Text and pictures © 1994-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"Never climb something you wouldn't want to downclimb..." — The 2nd rule of solo.
The following recalls 3 stories that almost ended up badly on the 3 longest routes of the Apennines. The small mountain range of Gran Sasso, the highest mountain of central Italy with its 2912m, can boast one of the biggest cliff of Europe with its 1600m facing the Adriatic sea. It's called Paretone (big wall). Its sheer size, loose rock and wild temperature variations have kept the number of routes going from base to summit to a minimum: only 3 are repeated regularly. Here are 3 horror stories on those routes...
2006 update: there's been recently two large rockfalls on Paretone, one very large on the 4th pillar and a smaller one right on the crux section of the North-East ridge.
September 7th 1996 — The weather is already cloudy when I park the car, but on Gran Sasso the storm usually starts later in the afternoon, it's only 7am and I know I'm going to be be fast. I know this route, I did the bottom half with a partner who begged to get out on the only escape, an exposed ledge about halfway up. The bottom part has a reputation of being poor rock but it's exaggerated. Lots of grass, yes, but no bad rock. Well, not much. After that shameful exit I came back the day after and rope-soloed the upper half. So this time I just want to link up the pieces. I'm light: rock shoes, shorts, T-shirt, 2 Mars bars, a pair of pants and a K-way.
A one hour jog on a forgotten shepherd trail takes me to the old refuge and then up increasingly steeper grass slopes. The first pitch is the worst of all: lots of grass with some rocks sticking out while I try to recognize the 2 or 3 rusty pitons that show the easiest way to pass. At the end of this pitch a couple of large drops of rain fall noisily. I wait 5 minutes, it calms down and I restart thinking that it's gonna be all for the day. I climb up a long chimney that, higher up, changes into a tunnel. I do some cleanup and the boulders go crash 200m lower. On the second chimney pitch I hesitate: last time I was inside and it was ugly and slimy. This time I opt out... way exposed and rotten rock. The rest is easier till the flower ledge, which is quite comfortable at that place. That's halfway up and that's also the escape we took last time.
Left: Jenny at the base of the north ridge of Paretone, on a later ascent.
Right: The North Ridge of Paretone, visible on the left of the Grand Sasso, after a good snow.
From there, a boulder move and 200m of easy ground take me to the crux: 50 meters of exposed IV+. The wind picks up brutally and it starts snowing ! There's an overhang with a large hole in it at the start of the pitch (green circle on the picture). I huddle inside and put on my pants and K-way. Bah, it's only 9:30, I'm going to wait for it to stop. I roll into a tight ball and fall asleep.
I wake up at 13:00 and there's 10cm of snow on the cliff !!! Mamma mia ! Here's the choice: stay here for the night and freeze to death, keep going and fall on an icy crux or get lost in the storm to reach the summit, or downclimb and try to escape via the flower ledge. It takes me a while to decide while I still hope for the end of the storm: let's downclimb.
After only 20 meters, something's not going well: my hands are totally insensitive. I go back to the cave, take my socks off, punch a hole on the side for my thumb and put them on my hands. I wait till 16:00 hopeful that the weather will clear. Not. There's now a good 15cm of snow. OK, I don't want to sleep here. Let's go.
Saying that it was harder than on the way up is an understatement: climbing shoes do not have much friction on snow... I have to clean all the holds with my hands before placing my foot on them (picture that going down). I get to the flower ledge without too much trouble but I have to stop there for a while to thaw my hands. It doesn't snow as much anymore and the temperature goes up a bit, melting the snow. The serious business starts now. There's so much water flowing down the cliff that it looks like the waterslides of MarinePark. I'm looking for this damn traverse holding on crimpers without any feeling above my forearms. It's supposed to be only IV, but I remember finding it much harder than IV last time. There's no rest at all on the last 70 meters and icy water flows through my sleeves.
20 meters from the bottom, exhaustion and hope clouding my judgment, both my feet slip on a snow-covered hold. The adrenaline jolt reminds me that it's better to arrive at the base slowly... Tomorrow I'll stay in bed.
Left: The Paretone, east face of Gran Sasso: on the left the Janetta couloir, on the right the North Ridge. Both routes exit on the N-E sub-summit of the oriental summit. The Haas-Acitelli gully is invisible, around the left edge.
Right: That's me holding my broken crampon in the middle of the face.
