The Müller route

A historic climb on the north face of Sorapiss

A TRUE STORY by Francesco del Franco – It happened on August 20th and 21st, 1994.

“Cortina, the Queen of the Dolomites!” This common phrase, widely used in advertising propaganda, is not unfounded: Cortina is located in an exceptional position in the extraordinary Dolomite environment. The sun reigns supreme, shining consistently during the summer months but is not too stingy even during the winter months.

This constant presence is particularly gratifying for vacationing ladies, who can show off elegant dresses with generous necklines while they dine in refined restaurants or comfortable refuges. There, they can relax and get a tan while admiring the spectacular panorama of the Ampezzo basin.

But there are also those who pay a price for this climatic happiness, and we alpinists – traditional alpinists, to be precise – are among them. This happiness is made possible by the fact that the mountains are far from Cortina. Apart from Pomagagnon, the mountain of Cortina, the Croda da Lago and Tofane are far away, Cristallo and Croda Rossa are very far away, and Antelao and Sorapiss are very, very far away.

However, the seduction exercised by these splendid mountains on us alpinists is such that we are willingly induced to face additional discomforts to reach them beyond the hard work of conquering them. In this project, I involved my young friends Paolo Bellodis, Mario Dibona (Moro), Enrico Maioni, and Luciano Zardini (Lares).

During a memorable meeting at the central pub, where, aided by an unspecified number of beers, after heated discussions in which the exclamation “Oh, perbacco” frequently recurred, I convinced Paolo to climb the Dallamano-Ghirardini on Cristallo, Moro to attempt the rarely frequented Bibi and Mescolin variant (Beniamino Franceschi) on Antelao, Lares to traverse Croda Rossa from Carbonin to Malga Ra Stua, and … Sorapiss was left, which I wanted to climb via a route suggested by Bibi, considered mythical in the early decades of the 1900s.

Francesco del Franco on the summit of Faraglione – Capri Island

After a long and diligent exploration of the classic rock routes of the Tofane and the Croda da Lago, in the company of two legends of Ampezzo mountaineering, Bibi Ghedina and Franz Dallago, in the summer of 1994 I decided to climb the “distant” mountains.

This route was particularly complex not because of the degree of difficulty but for its length and the quality of the rock and ice. Enrico, a true gentleman, had given the choice of route to his friends, so in the end, he was left with the hardest challenge to tackle.

Indeed, the Müller Route it was opened in 1892 by a. Dimai and A. Dibona (two mountain guides from Cortina) and F. Müller. The route had never been climbed by Enrico or his friends, but only by historical guides such as Bibi, Mescolin, and Boni, who had only vague memories of this climb.

Enrico was one of the strongest climbers in Cortina at that time, but he preferred athletic climbing rather than long mountain routes. Therefore, I particularly appreciated his decision to accompany me on a route that had nothing athletic about it, but was difficult to find.

The start of the route is on the Central Sorapiss glacier at an altitude of 2,500 m, so it is mandatory to stay overnight at the Vandelli Refuge, a true mountaineering refuge at an altitude of 1,900 m, a starting point for numerous climbs and a stopover for the Sorapis tour, which is strongly recommended.

North face of Sorapiss – via Muller – Photo ©

The access to the refuge is via a comfortable path that starts from Passo Tre Croci, and on the evening of August 20, my good climbing pupil Pia accompanied us in the car, especially on the Capri’s rocks, and affectionate companion. Pia leaves us at Passo Tre Croci, she will pick us up from the other side of the mountain the next day, at Rifugio Scotter.

After dinner, we chatted and had a beer with the refuge managers. Enrico is by far the most moderate drinker among my Ampezzo friends, so much so that despite my insistence and the tricks suggested by my long experience to prolong the drinking session, we did not exceed 10 beers, not each, which would still have been a commendable achievement, but in two!

Aware of the challenge that awaited us the next day, I did not resist when Enrico proposed to retire, scrupulously observing the refuge’s schedule.

