drawing of three old pitons

The Story Of The First Ascent

You think that last pitch was tough? Do you know about the first ascent of this climb? Well, you’re in luck. I can tell you a little bit about it.

Gunter Bonattisini, the famous German-Italian alpinist, was the first to climb this route. Ever heard of him? I’m not surprised. This was 145 years ago this summer. He didn’t have a big rack of shiny cams like you did, because cams weren’t invented for another 100 years. He had three pitons, four carabiners, and 43 feet of hemp rope that he found on a sheep farm about 20 miles south of here, which he passed on his bike ride to the base of the climb. Which started at the flour mill he worked at 120 miles away, over three mountain passes.

He worked a double shift at the flour mill on Thursday so he could have Friday off to go climb. He left right after his shift and bicycled here in the dark, on a single-speed bike with a mushy coaster brake and no seat. He borrowed the bike from his boss’s young daughter, so it was too small. Anyway, he squeezed himself onto the girl’s bike, slung his pack over his shoulders, and pedaled over those three mountain passes in the dark. Luckily, it only snowed on him on one of the three passes, and the drifts were only two feet deep, so he was able to carry the bike through them on his shoulder while he postholed.

I seem to remember you were complaining of being a bit carsick on the drive here. Bonattisini didn’t get carsick, because he didn’t have a car. The Model T wasn’t invented until 1908, as you’re probably aware. Anyway, he wasn’t complaining about being carsick when he started out on the approach hike.

Also, there was no trail to the base of the climb, like there is today. So he just bushwhacked three miles in. He got to the base of the wall an hour before sunrise, so he decided to take a short nap before starting to climb. The rain woke him just after the sun came up, and the rock was a little wet, but he had ridden his bike all that ways, so he decided to start climbing.

He didn’t have fancy sticky-rubber shoes like you’re wearing. He didn’t even have hobnail boots, like the mountaineer in that last story I told you. He had borrowed a pair of dress shoes from a friend, and they were three sizes too big. But of course, sticky rubber hadn’t been invented yet, so he didn’t know any better, so he started to climb. He tied his rope around his waist and clipped his pitons to it, and began to link crack systems. About 30 feet up that first crack, he invented the hand jam.

Somewhere around the beginning of the present-day third pitch, the sun came out and started baking the rock. Bonattisini started to sweat, as the temperature had swung probably 20 degrees, and he had only brought one layer—a wool sweater he had been issued during his stint in the army five years prior. It was hot. I should mention that he didn’t have any chalk, because climbers didn’t really use chalk until later in the next century. Bunch a softies, we are nowadays.

About 400 feet up the route, just below the roof you were grunting and wheezing through a few minutes ago, he thought about placing a piton to protect himself, but figured the rope drag would be too much, so he just went for it. He had free-soloed the entire route up until this point, even though no one called it “free soloing” back then. It was just called “climbing.” Above the roof, he rolled and smoked four cigarettes and drank half a pint of brandy.

See the offwidth above us, that widens to a chimney and overhangs for 120 feet? Bonattisini wrote in his diary from the day that it “looked challenging from below but proved to be exhilarating, and the best part of the climb.” It’s rated at 5.12b nowadays. Also, take a good look at it—you’re leading it.

After the overhanging offwidth to chimney, the climbing was straightforward, if strenuous. Bonattisini wrote a long description of the technique he used to climb the corner, which today we call “laybacking.” At the top, he rested for a minute before scrambling to the summit. He ate a piece of bread and jam, the last of his food, and finished another half-pint of brandy. As it was dark at this point, he coiled his small bit of rope, lay down on top of it and slept until sunrise the next morning, waking up three times to clear a foot of snow from on top of his face.

In the morning, he did 135 rappels down the route back to the base, where he killed and ate most of a chamois, packing a section of it in a handkerchief for his bike ride back to his village. He rode halfway back over the first two mountain passes, stopping for the night at a farm where he was allowed to sleep in the barn in exchange for helping bale hay until noon the next day. After a hearty lunch with the farmer’s family, he pedaled the rest of the way to his village, stopping only once, to rescue a small child and three kittens from a house fire. He was back at work at the flour mill on Monday morning.

Anyway, here’s the rack. I think you’ll really enjoy that offwidth part.

—Brendan

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Article by: brendan