Igor Koller The warrior from the east

From the ‘Via attraverso il Pesce’ on the south wall of Marmolada from mountains all over the world. Igor Koller’s story is also the one that tells about the contributions that the alpinists from eastern Europe brought to the mountaineering world in the seventies and eighties.

The name comes from a characteristic hole in the middle of the slab that resembles a whale: ‘Via attraverso il Pesce’. The hole is a mandatory passage on the route and it’s the only distinguishing mark in a grey sea of limestone.

Igor Koller’s name is linked to the majestic opening of that route on the Marmolada southern wall: in 1981 it was a big jump forward from the technical and psychological point of view among all the new route openings in the Alps. The first ascent of the ‘Pesce’ opened the doors of the VII grade on the Alps even though, in the beginning, this achievement hadn’t been completely understood. The two Czechs, interpreters of an exotic mountaineering culture, climbed the route using 25 intermediate bolts, 15 progression bolts, some nuts, friends, sky-hooks and cliff-hangers (the latter used for progression, too). As it hadn’t been opened as a free climbing route but with the use of artificial progression means, it received a no-go by purists and, at first, it was blown off. The reports said that the new route was extremely difficult: 900 meters with lots of 6b sections, continuous 6b+ pitches and several A0 and A1 aid passages on small anchors. The importance of this ascent hadn’t been immediately clear. By using removable protection in the artificial climbing parts, Koller and Šustr demonstrated that the use of a drill wasn’t always necessary. At any rate, only when Manolo, Heinz Mariacher, Luisa Iovane and Roberto Bassi tried the route, everybody understood how influential that climb had been.

Those three days on the wall by Koller and Šustr (17 years old) made the Czech mountaineering style world famous. Not only for their courage but for the strange shoes that they had been using for climbing. Eastern Europe and Czechoslovakia were a distant land in people’s minds at the time. The few that had been climbing on sandstone towers there told stories about bolts at sidereal distance and rope-strings somehow set up into cracks. The most peculiar things were the rag shoes, granny style, that the people used over there. Igor Koller tells: «specific climbing shoes didn’t exist and economical resources were generally scarce. It took years before shoes with rubber soles like EB, Boreal or La Sportiva were imported into Czechoslovakia. When you could find them, they were too expensive. We did what we could with what we had. Since the beginning we had understood that shoes with rubber soles had a better performance on sandstone than mountaineering boots with hard soles. Then, in order not to climb barefoot, we used different variants of slippers made of felt and with rubber soles. Unfortunately those shoes would wear out soon, especially by the toes. It could happen right in the middle of a route and you could find yourself with your toes coming out of the shoes. Moreover, the slippers tended to come out by themselves on the heels. We would then wrap our insteps with the local variant of the American duct tape. The tape would ensure a decent fit - at least to climb a route-. The shoe could be used for some times, only till the felt would fall apart».

During this search for shoes and materials suited for high difficulties, Koller did some pretty bizarre experiments - until he became tester and testimonial for La Sportiva, some years after his masterpiece on the Marmolada-Even though the political situation was very difficult-. In the middle of the Cold War, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were still a single nation- Igor did some spectacular first ascents in Val Bregaglia on the Pizzo Badile and Pizzo Cengalo: nowadays these climbs are still looked at with lots of respect. Koller was inspired by the tough Czech mountaineering ethic learnt on central European limestone towers and wanted to replicate it on the Alps: minimal use of bolts or other hardware junk that usually was a leitmotiv on first ascents at the time.

Koller’s approach to new routes’ first ascents was substantially different from the one that Marmolada locals (Heinz Mariacher in particular) used.

«I started going to the Marmolada in 1973 and since then I opened and repeated lots of routes. I must have slept on the wall 40 times during those years. I was concentrating on a 300-meter wide piece of rock where there was no route in the middle. In that zone I developed what would later become the ‘Via attraverso il Pesce’. I was not the only one who was thinking about it: Heinz Mariacher was looking for a way up there too». Koller’s and Mariacher’s approaches were considerably different: Mariacher always tried to climb up freely without bolts or any aid. If he couldn’t, he’d rappel down or go on another easier route. This method focused on ethics and it remained faithful to a precise idea of progression: a good amount of free-climbing attempts where he tried to push the limits forward. Koller’s method was completely different: he wanted to climb the route as soon as possible and he didn’t care if he had to overcome some cruxes using aids. The most important thing was not to use the driller. This vision’s outcome is the ‘Via attraverso il Pesce’ that was opened in three days of climbing in a row, with risky free climbing sections and precarious artificial passages on cliffs. In three days an enormous leap forward in the world of free climbing was made and it had been completely unexpected. The ‘Via attraverso il Pesce’ wasn’t just a new route on the Marmolada but it was a New Route. A new way to look at difficulty and progression. That was the beginning to the future of climbing. Afterwards everything was just about training and technical abilities and not about courage and chances to survive anymore.