Friday, 7 December 2012

Up and close with Christoph Hainz

Special thanks to Andrew Bisharat, Managing Editor at  for helping out with the editing of this portrait. 

Its Wednesday the 5th of September when I receive an SMS from Christoph Hainz that he is free this coming Friday. My mind starts racing. The photographer who was meant to come with us is engaged elsewhere. What do I do? We exchange a two short text messages and decide to meet at the Aronzo Hut Friday morning and head up Alpenliebe with Hainz big camera. As I understand things we have a vague plan to hang out and climb on the North Face of Cima Ovest. There is none of the normal racking talk and pre big route preparation. I feel kind of uncomfortable going on a big wall with no other information than “I will meet you at the Hut at 7.30 am”. But why worry? I’m after all going climbing with the man how practically invented hard climbing in Tre Cime.

I relax and try and think through what I want to know about Hainz. After having climbed a few of Hainz routes I was totally consumed, (friends would say obsessed), buy the beauty of Hainz routes. I wanted to get to know the person behind the routes. Who is Hainz? What has shaped and influenced him to open routes in the fashion he has since early 1990th.  So late in the summer I approached Hainz and asked if he would be interested in meeting and go climbing. My idea was to try and portrait him and his routes. I wanted the rest of the world to get to know Hainz and his routes.

In September 2012 Cristoph Hainz had just turned 50 years old, and he is still in full swing.  We approached one of his masterpiece first ascents, Alpenliebe 7c on the Cima Ovest, a route he first climbed in 1998-99 with Kurt Astner. As we made swift progress we talked about his vision when opening routes in Tre Cime.

The Dolomites are synonymous with names like Comici, Cassin and Messner. In more recent years, names like Mauro Bole, Rolando Larcher, and Alex Huber have received the most publicity for pushing the limits of free climbing in the Dolomites. But this list leaves off one of the local legends, a climber who may be one of the area’s most visionary and bold first ascentionists: Christoph Hainz. According to his approximate recollection he has opened about 25 to 30 new major routes in the Dolomites and made about the same amount of first free ascents.

Outside of the world of Dolomites enthusiasts, the name Christoph Hainz might not mean much but his outstanding alpine-climbing career has seen him hold the Eiger speed-climbing record, and establish some of the most demanding free climbs in the Dolomites, where he grew up and learned to climb.

Hainz was hugely influential in launching solo speed climbing on the Eiger North Face. In 2003 Hainz made a remarkable solo ascent of the 1938 Heckmaier route in 4 Hours 30 minutes. Even Ueli Steck did not believe Hainz when he first told him that it would be possible to break four hours on this massive face.

But what he is best known for is his contributions to the Dolomites, specifically the historic Tre Cime area, where he has established five of the most significant routes in the group, always ground-up and with a minimum of additional hardware added.

The early days

In person, Hainz is unstriking. With an unkempt beard, shaggy hair, pale-blue eyes and slumpy posture, he looks more like a washed-up country singer than a climbing superstar. He keeps his jaw tight when he speaks, if he speaks at all. Perhaps this is the main reason so few know of his feats in the mountains. He rarely shares much or details accounts of his ascents. It’s just not in his nature.

Hainz grew up on a farm in Bruneck, located in the Italian province of South Tyrol where the mighty Dolomites begin to rise. His He had a hard one-hour hike to school every day, with and a grueling hour and a half back home. After a youth spent in discos and playing football, Hainz discovered climbing in 1982 at the age of 20 when some friends took him at a local crag near Bruneck.  Wearing big boots and with no previous experience he impressed his friends speeding up a 5a on toprope.

Hainz and his friends soon moved on to climb bigger walls in the Dolomites on weekends.  But its was certainly more luck than skill that kept them alive the first five years.  Hainz recounts one close call in the “learning by doing” years when he reached the belay on the first pitch and for some reason managed to fall from it, taking a 130-foot whipper—stopping him just a few meters shy from hitting the ground. He fell off since he had not clipped in to the belay. On his two first attempts to climb Cima Grande via its normal route, he ended up on the top of nearby towers to the left and right, its was no easy task to get the bearings right on the big walls of Tre Cime in the early days.

