Piz Palü is a beautiful mountain with three summits in the Bernina area in the south east of Switzerland. Part of the ridge runs along the Swiss-Italian border, but the main summit lies in Switzerland, albeit by a small margin. Traversing all three is a wonderful and popular tour in the eastern Alps, and on a normal day there are usually several groups on the mountain. The traverse was first done by Wachtler and Walner with Georg, Hans and Christian Grass, 22 August 1868¹.
According to my Swiss top map², coming from the west, the border with Italy runs along the ridge up and over the western summit and beyond, to the edge of the central summit plateau. There it leaves the ridge to continue along a southern spur. However, the highest point is about 150 m further east on the plateau so the true summit is on Swiss soil.
The traverse can either be done from west to east or the other way around. A note on the pro’s and cons follows after the route descriptions.
Key points of the route
When doing the traverse as a single trip, Berghaus Diavolezza is the best option. On a longer tour, any of these refuges can be used.
The easiest way to do the traverse is from Rifugio Marco e Rosa to Berghaus Diavolezza, because with the refuge already at 3597 m, it involves the least total ascent, about 500 m.
As a day trip, it is normally done from Berghaus Diavolezza, simply because that can be reached so conveniently from the valley. Still, it's common to come up to Diavolezza the day before, because you want to start early. Using the normal route over Isla Persa, it's 1500 m up and down.
The west-east traverse from Marco e Rosa to Diavolezza
Note: If the interactive map doesn't show, its hosting site might be down. Please try again later. In the mean time, you can use the non-interactive version of the route map further down.
Getting to the western saddle
From Marco e Rosa, the beginning is the same as the normal route to Berghaus Diavolezza over the Fortezza ridge, so probably there is a trail you can follow. Head in a general direction of about 80º, towards the glacier just north of Bellavista. If there is no trail, you’ll have to find your own way around the few crevasses and ice formations that block the direct route.
After half an hour or so, you should have the main summit of Bellavista on your right. The Bellavista summit ridge continues for about 1 km. Keep walking east alongside it, until you can spot a saddle on your right. That's Fuorcla Bellavista (3688), the saddle between Bellavista and Piz Palü. Note that the normal route to Berghaus Diavolezza doesn’t go up there, but turns north before the saddle, where it descends along the Fortezza ridge. See the east-west traverse for more on that.
From west to east, the traverse proper starts at Fuorcla Bellavista. At this saddle, you’ll see the rocky west ridge of Piz Spinas, the western summit of Piz Palü. On the ridge itself, you can't get lost (you could fall off it, but that would be something different.
The eastern summit (3882) is reached over an exhilarating knife edge ridge and finally there is a beautiful steep descent (gradient up to 40º, but mostly less) on the eastern ridge to an unnamed saddle. If there is pure ice on this steep descent, you might consider placing an ice screw.
Don’t continue too far along the ridge. Shortly after it starts turning north and the Pers Glacier to your left flattens out enough to be comfortable, leave the ridge. That way you avoid the final steep ridge to Fuorcla Pers-Palü, the saddle between Piz Palü and Piz Cambrena.
Crossing the Pers Glacier to Berghaus Diavolezza
From the point where you leave the ridge, look north (as if you didn’t do that before ...). About three km away is Piz Trovat, on the edge of the glacier. To get to Berghaus Diavolezza, you have to pass Piz Trovat on the east side.
After leaving the ridge, go north on the Pers Glacier. Especially the upper part of this glacier has lots of crevasses. If there is no trail, you'll have to negotiate a way through. If you go too far to your right, rockfall from the slopes of Piz Cambrena might be an issue, so better avoid that. As the glacier flattens out, well past Piz Cambrena, the going gets easier and you can go straight.
Once you've reached the small ridge just south east of Piz Trovat, hike up and over it, then follow the trail, which more or less follows the contours while traversing the east side of Piz Trovat. Pass over a saddle north east of Piz Trovat. After the saddle, the route gradually turns more to the west and in a few minutes you'll reach Berghaus Diavolezza.
The traverse as a round trip from Berghaus Diavolezza
As a round trip, the traverse can be done in either direction. The description given is from east to west.
Getting to the eastern saddle
On the Pers Glacier, head south and aim for the saddle directly east of Piz Palü east. If you cannot see the peak and the saddle, you should think about alternatives. You'll need good route finding skills to do this route in poor visibility. The saddle to aim for is not the lowest saddle in the ridge, but the one to the right of that.
