I love spires. The big ones in Yosemite didn’t interest me that much, though there was a fun day with Dave Schultz when we climbed the first one-day ascent of Lost Arrow Spire in eight hours, but when I got out in the Southwest deserts, I really fell in love with climbing spires. The Totem Pole in Monument Valley with Bridwell was memorable, but really an anomaly as it was a repeat of a well-climbed tower. I got started with Dave Insley around 1986, we climbed Agathla (one of the wildest rides ever) then the Totem Pole (my first time up), and I discovered an experience like nothing felt before. Using a combination of hard bold free and quick dynamic aid, the efficiency of movement on terrifying thin towers of rock, and always with an airy summit to appreciate the moment, was intoxicating. Here, proficiency in the technical aspects of rope and protection are the key to safely ascending--and descending--new routes. I probably climbed about 50 spires in the Southwest deserts, similar to Piaz’s record of first ascents in the Dolomites, so his pioneering routes back in the 1900’s on the vast array of unclimbed spires all around him is incredibly inspiring to look back on. By the way, for better flow reading this article, you can skip these footnotes.
“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”—Buffalo Springfield
Campanile Basso, 6th ascent by Tita Piaz, 1902
In Pera, Tita Piaz read of the ascents of Guglia di Brenta/Campanile Basso in the German Alpine Journals; the “striking photographs” of the spire gave him the chills. The second (1900) to fifth (1902) successful ascents were all climbed “without guide” by the top climbers from Munich and Vienna. Each successful ascent--amidst many failed attempts--eclipsed all other news, “even the south wall of Marmolada,” Piaz writes, “clearly this (climb) was more technically difficult and required greater courage, (so) I decided to try it too so not to be inferior to anyone.”
It was Tita’s first climbing trip to the Brenta group near Trento. Piaz, not yet an official guide but fully committed to the guiding profession, invited Franz Wenter from Tires, a friend who had also been “making a name for himself” in the climbing and guiding world. They climbed Campanile Basso with the idea of testing its potential as an adventure they could offer clients, and their “first Italian ascent” was celebrated widely. Piaz notes: “We reached the summit in a shorter time than all our predecessors,” finding the route, especially the traverse, very acrobatic and more difficult than anything on his home Vajolet Towers. He and Wenter agreed that two guides would certainly be required for its traverses and “long stretches of wall without intermediate comfortable stances”, and the two friends made a partnership deal that if one of them ever snagged a client for Campanile Basso, they would join forces to guide it together (footnote).
Footnote: In the 1906 DuÖAV journal: “(the Piaz/Wenter 1902) ascent, in particular, has become important for the future of the Guglia, because the first and still only authorized German mountain guide got to know and love this first-class climbing tour and since then, as a Guglia specialist, has climbed it many times.” Before Piaz was an official guide, he was climbing with a wide range of clients as a "carrier” or “bearer”, which is essentially an apprentice guide required to work with a fully authorised guide. According to Alfredo Paluselli, Piaz was kicked out of the Fassa section (South Tyrol) of the Alpenvereins, and refused to disavow the Trento SAT in favor of the DuÖAV, a choice that “put one’s work at risk, as the tourism of those years was very much linked to the presence of German customers.” In 1906, an official complaint was filed against Piaz by Luigi Bernard, another Fassa guide, for “abusive exercise of the mountain guide profession.” Piaz then networked with contacts in Innsbruck (North Tyrol), took the guide’s course in Bolzano, and became an official guide noted by the 1907 Mitteilungen as: “not under supervision of the Alpenvereins”. Thereafter Piaz is referred to as Führer (leader) Piaz in the journals, a title reserved for official guides, though he was a widely known and sought-after guide for many years before his official authority to guide by the DuÖAV.
Regarding the ‘deal’ with Wenter, Piaz writes cryptically in a footnote, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Piaz guided Campanile Basso many times in his career; it was probably a standard favourite for his competent clients. Many years later, Piaz climbed the Campanile Basso and the Vajolet towers the same day, with a wild motorcycle ride in between.
Speed Climbing Prowess
Piaz’s ascent of Campanile Basso no doubt expanded his awareness of pitons and protection systems used by the Austrian climbers, but also a realization that he was one of the fastest climbers in the Dolomites, a tremendous asset in the mountains where the weather quickly changes. One of Piaz’s early noted speed climbing adventures was a day in 1898 when he climbed seven summits in eight hours, earning him his nickname, “Devil of the Dolomites.” He started the day exploring a new route, solo—a first traverse of the huge east wall of Catinaccio. On the descent, he met Luigi Bernard, who was guiding two clients up the easier main ridge. They had last seen Piaz at the rifugio below and were now bewildered to see Piaz coming from the other direction, descending from the summit. “How can this be?” they asked. Piaz then explained how he run up the fearsome east wall, with a lively explanation of the extreme challenges and exposure, whereupon Bernard replied, “Tu sei un demonio!” (“You are a devil!”).
