Federica Mingolla climbs the Marmolada Fish route: interview after the first female all-lead ascent
On Sunday, July 17, 2016 Italy’s Federica Mingolla made a free ascent of the famous Fish Route (Via Attraverso il Pesce) on the south face of Marmolada, Dolomites. She is probably the first women to lead the entire route free. The ascent was carried out, together with Roberto Conti, in 18 hours and 27 minutes.
On Sunday, July 17 the immense south face of Marmolada experienced a particular occurrence: the ascent, led all free, by 21-year old Turin-based Italian climber Federica Mingolla of the Fish route, the legendary Weg durch den Fisch (Via Attraverso il Pesce) put up in 1981 by the "Czechoslovakians" Jindrich Sustr and Igor Koller. This is likely to be the first time the climb - which has become the symbol of the huge south face of the Marmolada in particular and the Dolomites in general - has been climbed in this style by a woman.
Mingolla climbed the route with Roberto Conti from Brescia. Setting off at 05:22, the two reached the famous fish-shaped niche at 13, an hour behind schedule. The crux pitches lead off from here but they made up for lost time and reached the huge ledge at 17:00. After a brief rest they continued upward, and the last three hours were climbed by the light of their headlamps. "The last part was very difficult" explained Mingolla "despite the relatively simple grade, but nevertheless the climbing still needed to be protected. The rock was wet, loose here and there and and sometimes icy. I even had trouble finding the belays." The summit was reached at 23:49, 18 hours and 27 minutes after having set off. The two bivouacked on the summit and descended safely on Monday morning.
Mingolla’s ascent ground to a halt briefly once only; she onsighted all 900m up to 7b+, except for a short section on the 6c pitch that leads to the niche. She fell here because she failed to see a foothold "hidden" beneath... a friend. She fell to the belay, then set off and climbed the rest of the route free.
Although the Fish route is no longer considered an extreme test by modern standards, it is still an extremely challenging and sought after outing, a route that has become legendary because of the beauty and logical nature of its climbing. First ascended from 2 to 4 August 1981 by Igor Koller together with 17-year-old Jindrich Sustr, after the 1984 second ascent carried out by Heinz Mariacher, Manolo, Luisa Iovane and Bruno Pederiva, the first free ascent was carried out later that same year by Heinz Mariacher and Bruno Pederiva. Other milestones include the first solitary ascent, carried out in 1990 by Maurizio Giordani (who self-belayed 9 pitches), the first on-sight that same year by Daniele De Candido together with Gildo Zanderigo and, in 2007, that crazy, audacious first free solo by Hansjörg Auer.
Federica, first of all why did you choose this route?
I’ve always wanted to climb on Marmolada and this route is a classic, a line that has come to represent alpine climbing on Marmolada and its huge south face. It seemed to me that I simply had to come and give it a go. And then it occurred to me that I could do it in a challenging style, i.e. in a single day, leading all the way.
What did you know about the first ascent? And the first ascentionists?
Very little. Only the information I’d read in the guidebook, not much else. I’m not one who knows everything about the route I’m about to climb. I read that the first ascentionist is a climbing legend, and that he was joined by a young climber who’d only just started to climb, who wore a motorcycle helmet. That youngster really had guts... I can’t even begin to imagine what they got up to!
So how did you prepare for this climb?
On the days that led up to my ascent I climbed some other routes on the south face, technically harder, but sports climbs with bolted belays. These routes were significantly shorter, max 340 meters long.
You set off early on Sunday morning. Knowing you, you didn’t simply want to lead it all, but you wanted to onsight it and do it in a single day.
Yes. I was motivated but also fairly relaxed. No excessive anxiety ... being a big wall, you never know how things will eventually turn out. I said to myself: "make-or-break" ... and it turned out fine.
What was the weather like?
Windy but very sunny, the south face was sheltered and temperatures were pleasant for climbing.
How much gear did you take?
Not much. A series of friends up to #4. Then 4 or 5 Aliens. A set of quickdraws (eight) and lots of slings for the threads. And three pegs and a hammer in the haulbag, which I didn’t use.
You chose to climb with Roberto Conti. For those who don’t know him, can you briefly introduce him?
Actually I could ask you the same question! I met him for the first time on Saturday when he got into my car. A friend had recommended him, saying that he was good climber, a nice guy. Just like me he’d never climbed on the South Face before and therefore he was really motivated ... and that sufficed for me! Being with someone who didn’t know the route meant I tried harder, almost like establishing a new route. He proved to be a great second, fun and patient. I believe in destiny and I thought that this person, who I'd met by chance right at the very last moment, without even knowing what grade he climbed but who nevertheless offered to belay me and was highly motivated, would be the ideal climbing partner to share this sort of adventure.
You climbed everything onsight, even the crux pitches after the niche, except for that foot slip on a 6c pitch. Where did this happen?
On the pitch leading to the niche. A six meter traverse. As I fell a friend I’d placed into a pocket popped out and noticed it had hidden a foothold, which I then used to get across to the niche!
You reached the niche at 13:00, an hour later than you’d hoped. Tell us about the finish.
We thought we’d need some time to complete the route, because there’s still another 300 meters of climbing above you, up chimneys. But - since they were easy, I reckon - I failed to find the belays indicated in the topo. I found some, but improvised others. We climbed the line of the route, but perhaps we didn’t do all the pitches as suggested…
Just curious… did you ever think about Hansjörg Auer’s free solo?
Yeah, I thought about it before I began. And after you climb I thought about it again and came to the conclusion that what he did was absolute madness, because the pitches are so technical and smeary.
You reached the large ledge at 17:00. Did you think about bivying there?
Absolutely not. "Let’s have two energy bars and get on with it" is what I said to myself. I wasn’t tired! I only began to get sleepy when the sun set...
The last part in the dark. You mentioned wet rock, sometimes icy
I reached this giant stalactites, hanging down from above blocking the final part of the chimney. I was bridging out, with the stalactite above be ... I placed two good friends, and then I noticed a small overlap to the right and managed to climb past this. I think the route followed that line because, regardless of the ice drip staring down at me, I couldn’t have imagined the moves. It was a strange bottleneck.
Then finally the summit, and the bivouac.
We topped out but failed to find the tent that was waiting for us, because it was dark and the tent was located in a sheltered place. We were too tired to think of alternative solutions.
How did you sleep that night?
We dozed a few hours in just one sleeping bag and since the ledge pointed slightly downhill we tied in.
So how much did you risk?
Apart from the chimney where I climbed off-route a bit, I don’t think we risked much. As for this last fateful chimney ... let's say I climbed a bit off route, there where all the rock was loose, everything was friable! I had to be very careful and climb back down to the belay. I got afraid there!
Looking back at the climb, did anything surprise you?
I imagined it would be beautiful. I was surprised by the fact that I dominated the climbing from start to finish, it was a pleasure, I found I was at ease as I searched for the line, under no pressure whatsoever.
How do you rate this climb, compared to others you’ve done in the past?
It’s something new for me, much more alpine. You can’t make comparisons. The psychological difficulties are far greater. The climbing is technically easier, but in trying to onsight everything I put in everything I had!
Federica thanks her sponsors: Petzl, Ferrino, Wild Climb, Sport Amplatz