For the first part, the glacier is flat and doesn't have many crevasses, but that changes as soon as you pass the north western spur of Piz Cambrena on your left. After that, you'll have to negotiate a way through the crevasses, and it's no longer flat either. Keep going south until you reach the ridge.
On the ridge itself, you cannot get lost. The ridge is somewhat steep, up to 40º, but not particularly narrow at first. Still, later in the summer it can be icy and a fall could be very dangerous. Between the eastern and central summit, the ridge is very exposed. The central summit is a big plateau. If the weather and conditions are good, you’ll probably have company there. After traversing to the western summit, Piz Spinas, descend its rocky west ridge to the saddle, Fuorcla Bellavista.
The descent from Fuorcla BellavistaI have no personal experience with this particular part of the route. Thanks to Selinunte01 for valuable info.
At the saddle, traverse the east slopes of Bellavista to the north to the Fortezza ridge. See the dotted blue line on the map. Quite likely, you'll hit upon the trail between Rifugio Marco e Rosa and Berghaus Diavolleza not far north of the saddle.
Descend north on the glacier to the upper end of Fortezza arete. Don´t underestimate this ridge. As this is a northern exposure, snow and ice often lingers on the rocks even late in summer and you may be forced to climb with crampons.
The first steps on the arete are easy. Soon enough there is a steep chimney-like chute descending on the west side of Fortezza arete (UIAA gade II, excellent rock). The route gains the now broader arete again and descends in three more 'steps', mostly east of the ridge crest (UIAA grade I – II, exposed but good rock) down to the exposed and sharp ridge at the lower end of the arete.
There are fixed bolts, so you easily can rappel down or belay when climbing up. There are red stripes and arrows as additional route markers.
Watch out for the ice at the lower end of the arete. There was a near fatal accident in 2003: the bloke was rescued with a helicopter after sliding and falling down several 100 meters to Vadret da Morteratsch.
At this point there is a bit of a glacier that leads from the ridge down to the Pers Glacier to your right. You have two options now. From here, on the map, the normal route is the dotted blue line, the alternative the green one.
This rock island has a very steep north face. Fortunately, shortly before that, there is a cairned trail going east descending to the Pers Glacier, and there is a zig zag trail up to Berghaus Diavolezza on the other side. Unfortunately, the normal route involves hiking up some 300 m at the end of the day.
The normal route is definitely the right option if you want to go to the Chamanna da Boval. It is more complicated than it used to be, due to the glacier retreat. On Isla Persa, go west on a small trail which zig zags down to Vadret da Morteratsch. At the upper end of the side moraine head southwest until you can easily descend the loose moraine scree and talus flanking the glacier. (On Swiss Topo maps 1277 and 2521, the track goes down from Isla Pers to the confluence of Vadret da Morteratsch and Vadret Pers - due to glacier retreat that is not a good option any more!) Traverse the glacier to the other side moraine - a sometimes tricky action due to loose scree on the glacier and huge creeks full of melting water on hot summer afternoons. Fight yourself up to the moraines top where you probably will meet a trail heading north to Chamanna da Boval.
Chamanna da Boval
Rifugio Boval could be used as a base as well. Compared to Berghaus Diavolezza, that would add a few hundred meters more to the ascent or descent, and a bit more distance too, making it a very long day. However, if you go up (or down) along Isla Persa, the difference is small.
Which direction to choose?
When starting from Berghaus Diavolezza, the traverse can be done either way. Going east to west has the advantage of ascending all the rock sections, instead of down climbing or rappelling. The down side is that it will be later in the day when you have to cross the crevasse field on the upper Pers Glacier on coming down from the eastern summit. On a hot day, old snow bridges might be weak. For the visible crevasses, that’s not so big a problem, it’s the hidden ones that always worry me.
That said, we did the west-east traverse from Marco e Rosa to Berghaus Diavolezza, descending the upper Pers glacier in the early afternoon.
When to goThe traverse is mostly done in summer, when the alpine huts are open for business and avalanche risk is normally low or nonexistent. That said, the traverse is also done in other seasons, and, provided there is enough snow to fill the crevasses, when doing the traverse from west to east, a large part of the descent can be skied down the Pers Glacier.
External LinksSwisstopo Excellent maps.
The nearby town of Pontresina.
Rhäetische Bahn is the company that exploits the Bernina Express.
www.wandermap.net I used this site to create the interactive route map.
References1. Hochtouren Ostalpen, Edwin Schmitt,Wolfgang Pusch, ISBN 3763330100.
2. Swisstopo map 2521, St.Moritz Bernina, Ausgabe 2006.
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