Piaz then bounded away, ropeless and literally running the steep ridge descent, dancing down sections of 4th class to the col. “I then climbed the Laurino Wall in one breath. With no diminished fury, the second tower, then the third, and here, catching my breath,” Piaz pauses here to describe his audience of Bernard’s team, just making it back to the col after their climb, and the crowd in view at the Rifugio below, and continues: “Whipped by the chorus of clapping of ‘Hoy! Bravo Piaz!’, I continued the mad race on the crumbly, dangerous rock: fourth, fifth tower, still forward, no rest. Seven tips in eight hours! The fame of my epic deeds precedes me as a Roman triumphant at the Rifugio del Vajolet. A German gentleman inspected me a long time with his glasses, then solemnly said, ‘So this is what a devil looks like.’”
footnote: Footnotes: Bernard’s Italian term for devil is “demonio”, the German gentleman’s term is “Teufel”. quotes from Piaz’s biography, Mezzo Secolo D’Alpinismo, 1947. Tita’s shoes completely wore out that day, and with bleeding feet: “I considered it my sacred duty to exhibit the miserable remains of my famous shoes that had taken me to glory in the fantastic flight--historical relics worthy of a museum labeled ‘Tita Piaz’s shoes, 7 summits in 8 hours.’ as precious as the Mona Lisa!”, and he hung them up prominently in the dining area. Piaz then notes how the next morning, the visiting Liepzig DuÖAV vice president summarily ordered “the crappy rags to disappear immediately!” and the shoes were never seen again. The best climbing shoes of the day were thin leather (or canvas) tight-fitting shoes with twisted rope soles.
In addition to the first ascent on the east face of Catinaccio, Piaz’s routes that day included a 20-minute ascent of Torre Delago and the first ascent of “little tower next to it”, later christened Torre Piaz. Piaz became a wild pioneer of interesting linkups and fast ascents involving bold and gymnastic free climbing. Around 1906, records were formally reported in the DuÖAV journals, usually with odd disclaimers such as the club’s inability to formally “support hot competition for records in alpinism”.
One morning on the 700m Tomasson Route on Marmolada--another climb he guided many times--Piaz clocked in at 3 hours, 28 minutes, with the report emphasising, “by no means was this speed at the expense of security.” In 1906, he climbed all three of the Vajolet Towers in a record 1 hour and 37 minutes. In his book, Piaz writes joyfully of the days of pure climbing, clocking up miles of vertical, often solo, but also with friends. In 1908, Piaz with Käthe Bröske and Rudolf Schietzold as ropemates climbed the first traverse of six Vajolet towers from north to south involving a “frightening descent of 100m”, that required a free-hanging swinging to a narrow ledge halfway up an overhanging wall. (Quo Vadis chapter).
Master Rigger and Rope Acrobat
What becomes clear looking at Piaz’s early climbing years and achievements, was that Piaz was becoming a master rigger and rock anchor engineer between 1902 and 1908. The classic routes were getting progressively equipped—fixed pitons at key locations for belays, protection, and descent, especially on routes he had “wired” (climbed many times). The strategic anchors allowed for quick rappels and security at belays to enable faster, more efficient climbing, and most importantly for Piaz, safer with guided clients and on his frequent climbs with friends and family who were often beginners. Piaz’s climbing endeavors were controversial and he faced considerable criticism (footnote1). His wild rappels were dismissed by Franz Nieberl as “contrived (and) outrageous rope maneuvers, gymnastic exercises that do not belong in the mountains.” His piton use was considered excessive by some, and later in life he admitted to sometimes overdoing it, once trying to “tame a huge wall by means of complete equipment from a blacksmith’s shop” (footnote2). But mostly, Piaz climbed in an elegant, efficient way, especially after the essential fixed anchors were placed on the first ascent.
Footnote1: In all things, Piaz had his “own way” of doing most things: hut management, guiding, politics, and theatre: he mocks the imagined apoplexy of the Munich climbers upon reading his frequent reports in the journals, succeeding on another route “with a few hundred meters of rope and several dozen nails.” There are 72 references to chiodi (nails) in his book. By all accounts, however, Piaz was a purist in climbing as free as possible, and dismissed excessive use of aid pitons as “devoid of modesty and dignity.”
Footnote2: Here Piaz might be referring to his attempts on the Schüsselkarspitze in the Wetterstein range (north Tirol). After having a cordial but divergent public debate with Paul Preuss and others on the appropriate use of artificial means (“mezzi artificiali”) in the German and Austrian journals--the famous “MauerhakenStreit”--in 1913 Piaz invited Preuss to “try the invincible wall of the Schüsselkar south wall, the problem of problem of those times, and resisted even the assaults by climbers like Fiechtl”. It was clear to Piaz after prior attempts that the line would involve considerable nailing, and perhaps some aid, but Piaz’s idea was that he would '“take on all the shame of artificial means” so his friend Paul would have his own “share of the glory.” Lisa Fries, "the most famous mountaineer of the time” also joined the team. From previous attempts, Piaz felt he knew the best line for the team, especially with another exceptional free climber like Preuss. Several pitches up, Piaz insisted on a “sicurezza” (security), but Preuss refused, and while Preuss was leading a difficult overhang with no protection for the team, Piaz untied himself and Fries from the rope, writing “because I do not like any connection with crazy people” and that he promised Fries’ mother that he would bring her back safe and sound. Preuss eventually retreated from the pitch, Piaz went up and “applied security” and they continued up the wall, but night fell, and eventually the team had to retreat. They left 70m of rope fixed which was later used by Herzog and Fiechtl for the famous first ascent of the south wall of Schüsselkarspitze later that year, involving pendulums and other rope maneuvers--to be covered soon).
