Ivo Rabanser, UP2006. Translation from Italian: Alexandra Ercolani.

On a clear autumn day in 1957, two mountaineers attack the central section of the striking overhangs of the North face of the Cima Grande di Lavaredo. They are Candido Bellodis and Beniamino Franceschi, young members of the “Scoiattoli”, Cortina d’Ampezzo’s mountaineering association and they manage to climb up for eighty metres, equipping the yellow rock face thanks to their enthusiasm rather than their conviction, so they abandon it, abseiling down to the base of the rocks. They give up the attempt and do not try again, also because they don’t want to use expansion bolts! The world of great overhangs is still unknown and strikes terror in them. One needs that youthful boldness around to even think about climbing that repellent yellow wall.
Two years previously, in the summer of 1955, a young Saxon student, arrived for the first time in the Dolomites. Dietrich Hasse, a climber with extraordinary ability, developed in the severe school of Elbsandsteingebirge, considered the cradle of free climbing as well as the sporting concept. For years this boy has dreamt of this moment: “In an old book I admire the Tre Cime di Lavaredo… If only I could go there! No mountain moved me so much as the Cima Grande seen from the north face. The Comici route, which was the same age as me, was at the peak of my dreams. That clear wall of rock, shining on the left, what an ideal rock face. If only I could steal a line off it…”
The boy remained enchanted by this magical kingdom of apparently inaccessible rock faces. On the Tre Cime di Lavaredo he repeats the famous Comici-Dimai route, and during the climb he scans as if hypnotised the central section of this repellent yellow rock face. In his innermost thoughts he dreams of setting up a direct route….
The following summer he returns once to the Tre Cime. On Cima Grande he collaborates with the Cortina “Scoiattoli” in an arduous rescue operation for one of his compatriots on the Comici route. Even on this occasion he insistently explores the rock face by staring at the repulsive rocks nearby.
However the time is not yet ripe to dare to throw himself wholeheartedly on to such an important obstacle. He moves to Civetta, where, amongst other things, he repeats the prestigious Carleso-Sandri route on Torre Trieste, bringing to it involuntarily a variant to the direct exit. All this climbing and above all with bare feet!
Dietrich Hasse, born in 1933, like almost all youngsters born in his generation, had a very difficult childhood, what with the horror of the war, the retreat of the Red Army, then the death of his father in a concentration camp. Hunger and desperation, followed by years without any prospects. These are traumatic experiences, which forged his determined character, resistant to deprivation. He studies at Freiberg in Saxony and moves to Berlin and then to Munich. His passion for climbing grows ever increasingly. He spends all of his free time exploring and climbing the sand stone towers which are dotted around the Saxon woods, so much so that he ends up in a Czech prison for six weeks for having gone over the Bohemian border. Particularly gifted in free climbing, he masters with the passing of time all the finer points of aid climbing. Daringly but at the same time carefully, he obstinately follows almost maniacally his appointed objectives.
In 1957 Hasse reaches the Cime di Lavaredo, determined to make his dream come true: a direct route up the north face of Cima Grande. Together with Peter Voigt, who having once seen the rock face, does not want in any way to climb alternately: “I can climb as second, but please don’t let me lead”, he comments totally disconsolate. The two climbers have brought with them all the heavy artillery: 130 pitons, numerous carabiners, etriers, 150 metres of threads and seven expansion bolts with hand drill. Finally on the 1st August Hasse and Voigt put hand to rock; tasting the rock face, they quickly realise that the possibilities of managing on their own are ridiculously low. At the Locatelli Hut they meet Willi Zeller and Toni Reiter, two fun-loving Bavarians, who, questioned about the route, join the Saxons quite happily. Hasse proves to be a charismatic character and manages to involve the two youngsters in his ambitious project. The four Germans start climbing on the 3rd ,4th and 5th of August equipping some ropes. The difficulties prove to be immediately atrocious. It will be a hard struggle! Even the meteorological conditions are nothing but unfavourable: while the rain does not represent a problem, the biting cold proves to be draining. After three days on the rock face the youngsters give up. Zeller is feeling unwell and decides to head back home. Discouraged so does Reiter.
