MSL first ascent in Val Bavona: Alexandra Schweikart and Christopher Igel climb Space Force (8a +)

Alexandra Schweikart and Christopher Igel have set up the impressive multi-pitch route Space Force with difficulties up to 8a + in Val Bavona (Ticino). A 40 degree steep crack roof is the heart of the route. According to Chris and Alex, this is a dream pitch, 8a, most of which can be secured with cams. We asked Alex and Chris to tell us more about the first ascent and the story behind it.

An interview from Ray Wood

Ray Wood: It took you two years to complete the route, all 11 pitches free in one day. What attracted you to the project?

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Even from the ground you can see the gigantic crack through the roof in the lower part of the wall. We really wanted to go there! The roof then became Space Force's third pitch. We later found out that the sixth pitch further up was even more difficult. Finding out whether we could even manage all the individual trains of this length was the plan for last fall.

Our forecast for this changed daily: unclimbable-climber-unclimbable-climberable.

When we finally figured out all the individual moves, we knew that it would be extremely difficult to climb these hard pitches in one day: 7c +, 8a, 8a +, 7c in one go? With cams? At the end of October 2020, we had optimized the route so that it could theoretically be climbed for us. The great attraction of the project was to try out how much "difficult" it would be to achieve in one day.

Describes the wall for people who haven't been there yet. Are there other routes there? Is she known?

We discovered the wall for the first time in 2014 in a flyby with the cable car to Robiei. The wall is at the very back in Val Bavona (Switzerland) and cannot be seen from the road. However, it is only a 20-minute walk from the main road and faces northwest. It is an impressive, 250 meter high wall (gneiss rock) which overhangs heavily on the first half. Val Bavona doesn't mean anything to most people, but there are difficult climbs there in all disciplines that many climbers should be familiar with. “Coup de Grâce” (9a Sport), “Off the Wagon / Sitting Start” (8B + / 8C + Boulder) and “Super Cirill” (8a + multi-pitch), to name just a few. 

It is an impressive, 250 meter high wall that overhangs heavily on the first half.

We managed the first free ascent of the wall in 2014 with the route “Della Funivia”: 13 pitches up to 7c, following the simplest line on the rock. After this first ascent, we were motivated to try our hand at the steep, left-hand part of this wall. This is how the Space Force company started. There was already a technically climbed line on this wall in 2006, which runs through the horribly brittle and constantly wet part of the lower wall. Our lines cross at the top, but after consultation with the developers Simon Riediker and Aaron Richiger, we shouldn't take their lines into account. “Just go for it,” wrote Simon. 

Did you set up and check out the route from above or below? What were the challenges when you first walked such a route?

We set up the route from the ground over three trips to Ticino in several days. Interestingly enough, technically opening up the wall with cams, wedges, and skyhooks, while free climbing easier sections, wasn't that much of a problem. But when it came to bouldering the hard pitches, we were surprised how difficult the climbing was and how bad the protection was!

So we had to figure out where to put more hooks to make the route climbable. Ultimately, we had to memorize every movement and every cam placement on every single pitch in order to be able to climb them.

The hedge is a mixture of trad and bolts. What would the trad passages in E-grades look like?

The pure sport climbing grade of the hardest moves is 8a + on hooks, but there are places in areas 7c and 8a where you can only climb securely on cams. For comparison: the route is much harder than, for example, “Grave Diggers” (E86c) on the Llanberis Pass, but at the same time much easier to secure. We think that it would make no sense to give this route an E-grade (E-grades above E6 are in our opinion difficult to assign anyway and often make little sense).

Pitch three is a large 8a roof, and the sixth pitch is the hardest. Can you describe this?

The 8a on the third pitch is extremely steep and consists of a crack that divides the wall into two parts: a 40 degree dream pitch, most of which can be secured with cams. After a boulder start on small handles and hardly any kicks (on bolts) you follow the steep crack (green cam size) that runs through the roof. Hellishly pumpy, especially laying the cams takes strength.

Especially laying the cams takes strength.

But you don't have to clamp down, but sit down, if you can call climbing in 40 degree steep terrain easy? Time is running on this pitch: you don't want to hang around your arms too long on such a steep slope. When we tried the length technically for the first time, we had safely put 20 fuses, then only 6 cams and a wedge in the passage: that saves time and weight!

When we tried the length technically for the first time, we had safely put 20 fuses, then only 6 cams and a wedge in the passage.

The upper crux is an almost vertical mini-intersection with a few steps; a 38 meter long technical fireworks display, in which you fight your way from resting point to resting point. It starts with a boulder of side grip slopers before climbing the small intersection with tight finger clamps. After a bad shaker there is a passage on monos, and another crux on very small crimps. Good shoes and a lot of finger max strength are the key to success here.

You mentioned that there have been many ups and downs, emotional and physical. What were those ups and downs? What turned out to be the biggest obstacle when climbing the route?

By the end of autumn we had bouldered out all the trains, the route was cleaned and we were ready to attack. But: (R) October 2020 turned out to be super rainy, and the wall kept getting wet. We weren't sure that this northwest facing wall would dry up at all. The sun only hits the upper part of the route for an hour or two a day at this time of year.

We climbed halfway in a trance with flat arms, the tingling sensation in our bodies that we had made it.

