Rock Climbing Italian Style

The biggest challenge with the whole language barrier is, when someone says something that doesn’t entirely make sense, deciding if one should laugh, ask for clarification, or offer up a withering glare.

For example, when I asked the bus driver which stop was for my hotel, he responded “It is the stop before the last stop.”  

What do I do with that?

More applicable was the discussion I had with Carlo, my guide for three days of climbing, regarding what knot to use to attach the rope to my harness, to insure that the said rope stayed attached to said harness, a situation far preferable to its opposite.  In US climbing gyms, we use a figure-eight, a knot that takes time to master (and create) and once tight, is a pain in the fingers to untie.  But that’s the point, it’s hard to untie. It stays tied.

That’s a good thing.

Carlo wanted me to use the bowline, a simpler knot to tie and untie.  “Is easier to untie”, he explained.  

“Yes”, I responded.   “It’s easier to come untied.”

“No no. It does not untie.”

“But you just said–”.  This is my life we’re talking about here. Or at least my limbs.  I want clarification.  He gestured distractedly, searching for English words to explain the physics of knots.

He finally just shrugged. “No, it not unties.”

So I went for second best. I glanced around surreptitiously, watched what everyone else was doing and looked for obvious blood stains on the floor.

This was supposed to be the first day of three of rock climbing.  We had just finished five amazing days of trekking the Alta Via One, and it was Carlo’s unfortunate circumstance to be stuck with me for three more days.  

I was going rock climbing.  In Italy.  I just loved the sound of that.

At least he knew me a little by that time.  The only one up for the “bonus” hike after the morning of trekking, up for going past the pass, up to the peak. Taking minutes to admire the half-dead Edelweiss–the first I’d ever seen.  The one who wanted to go down the WWI tunnel, despite not having a helmet (and about knocking myself senseless in the process).  Not fast but not giving up either.

But the rain from the last day of the trek spilled into the first day of the climbing, and our climbing was relegated to the gym.  In hindsight, that was a good way to start.  

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Of course, climbing is different between Italy and America, the knots being just the beginning.  A climb two weeks prior in Boulder, Colorado went something like this:

“On belay, Lynda?”  Andrew is ready to climb.

“Belay on, Andrew.”  I’m ready for Andrew to climb.

“Climbing, Lynda.”  Andrew’s climbing.

“Climb on, Andrew.”  I acknowledge Andrew is climbing.

“Off belay, Lynda.”  Andrew has set up an anchor and is ready to switch to belaying me up.

“Belay off, Andrew.”  I’ve taken Andrew off belay and he can pull up the slack rope.

“That’s me, Andrew.” Andrew has taken up all the slack rope.

“Belay on, Lynda.” Andrew is ready for me to climb.

“Climbing, Andrew.” I’m climbing.

“Climb on, Lynda.” Andrew acknowledges that I’m climbing.

Typically American.  Overly conservative and overly verbose.

The same exchange in Italian.

“Oh-la.” Carlo is ready to climb.

“Rope finished?” Carlo can’t believe he’s already climbed the full length of the rope.

“Yes, Carlo.”  Confirming that I’ve got about three inches of spare rope and am pretty sure if he fell at this point, there’s not much I could do.

“Safe, Lynda.”  Carlo is at the anchor–I was never sure if he was actually tied in or just feeling secure.

— No response required or expected.

“Climb, Lynda”.  Carlo has pulled up all the rope and is ready for me to start climbing.

— No response required or expected.

“Oh-la”  I’m done with the climb.

Italian.  Succinct but open to interpretation.

Even the gym was less that what one found in an American gym.  In the U.S., almost all routes have “top ropes”, the rope attached to an anchor at the top of the climb, generally the safest way to climb.  The floors all padded, just in case something goes awry.  Warning signs everywhere, reminding you that what you’re doing is more dangerous than your virtual reality game.  To gain access, you must be able to prove you know what you’re doing and sign a waiver accepting responsibility if the warning signs prove out.

I had never even heard the phrases I was attesting to being able to do, but Carlo assured me it didn’t matter. The hardwood floors were a bit disconcerting. But the fact that Carlo had brought his own rope was what really stopped me.  Admittedly, I would prefer bringing my own rope because I would know where it had been and I know it would have been well cared for. But how did the gym make sure everyone was equally as attentive?

