Tommy Caldwell and his intense Rätikon and Wenden climbing tour
Climbing in Europe from the point of view of ace American climber Tommy Caldwell who ascended a series of difficult multi-pitches in Rätikon, Val Bavona and Wenden, including the repeat of Portami Via which included the first ascent of a pitch variation.
Sport Climbing is Neither....or is it?
I was a child of the 80’s. When I was seven years old I loved a pair of purple tiger striped spandex and dreamed of growing a mullet. Sport climbing was just hitting the scene. In my home state of Colorado bolt wars raged. The new school ethos was that American climbers were falling behind. Europeans bolted steep faces and therefore found newer gymnastic style of climbing making them better. The old school thought bolts were a desecration of rock, a show of weakness. Climbing should be dangerous. If you are climbing above a bolt you are one of those spandex wearing, sport climbing pussies. And you shouldn’t have the right to call yourself a climber. “Sport climbing is neither,” they would say.
Yeah, sport climbing is the safe type of climbing… right. That is what I was telling myself as I looked down and saw my rope hanging free for thirty feet then gently arcing towards my last bolt more than 40 feet away. I looked up… no more bolts in sight and no possible place for gear either. If I fall here I am looking at a 100-foot fall that will leave me hanging 40 feet below my belayer. But it’s a free fall. I should be all right…maybe. It was beginning to sink in. The Wendenstock in southern Switzerland may be a crag of “sport climbs”, but its as real deal as any pure rock I have climbed. Where else is it the norm to climb overhanging 5.12 rock 30 to 50 feet above your last point of protection? Huge falls are standard and every bolt you come across feels like a gift straight from God.
Five ten choss in the Black Canyon has nothing on the this place. I thought to myself, I would love to see Leonard Coyne climb in the Wendenstock. Here the walls are sheer, blank and steep, and on many routes the first ascensionists don’t even bother to put in bolts unless the climbing is 5.12. On top of that, the routes are bolted ground up.
I had listened to harrowing tales of first ascents from one of my climbing partners for the trip, Fabio Palma. The local ethic is to venture up these faces with a few sky hooks, a tail line, and a strong faith that you will find a way to stop hands free. When you get to a stance or a hook placement you haul up a drill and place a bolt. Fabio believes that bolts should be placed “only when absolutely necessary” which is a very objective thing. So on these routes if a 50 meter pitch has five bolts it’s pretty weak sauce. Ten to twenty pitch routes can take years to bolt. I heard stories of broken ankles and broken backs, lowering from sky hooks when the drill failed to come free from the last bolt (Editor’s note: Caldwell refers to what happened to Della Bordella on Pitch 5 of Portami Via). These guys really love to be scared. I had to try it for myself. I partnered up with an easy-going young Italian climber named Matteo Della Bordella, a really amazing climber. We were most excited to climb in the Wendenstock, but weather forced us to go to the Rätikon. Not a bad second choice. The Ratikon was an early proving ground of this ground up, minimally bolted ethic. The routes are 1000 to 1500 feet tall and the rock is perfect. We warmed up by climbing the most sandbag 7c route I have ever done in my life; a route called Acacia that, despite being very famous, has yet to be on-sighted. Seven pitches took us more than eight hours. I had to redpoint a few of the pitches on our way down and we touched ground just as a thunderstorm hit.
After a few days of cragging in the rain we drove to the Wendenstock and found the cliffs topped with snow. We drove on to the town of Engelberg and climbed at a five star crag right off of a golf course. The next day we headed up to another 12 pitch 7c route called “Land ohne herren” located on the north wall of Titlis. The weather had been sunny for a few days so we decided that Wendenstock would be back in condition. With only two days left I finally got to visit the crag I came for in the first place.
I think something was lost in translation. I vaguely remember hearing some kind of warning from Fabio when he recommended Portami Via. When I was 50 feet run out on bad rock pulling 5.12 moves I was pretty sure he was trying to kill me. This time I had teamed up with another Italian climber named Luca Schiera for ten straight hours of death crimping. Bolts were so far apart and elusive that on one 7c+ pitch I never did find them and ended up climbing a variation by placing every cam I brought and (according to Fabio) the first nut ever placed in Wendenstock. I managed to climb the route without falling (thank God). To get down we rappelled the route and as soon as our feet hit dirt Luca immediately dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. When we got back to the camp I learned that Matteo and Fabio never did manage to send this one. (Editor’s note, Matteo had taken numerous 50 foot falls during which he injured his back). Only Uli Steck and partner Simon Anthamatten had managed a complete ascent. On one hand I felt a little sandbagged, but I am sure it was unintentional. I had grown to love my new Italian friends and the energy that adventure breathes into their lives.
On out last day Matteo and I climbed a 8a+ route called La Svizzera which was without a doubt one of the best limestone routes I have seen, as well as one of my better on-sight attempts to date. By this time I was getting more used to the idea of climbing miles above my last protection and was able to relax a little. I managed to on-sight through the crux 8a+ pitch as well as a few sporty 7c+ pitches. On the last hard pitch fatigue caught up with me and I fell. On my next attempt I fell again. Eight days of climbing out of the last nine were starting to catch up with me. I rested twenty minutes and managed to climb through the moves. We sprinted to the top and rapped just as another storm rolled in.
That night Matteo dropped me off at a train station and I rode the train back to Zurich to meet Becca. I walked into the train bathroom and looked in the mirror for the first time in a week. I was a little shocked to see sunken cheeks and protruding ribs. Many days of multi pitch climbing with big approaches had taken their toll. But I felt deeply satisfied and content. Big days in the mountains with new friends put a smile on my face every time. I have been dreaming of moving to Switzerland for a summer ever since. This trip was just a taste and I can’t wait to go back.
by Tommy Caldwell
TOMMY CALDWELL - EUROPEAN CLIMBING DAYS
Day 1, Val Bavona, Supercyrill, with David Bacci
Climbed free by Giovanni Quirici, David Lama, Matteo Della Bordella, Barbara Zangerl, Ines Papert, Tommy on-sighted the crux pitch (8a+, but according to Tommy in Yosemite this would be graded 7c), just like Lama, but needed two gos for the 7b+ and 7c+
Day 2, Rätikon, Acacia, with Matteo Della Bordella
Both climb this historic Martin Scheel route, never on-sighted previoulsy (in truth Manolo was unfortunare as a hold broke off the easiest pitch, the 6c...). Tommy sent two pitches second go, Matteo needed two gos for the final 7c+.
Day 3, Voralpsee, crag
Day 4, Claro, crag
Day 5, rest
Day 6, Engelberg, crag.
Day 7, Titlis parete Nord, Land ohne Herren, with Matteo Della Bordella
Both on-sight Land ohne Herren, 10 pitches up to 7c
Day 8, Wenden. Portami Via, with Luca Schiera
Onsight except for P5, where Tommy climbed off-route and instead he established (on-sight) a 30m 7b variation to the orginal 45m 7c+.
Day 9, Wenden, La Svizzera, with Matteo Della Bordella
Up to 8a+, Tommy on-sighted all pitches except for a 7c+, which he sent third go, while Metteo flashed this pitch and fell on the two lower pitches.
- Fabio Palma - Tommy Caldwell su Portami Via