The Dolomites - Classic Alpine Limestoneby James Rushforth Apr/2010
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The peaks of the Dolomites are characteristically steep, with huge faces and towering summits often breaching 3000m in altitude. These stunning spires of alpine limestone are located south of the Austrian / Italian border and the mountainous area extends for 80km east of the town of Bolzano.
The limestone rock-faces are some of the largest and most accessible in Europe, yet they retain that wild, backcountry atmosphere which has been lost in some busy mountain playgrounds such as Chamonix.
When you do explore the Dolomites you'll find that the climbs are generally very accessible as the area is blessed both with short walk-ins and good transport networks.
The climbs detailed in this article are mostly located around the Sella Massif and surrounding area. The Sella is often quoted as the 'heart of the dolomites' and is a good central base from which to travel from.
“ the routes are long, steep, and fantastically well situated”
- Read James Rushforth's other new Dolomites article - Climbing the Comici
Trad climbing in the Dolomites
Alex Huber talking about his upbringing in the Dolomites.
The Dolomites are one of the top European trad destinations, though very few British climbers seem to visit them. In general the routes are long, steep, and fantastically well situated. There is little in the way of single pitch trad, and so multi-pitch routes predominate. The Dolomites are shrouded in climbing folklore and a good deal of the climbs carry familiar names; Cassin, Messner, Tissi and Comici to name but a few. Messner's route up the North Face of the 2nd Sella Tower was fundamental to his book, 'The 7th grade'. Comici's route up the North Face of Cime Grande was later to be included in the Six Alpine North Faces of Europe. The Grand Muro on the Santa Croce face of the Fanes was once considered to be the hardest climb in Europe.
There are a number of guidebooks detailing the climbs in the Dolomites. Here are some of the ones I found most helpful:
Classic Dolomite Climbs
This is a fantastic book written in English containing a number of selected Dolomite climbs. It is by no means a definitive guide but contains a number of the 'better' multi-pitch routes, and serves well as a general overview. It doesn't have a detailed route description of the climb, but it does contain a topo for each. The topos aren't as detailed as some of the area-specific guides such as 'Arrampicare in Val Gardena' but are generally adequate for all but the longest and most complex climbs.
Dolomites West & East
These are actually two separate books again both written in English; one detailing climbs in the West of the Dolomites and the other the East. They are a more definitive guide than 'Classic Dolomite Climbs' in terms of number of routes detailed. However there is only a detailed description of the route and no topo in these books. As such this book is best used in conjunction with another guidebook that provides a topo such as the 'Classic Dolomite Climbs' guide above.
Tre Cime: Classic & Modern Routes
This is the definitive guidebook for the Tre Cime (Drei Zinnen) group. Though only a small area this guidebook features detailed topos and descriptions of some of the most famous and hardest routes in the Dolomites. Written in English.
Arrampicare in Val Gardena
Another good guidebook covering Via Ferrata, trad, and sport climbing in the Val Gardena region. Unfortunately only available in German and Italian but still easy to use with a basic grasp of either language.
Italian multi-pitch climbs are graded using the UIAA Roman numeral scale. The following table provides a loose indicator as to the respective grade comparisons. A word of warning however: Dolomite multi-pitch routes are runout in nature. It is quite common to have 25m runouts on Italian Grade IV. It is unusual however to experience this kind of runout on many British Severe climbs. Thus a steady lead head is required on many of the climbs.
That being said protection is often more plentiful on the harder climbs and harder pitches in the form of pitons of varying degrees of quality. In this respect it can be argued that multi-pitch Dolomite climbing is rarely 'pure' trad, due to the abundance of insitu pitons and pegs on many climbs left from the original aid ascents. The quality and reliability of these pitons and pegs varies massively however and they should always be backed up where possible. The guidebook usually provides an outline of how many can be expected on the route. Threads are common so it is always handy to take extra slings. Narrow headed cams or tri-cams are essential for protecting the many pockets found on the routes.
