One year ago ...
"Which are those?" we ask Hermann, our guide, pointing to some distant peaks, "the ones that under that little cloud?" With his encyclopedic knowledge of the Alps, he names the peaks of the Bernina Range that we're looking at: "Piz Bernina, Piz Palü, Piz Morteratsch ...". I quickly forget the rest he's saying.
We just climbed Hochwilde, on the border of Austria and Italy, and are enjoying the views all around us. We don't know it yet, but right there and then we are hooked. And so, one year later, we travel to the Alps again, to have a go at Piz Bernina, the easternmost 4000er in the Alps.
The easy part
Pasta and pizza
As usual, it starts with a long journey to get to the mountains. Wilco picks me up and off we are. Traffic permitting, we race down the Autobahn, but nevertheless the drive takes all day. Jannie and Paul had somehow been faster and start texting us from a local restaurant as we pass the outskirts of St. Moritz, the fashionable resort just north of the Bernina range. Not long after that, we are all together again, enjoying a real Italian meal and swapping war stories.
The first three nights, we stay at a small hotel just south of the Maloja pass, near the Swiss - Italian border. From there, we wander through green valleys and over high passes, acclimatizing to be ready for the serious business of climbing the glaciated peaks. Piz Bernina will be the first 4000-er for some of us!
Reunion at Chamanna Coaz
Day four. Wilco and I drive to the parking lot of the Diavolezza cable car and park the car - if the trip will go as planned, that's where we will come off the mountains in six days. We ride the scenic Bernina Express train to Pontresina, and from there we start up the Roseg Valley. My feet don't appreciate that very much, as my mounaineering boots are way too warm down there! After a while, I forget about it and I just enjoy the hike.
Jannie and Paul take the easier way up. They ride the Surlej cable car, thereby cutting the distance in half. They figured, we'll be made to work hard anyway the next couple of days! However, they take a wrong turn somewhere, descend too far down into the Roseg valley and have to hike back up again, arriving at Chamanna Coaz (2610 m) not much earlier than Wilco and me.
By the end of the day, Hermann joins us at the refuge. He'll be our guide again for the next five days. It is a happy reunion, as we've shared some adventures over the years.
A lapse in concentration
We had planned to start at the crack of dawn the next morning and climb Piz Glüschaint (3593m) as a day trip from the hut. However, come next morning, it is raining. That's no fun, and wet rocks it can be dangerous. So, we wait.
Not much later, we get lucky, the rain stops. Having less time now, we settle for Il Chapütschin (3366m). Before long the sun comes out and we are enjoying ourselves again. What good fortune!
And then, on the way down to the hut, it happens. I slip. Although I arrest quickly, behind me Wilco, Paul and Jannie don't see it coming and are all pulled over too! The only one still standing is Hermann ...
It's not at a dangerous place. Just a steep snow slope, leveling out quickly below where I fell. I slipped because I wasn't focussed. Maybe I was still enjoying our first summit of the tour, maybe the seemingly easy terrain had lulled me into a false sense of security, I don't know. Whatever the reason, my slip, but even more so the fact that everyone of us except Hermann fell, sure gives us a wake up call.
In the overall scheme of things, it is a good thing that it happened there and then. After that, we are really focussed whenever it matters. We have learned something today.
Is this the summit?
The plan for the second day calls for the traverse of La Sella (3540 m) and Piz Sella (3513 m), to the Sellajoch, then down over the Scerscen Glacier to Rifugio Marinelli Bombardieri. It's dry, but at times we walk in the clouds. That makes navigation difficult, but with Hermann with us, we are not the least bit worried. However, in the fog, we skip La Sella and go directly to Piz Sella - that is, I think it is Piz Sella, but with limited visibility, I cannot completely rule out the possibility that we are on a nearby local high point instead.
After that, the clouds gradually disappear. It gets hot now, and the Scerscen glacier is melting fast. We reach the hut in the afternoon and relax on the terrace while waiting for dinner. As the sun dissapears, it gets colder and we go inside to eat. Hermann, who lives in Austria himself, keeps telling us that the food in Italian refuges is better, and it is certainly worth the wait!
Earlier, as we cross the Scerscen glacier, we have a good look at the couloir up to Fuorcla Crast'Agüzza, where we will go up tomorrow. It doesn't look like much of a problem.
Perched up high, to the left of the saddle, is Rifugio Marco e Rosa. What a place for a hut!
Piz Bernina: the high point
The third day is going to be a long one, and, literally, the high point of our trip. We are going to climb Piz Bernina!
After an early start, we soon find ourselves back on the Scerscen Glacier. It gets interesting as we arrive near the base of the couloir. The snow is hard and a bit icy even. As we ascend, I´m thinking that if any of us falls, we´all go tumbling down. There is no soft snow to aid us in stopping. Apparently, Hermann trusts us not to slip this time.
Eventually the couloir flattens out near the saddle, and without incident we reach Rifugio Marco e Rosa, where we will spend the night.
However, that´s later, we still have some business planned for the afternoon! So, we have lunch at the hut, drop some of our stuff and start the second part of our program for the day.
From the hut, the route first crosses the glacier and the track is wide. However, eventually the route reaches La Spedla (in German: Die Spallagrat) and then it is mixed rock and ice, or, more accurately, rock and snow.
As we had expected, there are lots of groups on the route. In addition to people like us, climbing via La Spedla and back, there are also numerous groups that have ascended Piz Bernina by the famous Biancograt on the other side and are now descending La Spedla. That means that passing is not always possible, and when he sees how some other groups are fumbling, Hermann is less than pleased and his irritation shows. My take on that is that it's just the price you have to pay for being on a really popular climb. Accept it, or climb somewhere else. Of course, Hermann doesn't have that luxury, we are his clients and we want to climb Piz Bernina ...
