Hayley Ashburn highlining in the Dolomites
TOWERS THAT SCRAPE THE SKY
As if this plan wasn't already tough enough, Julia, Jill, Hayley and Lisi decided to do it in the middle of the winter. An appropriate Facebook comment for this might be: "It's complicated." The four girls, who are from the USA and Austria, faced ice and snow-covered rock terrain on the approach to the line, cold feet before stepping onto the line, fierce winds on the line and even colder feet when getting off the line. Not exactly your average walk in the park. But these conditions were part of an extraordinary plan. Plan as much as you wish, but when all preparations are completed everything comes down to one thing: to take the first step into reality, off safe ground and right onto the line.
The Torri del Vajolet are a formation of six rock towers, three northern and three southern ones, in the Rosengarten group in the Italian Dolomites. These bizarre formations, which seem to have a special arrangement with gravity and statics, are quite common in this wild corner of the Alps. But you'd be hard pressed to find a group of towers that are more elegant and bear more grace than the Vajolets. In the 19th century, locals were fascinated by these slender, stone forms. As interest led to action, the bravest among them filled up their canvas backpacks with pitons, ropes and speck. After all you can't just leave those towers standing around without having stood atop them, can you? In August 1882, G. Bernard and G. Merzbacher set up their base camp at the bottom of the Vajolet massif. On the 28th of that month they stood on top of Torre Principale (2821m) for its first ascent. Five years later Georg Winkler climbed the southeast face of another one of the towers, which was later named Torre Winkler (2800m). In 1892 Hans Stabeler and Hans Helversen were the first to summit Torre Stabeler (2805m) and because they were already there, they decided to tag on the first ascent of Torre Nord (2810m) as well. In 1895 Hermann Delago spraddled solo and in his lederhosen to the top of the sixth and then still-virgin tower, which was later named after him: Torre Delago (2790m).
HIGH VS. LOWThe list of climbers who have since followed in the first ascentionists' footsteps is quite long. If each and every one of those successors had stacked a single stone to mark their ascent, there would now be seven, instead of just six, towers in the Torri del Vajolet group. Without a doubt the towers are among the most sought-after alpine goals in the Dolomites. But those six towers, all of almost equal height, have not only drawn the attention of climbers who jam up the classic lines on sunny summer weekends. Highliners have gazed at them with longing as well. The Torri del Vajolet are a highliner's dream destination. Although it's not possible to link all six towers together with highlines, three are definitely realistic. From the summit of Torre Delago, a 12-metre-line to reach Torre Stabeler is possible and from there you can set up a 50-metre-giant to the summit of Torre Winkler. In 2005 highline veteran Heinz Zak completed the first walk across the Delago-Stabeler line. Rumour has it that the much more demanding Stabeler- Winkler variant was walked in its entirety in 2013 by a as-yet unknown balance artist. To set up a slackline in a park you don't need much: a line, a pulley system, a few carabiners, two trees and a smartphone to watch the appropriate YouTube manual. However, a bit of technical nous will help get the job done. To set up a highline between two mountain summits is much more complicated as plenty of factors come into play. Wanting to go big and being able to are two different things entirely. Wannabe alpine-highliners have to be able to answer a very fundamental question: "How do I get up there?" Well, there's only one answer to that: climbing. But even that is easier said than done. The bottom line is: highlining requires a large skill-set, from alpine climbing to rock proficiency to simply being able to walk a longline with hundreds of metres of exposure beneath your feet. All told you have to be a tough guy if you want to walk in the sky between rock-peaks at almost 3,000 metres.
Or even better: a tough gal.
IT'S A WOMAN'S WORLD
Anecdotes, adventures, heroic tales – the narrative stock provided by alpine history is almost endless. But if you're reading between the lines one thing becomes obvious: the protagonists of these stories are mostly men and so are their narrators. Men and their adventures can be identified as a thread woven into this history that has produced a very specific pattern. But strong and brave women have always been doing their thing in the mountains, too; it's only the attention that has often been denied them. In this respect the present is much wiser: Everybody knows that women draw their lines through the walls as well as men do. And it's no different when it comes down to walking across the lines that are stretched between those walls. In the case of the Torri del Vajolet Julia, Jill, Hayley and Lisi were even one step ahead. It was in the middle of winter, and under such conditions no one had ever tried to walk a highline up there.