Shaping the future 

Around 1988 Hainz had picked up enough skill to start aid climbing the north faces of Tre Cime but the slow progress of this style quickly turned Hainz on to free climbing.

In 1989 Hainz had his first big breakthrough when he completed the first free ascent of the impressive and exposed Scoilattoli Arete on the north face of Cima Ovest. He freed the route after working it and graded it 7b. It was later upgraded to 7b+. The free ascent of Scoilattoli marked a turning point for Hainz, after that he was only interested in trying to climb the routes free even if it meant returning to redpoint the routes. 

In 1997 he even completed a winter in a day from the valley below, solo of the 2000 foot long Saxon’s Superdirittissima on the north face of Cima Grande. When opened in winter the Saxon team spent 17 days on the wall before they reached the summit. This was most likely the first in a day winter ascent on the North Face of Cima Grande.  In 1995 Hainz had manage to bag the first complete free of the Saxon route going free at 7c+.

In 1993 Hans Kammerlander and Hainz opened up an impressive route on the north buttress of Shivling (6543 meters) in India. This was according to Hainz probably one of the most exposed and committing undertakings in his climbing career. Not much is know of the ascent, in typical Hainz fashion he is not reveling much. Its for others to go and figure out what its like. When I talk to Hainz about the Shivling ascent he makes it clear to me that they where committed in a way he had never been before. I can only guess how big of an undertaking this must have been given the standard of the two climbers. The route yet remains to be repeated as quite a few of his more accessible routes.

Another milestone achievement by Hainz is the speed climb of the Franco Argentinian route on Fitzroy in 1994. After attempting the route with some friends, Hainz realized that he would only get to the top if he went alone. So on December 24th he set off from Rio Blanco and 9 hours later he stood on the summit.

However, it is the mountains of his childhood that Hainz has always returned to for motivation and projects. He wanted to add a new dimension to Tre Cime. He had a burning desire to see if it would be possible to open up technically demanding free routes without compromising on the ethics and force routes on the walls by keeping bolts and fixed protection to a bare minimum.

Das Phantom der Zinne

Over a period of five, six years Hainz had been looking at an imposing line just left of the classic Brandler Hasse route on Cima Grande. In 1995 they had established Das Phantom der Zinne (7c+) 600 meters. The following year they climbed the route free. Today this is one of the Alps and Dolomites most prominent extreme classics and by many ranked as one of the most committing and biggest undertakings on Cima Grande.

Das Phantom was opened in just six days on some times quite fragile rock and as Hainz describes it “a bit distant protection but we used some 8mm bolts”. When I ask about the climbing on Phantom he shrugs the questions off and just tells me he has heard some complaining about the route being dangerous but he thinks its fine. “To us the first pitches was no problem”. “Thomas Huber has replace some of the old 8mm bolts so I don’t really understand why it has this reputation, ok on the last 7 pitches it might be about 10 to 15 meters between the blots or pegs but its possible to back it up”.

Hainz tells me he once brought his wife up Das Phantom and that she was hit by a lose rock spike and passed out. “When she reached the belay she was not looking too good so I said lets call for a helicopter, but she came around and we rested some time then continued up the route”. I guess this is just the way Hainz climbs and the rest of us need to pay extra attention.

Das Phantom has an aura of mystic rumors to it and when you flip up the guidebook and start reading about the route it makes you wonder if it’s a good idea to even consider having a go at it. Tre Cime Guidebook author Erik Svab recounts his first attempt on the route with the following words:

“One of the legendary routes I kept thinking about was Phantom, witch up until the summer of 2004 had only been repeated two or three times, an ascent witch is steeped in mystery and about witch voices circulated that it was both technically difficult as well as being very dangerous… The climbing is slow and requires effort due to the difficulties and the distant protections with dangerous run outs like the one along the first pitches where it is forbidden to fall!”


