Dan Moore looks back on an adventure to the Piz Badile where he found an unlikely pair of friends...
There they lay, in the sun on a rock at the base of the Piz Badile's North Ridge, half-faded where they'd been folded by the wind. The grey-black, Lamborghini underpants. Had someone shit themselves silly? Or simply had a sweaty crotch which needed some air? I sniffed them like a hungry wolf. They had no scent, so I tied them to my rucksack and continued the descent from my first ever attempt at climbing a mountain in the Alps. Now, some eight years later, I open my underwear drawer and see them at the top of the pile. Underpants tell stories.
The night before that grand failure. An asthmatic, weed-smoking boulderer (me) had been wandering around from tent to tent in the Magic Wood campsite, looking for a partner.
Where had this urge come from? This longing to rise above the forest and look out? It was a feral, instinctive longing – instructed by some higher power – the source of which, to this day, remains elusive. I had to go. I needed to go. And that night I was willing to take whatever poor bugger I could lay my hands on.
"Hey, any of you fancy climbing the Piz Badile tomorrow?" I asked, tripping over guy ropes in the dark. Many puzzled faces, raised eyebrows, and statements about boulder projects needing to go down was the general response. Until one young German cocked his head in intrigue. "I'd be interested. I've always wanted to try multi-pitch climbing". That was it. That was all I needed.
He was sat near the campfire; its yellow flames licking the stone circle around it; the flickering glow illuminating his smooth, sun-blushed cheeks and bright inquisitive eyes. He was just a boy. I was barely anything more. "Great! I want to leave by 10 p.m. Grab what gear you have and meet me at the guesthouse." When I think back, it was madness.
I remember later that night weaving up and over Splugenpass; the tight, never-ending hairpins leading down the other side, my dim headlamps flashing from side to side. I must have been half asleep, but I remember the excitement I felt. We chatted and laughed on the journey. We were both psyched for something different, to get out of 'The Wood'. I'd certainly had my fill of skulking in mossy depressions, tripping over tree roots, falling into holes and losing shoes, brushes or rolls of tape to the darkness under boulders.
It was classic: This poor young boy, swept along by my amateur dreams. My yearning for high places. His innocence and willingness to just jump on board, spin the one-bullet barrel and hand it to me. Incompetence squared. The blind leading the blind. Youthful exuberance at its best.
I remember the long, narrow road up to Val Bondasca; nearly driving off its gravel edge; parking the van sometime after midnight and collapsing in the back to try and get some sleep. We couldn't have had much, for it was still night when we started out.
Huffing and puffing up the first steep section of the path, sweating profusely, I soon realised that my new climbing partner was twice as fit as I was. Begrudgingly I watched as he scampered up the path ahead. My backpack weighed me down; my sunken chest was burning, sparrow legs straining under the load.
We stopped at the Sasc Fura hut's wood shed to make some tea, my "forward planning hydration strategy" – an attempted cover for my total lack of fitness. It may have been drizzling too – had I even checked the weather? (Note: seeing as I was carrying a JetBoil on this planned day tour, I wonder now what other excess baggage I had on me).
We continued more easily then, the terrain better suited to my attention deficit mind; more undulating and less steep, with interesting rocky steps and boulders along the way. The sky slowly brightened. And then it appeared, the mountain of my dreams. The biggest boulder I had ever seen: a single wedge of granite cutting into the sky. Incredible. Majestic... Its upper half covered in snow. Crap.
I knew in that instant we couldn't climb it. Yet still, I was drawn towards it. Like a fly towards the light. Like a dog towards a bitch on heat. Hungry. Lust-driven. I couldn't stop my feet from carrying me on now. As we neared I began to feel weightless. Of course, we talked, agreed we wouldn't get up. Neither of us had experience on ice and snow. Besides, we had no ice axe nor crampons.
But the day was now so beautiful and the first half of the route was dry so we thought: why not climb the first few pitches before retreating? It would be a good exercise, a chance to test our rope skills. Better than turning back now.
We started up, my two half ropes unravelled, pitching over short-rope terrain. Placing gear where (un)necessary. They were my very first pair of half ropes. I still have them. Though I've never trusted them since my friend dropped them in the sea on our first day climbing from a hanging belay at Swanage.
So funny to think back. I was told, probably by some random punter, that you shouldn't wash ropes. So I hadn't even considered soaking them in the shower or sticking them in the machine, daisy-chained inside a pillowcase. I didn't know of these things then.
