Photos: Tim Kemple
A little tip from Italian alpinist Paolo Marazzi: capsize your raft, go without sleep, bike to your objective, seek out grand walls, first lines and amazing multi-pitch link-ups all around the world, but if you start hallucinating, back down. The objective will still be there next year. Hopefully, the sinister fanged talking ledge that is threatening to eat you, will not. That scary vision is just a manifestation of your exhausted mind. Quit. Come back another day.
Paolo Marazzi laughs about it, months later, but when his epic 38 hour quest to link up three classic multi-pitches in his local climbing area of Val Masino fell apart with only 6 pitches to go, he was crying. Not because of the failure, but because he was legitimately terrified of that talking ledge.
It had been a big mission for the summer. “I hardly every train in my life. If I’m up for something, I normally do it because I like it,” instagrammed Marazzi in August, as he and his climbing partner Luca Schiera hiked in to the upper valley in preparation.
The twosome spent much of the summer trying to unlock the project, to climb Elettroshok (5.13b, 11 pitches), La Spada Nella Roccia (5.12b, 13 pitches and one of the most beautiful granite multi-pitches in the Central Alps) and Delta Minox (5.12a, 12 pitches) in one consecutive attempt. Each route in the zone, once called “the little Yosemite of Italy” for its huge granite walls, is such a worthy and challenging tick that people dedicate years to climbing them.
The link-up meant sequencing 36 pitches, none easier than a 5.11b, with 30 kilometres of hiking in between routes, and an overall altitude gain of 4000 metres. No resting. As fast as they could. They wanted to be fully self-contained, independent of any outside help or support. They’d cache food and water at the bases of each wall, and travel fast and light, with just one ten litre backpack between them.
It had never been done before. In the twenty years since Spada nella Roccia (The Sword in the Stone) was first free-climbed, only once was a local climber, deeply familiar with the zone, able to successfully link two of the routes back-to-back. Completing all three was declared impossible – given that there isn’t even a trail connecting the second and third routes.
Over an intense 38 hour push, Marazzi and Schiera attempted to unlock the combination. They simul-climbed much of Elettroshok. Leaving their gear at the summit, they ran-walked to the base of La Spada Nella Roccia, where another set of gear awaited. They snatched sleep by the handful at the bottom of the second route, when night was at its darkest. The second route was completed in the early morning, and then, they soloed, ropeless, across an exposed grass ledge, at 2000 metres, at the top of the wall. Dressed only in their t-shirts and softshell jackets, they were making the transition between the summit and Delta Minox when things got ugly.
“I had a hallucination,” says Marazzi. “I was so tired. I was eight metres above a ledge, above any protection, and it looked like the ledge was talking to me, saying: ‘Come here, come here. I will destroy you.’ It was super, super scary. We were really close to finishing the link-up.”
With just six pitches to go, and the trophy so close, they had to back away.
“We’ll try again next year,” says Marazzi, evenly. He’s always loved the entire adventure more than the specific climb, anyway. “The climbing is only a little part of the whole experience.”
With the triptych on the backburner until next year, Marazzi and Schiera then headed to Patagonia, for the third time together, celebrating Christmas in the airport, before forging new paths into a lonely wind-scoured valley.
Marazzi has been dreaming of Patagonia since he was a boy, toddling by his older brother’s side, in a backpack almost as big (and heavy with gear) as he was. 13 years his senior, Alberto Marazzi, also a mountain guide and member of legendary climbing association, the Ragni di Lecco (“the spiders of the Lecco”), is the person Paolo credits for infusing him with the passion for alpinism and climbing.
When Alberto would come back raving about an amazing two-month stint in Patagonia, Paolo knew he had to go one day. When he finally got to South America himself, it was love at first sight: “I think that once you see South America, you either hate it or you will love it forever. For me it was love.”
The appeal is in the extremes. And the wildness. It’s not the climbing scene that draws Marazzi, so much as the places untouched and hard to reach, the chance to go somewhere so remote that it’s like going back in time, where you stay at the bottom of the wall, spend 30 days in a tent in basecamp, trying to find a way up a “crazy crazy unnamed wall, that no one has been to, where there is nothing but wildlife.”
Wild it was, for Marazzi and Schiera to put up the first ascent in the immense Campo de Heilo Norte glacier on an unclimbed 2000 m peak that they named Cerro Mangiafuoco. (Mangiafuoco means “I’ll eat fire.”) They hiked in themselves, instead of being delayed by their guacho’s unavailability, were blistered and skin-blasted before they even got up the wall. They named the 400 metre route, up a wall of mixed rock and ice, L’Appel du Vide– The Call of the Void (5.11b). On the way out, their rafts capsized. All in a fire-gobbling adventure.
Their comrades at the Ragni di lecco climbing association anointed them “the truffle dogs of adventure, capable of finding and grabbing beautiful routes and walls in the most remote places in the world.”
Marazzi is admittedly obsessed with the wildest valleys in Patagonia. Ultimately, he doesn’t care as much about chasing grades or the acclaim, as he cares for the quest, about stepping out of the comfort zone and into the wild world. It doesn’t matter what the route is – boulder problem, sport climb, alpine mission. What matters is that you became part of the scene. Not a spectator. Step off the sidelines and into the story. “Don’t give a shit about the people who say you could have done more, you should have tried this, you should have completed the attempt. What matters most is to wake up in the morning, still exhausted, in a place few others have been before. Because you will have been part of the stunning view, not on the other side watching from a viewpoint.”