Matt Helliker and Emma Twyford have freed the 11-pitch Dolomites classic, the Camilotto Pellisier (8a/+, 500m) on the Cima Grande. Initially an aid route opened by Enrico Mauro and Mirko Minuzzo in 1967, the route eventually became a popular free climb after Mauro "Bubu" Bole's free ascent in 2003, after which he initially graded it 8b. The pitches range from 5a to 8a/+ with the 3rd and 6th pitch being the hardest, before joining the Dibona Arete for its last 3 pitches to the top.
This route was first opened in the era of 'direttissime' - climbs taking direct lines up to a summit - using 50 pegs and 340 expansion bolts over ten days. Having never climbed in the Dolomites previously, Emma was excited to climb on one of the famous Tre Cime North faces and its famously friable rock. She told UKC:
'Arriving into the Dolomites (also known as the Pale Mountains) area for the first time I couldn't help but be blown away by the spectacular rock formations; straight away I fell for the scenery, the friendly people and the climbing.'
Chamonix-based British Mountain Guide Matt Helliker - a Dolomites connoisseur - had persuaded Emma to join him on his project this summer. Emma explained:
'Last year Matt Helliker and I first climbed together in Pembroke when we tried Big Issue. He started chatting about Camillotto Pellisier in the Dolomites and I'd seen the awe inspiring pictures, but nothing comes close to experiencing it for yourself.'
Emma's flatmate and photographer John Bunney booked two weeks off to join the pair on the Cima Grande. Fickle weather conditions made for a difficult start for the team. Emma told UKC:
'We tried to devise a plan on the route in mind and how to approach setting everything up to try and work out the 6 hard pitches. Lucky for me Matt already had good knowledge of this route from the year before. Our first two days of checking out the route were thwarted at the end of the second pitch by thunderstorms, the forecast for the 2 weeks we had didn't look particularly optimistic either with thunderstorms forecast nearly every day.'
The team considered different, shorter route options but both climbers were hooked on this particular route. A window of opportunity was all they needed. Over the next couple of days, Emma and Matt managed to rig the route with statics and made it to the end of the fifth pitch, but once again a huge thunderstorm prevented them from being able to look at the last hard pitch. They got lucky a day later with another clear but humid day. Emma continued:
'With thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon we jumared the first 2 pitches and then climbed to the base of the 6th pitch through the roof. I figured out a sequence through the roof but was finding the last move powerful and hard. We had two goes each at this pitch and then abbed down. I was uncertain about this pitch, I knew it could go either way. I was hoping I wouldn't let Matt down on this route and tried to be confident about being good enough to climb it with Matt after watching him cruise through the moves on each pitch and make good links. But, we both had our reservations about different pitches depending on conditions and those that didn't suit our individual styles.'
Looking at the forecast for the next few days, Sunday jumped out as the only day that looked possible for the team, with a 5:30am start on the cards. The style of ascent was a team free effort in one push with no falls leading or seconding. Matt and Emma swung leads on each pitch and made what they believe to be the first British free ascent of this route. Emma summed up their achievement:
'My first experience in the Dolomites didn't disappoint. Even if it was in at the deep end, I think it made the experience more special because of the uncertainty of success. Both of us felt the route warranted a grade of 8a/+ if going for a full push from the ground. However, the grade becomes irrelevant when you are up on the wall trying at your own personal limit and putting every part of your soul into a route, it will certainly be hard to beat that feeling for a while.'
Emma wrote a full account of the successful one-day push:
'We set off, both a little nervous and unsure of what the day would bring but just trying to say it was a recce day, that other chances would come later in the week. We both knew this wasn't true. We arrived at the base of Cima Grande to a biting northerly Wind, every layer we had was thrown on to stay warm. Matt set off up the first 7b+ pitch, cruising to the belay in ice cold conditions. I knew I had to follow, nervously I set off, with big burly moves on pinches I knew this was not the ideal warm up pitch for me. At the end of the pitch I was relieved, we had made it through the tricky start.
I set off quickly on the second pitch to try and stay warm, my core temperature had dropped a lot and we had both suffered savage hot aches at the end of the first pitch after numb fingers and no sensation whilst climbing. I now battled some flash pump but managed to keep it together to arrive at the end of the 2nd pitch.
The 3rd pitch was the first 8a pitch, probably the best one too with fairly sustained and intricate climbing the whole way. I watched Matt fight hard low down but then cruise through the last hard moves on the mini roof - his sequences were working well. The numbness had returned for me, I set off unable to feel anything until just before the roof. I knew I didn't want to have to climb it again as I'd done most of the hard moves by then. I set off nervously through the last tricky section but forgot my foot sequences. Somehow I managed to wing it, I got lucky and arrived at the belay, we were now halfway through the hard pitches. The next 2 pitches at 7c and and 7a flowed fairly easily, both of us had been confident that we could climb these, but even with all the warm layers we had been taking my core wasn't warming up and the shivering would quickly return at each belay.
I needed to rest but I also knew I needed to try this bouldery pitch whilst I was warm so I decided to go after about 10 minutes. The cold kicked in and I couldn't feel my hands but somehow I arrived at the roof, hoping I could make it through. I set off for the 7 move boulder, quickly through the first tricky moves I was on the pinches, slapping out right hand to a flat jug, now I just had to move feet and get them above the lip of the roof. That's when my feet cut loose - 'this wasn't part of the plan!' went rushing through my head but it somehow turned the fight on in my brain. I suddenly power screamed my way through the last hard moves to get my feet established past the roof, that had been a real try hard fight and I let out a scream of delight at the belay. For now this team celebration was short lived, I put Matt on belay hoping he could also make it through this pitch and onto the home straight. I knew he would be fighting the cold from belaying for a while and also the mental battle of failing on this pitch the year before. He swarmed quickly up to the roof, rested and then blasted through the roof moves in way better style albeit still with a few power screams. I knew this pitch had suited him.
We were both at the end of the 6th pitch, elated to have done the hard climbing but still aware that we had 9 pitches to go with some dodgy rock and unknown territory. At the end of pitch 9 (6a) the route started to become a bit more trad style with the occasional rusty beg to the top of the Dibona Arete and onto the ringband. We also carried the haul bag at this point, I'm sure this sometimes felt harder and more intimidating than the climbing beneath us! We quickly summited to a beautiful sunset and cloud inversions before realising we'd been idiots and left our headtorches with the bag at the descent. On a rapid return we made it to the bag just before the dark and mist set in.