American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alone

After three ascents with a rope, it was time to cast the lifeline asunder. Witness what may he the most technically difficult free-solo climb in the Alps, on the Cima Grande, Dolomites.

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 2003

Beforehand, there was a feeling of fear, fear that I could make a mistake. If a hold broke, if I fell backward into the tremendous space, what would I think about? Would I be angry? What would happen when my body smashed onto the talus? Would I feel anything?

I also knew that I was familiar with every single meter of the Hasse-Brandler Direttissima on the north face of the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, having done the route four times recently. I was capable of controlling all the moves of the route, which had one pitch of 5.12a and four of 5.11. Yet during the day and the night before my climb, I was attacked again and again by ever-changing feelings. If I were to continue after reaching the “Point of No Return” 60 meters above the ground, then there was just one exit—finish the 500 meters of the face.

The hour-long hike to the base passed without my noticing the real world. A wild fight between my feelings of fear and confidence ensued, and every minute these feelings changed. I knew that once I began climbing, my positive feelings could control my actions. Yet I also felt that I would have only one chance—if I could not do it this day, then the overwhelming dimension of the 560-meter face would have knocked me away.

Restless, I hiked along the base of the wall, forward and backward, again and again. I sat down once again where the route began. I knew that my feelings, completely caught up by the idea, wouldn’t let me go before I would give it a try, yet I wished I had never thought of climbing the Direttissima free solo. But now I had no other choice; I was totally possessed, caught by the pressure that I had always wanted to avoid. My brain was stressed.

Having put on my climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and my helmet (this was all the gear I took with me), I left the ground. But I couldn’t feel what I was doing and was totally numb. This was no way to free solo a big face! I retreated to the ground. This was a moment of relief, however, since I knew that for the first 60 meters I had the chance to get my feelings under control, to change from fear-mode into super-high concentration.

Much more relaxed, I started again. The difficulties appeared to be easy, and I didn’t feel even a little bit of fear—I was 100 percent focused on the next move. When I reached the “Point of No Return,” I realized that the crux had been at the base: leaving the ground had been the greatest barrier. Under full control I climbed meters and meters of steep dolomite, move by move. I well remembered all the difficult sections from my previous climbs, and everything went well and smoothly, almost as if I were a machine.

After 50 minutes and 200 meters of climbing I reached a ledge just below the most difficult 100 meters. I felt tired—not my muscles but my brain. I had just done 50 minutes of the highest concentration climbing without a single second of rest. Needing a break, I lay on the ledge and looked straight up to the overhangs above, the most difficult and impressive part of the Direttissima.

After a 20-minute break I went on, completely focused on the next moves. Climbing the remaining 300 meters, move by move in an ever-constant rhythm, I found my emotions getting more intense. More and more I noticed the world around me—the clouds, the fog. The higher I went, the more relaxed I became, like a river whose rapids die in its delta.

Editors note: Huber was completely alone on this remarkable solo climb—the photographs shown here were taken several weeks later. Huber says that his route was “mentally, the hardest thing I have done in mountaineering. Regarding the danger, when I began the route I had my emotions well balanced and the knowledge that my mental strength was stable. Of course, this route is valid only for myself and any other free-solo climber with similar mental strengths.” To prepare for this climb, Huber spent six days training on the route with partners and alone. He also free-soloed a number of shorter climbs up to 5.13c.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Dolomites, Italy

Ascent: Free solo of the Direttissima, a.k.a. “Hasse-Brandler,” on the Cima Grande (500m, 20 “pitches,” 1 of 5.12a, 4 of 5.11, 4 of 5.10). August 1, 2002. The first 350m are continuously overhanging.

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