In 1998 Hainz-Astner opened Alpenliebe (7c), 600 meters, on the overhanging north face Cima Ovest, a route that remain unrepeated for a number of years due to the elevated difficulties on lose rock and the impossibility to retreat from above the 4th pitch. When Christoph and I advanced higher on the route we found that someone had left a number of fixed ropes and other peculiar installations to allow for a retreat on the route. 

Christoph laughs at the fixed ropes and carabineers, as we clean the route we decide to split all the “biners” and give them to our kids. But I can see that he is genuinely unhappy with the fixed installations. Given the sad history where routes were established using hundreds of drilled bolts to get to the top by any means I understand why Haniz is sensitive to the fixed gear. Hainz route are statement, they represent a new era in the history of climbing history in Tre Cime. Hainz makes a joke and say “I hope this is some kids prank because this sort of behavior in the mountains is completely unacceptable as it fundamentally changes the level of undertaking and commitment required to complete an ascent of Alpenliebe as we originally established it”. Consequently we removed all the trash and restated this majestic route to its original demanding beauty.

Alpenliebe to me epitomizes the climbing in Tre Cime and it is one of the best alpine rock routes I have ever climbed. Its sustained climbing on one of the best lines up the north face of Cima Ovest. The crux traverse on pitch nine might offer the best possible scenery to capture what climbing in Tre Cime is like. As you depart the belay you need to climb quite far to reach the first bolt. You are now on an exposed horizontal traverse above a roof, the moves are awkward, the climbing is very technical, the protection is good but distant as so often in Tre Cime on a Hainz creation.

The future and the motivation of opening new routes 

I asked Hainz what the main motivation was to open the routes in this pure fashion and why he did not opt to open more “friendly” routes that would see more traffic and his response was that he wanted to add something he felt was missing but also to carry on the tradition from the late 80s. It’s a statement that climbing will be as pure as possible and that safety margins are something for each individual to be responsible for. It’s not a right to climb the routes, its something you earn over time as you get to know the style.

That said, over the years Hainz has come to the conclusion that there is a middle ground that would open up a new chapter in the history of climbing in Tre Cime. He has added some bolts to his routes in order to make the climbs a little more accessible to a wider audience.

Christoph’s latest addition to Tre Cima is Pressknödel a magnificent line up the right hand side of the big roof hosting Bellavista and Pan Aroma, the Huber 8c/5.14b routes tackling the right and left hand side of the massive roof in the middle of Cima Ovest north face. In traditional Hainz fashion, Pressknödel is a sustained and sparsely bolted route with most of its pitches weighting in around 5.12c. It takes a very direct and aesthetic line through a number of interesting roofs. Some say it’s a sign of maturity that the belays on the latest addition is better equipped compared to some of his earlier creations.

As we walk down from Alpenlibe the light is magic as so often when the evening sun hits the walls around you. I’m tired but Christoph insisted that we take a detour in the direction of a small hut under the north face of Cima Ovest for some chees, ham and a well-deserved Weiss beer. The lady running the huts welcome us with a friendly smile and I understand that this part of a ritual for Hainz. This is his second home. We are both happy to have restored Alpenliebe to the way it was opened in but to Hainz it’s the light he is fixated on. He tells me “no matter how much I climb here I still love it”.  “This was a great day, not too long and not too cold and now you have your first Weiss beer.” Haniz snaps photos as it was his first and last time under the walls. I relax. Hainz has opened my eyes and I think I have a better understanding how to approach climbing in Tre Cime.

 “The Dolomites are the best mountains in the world to me,” he tells me with out hesitation as we walk back to the cars. “Its important to travel the world and climb in different areas but for me the Dolomites captures what I love with climbing.”

I agree I think the Dolomites are the best mountains in the world. I truly share Hainz love for the Dolomites.

© Copyright 2012 - All Rights Reserved David Falt