Adagio Falzarego

by Rudston Steward

wingding 500 x 30 px

orget the big mountain. Forget what’s up above. Just focus on your next foothold, the next ledge for your fingers. One small move at a time. Then another, then another. Individual moves. Like a game of chess.”

I had accepted Matteo’s invitation. I’d never climbed a mountain before, not a proper one, not with ropes. Walking—yes. I’ve done plenty of walking, across five continents. But climbing? Initially I tried to turn down the offer:

“Not my thing. Honestly, I’d rather go hiking.”

“Climbing is a kind of hiking,” Matteo replied. “A vertical walk. Think of it as a stroll, up a mountain instead of horizontally on the flat.”

Simple enough. I thought to myself: I can handle a stroll.

So here we were—Matteo, myself, and Paul the guide—at the base of the Torre Piccola del Falzarego in Alto Adige. It’s a simple climb, they said. A Dolomitic cakewalk, for beginners like me.

I looked up towards that improbable place in the sky, vertical miles away. The summit: remote, austere, skull-crushingly steep. Our climb suddenly struck me as extremely perilous, a harebrained enterprise. All mountaineering was, I now realized, a completely mad pursuit.

I was shit-scared.

“When you’re climbing, always remember one word: Adagio. Go slowly. Sempre Adagio!

There was no turning back now. I heeded Matteo’s advice. Deep breath, looked at my options. Reached for a ledge, retracted, reached for another, lower down. Bent my knee, foot off the ground, into thin air. Stepping up. Pulled myself onto a new perch—liftoff. A flood of comfort and relief, settling back onto solid rock. Higher ground.

I thought to myself: I’m not dead yet.

Reassured, I started picking my way up the first crevasse, trying to follow Paul’s route. I crept up, gingerly, o-so-slowly. Clinging desperately to the mountain, like a pathetic gecko.

Whenever I faltered the encouraging voice floated up from below: “Adagio, sempre Adagio!”

About a third of the way up I finally started getting the hang of it. Matteo regaled me with another of his mountaineering koans: “Ti devi assolutamente divertire.” You simply must enjoy yourself.

I thought to myself: If the mountain won’t come to Matteo, Matteo must enjoy himself on the mountain, unsure if I was getting giddy with heights or dizzy with mounting happiness.

Paul was up above, out of sight, the ropes dangling and snaking to an invisible fulcrum overhead. He secured another belay, whistling intermittently, like the Pied Piper of the Dolomites. Fluting away to his mountain goats, enticing me up to the next level.

His whistling put me at ease—up, up and away. I relaxed, found my flow. As we climbed, the ascent became increasingly lyrical: Adagio Falzarego Andante.

Near the top I got stuck. Wrong-footed, literally: sheer rock above, chasm below. Deep breath. Not Adagio but Grave—a solemn tempo. I stretched out my foot timidly, back down onto a ledge. Clutching the rock with throbbing fingers, as if holding a precious and unforgiving talisman.

Regroup, rethink, find a better move.

“Always complete your step,” Matteo said. “Don’t lift your back foot until the front foot is secure.”

So I took a different line, found better purchase. Completed my steps to elevate out of the crag. From there it was plain sailing; the rest of the route was a waltz up to the summit, 2450m above sea level.

At the top there was no wind. The silence belied the multiple conversations going on in my head: with Matteo, with Paul, with the Falzarego peak, with the Dolomitic Gods of the Precipice. With my newfound mountain-climbing self. An admixture of elation, relief, astonishment, coursing through my body in analeptic surges.

And fear: we now had to rappel down the other side of the mountain. Another first for me; I’d never abseiled before. I turned to Matteo for advice. How best to approach that first abysmal step, backwards over the edge of the cliff, into the void?

“Climbing up is a stroll, and rappelling down is a dance. A beautiful vertical dance down the side of the mountain. Just stay light on your feet.”

So I danced back down to earth. Adagio at first, and then andante, the rope whizzing through my gloves, toes tapping on stone. And, finally, the last exhilarating plunge: allegro accelerando, a flighty release from gravity.

  

wingding 500 x 30 px