Instead, I had left them sea-soaked and every time I pulled one up and took the bight in my mouth in order to clip, I could taste the salt. I'd imagine the tiny salt crystals slowly rubbing away the strands of nylon inside. Secretly. Unseen. Until one day the ropes would just snap in a fall. My way of dealing with that had been to never take a fall on them.
I loved, and missed the ocean; to sail on it and climb beside it. To taste Dorest sea salt near the Swiss-Italian border was both comforting and worrying at the same time.
We climbed up to below the snow line and clipped into a large ring-bolt. It had been great, but we would go no further. Ice crystals sparkled in the sun, and meltwater ran down over the rocks to meet us. It was inevitable. I don't remember being disappointed at all. I just remember being there and the happiness that 'just being there' gave me. I felt I had already succeeded, even if succeeding only meant I had got out of the wood for a day. Changed my surrounds. Changed my stripes.
Of course, I hadn't changed my stripes; it was more like renting a suit for the day. But this suit felt good to wear, I knew I'd have to purchase one of my own. The suit of a mountaineer.
Back down at the very first stance above the first real section of climbing, there was a little indecision. The way we'd come required two pitches to get here and the middle belay had been on gear. If we made the first rappel that way, I wasn't sure I'd find an in-situ belay from which to make the next. My climbing gear was also precious at the time; I had little money and even less sense and was not prepared to leave a cam behind. The ring bolt was also strangely positioned, as if intended for an abseil down the other side of the ridge – the west side. Below was a perfect and consistently angled rock slab leading down to a ledge, along which I thought we could easily walk back to the start and hence off the mountain. I took the bait and said I'd try down there, knowing I could always prussic up again if I had to (maybe).
Down I went. Sure enough, five metres before the ends of my 50m ropes I found a solid-looking, equalised, two-peg belay. I gave it a good yank, then clipped in and let the ropes go slack. "OK! Come on down!" I shouted, sure we were now on an established abseil piste. The next belay was a little harder to find; I swung about near the ends of the rope until I found it, a little over on the left. I touched the cordelette, and the upper peg moved. Gulp. I didn't have a hammer. And there was no other gear to be found. I pinched the head of the peg, and pulled it half out of the crack. A crack behind an exfoliating flake. I turned my attention to the lower peg: this was slightly bigger, and looked 'a bit more solid'. Both were angled diagonally down, which added some camming action. I wiggled the upper peg back into place, clipped in, and called up "OK! Come on down!". I said nothing about the upper peg.
The next belay I remember was even worse. But I must have blocked it from memory; turned away and simply prayed, for I don't remember how it looked. Something like a single large rusty peg with an ancient steel snapgate? Whatever it was, my prayers were answered and we found ourselves down on the ledge. I belayed over a spike (or pile of loose spikes) and sent him out along it to safety.
Back on a comfortable rocky saddle at the start of the route, my new underpants were waiting, freshly baked by the sun. And behind them was a view I'll never forget. The sweeping wall of the NE face. Sparkling like a diamond in the sun. I roughly knew the line of the Cassin, from studying topos of the Badile. And I was quite sure we were sat at the entrance point for gaining the lower traverse ledge. My eyes tracked along it in wonder, then up to where I thought the route must go. The line soon became obscured behind a bulge of endless granite, but I continued to trace it, imagining a dot-to-dot line now as I slowly lifted my gaze towards the summit. Wow, I thought. One day I'll climb it. For now, I was happy I hadn't killed the boy.
I pondered the Lamborgini underpants; why they might have been left there – at this spot in particular. It was certainly no place for a bivvy, so I doubt they were misplaced during the night; the result of a wet dream or something. Perhaps the owners had started out towards the Cassin, but turned back due to a stomach upset. No, the pants were clean. Well, I suppose they might have been cleaned in a puddle...
The natural conclusion (as we know) was to pick them up and attach them to my rucksack: the main reason being that though they were half bleached by the sun, they would clearly still pass for the upper third of my underwear pile in terms of held-togetherness. Crag-swag quality at its best.
Now, eight years later, I open my drawer and there they are. Not even at the bottom of the pile, despite having a massive hole where the gusset used to be. Ventilation, I say.
Yet still, the mystery remains unsolved; I continue to wonder where they came from, how the world had gifted them to me.
Then I thought: wouldn't it be great if I shared my half of the story, and someone reached out to claim them and told their half? To avoid false accounts: They're black (half faded to grey), with white Lamborghini writing on the waist. If anyone has lost some on the Piz Badile, please don't hesitate to get in touch. If you happen to be a rich, Lamborghini-driving Italian based on the Tuscan coast, then I guess this would have been in vain. And I'm really sorry if they were left there on purpose, as a depot, to collect later.