Mid-afternoon and the air was filled with hot, sticky summer heat as we stepped out of the lower terminal of Linate Airport in Milan, Italy. I was with my climbing partner, Wyeth Larson, who I had met while working at Mountain Gear in Spokane. With rental car keys in hand, we were tracking down some of the world’s best rock climbing.
As we bombed down the autostrade, Italy’s highway system, I glanced over and saw the speedometer needle buried on our SmartCar. So this is what it’s like to be shot out of a potato gun, I thought. We made good time between Milan and the mountain village of Dobbiaco, our base camp in the Dolomites.
Located in northeastern Italy, the Dolomite Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for spectacularly precipitous rock peaks.
Year-round adventure is woven into the area’s fabric. Beautiful mountain roads accommodate multi-day bicycle tours and mountain bikers ride single tracks that have pedal-stopping scenery.
Winter opens the door to hut-to-hut backcountry skiing and more than 600 miles of Nordic skiing slopes.
And being home to so many impressive vertical walls, the Dolomites have been a popular climbing destination for generations.
Wyeth and I heard several foreboding stories about climbing in the Dolomites during our trip planning. Many warned of loose rock, long runouts and nasty weather. Which is why we opted to spend the majority of our limited budget to hire Gery Unterasinger, a fun loving, highly skilled, Austrian mountain guide.
Steep mountains interrupted the last afternoon sunlight as we turned onto a side road and around a small pristine lake to our campground. It doesn’t take long to unpack a SmartCar. Once our tent was up and dinner was down the hatch, we promptly crashed.
Tired from a long day of travel, I still tossed and turned in my sleeping bag that night.
I was obsessing over the most well-known peak in the Dolomites named Tre Cime di Lavaredo. I was in the mindset of “peak begging,” as climbers call it. My trip objective became focused on climbing one particular route on Tre Cime known as Yellow Edge.
Waking up to a perfect, crisp, mountain morning, we headed south in Gery’s 1980’s Citroen on a narrow road through soaring peaks to Cinque Torre (five towers). We hiked to the base of a tall tower, where Gery told us to drop our gear and follow him around the corner.
“You know the movie Cliffhanger?” he said.
We nodded, reminded of the dramatic death-defying climbing scenes.
“Right here,” he said, extending his arm like a tour guide, “where you see all the rock is cleared and made flat is where Stallone hung two feet off the ground and did pull ups on this rock ledge.”
Hollywood’s comical distortion of reality gave us a good laugh.
Popular climbing routes get pretty crowded in the Dolomites, but we lucked out and had only a party of two ahead of us on Gery’s chosen route.
At the top, I slid off my tight climbing shoes and stood barefoot on a large rock. In one slow 360-degree turn I looked with amazement at all the giant mountains jutting out of the earth.
After a long rappel to the ground the looming storm clouds finally caught us. Within minutes, rain rushed over the rocks. Booming thunder echoed from every ridgeline and bright streaks of lightning lit up the gray sky.
We took shelter under an overhanging section of one tower. While considering our options, a lightning bolt flashed orange and struck close to us. We called it a day.
On the drive back I asked Gery about the possibility of climbing the Yellow Edge. I hoped his assessment of our climbing ability after the first day convinced him that Wyeth and I had the strength and skill for such a long, stout route.
“I don’t know. The weather forecast is uncertain for tomorrow. I will let you know the plan when I pick you up in the morning.”
That evening Wyeth and I drove to a grocery store to restock on snack food for staying energized while climbing long routes. I kept imagining us standing on top of Yellow Edge, enjoying dried apricots or chocolate biscuits, basking in our accomplishment.
The next morning Gery arrived with his typical smile, showcasing his true enjoyment of living a life in the mountains. I was excited to know the day’s objective. With his Austrian accent Gery broke the news. “I know you want to climb a route on Tre Cime but the weather prediction is too unstable for today, so we will climb a nice wall on the other side of the valley that should stay dry for us.”
Hiring skilled mountain guides for their climbing ability and local knowledge is only a part of what you pay for, I realized that day. How guides like Gery negotiate the aspirations of guests is a highly refined skill.
Gery knew the Yellow Edge was not a logical objective that day regardless of weather conditions. Only after an awesome day of climbing did I understand.
I left the Dolomites without bagging Tre Cime. It was the guide who brought me to the epiphany that a perfect day of climbing has very little to do with standing on top of a popular peak.