So whilst all the rock around Ailefroide is granite, and Im on the road next to Val di Mello, also granite, I cant forget that Im going to be trying some pretty hard routes in the Dolomites, and so I cant ignore limestone forever. I have a very love-hate relationship with this rock. When its good, its very very good, but when its bad its plain awful. Apart from the inevitable chossy grooves in the Picos, I learned quickly to enjoy the features there – cool water runnels that required weird technique, pocketed faces that opened up seemingly blank lines, even good jamming cracks! The friction was even surprisingly good, as the rock was quite freshly eroded, coarse-grained and the routes not too frequented. Im realising that Picos limestone is unusual in this respect.
Many other places that I have been, this has not been the case, and nothing makes this climber more shaky than not trusting his feet, or indeed the solidity of the rock itself. I have backed off routes, overgripped to the point of pump, and generally just had a hard time on limestone in many countries.
I met up with Isabelle, a polish student living in Briancon, and was invited for a morning’s sport climbing, and later a proper long route in the peaks just west of the town. She had very little English, and Isuspect her french had a Polish accent. This provided a significant challenge to my very poor linguistic skills, but she seemed to mostly understand my butchered highschool French, mostly. The sport was fun enough, in a cool gorge, shaded from the sun and with its own breeze. I enjoyed simply having to pull really hard on small holds for a change. A welcome break from slabs. But already I found myself tiring more quickly as I simply couldnt put any weight on my feet, for fear they would blow.
At the weekend, she suggested climbing Moulinsart (TD+ 350m 10 pitches, fully equipped) on the Vallon de la Moulette main buttress. I camped up at the col above Saint Chauffery, remembering when I had last been in the area – a school ski trip to Serre Chevalier aged 15! The night was cold with a strong north wind blowing over the col. In the morning we met up and hiked the two hours to the base of the route, Its an easy trail, largely flat as it contours around the base of the mountain via Col de Buffere, so long as you then keep to the lower trail to get into the main basin, and dont get tricked into going up smaller trails too soon (like us). We past shrieking marmots but there was not another climber to be seen. Such a contrast from the throngs of Ailefroide, where a 20 minute walk-in is regarded as a bit committing!
Leaving Francesca, the faithful crag-dog, at the base to chill in the sun we identified our bolt-line and set off up the initial slabs. The wall looks impressive and intimidating, steepening quickly to a large face devoid of large features. The grades increased with the inclination, with a tough 7a section at the end of P4, and a puzzling 6c slab sequence at the end of P5. Isabelle displayed a remarkably ‘french’ attitude to the difficulties, pulling on the draws when it got too hard (an approach I fail to understand unless repointing a sport route, surely better just to do a route one is capable of?).
After half-way the face tailed off dramatically, relaxing into several pitches of 5c, where the route seemed to wander illogically, as if trying to keep up the technical interest longer than the buttress naturally provided. It was an enjoyable enough route, in an undeniably scenic setting, but it did remind me of all my limestone reservations discussed above. The crimps were invariably razor-sharp, the slopers devoid of usable friction, and whenever a diedre, crack or other meta-feature appeared, the rock quality deteriorated to untrustworthy. Many abseils, a long walk in the encroaching dark, crescent moon silouettes and a lost-dog later, we made it back to the van and welcome beer.
What is it about this rock-type, or perhaps climb-type, that makes me so uncharacteristically un-psyched about it? I feel odd writing publically, and not being 100% positive about the experience. Is it just the geological characteristics that I find more challenging, and so (rather childishly perhaps) I decide I dont like it? Or could it be the approach of bolting routes that seems to be totally out-of-touch with the shape of the mountain itself – in search of an abstract, sport-like aesthetic of movement, rather than exploring and understanding the form of the mountain itself? Is that why I like trad? Perhaps Im over-thinking it.
Neither of us leaped at the chance to do another route the next day, so I got a lie-in and a relaxed start to my long drive to Mello (meeting up initially with Ed, and granite again, phew!). In the back of my mind is the fact that I will return here in around a month, with Dario, to climb Ranxerox. Lets hope its classic status is justified and it is able to make me fall in love with limestone again!
Thanks Isabelle, and Ciao fer now!