Space Force (8a+/230m)

DMM | 24 November, 2020

Alexandra Schweikart and Christopher Igel have established an impressive multi-pitch route, with difficulties up to 8a+, in Val Bavona, Ticino, Swizerland. The ‘dream pitch’ is a 40° 8a roof protected mostly by cams. We asked Alex and Chris to tell us more about the ascent and the story behind it.

It has taken you two years to complete the route, all 11 pitches free in a day. What drew you to the project?

The big magnet for us was the gigantic splitter roof crack, visible from the ground. When we first spotted it, we knew we had to find a way to try this beauty—which became the third pitch. Later we found out that the sixth pitch further up was even harder. Until 2020 our ambition was to find out whether it was possible for us. Our thoughts on this changed daily: unclimbable-climbable-unclimbable-climbable. When we had figured out all the moves, we knew it would be super hard to link all those sustained pitches in a day. At the end of this October we’d decided it was ‘climbable’. What can be climbed must be climbed, right?

Describe the cliff for people that haven’t been there. Are there many other routes on it? Is it popular?

We first noticed the wall on a cable car fly-by back in 2014. The wall is in the very back of the Bavona Valley (Switzerland) and hidden from the street. However, it is only a 20-minute walk from the main road and faces north-west. It is a super impressive, 250 metre high wall with big parts of it overhanging (gneiss rock). The name Bavona Valley doesn’t ring a bell to most people, though it hosts top quality climbs of every discipline that will be familiar to lots of climbers. It is home to Coup de GrĂ¢ce (9a), Off the Wagon/sit start 8B+/8C+ boulder, and Super Cirill (8a+ multi-pitch). We did the wall’s first free ascent in 2014, Della Funivia, 13 pitches up to 7c, following the logical line of the crag. And with one down had built up our psych to try harder and find a way through the overhanging part on the left, which is now Space Force. It still hosts great potential for even harder climbs.

Did you equip/inspect the route from the top down? What were the challenges of equipping such a route?

We equipped the route from the ground in several days during three trips to Ticino. Interestingly, aiding up the wall on gear and skyhooks while freeing some easier sections was not so much of a problem. But when it came to working the route and the moves, we were very surprised at the difficulty of the climbing. So, we had to figure out where to put the bolts to make the route climbable. In the end we needed to memorize every move and every piece of gear on every single pitch to be able to climb it.

It’s a mixture of trad and bolts. What would the trad parts equate to in E grades?

The pure sport climbing grade of the hardest moves is 8a+ on bolts, however there are sections of 7c and 8a where you climb on gear. It’s way harder than Grave Diggers in the Llanberis Pass for example but safe at the same time. We think it would not make sense to give this one an E grade (E grading above E6 is tricky anyway we think).

The 8a splitter roof crack pitch that takes green Dragon Cams most of the way.
The 8a splitter roof crack pitch that takes green Dragon Cams most of the way.

There is a big 8a roof on pitch 3 and the sixth pitch is the hardest. Can you describe these?

The 8a is the third pitch that climbs through the massive overhang that splits the wall in two parts. It is a 40° steep dream pitch and mostly on gear. After a boulder start on small holds and hardly any footholds, a massive flake offers an endless green Dragon Cam sized crack that runs all the way through the roof. However, you don’t have to jam, but layback it, if you can call climbing 40° steep terrain laybacking. Time is money on this pitch, you do not want to hang on your arms too long on something this steep. You also need to run it out from the gear to not get too tired.

The upper crux is a beautiful mini dihedral, almost vertical; a 38 metre technical fest where you push yourself from rest to rest. It starts with a boulder section on slopey side pulls before you climb the small dihedral with finger jams in the back. After a small rest there is a section on monos and another crux on very small crimps. Good shoes and a lot of maximum finger strength are key on this pitch.

Christopher Igel on the mini-dihedral of the crux sixth pitch
Christopher Igel on the mini-dihedral of the crux sixth pitch

You mentioned there were plenty of emotional and physical ups and downs. What were they? What was proving the biggest obstacle to completing the route?

