OverviewLa Grivola (m 3969) is a pyramidal shape summit situated in the mid Aosta Valley at the end of Gran Paradiso massif.
After the first ascent on 1859 this mountain begun a prestigious aim among the classical climbers of XIX century as a training for most difficult ascents on Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and so on.
The great view on the valley and the solitary environment unfortunately wasn’t rewarded from a good quality of rock, except perhaps for the East-Nord-East ridge, known as “Arête des Clochettes”. The attempt performed in 1928 by Valsavarenche’s mountaineering guides to equip the South-West face with fixed ropes in order to enhance a possible alternative standard way was completely unsuccessful because climbers preferred the most comfortable route (nevertheless a bit more dangerous), discovered in 1861 by Abbé Chamonin, priest of Cogne.
However the real esthetical route of Grivola was until 1950, the icy North ridge, named “la scimitarra” (“the scimitar”) for its shape. Nowadays less followed cause the climate changes which have quite completely erased the snow leaving large sections of crumbling rock, this route will be the protagonist of a story a bit legendary, rather similar to some actual alpine and Himalayan enterprises: “a rope cut by an avalanche”.
The alpine soldiers with 2 pairs of “Vibram”28th October 1940: Mussolini attacked Greece; in Aosta battalion “Duca degli Abruzzzi” and “Reparto Autonomo Monte Bianco” (1), the elite of Scuola Militare Centrale di Alpinismo, was just demobilized. The Italian Army staff decided that these units, composed quite completely of reserve or recalled to arms soldiers was unuseful for the new scenery of war. Moreover their drilling was particularly expensive and needed long periods in high mountain, and there wasn’t enough time to perform.
Suddendly the events come to a head: the Italian infantry was stuck on Albanian highlanders near the Greek border, the generals desperate asked the help of specialized alpine troops. Hurriedly was restored a new unit, the battalion “Alpini Sciatori Monte Cervino” composed exclusively from voluntary personnel: only unmarried mountaineering guides or very expert skiers. In a couple of weeks was enlisted 340 alpine soldiers divided into 2 companies; on 21st January the battalion had its first victims. A month of hard offensive and winter climate destroyed the unit: only 60 men returned home after fighting with old weapons in very difficult conditions! After this experience “Monte Cervino” was demobilized.
On November, 1941 a perspective of a support to Nazis army on Finland suggested another restore of the battalion. The new commander officer, Colonel Mario d’Adda, choose personally each of his soldiers with the same rule: volunteers, mountaineering guides or skiers, unmarried because they had to be sent in all kind of missions. After the disaster in Albania he quarrelled with the Army Staff for the weapons and clothes: “The alpine soldiers of my unit will be equipped as I decide, and the military code may fall from the window!”, he wrote on a telegram. After this argument arrived new anoraks, light machineguns, polar tents and specially two pairs of mountaineering boots (known as “Vibram” (2)) for each soldier; the final force arrived up to 600 men divided into 2 skiers companies and a support unit for automatic heavy weapons.
Unfortunately the Finnish front with its mountains was substituted by the Russian steppe: another massacre for these mountain professionals; but this is another story!
Let’s return to Aosta in the office of Colonnel D’Adda: among the alpine soldiers enlisted in the battalion arrived two men not “Valdôtains” (3): a young lieutenant academic member of Italian Alpine Club, Medical Doctor Enrico Reginato from Treviso and Gianni Mohor a mountaineering guide from Trento. Connoisseurs of Dolomites massif, during the stay in Aosta they noticed the unmistakeable shape of Grivola; a good occasion for mountain drilling before going to the front.
The first winter ascent was undertaken by the Valsavarenche’s mountaineering guide Pierre Dayné with Ettore Allegra on 15th January, 1902 by the South-West face; may be interesting to try the North ridge and the wintry traverse of the mountain, at that time unrepeated……
An official documentThis is the original report published on “Notiziario Alpino, 1942”, official magazine of Italian Department for Alpine Troops.
Like all formal documents edited during the Fascism, the language is very bombastic and repetitive, a bit difficult to translate. I hope to be successful as well in this purpose!
“We setted off Aosta to Sarre at 8.00 am on 31st December, then to Vieyes (m 1142) and across the the Nomenon Valley we reached Casolari (4) del Grand Nomenon (m 2309) at 7.00 p.m..
On 1st January, at 3,30 a.m. we left Grand Nomenon; we climbed the serac wall of Nomenon’s Glacier on its left side through runnels covered with snow powder and icy rocks joining the upper section of the hanging glacier. While we crossed a couloir, a great avalanche of ice, falling form the seracs themselves, strucked us directly. We avoided to be buried escaping on the left side of couloir. The rope, not taken back sooner, was cutted for two strands at six meters from the ends by a piece of sharp ice. We continued along icy rocks up to the end of the headwall on the flat glacier; after crossing it from left to right we arrived to the bottom of the ridge at 11.30 am.
The ridge is divided into three sections: the lowest is covered by icy snow that permits a quick progression with only ice-axe and crampons, the middle at first is composed of ice with some thin edges of icy snow. We climbed as possible following these edges far off the ridge, as necessary, from 0,50 to 3 meters. The second part is made of cracked ice that lets to anchor with Grivel (5) ice screws (12, all removed); the step cutting was quite easy (40 steps).
