Last winter I spent four days skitouring around Bivio, in the Swiss kanton of Graubunden. We did some nice tours around the Julierpass, close to St.-Moritz. One of the tours took us to Piz Turba (3.018m), a rewarding goal for skitourers.
When we got to the summit, one of my more experienced companions pointed out a mountain towards the south. Its name sounded magical to me, almost mythical. You see, my career as a real climber has been much shorter than my reading-it-in-a-book-comfortably-on-the-couch climbing career. The wind howling around us made the myth all the stronger … The myth my friend pointed toward was Piz Badile.
Piz Badile was a goal that I counted beyond my abilities at that time. In my mind I had created this image of an almost unconquerable granite wall. It made me think of the stories I had read about Ricardo Cassin and the epic first ascent of the north east face. If my friend would have told me that I was to climb it only eight months later, I would have called him insane. Turned out he wasn’t. Here’s the story.
*note: grades used refer to the most recent edition of Schweiz Plaisir Sud, Filidor.*
Later in winter, I started making plans for the summer alpine season. One of my favourite climbing partners, Tom, isn’t as lucky as I am. I planned two trips to the Alps in june and july. He could only get two weeks off from work in july and august AND had to keep his wife and kids happy. So no climbing for him in those months. He did manage to get a week off from work (and wife and kids) in September though, so we planned for a week of late summer alpine rock climbing.
Next was to choose where to go? I had never been to the Bergell in Switzerland. I had heard that the quality of the rock and the climbing there is great. That was our first choice. Lieven, another friend from our local mountaineering club, was also keen. From that moment on, we went to the climbing gym weekly to get the necessary training.
Now we still had to choose which route(s) to climb. There’s plenty of mountains, routes and grades to choose from in the Bergell. Over the summer, we got climbing guides for the area and looked up available information. “Why not try the Cassin on Piz Badile?” Tom said to me one summer evening. “Uhm, I think that’s a little early for me!” I replied “I’ve only been climbing two years.” The longest alpine route I had done was 10 pitches, with a lower grade than the Cassin. Still, Tom felt confident we could climb this route. So, we agreed to spend the first half of our week climbing some routes that would give us an idea of the length and grade of the Cassin. After that, we could look at our options, the weather and conditions and make a decision over there.
Warming up around Albigna lake
Saturdaymorning September 8, 3am, we left our flat country and took off for Switzerland. It was early afternoon when we drove into the Val Bregaglia, with a nice sun shining over the lakes close to Silvaplana and Maloja. I immediately found it one of the most beautiful valleys in the Alps I had ever seen. The first look at the granite mountains on the south side of the valley had us swallowing hard. All we could see were impressive, huge faces of grey granite. It looked as if none of these mountains were easy to climb.
After driving for about 12 hours, we got to the little village of Vicosoprano. We parked the car at the cablecarstation and geared up. We were very happy that we didn’t have to hike up to the hut, as we were a little tired. The cablecar took us up to Albigna lake. There were plenty of people up there because of the weekend. An hour or so later we were drinking our usual ‘aperitif’, pastis (it’s French) at the Albigna hut (2.333m). It was clear that it was the end of the season. The hut was only half full. In august it must be very busy here. We went to sleep fairly soon after dinner.
So our plan was to do some ‘warming up’ for a few days around Albigna hut. The forecast was excellent for the whole week, with maybe some disturbance around Tuesday. There was a weather system to the north of the alps, but since we were in the south, we didn’t need to worry about that. Also the routes were in good condition. The rock was dry, only a few patches of snow here and there.
On Sunday we did ‘Moderne Zeiten’ on Punta da l’Albigna, 13 pitches, max. 5a, to feel how our rope handling and speed was on a longer route. It took us four hours to climb it. It’s a nice route but not hard. The climbing was great and my confidence was growing. After we got back to the hut, there was still time to do a shorter route, near the hut, called ‘Wassersinfonie’ (5b).