April 20th 1997 — I've been waiting for that one for a long time, but now the conditions seem to be perfect to tickle the longest route of Apennine. With my bad Italian, I haven't found any partner, so it's just gonna be one more solo. I've already tried this route with two friends but we got lost in the fog without even finding the start. This time I arrive in the afternoon to have some time to find marks. Easy, from the Black Fountain it's straight up, no need to look for a trail. I eat in the little restaurant of San Nicola, tiny village at the base of the mountain, and unroll my sleeping bag next to the car while burping my beers.
Three in the morning. Immediately I have to break trail on hard crusted snow. I get to the base of the route with the first light of day; late. The snow is better, the mixed climbing interesting. The guidebook says to go "up on the left of the dihedral and then traverse to it and then go to its right". I get into the dihedral and it's totally heinous for a IV+. And with the shining sun rocks are beginning to fall down the dihedral.
That can't be it; I go back down and try further left in herbal mixed while hesitating on continuing or not. It gets easier and I arrive again in the dihedral which is not so steep at this higher point, but the rock is dreadful. I don't even remove my crampons to climb it. Mistake.
I eat a Mars bar during a small break after exiting the dihedral, under the Farfalla, this huge wall shaped like a butterfly that harbors the hardest route of the area. From now on it's going to be a large slope of hard and good snow; with the perfect weather, I'm enjoying it to the max... until I hear a little tinkerbell noise. I look between my legs and I see 3 of the front points from my right crampon rolling down the slope ! (green circle on the picture). I dig a platform to check on the damage: yes, 3 out of 4 front points outright fell out, and also the metal ring that binds the shoe to the crampon. Aïe, aïe, aïe...
With my shoelaces I tie my newly remodeled crampon to my boot. I've already done the hardest part of the route, I'm not gonna go back down. I start climbing slowly: on snow I'm alright with my foot placed sideways (hope I won't keep a limp), on ice I climb only on one foot and on mixed it's treacherous. The shoelaces soften up with the humidity and I have to stop several times to tighten them up. It's slow going. The weather is crapping out, big clouds gathering on the summit still far ahead.
Just before loosing all visibility I manage to see that the normal direct exit is all in limestone slabs covered with verglas. Much too delicate for my limp. I attempt the steeper right exit couloir. Ice. 20 meters below the exit a short vertical move has me for a while: I have to put my right foot on a tiny rock sticking out of the ice and I cannot anchor my axes on the rock slab above. For a second the entire universe rests on one crampon point.
Left: View of the upper part of Paretone. The Janetta couloir is the obvious snow ramp.
At 11:00 I set foot on the sub-summit. I thought I'd be done for the day, but the wind from the other side is very violent and has already dumped 60cm of snow; the east face was sheltered. The visibility is reduced to one meter and I break my glasses trying to put them on. Not my day. Large snow slabs are already formed and I decide to come down the normal route. I spend an hour trying to find it and, never thinking I'd need my altimeter that day, I'm utterly lost. I have to crawl on all fours to get back to the sub-summit, but I'm not going to go back down the North Ridge, thanks.
I finally take the old Ricci ferrata that traverses a bunch of gullies where fresh snow avalanches happily crash down. Around 13:00 I reach the Franchetti refuge where a bunch of surprised climbers see me walk out of the storm with only one crampon and a crazy look in the eye. OK, tonight I'll go to a night club so I can rest.
Right: The East face of Corno Grande. The Haas-Acitelli gully on the left, the Janetta couloir on the right and the North Ridge on the right edge
April 98 — This couloir is the 2nd highest route of all central Italy, a very long snow couloir with a couple next to vertical sections of water ice. Friends have done it and recommend it as an excellent route. On saturday I climbed and skied the Bissolati gully, it was excellent hard snow. In the evening Jenny joins me at the refuge. We've met 8 months ago, we've done some rock climbing together but never any mountain climbing. The climb is gonna be good.
Left: Jenny at the base of the Haas-Acitelli couloir. Dawn already.
In the evening I feel too hot (first clue) at the refuge and it takes me a long time to fall asleep. In the morning we don't hear the alarm and we start an hour later than expected (2nd clue). No big deal I think, I've already soloed this route in 3 hours last year. The approach starts on the trail that leads to the South gully, the usual winter ascend route, but instead of going up at this point we have to go down the Hell valley, a large gully that goes diagonally down the face. Known for rockfalls, avalanches and a 100m overhang if you go too far down. The temperature is quite high and the snow turns soft and deep (3rd clue). At the base of the route, dawn shows us a huge avalanche cone, several hundred meters in height (4th clue). That's our route; well the base of it.
