Tita Piaz-Guide and Rigging Expert (Piaz PartC)
Mechanical Advantage #9c
Here in Tita Piaz, PartC, we will examine Piaz’s use of technology for his climbs, up to his 1908 breakthrough ascent on the west wall of the Totenkirchl in the Wilder Kaiser range.
Tita Piaz and Ugo de Amicis
After dedicating Guglia de Amicis to his favourite irredentist author, Piaz sent photos of the spire to Ugo de Amicis, Edmondo’s son, who had been actively climbing in the Western Alps. Ugo immediately got in touch with Piaz and made plans for the wild rope ride across to the summit of Guglia de Amicis for the 1907 guiding season. Ugo knew of Piaz’s reputation as “one of the most daring and victorious climber who break their fingernails and turn their muscles to iron on the demonic and sublime Dolomite mountains,” and when they met in Trento, they quickly bonded in warm friendship with their mutual love of climbing, and began exploring.
Footnote: quotes from Ugo de Amicis, la Lettura 1908--reprinted in SAC, 1926.
Piaz and Ugo started their tour on the Campanile di Val Montania. “Until now, no one else had dared to descend the longest abseiling point in the Alps,” Ugo writes, “you let yourself down over an overhang of 40 meters into the void, a few metres away from the wall, slowly spinning while the mountains circle around. Your fingers have to be as secure as your head.” They then tried a new rope traverse between two peaks in the Valle di Toro, but after six hours of throwing of lead balls connected by a thin cord unsuccessfully over the summit, they surrendered, and headed for the main event.
When they arrived at the Guglia de Amicis, the white and red flag Piaz had left on the summit the year before was still waving on the summit; Ugo considered the sight of it a “greeting and a good wish”. They climbed the neighboring Campanile Misurina, and this time Piaz made the lead-ball throw across the 20m gap first try, and the climbing rope was soon pulled over the summit and anchored on the other side.
“Now it was our turn,” Ugo writes, full of doubt and fear, “who knows if the carrier, who we barely knew, had fastened the rope well (at the base of the tower)”; “I think the rope is too elastic, very thin”; and “what if I can no longer move forward or backward in the middle of this rope and remain there forever, like a fly caught in a spider’s web?” Meanwhile, Piaz quickly monkeys across: “he swings his legs over the rope and he walks away quickly by air with his head down and legs turned toward me. The second half of the traverse goes almost straight up, Piaz does this quickly, then upright and triumphant on the high pedestal… Piaz calls for me to come. Oh, innovators of alpinism, in what forbidden places we dare to raise our anarchic banner!”
Ugo makes it across, and there they plan another audacious feat--the first rappel off the summit of Guglia de Amicis. Ugo continues:
“Piaz goes back to Campanile Misurina on the horizontal rope to fetch the ropes and the irons necessary for the descent. In the middle of the rope he rocks in the void like in a hammock, letting go of one leg and one arm, and calmly looks in all directions. Piaz sends me the extensive and important tools and provisions in his backpack by means of the rope, then he too comes back, aping the monkeys, and pulls in the rope that connected the two tips, because it was needed for the difficult descent. Now we are completely isolated from the rest of the world and have cut our way back. What if the descent were impossible now? I can already see myself up there with Piaz, imagining the pillar saints of mountaineering for our whole life.”
Only a wild climber like Piaz would have pulled the ropes and committed to this degree of dependence on equipment--ropes and anchoring technology--at the time.
Piaz “drives in the first ring of rope on the tip, pulls the double rope through, puts the hammer and iron in his pocket then descends about 10m.” With tension from Ugo, Piaz then drills a piton/bolt with hammer and chisel on the edge. Ugo “hears Piaz talking to himself and then chiseling for a long time, and since I know that that the iron is supposed to hold our holy persons (how holy is man in such places), I hope he chisels a lot and thoroughly.”