This route actually finishes close to the north ridge of the Spazzacaldeira. It’s possible to continue all the way to the Fiamma. But, because we finished the route quite late, we decided to save our energy for the rest of the week and descend. It had been a great day out and we started our descent in good spirit. A little while later, we were relaxing at the hut with some beers, enjoying the sun and the route we’d done. So far, everything went according to plan. I felt very relaxed because the rock felt great, we were climbing well and efficiently. That night in the hut, we talked about the possibility of climbing Via Cassin on Piz Badile. The only certainty we still needed was good weather for two more days. As the route now became a very real possibility, I started feeling a little anxious about it.
We drove back to Vicosoprano (a very nice old village) and continued on to Maloja to find pizza. After a rather unsuccessful search, we ended up at a more pricey restaurant that serves the ‘produce’ of local hunters. My friends both had a stew of ‘murmeltier’ (if you’ve been to the Alps you’ll know what this is, in French it’s called ‘marmotte’) and I had pigeon. It actually was very tasty and we justified it because of the prospect of the ‘hardship’ that was awaiting us.
The walk in
Anyway, the next morning, my anxiousness about climbing the route really hit me! The weather forecast for the two next days was very good, so we were on. At breakfast we made the final decision to go for it. We didn’t talk too much because we all knew we were up for something big. The Cassin, even though all belays have been bolted a few years ago, is still a serious undertaking. It’s long (22 pitches) and there’s no easy escape once you’re in the route. It sure was going to be the most serious climb I had ever done and probably the same counted for my mates.
Once again we geared up and drove to Bondo. There’s a gravel road that goes up the Val Bondasca. We payed the fee for the road and drove up to the parking at the end of the road. Val Bondasca is a very nice valley. The road winds up through forrest, with every now and then a glimpse of the granite peaks around us. When Piz Badile came into view, I was very impressed. From the valley, it just looks sharp, steep, with no easy way up. We got to the parking area at the end of the road and started up the path towards Sasc Fura hut.
We planned on bivvying on the plateau underneath Piz Badile’s north ridge. So we had a tent, water, camping and climbing gear with us. We took our time climbing up to the hut with our heavy backpacks. The trail to the hut is very nice. I was thinking it would be great to just go hiking there. After about two hours we got to the Sasc Fura hut, where we took a little rest stop, had something to eat and drink.
We continued for about an hour in the direction of the ‘Viäl’, the hiking route towards the Sciora hutte. We found a nice spot at about 2.200m to put up our tent. After pitching the tent, we climbed up to the point at 2.590m from where we got a good first look at Piz Badile north east face. In a way, from there, it looked less intimidating. Even though I still had that anxious feeling, I felt confident that we could do this route and most important, enjoy it in the process!
We got back to our tent at about 5pm and now had nothing more to do than pack our gear, eat and rest. It’s a wonderful place to camp (officially, it’s not allowed). Wonderful mountains all around and the green valley below us. We couldn’t hear anything at all up there, not even the wind. We just enjoyed the last warmth of the sun, going over the route and preparing mentally for the next day. We also had some fun playing with our cameras. At 8pm, we went to sleep.
Climbing the Cassin
The next morning we got up at 5am. Unusual for me before a climb, I had slept rather well. There was rime on the inside of the tent. We took our time preparing a hot drink and eating breakfast. We were going to need it. A little before 6pm we went up. It was still dark, but we knew where to go from the day before. Also, we could see lights from other climbers ahead of us, showing us the way. When we got to the saddle below the north ridge, it was already getting light, around 7pm. We could see there were two parties of two climbers in front of us. None were following behind us, so that was that. The two climbers in front of us were already on the ledge. They helped to put our objective into perspective, as they looked tiny compared to the wall!
To get to the start of the Cassin, you need to get down to a ledge that cuts through the face. There’s a rappel station, but Tom said: “I think we can just climb down here if we’re careful. It will save us some time.” I didn’t feel sure, but had a look anyway. I carefully climbed down and this turned out to be ok. The ledge was fairly dry. There were a few patches of snow and ice, but nothing problematic. I wasn’t wearing heavy boots, just cross trainers, but that was all I needed for these conditions.
We got to the start of the route without roping up. There’s a few bits of grade 3 climbing on the ledge, nothing hard. I was first up, because I was wearing the light backpack. Since we were climbing with three, we didn’t reckon we could make a good time. So we decided to bivvy in the bivvy hut on the summit ridge. Of course, that meant we had to bring more stuff, so Tom and Lieven were climbing up with heavier backpacks. I would have preferred to climb in a party of two with only light sacks, but that was the situation. We planned to switch around the backpacks and make sure the lead climber was always wearing the light sack (the switching turned out to be unpractical).