SHARE YOUR SKILLS
The first part of "Project Vajolet" was by far the most comfortable: the cable-car ride from Vigo di Fassa to the summit station, Bosch de Larjes (2,100m). Passing by the Rifugio Gardacia (1,950m) after a small descent the next goal was the Vajolet hut at 2,243 metres. From there a steep ascent led to the Gartl hut (2,621m). But instead of a warm snug interior only a cold room was waiting. On top of that its entrance was buried somewhere under the snow. But where, exactly? Here? Are you sure? The girls grabbed their shovels and started to dig. Shovelling through three metres of snow takes a bit, but at least the girls were heated up when they found the entrance half an hour later. Soon the stoves were running and after the soup was finished they crawled into their sleeping bags. Recovery was necessary because the next days were going to be tough. All the gear was brought up to the summits and the lines were rigged while everyone suffered from the cold, but the hardest part was to gain control over the lines during the first attempts to walk them. Breaks were rare because the days were still short. Every hour of light was precious. Sure, it was tough, but everyone agreed that the most important factor during these strenuous days was the team: "Getting together was a really great experience for us all. We all had things to teach and learn from each other. It's a great atmosphere with four knowledgeable, fun-loving, humble girls all ready to make this project happen," says Jill. Jill and Hayley provided their knowledge about slacklining and rigging and when it came to skiing and climbing, Julia and Lisi contributed their experience. "The Vajolet Project was so versatile and there were a lot of things where I was definitely not an expert. It was really good that Julia and Lisi were there. I learned a lot," says Hayley. "And it was great that we could rely on them," adds Jill. The vibes were good. Walking the 12-metre line between Torre Delago and Torre Stabeler was merely a matter of maintaining good form. Next up was "the big one," the 50-metre highline from Torre Delago to Torre Stabeler. A length factor of 4,1666 is quite a lot. Nevertheless the numbers fail to do justice to the length. Up here every step means a battle against the fierce wind, which always threatens a loss of either balance or concentration. The longer the line, the heavier and harder to control it becomes. Each and every step farther becomes a personal victory over the impossible. The first attempts were the hardest, says Hayley: "I was really intimidated by the exposure. There was ice and snow everywhere I had nothing to hold on to visually and I could hardly stand up. Plus, it was terribly cold." But even those harsh conditions couldn't get her down and when the wind died down in the evening hours, Hayley was back on the line for another walk. "The evening hours were the best," she recalls. "There was no wind and the low sun painted all the summits pink. The line was so calm and it felt as if it wasn't even there. It felt like walking on sunshine." Metre by metre – 30, 40, 45 – Hayley came closer to the Torre Winkler. Suddenly she tumbled and fell. Unimpressed she got up and went back to the start to try again. She was a true Sisyphus, impressive to watch but nerve-wracking at the same time. The whole scenery was impactful even to those not on the line. Says Julia: "It was so great to experience the evening atmosphere up here and watch Hayley's performance on the line – I have no words to describe it. Her body-control on the line was just amazing." Suddenly the barometer started to fall, but the atmosphere was so exhilarating that no one really took notice. Unfortunately, next morning the clouds quickly approached, draping the Torri del Vajolet in thick mist. Not the slightest chance of continuing remained, so the project was called off.
Failure is all about perspective. Why call this a defeat when only a few metres went missing? Come on, you can't be serious! The highline project on the Torri del Vajolet wasn't about metres or centimetres or millimetres. It wasn't about being the first to walk it in winter either. Or about being greater or better than someone else. No, it was about having a good time together and trying to make a really rad project happen. "Of course I wanted to walk that line," admits Hayley. "It was definitely the most beautiful one I have ever been on. But I also wanted to show that women in general can do crazy things if they want to. Just try and believe in it." It would not have taken much to finish the line and if the weather had let her try a few more times she would have done it for sure. Effort, courage, persistence and team spirit were perfectly in tune during the project and without a doubt Julia, Jill, Hayley and Lisi earn respect for that. And that is what highlining is all about. "And the moral support," adds Jill, "because even if highlining looks like an individual sport it's not. You need the moral support of your crew and when they are cheering at the other end it gives me the extra push." What about the men? "For me, having an all-girls' project doesn't mean we don't enjoy projecting with the boys," says Jill. "It means that we have the ability and skills to stand on our own. Helping each other face our fears and chart new territories, as strong, knowledgeable, independent women. We can function on our own or in a group because of what we bring to the project as individuals." See? Nothing to worry about, boys! Maybe next time you will be on the team again!