Campanile di Val Montania
The Campanile di Val Montanaia in the Carnic pre-Alps (Belluno) overhangs on three sides; it was first climbed in 1902 on the mostly vertical south wall--and descended the same way. Nearly all climbers at the time agreed that the descent was an integral part of any climb, and generally navigated by the same path as the ascent, especially on spires, when there was no easy way down. As Preuss later wrote, the “climbing ability of a climber on the descent must be a deciding factor in the choice of route.” Only short rappels were considered acceptable.
Piaz broke the norm of this tradition, and in July 1906 on the seventh ascent of the Campanile di Val Montanaia, he rigged a wild 38m free-hanging rappel on the overhanging north side, involving swinging into a tiny exposed ledge to the anchors of another 20 m rappel to the ground. It was an outrageous rope maneuver, no one had ever attempted a wild free-hanging rope descent of this length before--most people climbed with only 30m ropes! Even in the gym, a 12m descent on a rope was considered a feat (footnote). Instead of needing to reverse the 300m of the ascent route, Piaz’s innovative descent only required 50m of downclimbing from the summit, then two wild rappels, taking a fraction of the time normally required to get down.
Guglia de Amicis
The same month as the famous rappel, Piaz rigged the first tyrolean to the Guglia de Amicis. A few years prior, in 1902, Antonio Dimai (again with the Baronesses Ilona and Rolanda Eötvös) had “put the rock-climbing world upside down with an act of unparalleled recklessness with a kind of rope bridge to the Torre del Diavolo (in the Cristallo range near Cortina). The details of the strange climb were not well known, nor were they very well understood,” Piaz writes, adding, it “pushed me turbulently to hunt for something similar to Dimai’s witchcraft. I was looking for an inconceivable problem.”
Piaz searched for a suitable challenge, and found it: “As we walked towards the buttresses of the Cristallo, capricious luck smiled on my path in the form of a Dolomite apparition--a spire so untimely slender elegant and daring as to seem more than a needle. I had never seen anything more beautiful in the fateful kingdom of the Dolomites! It was my dream. The creator had placed it there for me!”
Piaz set off for the spire “equipped with an arsenal of cordage of all lengths and thicknesses, ropes, lanyards, and strings of 2-10mm thickness. Also a good amount of perforated lead balls, about the size of a chicken egg. Curious equipment indeed!” For hours Piaz tossed countless lead balls attached to a light cord 20 metres across to the summit of the “rebel tower”, until at last one passed the right spot and over to his accomplice below. After pulling a full-strength rope across the gap and fixing it at the base of the tower on the other side, Piaz “passed like a monkey on the barely perceptible air bridge, fearfully suspended over the abyss between the two peaks”.
The tyrolean required expert rigging skills and successful countering of the high forces a tight tyrolean puts on its anchors (footnote). It is still one of the most famous tyroleans in the world, though it garnered the inevitable criticism at the time. Piaz later wrote, “I never asked for it to be taken seriously, or pretend to deny the comedy of such a system of climbing mountains. For me it was pure manifestation of my gratitude to (the irredentist author) Edmondo De Amicis, whose writing illuminated so many sad hours of my childhood. When on a distance day I am no longer able to climb mountains, I will think fondly on the bright memory of that day, and will be moved again by great joy for having dedicated in the Alps a natural monument to that Great who preached love of country through generosity and goodness of heart.”
Piaz was having fun innovating new ways of doing things, and he wasn’t bothered by other’s opinions as he tried new tools and techniques that were soon to become standard ways and means of a much wider array of mountaineering endeavors.
Footnote: Piaz’s demonstration of complex rigging and anchoring on the Guglia de Amicis expanded the state-of-the-art “ropecraft” at the time, though in industrial endeavors, rigging and high angle work had also been advancing at the time. On ropes: even the best long fibre Italian hemp ropes at the time had a breaking strength between 7.5kN and 10kN (compare with modern ropes at least double that). It appears that rope manufacturers who supplied ropes to climbers began integrating dynamic properties in the rope design certainly by the mid-1920’s, and possibly before. 10mm rope weighs about 85g/m, so 150m of 10mm rope would weigh almost 13kg (28 pounds). An early mountain rope article here: (1926 Rivista Mensile del CAI).
NEXT: Guiding, more spires, and first big wall routes.
In the next part--Tita Piaz, partC---we will look at some of Piaz’s early guiding seasons full of first ascents of wild spires, more of his known use of hardware and ropes to equip routes for safe belays and descents, and how his experience and expertise led to the first ascent of west wall of the Totenkirchl in 1908, a breakthrough first big wall ascent in the Wilder Kaiser in North Tirol.