one of the hardest multipitches in Ratikon, set by Beat Kammerlander and dedicated to Wolfgang Gullich
“Beat, I’ve never seen anything like it. I only did a few meters of actual climbing, I pulled myself up by the ropes all day… and it was one of the best dayes I’ve ever spent on a wall. I saw something new, a whole different level of climbing I’d never imagined. But above all, I witnessed Adam’s inner strength… and it was exhilarating.”
We’re seated over our second beer in his kitchen, Beat laughing as I recount the experience. He too is delighted that a fifteen year old kid had just freed the most difficult route he had ever opened, one that Beat himself wasn’t ever able to redpoint: Wogu.
Beat Kammerlander had opened the route 11 years before and dedicated it to Wolfgang Gullich. After a summer of attempts at freeing it, he gave up, realizing it was beyond his capacity. So, with the open mind of a great leader, he opened the project to everyone.
After having climbed Ratikon’s other two most difficult routes, I had long been curious to check out Wogu for myself. Thus, when Adam asked me to accompany him, I gladly accepted.
I’m already acquainted with Adam, and have watched him climb numerous times. His disconcerting level of skill in climbing has never ceased to impress me. This week, however, on this exceedingly complex multi-pitch route, he’ll impress me with more than just his technical abilities.
We meet up in Ratikon where we’ll be sleeping in a van for a few days.
“So are you in good shape?”
His lowered eyes and nearly whispered “Yeees” reveal more of his virtues: he’s polite and modest, calm and determined, and attentive in all things. His eyes that evening already betray a certain impatience as well, an impatience that divulges the enormous energy I’ll witness over the next few days.
We set the alarm clock for an early start. In the morning, before it even sounds, I slowly awake to the noise of Adam preparing breakfast and gearing up outside the van. I instantly recall that the youthful restlessness that makes you want to drag your adult companions out of bed in the morning. So, with eyes still half-closed, I push open the door and see Adam hovering over the stove, wide-awake and chomping at the bit.
I go over the checklist to ensure that Adam has everything in order. It’s absolutely unnecessary, the kid is precise.
We hurry through breakfast and are off, virtually running, to conquer Wogu.
It’s strange for me to approach such a difficult route with a young kid. True, he’s not just any kid, but he’s still only fifteen, and my inner mountain guide starts to feel the weight of responsibility as we approach the base of the route.
The weight lessens a bit, however, as Adam starts climbing on the first pitch. I attempt to follow him, but after a few meters I happily demote myself to be his “technical assistant.”
I simply aim to put Adam in the best condition to try, which in the end is probably more rewarding than trying the route myself.
I enjoy this day of trials. Adam tests and re-tries absurd moves on barely etched holds and footholds, in one puzzling sequence after another. Personally I had expected Wogu to be only slightly more difficult than Beat’s other two nearby routes, Silbergaier and Unendliche Ghesiscte, but instead find it to be an entirely different level. The other two seem like footpaths in comparison to Wogu. Here we’re on two hundred thirty meters of boulders, one after another. Dozens of moves are harder than the most trying steps in both of Beat’s previous masterpieces. Your feet press against nothing, the holds are unstable and sharp as knives. Putting together the pieces of this puzzle, while still managing to actually ascend, requires an enormous tolerance for pain. Adam’s level of endurance in this respect is shocking.
Every so often I attempt a move, and he advises, “bring your right foot up very high and turn your body, then the left one on friction…” I glance high up to my right, above my hip, assuming I’m flexible enough and well prepared for this climb. “No, no, higher, I think I made a chalk mark.” I look for the mark and find it at my shoulder height. I grab my ropes and pull my way up to the next bolt.
Adam tries and re-tries dozens of sequences. After two hours the skin on his fingers is sacrificed, but he doesn’t seem to notice. In spite of the pain, he continues to concentrate on discovering and memorizing move after move. Random sequences are based on precarious balance but at the same time require you unhesitatingly crush your hands into the holds.
