David Smart on the Remarkable Rock Climbs of Emilio Comici

Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites by David Smart and published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2020.

I wish I would be permitted to simply say that fall is upon us. Normally thats when my outdoor playtime dwindles, I drink more coffee and beer, and enjoy longer evening reading sessions. Yet, there is a cloud of circumstances that make things so unsettled, doesn’t it? Perhaps all the more reason to read fiction and biographies. And I have a biography for you that was, quite seriously, more engrossing and enjoyable than I expected.

As an American, I still have this myth in my head that Americans created rock climbing in Yosemite. Now that I have been tinkering with climbing and it’s books for nearly 30 years, I know that this is not true, but there are still subtle undertones in stories of legends that indicate that to be so. Last weekend I finished David Smart’s latest book, a finalist at the 2020 Banff Mountain Film & Book Competition, Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites from Rocky Mountain Books (2020), which includes the first desert rock climb, years before Shiprock’s ascent, and free soloing big walls. No, it didn’t start in Yosemite.

The book is a climber’s biography, not the story of one gallant ascent, which means it’s about facing one challenge at a time while rebelling or going with the times. For Emilio Comici, that means overcoming his urban impoverished life through spelunking initially and later rock climbing, to the societal trappings of Italian fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. Emilio Comici handled life the way you and I do, which is he made it up as he went along, learning and making adjustments, and hoping for a big break.

In 1920s Europe, rock climbing had been established separately from mountain climbing. The rock climbers were living in the legacy of Paul Preuss, the greatest rock climber and free soloist of the day. Preuss climbed by strict edicts: Climb only what you can climb down and the use of climbing aids invalidates a climb, except under special circumstances. His legacy were climbers opposed to the use of pitons and other aids. Preuss was gone before Comici ever started climbing, having fallen to his death while climbing. Smart wrote what amounts, in the context of Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites, a prequel in Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss (2019), which I reviewed last year. However, because of the Great War, and the environmental abuse from the war in the Dolomites, leaving pitons in the rock seemed negligible and petty. In fact, the rock climbers of Eastern Europe adopted piton use much earlier than Western Europe, and Comici was the person who demonstrated what was possible.

David Smart discovered some of the origins of Comici’s chosen routes. He started spelunking, and after a daring rescue, he started climbing rock walls. He applied his spelunking skills with ropes and aids to the mountains. On the mountain walls, not just any line would do, it had to be a direct line from the base to the summit, or as he described it, as following the water drop from the top. Comici claimed that an English climber first used the water drop description, though he did not know any Englishmen or Englishwomen, and the reference hasn’t been found anywhere else.

Before reading this book, I was less familiar with the Eastern Alps and the Dolomites, and I appreciate Smart for not talking down to me; I enjoyed looking up maps and images of the routes. And I have to hand it to Rocky Mountain Books for knowing their audience so as including a map with the collection of unique, relevant photos, was not critical for the book’s success. The book documents Comici’s progression on rock from the North Faces of Sorella di Messo, Dito di Dio, the West Face of Croda dei Toni, the Northwest Face of Civetta, and the peaks of Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which was Comici’s nemesis. Cima Grande, it’s central summit, now stands symbolic of Comici’s vision, boldness, and his lifelong journey with rock.

Emilio Comici’s Cima Grande. (All Rights Reserved)

Cima Grande was the biggest wall yet climbed. And it was all about the rock wall, rather than the mountaineering ascent with a single piolet per climber. Comici made the top of the overhanging wall as he had learned on the previous climbs with pitons. It was criticized by the older climbers, and ignored as an ascent altogether by others. Yet, it was merely another milestone in Comici’s progression. He would return to climb it’s neighboring peaks, and one day, free solo his water-drop line in the style of Paul Preuss.

David Smart’s research provides a depth of context for what made Comici’s life challenges in many ways just like our own and in others very different. Comici grew up in Trieste and worked in the shipyards. His climbing trips were limited to reaching Val Rosandra, a few hours away on his motorcycle. He wanted to climb more and the only way he felt he could was to move to the mountains and guide. After his elders tried dissuading him, Comici moved to the Dolomites, though he contrasted with the guides with steady work. The local guides were local farmers, rigidly Catholic, and were more than a good rock or mountain climb, they were an authentic piece of the Dolomites. Despite Comici’s accomplishments on rock, his local in-authenticity, and his reputation for daring climbs, prompted Dolomite visitors to ask for his autograph rather than his services.

Comici was also smitten by the stereotypical roles of a fascist hero, popular of the day. Such heroes were awarded and paraded for their rescues, accomplishments, bravado, and immature wanderings such as Comici’s forays from Trieste to Val Rosandra. Of course, Comici had some challenges to overcome; he still received funds from his mother and lived at her home in Trieste when injured or retreated, and as one romantic partner complained, he wouldn’t be an adult with this climbing. As Smart’s research points out, Comici did grow in his self image and his affection for Mussolini’s fascism was all an attempt to fit in and be recognized as a masculine hero. Comici had Jewish and ethnic friends, and Smart presents evidence that he did not believe the fascist racist statements would ever be taken seriously or that a concentration camp would be in his home town. Among other changes, Smart points out, after Comici saw Mussolini speak in person for himself, he may have been disappointed and even disturbed because he never mentioned the Duce in his journal again.

One of the traits of a fascist hero Mussolini projected was the awarded man that could be paraded as an example for all particularly children to aspire. Comici wanted this validation of his being for most of his life. Yet, Comici was passed over at various opportunities through his life, including a rescue while spelunking and his proud first ascents, by anyone not just an Italian, of Cima Grande. It wasn’t until after his early death from a fall during a climb done in haste, that he was awarded a title posthumously, and for a lesser climb. Still, as Smart points out, Comici clearly understood that Preuss’ achievements survived his death. Comici’s accomplishments survive his own.

Having read extensively about Cesare Maestri’s Compressor route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, where Maestri irresponsibly bolted a line up Cerro Torre with a compressor drill, David Smart surprised me with a reason Comici’s climbs were brought up after Maestri’s infamous route-making. Smart explained that some critics looked for precedent and connected Maestri to Comici. Smart draws a clear distinction why this isn’t fair, but you’ll have to read the book to learn why. As well as the earliest form of dirt baggers I’ve found (they were German,) and how Comici was haunted and saved by spirits on his climbs. I highly encourage you to read Emilio Comici to see what climbing was before you even thought there was real rock climbing in the world, because there was and it was serious, committing, and intense. I loved it. I know you will too.

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