Usually we train in winter and climb in spring, when we climb the hardest. In summer and autumn, we mostly convert this single-pitch power into multi-pitch strength endurance. At the beginning of November we felt ready and yet knew that our time windows would close - in terms of strength and weather. To increase our chances, we started again to train maximum strength on the campus board. We suspected that we would have to start almost all over again next year. After our first serious attempt to climb through at the end of October (it ended on the second key pitch), we realized that we would only really have a chance if we climbed all pitches straight away. So the pressure got bigger and bigger.

On the successful day, November 9, 2020, we warmed up on the first pitch and then climbed it straight away. The fingers went numb on the little ledges, but a start was made. The crack in the roof felt hard and terribly pumpy afterwards. Nevertheless, we both got straight through, the program was well saved.

When we got to the key point (pitch 6), a surprise was waiting: a two-meter-long section with wet handles. We had to improvise and dry the tiny moldings with Chris' underpants so that we had any chance at all. We both felt drained at the first shaker, but we shouted motivation at each other and continued climbing the barely dry ledge. Maybe it was the workout, maybe it was the caffeine and all the sugar: in any case, we both ticked the length on the first try.

In the last light we climbed the following 7c, a vertical, wonderfully technical pitch with a few bolts and good, but hidden cam protection. The headlamps were switched on and we continued towards the summit: 6c +, 6c, 7a +, 6b +. The winter days are very short.

We climbed half in a trance with flat arms, the tingling sensation in our bodies that we had made it. When we reached the summit at 22 p.m., we were blissfully exhausted. In total, it took us 13 hours from car to car, 11 hours of climbing, including warming up on the first pitch (1 hour) and some drying action on the sixth pitch.

We climbed halfway in a trance with flat arms, the tingling sensation in our bodies that we had made it.

You have also been a partner outside of climbing for several years. What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a climbing relationship?

In fact, we celebrated our 10th anniversary this November. We're both thoroughbred climbers (some say obsessed). We love spending day after day in walls, sleeping on the bus, checking out projects and finding new routes or working on new routes and boulders in halls. The best thing about our climbing partnership is that we can navigate each other through every move in every route we try, even the steps we tell ourselves: We both have good analytical skills (we are both scientists).

However, we are often so busy climbing that we find little time for friends and family besides work and climbing and we spend every free minute in walls. Sometimes one of us gets annoyed when the other climbs a route faster, but most of the time it's the other way around on another day, so that in the end there are more days to celebrate. Meanwhile we are also business partners in our company "grip-research.eu".

Did you alternate each pitch or did you both climb ahead? Where does the name "Space Force" come from?

We both climbed the key pitches (removed the ropes and also removed the gear). We took turns on all other pitches. So we could do the tour together on the same day. Space Force is what it takes to get through the third pitch, and it's also the name of a hilarious new Netflix series starring Steve Carell. Watch it!

Ascent and descent to the Space Force route in Val Bavona.

Information on the Space Force multi-pitch route

  • 11 pitches (7c / +, 6b +, 8a, 6a +, 7a, 8a +, 7c, 6c +, 6c, 7a +, 6b +)
  • 230 climbing meters
  • San Carlo, Ticino, Switzerland (entry 950 m above sea level).
  • Orientation: northwest, in summer sun from 14.00 p.m. to 17.00 p.m., from October from 15.00 p.m. to 16.00 p.m.
  • Ideal season: late summer / autumn. 
  • Access: 20 minutes from the parking lot of the cable car to Robiei. From the lowest parking lot about 100 meters downhill along the tar road, turn into the forest in a hairpin bend and follow the blue markings and cairns first downhill, then uphill along the rocks. Once under the main wall, climb the slabs opposite to the entrance for another 10 minutes (blue fixed ropes and blue markings). 
  • Descent: Over the summit and keeping to the right (to the south) downhill (45 min) or abseil. Looking to the right from the exit, there is a 20-trunked beech tree with a piece of yellow rope 6 meters next to it. Abseil 25 meters down the tree to two bolts. Then abseil 60 full meters straight down to the end of the 8th pitch and continue abseiling the route (stands are set up). At the entrance, cross the gully downhill a few meters, 25 meters to the right of the entrance there is a rappelling station on a band that leads to the base of the main wall (55 m abseiling).
  • Material:
    • 2 x 60 m ropes (mandatory) if you want to abseil, 50 m rope and tagline if you descend on foot (45 min)
    • 7 x DMM Phantom quickdraws 
    • 3 x extendable quickdraws (60 cm)
    • 1 x DMM Wallnut 8 turquoise
    • 1 x DMM Dragonfly Micro Cam 3 gold
    • 1 x DMM Dragonfly Micro Cam 2 red
    • 1 x DMM Dragonfly Micro Cam 5 silver
    • 2 x DMM Dragon Cam 00 blue
    • 1 x DMM Dragon Cam 0 silver
    • 2 x DMM Dragon Cam 1 purple
    • 3 x DMM Dragon Cam 2 green
    • 2 x DMM Dragon Cam 3 red
    • 1 x DMM Dragon Cam 4 gold
    • 1 x DMM Dragon Cam 5 blue
    • 1 x DMM Dragon Cam 6 silver 
    • 1x DMM Nutbuster
    • You could take extra green and red cams with you in case you accidentally drop them in the roof because you urgently need them further up. Didn't happen to us, but could have been. Topo at www.grip-research.eu

+ + +
Credits: Pictures Alexandra Schweikart

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