Despite the occasional wait, we're enjoying the climb.
The day after: the best day of all!
We're on the road again by 6 in the morning. Today we want to do the Piz Palü Traverse.
Sure, we had seen Piz Palü the year before - as we had Piz Bernina. However, while we had really looked forward to climbing Piz Bernina, we considered Piz Palü to be a nice bonus. It was almost as high as Bernina, and the rock climbing, being shorter and easier, would be less of a challenge. Sure it looked like it was going to be a fine day, but it couldn't beat Piz Bernina, could it?
Well, we were wrong, and glad about it!
The route has it all. It starts easy on a flat glacier, with nice views (had we not been up Piz Bernina yesteday, I would probably say great views). Then on the Bellavista Terrace, just north of Bellavista, the glacier gets a bit wilder at times and the route weaves a bit around a few obstacles. After passing Bellavista, we leave the trail that turns north here, to Isla Persa over Fortezza, to find our own way up to Fuorcla Bellavista. The snow is hard and visibility was good, so that´s no problem at all. Before long, we arrive at the saddle.
After enjoying the views, we scramble up the rocky ridge to Piz Spinas, the most western of the three summits of Piz Palü. It´s indeed a lot shorter and easier than the rock on Bernina, but that doesn´t mean we don´t enjoy it. Climbing doesn't have to be hard to be fun!
On the snowy ridge that after Piz Spinas, the drop off to the south is impressive, but the ridge itself, to the summit plateau, is wide enough. And the summit plateau is really big. We spend a long time there, relaxing, bathing in the sun, taking pictures - and Jannie does a bit of Yoga even.
After the main summit, things get hairy: we have to cross a sharp ridge over to the eastern summit. We had not expected anything like that! Full concentration required now, slipping here is not an option. Can't take any pictures.
Then, as if on an afternoon walk, a guy with a dog on a leash comes over the ridge. Crazy! I mean, it's one thing to bring a dog into the mountains, but if that dog makes a sudden move, not only will it fall off the ridge, its owner will be pulled right after it! And even if the dog manages to get back on all fours and stop, on a steep section, a human might not be so lucky. Hermann tries to explain the danger to this fellow, but he won't hear of it. Does it all the time, he says, as if that makes it safe. Strange people you meet sometimes ...
After a short break on the east summit, we descend. The snow was a bit softer now, and it was slightly less exposed, but this was steep! We walk down, still concentrated, still careful, but confident in our abilities now. At the saddle, we finally relax. The hard part is over.
Hermann points out Piz Trovat in the distance, on the other side of the big Pers Glacier. All we have to do now, is cross it. And indeed, that turns out not to be difficult at all, but it still takes a long time to get there, as we are slow now that we are nearing the end of a long day, and we have to find our way around the crevasses on the upper part of the glacier. The top layer of snow being soft now doesn't help much either. Fortunately, it isn't very deep, so we don't sink in too far.
At the other side of the glacier we're all pretty beat, but happy at the same time. The verdict is unanimous: today is the best day of the tour, better even than climbing Piz Bernina!
A surprise at the end
We have one day left, and at Bergaus Bellavista we discuss our options. Hermann suggests two possibilities: a mixed route to Piz Cambrena (3606 m) or a Via Ferrata to Piz Trovat (3146 m). Piz Cambrena will be a full day, whereas Piz Trovat will be just a morning adventure. Not knowing what to expect, we somehow lean towards Cambrena.
We talk to some other people in the hut, and learn that Piz Cambrena is rarely climbed anymore, because the route quality has deteriorated over the years. With the glacier retreating, some poor quality rock has come to the surface. Not a good place to be with more than one group. Still, most climbers in the hut will be going to Piz Palü the next day and we're the only ones even considering Piz Cambrena, so we decide to give it a go.
An alpine start
We start out in the dark, but there are several other groups - no surprise though, as the approach to Piz Cambrena is the same as for Piz Palü. Once on the Pers Glacier, we leave the trail to Palü and make our own, to the NNW spur of Piz Cambrena which is the start of the Ice Nose. Sure enough, it's poor rock, but as we are mostly walking, that's not a problem.
What does matter however, is that when it does get steep, the rock is still poor, all very loose stuff. That's our cue. Whether it's the normal route or not, we leave the rock and go on the glacier, which, at that point, is still quite steep. Hermann tells us to wait and leads out. After a while, he puts in some screws and signalls for us to follow. Great! Ice climbing! We have not done anything this steep before, and it's fun! Of course, we climb too fast and are out of breath by the time we get over the steep bit. But man, this is fun! I want more!
Well, I'll get some, but not on this day. After the steep bit, it´s only a short hike over the glacier to the summit. We enjoy more views, but I take less pictures, for it isn´t as spectacular as what we had seen from nearby Piz Palü.
On the descent, Hermann has a final surprise for us. We will scramble down the north ridge, Cresta d'Arlas. The ridge goes up and down, on rock and snow, scrambling up, climbing down and even a rappel thrown in. At one point, the ridge is so exposed, I just sit down with my legs to either side and slowly shove myself forward!
Somewhere along the route, we find a cross - Piz d'Arlas, I presume. After that, the route looses altitude much faster. Eventually, after what seems like forever, we are off the ridge and back on the Pers Glacier. We are exhausted now, this has turned out to be the most demanding day of all. We have finally found the limit of what our group is capable of. The exertions of the week have finally caught up with us.
At Diavolezza, we take the cable car down - we planned that, but are too tired to walk down even if we wanted too. We drive around to the Surlej cable car base station, where Hermann parked his car, have a few drinks and say our goodbyes - until next year!
After a fine big last supper and a final night near the Maloja pass, Jannie, Paul and Wilco drive back home. I'm not done yet with the mountains and travel to Chamonix - but that's another story.