After getting over the mid section we found emerging icy rocks a bit difficult, then we joined the last part of the ridge, very difficult cause the blue ice very hard that obstructed the use of ice screws and step cutting.
Rejecting the idea of a direct climb we decided to follow the North face’s flank through an overhanging snow cornice with extreme caution. With very high difficulty we reached some rocks that let us to save time. Unfortunately they ended on the hard ice of North ridge, impossible to avoid: we continued by cutting steps without any belaying (about 80 steps).
Meanwhile the night arrived and we climbed with the moon light; exhausted and afraid to be overcame by the great effort luckily we found a remaining overhanging snow cornice, about 30-50 centimetres wide. We got over it with great caution up to some rocks just below the West secondary summit. From here we crossed on the left a snow ridge that ends on the final Grivola’s crag; quickly we reached the top. It was 30 minutes past midnight of 2nd January, 1942-XX. Under a stone we left a metal tube with our names.
After a short stop we started the descent by the East-North-East ridge and then the South-East face along steep couloirs and rocky ribs with difficult belaying and considerable danger cause the unstable powder snow. One of us, fallen for 7 about meters from a rock shoulder, was stopped by chance on a little snow field thanks to shoulder belay of the second on the rope. Descending for another rock section we arrived about 40 meters above the end of the wall. With 3 abseil (rappel anchors on spikes and a rock peg) we joined finally the Glacier of Trajo at 10,30 of 2nd January. We continued the descent along the glacier itself, then crossing the serac wall on the left over the Grivoletta’s ridge up to Rio (6) del Trajo, the Casolari del Trajo and finally the village of Epinel (m 1452) where we arrived at 8,00 p.m.
Timetable: for the whole climb from Casolari del Nomenon to the summit 21 hours; from the top to the bottom of South East face 10 hours; from here to Epinel another 10 hours including very short stops. Total time from Casolari del Nomenon to Epinel 41 hours.
Our gear was composed by: 12 points crampons patent Eckenstein (7) builted by Grivel, 2 Grivel ice-axes, 5 Grivel ice screws, 5 rock pegs, 5 karabiners, a Merlet (8) rope of 40 meters x 12 mm, 2 ice-hammers.
As nourishment we used sugar and tea and like energy-giving “Simpanina Recordati” (9), particularly useful.
The weather was very fine with big moon light during the night and lack of snowstorm. The temperature was extremely severe.
We’ve undertaken all the ascent as a party leading through.
Aosta, 4th January 1942-XX
MD Lt. Enrico Reginato”
Notes1) Here you can find a short story of this particular unit.
2) Vibram is the acronym of Vitale Bramani, an Italian academic member of Italian Alpine Club who invented on the ‘30s a rubber sole very useful for mountaineering boots, now still used.
3) Valdôtain is the typical term used to indicate the inhabitants of Aosta Valley.
4) Casolari = mountain huts
5) Grivel was the first Italian supplier for mountaineering gear. Founded in Courmayeur (Aosta) on 1818 by Henri Grivel as a forge for rural equipment, at the beginning of 1900 started the production of crampons. After a meeting on Ghiacciaio della Brenva (1908) Lauernt and Aimé Grivel managed to copy and improved the prototype of 8 points crampons patented about 10 years before by the Austrian engineer Otto Eckenstein. The new 12 point crampons revolutionised in a few years the ice technique: the first official test was undertaken by the same Aimé Grivel with the famous academic climber Renato Chabod during the first ascent of Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey - Mont Blanc for the North Face (4th September, 1933).
Grivel is still nowadays the official supplier for the Italian alpine troops and many famous climbers.
6) Rio = little mountain torrent
7) Eckenstein, as described before, is the official inventor of 8 points crampon.
8) Merlet was one of the best manufacturer of hemp mountaineering ropes in the ’30's.
9) “Simpanina” is the brand name of methamphetamine manufactured by Italian pharmaceutical factory Recordati. Reginato, as a military MD of the ‘40s, probably knew well the studies about this kind of drug tested by the German scientist for the fighter pilots to stand the physical and mental exertion.
The same drug was used also by Hermann Buhl during the first ascent the of Nanga Parbat in 1953. Cause the possible side effects like hallucinations and loss of balance after 8-9 hours from taking the mountain use of methamphetamine, also for Himalayan expeditions, disappeared.
MiscellaneaThe same report was reprinted on “Rivista Mensile del Club Alpino Italiano, 1943”; here we can read that: “In Epinel, after taking off our mountaineering boots, we discovered a frostbite to the extremities, rated of 2nd degree”.
A sub-editor of “Rivista” then explained: “Unfortunately this ascent was very tragic for the courageous Mohor: in the report is described a general 2nd degree frostbite. Sticking to realities he had foot frostbitten completely with the boots, as noticed by the Lt. in Epinel. So on 10th January at the hospital in Aosta he had to support the amputation of both foot”. This circumstance saved his life also from the war.
Lt. Reginato, still convalescent, was informed that “Monte Cervino” should be sent to Russia to support German army; as a second MD officer of the unit, with high sense of duty, decided to leave and even operated his last injuries by himself on the troop train!
Captured by the Russian soldiers near Ploski on March, 1942 he was imprisoned on a gulag; he returned home by chance only in 1952.