With the anchor in place, Piaz sends Ugo down the overhanging rappel first with orders to pull into a tiny stance 20m down. While Ugo is trying to figure out how to brace himself safely on the tiny exposed stance, Piaz quickly joins him, then the rope gets stuck and had to be abandoned. They set up the second rappel with their last rope, and again Piaz lowers Ugo to another tiny stance on the side of the slender spire. Ugo suggests setting up the last rappel over a natural limestone flake, as was often done in the Western Alps on granite, but Piaz replies laconically: ‘I want to live a few more days. Don’t you?’ then hammers in “the third iron.” Piaz and Ugo finally make it down, after an epic of multiple stuck ropes, barrages of rockfall, and a final airy rappel to the base. Ugo finishes:
“It took us six hours to traverse this eighty-meter peak. As we are on the way back, we turn around to admire the bold obelisk, and if we didn't see the rope hanging up there that we had to leave behind, we would doubt ourselves whether we made the descent. The weather, in paternal kindness, wants to give us a light punishment for our madness, and under a violent thunderstorm we take refuge in the hotel.”
In contrast to the relatively safe descents down previously ascended territory which was the norm in mountaineering at the time, descending into the unknown with the proper tools, as Piaz and Ugo’s descent from the Guglia de Amicis, becomes a key (and obvious) strategy of future climbs in the wild Alps. Even with modern equipment, six hours is still a pretty good time to rig a tyrolean and set up a descent route down a three-pitch spire. In the following years, Piaz climbed many more routes with Ugo, often with Guido Rey, including a classic Dolomite Tower-Face-Chimney tour offered by Piaz (Vajolet Tower-South Wall of Marmolada-Tschierspitze). Piaz was as adventurous on climbing objectives with clients as he was with his friends and climbing partners.
Guido Rey writes in 1914, reinforcing the prolific talent and adventurous spirit of Piaz:
“Not satisfied with having ascended the Towers of Vajolet three hundred times, in ‘sunshine or in rain’, he wished to attempt them by night under the stars; therefore he persuaded an American lady to join him, and soon, in the heart of a beautiful summer night, his lantern could be seen shining, a newly created star, on the topmost pinnacle.”
“Sack of Flour” guiding technique
There are many funny stories of Tita Piaz’s guiding hard climbs in his biography, “Half a Century of Alpinism” and in the early journals. Piaz often took clients on climbs well above their ability; even the talented climber Western Alps climber Guido Rey experiences this with Piaz on a difficult section on the Vajolet Towers:
“With a quick movement, Piaz climbs and disappears. Immediately I am ordered to follow, as obedient as a schoolboy, I imitated as best I could the movements I had seen, then came a fierce struggle between me and the rock, groping here and there with hands and feet. Half suffocated, I begged for advice, and I do not remember if it was thanks to Piaz’s advice or to the rope, I soon found myself face to face with Piaz--it was then that I really learnt to know Tita.”
Mountain guides at the time refer to the required assistance of the rope as the “sack of flour” technique (“Mehl-Sacktechnik”); essentially early rope friction-braking techniques that eventually evolve into standard belay methods. If the terrain was too steep to downclimb, getting a client down generally involved lowering them with the rope tied around their waist. Without harnesses or free-hanging abseil skills, there are many tales of imagined suffocation while hanging suspended on the stiff ropes of the day.
In his chapter, “Conversion of an Enemy”, Piaz relates a funny story of a man, loudly critical of “Piaz”, at a Bavarian alpine hut. The man knew Piaz only by reputation and was unaware that Piaz was standing nearby; without disclosing who he was, Piaz invites the man to climb with him the next day on a difficult overhanging training climb, and recounts:
“After a magnificent tumble, he remains hanging in the air, desperately making movements that gave Galileo the idea for the pendulum. In vain he clings to the rock. ‘Hold, hold, I can’t take it anymore, I suffocate!’” A climber below yells ‘Pull, Tita pull!’ And Tita pulls, pulls like three oxen, then four oxen.” Eventually, the climber makes it over the overhang; with a dazed look, the man finally realizes he is climbing with Tita Piaz, who continues: “I smile to him with my best smile, and say to him, ‘Courage, friend, that life is beautiful and still continues today! He did not respond to my rather evil smile but stretched out his hand and said to me, his eyes shining with tears: ‘Tita, do you forgive me?’ And we were friends.”