Wise decision, the next day at 6:30 am we were already trudging on the glacier towards the 600m ascent above us that we reached at 8:30 am; a momentary stop to loosen the rope and put on crampons and we immediately resumed our climb.

Sorapis is an immense mountain and the Müller route penetrates right into its bowels, so much so that, while climbing it, you cannot see any panorama or even the sky, except for the small sliver directly above us.

The route is not technically difficult, so I am surprised to see Enrico confidently tackling a rather steep ice wall, climbing onto a tiny pulpit, preparing to overcome a small overhang, already with his left hand gripping a small rock protrusion, when with a dull thud, the pulpit collapses, leaving Enrico suspended in mid-air, with his backpack on his shoulders, and without showing the slightest hint of emotion on his face, except for a certain expression of amazement.

Francesco climbing up the Müller Route

Instinctively, I retrieve some rope, a useless maneuver since Enrico hadn’t placed any anchors. I don’t know by what artifice, but Enrico manages to descend the few meters that separate us, and, seeing the worried expression on my face, he nonchalantly says: «But Francesco, even if I had fallen, it was only a few meters… at most, I would have broken a foot.» Imagine that: alone on the Sorapis glacier, far from the refuge, with no easy means of calling for help, and a broken foot…

After a liberating laugh and a handshake, we continue. When we reach almost halfway up the climb, we observe a strange object hanging on the ice wall: it looks like a kind of rope with strange bulges.

As we get closer, we realize that it is a metal rope along which iron balls are arranged, on which abundant ice incrustations had formed, making them appear as “strange bulges” when viewed from below.

I think it’s military equipment like the many you see in the Dolomites, a sad testimony to the First World War, the so-called “Great War”, one of the worst atrocities committed by man, but it’s not like that: instead, Enrico tells me that it’s equipment set up by the first climbers to facilitate the ascent of that slightly steeper section of ice, and for this purpose large iron balls were fixed to the rope to use as handholds and footholds.

Of course, we don’t trust it and continue the climb without even touching this rope, which is about ten meters long. When we reach the end, embedded in the glacier, out of curiosity we check the anchorage and are amazed to find that it’s still incredibly solid, even though a hundred or more years have passed!

We continue to climb along the large wall interrupted by some terraces. For those who appreciate classic climbs, the Müller route deserves the great respect it once had. I can testify to this in all conscience, having done many classic climbs in the Dolomites.

As I was saying, what strikes us most about this route is the grandeur of the environment in which it winds. In fact, to cover the elevation gain from the start to the summit of 700 meters (from the Rifugio at 1,300 meters), we take a good seven hours (nine from the Rifugio), but it’s worth it for the interesting mountaineering experience this climb gives us.

Having reached the summit, needless to say, we celebrate with a warm handshake and a cold beer that had miraculously found its place in Enrico’s huge backpack. Then without delay, we begin the descent via the Normal route towards the Scotter Refuge, which is also long with a 1,600m elevation gain and takes us four hours.

Francesco del Franco climbing via Steger – Faraglione di terra – Capri

At 7 pm we arrive at the refuge where we are greeted by the owner and our lovely Pia, who had been waiting for us since the morning. We honor the sumptuous lunch prepared for the occasion and toast with an appropriate number of beers. This time, even Enrico doesn’t adhere to his usual sobriety in drinking and participates without hesitation in the numerous libations.

Finally, we bid farewell to our friends who have hosted us so exquisitely and take the road back. I go to load Enrico’s backpack into the car, but when lifting it, I almost lose my balance and feel a piercing pain in my back: the backpack is heavy, very heavy, indeed extremely heavy! Curious, I ask for another beer (every excuse is a good one), and overcoming Enrico’s reluctance, I open the backpack to see what it could possibly contain.

There was everything and more: a pair of spare crampons, a long section of rope, rock nails with a hammer, ice nails with both screws and percussion, a first aid kit, and even a heavy “dead body” at the bottom! Downing the last sip of beer, I calmly rethink Enrico’s terrifying scene, clinging with only one hand to that tiny hold, his feet dangling in the void, and this monstrous backpack on his shoulders… Well done, Enrico!

