How to be an Alien – Tom Ballard Trip Report

Since I returning from a largely unsuccessful (in climbing terms) expedition in Pakistan I have spent almost two months in the fabulous Dolomites. Although the weather was rather unusual, October being warmer than September! I concentrated on getting ‘tooling’ fit for the fast approaching winter season. This consisted of a 20m overhanging traverse and several circuits. All on rock. I don’t use crampons, to make it more difficult to keep my feet on (muddy boots), and gives a little extra work out for the arms and the core.

Of course drytooling wasn’t the only form of climbing I partook. My girlfriend, Stefania, and I were often found in the splendid ‘Val di San Nicolo’, where there is a lot of really nice sports climbs. We even managed the odd Dolomite route too.

Drytooling, for many, must seem incomprehensible. Why do you use ‘ice axes’ on rock? They are for ice, right?

Yes, by definition ‘ice axes’ are designed for use on ice, but where there is ice there is rock. Drytooling was born out of ice climbing, the idea of climbing up the rock with your tools to reach the elusive ice. Back then it was called mixed climbing. During summer and autumn climbers wanted to prepare for the upcoming winter so they started to climb on the rock with their tools simply to train. From here drytooling has developed into a sport of its own. Although most drytooling specialists will also be found cursing wet and cold hands on the ice now and then.

For me, Drytooling is an integral part of my Winter climbing. The strength and techniques are directly transferable from crag to mountain. After fifty meters of horizontal climbing, a vertical face feels a lot easier!

Drytooling has really taken off in the last few years, almost becoming acceptable amongst climbers. Modern ‘tools’ have revolutionized the sport (as have modern ice screws for ice climbing). Drytooling is to ice climbing what bouldering is to rock-climbing.

At the end of October I got word that a certain Jeff Mercier was coming to the Dolomites to visit Tomorrow’s World – the drytooling crag I have developed close to the Marmolada. The first night I bivied under this huge roof to get an early start at bolting the following morning. As I was drilling, Jeff arrived accompanied by Angelika Rainer. It was no surprise that he immediately jumped on A Line Above the Sky, the hardest route on the roof and the first route in the world to be graded D15. I freed the line back in January 2016. After working it a couple of times he made the mentally torturing journey across the roof via 27 quick-draws, to success. I remember resting before the last hard move and thinking that I had to stick the next move because I really didn’t want to climb all this way again!

Angelika was also working the line and it seemed to me that she would send it this season. In fact three weeks later she returned to make the seventh ascent overall and more importantly the first female ascent. Meanwhile I continued bolting (ground up) a new route on the right hand side. D9 to the first belay and D11 if you continue to the top. Everyone agreed they were cool routes despite the modest grades. The following day Dariusz Sokolowski and friends turned up. Dariusz is almost twice my age and certainly twice as strong! He made the third ascent of A Line Above the Sky. He has been coming back sporadically ever since. He is now working on a much harder route. He bolted a line on the left hand side which I tried last winter, but snapped a pick on the upper roof. This time I just tried the moves with Dariusz on hand to give me the beta.

I rested a couple of days and returned with a reluctant Stefania to belay me. Everything went well, and despite the pure power and difficulty of the moves I clipped the anchor and pleased to have made the first repeat of Invocation D14+.

November is always a busy period for me. It’s the time of year when I am invited to Film Festivals and to present ‘Lectures’. Three lectures on successive weekends, two in Italy and a third in Poland. The first thing I thought of when invited to Poland was to go and meet some climbing friends I had met in 2011 and not managed to see since. The day after my ‘lecture’ in the city of Lodz I was on the train to Warsaw. After some difficulty due to late trains, and changing stations, I was met by the local drytoolers and taken to their one and only outside venue, the ‘Bunker’. As the name suggests it’s an old concrete bunker. A most unusual place! But that’s all they have. After warming up on a D8 and a D10 I was ready to try the hardest line, Sang Real, possibly D14. It was damp and dark. The footholds were hard to spot due to there being spots of paint everywhere from the paintballers! I fell with only a couple more moves to go on my flash attempt. Damn.

It started to rain. After a rest I tried again. Knowing the moves I was able to climb faster and more efficiently this attempt. Unfortunately I fell at almost the same point due to a mistake. Double damn.

They drove me back to Warsaw. When I arrived at the train station I realised I was still wearing my harness.

I took the train down to Krakow to meet my friends Krzysztof and Magda. Last time we met was in Kandersteg. Unfortunately the weather was poor and so we couldn’t go climbing in the Tatras Mountains as we had planned. So Krzysztof took me to a drytooling spot he and his friends have developed not far from his house. We were driving along in the drizzle and he said the cave was on the right. I couldn’t see anything at first glance, but then I saw it, a low cave entrance, is that it?

The night before Magda had described the place to me as a complete and utter dive (also known as the ‘Sh*thole’). So I wasn’t expecting much. In fact, you enter the cave and it widens into a surprisingly deep cavern. The roof is rather low, standing below it looks as if your feet would brush the ground during a swing! But it is higher than you think. Although careful belaying is required.

I set off across this 35m roof. Some interesting moves to gain a good rest, King of Pain D12 to here. Two moves later I am involuntarily back on the ground. I sent the route next attempt, this was the first repeat of Blindside D13+.

Next day we were back early. I found myself fighting for another flash attempt, getting very close to the end… but my forearms are boxed and my hands are wrong. Still a project.

Instead of trying it that day I came from the side and climbed the last and hardest moves, flashing Little Chimera D12+ in the process. My hands, arms and shoulders are hurting now. I’m tired. I don’t know if I will climb again the next day…

But here I am the following morning, once more in the hole! The weather is even worse. Doesn’t matter to us inside that dark hole though. I have now become an honorary member of the ‘Sh*thole Appreciation Society’. Which must be one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, only three members including myself. Stiffly I started climbing again….but I came off on the crux move. A long reach to a reverse steinpull. The hold is very small, it requires you to make a long reach and place the pick precisely. Otherwise, when you transfer your weight onto it, it pops off. Fiddling it in at full stretch whilst hanging horizontally is fairly challenging. I stuck the move and finished the route. It was the first ascent of Whitestar, and if the grade of D14+ is ever confirmed it would be the hardest drytooling route in Poland. I was happy because I didn’t have to come to this hole in the ground ever again. Although I heard some mutterings of a harder extension…

Tom Ballard


Tom is part of the Montane Athlete team you can find out more about Tom and his expeditions here

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