As the hours fly by the physical and mental energy of my young friend are seemingly inexhaustible. The gestures follow one after another as we progress. Adam ascends, and belays me up as I instructed him (the only thing I can teach him is how to work the ropes), and I meet him at the belays. There, we trade very few words. More is communicated in the actual gestures of the climb, in the quick glances exchanged, than in a hundred conversations. I feel Adam’s joy in being here, alone, in this magnificent corner of the Alps. I start to understand that his determination to succeed doesn’t inhibit him from enjoying what he’s living on this wall.
I remember myself at his age, so it’s easier in some ways for me to sense what he’s experiencing through all of this, and it fills me with joy. His delight in being here is a huge reward in itself.
After the hardest five pitches remains a last less difficult one, and Adam is up for trying it. It’s gotten late, though, and I still haven’t decided how to rappel this route with its various traverses. I feel it’s time to step into my role as a guide and big brother. “Adam, I think it’s time to go down,” and he accepts ungrudgingly.
“Ok, no problem, can you rapel first?”
I can’t recall the number of falls he suffered and moves he tried today, but they are countless. The sequences are difficult to memorize with innumerable movements of hands and feet, on holds that have more or less the same shape.
“But can you remember something of the sequences?” I ask, and Adam, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, begins to reenact and simulate two hundred meters of meticulous climbing, hold-by-hold, foothold-by-foothold, sensation-by-sensation.
The days that follow bring poor weather and plentiful rain. As soon as it stops, I awake to the sounds of Adam scurrying around outside. I know perfectly well that the route is unclimbable, but I nonetheless follow him to the base of the wall when I sense his reluctance to surrender, a side effect of excessive motivation.
In the middle of the week I have to go to Milan for a conference and Adam is finally able to undertake his second day of trials with his father, Bokula.
At the end of my slideshow I turn on my cell phone and read the message: “Today was a good try, tomorrow rest. Will you be here at night?”
“Of course”, I immediately answer , and the next day I’m back up in the marvelous suspended valley that makes up the faces of the Kirklispitze. Adam recounts every detail of the previous day’s climb with his father, and I sense that tomorrow he will start off determined to accomplish his goal.
That morning, as soon as breakfast passes our lips, we find ourselves at the base of the wall. I lead for the first, easier stretch and by 8:00 we’re in the middle of the dissipating fog, just below the first pitch.
We begin the preparations with a certain solemnity. Adam is superstitious, and always dons an even number of quickdraws on his harness, the ones with the orange biners. In these small practical gestures I sense all of the moment’s tension. I only hope that the stress I’m feeling can somehow alleviate a part of Adam’s.
He finally starts on the first pitch- just an 8c! I notice after only the first few meters that he’s not moving with his usual fluidity. He’s tense, and after thirty meters, in the midst of a difficult sequence with damp holds, he falls.
At this point, everything is OK. One fall is fine, I think to myself, it can actually be quite cathartic and help release stress. I lower him to the belay and, like a good assistant, make him comfortable for a rest. After fifteen minutes and more superstitious rituals, he’s off again. He does much better on the first stretch, as if he left behind some heavy weight. He doesn’t consider the runout before the most difficult tract and slips up on a small, damp dihedral.
“Come on, you’ve got it…” I mentally cheer him on, “There it is… No!” After moment’s indecision his hand doesn’t grasp the two-finger pocket of the crux. Adam, with a cry of frustration, finds himself hanging from the ropes 10 meters below.
I lower him down and don’t know what to say. He looks at me and I can tell he’s a bit disappointed, but also angry. “I climbed like an idiot”-such as I wish I were!
