Anna Kournikova – Orco Valley Crack Mission

It’s funny when you sometimes reflect on where you were years ago. In the late 2000s, whilst developing new routes in Orco Valley with Pete Whittaker, I came across this mega steep roof next to a waterfall in a small side valley called Val Piantonetto. From the road I could see there was a crack in it, but until I walked up to the base I couldn’t see the size of the amazing splitter right through the centre. Oh my God, it was like my own European “Cobra Crack.” A route that I maybe, just maybe wanted to do one day had it’s own little sister in Orco Valley. What it lacked in length, it seemed to make up for in steepness. What a find!

Since that year, I have on and off tried this route with Pete on various trips. Even during the year that we’d both successfully redpointed Greenspit we couldn’t do the crux moves and I think both of us wrote it off in our minds as just two powerful for the weak trad climber punters that we were. As a consolation prize Pete did a brilliant line that came in from the right to join the final roof of the project called “Fat Tony” which was pumpy, steep and well protected 7b+/7c climbing with an offwidth-box finish. Proper good fun!


Pete on the “Fat Tony” finish. Hanging out in the box.

After getting really psyched for finger cracks this year, myself and Pete have devised a new training programme of the usual ridiculous methods. As we emerged from the cellar and into the Spring it was time to see if the “pinkies” and “index monos” were on target and we booked some trips. Pete went to Sweden and crushed. I went to Italy and it mostly rained. I mustn’t complain too much, as I did get some stuff done, but ultimately I was really disappointed to not do the project that we’d found all those years before.

This last week, after a trip to Poland and Czech Republic to get scared on the sandstone towers, I headed out to Orco Valley for one last push on the project. My diary had practically no time left in it, and squeezing in 5 days of redpointing seemed a little optimistic, but when there’s no other choice…. what do you do? I partnered up with an Argentinian (but Italy-based) crack climber called Lucas Iribarren who I’d met on a previous trip. If you think you’ve met the most psyched climber ever, well this guy is more psyched! An exceptionally kind, motivated and driven partner is always brilliant and I got bags of it from him in those five days.

We split our time evenly between the FA finger crack and the “Pura Pura” project I’ve also been trying. Good progress was made on the first couple of days and both of us were making good links and Lucas was using his Thai Boxing skills (that boy can fight!) to totally school me in fist-jamming. By day three though, I was red-lining and I could barely face another jam. A rest day was in order.

Day four, I felt a lot fresher and decided to start having redpoint goes on the finger crack.

GO 1: Waaaaaaay too shaky. Nervous as hell and pumped.

GO 2: Much better, but made a silly mistake and slipped mid crux.

I now had to make a decision. I had just one day left (the next day), but only 4 hours of climbing as I had to leave the crag at 2pm to catch a plane. Despite my inner rage at having fluffed the sequence on my previous go, I held back and decided to go all out on the final day. Just two redpoints, all eggs in the basket. Go big, AND go home.

The next morning, I ate just a small breakfast hoping to keep light and went for a run to warm up my body and mind. Walking up to the crag, I felt the usual nerves that you face when picking up exam results. I played through every scenario in my head. The potential success (and various permutations) and also the feeling of disappointment if it all went wrong. Whatever happened though, I knew I’d give absolutely everything. To give myself even more advantage I decide to climb on just one side of a Sterling 8mm half rope and cut the gear down on the crux to a single small nut protecting the deck. Why not, I thought. I’ve got my BMC insurance booked, right?

Mid crux. Two horrible finger locks and a big throw to follow.

GO 1: Good start and feel fresh after the first third. I enter the crux, slight twist of the hips on the hardest move, then I’m at the last move. Shit, the last hard move! Throw long…. throw long….. aahhh! NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Fingers slap the break but I’ve not given it enough.

Anna Kournikova, short & sweet.

FINAL GO: Ok, I’ve got just two hours before leaving to the airport and we still need to get “set-up” shots with film maker Adrian Samarra. As I pull off the ground I tell myself that this is it. No more messing. As I approach the hard move to gain the rest at one third I look down. Bollocks, I’ve forgotten the Friend 4. It’s on the ground. Bollocks, bollocks. I run it out, praying that I don’t fall on this section. Entering the crux, I snatch my way through the moves to arrive at the final throw from a terrible 2-finger lock. YESSSSSSSSS……! I latch the hold in the break. Oh God……………… for some reason I can’t contract my forearm muscles and I can’t hold the break. What? WHAT?! Screaming out in anger I swear at every person and think I can think of and realise that I’ve blown it. No redpoint, no glory, and at least a month of despair until I can return.

Back on the ground, both Lucas and Adrian are mega supportive. I can see they’re gutted for me and look as disappointed as I feel. Looking at my phone, I see the time and know that we have to leave in just over an hour. As I look at the clock on my mobile, cogs start to whir in my brain and I begin to rationalise that somehow I can fit in one last go. One final, final desperate fling. I know I’ve not got time to rest properly and I know I’ll be making Adrian sacrifice on his set-up shots, but I can’t bare to accept the failure.

Working out a minute-by-minute timetable, I tie in for the very last time with Adrian already preparing the fixed ropes and cameras for when I fail. I know all hope has gone, but at least now I’m free of the pressure and I can try without the realistic expectation of succeeding.

FINAL FINAL GO: First section goes badly, but importantly, I do remember the Friend. I feel weak on a hard fist jamming move, but my mind feels free as I know I’m climbing crap and I’m tired. At the recovery point though, I feel light and the temperature of the rock is perfect. I pull through the next sequence of hard finger jams with conviction and despite the lactic acid in my arms, I reach the final throw again. This time, there is no doubt though. I hit the hold perfectly and although I still struggle to hold it, I grimace a little harder and success is in my grasp. After a shake out, I fumble my way through the upper E5/7a-ish offwidth section (I’d not climbed it for 3 years so no idea what I was doing!) and top out with a huge smile across my face. What an end to the trip. With so little time left! With no time to bask in the glory, I immediately start rigging ropes and gear ready for Adrian to film further sequences. Just 30 minutes later we are down at the car, playing AC/DC at full volume and laughing our way to Turin Airport. What an end to a trip!

Yes…. I can go home and Lucas can get rid of me!

So the essential details of the routes? I’ve named it “Anna Kournikova” after the lovely tennis player that graced our screens for a few years. I’m going to go with the grade of 8b+ as it’s certainly the hardest bit of crack climbing I’ve done away from Century Crack. Relative to the other two hardest cracks in Italy (Greenspit 8b & A Denti Stretti 8b/+) I thought it was a significant level above as it took me quite a bit of time and never felt easy even when I did it. Compared also to other things like Profundo Rosso 8a+ and The Doors 8a+, it’s in a totally different league. Although it’s quite a short route, it really packs a punch and I always felt like there was an easier way to do the crux, but none of them worked once you actually climbed into the sequence! All in all, it’s a bit like Mecca at Raven Tor, but in a finger crack. Lovely huh?!