The Brits in general are not renowned for their multi-pitch speed at the best of times, probably due to a lack of long routes where moving fast is essential to success. So make sure you leave yourself plenty of time! The guidebook times are often 'best' times assuming you don't have any rests or route finding problems. Make sure you practice moving quickly with your partner on easier climbs and see how you are faring against the guidebook times. For advice on moving quickly it's worth consulting Rich's UKC article: Secrets of the Alpine Ninja.
Once away from the gleaming polish of the classic climbs, multi-pitch route finding in the Dolomites is invariably hard. It is always worth having a photocopy of the topo with you (and make sure you know how to read it!). Don't always assume a line of pegs / pitons marks the way as there are many route variations, continuing projects and indeed failed ones. The consequences of going too far off route particularly on the harder climbs can be severe as the rock quality often takes a turn for the worse.
As always in the mountains the weather can change very quickly. Make sure you prepare accordingly, don't get caught out! I find the Arabba-based forecasting station to be the most accurate forecast (updated at 4pm each day).
Recommended Trad Climbs
The following are some of what I feel to be the more 'special climbs' that are well worth seeking out. They are marked on the following map:
© James Rushforth, Apr 2010
|1. 1st Sella Tower – Trenker Crack (V-) (MVS, 4b)
The classic route following the most logical line up the first Sella tower. The Trenker crack is easily visible from the top of the Sella Pass and provides an elegant and obvious line. The route is relatively short and the only difficult pitch is the polished Trenker Crack itself. A perfect training climb for some of the longer routes here. The route can be combined with a traverse of the three Sella Towers for a full days climbing.
|11. Torre Piccola di Falzarego – South Arête (IV+) (HS,4b)
A very popular climb with great ease of accessibility from the top of the Falzarego pass. It is often combined with Torre Grande di Falzarego as the abseil descent deposits you at the bottom of the climb. Cemented belay rings and pitons for protection can be found throughout.
|2. 2nd Sella Tower, North Face – Messner route (VI) (HVS, 5b)
Arguably the best route found on the Sella Towers which follows the black water streaks on the steep north face. The route is sustained and consistent in difficulty throughout. You must be confident climbing at this grade however as the route is serious in nature with some worrying runouts.
|12. Torre Grande di Falzarego – West Face (IV) (S,4a)
|3. Piz Ciavazes – Big Micheluzzi (VI) (HVS, 5b)
Perhaps the best route on the Sella? The climax and crux of the route is an 85m traverse at half height. The exposure and scenery is stunning. Well protected but thin climbing for the grade predominates.
|13. Mount Averau – South West Face, 'Alvera' (IV+) (HS, 4b)
Mount Averau itself is not particularly big or impressive when compared to its neighbours, however perched atop the Falzarego Pass looking down on the Nuvolau Plateau with Tofana de Rozes looming across the valley the situation is perfect. Although small, the climb is perfectly formed on good rock and is relatively steep for the grade. Stunning views from the top!
|4. Piz Ciavazes – Route of Friendship (VI) (HVS, 5b)
A good varied route to the right of the Big Micheluzzi. The scenery is again stunning with great views of the North West Face of the Pordoispitze. The climbing starts early on with a demanding first pitch. The difficulties thereafter remain consistent with demanding crack and groove climbing in the lower route and some technical slabs higher up.
|14. Cinque Torre – Myriam (V+) (VS,5a)
The five towers that make up Cinque Torre are a renowned climbing site, perched above Cortina on the top of the Falzarego pass they are an impressive sight to behold. Myriam is one of the best routes I've done; the traverse under the overhang is sensational for the grade. Unfortunately the route is suffering from its popularity. The first pitch in particular is like ice skating up a wall. However after that the level of polish recedes.
|5. Piz Ciavazes – South Face, Zeni Corner (VII-) (E2, 5c)
Zeni Corner completes the trio of fantastic routes on the Piz Ciavazes face. The climb is short, only 7 pitches in length, but each pitch provides a unique contrast to the previous. The first hard pitch is intimidatingly loose but thereafter things improve dramatically with some of the best climbing I've done. The climb culminates in a jughaul over an impressive roof. Move quickly before the pump sets in, a superb photo opportunity for those climbing in a three!
