tomas, Cristiano Simoni, Paul Loss and Fabio Testa who wanted to share this adventure with me. I would also like to thank Black Diamond, Gabel, La Sportiva, Montura, Revo.