The Monte Santu’s adventure: a funny story of Salvaterra

Housebound because of a passing thunderstorm, I started to reminisce about a little springtime adventure. This is not anther one of those stories about a struggle in the Alps; it is actually a funny story at the seashore.

It’s April, in Ogliastra in Sardinia. I am in a great mood; I have just waved off my clients who are being accompanied along the famous Selvaggio Blu hike and in two days’ time my friend Marcello Cominetti will arrive by plane to finish off a hard sport climb together.

I have two free days but no one to climb with. However I still want to do something. I have decided to try a mysterious route put up in the eighties by Marcello and Sandro Pansini on the east face of Monte Santu. A cliff around 350 metres high that overlooks the sea. The route is meant to be difficult, with little fixed protection and a pitch in the eighth grade, the fact of the matter is I do not feel all that certain, basically I just want to see the place.

The cliff is only accessible from the sea. I asked a Sardinian friend for a ride in his boat who left me on the rocks at the base of the cliff. We agree that either we will be in touch on the phone or he will pass by in the evening on the following day to pick me up. It is six in the evening; the idea is to sleep in a little suspended forest and then take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning for the climb.

A colony of seagulls don’t seem to accept my presence, it is the period in which the eggs hatch and to protect their nests they pretend to attack me and come within just a few metres of my head like the old “Stuka” planes that would dive bomb and then move away. It is time to put my helmet on!

To reach the little suspended forest where I want to sleep, I must climb up a sort of “solid landslide” as quoted in Cominetti’s report. I leave my big bag at the bottom and attach my rope to my harness. This “landslide” is not so solid: 60 metres of scree and rocks cemented together, but not all of it. With a gradient of between 70 and 80°, it leads you to a little jungle of juniper and olive trees. I went back down to collect my bag and then back up and it is time to set up my hammock. On the menu tonight there are lentils and a warm beer, then a book and the sunset looking out to sea, luckily there aren’t too many mosquitoes.

I wake up at dawn. It’s hot! Last night I already decided that I will try to climb up a dihedral that seems to be the easiest line up the wall, I don’t even understand where Marcello’s route goes up (studying more carefully from a distance when sat on the boat, I subsequently identify that you must climb up much further to the left).

I climb up a pitch and a half on easy ground where I only need to use the rope to abseil down and retrieve my equipment, then the wall rises. I am not very practical at climbing and self-belaying, the conclusion I have come to is that it is very hard work. After passing a cave I climb a very beautiful arête, the rock is white, with very aggressive and grippy droplets, but it is difficult to place protection.

There is no respite from the sun. I am gasping for air like a fish. A red overhang that leads to a dihedral above seems to be the crux of the route, where there are many fig and juniper trees where I can definitely place some protection. I choke a little juniper tree with a sling and I make two moves on the red rock. Super crumbly! Many foot and hand holds are just slippery quartz veins that are by no means reassuring.

This section would be a geologists dream (there are even some fossils), but in this moment they really don’t interest me at all. I make another move and then take a U shaped piton, and place it in a hole, I hit it and the hole swallows the piton, the rock flakes off. I feel like a fool because ultimately this move is no more than a 6a I tell myself, so I put the piton away, raise my foot up onto the quartz and…crack! My foothold explodes and I fall like a sausage. Nothing like what you see in the climbing films: perhaps I fell a metre with many spasms in search of inexistent holds, the little juniper tree held up. However for me that is more than enough. I abseil back down to the anchor and from here with four or five abseils I reach the beach.

I am still unaware that the real adventure starts now.

It is ten o’clock in the morning and I have no signal on my phone. So I wait a couple of hours. I climb back up the solid landslide for another dose of adrenaline, and even up there, there is no signal. I abseil back down to the seashore. The few boats that pass are far from the shore and don’t see my signals just like they don’t hear me whistling, of course with an eighty horsepower Evinrude engine under your seat it’s quite logical.

It is really hot and there isn’t an ounce of shade, I hide behind my big bag by the wall and read, luckily I have a book with me by Tiziano Terzani, fantastic!

I have put my head at rest, my friend will come in the afternoon to collect me.

I haven’t changed my mind about the climb, when I have had enough, I always abseil off a route, however if I had just held out a bit longer I would have finished the route and I could have return to civilization on the footpath above.

At six pm, I am officially worried and I still can’t see anyone on the horizon. I am totally burnt after eight hours of relentless sun. The sunset arrives. I cannot do anything so I lie down on the rocks in my sleeping bag. The situation is tragicomic: my second night just two kilometres from the beaches and bars full of beautiful girls with drinks in their hands.

The next day I wake up early, I feel like one of the rocks made a hole in my back. If my curses had been effective, my ferryman would already be in the presence of Charon. I decide to leave everything and try to swim across: it is a long swim and the cliffs along the coast don’t allow you to stop and rest, but I can’t see any other alternative and I have almost ran out of water.

Just in that exact moment, the providence throws me a rope, in the form of two Germans in a boat. They stop right in front of the rocks I am on and turn off their engine and unfortunately for them my whistling ruins their romantic moment! Twenty minutes later I am at the port bar having breakfast with coffee and croissants, my shipwrecked experience just like “Cast Away” ended well.

My Sardinian friend simply forgot, he didn’t do it on purpose, the Sardinians are a bit like the Argentinians…relaxed! It’s a great gift after all.

Also on Monte Santu

A few days later with Marcello we finished a new line on the Hawks Wall on Monte Santu.

The line was started many years ago and has some sport climbing characteristics but not all that much. Cominetti with various climbing partners, primarily Lorenzo Nadali equipped four difficult pitches. In May, we completed the work in three long days with a bivouac on a portaledge we finished the line and replaced the old corroded bolts with new Climbing Technology steel bolts. The route has still not had a first free ascent because we did not have time. The strong Claudia Giglio made the most serious attempt. A few weeks after the route was put up, Claudia accompanied by Marcello climbed the first few pitches managing to do all the moves (the grade is around 7c). But when she returned for the redpoint attempt she made a mistake at the “access point” from the boat to the shore and ended up in the sea with the bag and all its contents… this really confirms the wild factor of this route!

Francesco Salvaterra

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