Most of my writings on the ascent of man have revolved around the history of the route and the people associated with it, however here I was totally taken aback with this route when I climbed it in the same style. What the person achieved was mind boggling and I could find no way of highlighting just how amazing this feat of climbing was without referring back to my own ascent.
The route is Winkler Route on the Vajolet Towers in the Dolemites, it is a small on the dolomitic scale tower, but stands with its neighbours as seemingly impenetrable fortresses. That was until a young 17 year school boy and in my mind now something of a climbing prodigy called George Winkler walked up to the tower and soloed up the first ascent in 1887.
This will seem impressive when you see the tower and you probably already have as its neighbours feature in the open sequence to Cliffhanger, if you remember the harness buckle breaking thats where the sequence is set.
Having set out to repeat the route in the same style I am lost for words with how futuristic this climb was. I walked up one afternoon with the idea of biviing out below the peak for the night. I arrived after a long sweaty hike at 6pm. The part of me who is about getting things done now and resting later wanted to head straight up, but I choose instead to stick to the original plan and wait until morning. That was when the murmurs of self doubt set in.
An inner uncontrolled voice trying to overcome the confidence I had in my ability to solo such a route. In my mind the route is now bigger, steeper and the line much harder to follow. I have not bought enough food. I know nothing of the route. The rock looks loose. If I get up will I get down. As a result it was a long and fairly restless night.
I have no idea when I started but it was an hour or so after first light, the sun was just showing its head and the mist and cloud were billowing in and out adding the atmosphere. The route was shrouded from view as I walked in. I had a sicken feeling in my stomach as if I was about to commence on something rather epic. Part of me was fighting against the decision to solo the route like George and I nearly backed off before I even touched the route. My the sane part of my mind had gotten to me, but as the first pitches were easy to a ledge, it would be stupid to come this far and not give it a nudge.
Those first pitches relaxed me into it and as I traversed right along the ledge it suddenly runs out, below is an already considerable drop as my heart races for the first time that day as I traverse on big holds across the gapping abyss. Reaching the base of the corner, I look up and gulp. The promise of an ‘easier’ variation to the right entices me away from the original route. However the ease of passage is soon barred by a bulge. Good holds slowly reveal themselves as I try not to look down and think of the consequences of my possible actions.
Up and up I go looking for an exit from the corner and I see one leading out from the groove via a steep move round an arete. On a rope it would have been easy, but now so far up I am fighting the rational part of my brain that is telling me I am being stupid and instead try to tune into the smaller quieter part that is checking the holds, telling me its easy and keeping me safe. The move round the arete was never hard just awkward trying to get your hands in the right place, but the position accentuates the steeps and flutters the mind.
Only as I swing onto a ledge beyond it does my heart actually sinks. Moment ago I was convinced I have reach my mental limits and the end of the difficult was in sight. Mentally spent and yet over half way up a massive tower safe for now on a ledge but above is a overhanging section with an insitu piece of string and three pegs in a row.
‘Don’t stagnant here’
The demons that are already knocking at my door and fighting them off might be beyond me. In an effort to maintain my upward momentum I clip a quickdraw into the string and make wild and wide bridging moves through the roof up to the highest peg. As I reach down for my cowstail the exposure hits me like a freight train. There is now nothing below me for over 200m, a thought of me falling flash through my brain as I reach for the next hold.
My mind registers a jug, it relaxes and focuses on moving my feet up. One more move to turn the muffin top of a bulge. One more move. My mind says don’t rush, don’t panic you have lots of strength left in the tank, you could reverse to the ledge from here. Calm. Breathe. Feel around for a hold and rock round the bulge. The people staying in the refugio probably heard my sigh of relief as I came into balance and the way forward eases in angle. I am home and dry in my mind as I carry on at my steady pace to the summit.
There is no celebratory shout or whoops of joy from me on this summit. More just relief that I made it, relief that I kept it together mental over such a long and demanding route and relief I am still alive. Descending slowly and surely down a variety of abseils, most off single steel bolts concreted in no doubt using the piss of some past climber to mix the cement.
Hours later I am still in shock at the idea of soloing that route in 1887 with big boots and no real idea of how to get back down. Make no mistake George Winkler was the Alex Honnold of his generation. The mental toughness and skill required to keep it together on that route when it had never been climbed before would have been immense. I knew the grade and there was a way off albeit complicated, there are pegs all over it so at a push I could have rigged a retreat.
I really can’ recommend following in George’s footsteps, if asked to do it again I would take a rope and a climbing partner. The line between success and failure was not so close for me as to be dangerous, but I felt I push my soloing to a new height that day and I am not sure I am willing to face those demons again.