“It’s not for Pleasure but for the Challenge” said Matt, This one sentence alone sums up alpine rock but I feel it needs some context.
It’s the second day of the Advanced Alpinism course and we’ve just outrun the more than timely afternoon storm back to the Sciora hut. That day I felt like we’d all been challenged. We’d set off at 0800 that morning and after the hour long walk we’re at the bottom of the Torre Innominata. Two of us sitting atop a bergschrund and two standing in it looking up at a 8 pitch route. This route goes at 6b with obligatory 6a climbing so we know it's going to be interesting. Especially as he frequent storms have inevitably left some of the pitches wet but from our rather poor vantage point its relatively impossible to tell which and besides if we were to wait for perfect conditions we’d be back at the hut looking wistfully out of the window.The plan is to climb as two pairs, Owen my guide and I first, then Harry and his guide Matt second.
The climb starts with a 5c pitch up a slab requiring one point of aid. Owen quickly sets off confidently leading the pitch and before I know it I’m wiping the snow off my rock shoes and starting up behind him. I arrive at blank section of rock with a quickdraw and 3m of traverse before the route continues; with some bemused thoughts of how the hell did Owen do this. I flag my right leg behind me and drop left hip into the wall and do possibly the biggest rock over on the tiniest granite nodule you could imagine and make it across. Owen shouts down at me ‘How’d you do that?’ I explain and he promptly points out it was an aid section and I was suppose to ‘French Free’ it (pull on gear to get across). I give myself a silent ‘go James’ (little victories are what you need here) and continue climbing. Matt has already started leading up behind and making ground all the time. This is what they mean by being alpine fast.
The next few pitches go well until we arrive at the second hardest pitch on the climb (going at 6a+) it's sopping wet, and it’s a slab. This is not a dream combination by any means. Owen asks me to watch him closely as he leads up. His skill as climber and a guide really shine here. Every move is confident and solid. More Importantly, he isn’t only thinking of protecting himself for the climb but making sure that myself, Matt and Harry have an easier and safer time of it. Owen leaves slings out for us to pull on where the route might be too wet and slippery for our unpractised client hands and feet. I'm glad of this after all, for me anyway, I’m a trad climber who goes out of his way avoid the merest suggestion of damp rock routes. This is also where the fun begins! Owen arrives at the belay and then begins to rain down profanity. The anchor is atop a ‘cornflake’ This is a term I could of gone the rest of my life without hearing. It means the flake is basically held to the face in a similar way that a damp cornflake might be held to a breakfast bowl. He warns me of the flake and instead of setting up a belay here he links into the next pitch and continues climbing quickly going out of sight. The next thing I know I’m climbing, gunning to get past the large detached flake for both my own safety and those behind me, lest I be the one to fall and kick it free. We’re all get past this point safely and suddenly arrive in the sun. The rock is dry and the climbing eases off. We finish the route in good style, the 6b pitch goes easily it’s a lay back to fist crack with good feet and I’m not leading it anyway. So I relax and with a few grunts and murmurs before I ease into the fist crack. (I hate lay backing. this is the complete reverse for Harry. He shames me with his lay backing prowess but hates jamming). I have grown to love jamming which certainly gives me an easier time on alpine rock and to quote Stevie Haston, you could hang a bus off me when I’m jamming.
So great, we’re on top of the route now, this is where you relax right? Wrong?! To get back down we have to traverse across the ridge, abseil down to a bit of high consequence grade II scrambling then along another ridge to a snow field, this is all before we get to the meat of the descent. The aforementioned meat is known as the Cacciabella pass. I think it’s Italian for (F**k that if you think I’m going to down here pass?!?!). This pass consists of a few hundred metres of bolted chains and ladders, let go of said chains and ladders and you’ll get down all the quicker if you get my drift. Owen seems delighted to point out all the sections of chains that have fused together because of lightning strike, and the bent rungs where snow and rocks have taken their toll. This is so far out of my comfort zone my discomfort has lapped itself.
We get down and the heavens open, well at least it waited until we're safely at the valley floor. From here we move with haste back to the hut. I’m fried, not physically mind, but mentally. All I learned on this route is running around my head. I now have an enhanced respect for the mountains, I’m sharper as a climber, safer as hiker. Amazingly these enhancements were all just passively absorbed. There wasn’t time for lengthy explanations or the need. I watched, listened and experienced. When I had questions they were asked on the way to and from the huts. As a result, I know the basis of a perfect pack and it’s contents. The importance of getting the chalet host on side. How every gram counts, and most importantly knowing what the weather is going to do even if it doesn’t know itself. I experienced so much on this course and I felt challenged every minute of it. This is what advanced alpinism is, extreme type II fun and as you see you don't do it for the pleasure but for the challenge!