As we got to the foot of the route, we noticed that the first party had just taken of, and that the next party was getting ready. The first guys were French, the second party we met the day before at the hut, was Welsh. It was only their second time in the Alps and they weren’t too sure about the climb. We got ready to start climbing as soon as their second went up.
I was going to lead the the first pitch (5b), the Rébuffat diedre. It was a little before 8am when I started, a little late. This first pitch is a really nice start: laybacking up an easy diedre. I only put in two friends for protection and got to the first belay (all stances have one or two bolts). My anxiousness from before dropped and was replaced by the sensation of climbing, feeling the rock. Actually, I am used to that feeling of anxiousness when I’m climbing. I consider it as a virtue, because it helps me to make sound decisions and turn back when something doesn’t feel right. But now, I was just looking forward to climb this classic route.
I’m going to describe each pitch as much as possible here, as I think this might be helpful to other climbers. Tom and Lieven followed up on two ropes, with the heavier sacks. We didn’t talk much at the stance. We were all three concentrated and just wanting to keep a good pace. Tom took care of the second pitch quickly, a diagonal crack leading us leftward (4b). Hands in the crack, feet on the face. Or vice versa. Lieven and I followed.
Pitch #3 (4a) was for Lieven, still following the same diagonal line. The sun was now touching the east ridge, looming high above us. We didn’t switch packs here yet, because these pitches weren’t difficult. We simulclimbed the next pitch, #4 (3b). It keeps following the same diagonal line of both previous pitches. At the end of this pitch, you go behind a large block (the so called ‘letterbox’) and after it there’s a good bolted belay.
We had to wait a long time here, because the two parties in front of us were not going very fast. There was no way to pass them, while they were climbing, that would have been problematic. So we just waited. The next pitches formed the first harder part of the route, all graded 5b – 5c. Since I was wearing the light pack, we decided that I would lead the next three pitches. As soon as our Welsh companions were gone, I started up.
Pitch #5 (5c+) gives great climbing. It first runs along some small overhangs and then up a corner with a nice crack. I could place protection easily. I was really enjoying the leading now. Climbing on granite just is so different from the limestone that I’m used to. Also, the climbers in front of me gave the advantage that we didn’t have to look for the right way up. I reached the belay and Tom and Lieven came up one by one.
On the next pitch (5c) there were some nice flakes and slabs. This is the point where the first Cassin bivouac is. As I
On pitch #7 (5b), I made the mistake of traversing too far over to the left. The actual line does traverse a bit, but goes straighter up. So, I had to make a belay with two old pegs and some friends. The good thing here was that we were finally climbing in the sun! But not for long… Lieven continued the pitch from here and reached the correct stance (two bolts). After this, he continued on pitch #8 (4c). Halfway up, Lieven slipped and fell. He had just clipped into a peg that held, so didn’t fall far and he only hurt himself a little. He continued and let us follow. After this, Lieven lead on the next two easier pitches (3c and 2b). We simulclimbed this to reach the foot of the next harder part.
Normally at this point, there should be a snowfield. There was none. We were on a wide ledge, called the ‘Cengia Mediona’. Now it was time for Tom to lead. This next pitch would probably be the hardest (6a), so he took the light pack. We also knew that we had to be careful to find the right way on this pitch. Since we saw how the parties above us climbed, we knew what to do. It was a little over noon and we were almost halfway. While we were standing there, a helicopter with tourists came to say hello.
Tom went up pitch #11 (6a) quite easily. It looked a little harder for Lieven to follow with the heavier sack. I got Tom’s backpack, and when I started this pitch, it was no picknick. The climbing itself was not bad, but I couldn’t really look up with the pack and it just felt heavy. This pitch starts with a corner, where a friend is stuck in a small crack. Higher up, there’s two pegs. Here, you have to get out of the corner onto the face to the right and continue up diagonally to a good belay (two bolts). If you don’t get out of the corner, there’s only a big roof above.