The 3rd September Dietrich Hasse and Peter Voigt try another attempt, accompanied this time by Jörg Lehne and Siegfried Löw. “We wake up at four – Hasse notes down on his diary – the weather conditions are hard to define. We are at the start of the route, we prepare our equipment and we tie ourselves to the rope. Jörg wants to climb with me, alternating as lead, up to the great reverse dihedral. We set off. It is very cold this morning. So cold that Peter falls already on the first pitch and gives up on attacking the second pitch. The fog that covers the rock face is cold and limits our sight to only a few metres. Towards evening the wind carries with it some snowflakes. The days have become so much shorter! With a lot of effort we reach the anchor after the fourth pitch. Recovering our equipment from the base, the connecting thread gets twisted and only with great effort do we manage to recover our sleeping bags. The night is a killer. In spite of the sleeping bags we suffer the cold terribly all night long, sitting on our chairs”.
As soon as daylight appears, after this terrible bivouac the four Germans abseil down to the base of the rock face: “To continue would be pure madness!”
After this series of failed attempts, Dietrich Hasse draws up a balance. He understood that it would be necessary to revise the equipment and improve the bivouac gear. It will be of vital importance to manage to sleep at night, otherwise it is impossible to survive several days on this rock face. And certainly not for a question of comfort!
The ambitious project is postponed to the summer of ‘58. Nevertheless, when the moment comes to set off, Peter Voigt decides that he does not want to waste a second season following Hasse’s crazy illusions, he has by now become fanatical about this rock face. Luck has it that Lothar Brandler takes his place, a natural climbing talent, as well as being resourceful and determined.
From the 6th to the 10th July 1958, Dietrich Hasse and Lothar Brandler, assisted by Jörg Lehne and Siegfried Löw, manage to achieve what for that era was considered one of the maximum undertakings in the Dolomites. Previously no one had even dared conceive an itinerary of such calibre on a rock face which was so repulsive and overhanging. In total 180 pitons were used, of which 14 expansion bolts, as well as wood wedges and threads with wedging knots. Supplies were pulled up from the base with a thread. The route, defined Direttisima, (super direct) was dedicated to Willi Zeller, the unfortunate partner in the previous summer’s attempt, who died on the 22nd September 1957 during a solo ascent on the Fleischbank in Kaisergebirge. In his diary Jörg Lehne remembers the happy moments on the summit at the end of the tiring climb: “The ropes are intertwined. Friends sing a song. I cannot sing. And not only because of my parched mouth! I prefer to remain in silence and observe the clouds which envelop the Tre Cime. I think back to all that we could have done if only we had reached the summit …Farewell superb Cima Grande rock face. You did not give yourself up easily! But you were definitely worthwhile!”
Dietrich Hasse, the promotor and the driving force behind the roped party, was animated by a sporting spirit, therefore all the pitons used during the climb were left in place. Above all, the German climber had come up with a theory in some of his written work where he stated that pitons used by the first ascenders should remain and constitute the measure of the means used, even for the successive repetitors: the use of extra pitons would not have been very sporting and with time would have devalued the global effort put into the route.
Only four days later, from the 14th to the 16th July 1958, the Direttissima was repeated by the Italian Cesare Maestri, known as the “ragno delle Dolomiti” (spider of the Dolomites), together with his occasional partner Josef Holzer. The boldness of the route is admired and in the hut book Maestri writes: “Honour and merit to the endurance, the team spirit, the refined technique, both in terms of free climbing and in the use of artificial means, to the four youngsters who on this yellow rock face wrote one of the most beautiful pages in mountaineering history.” In spite of the fact that the four Germans left all the pitons used in situ, Maestri was forced to use another 40.
