The Brenta Dolomites
Paul T. Christie
“IF you enjoy rock climbing, you must do the Guglia di Brenta,” said our congenial Austrian acquaintance, sipping his coffee and looking up at the sleet-covered aiguilles of Chamonix.
We had just had a punishing, disappointing experience: trudged for five weary hours up slopes of soft snow, then at long last, when we had reached blessed, firm rock, had been driven down by a sleet-storm. Our friend’s assurance that the cabanes in the Dolomites had beds, that the climbs started almost at the doors of the cabanes, with no long marches d'approche, flattered my laziness, as Dumas would have put it. We owe that Austrian gentleman deep gratitude; all he claimed for the Brenta Group was true. The Rifugio Tuckett, the new Brenta hut, and the Rifugio della Tosa have rooms with beds, wash-basins, individual candles! You don’t have to get up before daylight to do your climbs. You can do one in the morning, return for lunch at the rifugio, then do another one in the afternoon. For any one wishing a vacation from his ice-axe and knapsack, from plodding snow-work, frost-bitten toes and fingers; for those wishing to test their gymnastic ability, and who enjoy aerial platforms; who like to breathe air of reasonable thickness and warmth ; for those who wish to get a maximum of thrill with a minimum of drudgery— for all these the Brenta Dolomites spell Heaven.
The Brenta Group is the most western of the Dolomites, close to the Swiss frontier (Engadine) and due north of Lake Garda. Madonna di Campiglio, which was our base, may be reached by bus or car from Bolzano or Trento. The road to Madonna di Campiglio from the north was rather steep and narrow in 1933. If you approach from the south. Molveno, just north of Trento, would be a logical center. Our party consisted of my St. George’s pupils, Barrington Moore. Jr., now at Williams, Wilson P. Ware, now at Yale, and myself. We spent about ten days on each of our visits to the Brenta. As the chronological order of our climbs is of personal interest only, I shall group them according to the cabanes from which they were made.
A three-hour walk from Madonna di Campiglio, mostly through delightful woods, brings you up to the Rifugio Tuckett (2268 m.). The main climb here is the Castelletto Inferiore (2600 m.), up which there are a number of routes. This mass of rock looks very imposing, yet the regular route is so easy that you could take your twelve-year-old niece up it, provided she were not subject to dizziness. Like most of these Dolomite towers, it is provided with numerous chimneys, ranging from very easy to very hard.
The hardest recognized route up the Castelletto Inferiore is the via Keene. Five minutes after you leave the rifugio you rope up, allowing at least twenty meters per climber. The first chimney, starting at the very foot, somewhat to the right of the summit, gives excellent practice in all the camina tricks: foot-and-back work (ramoner, as the French so aptly term it), straddling, traversing out of a niche made by a large chock-stone. A scramble, then an easy traverse to the left, brings you to the foot of a wall, which you climb, edging to the right. This is ticklish work and pitons with carabineri rings are essential for safety. You have to make long waits all alone in aerial spots, with perhaps all your weight on one foot and a hand. And here is where you wish you had taciturn Swiss guides. The leading guide begins a shouted argument with the guide below you, an argument which waxes in vehemence. Not knowing Italian, your anxiety grows, you become convinced that something dreadful is about to happen ; the leading guide can’t hang on and is about to fall, and the other is suggesting passionately that his comrade detach himself from the caravan rope before dropping. A devilish black bird with perverted humor swoops down past you, and only the dryness of your throats prevents your heart from popping up to your tonsils. Later, when we knew more about Italian and the Italians, we recognized these blood-curdling arguments as mild differences of opinion concerning the responsibility for upsetting the chianti last night, or “Where’s that cigarette I lent you last week ?”
After the wall comes some very easy stuff, then a long chimney, not difficult, but having many “detachable hand-holds,” and topped by a sloping trough filled with loose pebbles and stones. Get careless with your feet, or thoughtless with the rope, and those below are treated to a first-class bombardment. Then, sitting on a broad platform, we watched the leading guide do a little bit of Dolomite work at its best. He went up, started traversing to the left, stepped down and to the left, till his heels stuck out over a magnificent overhang, then straight up he went until out of sight; the rope ran fast (“the last bit must be duck soup,” I thought), the rope stopped, “Avante!” shouted the guide and I enjoyed every second of the next ten minutes, for the holds were positive, the sun was warm on my back, my friends on the platform below were watching me and jeering at the tear in my trousers. As Tony the porter we had left below, had scrambled up the ordinary route with bottles of beer, which awaited us in a snow-drift, we voted the via Keene a grand climb. One climber with a guide could do the via Keene in three hours.
After lunch at the Rifugio Tuckett you can walk up to the Bocca (col) di Tuckett, or go up to the Dente di Sella (2910 m.; three hours, mostly snow), from which there is a fine view to the south. We regretted not having skis for the descent from the Dente di Sella ; the glissading was grand fun. We stopped during the descent to climb the Castelletto Superiore, an interesting half-hour rock climb.
