Balma1 is an interesting little cliff with an interesting history. This compact granite wall sits just a few meters from the highway between Domodossola and Switzerland (Simplon Pass) and holds some of the hardest trad cracks in Europe! Climbing began here in the 70’s with the traditional ways of the easy faces and wide cracks, as well as more technical aid routes. “Modern” sport climbing showed its face in the early 80’s, and the obvious thinner cracks and horizontal breaks were climbed to give the cliffs first “hard free routes”, but once these obvious challenges had been exhausted, as with a lot of places around that time, the hammer and drill created routes where all else seemed impossible. The merits of this “style” have been, and will continue to be discussed long into the night, but now and here is nor the time or the place. Like it or loath it, chipping is a part of our history, and the results will be seen, and used (and enjoyed!) for many years to come.
In the early 90’s, Alessandro Manini climbed a series of very hard routes on the right hand side of the crag, including the recently famed Profondo Rosso, and the current hardest of the cliff, A denti Stretti. Both routes take on striking cracks that split the steep black wall, but that is where the similarities end. Where Profondo is more of a rising endurance test piece with each move slightly harder than the last, A Denti Stretti is a tough series of boulder problems, with the first hard move coming directly off the floor, and the final bastard crux right at the end.
At some point in the late 90’s, extensive road works began next to the crag, and the cliff was half covered in a giant earth mound. Thanks to the hard and diplomatic efforts of the locals, the crag was not lost forever, and after work had finished, the construction company helped clear the earth, terrace the base of the crag, and add drainage solutions to make the cliff a very practical and comfortable place indeed. Would it be great if all access issues were resolved in such a positive way.
In 2011 Yuji Hirayama visited the cliff whilst on a whistle stop tour of Northern Italy and made the first Trad ascent of Profondo Rosso, which was so admired by the local climbers that a commemorative plaque was installed at the base of the route! At some point somebody realised this was probably a bit much, and the plaque is now gone, but a small reminder of that moment still lives on, painted underneath the name of the route! I had heard about Yujis ascent from my Italian friends and was very motivated to give it a try, but I also heard about the even harder line to the right that “might just work” on trad.
Since Yuji’s ascent, the floodgates opened for Profondo Rosso with many, many people attempting the route on gear, or with the original bolts, it was definitely back in fashion! The same can’t be said for A Denti Stretti, and when I first came to look at the route 1 week ago there were cobwebs in the cracks and it had obviously been a long time since anyone’s last visit. Perhaps its the obvious difficulty in leaving the floor that puts people off, but past that initial section, the route looked just as good, if not better than its popular neighbour. Even better still, it looked to be relatively well protected, and I decided to give it an on-sight attempt, directly on trad gear!
Honestly I thought I would fall during the initial finger cracks, but I surprised myself by passing this section and making slow and steady progress up the crack. There were a couple of really tricky/awkward sections in the middle of the route that I somehow managed to scrape my way through despite feeling like I was falling off – sometimes real magic can happen during an on-sight!
I surpassed all my wildest expectations by arriving at the final boulder, and for a few moments began to think “I might actually do this thing”! Well, that thought didn’t last long as the final boulder problem reared up to slap me in the face, I was off, ripping my top gear in the process an taking a rather large fall. Booo hooo!
I was really surprised by how hard that move had felt, but nowhere near as surprised as when I fell off again, after pulling up the ropes to try the moves in isolation. The long move from a poor low finger crack to a good ledge actually turned out to be a long move from a poor low finger crack to a really bad sloper! I tried the move a few more times, fell a few more times, and lowered off with big respect for Alessandro Manini all those 18 years ago! Booo hooo hooo!
Coincidence or fate… who should I meet at the base of the cliff but Alessandro himself! He complimented me on my attempt and I complimented him on his success, and once the necessary politeness was out of the way, he told me some of the stories from the cliff and explained how he would love to see someone repeat his route, because as far as he knew, no one else had ever succeeded, even using the bolts! People also seem to think the route is more like 8b+, which is not really surprising considering how harshly graded his other routes seem to be! Despite my failure and fears, he motivated me to come back and try again, and again, and again if necessary – after all, Alessandro himself fell 10 times on that final move before his success!
After a couple of days of exhausting crack climbing on the amazing 40m splitters of Yosesigo, I was not exactly feeling in tip top condition. Unfortunately the weather was due to turn sour for the next 6 days, and realistically, if I wanted to finish off A Denti Stretti, it was now or never. Conditions at the cliff were not quite perfect, and despite my hopes of working out an efficient sequence, the moves in the crack and especially the top bolder felt worse than ever.
After a few easier pitches to warm up I made my first attempt of the day. Despite my supposed new found familiarity with the route, I climbed terribly, far worse than during my on-sight attempt, and finally fell in the middle crux after completely forgetting my sequence. I tried to pull back on and climb to the top, but fell on the top boulder, and after falling a further two times on the final move I accepted defeat, and that today was just not the day.
The mist came down, the rain grew heavier, and we amused ourselves with the odd bits of remaining dry rock. Caroline continued her “traducation” with a spot of thin aid climbing up a little finger-crack, which really made the hours fly by. The day seemed almost at an end, but instead of packing up the gear I decided to make one more try, just for training. I was cold and tired and my fingers really hurt. I tried to pull on to the the start of the route but fell off two moves later! Owww owww owww, my fingers REALLY hurt! OK, one last try!
Then I climbed to the top and it all felt easy! I lowered off and went for a beer.
It’s funny how you can sometimes make your best performance when you least expect it, when you feel tired, or weak, or just don’t care any more! I think that is exactly the point, at least for me. I have never been good at coping under pressure; if I put too much time, attention, or focus into one moment then I often crumble! A lot of my best achievements have come once I let go of the goals, or more precisely, consider the goal to be so far away that it is practically unattainable. Once there is no goal, there is only climbing. There is only you, making moves, and you just have to make enough of those moves in a row, and don’t let go!