Years ago, I read of the exploits of Layton Kor and partners climbing on various walls. I was particularly fascinated by his description of a period when he climbed in the Dolomites of Northern Italy. Unfortunately, because of Layton, I didn't visit this area earlier. Layton had a reputation for pushing through the most horrendous routes seemingly unconcerned and unafraid while his partners were often terrified. Yet he described of the Dolomite walls as horrendously steep and frightening. I knew that anything that scared Layton Kor would have me shaking in my boots or worse. It wasn't until this summer that I built up the courage to go. Cinta and I were able to free up 10 days, not much time but better than nothing.

The Dolomites are a mountain range characterized by hundreds of Limestone formations. These can be up to 4000 feet in height. Magnificent vertical faces are everywhere. Our plan was to try out one or two easier walls and then move onto the Comici Route on the North face of the Cima Grande di Lavaredo. This famous wall is slightly overhanging for about 1000 feet and then is vertical to the top. Great trepidation was experienced as this plan was formulated.

Upon arrival, unsettled weather brought further negative thoughts to our minds. Following a comment by Layton Kor in one of his books, we decided to warm up on something easier and drove over to the Sella Towers, one of Laytons warm up climbs. We selected the third tower, since it was higher and the view would be better.  One gets extraordinary position on the entire route. We found route finding to be tricky and went off route twice. The descent was also quite an experience; with down climbing on easy but potentially loose grade five rock in very exposed positions over thousand feet drop offs. The third Sella Tower was a spectacular route and we were pleased to have done it.

The weather held off for the Sella Tower climb but got progressively worse for the remainder of the trip. We were forced to move to lower crags, mostly short sport climbing areas with some traditional cragging thrown in. This was a bit disappointing but at least it was dry and we could climb. The Cinque Torre turned out to be one of the better sport crags that I have ever visited, with excellent routes of all grades situated in a sublime alpine meadow with the Rosa massive towering in the distance. The other sport crags scattered near Cortina were pretty good too.

The Tres Cima de Lavarado is the spiritual home of the Dolomites. Unfortunately, we never actually saw this famous formation because it was constantly shrouded in fog. We wandered in the area three times, even getting lost in the fog on one occasion. We scrambled to the base and partially circumvented the formation, again in heavy fog. We had a similar experience at the Marmolada. Locals assured us that these formations were actually there. For an instance the clouds broke and we partially saw the Marmolada to prove that the locals were correct. We bought pictures instead.

Marshall Mclughlan once said something to the effect that the road is the most important Architecture in our society. This is true in the Dolomites. It would appear at first glance that these mountains would be inaccessible. Yet the landscape is laced with a network of roads paths and via ferratas. The via ferratta involves hiking up mountains clipping into fixed railings and ladders for the difficult and dangerous parts. These trails are incredibly exposed and allow access to some very special places.

Approaches to the climbs are generally hard and long, at least for us. The locals seemed to be able to perform incredible feats of endurance. Old men who appeared hopelessly out of shape were able to cycle up the passes and hike around the trails all day, feats that I wasn't up to. Descents from the walls are even more difficult and involve long and exposed down climbing if you can figure out which way to go. Extra time must be budgeted for the descents. I would advise that climbers study the descent in addition to the ascent before starting up.

The Dolomites are a large mountain range in which various towns can be used to access different sections. It takes a surprising amount of time to drive even small distances since the roads are never straight and seem to be either going up or down. Cortina d'Ampezzo is an expensive ski town that is located relatively central to many climbing areas. Since we didn't have much time, we camped close to Cortina and used it as our base of operation. Had we more time and the inclination we could have found cheaper accommodation elsewhere but overall this is a relatively expensive place to climb. A car is essential and expensive to rent locally.

Climbing at the Dolomites requires a full arsenal of climbing technique, some route finding knowledge, the ability to move quickly and the ability to protect routes. Also, some knowledge of mountain weather patterns would be useful. We totally lacked this ability. One day I asked a guide what the weather would be the next day. He said "like to-day". Maybe it always drizzles with rain up there.

It had always been a dream of mine to climb in the Dolomites. Following in the steps of Layton Kor, albeit only one small step wasn't as tough as I thought. Perhaps we will consider the Black Canyon of the Gunnison next. 

Bob Bennell
October 2001

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