It’s after nine, Adam has already climbed 60 meters in two stints and we’re still at the first belay. To me, it’s obvious that today won’t be the day, but the thing obvious to Adam is waiting twenty minutes before the next try. It’s the tensest moment of the day. We don’t utter a word. I try make myself invisible, to let him fully concentrate on the task at hand. As the minutes crawl by, I feel a change inside him; something shifts in his eyes. The silence is solemn, like the calm before a battle. We are, in fact, about to commence a battle, a chilling, hair-raising battle, at least for me as belayer. Finally, Adam slips on his shoes for the third time, slowly tightening the straps, no more quickdraws on his harness, neither even nor odd in number, just one screw biner and the plaquette to belay me up. It’s not very warm out, but Adam even slips off his T-shirt right before leaving, remaining bare-chested. I warn him that he’ll be cold at the next stop, because as fast as I am, it will still take me ten minutes to catch up to him. With his gaze still low, he virtually whispers, more to himself than to me, “But right now I need to do everything to make it.” Yes, something has changed inside him.
He’s off. And it’s superior climbing. The epitome of determination, precision and speed. After a few minutes I hear a cry of relief and joy coming from belay at the top of the first pitch. All is well; I sense he has left behind the baggage of tension and stress. Now it’s my turn, and I try to do everything I can to be the best partner for him on a day like this. I must simply proceed as quickly as possible, and he must think solely of climbing. In a few short minutes I climb the first pitch between rock, bolts and ropes, I haul the bag to the previous stop and begin all the necessary preparations for the next pitch.
The third pitch, however, awaits us with more even torment. It’s nearly an 8c, but in this case the grade doesn’t mean a thing because the pitch is just over 10 meters and not even vertical, it’s a slab! They are three boulders with far-spaced, razor-sharp holds where feet are practically useless. Pain and uncertainty return.
On his first try, Adam falls after one meter. Down again. On the second attempt his fingers slip and scrape off a hold like matches off sandpaper. Down again. At the belay I notice him inspect his fingertips, by now visibly damaged. He makes it a bit farther on the third try, but a reaching for an inexistent foothold is fatal and with another shout of rage he’s down again, and this time beginning to worry.
On the fourth attempt, I sense his hesitation to bring his left foot up to replace his hand in a hold, and cheer him on… “Come on Adam!!!” With a grunt he’s able to bring his shoe to the hold and simultaneously slip out his fingers. I’m overwhelmed with anxiety. It’s normal to feel more tension than the climber while waiting in belay. I desperately root for him like never before… “GO GO GO ADAM!!!” He completes the last move and reaches the belay. My pulse slows, and with a sigh my internal angst diminishes momentarily. I reach him in two minutes and make preparations for the next pitch, the most painful one for the little skin left on his fingertips.
I notice the questionable manner in which he bandages his fingers, and by not correcting the job I disappoint in my role as assistant and big brother. This will cost him his next fall, when, on the last sharp pockets of the next pitch he’ll fall because of the lose bandage.
I bring him down and, for the first time today, watching his damaged fingers with concern: “I’m starting to get a little bit tired.” I’m brought back to the first time I tried the nearby Silbergaier route with Beat, and my fingers were destroyed. It was Beat that day who took my hands in his and taught me the best taping technique. Likewise, I now observe the little red dots on Adam’s trembling fingertips and pass on the wisdom that was once granted to me with a perfect bandaging job. He looks at me in astonishment: “Oh this is great!” In ten minutes he takes off like a lion and in a matter of moments reaches the next belay, on the only decent ledge of the route.
When I catch up to him I find him smiling, asking me what time is it. ”One o’clock” I answer “You see, it’s lunch time, are you happy now?” In fact, I had been teasing him since breakfast that, as a good guide, he should bring me to the ledge of the fifth pitch by lunchtime.
I glance at the watch, laughing, then look to the sky and make a few mental calculations. “Perfect, so we can rest here for at least fortyfive minutes.” I know it will be plenty of time for him to regain his strength. Consequently, seated on this perfect ledge overlooking a beautiful slice of the Alps, we pass a pleasant hour of unwinding. I lunch on some leftovers from last night’s dinner, and Adam on a few energy bars.