An hour’s fast walk from the Tuckett, skirting the cliffs, brings you to the new Rifugio di Brenta. From this hut the traverse of the Crozzon di Brenta (3100 m.) can be done "by the face,” a long, difficult climb, made famous bv King Albert’s climb in 1933. Impossible when melting snow send cascades down the intended route. A first-class chimney, the Camina di Brenta, rises almost from the door of the hut. It was first climbed (except by a guide) by Barrington Moore, Jr., in 1931. Both at that time, and two years later, when Wilson Ware and I did it, this camina was a very wet affair, with slime on the walls, little cascades down the middle. Late in the season it should be dry and much easier. Count on two hours’ work and have plenty of rope and two or three pitons. There are several other good climbs from the Brenta hut, among them the Campanile Alta.
The path from the Rifugio di Brenta to the Rifugio della Tosa skirts the foot of the cliffs for about half an hour, leaving you at the foot of a fairly steep pitch of snow. Up this you labor for another half hour, leaving the famous Campanile Basso on your left, and arrive at the Bocca di Brenta (2550 m.), with the Rifugio della Tosa just ahead of you.
There is a great wealth of climbs from the Tosa; the obvious one is to step out of the front door and scramble up the Crocce del Rifugio. The ordinary (“solita”) route is very easy. An interesting way is by the via Gasperi, straight up the face. Not difficult, but a long caravan must proceed with great care to avoid loosening stones. A route presenting some first-class difficulties is the Camina Piaz, on the north face. A disagreeable chimney, no sun, plenty of snow, wet rock in July, and occasional loose stones. The difficulties consist of a few petites misères, as the Chamonix guides express it, after which you get into a small cave roofed by a huge chock-stone. Stepping on the shoulder of the man behind you, you climb a few feet, traversing until you can put a hand or elbow on the chock-stone, which slopes the wrong way. Then comes the proverbial pig-shearing: much grunting with little gain. Only pressure-holds. The friction of your clothes keep you from slithering back, but adds enormously to the effort of getting up. My eyes nearly popped out with the strain of rising those four feet, but I had the sardonic pleasure of hearing my young companion grunt and gasp as heartily, I hoped, as I did. Wilson, who had the misfortune of being last on the rope, had to start scratch, with no obliging shoulder to step on. I cannot understand how he had enough strength left for that last elbow-push. The next niche is good fun : you go deep in. step on to the left face, traverse until you are out of the chimney, then go up. Not difficult, but you must plan carefully in order to avoid putting the right foot where the left should be. The rest of the climb is an easy scramble. Total time about three hours.
The Crozzon di Brenta (3100 m.) is usually done from the Tosa. It is mostly a long snow-climb, followed by rock, A total of about five hours, we were told. What we enjoyed doing during the afternoons was practicing on the chimneys behind the rifugio. There are several of about 100 ft. in height, and offering splendid gymnastic drill. There is also a line rappel, of which over 100 ft. is overhanging. Wth the comparatively thin clothing we wore in the Dolomites, we found that to rappel down a hundred-foot overhang was no laughing matter except for the spectator. Two of us developed welt on the tender portions of our thighs which, for several days, made us wince at the mere sight of a rappel rope.
The Cima Margherita, in addition to the via solita, offers a splendid aerial route: from the foot of the west face, directly under the summit, straight up. There are no real difficulties, the rock is warm and dry, free from loose stones. Tiny platforms over almost sheer drops; heavenly for those who enjoy being where they should be dizzy, but aren’t. The descent starts down a slope on the other side, where you hop and skip—most of the hops being motivated by stones which those above you have sent down, with tardy shouts of “Attenti al treno !”, a humorous warning which nauseates you after the hundredth time. But there is one grand moment on the way down: a traverse on the left (facing the mountain) where you are forced for a few seconds to lean backwards over an 800-ft. drop. Just beyond this spot is an excellent platform from which thrilling snapshots can be taken of those who follow you. Intelligent use of pitons and carabineri rings render the manoeuvre as safe as walking up the aisle in church, but the picture you get will give your family a shock. The descent ends almost where you began the climb. Total time, four or five hours.
Almost a stone’s throw, or to be exact, a David’s sling throw, from the Rifugio della Tosa, rises the west ridge of the Brenta Alta from the Bocca di Brenta, a series of platforms separated by perpendicular steps. We did a première up this; that is, Barrington and Wilson did it honestly, whereas I cheated ; twice I began to loose my balance and had to cling to the caravan rope while looking for an orthodox hold. This climb furnishes an illustration of how unreliable is the word “difficult.” Barrington claims that it was no harder than the Camina di Brenta, a statement which seemed absurd to me. Probably the fact that I was suffering from a mild attack of water-on-the-knee when we did the Brenta Alta ridge gave me an exaggerated impression of its difficulty. Or, perhaps, Barrington did the Camina after eating green apples. We did not go all the way to the top of the Brenta Alta, as the last part would have been a dull scramble ; hail and rain were starting to fall, and I was hungry.
