The Dolomites

1960s climber on the Gran Cier, above the Passo Gardena.

The “heroic” and record feats in mountaineering


Following the Great War, mountaineering turned towards conquering the Grade VI “heroic” challenges. Possibly the most emblematic climb of this historical period was the first ascent in 1933 by Emilio Comici of Trieste and Giuseppe and Angelo Dimai from Ampezzo, up the sheer, overhanging north face of the Cima Grande of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo – until then considered to be inaccessible. News of the event echoed worldwide and is today a classic climb for experts, seducing numerous experienced mountaineers.
The 1930s were some of Italian alpine mountaineering’s best years, perhaps due to heated feelings of revenge towards the German-speaking population and growing national competitiveness. A number of impressive and extremely challenging ascents were undertaken during these years, carried-out by a group of exceptionally skilled climbers including Gianbattista Vinatzer from Val Gardena, Luigi Micheluzzi from Val di Fassa, Raffaele Carlesso, Alvise Andrich and Riccardo Cassin. Some of these climbs represent the highest level ever reached in the Dolomites in terms of free climbing, up until the end of the 1960s. The “heroic” era of classic mountaineering (characterized by an essentially “free” climb that did not categorically exclude the limited use of artificial aids) ended with the onset of the Second World War.


A new era of alpine climbing began following World War II, accompanied significantly by new technical equipment such as the vibram shoe sole and the evolution in the piton (produced in various shapes and sizes). Ascents in the Dolomites became characterized by an increasing use of artificial techniques that reached disproportionate levels in the so-called “direttissimas” (bullet routes or more direct ascents) with “more pitons than climbing meters”. This was also an era of repeated ascensions – solo and winter – of the Günther e Reinhold Messnergreat routes mapped out in the 1930s. It was also a time when mountaineering received the most attention from the media who were often more interested in loss of life and controversial issues than exposés promoting climbing.

After a somewhat-stale and conservative period in mountaineering that was also limited by the narrow-mindedness of alpine clubs, free climbing and clean climbing brought about an encouraging renaissance. These climbing styles abandoned aid climbing and traditional mountaineering tactics, as well as the idea that exhaustion, fear and cold were synonymous with reaching the top. The sport of rock climbing quickly evolved into a distinct athletic activity and gradually began to have less in common with true alpine mountaineering.


”Up until July 1968 it was widely acknowledged that it was impossible to go beyond a Grade VI. Then something happened to change that...”


Messner Pilastro di MezzoDuring the 1960s, there were still those who continued to practice traditional mountaineering but who adopted later advances in ethics and training: the alpine mountaineering practiced by Reinhold Messner from the South Tyrol and his younger brother Günther Messner was in fact the style used by the great climbers of the 1930s. In 1968, barely into their twenties, they executed their first ascent of the Central Pillar of the Piz dl Ciaval on the western wall of Sas dla Crusc, overcoming climbing difficulties that nobody had ever surpassed. In the following years, the Messner brothers succeeded in climbing some of the Dolomites’ most challenging routes – in terms of level of difficulty and speed of ascent – as well as opening new routes in solo climbs and repeat winter ascents.


”The ascent of Sas dla Crusc by the Messner brothers – among the few ascents achieved on the peak – made it clear that mountaineering would survive only if it got rid of what was useless. Alpinism itself is useless, therefore only the absurd would keep it alive. The route on the Sas dla Crusc is precisely an absurd route. This is why it is aesthetically terrifying and poses disarming difficulties even today.” M. Cominetti.


Grande Muro Sas dla CruscSince then, technological advances concerning athletic training and physical and psychological preparedness, in particular, have removed the fears of the past for climbers who, aware of their skills tested at the valley floor, attempt the higher altitudes. In a short amount of time, the myths of yore have literally been demolished; the routes that were extremely difficult to traverse in one or two days and were once the prerogative of the chosen few are today classic ascents for thousands of travelers. The technical level of the great alpine mountaineers is now aimed at continuously trying to surpass previous records, in terms of difficulty and speed.




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