Oh, right. They were still alive at the end of their session.

Another difference:  we were able to practice multi-pitch climbing and rappelling (a quick way to get back down a route) without anyone batting an eye.   You just don’t do that in the U.S.  Too dangerous.  Or maybe just too much liability.

Getting the knots, commands, and other expectations aligned made the eventual climb go much more smoothly. Not that the climbs were all that extreme, but all climbing still seems pretty extreme to me and it often takes my full concentration not to succumb to my basic fears of falling and of dying. Not entirely irrational fears–in moderation, but often unnecessarily paralyzing.   I’d been reading “The Way of the Rock Warrior”, a book written mainly about the mental aspects of climbing but applicable to life in general, and had seen myself in many of the pages about self talk.

“This is too hard.”

“I’m not ready.”

“What if I fall/fail?”

“I’m not good/strong/fast/tall/short/light enough.”

“I can’t.”

I love climbing. The mental challenge. The physical aspect. The grace and fluidity of the movements, when done somewhat correctly.  Overcoming my fears.  But too often, I focus on my fears and only enjoy the climb in retrospect.  I wanted to focus on the climbing and enjoying the process during the actual process.  The book was helping in that regard.  I’ve been climbing for years. I know how to climb and I know I’m a conservative climber and I know there’s no safer way to experience climbing than with a guide, especially one who had been climbing since he was 13, as Carlo had.

Despite the language barrier, Carlo was encouraging.  He was surprised and pleased when I easily climbed the first route in the gym, a 5c, a rating which meant nothing to me, the rating systems of course being different as well.  I intentionally did not research them, having already learned that I could climb a 5.10 when I believed it was a mere 5.8 but not when I knew it was a 5.10.  Ah the brain and its clever tricks.

Even with long breaks between climbs, four hours was all I could survive in the gym.  Although I’ve been climbing since my twenties, it’s never been consistent and I’ve never really taken a class, so I still climb with my arms.  Arms don’t have the endurance legs do (unless you’re really into handstands), so my climbing sessions tend to not be long.  Also, it was still day one of three, and the weather promised to improve the next day.

Despite standing there in the rain when the weather forecast called for clear, Carlo insisted the weather forecasts were normally very accurate. So the plan for day two was a fun little via ferrata up to a cave on Tofana, then when the rain stopped (currently predicted to be about 11am), we would head to Cinque Torri.

True to prediction, the rain stopped at 11.

It started to snow.

Another fascinating difference between Italian and American hiking is the use of umbrellas.   Umbrellas are just unheard of in at least the Colorado wilderness (except for my friend, Dale, but that’s a different story).  On the last day of our trek, it was predicted to rain, and Carlo had called a friend to bring him his umbrella.  To truly understand this, it helps to know that Carlo had done the entire five day trek with nothing but a jacket and a small bottle of water.

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Not even a Nalgene bottle–that was too heavy. I know this because he took my Nalgene on our final climb and kidded me about the weight (then drank my water when he ran out).

So an umbrella was his third essential.  He brought one for me for the via ferrata, and I’m still not sure if it was a joke or not, thank you language barrier. I’ve never hiked with an umbrella.  Heck, it’s been about twenty years since I’ve even owned an umbrella.  Jackets with hoods work good enough.  

There is a certain rhythm to doing a via ferrata.  Clip, clip, slide, hike. At each piton, you move one “lobster claw”–a carabiner on a piece of webbing attached to your harness–at a time, so that you are always attached to something. This works beautifully when you have two hands for moving the claws, as most of us do.  Put an umbrella in one of those hands, however, and the rhythm becomes more like impromptu jazz: clip, grab, shake, slide, swear, go back, clip, hike, grab.  

I tried clipping my pack around it, then looping it around my harness, all with limited success.  It just wouldn’t cooperate, always wanting to be in the wrong spot.  Via ferratas are right next to the rock and you are often walking on a ledge that made the streets of Venice look like freeways.  So the umbrella has to be angled out to avoid hitting the rock–often far enough to make the umbrella somewhat pointless and a bit of a counterweight when you’re desperately trying to hug the nice solid rock wall.  On the positive side, though, many of the pitons were right in a rain funnel and the umbrella made itself worth the rest of the struggle.