The finest climb from the Tosa hut, some claim the finest in all the Dolomites, is the Campanile Basso (2420 m.), or Guglia di Brenta, to give it its pre-war name. An approach of about an hour, mostly up a steep snow and ice gully, you reach the narrow col between the Guglia and the Brenta Alta, leave your axe. put on rope-soled shoes, and rope up. Don’t let the guide persuade you to leave your camera behind : a folding kodak, strapped to your belt behind you will in no way hamper you in the difficult spots. After a few grunts in the first chimney, you reach a wide platform, traverse to the right, then meet the first difficulty: a rising traverse to the right. Not difficult, but délicat. Follows a series of rather easy chimneys and scrambles. You will find that the Guglia, which looks absolutely impossible from a distance, is easy nine-tenths of the way, or only moderately difficult. Half way up is a great boulevard of a platform, like one of the terraces of a Doré picture of the Tower of Babel. You follow this to the right until you are half way round the mountain. A few fairly strenuous chimneys and a slightly ticklish plaque, and you are on the King Albert platform. On his first visit to the Brenta, we are told, King Albert reached this platform. His aide, after watching the guide make the traverse which immediately follows this platform, persuaded His Maesty that a king had no right to go further. The King came back the following year, I imagine with a different aide, and finished the climb. But my sympathies are with the aide who said “No.” As I watched Barrington traverse to the left along the face of that perpendicular wall, with only finger-and-toe-holds, heels sticking out over a sickening gulf, and disappear around the corner, I felt downright jittery, as well as provoked at having no camera. However, when my own turn came, I almost laughed, for the holds were crisp and sharp, as positive as the rungs of a ladder. The platform following the traverse, though narrow, was ample and well provided with pitons and rings.
From this point started the really ticklish bit, by far the hardest and dizziest of the whole climb. Gratefully I noted that Silvio untied us from his rope; such little acts of consideration for my absurd qualms are what endear a guide to me !
Silvio climbed straight up some thirty feet, perpendicular at first, then sloping; traversed to the left, climbing a little; went up a crack leading to the right, and disappeared. About seventy feet of rope was paid out before he shouted to follow. As the direction of the rope gave little indication of the route, he promised to leave a bit of paper at the all-important spot where the first traverse began. Barrington went up, slowly, deliberately, apparently meeting no undue difficulties. My turn came, and I found the going slow but feasible. There was the bit of paper, sticking greasily in a hand-hold. I started traversing to the left, finding the going increasingly difficult, almost impossible. I shouted up that I was unfavorably impressed with the chances of further progress. “Avante ! keep traversing,” came the impatient answer. I edged along a few inches further, feeling with my left hand for any holds too inconspicuous to be visible. My admiration for Barrington’s climbing grew to a belief in miracles, then to dark suspicion. Shouting for more slack on the rope, I retraced my crab-walk to the greasy bit of paper and looked around. There, ten feet above was another bit of paper, the bit of paper. A whimsical breeze had blown a piece of sausage wrapper to the spot best calculated to deceive me. On rejoining those above, I found that nothing remained of the climb but a few minutes of scrambling. In the cairn at the top was a zinc box, containing the usual book of signatures, among them, “Albert, roi des Belges.”
The descent consisted of a long rappel, a hurry to the next platform, another rappel, and so on. As fine a series of rappels as anywhere, even including those on the Mummery-Ravenel. Time : five hours up, two or three down.
Two days later we read in the papers that there had been a severe earthquake in southern Italy while we were on the Guglia. I wondered how we should have felt had this occurred in the Brenta. I recalled how unnerved I had been once in Asia Minor, when the floor shook under my feet and outside was the clatter of tiles showering from the roof. How should we have felt if, when we were part way up a cliff, the rock had begun to quiver, as we clung, like bugs on a tablecloth being shaken out of a window, huge boulders hurtling and thundering past us !
Two years later Barrington, Wilson and I started to climb this same Guglia by the Ferrand-Smith route. At the end of three hours we were a third of the way up, having just completed a long, wedge-shaped chimney, or trough, with no positive holds and a taxing little overhang. I was filled with wonder at the way those boys were climbing : Wilson calmly overcoming the handicap of being last on the rope, Barrington going up steadily with masterful skill. He had just started the next chimney when there was a roar and a clatter, a large stone struck his knee-cap. That ended the season’s climbing, but did not hamper “Barry” in future years. It was the only serious accident of our seven seasons of climbing together.
I have purposely omitted all reference to the beauty and grandeur of the Dolomites, so much more impressive when you live up among them than they appear from the valleys below. As Priestley writes of the Grand Canyon : “Those who have not seen it will not believe any possible description. Those who have seen it know that it cannot be described.”