|15. Cinque Torre – Finlanda (VII-) (E2, 5c)
Another great route on Cinque Torre, however this one you will invariably have to yourself! The route has now been sparsely bolted and so a runout grade of F6c could probably be given. Expect to be the object of much scrutiny from tourists on the main path beneath you.
|6. Pordoispitze – North-West Face, “Fedele” (IV+) (HS, 4b)
In my opinion the best long route of its grade in the Dolomites. The route breaches the imposingly steep North facing wall at a very amenable grade. The length is the defining feature of the route with 26 pitches in total. Escape can be made off the terrace at three quarter height if time is pressing. Efficiency and speed over the easier ground is the key here.
|16. Tofana di Rozes – South Face Buttress 2 'Pillar Rib' (VI-) (HVS, 5a)
A fantastic route with consistently good climbing on solid rock. The exposure as you join the arête at various places is excellent. With 18 consistently difficult pitches an early start is essential. The views from the top are some of the best in the Dolomites and a great place to reflect on what is a truly fantastic route.
|7. Neunerspitze – South Face, Messner (V) (VS, 4c)
This climb and indeed crag fails spectacularly to conform to the dolomite norm. The entire area on this side of the Fanes Massif has an otherworldly feel. The rock is slabby in nature and completely devoid of features. Think of Val di Mello-esque granite slab climbing on Dolomite limestone. If you're comfortable smearing and enjoy runouts then this is definenty a climb not to be missed.
|17. Tofana di Rozes – South Face Buttress 2 'Pilastro' (VII+) (E4, 6b)
A very serious route that takes the central wall to the right hand side of Pillar Rib. Two large roofs form the official crux calling for a committed leader and an aggressive approach. A real achievement and the classic hard climb on Tofana.
|8. Santa Croce – Grand Muro (VI+) (E1, 5b)
One of many outstanding climbs up the Santa Croce face on the Fanes Massif. Great views of Pedraces, Sas di Putia and the Puez are to be had throughout. The flake traverse at half height is a particular highlight.
|18. Cima Piccola – The Yellow Edge (VI+) (E1, 5b)
A classic route suffering from a polished first two pitches. Don't expect to be on the arête that much as strenuous corner climbing predominates. There are some fantastic situations and exposure. An ideal training climb for those wishing to take on the harder climbs of the Tre Cime. A direct option is possible at half height avoiding the traverse at (E2, 5c).
|9. Marmolada – South Face, Don Quixote (VI) (HVS,5b)
The classic of the newer routes established on the Marmolada's South Face. At twenty one pitches it is a serious undertaking so make sure the weather is good for the day. Retreat from the South Face is difficult at best and for this reason its worth taking a few pitons and pegs on this route as a safety precaution. The rock quality is excellent in the form of weather-worn plate limestone. An experience to be cherished.
|19. Cima Piccolissima – South Face, Cassin (VII-) (E2, 5c)
Although the smallest of all the towers the South face easily measures up to the verticality of the larger North faces with the added bonus of being substantially warmer! Another ideal training climb for the Comici or Brandler Hasse.
|10. Hexenstein – South Rib (IV+) (HS, 4b)
The perfect route for those relatively new to alpine climbing. Route finding is fairly straightforward, the rock is good, the climbing varied and in a great situation. The route is also equipped with cemented belay rings and protection pitons. Care should be taken when navigating the penultimate pitch (the direct route up the arete is a VII+!)
|20. Comici (VII) (E3, 6a)
Perhaps the most famous route in the Dolomites? A fantastic day out and probably my favourite climb to date. Please see my article Climbing the Comici for more info.
|21. Torre Del Diavolo – East & South Face (VI-) (HVS, 5a)
This climb is a bit further away from all of the above but I felt it was worth a particular mention for being somewhat exceptional. It is worth a special mention for being rather unusual. You climb Torre Leo for 5 pitches before making a wild 'step' across onto Torre del Diavolo. The step is some 140m up and 1.5 metres across with a lot of air beneath you! Flexibility and courage are prerequisites.