The little bag he gave me to carry in the haul bag reveals much about the care and attention Adam brings to all things. They’re small details, but ones that could have easily been overlooked considering he’s climbed so few multi-pitch routes. It contains, indubitably, every minimum necessity for spending a day on the wall, and certain items in particular reveal that his father, Bokula, and mother, Eva, have climbing experience. I remain particularly bewildered when I come across a tube of lotion.
“Adam, what’s this?”
“Oh it’s sun protection, I have to put it on my neck right now!”
“What?! You’re climbing the most difficult route on earth, and you’re worried about putting sunscreen on you’re neck?!”
He considers this for a moment, with a hint of embarrassment. “Actually, I’m worried because I can’t put it on by myself, my hands would get all greasy.”
With this, I open the tube, smile to myself with tenderness and apply sunscreen to the neck of a kid that’s about to write one of the greatest chapters in the history of sports climbing.
Almost immediately, I note his impatience to get moving and I start dawdling to buy time. Time that like flowing water will wash away the fatigue from his muscles. But then I ask myself, “What’s the point?” Adam is only fifteen, but his maturity in climbing and his self-awareness is absolutely unique. If he feels ready to go now, it’s useless for me to hold him back a few more minutes.
The day’s chills are not over. Before Adam stands another pitch that, while not even completely vertical, is enormously demanding. The 8b+ difficulty is concentrated into a three-meter long sequence, and, because of a foothold that breaks, he falls on his first attempt. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s fallen today. Each time I’ve watched him inspect his fingers and suffer in silence; each time I’ve doubted that he would make it through the day; and each time I’ve witnessed him turn the frustration into determination, then start off again with renewed resolve. His capacity to silently endure pain and his mental and physical stamina are as extraordinary as they are inexhaustible. And there he goes again! He returns to the belay, takes a ten minute break, prepares his gear, the air thick with tension, our gazes cross with forced nonchalance, and he’s off. On the crux, each hold is a grunt. On the short traverse, Adam opens himself like a crucifix between two nonexistent slopers, his left foot balances underneath on virtually nothing, he raises his right foot to eye level in a heel hook over his hand and simultaneously slips his fingers out from under his heel. With two more muffled shouts he’s out of the crux. My tension explodes into unbridled excitement. “Come on Adam!!! Now bring me to the top!” I don’t recall ever having cheered with such enthusiasm, not even for myself on the verge of accomplishing the climb of my dreams. I don’t believe I’ve ever been this excited when I was about to taste one of my own summits, nor felt such unbridled joy, enough joy to make me scream.
I shot up to the next belay like a missile and immediately passed his ropes through the ATC in preparation for the next pitch. Adam has already on-sighted this one, so I feel we’re close to success.
Fortunately it goes well, and it’s only the second pitch of the day that Adam isn’t forced to re-try after falling. At the penultimate belay he’s smiling with the joy of accomplishment, yet restraining himself out of superstition. He flies over the last few meters with concentration and ease, and after the last crack he reaches the summit. Finally I hear a cry of liberation! Shortly thereafter I find myself, too, on the final ridge. We seal this great moment with a hug, filled with the legacy of mountain climbing.
We move to the other side of the ridge, toss the equipment on the grass and stretch out under the sun. A dense and beautiful calm takes the place of the unloaded energy.
The fact that Adam had just freed the world’s most difficult route doesn’t seem to be of any significance. I ask him if he would like to leave the equipment here and come back tomorrow with Beat to take a few pictures. He responds, with his usual mix of sensibility, vitality and humility, “You know, tomorrow I would prefer to climb somewhere else….”
He doesn’t hesitate to call and thank Beat, however, then passes me the phone so I can briefly recount the adventures of the day. I hear him laughing from the other side of the line.
“Ha ha ha! What a fight!”