Today is the big route day, a seven pitch classic called the Rattlesnake with climbing up to 6c+ and a final chimney that looks horrific even from the distance of the ground, which is several hundred meters below. I find the best way to deal with things like this is to entirely switch your head off, start climbing and deal with the terror when it happens.
It’s also one of our main day for pictures since we’ve come here for dramatic shots of soaring granite cracks. Tom Randall suggested we get on Rattlesnake as an Orco classic that would provide what we needed, and we soon see that he’s right. Every pitch is stunning, from chimneys to splitter cracks and delicate slabs, and the backdrop is like Yosemite. It’s the kind of place climbing photographers get silly about. I get so excited that I get Jude to climb the crux pitch twice.
The upper sections of the route are the really fearsome bits, and it falls to me to tackle the overhanging offwidth on the penultimate pitch. I have a very memorable foot-cut-loose moment several hundred meters up, yet I’m not on the hardest bit. That pitch falls to Libby – an insanely overhanging corner that leers out over the void and requires you to switch off the bits of your brain that deal with fear. Libby battles heroically for the camera and at the top we’re greeted by the familiar relief that comes at the top a large walls.
As we abseil back down I realize this is the moment when the shoot is officially done. It’s the moment I await on all big shoots – the moment when it’s clear that I’ve got the images I came for – and as always, it’s a moment of deep satisfaction and relief. Now to nurse these swollen hands…
Another sunny morning, but with the threat of afternoons storms. But while we pack for one of the big classics of the Orco valley, I’m given to thinking that climbing here is slowly killing us. It’s like a fast operating degenerative disease. Everything is beginning to ache, our hands are getting that strange swelling from too many days on rock, shoulders and elbows are inflamed, the cuts and grazes of abrasive granite are healing only to be opened up again. Both Jude and I are now on the anti-inflammatories in a bid to extend our bodies’ ability to see out this trip, and if there were a stronger drug that would give me new arms, I’d take it.
But the fact is that we can’t stop. The climbing is too good. Every route we get on is world class, from the 6b wall crack of Cochise to the outrageous 7b/c column of Stop Press, and the list of must do’s keeps growing. It’s become onerous. How the hell are we going to climb everything we need to climb as our days here decrease? We can’t. We can only gobble the little red pills, and climb on…
Jude and Ally arrive around 9.30 and the photo shoot is officially on. Although it’s not, because it’s raining. We aren’t planning on this. Our stellar forecast of friendly yellow suns across the Valle dell’ Orco map is in fact a series of scudding clouds that build to torrential showers. If there’s fortune to be found then it’s that the rain comes in before we find ourselves three pitches up on a slippery granite slab, but to be honest, it’s not much solace. After another patchy night there’s frustration in me.
Instead, we spend the morning exploring the upper, alpine stretch of the valley where the Italian Job was filmed, then hazard an exciting river crossing in search of an extreme picnic spot. And amid the hail and snow that comes in on a vicious wind, we eat olives and mackerel fillets and pretend it’s summer.
By the time the last rice cake has blown off the boulder-table, the sun has come out and climbing’s looking feasible again. We head off back to the Sargent and Jude climbs the 6b+ Elisir D’Incastro. In Britain this would be a nationally significant three star classic, but up here in sleepy Orco is seems a tad forgotten, tucked away in a dark granite gorge well out of the limelight. But what a route. The crack soars out of the dankness, splitting a wall at first with fingers, then hands and then – as you pull through the overhanging section – with baggy fists. Jude dispatches it with ease as Ally and I hang around trying to hold the cameras still enough in the gale force wind. By the end everyone’s frozen, including Jude who has too much spare capacity to find the effort of this crack warming. She eyes the 8a on the opposite wall with interest…
With the last light of the day Ally and I set off on a somewhat ambitious attempt at the other uber classic of Orco – La Fessura della Disperazione. It’s a 6a+ offwidth that splits the Sargent, running diagonally across a blank shield of granite in a compelling gash. It feels very much like Yosemite, the climbing burly and insecurely protected by some Camalot 6 shuffling, and some terrifying pendulum potential for the second. After three pitches and with the sun turning orange on the snow peaks opposite, we call it a day. It’s been a 100m wrestling match and we have three more days climbing ahead of us, so prudence overrides ambition and we descend for pizza and beer. But Orco is soaring in our estimation. This place is sensational.
It’s the second day of being on the road and Libby and I are remembering what it is to be living outdoors. It’s not so comfortable. You begin to smell a bit. Summer dawns early and birdsong calls you up before you’re ready. But it’s wonderful. It’s great to be away from the comfort of the sofa and the convenience of the kettle, moving from civilization to something approaching a more natural existence, living out amongst swaying grass fields and pine forests and snow peaks above the swathes of granite. And that’s why we’re here now in the Italian Valle de Orco – for the granite.
Above the rustic climber’s campsite towers the Sargent, a 200m swathe of rock riven by corners and cracks and looking ever so faintly like a refugee from California. The climbing is not something we’re used to as Britons – blank slabs, offwidths, splitters and chimneys, and it’s going to take a while to translate our UK skills to the darker arts of granite climbing. But it’s fun. What starts out as desperate and incomprehensible slowly returns to feasible and elegant as long forgotten techniques return and we re-learn how to climb cracks. And then, aching and torn from the effort, we head down to the valley for a night of howling winds and restless sleep and a morning where we wake not only to the summer sun but the aching reality of roadtrip. It’s going to take a few days for our bodies to get used to this. But we’re happy…
Off to Geneva tomorrow for a Rab shoot with Jude Spanken, Libby Peter and Ally Swinton (of avalanche swimming fame). Lots of late snow mean our original objective is out of bounds (and will have to stay secret), so we’re trying to decide on an alternative location. Should it be the huge walls of Ratikon or the splitter cracks of Valle de Orco? Should we spend a couple of days trying a 7c on this face:
or should we head to one of the biggest, steepest, hardest and scariest walls in Europe:
As always it’ll be the weather that makes the final decision for us, but there are other considerations. On big walls we’d have a great adventure story but shooting would be restricted by the need to keep climbing. Cragging in Orco, however, would allow a wider range of images but a less adventurous tale.
Difficult choice. We’ll know more tomorrow evening…