Recommended Sport Climbing Crags and Routes:
|A) Cinque Torre
Guidebooks: Arrampicata sportiva a Cortina d'Ampezzo
Overview: Situated halfway between the top of the Falzarego Pass and Cortina these 5 (or now 4 as one fell down) towers are the centrepiece of sport climbing in the area. Boasting over 200 sport climbs as well as many trad classics they make up what is arguably the largest sport crag in the Dolomites. Add to this some of the best local scenery, close proximity to good food in the form of the Cinque Torre and Scoiattoli mountain huts, and even some historic trenches they are definitely worth a visit.
Recommended climbs: Mimosa (F5+), Chiaro di luna (F6a+), Tetto Marcello (F6b), Ramba Balu (F7b+) - pictured above, Fulminetor (F8a+). Myriam a fantastic trad climb as detailed previously in this article.
Negatives: Due to the above reasons the crag can get very busy during peak season. That being said there are so many climbs so long as you are willing to explore a bit you can usually find a quiet spot! Access can also be expensive. Usually people take the chairlift from Rifugio Scoiattoli located on the Falzarego pass. Alternatively you can drive up an access track (well-surfaced but steep) some 300m past the turn for Rifugio Scoiattoli when heading towards Cortina. However this track is shut between 9:30 and 3:30 in peak season and parking can be limited at the top. Alternatively it is possible to walk up to the towers from the lift car park and this will take around an hour at a good pace.
Overview: This is an ideal beginner's crag situated on the top of the Falzarego pass. The climbs are generally of a slabby nature, on good rock that dries quickly. The crag is situated 50m from the roadside and as such provides easy, convenient access. With the exception of the bouldering problem 'No Limits' (F7b/c) there are no climbs harder than F6a here.
Recommended climbs: Black Rain (F5a), Son Cotto (F6a), Rioby (F6a).
Negatives: In early season the foot of the crag remains inaccessible due to snow, and as a result of the above expect the crag to be somewhat crowded in peak season!
Overview:This is very much a hidden gem with tourists, a fantastic little crag that is very popular with the locals. The crag has something for everyone with grades ranging from F4 to a guessed F8b+/c project on a very impressive 8m roof. The climbing itself is also extremely varied in both height and style with a large slab, good chimney climbing, a small overhanging wall featuring dynamic high grade problems, the afore-mentionned 8m roof featuring the much celebrated F8a Kompressor (a fantastic project, definately worth 3*'s!), and some good longer routes around the back.
Recommended climbs: Lama (F6b+), Arête (F6c), Kompressor (F8a)
Negatives: Some of the routes do suffer seepage after sustained heavy rain and the ground does get a little boggy in places. At time of writing this crag isn't in any guidebook. However generally speaking anything over F6a in difficulty has the grade graffiti on the route in red paint. The only exception to this is some of the harder slab routes on the right hand side.
D) Citta dei Sassi (City of Rocks)
Guidebooks: Arrampicata Sportiva & Boulder Nel Sudtirolo; Arrampicare in Val Gardena
Overview: Another great crag, situated under the brooding Sassolungo Massif on the top of the Sella Pass. It is exactly what it says on the tin, one big sprawling boulderfield featuring single-pitch sport routes on the larger boulders and lots of world class bouldering of varying degrees of difficulty.
Recommended climbs: Principessa (F5a), Eppes Fiar di Weiber (F5c+) On the Edge (F6b+), Rif Valentini (F7b+).
Negatives: Navigating your way around this sprawling boulderfield can be difficult as everything looks the same! Generally however the sport climbs have the names graffitied on, and the boulder problems are marked with red or blue paint. The blue paint denotes the newer problems. It is definitely worth taking a guidebook if you're after something specific.
Overview: An ideal crag for beginners due to the abundance of easier climbs. Something for everyone however with a fantastic situation, overlooking the north faces of the Tre Cime.