The French climbers Jean Couzy and René Desmaison, less than two weeks later, from the 28th to the 30th August 1958, make the third ascent. Following a lucid account of the route, Couzy proposes the introduction of the VII grade: “We found the route to be extremely difficult, even if well equipped, harder than all the other ascents of VI+ we have climbed up to now, even if these weren’t equipped as well!” Desmaison reiterated this fact in an article on La Montagne: “To rate the effort required on this route at its existing grade, one has to devalue by one grade all the extreme climbs, something I believe few people would be happy about. And if someone is convinced that the VII grade does not exist, then they should go and try this route, then we can talk about it again”.
The fourth ascent is the prerogative of Albin Schelbert and Hugo Weber, who will spend the following summer together with the Scoiattoli, leading protagonists of the competition for the direct route up the overhangs of the nearby Cima Ovest di Lavaredo. The two young Swiss overcome the rock face with only one bivouac, from the 1st to the 2nd August 1958, and they too are struck by the effort required to climb the route: “With every rope length our admiration increased. Thanks to their perseverance and their ability we managed to reach the summit along the most beautiful route,”
However there was heated criticism, especially “from those who would probably never put their hands where Hasse put his feet” (Marino Stenico). The purists made an outcry, believing that there was too great a use of unconstrained artificial means. People even talked about the use of electrical drills and other contraptions, coming to the macabre conclusion that the grave of mountaineering – pure mountaineering – had been dug forever. Especially in environments that used the Cortina Scoiattoli as a reference point, the negative reaction was most vehement: “To climb using a hand drill should not be considered a solution, since in this way all rock faces become accessible” (Lino Lacedelli). In the years immediately afterwards, the Scoiattoli themselves will be perpetrators of a few technological climbs with a much wider and carefree use of pitons and hand drill.
We should note that the idea of facing such an itinerary represented a concept which was ahead of its time in that historical period and that artificial means were truly used parsimoniously with maximum criteria. And it would be wrong and against history to think that Hasse and his partners used pitons and other artificial means without style and scruple, to overcome the rock face at all costs. In fact Hasse proved this many times by giving up an ascent which according to him would have needed a disproportionate amount of pitons. Lastly, we should consider that the main characters of this undertaking were top climbers, not only daring, but also especially well prepared.
The four German youngsters were also criticised for the way they apparently made a spectacle of the undertaking: “They reach the summit, relatively rested, they descend quickly to be welcomed triumphantly at the hut by hundreds of spectators and to give out interviews to journalists.” In reality, Hasse, Brandler, Lehne and Löw were welcomed at the Locatelli hut by the guests, two guides and by Cesare Maestri. The child of the hut warden Reider paid tribute to the Germans with a bunch of flowers…and the few words spoken with the journalists were allowed at the invitation of Bepi Reider who made them take note that they were in another country and therefore they should adapt to the local customs. Rarely has a mountaineering undertaking of the sort been officialised with such little uproar. Just think that Hasse refused the well-paid offer of a German magazine to publicise the account with illustrations of the spectacular first ascent!
The sixties are also the golden era of the great winter ascents. To confront a face in the most hostile season, knowing what you are going to encounter will require a physical and pyschological strain, which needs extremely powerful motivation and interior strength, as well as a good dose of stoicism.
The protagonists of the Direttissima’s first winter ascent are the Germans Peter Siegert, Reiner Kauschke, Rolf Jäger and Werner Bittner, who in six days of climbing, from the 13th to the 17th February 1961, overcome the overhanging wall of the Cima Grande. In the morning and in the evening the four climbers were provided with supplies from the base by Horst, Siegert’s younger brother, using a connecting thread. The undertaking took place on the quiet and without great uproar, so much so that the news was given only thanks to Piero Mazzorana, Auronzo hut warden. The second winter ascent was made by the Italian brothers from the Cadore area, Natalino and Emilio Menegus together with Marcello Bonafede, from the 7th to the 10th January 1964, who at the same time marked the eightieth ascent of the route.
