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Mon Jun 02, 2003

King chicken in Arco

Almost a whole year had passed since Fluffy had been re-assimilated into French peasant life. He had left in his wake a vacuum that could only be filled by his eventual return. However due to the fine culinary persuasions of his sister and a recent love interest our chances of seeing him again in Italian high society had waned considerably. Fortunately my birthday carried enough weight to overcome these comforting attractions and provided the necessary leverage for a fleeting visit. With him would be Thierry the Inquisitive, the king chicken who had already cooked me last year in Fontainebleau.

Ryan Air agreed to offer them passage, delivering them late to Bergamo airport. It was here I met them, and, after cordial greetings we left directly for a hot and sticky Arco at the head of Lake Garda. The forecast was looking unsure, but we played our dice and thanking Thor, we were to be blessed with good weather.

None of us had spent much time in Arco, so the first morning found us sitting in the cafe in the centre of Arco for a cappucino, brioche and to studying the guide book; this was to set the routine for the following days. Once our stomachs were satisfied we agreed on Nago, one of the jewels in Arco's repertoire of exceedingly good crags.

The drive up the steep road to the crag took us past many panting sweaty mountain bikers for which the area is also famed, but today we didn't envy them, it was humid, as it was to be for the 4 days. The crag faces the sun, but is pleasantly sheltered by trees at its foot, a cooling breeze can also be felt due to the effect of the lake which is close by. Here you find accessible sports climbing at all grades, we climbed the whole day on routes from 6a to 6c in the sector D area.

A note here about the guide book which is well put together in all ways apart from the way it's put together. It is bound by a useless metal spiral binder from which the pages are constantly trying to escape.

We were staying at the Zoo campsite in Arco, a nice site with a pool. Perhaps a bit pricey and busy in the summer but nice. The first thing you will notice about Arco is that the Italians seem outnumbered by brightly coloured Germans with immaculate bikes. We ate pizza that evening amongst their numbers.

The next day we couldn't resist the call of Syphosis, a crag to the north of Arco just after Pietramurata. We had embarrassingly been unable to find it this time last year, must have been the Italian effect, but this time we found it and we were soon up against stiff opposition. The first route, Solero a short 6a+ was hard, more like 6b+. It's annoying when the day starts with a rude awakening like this. The next 6b thankfully proved easier sport and all the routes were of a high quality, back on track for a 7a. Julien kind of ground to a halt on a 6b+ even with Thierry's helpful advice, I sympathised but thats climbing, and I had already psyched myself up to try Magnum the 7a. The start was technical and without rests but eased slightly to a ledge and the start of an undercut slab. I was pleased, I had been climbing right on my limit, distanced from thought of falling I really wanted to do it on-sight. But here my hopes vanished, the slab above was blank and even though I was no longer tired I was unable to do the next move. I don't know if I was more angry or disappointed as I finally dogged to the top.

We were joined at this point by the Milan crew, Claudia heading the advance party followed by the Pash and friends the next day. The group was multi-sport orientated: sailing, climbing, walking and mountain biking. Arco is great for this reason. I didn't do much today, choosing instead to go alone for a gentle walk amongst the trees, but Claudia went for the big 7a, and tricked the French into trying it top rope. I had my birthday party this night, enjoying for once a plate of pasta which had been hard to come by in Arco.

The final day we were again alone as the equip francais had a plane waiting for them. We chose the Belvedere just before Nago for its ease of access and... well because we hadn't been before. It was to turn out to be a frustrating day, defeated by lowly 6a's we settled for an early lunch, before retiring to the lake side in Riva to enjoy a cooling breeze and hardy sun worshipers.

Mon Jun 09, 2003


Dear journal, my choice as I saw it was to stay in sticky Milan and work or go to the mountains. Work was going well, very well in fact and I felt a weekends labour could be constructive. On the other hand the weather was looking fine and the Pash had a grand itinerary planned. In fact I didn't have a choice, anyway I wouldn't have anything to write about.

We met Al early Saturday morning who was looking slightly worse for wear for the better night before. Al had just bought a new car, and its very nice, like all real cars it's green, has 4 wheels, leather seats, air conditioning blah blah. We arrived comfortably in Switzerland 2 hours later and the Pashone revealed his plan.

The Pashone stood like a demigod with his pack pre-prepared and already mounted on his back. The rest of us stood in a confused mess of gear. We were underneath the mountain of Albigna. A telepheric ran up to the dam circa 1000m above us. Unfortunately we had missed the last ride of the morning so we faced a steep hike. It was hard going, the Pash had had their weetabix. It was very humid but despite the pain of ascent the path passed through wonderfully rich woodlands full of all manner of insects and succulent vegetation. A group of descending Italians marvelled at our swift though sweaty progress. We arrived a little after mid day, somewhat behind our intended schedule at the base of the crag. The scenery was stunning, there was everything that was supposed to be there. Vast granite slabs vanished into sharp peaks surrounded by the hardiest of the winter snows. Rock falls could be heard as ice yielded to the summer heat, we were in a picture book. With real mountain weather looming we took time out for lunch. We could see other parties high up, and by the time we had started our climbs others were already returning to collect their rucksacks. The sceptical amongst us expressed doubts that we would actually be able to do anything at all. We intend to do just a couple of pitches before the expected rain.

