Fear. The persistent feeling that I’ve not been able to shake for the last week but we’re here now and there is no way out. It’s the night before we set off to climb the Comici on Cima Grande, one of the classic Great North Face routes but it isn’t the route I’m scared of, it’s letting my partner down.
The 6 Great North Faces
In the French uber-guide, Gaston Rebuffat’s, 1954 book, Etoiles et Tempêtes – Starlight and Storm – he first chronicled these huge and committing climbs. Including the north faces of the Eiger, Grandes Jorasses, Matterhorn, Drus, Piz Badile, and Tre Cime, these climbs and ticking the whole list are at the top of any alpinists wish list.
These inspiring and mythical routes have long been on my wish list but, so far, been out of reach. Sure I could find a more experienced climber to climb with who would look after the bulk of the difficulties but I want to climb these routes in my own right, to know that I belong on them, leading my fair share.
This winter, Tim Howell – aka t1twenty – climbed the 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger. While on the climb, he couldn’t help noticing a perfect exit point for a wingsuit BASE jump. Once down, he couldn’t shake the idea that he should go back and jump the route he spent nearly 3 days scaling. Certainly a much quicker way to cover the distance!
From this seed, his North BASE project was born – to climb and jump the 6 great north faces, a world first.
My invitation to climb Tre Cime
As Tim told me about his project he mentioned that his next target was Tre Cime. In passing I mentioned how it was my dream to climb these routes too and he quickly suggested we team up on his next challenge.
Tim and I have known each other for several years now but have never been on any major routes together. In fact, we’ve failed on more routes than we’ve succeeded. However, what had become apparent was that we got on together, trusted each other, and thus climbed well together.
Just to make sure, we organised a short trip into Italy in May to get out on some sport climbing, see if several days non-stop with each other would be a problem, and actually make sure I’m good enough to climb the route.
Tim is a much stronger climber and the grade on Tre Cime would be at my absolute limit but, after 3 days on Italian limestone, we both decided it would be worth a shot.
After a few warm up routes, before I knew it it was the night before the big day and that lingering fear was ever present like an itch I could not scratch. As I read about the route for the hundredth time, I realised that I wasn’t actually scared of the climb – it would be what it would be, I have both the experience and the common sense when to push on and when to bail and was confident I could look after my own safety.
What I couldn’t be sure of was my ability to actually get up the climb. Sure, with enough time and enough help, I’m sure I could find a way but what if it was too much for me. I am happy to bail if necessary but I can’t be the reason Tim doesn’t get up the route. I couldn’t do that to him – he had put too much work into getting here and I just couldn’t be the weakest link.
Climbing Tre Cime
After a restless night’s sleep on a car park floor – our base camp – we got up at 4am and started making breakfast. Just 30 minutes later and we started the hour long approach to the base of the climb. As we walked across broken rock and loose scree, I couldn’t shake the feeling that ‘oh, what if I slip and turn an ankle, maybe then I can bail and someone could take my place?’.
Where was this coming from? I genuinely wanted to climb this route but was looking for outs. As we stopped for brief toilet break I quietly had a word with myself. I can do this. I want to do this. I will do this.
A popular route, we were suprised to find ourselves the first team at the bottom. Quickly soloing the first few easy pitches, we got to the start of the difficulties just as the sun was rising. Above us lay 550m of overhanging rock with the first 8 pitches being very difficult and sustained, the second 8 easing off slightly but at the cost of being much bolder and mentally harder.
And so we started. Instantly, all my fears disappeared. Though difficult, the climbing was immediately of superb quality that was just an utter pleasure to be on. We made an executive decision early on to french-free the route – meaning pulling on slings or protection if necessary. Though not a pure, clean ascent, this was also the manner that the first ascensionist used – if it is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
As we made progress, the wall started to come alive. There were other parties all over it and, with the natural amphitheatre shape of the wall, we could clearly hear all of them having the times of their lives.
Alex Lowe, one of the greatest climbers of his generation, once said “The best climber is the one having the most fun”. Well, were among the best climbers in the world that as everywhere you looked you saw people grinning ear to ear, heard laughter, and whoops of joy at enjoying more and more fine rock.
As I battled up pitch 8 and finally climbed around a roof and onto a large ledge, I let out a huge sigh of relief. I had just got past the last hard pitch. The route was in the bag. Though we still had over 250m of steep technical climbing, it wasn’t getting any harder and I knew we could make it.
The route really doesn’t give itself up easily, pitches with running water flowing down them, tricky route finding, and just the sheer length of the day, by the time I topped out of the last pitch I was spent but ecstatic.
The guidebook advises 6 – 12 hours for the route. I hoped beyond hope that we would make it in 12 – 13. We made it up in 10 hours, crushing it. Now all was left was for me to watch my friend throw himself off the face..
Wingsuit BASE jumping Tre Cime
On a ice climbing trip in 2013 I had first seen Tim jump. This was a ski BASE – basically he built a little kicker at the top of a cliff face, strapped on his skis and went James Bond on us, hurtling himself off the jump, launching into nothing, and thankfully successfully completing a first for him.
Since then I have followed his jumps online but not been there in the flesh. As he prepared to jump Tre Cime, I got very nervous. I like Tim, he is a really great guy and the last thing I want is for anything to go wrong.
As he made his way to the exit point, I was left on filming duty as our two friends and camera men had got lost on the way up.. Watching him gear up was nerve-wracking but his processes and methodicalness started to put me at ease. A little. Suddenly he was calling for me to start filming and, before I knew it, he was gone. It really was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen, falling then gliding away down to the ground 550m below me.
With Tim jumping and the other guys lost, I packed up mine and Tim’s gear and started the long descent, on my own, back to the car. This alone time was really quite special as it gave me some time to start processing what we had achieved. Thankfully, I found the guys about half way down and sharing the last of the descent with them gave me people to excitedly repeat myself to.
We had made it, my first Great North Face route.
Now, which one is next..?