A Harrowing Italian Climb

Sperlonga Climbing adventure.

So we were headed off to climb a new wall. “You ladies can handle it” he said, “you’re strong” he said. When the hike up resembled trespassing more and more, I began to wonder how he knew about this climb and was this an area that had any climbers before? Which begs for the bigger question, is this safe or even legal? It is Italy and I am certain they are fairly unfettered by legalities in many arenas.

The “he” I referred to is Franz. Franz was an Austrian rescue climber I’d met through a mutual friend from the NATO base. He more resembled a mountain goat who would walk up a rock to take pictures of the rest of us while we struggled to climb, feeling very accomplished as we did. Our afternoon in Sperlonga still held some picture taking, but we all had to work that day.

Myself, Franz and Sylvia, Franz’s fiancé who was visiting from Austria, began our adventure driving from Naples. This area we are trying for the first time is near our regular spot in the city of Gaeta found between Naples and Rome Italy down around the coast.  Don’t worry, if you don’t have a car, the train stops there. Yet today Franz had planned for something a little more challenging than Gaeta.

The first possible entry point to our assent was a little door in a chimney area. Essentially it gave us a pretty good view of the Mediterranean, inside of a cathedral area of a grotto. A keyhole to the world above the water. It was, as usual, an amazing sight of blue beautiful water calling like the sirens below the towering walls of rock, begging to be scaled. Yet this was not the entry we were looking for.

We hiked higher up to a wonderful overlook, indeed the one in the picture so proudly posted for all to see. The picture always reminds me of that day, and today I am allowing others into that moment in time. Why would you hike higher to make a climb, you may wonder? Much of rock climbing is approached from the escape route, or the back side, and repelled down so that the end game after everyone is burned out and the last assent has been made, we climb over the top and pull up our gear.

We finally find this lookout, decide this is the place. And no, I do not know how that decision was made, but an always smiling Franz in his Austrian accent, declared it so, and so it was. We unpack our gear, leaving unessential’s behind and plan the three repel points for our multi assent climbs of three pitches. All harnessed and roped up, down I go. Wow, it was so beautiful, hanging over the water, on this perfect summer day. It could not get better. Perhaps it was worth considering that I was not touching the wall- at all- but swinging as I slid down each pitch. For you non-climbers that is referred to as a negative pitch, its like a backslash and will make this more difficult. I wasn’t thinking about the angle at the time, only the aww and beauty, but I assure you, it made it more difficult.

One by one we made our way to a tiny little place to stand and belay up and wait our turn. Is that a helicopter straight across? Are we supposed to be here? We are way down the side, and in the same breath we are way up there, perched above the water. I can see the little door we first peered into, but only barely able to make it out. We are set, gear secured. Did I say, unnecessary gear? Apparently, that was a mistake.

As I mentioned, Franz is a rock star (hehe). To this point, there is no rock I’ve seen that he couldn’t get up. Yet, while Sylvia and I stood perched on a tiny staging area barely big enough for the six of our feet, it became clear this was going to be quite the challenge. Sylvia belayed while Franz sought a viable route. About twenty minutes into this I began to plan an alternate route out of there. The water was likely about one hundred feet or so, below us. I am a better swimmer, I could take a bite (piece) of rope to send down any gear and swim it over to the area where people were swimming.  Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing how deep the water is or if there are rocks in the drop area. This plan is starting to feel like I could die, I guess I just wait and see how this plays out.

About forty or forty-five minutes pass, having watched the up and down attempts to this wall, made a video and took some pictures. I know if it took him this long, my South Texas beach ass has a less than average chance. I am anxious to see how Sylvia, a very accomplished climber herself, fares for the task. Franz makes it up to a belay point and is now looking for the extra belay device for a pully system. Sylvia managed about fifteen or so feet with several attempts before she was swinging in the wind. Remember the stuff we didn’t need left on top? Yea, we need that stuff now, but it’s not happening. The ever-smiling Franz instructs her to pull on “this rope”, I’ll pull on “that rope” to pulley her up. After they figure out which rope to pull from those distances, this rope and that one seem the same, she finally makes it to the next staging area. I’m pretty sure If the Austrian climbers needed assistance, my climb would be less than eventful.

Roped up, I step off the safety of my 8×14 inch flat space and am now on approach. Here’s where the shit gets real. I am determined to give it all I’ve got and then the ghost of Elvis comes in, and the legs started moving like a sewing machine. We are indeed on an inclined slope not in our favor. It feels powdered and I wonder if this is on the northside, with a light dusting of mold making gripping the rock impossible. I would swear there were holds, but I’ll be damned if I could get a grip on any of them. Swinging back into the rock I search for something to grab or put a toe on. Anything. It’s not going to happen. Looking up, I see a smiling Franz, thank God, behind a camera, as he instructs, “you pull this rope, I’ll pull that one”, and up I went.

Now we are all toast, it takes more arm strength to pulley yourself up than climb. One by one we approach a relatively narrow area referred to as a chimney. Those are nice because you can use at least two sides. At times the angles are best crab walked or climbed backwards. Was it the angle and climb or was it that my forearms were on fire? I hear, “you can turn around now”, but as I look back and up over my head, it was simply a ploy to get pictures. Finally, the last pitch resembled a normal climb, where we found flat ground at the top, and took a few “we survived” pictures.

What an awesome day! There was a reason we didn’t bring the others on this particularly harrowing adventure. This is not a day I will easily forget, or the bond forged into a special place in my heart. I will thank them always for their skill, attitude and friendships.

Of course, we climbed together again! Because the question is not; “will you come to visit and climb in Austria?”, it was “How long can I stay?” And those adventures, I will save for another day!

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