Split into two groups I started up Via Felice with Al. The first two pitches were slabby, with the crux of the climb being the end of the second pitch (6a-). Al on only his second climbing trip had no problems, annoying since I thought it was at least 'tricky'. Then came two most excellent pitches, the first followed a perfect flake before the second took a corner crack. The Pash who had by now joined our route ranted on about the quality of the pitch. By the time I had left the last belay it had gone from 5 to 6 to 7 stars, I am sure that by the time he finished savouring it it had gone up to 8 or even 9.
We were not expecting to get this far, but the weather now appeared to be clearing. Al and myself were not carrying water or shoes for the descent, we wondered if we would make it to the Fiamma; the knife blade summit of the mountain. The next pitch was easy and short, which led to another 6a pitch. A slightly diagonal traverse led to an exposed corner and then directly up the wall above. There just remained the easy last pitch to the top, but now it had started to rain and the sound of thunder warned of an impending storm. With this threat we decided on the single absail and marked path to descend. Unfortunately this was to prove to be a mistake as the weather cleared and we found ourselves on a horrible damp and exposed descent path in uncomfortable rock boots. At the foot of the path an annoying patch of steep snow stood between us and safety. Richard toe pointed down, my screaming toes were less easily persuaded so I started a controlled bum-slide. Lucy, thinking that I was being more than a little too cautious under the circumstances, offered an encouraging shunt and, as a single mass we quickly gained speed towards the approaching rocks. Fortunately these broke our fall and it left now only Al to come down and dislodge a rock onto Lucy's ankle to rub salt into our wounds. Bruised but not beaten we continued down to our sacks. It was now nearly 10pm and although there was still light we had over an hours walk ahead of us, I was the only one who had a torch, fortunate, as it gets very very dark at night.

The following day we awoke under the falls of Chiavenna. The Pash departed early to join Benella for their final outing before returning to the UK. Al and myself were not up for a long route, but since we were now accompanied by the Italians felt obliged to at least go cragging. We discussed options over a bad cappuccino and then waited 30 minutes whilst the cunning Italians drove across the border to Switzerland to get cheap petrol. Finally we arrived at Rho, a real roadside crag. Despite its promise the routes were of low quality on broken rock. The Nulli found the going difficult and abandoned his first climb. Leaving his gear in place he then went off and abseiled down a slab. This is when the rain started. The Nulli was now below us with some slightly damp rock above him. Help was at hand as Claudia belayed him from under an umbrella on his abseil rope. Other kind climbers reclaimed his abandoned gear. We left for a coffee.

Tue Jun 10, 2003

Fresh air

Since I had decided to move to Lecco things had cheered up. This morning I arrived early in Lecco in bright sunshine. The air was fresh and the mountains stunning as always, the lake shimmered. The Pash phoned as I stepped off the train to tell me that they were also interested to move to Lecco. It could be an interesting summer.

Wed Jun 11, 2003

Small world

Sorting through my gear I discovered I was missing both a cam and an extender. What with losing my shoe a few weeks ago certain friends were beginning to suggest I was losing my marbles. So for those of little faith I will recount a happy coincidence and prove my sanity. Last Sunday after coffee we were supposed to meet with friends at Placca Bianca, unfortunately they arrived late so we never met up until tonight. They were ecstatic at having found a friend at the weekend! Incredible, they had arrived after we left and had tried the same route Claudia had led trad. In turns out that Alastair failed to see the friend as he seconded as it was hidden in the crack.
I have my friend back, and the world is smaller than it was.

Sat Jun 21, 2003


Dear Journal, home alone but more through choice than design. Just need to get this brick out of my head.

Sat Jun 28, 2003

Lecco bouldering

Last years Climbing World Cup in Lecco had been a great experience and I had been looking forward to it coming around again. This time, thanks to more flexible work commitments I was able to get along midweek to catch the final of the men's bouldering event. Unfortunately there was no Malcolm Smith to defend his title, but the competition turned out to be fantastic all the same.

The event is held in Piazza Cimentali against the backdrop of lake Como on one side and the mountains of Lecco on the other; it really is a fantastic venue. There is enough space to accomodate a fair sized crowed without feeling suffocated but small enough to feel friendly. I had an aperitivo in one of the bars surrounding the piazza before taking position for the main event. A fair sized crowd had turned up, and at 9pm we stood facing the raised platform on which there were set 6 fiendish looking problems ready for the competitors.

