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The Campanile of Val Montanaia

It happened July 16, 2012
My wife Liz and I have been climbing with Enrico since 1999 when he took us to the Cinque Torri for a full day of testing our skills on four of the towers, all rated between IV- and IV+. We’re most comfortable at IV+… anything easier is not challenging enough, anything more difficult might result in an epic. We don’t climb in the States any longer.val montanaia
The only decent climbing area on the East Coast near where we live are the Gunks, and even they are over 250 Km away.

Donato rapelling from the Campanile di Val Montanaia

The early part of July 2012 was a particularly bad start to the summer, even judging by the fickle standards of Dolomitic weather. It rained almost every day and, though it did not really affect our hikes and climbs on Vie Ferrate, it was not possible to schedule any climbs with Enrico. val montanaia

Towards the middle of July, as we were approaching the end of our two week stay in Cortina, the weather forecast offered a glimmer of hope; we quickly scheduled a climb with Enrico: we were going to climb the iconic Campanile di Val Montanaia in the Friulan Alps. This entailed a drive to the Pordenone Hut the night before and an early start on the 800 meter, two hour hike to the beginning of the Glanvell-Saar Route, the “Via Normale” on the Campanile. Enrico had tried it the year before but had to turn back at the base of the Campanile because of bad weather. val montanaia

Much has been said about the first ascent in 1902, and how two Austrians, Glanvell and Saar, “stole” the climb from two climbers from Trieste, Cozzi and Zanutti. It’s true that Cozzi and Zanutti got past the crux of the climb, the famous Cozzi crack, but they did not or could not go beyond. The two Austrians, armed with some beta from the two Triestini, made it past the Cozzi crack and pioneered the daring traverse to the bottom of the Glanvell-Saar chimney, which they also overcame. A couple of easier pitches later they were on top. Having climbed it myself, my hat goes off to the two Austrians for having the guts to follow the traverse and make it up the chimney, no easy feat. val montanaia

From Cortina, it’s about a two hour drive to the Pordenone Hut. Down the Piave Valley, past Longarone, up to the infamous Vajont Dam, past Erto, on to Cimolais and the Val Cimolaia, and finally to the parking area ten minutes away from the Hut. We left Cortina at about five o’clock in unsettled, drizzly weather. I did not give the climb much of a chance, but even the hike up the rugged Val Montanaia would be a good day’s excursion, and staying in a mountain hut is always an adventure.

Once in Cimolais, we headed north up the Cimolaia Valley for the 13 Km drive to the Hut. The road starts out as a narrow paved road, but later becomes a dirt road which crosses many streams. It was clear early on that the heavy rains of the past few days had exacted a heavy toll on the road. Each time we crossed a wash, the ruts got deeper and deeper. val montanaia

Enrico drove bravely on. Finally a wash forty or fifty meters wide stopped us. The water was rushing by and the scree made it difficult to get any traction. We decided that we would build a “bridge” of stones to help Enrico drive through… We looked for flat, large, stones and made a bridge about eight to ten meters long. We probably had only one shot to make it across and we were hoping this was the last obstacle. Enrico gunned the small car and it made it, barely, to the other side with Liz and I pushing from behind.
A couple of kilometers later we came to another wash, this one had rushing water too deep to ford. val montanaia

At 6:45 PM, we had at least another four kilometers to go and about 250 meters in elevation. We parked the car on the side of the road, loaded all our climbing gear on our packs (ropes, harnesses, helmets, biners, etc.) and continued to the hut.

We were hoping that dinner would still be available by the time we got there.
An hour later, sweaty and hungry we arrived at the hut.

The hut keeper managed to serve us some extremely coarse, heavy polenta, which nonetheless tasted very good, but also informed us that he had given away our rooms, reservations be damned, when we didn’t show up earlier.

He did have one room remaining which could fit three people. Faced with a long hike back to the car and Cimolais, we gratefully took the room. Two beers later we hit the sack and fell into a deep sleep. We had met a group of five climbers from Trieste the night before. I had lived in Trieste for a time and it was good to be able to speak Triestino dialect again. val montanaia


On the morning of the climb we woke up early hoping to beat the Triestini to the start. After a hurried breakfast, we were on our way at 7:00 am. Most climbers had already left ahead of us… the only group behind us was a group of three from Udine that had driven to the hut the same morning. So much for our early start.
During the night a cold front had come through, and the morning dawned bright, brisk, and cold. The steepness of the hike and Enrico’s usual fast pace kept us sweating.
An hour into the hike, we caught our first glimpse of the mesmerizing Campanile. We could only see the upper third poking its head up above the evergreens lower down, but it exerted an almost hypnotic spell on us. Liz and I simply could not take our eyes off it. I was sweating profusely and wasn’t feeling particularly well. I asked Liz how she was feeling but she said she was fine, just a bit cold. val montanaia>

By the time we reached the start I was really feeling nauseous. I wanted to say something to Enrico, but the thought of calling off the climb after so much effort was not very appealing. I kept my discomfort to myself. val montanaia

The first pitch is easy, probably a III+, and we completed it very quickly. As Enrico climbed out of sight on the second pitch, I started getting waves of nausea and severe stomach pains. Must be the damned coarse polenta, I thought. I was really glad when he got up the the belay stance and I could get off belay. I made it up the next two pitches, feeling worse and worse. val montanaia
Pitch four is an easy slanting ramp which leads to the Cozzi crack, the crux of the climb. Now the full force of the problem hit me. I started blacking out, not so much losing consciousness, but seeing nothing but blackness with my eyes open.



The Cozzi crack is not terribly difficult but it is very marbleized and smooth, and whatever its grade might have been, it is now a solid V. It requires some athleticism to get past the overhanging part and some solid footwork, not to mention some arm strength. I needed help from Enrico to get past it. Later Enrico complained that it was like pulling up a bull…

The rest of the climb was uneventful. We made it across the traverse, up the Glanvell-Saar chimney, met up with the Triestini on their way down after their second rappel, cruised up the last two easier pitches, rang the summit bell, and rapped the 37 meter Piaz rappel on the overhanging North wall. The three climbers from Udine were with us all the way.

Back at the hut, we had one more ignominious event… Enrico was able to get a ride back to his car with the guys from Udine who had a four wheel drive vehicle, but there was no room for Liz and I and we had to hump the packs down the Cimolaia Valley. We expected the worst, but a kilometer down the road we saw Enrico’s car coming our way. Somebody had cleared all of the washes with a tractor and they were perfectly passable.

On our way back to Cortina we stopped for pizza in San Vito. By then I was famished and pizza never tasted better. Throughout the day my lovely wife was her usual encouraging self and performed splendidly.

In July 2013, having passed my 70th birthday, we had another adventure with Enrico on the Anticima della Croda del Rifugio, but that’s another story… If you’re interested you can watch this video and others of our climbs with Enrico here.

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