The fame of the Hasse-Brandler route, was thus increasingly consolidated; it was considered one of those ascents that act as a yardstick amongst the most difficult routes in the Dolomites. The best climbers came from all over Europe to confront themselves with this ascent which had become famous and yearned for. Claude Barbier, the great Belgian climber who in 1961 had linked up in only one day the north faces of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, climbing the Cassin route solo on the Cima Ovest, the Comici route on the Cima Grande and the Innerkofler route on the Cima Piccola, hoped deep down to be the first one to achieve the first solo of the Direttissima, the most prestigious pearl. In a letter to a friend he confesses: “It is all winter that I dream of this route”, Barbier will be preceded by another solitary figure, the Tyrolean Karl Flunger, who on the 6th July 1962 quickly ascends the route in one day without set backs. Three years later, in the summer of 1965, the American John Bruce Price achieves the second solo ascent. The first female to climb this itinerary was the Swiss Erika Stagni together with Robert Wohlschlag on the 25th July 1964.
In the eighties a radical change occurs in the world of climbing. After officially recognising the VII grade, the game of free climbing spreads like wildfire. The legend of purity, of athletic movement, of not holding onto pitons to climb up a rock face, finds fertile ground in the new generation of climbers. It is a season of great progress, personalities and tendencies are delineated which will mark the future. The concept of climbing as a sporting activity is increasingly diffused, totally independent from mountaineering. The search for the difficulty in crux moves and the aesthetics of movement puts the epic importance of a great rock wall into the background. And it will be by taking into account the priceless athletic preparation matured on the crags at the base of the valleys, that the strongest mountaineers will be able to push free climbing to higher levels, even on the rock faces of the Dolomites.
Kurt Albert, born in 1954, is one of the great protagonists of this season. He is the promoter of red point climbing, that is free climbing using protection only for safety and not as an aid. During the summer of 1987 he arrives at the Tre Cime together with Gerold Sprachmann with ambitious projects in mind. The aim is to free climb the overhanging wall of the Cima Ovest and the Cima Grande. In July, after a number of days getting ready, he manages to “free” the Svizzeri route on Cima Ovest, being filmed during the climb by a cinema film crew. Not quite content the two go to Cima Grande, and after having strengthened the anchors, they free climb the Hasse- Brandler route with difficulties up to VIII+.
On the 1st August 2002 the last taboo falls: the German Alexander Huber climbs the route solo and without a rope or any belaying device (free solo). It is an unbelievable, outstandingly reckless ride, an achievement that has no equals, hanging over an abyss, with the total awareness that a tiny mistake would have fatal consequences! Reinhold Messner comments on this exploit in the following way: “Alex Huber is currently the strongest climber; he has climbed the Direttissima free solo with only a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag: 500 metres of total exposure, with no possibility of being belayed or of going back, with clever moves of an elegance which will be difficult to surpass”. Previously Huber had spent six days on the route, studying the sequence of the most difficult sections and marking with chalk crucial holds.
This is how the story of the Hasse-Brandler route ends, also known as the Direttissima of the Cima Grande. An emblematic itinerary, which Messner wrote about by saying: “ proof was had that it was no longer impossible to overcome any obstacle when the roped party is capable and efficient, and with patience can use artificial means. In a few words by using protections, any rock face can be overcome. This is the evil, since for the sake of historical truth, it must be said that from that undertaking onwards any artificial means began to be tolerated”. However I think that this was a route that created an admirable balance between free and aid climbing. An achievement which in a certain sense closed an era, in which – even though an itinerary towards the summit was the objective – it was done adapting to the rock face’s morphology, connecting, often with amazing intuition, the weaker parts in the rock. It was afterwards that the era of illogical routes direct as “drops of water falling” was imposed on the rock face using to excess pitons and hand drills!