Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide Kent McBride has climbed, skied, and guided in more than 15 countries and countless ranges, from his home turf of Wyoming’s Tetons to remote locations in countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Tibet, and Nepal. But when we sent him to the Dolomites to climb Cima Grande di Lavaredo with Caroline George on her six north faces mission for our Spring Outfitter Book, he dropped in hot to the beautiful climbing, stunning vistas, and storied climbing history of the South Tyrol region. The Live Your Adventure blog sat down with McBride to get his perspective on climbing a historic route in a historic climbing region. In the first part of our barstool conversation with McBride, he describes what struck him as so powerful and distinctive about the experience. -LYA Editor
Tell me a bit about what the experience was like for you just traveling and climbing in the Dolomites.
Well, it was great. I don’t know if I’ll get into the whole story of Caroline saying “oh, we got to run out there now because we have good weather and the Dolomites are notorious for bad weather,” because she was afraid of not even getting the climb done because the shoot takes so much time.
I had a Mont Blanc trip that I was guiding. The other guide working it decided to take all the clients down, so I headed out. But I missed the last train down so I had to run down, ended up running 10,000 feet down that day, and I woke up in the morning and Caroline called and says she was leaving in an hour. So I hit the Mont Blanc border and I was just lucky that my wife’s so cool. She was like “go, go, go, go,” and we’re just throwing things in and Caroline’ said they mailed me everything you’re supposed to wear, so just grab your harness.
I jumped in the car and we ran out there. I pulled into the Dolomites at night and slept in the parking lot, so I hadn’t seen them yet. I woke up in the morning and still couldn’t see them because it was 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. We ran down the trail and got to the base of them and the sun started coming out. We started seeing the Dolomites there and started climbing, climbed them that day and jumped back in the car, drove through five countries, got to Chamonix in 40 hours and somehow pulled it off.
I know it was a mad rush for you to get to the Dolomites, but what was your first impression when the sun came up and you were climbing there?
Oh, they were beautiful. They looked like they were all coated in some kind of dust layer. This range has this kind of mystique to it, but it just looked like these dusty rocks from afar. People have compared them to the Tetons, but they have even a more unique character to them. They’ve got big, big relief and more lakes around than I thought, a lot of little lakes and long, grassy fields.
Was there anything unique or different about the climbing that you did while you were there?
I don’t get to climb on too much limestone and when I do, it’s all bolted up. We have beautiful, world-class limestone around Lander in Sinks Canyon and at Wild Iris. Being in the Dolomites, you see where they were putting pitons into it and using gear—very few bolts actually. It was like a piton museum up there—there’s just all these old, lost arrows that had held falls over the years and were rusted.
It was kind of scary actually. We had two ropes and it was really nice because we just clipped everything, but it took up a lot of draws and you’d get an occasional cam in here and there, but I would hate to depend too much on that stuff. But then again, it was nice and steep so you weren’t going to hit any ledges.
Caroline told me a bit about the history of the six north faces, but seeing all that old gear and getting a sense of that area, did you feel connected to the history of climbing in that region?
Well, I was just so impressed with the hardman side of the Italians. They were obviously the leaders back then. In 1933 there was not a given line. You look at the States and there are not huge crack features where guys were falling in the Tetons. You never hear about them climbing up the face and hunting around. It’s not obvious climbing and it’s very committing because of the steepness. I just imagine them going up, hanging, then pendulumingover. Even when we were climbing, we were getting loose rock falling on us, and it’s been climbed probably a thousand times or more. And there’s still rock—all-natural rock—so I can imagine that day, but those guys were just going up there and testing it and taking whippers. Yeah, they were hardmen all the way.
And without any rock climbing shoes or anything like that?
Oh yeah, and they did have to free climb too. They couldn’t just put in a piton and pull and piton and pull, not like following a split or crack that other people can do, and if you’ve got enough pitons, you can just stand up on every one—you’ve basically got a ladder there.
But to balance and throw in a lost arrow– that’s what most of those pitons were. They were lost arrows and a lot of them were pointed downward, kind of the worst placement of any piece of gear you can imagine, but they either held or they didn’t really rely on them other than body weight. If you’ve got two hands that use a hammer and put in a piton, that’s probably one of the easier parts to climb. The harder parts, I’m sure they just had to keep pushing through.
It is real committing and there are 16 pitches of it too. I mean the length of it back then, it’s really amazing.
Have you climbed any of the other six north faces in the Alps?
I haven’t, but that would be a great objective to go try them all or climb them all, for that matter. I mean they’re classic for a reason and they’re just beautiful, beautiful climbs.
So being on one of them on this last trip, what strikes you about the accomplishment of being able to do all six of them in a climbing career?
Oh-boy, you have to be very skilled to begin with and you also have to be present to win, so you got to know when the conditions are just right and you got to have the right weather. If you lived at the base of each one for a long time, you might be able to take off easy, but we know that’s not the case, so you just need the skill to get off those when the conditions aren’t perfect if you’re doing all those. It’s super impressive because it’s not just dry rock climbs or rock climbs. You have the whole snow and ice element of it and half of them are bad rock, so you got the whole bunch of objective hazards. No matter how good you are, you still have these other hazards on all six that could catch you at any time.
If you look back on the whole experience, the trip and the 40-hour madness and the 10,000 vertical foot descent to make it to the trip, of all of that, what’s the most memorable element that you’ve taken away from that trip?
Boy, I think there’s still adventure to be found. To just roll out of the parking lot and be able to climb it in good style with Caroline being so focused. We got there in the morning and we only had one party in front of us. We didn’t have any idea. We could have had ten people in front of us and could have had wet rock or whatever, but we just started climbing and got up the route and it was great. We didn’t know what the pitch was going to be on the next one, other than what the guidebook was telling us. It was just really fun going there and getting a route to climb that fit within everybody’s ability, and we didn’t have any problems. It just went nice and smooth.
That’s a good one to have on the life list.
Yeah, it’s not super hard, but here again–with the whole history and everything all mixed together and having the weather work out and the people we were with– yeah, it was really fun, just a really enjoyable climb that I will remember.
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