GRAN SASSO (ITALY): DEVIL’S WEED (2008/2018)
by Bertrand Lemaire
Rome, june 10th, 2018
Yes. It’s been ten years. I keep searching in the mess which is my computer. Maybe I wrote something – feelings, emotions – but I can’t find anything. Erba del Diavolo (Devil’s Weed), Bertrand Lemaire and Roberto Rosica, july 20th 2008; “probably the most difficult an still unrepeated route of the Gran Sasso massif“, the guidebooks say … ahahaha
It all started way earlier, when, without taking a rational decision, I stopped going to the mountains with my father. First of all because he was my father, and secondly because my way of going to the mountains with him was just not right. He always took way too many risks, in a genuine sense – he had nothing to prove, except to himself – and I ended up doing the same.
At some point Roberto had finally managed to convince me to go to Gran Sasso with him. That first time he was taking a client on the Vecchiaccio, the super-classic route on Corno Piccolo. Me and Gaia had planned to follow him, but the route was too busy, so we did the nearby Colpo Grosso.
My way of climbing the mountains hadn’t changed much in all those years. I simply climbed the wall, putting as fewer protections as possible, and if some risks had to be taken, I would have taken them, without asking myself too many questions. I simply didn’t realize it and just felt invincible, that’s all. Pretending to be immortal, believing that all the bad things which may happen on the mountain only belong to somebody else and don’t concern you, is something necessary. Every alpininst plays this game, to a grater or lesser extent.
This is the only way we have for getting out from our beds in the morning and for entering into a hostile and less protected environment like the vertical one. After Colpo Grosso I immediately realized how I missed the mountains. During all those years of cleaning and setting up of the bouldering area of Meschia, together with Stefano and Mauro, I had honed, without even realizing, the way I looked at rocks: finding a line on a 3m boulder is not very different from finding one on a 300m wall. I really think I am able to read the rocks. I think I have a talent for this.
It’s not even a creation and it’s more like a revelation: I see something beautiful and really evident and I show it to you. The same thing happens with maths. (… continues after the gallery…)
After a few other classic routes I went to the second Intermesoli Pillar with Roberto for climbing Di Notte la Luna, one of the most beautiful and intelligent routes of the Gran Sasso. I returned there a second time with Gaia, for trying the first free ascent, which I barely managed, because I had zero endurance, having mostly climbed on boulders since then.
While rappelling I looked around and saw it. Right there, on the right face of the pillar and very evident: the crack system of the first pitch, the small overhang, the little corner just before the slab and then the big overhang. Everything was crystal clear. I returned back a week later, climbing alone the near-vertical grassy slopes of the opposite side of the Herron-Franchetti gully, checking upper pitches and taking a few pictures. More to the right there was Roberto Iannilli’s project, Il bosco degli Urogalli – very beatiful as well – which could limit the possibilities of where the route would top out the pillar.
September 1st, 2007:
It is very hot in the Herron-Franchetty gully. The starting boulder problem is nearly a joke: the wall is separated from the ground, where I am standing, by a 1m-wide, 10m-deep hole. You need to lean the body across the split like a bridge, grab the first holds on the opposite side and then pull yourself onto the wall. The first pitch goes all free, but Roberto insists that I need to change my strategy and rest on protection gear instead. He is right. I stil remember that mindset shift. Before that my “rules” for a ground-up first ascent were very clear in my mind: no prior rappelling on the route, no expansions bolts, very limited use of trad gear and no aid climbing. Sadly those rules are not going to work here. The overhang of the second pitch might be aid-climbed, using poor bolts and skyhooks, but there will be no way of free-climbing it, at least by me, relying only on those cheesy protections.
That same evening Fiorino handles over a hand drill and a few expansion bolts saying “what the fuck are you doing man, drill a few holes, put anchors in there and stop being a freak“. Of course he was right too. A few days later, hanging from that nice traditional orange bolt, which I had desperately hammered upside-down in a blind hole last time, I hand-drill my first 8mm hole half a meter above. “But why hand-drilling, for Christ’s sake?” you may ask. Making concessions, expecially to yourself, takes time. I will understand this later, as well. (… continues after the gallery…)
Anyway, three weeks later, while I am aid climbing the same pitch, trying to reach the upper headwall, the good old orange bolt suddenly pops out from its hole, while I am hanging on it. I hit the slab below with my left hip and – Roberto will tell me this later – I pass out. I end up dangling in space, upside down, a few meters from the wall. Now everything is on him: Roberto uses the service rope to take me back to the belay and wakes me up. The hip is hurting badly and my helmet is full of blood. Everything else seems to be ok. I’m mad at myself and I want to start over. I tell him that I will wait for a few minutes and then I will go up there again. I am in shock and I do not even realize it. Roberto, with no words and precise manouvres, arranges the rappels. As the adrenaline rush fades, I realize that I cannot move.
The weather is nice, we still have the whole afternoon ahead, for making it back to the parking lot, from where we started. It isn’t a tragedy, but I can not walk. After the rappels I crawl on the rocks back to the main hiking path. From there Roberto has to carry me: he carries my body for 50 meters, then goes back, takes the backpaks and repeats, until we reach the end of the dirt road. He leaves me there and runs away for Rescue. I sit there for another couple of hours, leaning on a rock under the sun and breaking small stones with my climbing hammer. Weird enough it feels good, very good. But probably it is time to stop. I am running away from something, which I don’t know yet.
We finish the route the next year, in july 2008. Towards the end Roberto is getting bored and I can’t blame him. Those long days at the belay are all the same. I kinda strand on the fourth pitch, before saling away on the final moves. A dense mist separates me from Roberto and I can’t see him anymore. All I can see is the rope disappearing in that cushioned floor, which is kinda reassuring. I climb mostly unprotected for too many meters, since I am not able to put any decent gear in those small holes. It is very risky, not because of the technical difficulty, way below my limit, but because I have no idea of where I am going and have no idea that the moves just below the next belay will be so delicate and aleatory. I still perfectly remember that feeling, a feeling of absolute freedom and euphoria, like when climbing free-solo. That’s the Devil’s Weed and you may not want to take too much of it. I would not do those moves right now, if I were in the same situation again. Not like that. That would seem totally pointless in this moment of my life, but I am also happy that I did it that way.
With Roberto we never really climbed together again, or only very occasionally. Maybe we will rope up again in the future, but it will be a different thing, because 10 years have passed. We completed the route together, and those feelings, tensions, misunderstandings and joys were left up there. Alpinism is an intimate thing, which, in some ways, is impossible to tell.
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