The format was as follows: 6 problems with 6 minutes to do each one. At midpoint a marked hold indicated where you could gain points if you held it. If you reached the top you would get maximum points. It was very warm and very humid, as it had been for the qualifications. Just standing in the crowd my hands were sweating, and I wasn't even climbing.

The first two finalists entered to a loud applause, they were the Italians Christian Core and Mauro Calibani. Christian was very smooth on all the problems but it wasn't going to be his night, never quite managed to top out until the very final block. Mauro looked stronger and amazed the crowd being the only one to complete problem 2 with a improbable move that circumnavigated a rounded block to reach the top. As more competitors entered the arena it became dificult to know who to watch, the Italians were still getting the loudest cheers, leaving the successes of the other competitors at times somewhat unoticed.

But all were to get their fair share of attention, the competition was hotting up, top out's were becoming more frequent, and by the time Christian had finished all had seen at least one ascent. As if provoked by the heat of the battle to which we were witness distant lightning filled the night sky, the fireworks weren't meant until Sunday!

By now it was impossible to understand just who was winning, and we still had the ladies favourite Chris Sharma to come. Chris entered to raptuos applause, perhaps not just the ladies favourite. Relaxed almost to the point of forgetting why he was there, he seemed quite happy just to stand and soak up the energy radiating from the crowd.

The competition was approaching it's climax. Jerome Meyer had been quietly and consistently polishing off problems and Serik Kazbekov was also looking strong, entertaining everyone with his leap of faith across the chasm on block 5, he seemed more surprised than anyone as he held the final hold. Chris was roaring through, all eyes seemed traced on him perhaps distracted momentarily by the storm that was closing in. Warm raindrops started to fall on sweaty skin, in any other circumstance they would have been welcomed, but we needed just another 18 minutes to finish the competition. What a tragedy it would have been not to see it concluded. The Ragni rushed to cover the wall with plastic, holding it out over the lip with brooms. God knows how the final competitors could concentrate with all this going on, but for us it was exciting.

With seconds to go Jerome toped out on the final 45? block, but had he done enough to fight off Sharma who still had the final two problems to do. DuLac, strong in the qualification finished looking tired leaving just Sharma to polish of the last block in his own unique style snatching it on his third attempt. Was he playing to the crowd?

But glory went to Jerome, I don't know by how much, but it must have been tight. What a fantastic evening, the problems, the competitors and the dramatic storm that surrounded us added up to one of the most exciting competitions I have seen.

Mon Jun 30, 2003

Lecco finale

Back to Lecco again for the final discipline of the world cup: difficulty. Heavy storms the day before had delayed the women's qualifications, so they had to be early birds and start at 8 in the morning. I was sleeping at this time, but managed to make it for the final at 5 in the afternoon.
There was a large crowd gathered, many I suppose were there for annual baptism of the lake with it's spectacular fireworks display. The piazza was surrounded by trade stalls, and the Red Bull girls were busy under their tent mixing sugary drinks.

The final kicked off with the women. A few surprises in the line up, perhaps 8a is easier to achieve for some than 8am. Needless to say the route took a horribly overhanging line. Most of the 8 competitors made it to half height, where some of the more devious were able to gain an almost hands off 'rest' under the roof before making a blind move around the overhang. From the ground it looked just plain awkward, to exit there was a dynamic move leading onto the headwall. The best performances came from Martina Cufar and Muriel Sarkany reaching almost identical points. It was Muriel who took victory, proving once again you do not have to be born in a country with lots of rock to be a world class climber. There still is hope for me!

The men's event was also missing some names that I could recognise. There was no Francois Petit, Legrand or the Italian's Crespi and Brenna. So it was time to catch up and learn some new names. Of these the most impressive has to be the Spaniard Ramon Julian Puigblanque, being somewhat short in stature he demonstrated aptly that height is no excuse. Mrazek usually a strong contender fluffed the tricky traverse along the lip of the roof like a munchkin. Even Chabot looked a little unsure through the roof, but he seems to have the ability just to hang on for ever, he reached the same point as Ramon Julian before he to fell. Chabot took his 4th consecutive victory at Lecco on account of reaching a higher point in the semi-final.

So that was it, perhaps it lacked the drama of the bouldering competition, but nonetheless entertaining and inspirational. We found a shady spot in a bar before the Milan posy arrived and we went for pizza. The lake shore was packed with people waiting for the fireworks. They started as our pizzas arrived, and were still going when we had finished! A fantastic display, a perfect way to end the weekend.

At the end of the competition it was announced that after 4 years of hosting a stage of the world cup at Lecco this years could be the last. Lecco is the only stage on the circuit that holds the 3 disciplines. This combined with the fireworks display and grignetta d'oro makes it like the annual ice climbing festival in l'argentiere la besse a most excellent week of climbing events. It would be a real shame if it was not to return, and given the chance to blossom into a key event in the climbing calendar.