Today, we call this a “sandbag.” Another example comes from a 1911 Swiss Alpine Journal article, “Eight Days in the Dolomites.” The author witnesses a client struggling up the Delago route on the Vajolet Towers, with Piaz literally “pulling the old man up it--hey, ho, hey--just as you raise a bale of cotton in the air.” Piaz once caught a 30m swinging fall of one of his clients—the man either fell asleep or fainted at the beginning of a difficult traverse—Piaz recounts how he was able to catch the fall, and despite losing the skin on his hands, “which in truth is not much, in comparison to (the man’s) life.”
For Piaz’s climbing adventures, secure anchors were essential. On the crux of the Winkler route on the Vajolet Towers, Piaz writes of a client asking for tension, whereupon the rope goes slack:
“‘Help! I’m untied! Help!’ In a flash I fixed the rope to a nail, … I slipped down and found him perfectly untied, barely holding onto the problematic hold with his head dangling in the void… a few seconds separated him from the end. To tie someone up in such a situation, you would need at least three hands, and I from my birth had only two. Yet I tied him up, it still remains a mystery to me. Sometimes far-fetched inexplicable things happen in life, which the believer calls miracles".”
Piaz equipped routes with piton anchors to enable such miracles; for Piaz it was common-sense rigging to enable the new kind of bold free climbing--the Acrobatico Alpinismo--that was characteristic of the new climbing style in the Dolomites that climbers were coming from far and wide to experience, with Piaz, known to be safe and strong, was the top choice of guides, and a leading expert on rock climbing safety anchors.
Piaz climbed many first ascents of spires with clients, equipping them—‘hooking the wall’—and making them safe for guided ascents and descents. From the DuÖAV:
The direct ascent from the Vajolet hut over the southeast face (of the East Tower) has been tried several times, but always without success. The whole tour can be described as extremely interesting due to its variety in technical requirements and its alpine charms. At the suggestion and guidance of G.B. Piaz, the qualified engineer E. Kronstein-Wien and district judge Müller-Munich on August 22, 1907 climbed the southeast face. The lowest steep step is crisscrossed by a noticeably deep, black chimney, which was only made possible by the outstanding skill and bravura of Piaz and his patience in hooking the wall. In particular, where a drooping block makes it necessary to exit the chimney and climb an almost handleless wall in complete exposure, the difficulty and danger are combined to such an extent that the route can be used as training for other excellent tours.
footnote: it was probably the first ascent of the southwest face of this tower in 1906 with George Christophe from Berlin that got Piaz in trouble with the Fassa guides, as he was still officially only a ‘carrier’ at the time. He was also bootleg guiding the south wall of Marmolada around this time.
Starting in the fall, 1905 guiding season, Piaz began an incredible year of first ascents with Bernard Trier, a wealthy German industrialist and talented climber. In a single day they climbed three new spires in the Carnic region (the same area as Campanile di Val Montanaia in the Eastern Alps). When Piaz was guiding in the area, he hired the barefoot carrier Teresa, for whom Piaz named the descent notch Forcella Teresa. Piaz writes of Teresa:
“A very nice girl, who carried phenomenal weights, capital importance given the absolute lack of shelters in that area. Women carriers are a local custom. Since I was never fond of the term ‘carrier’, she would come with us to the climb with food, rope, nails, the ‘tools of the trade’, as Preuss would say.”