This pitch had taken us quite a while. We were now halfway the route and it was 1 pm. Lieven lead on pitch #12 (5c), a nice layback all the way up to the stance. I lead on the next pitch (6a-), one of the nicest in the route. First, up a corner, traversing left underneath a roof and further up a corner. There’s plenty of pegs in this pitch to clip into.
Pitch #15 (4c) was quite long and we had to simulclimb a small part for me to reach the next belay. We were now below the kamin, a couloir that forms the last part of the route. The other two parties were right above us.
After pitch #18 there were three easy and enjoyable pitches left. It was 7pm when we finished the route and got onto the nordkante, back into the sun. There was no time to waste, and no time to celebrate. It was still about five pitches to the summit and we knew we only had light until about 8pm. So Tom took the lead for the first pitch, while Lieven and me carried the bigger packs. In the second pitch, Tom had climbed on the left side of the ridge, instead of directly on it. He had to make an uncomfortable belay on friends, and Lieven and me climbed ourselves a bit into an awkward position. The light was fading, and we only needed seconds to decide that we would bivvy. There were no clouds around us and no wind. We knew the forecast for the night and tomorrow was good. So better to look for a safe bivvy while there was still light, instead of continuing and having to climb in the dark. We might have made it to the little bivouac hut above, but the decision was made. Only later we found out that our Welsh friends spent the night in the bivvy hut. The French party had to bivvy in the descent (Italian side).
Bivvying on the nordkante
We quickly found a safe spot, a wide horizontal crack on the ridge. We took our gear off, I removed some snow and put down the rope to lay on. My friends both had down jackets with them, I didn’t. So I put on every piece of clothing I had with me, wrapped myself in an insulation blanket and got into my bivvy bag. Tom and Lieven also tried to make their spot as comfortable as possible. By now, it was completely dark, with still some light in the west. While I was eating and drinking something, I looked around. What a wonderful and strange place to be, at night on top of this mountain, I thought. A little later, we crawled in our bivvy bags and started counting the hours, stars, mountains, minutes…
I woke up around 3am. So far, I had been warm enough, and even had been able to sleep a little. But now, I started shivering and didn’t stop until the morning. On top of that, I got cramps in my legs, a result of the long day climbing and the strange position I was in. I peeked out my bivvy bag to see millions of stars, like you only see them in the mountains. It was an uncomfortable and at the same time amazing experience. I was thinking, the uncomfort would be gone in two days, but the amazement of being there, together with my friends, would probably last a lifetime.
Anyway, I’ve never been so happy to feel the sun on my face the next morning. We didn’t need much time to gear up and put our feet into frozen climbing shoes. The summit was waiting! I took the lead – an hour and three easy pitches later, we were there. Now it was time to shake hands. I felt very happy to be there, and it was only 8am. The views around us were amazing, with the morning fog still in the valleys. We did a little posing next to the summit spike and down we went. We decided to descend into Italy, down the south face, to the Gianetti hut. Tom and I weren’t looking forward to having to rappel down the nordkante, as we were, all in all, tired after spending the night on the ridge.
Three hours down a well marked route with about 8 – 10 rappels and a hike down scree, brought us to the nice Gianetti hut. We had some drinks, Tom and Lieven had soup and I had two plates of pasta. Enough fuel for the six hour hike over two passes (Porcellizzo and Trubinasca) to Sasc Fura hut. We wanted to also go back up the mountain to retrieve our tent that was still there, but when we got to the hut, we were so tired we decided to do that the next day.
Back at Sasc Fura hut, around 6pm on Friday, we could finally relax and look back at two very nice days and having climbed this classic route. For me, it was and still is a great feeling to have achieved this, in the company of good friends. A cheezy, but nevertheless appropriate, quote expresses best my feeling about this climb:
“If there is a deeper and more lasting message behind our venture than the mere ephemeral sensation of a physical feat, I believe this to be the value of comradeship and the many virtues which combine to create it. Comradeship […] is forged among high mountains, through the difficulties and dangers to which they expose those who aspire to climb them, the need to combine their efforts to attain their goal, the thrills of a great adventure shared together.”
I would like to dedicate this tr to Bart Naert. He was a Belgian solo alpinist who died in a fall off the north ridge of Piz Badile on sept. 10 2006. May he rest in peace.
A slideshow of our climb is here.