Climbing the Comici - VII / E3 5c, Dolomites

© James Rushforth

"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).

James Rushforth leading pitch 6 of the Comici Route, Tre Cima. As seen from the Brandler Hasse.  © Rich Kirby
James Rushforth leading pitch 6 of the Comici Route, Tre Cima. As seen from the Brandler Hasse.
© Rich Kirby

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?

The Tre Cime North Faces  © James Rushforth
The Tre Cime North Faces
© James Rushforth

Comici exposure - Duncans perspective as he leads pitch 5  © James Rushforth
Comici exposure - Duncans perspective as he leads pitch 5
© James Rushforth
Three sleepless days later I found myself settling down for the night on the ground of the Rifugio Auronzo carpark, following a manic two hour drive from Arabba after work. It was now 1 in the morning and after some debating we decided upon a modest 4:30am start. I have to say following Duncan's alarm what seemed like 10 minutes later I would have happily pulled out had Duncan suggested it. Fortunately for us he was his usual enthusiastic self and was soon up and about grabbing the gear we'd racked the previous night from the car. Bleary eyed I emerged from our 'shelter' and after some cold pizza was feeling vaguely human again.

The climbing is fantastic, on good rock, in a great situation and the exposure is out of this world.

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!

High up on easier ground on the Comici Route, Tre Cime  © James Rushforth
High up on easier ground on the Comici Route, Tre Cime
© James Rushforth

Summiting in the clouds!  © James Rushforth
Summiting in the clouds!
© James Rushforth
Route information:

  • Length of route: 550m
  • Number of pitches: 16

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.

Related UKC Articles:

James Rushforth  © James Rushforth

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.

James Rushforth is a professional photographer and you can see his portfolio on Smugmug, and follow him at

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make UKClimbing the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate UKClimbing then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKC porter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

22 Apr, 2010
I climbed the route with Neil 4 or 5 years ago. The cloud had been coming in and out all day. When i pulled out of the wet chimney (~pitch 10) I was fully in the cloud. Set up a hanging belay on a wire and in-situ pegs. Brought Neil up and he set off along the traverse line. Halfway along, the cloud lifted and showed how exposed we were. Nothing but 1000's feet of air to the scree below. Never had exposure like it. Great route, easy descent as long as you find the right way.
22 Apr, 2010
The article mentions 'pitons and pegs' a couple of times - 'bolts and pegs' maybe? Just wondering. Chris
22 Apr, 2010
The exposure is amazing, isn't it? One of my favourite routes in the Alps. Just beautiful!
22 Apr, 2010
Great to see this article... I have this route on a lifetime wishlist and was glad to see it sat in the news section as I logged in. One day hopefully...
22 Apr, 2010
I think we clipped one bolt on the whole route if I remember right, it is impressively bolt free. There are a lot of pegs on it but how many of these would stop a fall is open to question. Lots of quickdraws is a good tip!
More Comments
Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest