Wednesday, 2 August 2017

from the archives: dolomite diversion

I travelled abroad for the first time in 1966, when I was still a teenager. My companions were two fellow students from Manchester—the same two students who had introduced me to rock climbing only a few months earlier, which I mention only because climbing was our reason for going abroad in the first place.

Our first intended destination was Innsbruck in Austria. We’d booked tickets for a train that had been organized by the Anglo-Austrian Alpine Club (AAAC), and we got off to a less than auspicious start by boarding the wrong train in Ostend! The carriages of this train were emblazoned with the AAAC logo, which misled us even though we did notice that the destination boards on the sides of the carriages read ‘Wien’. We had no idea at the time that this was the German word for Vienna.

Every seat on the train had been pre-booked, so without a booking for this specific train, we had no option but to sit on our rucksacks in the corridor. This was an overnight train, but sleeping on a train where you don’t even have a seat is not an option. We thought that it was merely our bad luck at first, but our tickets included a list of towns and cities that our train was meant to pass through, and it didn’t take us long to realize that we weren’t passing through any of them. Incidentally, our tickets were supposed to have our names on them, but I can still remember the name that the AAAC had given me. I often used to be complimented on the neatness of my handwriting, so how the club concluded that my name was ‘Downis Hoolison’ is a question to which I shall never find the answer.

Anyway, by the time we reached Nuremberg, we’d decided that our best option would be to leave this train, with all our gear, and catch a train to Munich, which our intended train was scheduled to pass through. So that’s what we did. No tickets. We didn’t think we needed them.

Of course, we did encounter a ticket inspector on this early-morning train. I’ve often wondered what he made of whatever feeble explanations we offered for being on his train without tickets.

“Stupid Englanders!” he probably thought.

Fortunately, he didn’t ask to check my ticket against my passport, or he might have spotted the discrepancy in names. And he did allow us to continue our journey without paying. And we did manage to join the train we should have caught in the first place in Munich. After all that, the remainder of the journey was utterly unmemorable.

However, Innsbruck turned out to be a mistake. We had thought of stopping off there for a few days to do some ‘mountaineering’ before continuing to our ultimate destination, the Dolomites in northern Italy, but we quickly realized that this was overly optimistic. You may detect a lack of planning on this excursion to date.

The following day, we caught the first available train to Bolzano and trekked up into a steeply rising valley flanked by towering walls of magnesian limestone. Conventional limestone consists of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate), which is soluble in a weak solution of carbonic acid, another term for rainwater. Magnesian limestone, on the other hand, is made up of the mineral dolomite, which differs from calcite in that half the calcium atoms have been replaced by magnesium, and these are arranged in precisely alternating positions in the lattice. This makes dolomite more resistant to weathering than calcite, hence the towers and spires that I was seeing all around me. Our ‘plan’ was to reach a small rifugio (‘refuge’), or mountain hut, where we would spend the night before continuing. And this is what faced us the following morning:

The sunlit spire on the right is a profile of the three Vajolet Towers, which we aspired to climb. But first we had to reach the next rifugio, which is up to the left and out of sight but was ideally located for our ‘planned’ assault on the towers. I haven’t mentioned it before, but as a first-timer abroad, I hadn’t cottoned on to the need to travel light. In addition to my climber’s rucksack, which was a crude affair compared with what you can buy nowadays, I’d brought a holdall. As you can imagine, lugging all that up that hill was not pretty.

Anyway, this is what the towers look like from the rifugio:

We had intended to tackle the left-hand tower first, but we came under the watchful eye of an Austrian climber, several years older than me, who appeared to be alone. He noted that there were three of us, and a rope of three will take almost twice as long to complete a given climb than a rope of two. Would one of us like to climb with him? I was always going to be the odd man out here, because my friends had known each other before they knew me, so we arranged to meet the next morning to climb the central tower.

“Too many mousquetons!” said Max imperiously, as he watched me walk towards him.

I had half a dozen rope slings around my neck, each with a metal snaplink attached. I remember thinking at the time: how strange; someone whose native tongue is German (presumably) chooses to use a French word. Perhaps he thinks we won’t know what a karabiner is.

Anyway, we set off, and I quickly noticed that Max was using a ‘direct belay’ protection method, a primitive safety precaution that involves temporarily allowing the rope to run behind a flake or spike of rock, so that if Max, in this case, happened to slip, he wouldn’t fall as far as he would have done without the protection. There’s just one snag! Allowing the rope to run over potentially sharp edges is not a smart idea. When it was my turn to lead, if I came to a suitable spike or flake, I placed a sling over it and clipped the rope to the sling using the attached karabiner, which allowed the rope to run freely, away from those edges. Of course, a sharp edge can still cut through the sling if it comes under load, but all you lose is a sling. The rope remains intact. And Max did have the grace to confess, later, that he now understood why I carried so many mousquetons.

