Climbing the Comici – VII / E3 5c, Dolomitesby James Rushforth Apr/2010
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"On the mountains we feel the joy of life, the emotion of being good and the relief of forgetting earthly things: all this because we are closer to the sky". Emilo Comici (1933).
The Comici route is arguably the most famous route in the Dolomites, taking a striking line up the seemingly blank north face of Cima Grande, the largest of the Tre Cime towers. The three towers themselves are the iconic Dolomite symbol and the north face was described as 'impossible' for many years until Emilo Comici finally breached its defenses in a spectacular first ascent in August 1933. Comici's audacious ascent, climbing with Giuseppe and Angelo Diamai, took three days and two nights, using a number of pitons for aid. Today it provides a difficult free climbing test piece and is regarded as one of the six great Alpine North Faces.
Climbing with giants...
Sure I'd heard of the Comici route, who working in the outdoor industry out here in Italy hadn't? However it wasn't until Duncan, a friend and co-worker approached me one bleak afternoon with the intention of giving it a go that I gave it any serious thought. He was leaving early to start a new job back in the UK and wanted to give it a bash before he left. I quickly agreed and we set the date for Wednesday, in some 4 days time.
“...I was wondering if you would mind taking the crux pitches?...”
Stopping at the Gardena Pass Rifugio the following day after accompanying a group of guests up the Via Ferrata Cir Spitz V, I flicked through the new Tre Cime guidebook to find the Comici route. A whole page was dedicated to a rather impressive and exceptionally intimidating picture of a German climber mid-crux, splayed out with no hint of the ground in sight. Upon arriving back in Arabba I bumped into Duncan, "Do you still fancy the Comici then? Oh and I was wondering if you would mind taking the crux pitches?”, What had I let myself in for?
James Rushforth enjoys The Comici Route
Racked and ready, with harnesses already on, the next problem became quickly apparent. Neither Duncan nor I had been to the Tre Cime before. Which way to go? Was the silhouette rising above us the face or not? Three other groups of climbers had headed left from the carpark, surely then that must be the way? After some bumbling about with headtorches and a quick consultation with the guidebook we set off right in search of Rifugio Lavaredo. It turned out the track was well marked and the other groups were in fact heading for climbs on the south side. Just over an hour later the looming silhouette of the three towers could be seen against the horizon. Several headtorches could be seen bobbing below the middle face and there were already a group of climbers sat waiting for the light on the third pitch of the Comici.
Upon arriving at the bottom of the route we met a very friendly Italian couple. We set off before them and opted to solo climb the first pitch up a gently rising ramp for 80m. Here we roped up and Duncan set off leading the first 'official' pitch just as the sun came up properly. Thus I found myself looking at the 'first crux' at 6:30am, previously seen at the Gardena Pass Rifugio. Feeling the pressure from what was now a sizable crowd of onlookers queuing for the route I came through okay, despite having to wait ten minutes for the party of three in front to clear the hanging belay.
Stepping off the security of the 'ledge' (if a three inch protruding piece of rock constitutes a ledge) on the start of the 3rd pitch takes commitment, Duncan made the leap and we were on our way, two hard pitches down, five to go...
The next few pitches merged together and we both quickly found ourselves getting into a good rhythm. We had passed the point of no return and were committed; this in a funny way eased the psychological commitment somewhat and focusing became the order of the day.
On the stance following the 8th pitch I committed the cardinal climbing sin and mistakenly dropped a carabiner whilst re-racking. Shameful though it was, it did serve to demonstrate just how steep the climb was as it landed some 2m away from the base of the route, 300m below us.
Some 10 hours after starting out from the carpark we found ourselves deposited (a little worse for wear) on the Ringband terrace. The Italians had by this point overtaken us as we went new routing on the traverse, but were there to wish us well before they headed for the decent. Of the six groups that started the climb, three finished with the rest abbing off towards midday.
In a perfect world we would have been greeted by glorious views and a fantastic setting sun, however we found ourselves in some rather thick cloud. Celebrations were short as we still had a two hour abseil decent down the south side back to the relative security of terra firma! This proved uneventful if a little dramatic due to the thick cloud as we could rarely see what we were abbing into.
A 9pm we were greeted by the welcome sight of the car, clear skies and a setting sun, justice!
Grade / Difficulty: It's really hard to give a route of this nature a definitive grade. Depending on which guidebook you read the UIAA grade is somewhere between VII- and VII+. An equivalent English grade of around E3,5c/6a. It is difficult to express just how sustained the climb is, think of many Left Walls at the Cromlech stacked on top of each other!
Protection: The route is generally well protected with a number of pitons and pegs on the harder pitches. However many of these are of a very dubious quality and I would certainly recommend placing your own protection where possible.
Rack: Lots of quickdraws / runners (around 18). A full set of nuts, and a few additional cams in the medium size range.
Additional gear: We opted for one rucksack between us to be carried by the second. We took 4 liters of water, a good amount of food, and 2 jackets.
Time: An early start is advisable, beware many guidebooks give a 'best' time. There are 'shelters' (wind breaks) on the Ringband if you did have an epic, don't expect it to be a comfy night though!
Route finding: Is fairly obvious due to the large amount of pitons and pegs. It is definitely worth having a decent topo from one of the guidebooks though.
James Rushforth is an accomplished climber, skier / mountaineer and has just completed the new Rockfax guide - The Dolomites: Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata and is currently working on another guide to Italian sport-climbing destination Finale Ligure.