We rope up and simul climb 45° snow for an hour before reaching the first steep ice. The ice is dripping wet. I place a quick worthless screw and Jenny belays me while I climb those 10 meters. I give her a quick belay off my axes. There are a couple more ice steps like that. The sun is now up in full on this east facing couloir and we are really hot. We strip down a bit and just as I restart we hear the machine-gun noise of falling rocks: a bunch of fist size rocks are bouncing between the walls. One wheezes past me and hits Jenny on the side of the knee (5th clue). She's bent over for several minutes, short of breath, but otherwise OK. We'll see the bloody scar only later back home.
Right: Lower third of the Haas-Acitelli couloir.
At a certain point there's a 5 meters vertical snow wall. We place a piton and I take my time digging a pathway through it, very delicately. On top the couloir is very narrow, no more than 3 meters and the rock is smooth. I plant my axes in the hard snow and give a shoulder belay to Jenny.
She's inching delicately up the vertical snow when we hear a deep grumble. I look up. Right where I am the couloir is about 20° but continues up at 50° for 200 meters and then there's a mixed vertical section. I can't see above. Suddenly an avalanche jumps the mixed section and bounces between the wall (6th clue). A quick look on both sides: nowhere to hide. I scream to Jenny: "Hang tight !". The heavy snow hits me, picks me up and carries me down. My axes pop out of their holes. Snow piles up against my legs and chest as I'm moving backward, standing perfectly straight up. I try frantically to plant my feet in something, the side walls are out of reach. Then click, I feel one crampon hang onto something. I'm in equilibrium on one foot for an eternity while the snow pushes against me, around me. Finally the snow disappear down and I fall on my belly. I look at my foot and I see one point of one crampon placed precariously on a tiny protruding rock, 5 cm from the drop. The avalanche has jumped behind Jenny, still in precarious equilibrium, she's looking at me with a crazy look and goes: "What did you tell me that for !"
Left: Upper third of the Haas Acitelli couloir.
Right: A more relaxed Jenny in the upper part of the Haas-Acitelli couloir, after the dangerous part was over.
By now we know we are in deep shit. I look at the rock on the sides but it's been smoothed up by so many avalanches that there's no escape. Trapped. Let's run up. We decide to run without doing belays, one of the hardest decision I ever took: we have only two pitons and some ice screws that won't hold shit in this snow. As I reach the top of yet another steep section, my heart drops a beat when I see what's above: a funnel-shaped field of snow, 45°, big as several football fields and I can see where the past avalanche came from: a tiny section is missing at the base, no longer than 10 meters and one meter thick (last clue). And that almost got us... I go as far to the right as I can and belay Jenny. She's finished the steep section and she's coming towards me when we hear a loud snap. Did you put all the clues together as to what's gonna happen next ? The entire slope comes down and tries to squeeze between the walls of the couloir. She runs the last few meters to my sheltered spot. We see snow going down 10 meters deep inside the couloir. We gape for ten minutes.
Left: A tired Jenny on the summit of Corno Grande, after the ascent.
After seriously considering waiting for the night to cool things off we continue up the right side of the now much larger and less exposed couloir. One piton as as belay, 50 meters of rope, the other piton as another belay. 8 pitches like that and we hear someone calling us from the summit. A couple more minutes and we are on the oriental summit where a friend is waiting for us. Apparently he was at the Franchetti refuge further down when a call came. A guide with 7 clients was doing the Janetta gully on our right and an avalanche caught one of the parties. They did the Big Jump. On the radio he also heard from the other refuge that we were on the Haas-Aciteli and had come up to wait on us. This guy had a particular reason to worry: a couple years earlier he had been climbing on Paretone with two others on a long rock route; the leader fell, ripped off the belay and they all went down. The rope cut. His rope got caught by rocks and he was rescued with minor damage. Not his friends.
After many more hours to get back to the car, driving in a state of nervous exhaustion back to Rome, we are on the highway almost home when a jerk arriving at 200km/h in a big Mercedes decides that I'm not passing fast enough. He tries to 'push' me. Since I don't have any adrenaline left and hate this kind of moron, I just step on the breaks to see if he can stand the heat...
There's no moral, what did you think ? This is climbing...