Recommended climbs: Nigerriss (F5+), Wenriss (F5+), Zulu (F6c), Sauwetter (F7a)
Negatives: The crag is relatively small in comparison to some of the others mentioned and does suffer from seepage after heavy rainfall.
Overview: This is the second largest sports crag after Cinque Torre and another excellent site.
Recommended climbs: Pilastro nero (F6a+), Chernobil (F6b), Nice trap (F7b), Statica dinamicab(F8a).
Negatives: Some of the less popular climbs are somewhat dirty as the crag doesn't see much traffic. The crag is also very uniform, with a huge amount of similar climbs.
Overview: This is a fantastic crag but only suited to those onsighting around F7b+. The routes are long, hard and in general overhanging. The main wall is the centrepiece and the only part of the crag really worth visiting. The other areas are rarely visited and often dirty in nature. The main wall itself sports no less than 15 climbs above F8a and is an ideal project wall.
Recommended climbs: Sella friends (F6b+), Polentin (F8a), Tric E Trac (F8b+)
Negatives: This wall is exceptionally popular with locals working routes, particularly in the evening, and some of the easier 'warm-up' lines are quite polished.
When do I go?
Beginning of June to end of September. However at the start of that period there may still be snow left over from the winter, and towards the latter half of September it may get too cold to do much climbing. Also you may wish to avoid mid-July to late August as it's very busy and also there's an increased risk of afternoon thunderstorms.
Who flies where?
The Dolomites are easily accessible from three airports all a similar distance away.
Innsbruck is the closest airport within 2 hours driving distance of the Sella over the Brenner Pass. Cars can be hired from the airport from a number of different companies.
Venice Marco Polo is the other main airport within 2 and a half hours drive from the Sella. There are again a number of car hire companies. Alternatively there are several public transport options from Venice; a direct bus runs throughout high season from Venice to the villages surrounding the Sella, or alternatively a more frequent train service runs to Belluno, from where it is then possible to catch a number of buses.
Treviso airport though only small is actually 15 minutes closer than Venice if you can get a flight there. Public transport is available to the centre of Treviso or into Venice, and then you can take a train / bus as above.
Alternatively it is possible to drive from the UK via Germany and Belgium before approaching the Dolomites from the North entering at Pedraces (recently renamed Badia). I usually stay in a hotel near Munich and do the trip in two days.
Hire cars are expensive, around £150 per week. BMC members can get a discount through Hertz.
Where do I stay?
The towns of Arabba, Canazei, Cortina, Corvara, Colfasco, La Ville, Pedraces and Selva are all good locations from which to reach any of these climbs. Camping is available in both Colfosco, Cortina and Canazei, and hotels can be found in all of the towns.
In Arabba the Sport Hotel is probably the largest but possibly a bit expensive for your average climber!
Tabia and places like that offer self catering though: www.colletts.co.uk
Google will throw up loads of other hotels.
|What's the local food like?
The local food is Tyrolean, and very good in my opinion! Ii is much cheaper to eat out than somewhere like Chamonix. Lots of spinach, cured ham (speck), pasta, dumplings etc. Speck, eggs and potato seems to be an area favourite, also there is lots of venison about. The only problem we've encountered is the Italians seem to struggle with the vegetarian concept. All the towns have good places to eat and pizza can always be found.
Where can I buy gear and food?
There are a lot of outdoor shops in any decent sized town. The best are:
What else is there apart from the climbing?
There is superb walking, the Via Ferrata (the Cicerone guide has become the recognised standard), the zipwire at Kronplatz (supposed to be the longest in Europe) , a high ropes course at Colfosco, horse riding is becoming increasingly popular, as is mountain biking, there is also white water rafting at Brunico, canyoning at Cortina.
Related UKC Articles:
He is an aspirant Mountain Guide and is eventually looking to run his own company, but currently works for Colletts Mountain Holidays and will be there for another year yet.
"I love the Dolomites," James beamed, "it is definently one of the best places to climb in Europe in both summer and winter."
James is keen to pioneer some new routes around the Dolomites, and has his eye on the North Face of Civetta.
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