Via Vinci

Traversing the mules back

We were travelling light and fast. It was text book stuff and we could have been front page material for any magazine. We had caught up with the party in front but the arete was thin and there was no way of passing them. We waited but the weather was not so patient. At first it was just cloud fooling around, fingering the ridge and making swirly shapes. The fooling stopped as cotton wool turned to slushy rain. With just a fleece for protection perhaps we were travelling just a little too light.

The sharp fin of rock leading up to the summit of Piz Cengalo had already defeated Paul twice. On both occasions bad weather had forced him on a wet retreat to the valley without having even touched the rock. Alpine climbing is like this, it helps to have a Robert the Bruce attitude. Paul had been vacationing in the south of France and the promise of good Italian weather was just to much for him too bare. He was well up for it. On hearing of his presence I had done my best to get out of it, but not even a week in Germany followed by a week in the UK was evasion enough, he was still around! That's teachers holidays for you, they have flexibility. I still had a card up my sleeve and I saved it until Paul and Marianne arrived at my house. It was perhaps a reckless approach but the storm was impressive. It seemed to be working too, the rock was getting wet and it was forecast to continue for the next few days. Only problem was Robert the Bruce wasn't having any of it.

Blue sky and sun drenched rock, perhaps it's not so bad after all.
(foto P. Bennett)

Sunshine warmed the roof of the Gianetti hut, signalling the path open for our ascent. Wanting to travel with the minimum of fuss we dumped our coats, approach shoes and sacks at the foot of the climb. Moving solo over easy ground we emerged from the shadows onto the sunny ridge. Breathing in the history we got geared up. We had a light rack; a few nuts, medium sized friends, slings and double 50m ropes. Paul was soon occupied with an off-width crack, strange.. the guidebook didn't mention this. Nor did it happen to mention the five 50 metre pitches that were to follow. Something was happening and we didn't know what it was.

As the climb steepened we were visited by curious cloud.
(foto. P. Bennett)

By the time the ridge had steepened we had caught up with an Italian couple. They were quiet but seemed to be enjoying the day. Since we hadn't seen them on the earlier pitches we decided that they must have approached the ridge by an alternative route. Unable to pass them without physically climbing over them, we sat back and watched them approach the crux pitch; la Schiena di Mulo or the Mules Back. Without doubt it is the most photogenic pitch and although it seems stupid to say it, was just as I had seen in the photos. After the early scrambling we were relishing the opportunity to get into some real climbing.

Paul climbs into the clouds.

The honours fell to Paul, after all he had driven many kilometres to get here. I had known Paul for some years but had never had the opportunity to climb with him. I knew he was into this kind of thing, you know long routes in the mountains, it is his thing. His class was revealed as he made light work of that old mule, and looking down he seemed disappointed that the difficulties had ended all too quickly. There remained just a couple of pitches until the summit, but the weather was breaking. The clouds had gathered weight, it was like they were up to something and I wished they would just cut it out quick. It wasn't long before the inevitable drops of cold slush fell. Our exit was still blocked by the Italians but I quickly climbed half a pitch to make as much ground as possible, hoping to find shelter under a small overhang. The prospect of a descent down the length of the ridge was encouragement enough to force progress upward. Hanging from a peg I brought Paul up. The rain had increased and my little overhang had turned into an effective waterfall. Paul climbed through. I was finding it difficult to follow his progress so god knows how he could see where he was going. Climbing through the Italian party he was going virtually solo since the pegs were already claimed. I didn't know this, I was getting cold, my fleece was little more than a sponge and I retreated as best as I could under my helmet.

We were soon stood side by side with the Italians at the abseil station. Our teeth clattered as we rigged the ropes and I wondered if they had expected all this. It seemed crazy, the morning had been so clear. Paul had two Mars bars in his pocket but he hadn't told me this. I guess they were for emergencies. The abseil was easy, a straight line down clean slabs and the rain had eased off. The ropes however were sodden, and every abseil just served to squeeze more cold water out of its fibres onto us. By the next abseil it would again be fully charged, we were now colder than when it was raining! The abseil could not go quickly enough and I just kept thinking that we had so nearly got away with it.

We stood ruefully beside our stashed rucksacks, our dry shoes were filled (rather unfairly) with water. There was a chill in the air so we put on our dry waterproofs. We had carried them up here so we were damn well going to use them.

Notes:
First climbed by E. Bernasconi, P. Riva and A. Vinci in 1939 the Via Vinci is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful classic routes in the Central Alps. Although frequently repeated it is no where near as busy as the equally famed but longer Spigolo Nord on the nearby Badile. For a description of the route see: Go-Mountain, much better than the guide we had as I now know that we did the lower part of the ridge as well which explains the first five 50 metre pitches!