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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon


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Climbers

Jun 22, 2018

Devil’s Weed, Gran Sasso. 10 years Later, and Still Unrepeated.

Probably the most difficult and still unrepeated route of the Gran Sasso massif

WRITTEN BY

Bertrand Lemaire

This story initially featured on Livellozero.net in Italian.

Rome, June 10th, 2018

It’s been ten years, and I keep searching in the mess that is my computer. Maybe I wrote something, – feelings, emotions – but I can’t find anything. Erba del Diavolo (Devil’s Weed), Bertrand Lemaire and Roberto Rosica, July 20th 2008; “probably the most difficult and still unrepeated route of the Gran Sasso massif“, the guidebooks say… I smile to myself.

Courtesy of Livellozero

It had all started much earlier, when, without taking a rational decision, I stopped going to the mountains with my father. First of all because he was my father, and secondly, because my way of going to the mountains with him was just not right. He always took way too many risks, in a genuine sense – he had nothing to prove, except to himself – and I ended up doing the same.

At some point Roberto had finally managed to convince me to go to Gran Sasso with him. That first time he was taking a client on the Vecchiaccio, the super-classic route on Corno Piccolo. Gaia and I had planned to follow him, but the route was too busy, so we did the nearby Colpo Grosso instead.

Pretending to be immortal, believing that all the bad things which may happen on the mountain only belong to somebody else, and don’t concern you, is something necessary. Every alpinist plays this game, to a greater or lesser extent.

My way of climbing the mountains hadn’t changed much in all those years. I simply climbed the wall, putting up as fewer protections as possible, and if some risks had to be taken, I would have taken them, without asking myself too many questions. I simply didn’t realise it and just felt invincible, that’s all. Pretending to be immortal, believing that all the bad things which may happen on the mountain only belong to somebody else and don’t concern you, is something necessary. Every alpinist plays this game, to a grater or lesser extent.

This is our reason for getting out from our beds in the morning, and for entering into a hostile environment, like the vertical one. After Colpo Grosso, I immediately realised how much I missed the mountains. During all those years of cleaning and setting up the bouldering area of Meschia, together with Stefano and Mauro, I had honed, without even realising, the way I looked at rocks: finding a line on a 3m boulder is not very different from finding one on a 300m wall. I really think I am able to read the rocks. I think I have a talent for this.

After a few other classic routes I went to the second Intermesoli Pillar with Roberto for climbing Di Notte la Luna. One of the most beautiful and intelligent routes of the Gran Sasso. I returned there a second time with Gaia, for trying the first free ascent. I barely managed it, because I had zero endurance, having mostly climbed on boulders up until then.

Whilst rappelling I looked around and saw it. Right there, on the right face of the pillar and very evident: the crack system of the first pitch, the small overhang, the little corner just before the slab, and then the big overhang. Everything was crystal clear. I returned back a week later, climbing the near-vertical grassy slopes of the opposite side of the Herron-Franchetti gully alone, checking upper pitches and taking a few pictures. Further to the right there was Roberto Iannilli’s project, Il bosco degli Urogalli – very beautiful too – which could limit the possibilities of where the route would top out on the pillar.

September 1st, 2007.

It is very hot in the Herron-Franchetty gully. The starting boulder problem is nearly a joke: the wall is separated from the ground, where I am standing, by a 1m-wide, 10m-deep hole. You need to lean the body across the split like a bridge, grab the first holds on the opposite side and then pull yourself onto the wall. The first pitch goes all free, but Roberto insists that I need to change my strategy and rest on protection gear instead. He is right. I still remember that mindset shift. Before that, my “rules” for a ground-up first ascent were very clear in my mind: no prior rappelling on the route, no expansion bolts, very limited use of trad gear and no aid climbing. Sadly those rules are not going to work here. The overhang of the second pitch might be aid-climbed, using poor bolts and skyhooks, but there will be no way of free-climbing it, at least by me, relying only on those cheesy protections.

That same evening Fiorino hands me a hand drill and a few expansion bolts saying “what the fuck are you doing man, drill a few holes, put anchors in there and stop being a freak“. Of course he was right too. A few days later, hanging from that nice traditional orange bolt, which I had desperately hammered upside-down in a blind hole last time, I hand-drill my first 8mm hole half a meter above. “But why hand-drilling, for Christ’s sake?” you may ask. Making concessions, especially to yourself, takes time. I will understand this later, as well.

Courtesy of Livellozero

Anyway, three weeks later, while I am aid climbing the same pitch, trying to reach the upper headwall, the good old orange bolt suddenly pops out from its hole, while I am hanging on it. I hit the slab below with my left hip and – Roberto will tell me this later – I pass out. I end up dangling in space, upside down, a few meters from the wall. Now everything is on him: Roberto uses the service rope to take me back to the belay and wakes me up. The hip is hurting badly and my helmet is full of blood. Everything else seems to be ok. I’m mad at myself, and I want to start over. I tell him that I will wait for a few minutes and then I will go up there again. I am in shock and I do not even realise it. Roberto, with no words and precise manoeuvres, arranges the rappels. As the adrenaline rush fades, I realise that I cannot move.