The ascent wasn’t particularly interesting. Rock climbing is only ever interesting when you have to think how to proceed (and if you’ve read Rigor Mortis, you’ll know that I once spent 45 minutes in one place on a climb trying to work out what to do next). And this climb wasn’t even hard.

But there was only one word to describe the descent: harrowing. I’m not sure whether I’d any previous experience of abseiling (American usage: rappelling), but it would have been sketchy at best. By the way, I purposely included the word ‘usage’ above because it points to another linguistic confusion in climbing terminology. While an American will rappel (a French word) down a steep cliff, his British counterpart will abseil (a German word) down the same cliff. Max abseiled too.

Not only do you need an anchor point to abseil from, you need to be able to retrieve the rope once you’ve descended. And the only suitable anchor point on the top of the tower was a groove less than an inch deep that had been chipped into the rock adjoining one edge of the tower. There were no friction devices in those days, so it would have been necessary to run the rope over my shoulder and across my back to generate the friction needed to control the descent, but all I can remember is how hard it was to get over the edge. I kept expecting the rope to lift out of its groove if I couldn’t keep my weight below it. The problem was starting with my weight above the anchor. The remainder of the descent was much less alarming. And we eventually made it back to the rifugio.

We decided to return to the lower hut the following morning, probably because the accommodation there was cheaper. The next photo is a view down towards that lower hut, which is out of sight in the picture:

And that was the end of the climbing. The weather deteriorated badly over the next few days, and after those few days, with no end in sight, my erstwhile companions decided to bugger off back to Blighty. I wanted to stay, but I was running short of cash. However, after my friends had left, I became friendly with a couple of students from Oxford who, amazingly, had a spare tent I could use. It was more like a bivouac, to be honest, but it did mean I could afford to hang around a while longer. And I did learn how to play contract bridge. The next photo shows a rescue helicopter and provides some idea of how bad the weather was (snow is a rarity in summer in the Dolomites).

The two Oxford students had driven from England in an Austin A35 van, and when we’d all finally had enough of the weather, they offered me a lift back home in exchange for a share of the fuel costs. There was just one final problem: the bad weather had triggered a landslide that had wiped out about 100 metres of the local access road, and we were on the uphill side. And the word was that the road would not be repaired until next season.

However, there were five or six other vehicles that had been trapped by the slide, 15–20 people altogether, and we decided to build a temporary roadway across the debris. I’ve no idea where we got all the timber (see following photo), but we spent most of the day shifting huge quantities of rubble, soil and boulders and then laying a narrow causeway across the slide. I’ve had some extreme endurance experiences during my life, but I don’t think I ever worked physically as hard as I did that day. When we were finally ready, we pushed the cars across one by one, not without considerable anxiety that one might suddenly career off downhill.

One of the Italians in the ad hoc labour gang brought out a bottle of wine. Just enough for a quick swig each, but a nice gesture—after all, we had achieved our objectice by working as a team. And then we were on our way home, nursing memories of huge bowls of spaghetti with tiny dollops of Bolognese sauce. I didn’t try spaghetti again for many years, and even now, the pasta:sauce ratio has to be close to 50:50.

Anyway, we reached England without further alarm or exertion. I said farewell to my two new friends and proceeded to hitch-hike north to Penrith. I can’t remember much about that journey north, but I can’t forget one encounter. I’ve no idea from where and to where the person giving me the lift was travelling, but at one point he slid his hand lightly down the top of my thigh.

“Nice material,” he said.

I used to wear corduroy climbing britches in those days, and I didn’t interpret this move as a sexual advance, because there was no squeezing or unseemly pressure. Mind you, his next remark should have left me in no doubt, but I took the question literally and merely thought that my questioner was a bit odd. It was 1966 after all, and homosexual acts were still illegal.

“Do you ever go looking for fairies?” he asked.

“There are no such things as fairies!” I replied.

Damn! Another poor fairy has just dropped down stone dead. It tends to happen, or so I’ve been led to believe. The driver didn’t say another word until he dropped me off where he’d said he would drop me off, and the rest of the journey home was uneventful.


  1. Replies
    1. I know what you mean. You won’t have heard this story before.

  2. Sounds like a proper adventure. I wonder how many tourists these days would be willing to build a road to continue their travels.

    1. I don’t think I’d be too willing either nowadays though Big D. Still, the photos brought back these memories, which I hadn’t thought about for years.

  3. I used to be recommended this blog by way of my cousin. I am not certain whether or
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  4. Now that was an adventure! I'd rather push cars all day long, than do that climbing, and descending.

    1. …and I wouldn’t have written about it if I hadn’t come across the photos! I could have done without the impromptu road-building exercise though.


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