Carlo, in the meantime, had hooked one claw into another so he could clip with just one hand, so was managing the whole claw-and-umbrella situation with Italian grace, albeit with slightly more risk than is allowed (or wanted) by me the client.

It was a bit of a relief to get to the cave and out of the snow.  The cave was a loop, created like all of the Dolomites (but unlike most of the caves) from the ocean thousands of years ago (most caves were created during WWI as protection from the weather and the enemies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

).  It was beautiful and still, and I’m sure I would have appreciated it more had I known more about geology.

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We considered briefly waiting out the storm in the cave (that was a first) but after the tour, the snow was coming down even harder.  We had three pairs of gloves between us and two were soaked. The shoes had not fared any better.  Rain we were prepared for. This much snow, not so much.  

It wasn’t so much a mad dash as controlled chaos getting back.  Carlo would get far ahead so he could stop and warm his fingers, while I continued my jazz routine with the umbrella. The last section was under water when we returned, but by that point, it just didn’t matter.  All we could do was laugh and shake the snow off the umbrellas. Oh-la.

That afternoon was back at the gym.  Carlo had given me some pointers that I had absorbed and we had a good few hours at the gym.

I had booked three days in anticipation of at least one day being bad weather, so being down to the last day and no actual climbing, I opened my eyes with a bit of dread.  Was that really sunlight streaming through my hotel window? It was! It’s considered rude to be early in Italy, but I didn’t care. I was ready to climb.  I was going rock climbing! In Italy!

And was it worth the wait.  The first climb was the perfect introduction to Italian climbing.  The limestone rock offered many handholds and footholds and I felt like an actual climber, fluidly putting the moves together to ascend higher and higher, breathing and fear controlled.   I was grinning ear to ear when we reached the summit.

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Three short rappels and a small hike and we were back to where we started, ready for the main event, a harder and longer route.  

It started with a slightly overhanging move.  There was a German couple ahead of us on the first pitch and she, petite and agile, seamlessly climbed the move. I watch her and Carlo carefully.  But when it came to my turn, the rock looked like a glass sphere–completely smooth and devoid of any way to get up it.  I gracelessly put my foot here and my hands there. I tried my foot a little higher, to the left, right. I let my hands scrabble over the rock, looking for anything to cling to, all the while desperately ignoring the tiny but growing voice in my head.  I tried to muscle it, put my knees and elbows into it. I could feel the new bruises and scratches begin to decorate my skin.

The voice in my head became more persistent and I finally succumbed–“I can’t”–and basically allowed Carlo to pull me up the moves.

A frustrating way to start the climb, to say the least.  

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The next few pitches went more smoothly, the moves connecting easily, but I still felt the frustration.  One pitch was more of a traverse, and I felt my mental power slipping again as I calculated the pendulum I would take if I were to slip.  I tried to employ singing to ease the trepidation in my steps, but the only song that came to mind was “Walking on Broken Glass.”

I made it across only to find myself at another slight overhang with no footholds to be found. I took a breath and looked behind me at the ground far away.  I told myself I was rock climbing.  In Italy. I was standing on Cinque Torri, rock climbing.  Who cared if I sucked or not.  

“Just lean back on your hands and let them walk you up.”  He made it sound so easy.

And it was.

I felt myself in practical disbelief walk up the rock, hands and feet almost at the same elevation.  It was incredible.  It was almost effortless.  Inch by inch–or centimeter by centimeter, I suppose–I made my way up the feature.  I took my time, thrilling in the feel of it.  Then I was up over it.  

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It was the boost I needed to work my way up the rest of the climb, occasionally adding more scrapes and bruises.  Using my butt to get up one move (adding yet another hole to my backpack). Fighting up a small crack, twisting limbs awkwardly this way and that.  

But confidently.  Eventually placing my hands and feet where they needed to be on each move, trusting them to do what I knew they could.  Feeling my mind and body working in tandem.  Feeling each muscle doing its part, from the large, strong ones in my back and legs, down to the small ones within my fingers. It’s an amazing dance that brings it altogether.

As I clambered to the summit, Carlo grinned at me.  “Superb!”

I didn’t need a translation app to appreciate that.

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