The weather is nice, we still have the whole afternoon ahead, for making it back to the parking lot, from where we started. It isn’t a tragedy, but I can not walk. After the rappels I crawl on the rocks back to the main hiking path. From there Roberto has to carry me for 50 meters, then he goes back, takes the backpacks and repeats, until we reach the end of the dirt road. He leaves me there and runs away for rescue. I sit there for another couple of hours, leaning on a rock under the sun and breaking small stones with my climbing hammer. Weird enough it feels good, very good. But probably it is time to stop. I am running away from something, but I don’t know what it is yet.

Courtesy of Livellozero

We finish the route the next year, in July 2008. Towards the end, Roberto is getting bored and I can’t blame him. Those long days at the belay are all the same. I strand on the fourth pitch, before saling away on the final moves. A dense mist separates me from Roberto and I can’t see him anymore. All I can see is the rope disappearing in that cushioned floor, which is kinda reassuring. I climb mostly unprotected for too many meters, since I am not able to put any decent gear in those small holes. It is very risky, not because of the technical difficulty, way below my limit, but because I have no idea of where I am going and have no idea that the moves just below the next belay will be so delicate and aleatory. I still perfectly remember that feeling, a feeling of absolute freedom and euphoria, like when climbing free-solo. That’s the Devil’s Weed, and you may not want to take too much of it. I would not do those moves right now, if I were in the same situation again. Not like that. That would seem totally pointless in this moment of my life, but I am also happy that I did it that way.

With Roberto we never really climbed together again, or only very occasionally. Maybe we will rope up again in the future, but it will be a different thing, because 10 years have passed. We completed the route together, and those feelings, tensions, misunderstandings and joys were left up there. Alpinism is an intimate thing, which, in some ways, is impossible to tell.

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Expeditions

Sep 12, 2018

Secrets of the Nahanni: The Valley of Headless Men

A team of river guides and storytellers venture into the "Valley of Headless Men" to uncover secrets of the past.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

In 1908, brothers Willie and Frank McLeod embarked on a mission into the Nahanni Valley in search of gold. They never returned.

Two years later, the bodies of the McLeod brothers were found on the banks of the Nahanni River. Their heads though, were nowhere to be found. The two men were murdered, decapitated, and left on the side of the river for the next party of explorers to find.

Nine years after the McLeod brothers were found, Martin Jorgenson set off into the Nahanni Valley on a quest for gold. Soon after Jorgenson sent out letters claiming he had struck gold, his cabin was mysteriously burned to the ground. The remains of his body were found among the ashes. Just like the McLeod brothers, Jorgenson’s body was found without a head. In 1945, a miner from Ontario succumbed to the same exact fate. His body was found headless in his sleeping bag.

We may never know the truth behind these “Headless Tales”, but what we do know is that this was only the beginning of many mysterious and haunting stories surrounding the Nahanni Valley.

The Nahanni River flows through Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories in northern Canada. The Nahanni Valley is only accessible by river, plane, or foot. With deep canyons, hot springs, epic whitewater, beautiful hiking and a massive waterfall, the Nahanni is one of the most impressive river trips in North America. It is often considered Canada’s (more remote) version of the Grand Canyon.

For how impressive the Nahanni River Valley is, and how compelling the stories surrounding it are, I am surprised by how little I have heard about this river!

Virginia Falls scenic landscape in Nahanni National Park. Photo: Paul Gierszewski

Enter Marc J McPherson.

Marc is a filmmaker from Calgary, Alberta. He first learned of the Nahanni over 15 years ago while writing a paper for his History of Exploration course at The University of Calgary. He came across an article about the McLeod brothers and Martin Jorgenson, which is originally what piqued his interest. For ten years, Marc used these stories as inspiration for other film scripts he was writing. He eventually decided he wanted to learn more about the “Headless Tales”, as well as the other stories that have sprung from the Valley. Marc was on a mission to learn from the Dene people, the First Nations people who inhabit the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada. Marc was able to find written word from European and Colonial Canadian explorers that mentioned centuries of oral history from the Dene people, but he was never able to find written history by the Dene people on the subject.

Marc’s curiosity about the mysteries surrounding the Nahanni Valley kept increasing, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. Marc’s documentary film, Secrets of the Nahanni, will follow the Nahanni River, while telling the stories and legends that sprung from the Valley. Marc’s goal is to “make a documentary exploring the Nahanni River Valleys to share the experience of its natural wonders to others, while at the same time connecting these areas to the legends and mysteries that add another layer of curiosity and character to the region.”

The Nahanni Valley is such a sacred place that there are many parts of it which are closed off to the general public. Marc went through a six month process to obtain permission and permits to not only film on the Nahanni River, but to access the restricted areas that the general public isn’t allowed to see. He also obtained permission to film and capture, the Dene Oral Histories, which has never been recorded.

The actual trip down the Nahanni to film will be taking place in summer 2019. Until then, Marc and his crew will be working hard to promote this project and gain the necessary support to make it happen.

Stop for lunch along the Nahanni River. Photo: Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce

For more info about the film, and the opportunity to support the expedition visit: http://secretsofnahanni.com/

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