Piaz climbed over a dozen first ascents of spires with Trier that year (including the Montanaia di Val Montanaia and Guglia de Amicis already described), cumulating with a spectacular climb of the NE wall of Campanile Toro, a fearsome spire and likely the hardest rock climb in the Alps in 1906. “It was the most impressive climb of my life as a mountaineer, perhaps more because of the specific conditions and circumstances,” Piaz writes, “which I worked the first ascent with artificial means.” Subsequent ascents will always be easier once the route is equipped with anchors, and sure enough, it was soon “downrated” in the 1907 DuÖAV by Neiberl, one of North Tyrol’s leading climbers, who “evaluated the crooked crack (the crux) a little less high.”
footnote: The second ascentionist writes: “There will be few places that are so dizzying like the cutting edge of the Campanile Toro.” The route diagonals up the steepening spire, so any falls generally end up in space. Piaz notes a subsequent ascent made 25 years later by the famous Schmid bothers from Munich (first ascent of North Face of Matterhorn, first climbing gold medalists), who confirmed its “5th degree” difficulty. Rudatis, in a 1930’s history piece, notes that the brothers “overcame it with a purity of style, doing it without nails.”
There are many epic stories of Piaz’s routes, many legends, not only of the original ascents, but also of the subsequent climbs and failed attempts. In addition to longest rappels, Piaz experienced one of the longest lead falls (that was survived) on the ropes and gear of the time. It was a slip while guiding George Christophe on the south wall of Marmolada in 1907, exiting a chimney, “over a void of a hundred meters … at one point I flew and fell perpendicularly into the void for about ten meters, until a strong tightening of the rope around the ribs told me that my life would continue as before.” He was luckily caught by his “life-saving partner” and subsequently had nightmares about the fall and its potential consequences for himself and his client, and swore to himself that he would never again fall again, and apparently he never did.
Here, we have focused primarily on Piaz’s relationship with technology to establish greater clarity of Piaz’s mastery of ropes and pitons to enable harder and longer climbs. Piaz was joining the ranks of an elite group of guides—Dimai, Rizzi, Bettega, Siorpaes, Verzi—guides known all over Europe, and using his skills and climbing talent, he was soon to set a new standard in big wall climbing in North Tyrol.
Piaz’s attitude toward the acceptable use of pitons and his attitudes toward risk become more clear reading his recollections, as well as his published statements during the famous “Piton Dispute” of 1911-1913. In a nutshell, Piaz felt life was more important than bravado, and he deeply lamented Preuss’s death, as well as many “double falls” (when a falling leader also rips the belayer to their death). A well-translated and illustrated version by Randolph Burks of the piton debates can be read here. Jim Erickson’s excellent summary here.
NEXT: Tita Piaz, PartD: First ascent of the west wall of the Totenkirchl, 1908.
Conjecture: No one really knows what kind of pitons Piaz was using in this early period. The term “ring of rope” is seen as a device nailed directly into the rock with a hammer, and sometimes chiseled in, as in the case of Ugo de Amicis’s first anchor. Other descriptions also lead to a conjecture that perhaps the piton and loop of cord were tied together; in other words, a piton with an eye to which a cord could be connected. Ring pitons are sometimes specifically referenced in the context of rappel anchors, but not often. There is no known surviving pre-1910 hardware of Piaz, though perhaps some unidentified gear still exists in some local curio museum. Perhaps he was just using simple spikes; other German climbers referred to Piaz’s use of Mauerhaken, a term used generally for any sort of metal anchor by this time, but there are strong clues he was using something other than an L-shaped spike. Piaz was also very involved with mountain rescue, involved with over 100 rescues in his career, and known for his complex rigging requiring safe rope and anchoring techniques at a moment’s notice. Elsewhere, in the Elbsandsteingebirge, there is evidence that between 1900 and 1910, pitons/bolts of different sizes were custom-crafted for climbing, with an inline eye for attaching a cord, rather than a ring—technological developments for this region will be covered in another post. What is clear is that soon pitons would evolve into the Fiechtlhaken, thin flat steel pitons with an offset eye (covered previously), to enable ever-more efficient lightweight climbing safety systems, and throughout his career, Piaz adopted all the latest climbing tools.
Thank you for reading, and be sure to comment below if you enjoy reading my research on the technological tools of climbing, and stories of the pioneers who brought them to life.