By the end of autumn, we had figured out all the moves and we were totally ready to give it a try, but (R)october turned out to be super wet and the wall got soaked. We were not sure whether this north-west facing wall would dry up again at all. The sun only hits the upper part for one, two hours per day this time of the year. As the season was coming to an end, so was our power. Usually, we train in winter and sport climb in spring, that’s when we climb the strongest. In summer we mostly transform this one-pitch-power into multipitch endurance.

In early November we felt ready and yet knew our windows of opportunity were closing. To increase our chances, we started again to train finger strength on the campus board. We knew that if we could not finish the project this year, we would almost have to start all over again next year. After our first serious sending attempt at the end of October (it finished at the second crux pitch) we realized that we only really had a chance if we climbed all pitches first go. No pressure there.

On the successful day, November 9th, the first 7c+ went down quickly in the first morning light with numb fingers and the roof crack felt hard and pumpy as hell. Like on remote control we got through it first go. When we arrived at the crux (pitch 6) the next surprise was waiting: a section of two metres of wet holds. We had to dry the tiny crimps with Chris’ underpants before climbing. We both felt already drained at the first rest, but we thought it is now or never. We kept going on the barely dry crimps and both sent this pitch first go on lead.

In the last light we climbed the following 7c, a vertical, wonderfully technical pitch with some bolts and good but hidden gear. Our headlamps showed us the way on the final pitches to the summit: 6c+, 6c, 7a+, 6b+. The winter days are short. We kept climbing of course; inspired by the feeling that we had made it. Standing at the summit at 10 o'clock in the evening we were blissfully exhausted. It’d taken 13 hours car to car, 11 hours of climbing including some warming up on the first pitch (1h) and some drying action on pitch six (1h).

Checking out the angle of the roof on the third pitch
Checking out the angle of the roof on the third pitch

Chris and yourself, have also been partners outside of climbing for several years. What are the pluses and negatives of such a climbing partnership?

Actually, this November we celebrate our 10th anniversary. We are both very keen climbers (some may say obsessed) and we love to spend day after day on walls to try projects and work new routes. The best thing about our climbing partnership is that we can navigate each other through every move on every route we try, even the footholds: we both have very strong analytical skills (we are both scientists). However, often we are so involved that we don't find time for friends and family and spend every free minute climbing. Sometimes, one of us gets annoyed when the other one climbs the route faster, but most of the time it is the other way round on another day, so in the end there is more to celebrate.

Did you alternate leads or both lead each pitch? Where does the name, Space Force, come from?

We both led the crux pitches (pulled the ropes and stripped the gear) and swapped leads on all other pitches. ‘Space force’ is what you need to get through the third pitch and it is also the name of a hilarious new Netflix series with Steve Carell. Watch it.

Space Force info:

11 Pitches (7c/+, 6b+, 8a, 6a+, 7a, 8a+, 7c, 6c+, 6c, 7a+, 6b+), 230m, San Carlo, Ticino, Switzerland (950m above sea level). A 20 minute approach from the parking of the Robiei cable car. Walk down to the first turn below the cable car parking, follow blue dots, cairns and more blue dots around the cliff and up the slabs using some fixed ropes.

Gear on first ascent:

  • 2 x 60m ropes if you want to rappel, 50 m rope and tagline, if you plan to walk off (45 mins)
  • 7 Phantom Quickdraws + 3 Extendable Quickdraws (60 cm)
  • 1 x Wallnut 8 turquoise
  • 1 x Dragonfly Micro Cam 3 gold
  • 1 x Dragonfly Micro Cam 2 red
  • 1 x Dragonfly Micro Cam 5 silver
  • 2 x Dragon Cam 00 Blue
  • 1 x Dragon Cam 0 silver
  • 2 x Dragon Cam 1 purple
  • 3 x Dragon Cam 2 green
  • 2 x Dragon Cam 3 red
  • 1 x Dragon Cam 4 gold
  • 1 x Dragon Cam 5 blue
  • 1 x Dragon Cam 6 silver
  • 1 x Nutbuster

Advice: Take some extra green and red Dragon Cams just in case you drop them from the roof, pumped out of your mind. We never did, but we might have.