Naples, January 2014
Francesco del Franco
CAI – SAT        GISM


I am deeply sorry to hear (end of March 2015) about the passing of dear Francesco, certainly a man outside the norm and much more than a “client”.

A profound connoisseur of the history of mountaineering, Francesco had a vision of life that was all his own, not in line with the standards of today’s society, and certainly a voice out of the chorus.

«He was one of the last great Neapolitan gentlemen, in his manners and his reasoning», writes Mirella Armiero about Francesco del Franco in the Corriere del Mezzogiorno.

I like to remember his enthusiasm and boundless passion for the mountains and mountaineering, an old-style mountaineering, so much so that here in Cortina we affectionately called him Grohmann, for his somewhat old-fashioned way of dressing during his countless climbs.

Dear Francesco, I will never forget your “Oh perbacco!” and our Neapolitan toasts:
«A issa, a issa a issa, a cala, cala cala…»

Francesco del Franco and Enrico Maioni – Capri Island

On this sad occasion, the journalist Mirella Armiero, responsible for the culture pages of the Corriere del Mezzogiorno, wrote an article that describes the figure of Francesco del Franco, Mountaineer, Bibliophile and Philosopher. I thank the kind Mirella for allowing me to publish her writing.

The following is taken from the “Corriere del Mezzogiorno” – Naples – of March 27, 2015.

Goodbye to Francesco del Franco.
He founded the Bibliopolis publishing house.
He was a bibliophile and mountaineer, and loved Capri. The works of Benedetto Croce are featured in the catalog.
By Mirella Armiero.

NAPLES – Francesco del Franco was an editor, mountaineer, bibliophile, humanist, and physicist by training. He was the driving force behind Bibliopolis, which published the national edition of Benedetto Croce’s works. Del Franco passed away yesterday morning in Naples after a long illness.

The son of Costantino del Franco, a refined bibliophile and friend of Benedetto Croce, Francesco del Franco graduated in Theoretical Physics in Naples. Following his initial scientific inclination, in 1976 he founded Bibliopolis, a publishing house that from its inception included collections on science, theoretical physics, and mathematical logic, as well as philosophy and ancient studies. In particular, the “Saggi Bibliopolis” collection, a sort of container for various essays, features the works of distinguished scholars such as Pugliese Carratelli, Bergel, Piovani, Gabrieli, Gigante, Kristeller, Masini, Bodei, Bobbio, Garzya, Russo, Martinetti, and Antoni.

The establishment of the publishing house was strongly influenced by the founding, a year earlier, of the Italian Institute for Philosophical Studies. Del Franco was tied by an ancient friendship to lawyer Gerardo Marotta, with whom he shared cultural experiences. Driven by similar ideals, Marotta and Del Franco sought over the years to find space in Naples for quality publishing, following the example of Riccardo Ricciardi and in the name of a renewed humanism. But del Franco was not just a fine intellectual. He was a jovial discussion leader, a mountaineer who often dedicated himself to climbing the rock walls of Capri or Cortina.

He started his sporting activities late, around the age of forty, but he became so passionate that he even became a lead climber. Furthermore, del Franco did not disdain writing specialized interventions in the Cai newspapers. He recounted his legendary climbs with fervor and a touch of self-irony during the evenings held in the welcoming living room of his home on Via Arcoleo. It was also possible that he would invite you to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning the next day, to face a rock wall in a rope team with him, even if you had never tried it before. Some accepted, after all, the living room was full of young people. Del Franco loved to surround himself with them, some of those who frequented his evenings were authors in his catalog, or friends of his daughter Emilia, who is continuing his work in the publishing house.

A man of great culture, an expert in all things Croce, with clear ideas, he was one of the last great Neapolitan gentlemen in terms of manners and reasoning. His home was frequented by politicians such as Spadolini, intellectuals such as Sossio Giametta or Gianfranco Fiaccadori, and many Neapolitans interested in culture.