3:30am and I'm wide awake. The dormitory of the Sasc Fura hut is full of Germanic snoring of Wagnerian proportions. We're supposed to get up at 4am, but the combination of adrenalin, noise and expectation mean I'm not going to get back to sleep. I give Alasdair a nudge, and as he's awake suggest we just get started. We don't put too much effort into keeping quiet, or keeping our headtorches covered, as we fold our blankets and leave the dorm. Serves them right - it's a bit unfair that they should be able to sleep soundly while keeping me awake.
Outside the dorm, we stuff our sleeping sheets in the basket provided; grab our sacks and head out the door into the cool air. No point trying to eat. While Alasdair can eat huge quantities of food at any hour of day or night, I'm feeling quite sick enough already. As we start up the path behind the hut, we can see more lights in the dorm. It looks like we started a stampede of people not wanting to queue on the route. They shouldn't rush. While most of the dorm will be doing the Nordkante (aka the North Ridge) of the Piz Badile, we have greater ambitions. The weather is perfect and quite warm, and Alasdair and I are climbing efficiently and quickly after two weeks in the Bregalia. Everything has come together for an attempt on the Cassin Route.
The first half an hour of the path is fairly well marked, as we walk quickly to keep warm following our headtorches. Then we reach the boulder field where things become a bit trickier. Waymarks disappear and are replaced by cairns which merge into the rocks. We can see the occasional flash from headtorches in the distance - presumably someone has bivied. We wind our way over the boulders and, having youth and fitness on our side, soon overtake the party ahead, who are bumbling around slowly looking slightly lost. We reach the bottom of some glacier polished slabs just as the glow in the East has become strong enough to switch off our torches. Another party is at the top of a small snow patch beneath a wall, with crampons and ice-axes but we know that we should be able to get to the route without touching snow, so we scramble up to the right to reach a chossy gully and the bottom of the North ridge.
From here we get the first view of the massive NE face of the Badile as the dawn light hits it. It is amazingly smooth for such a huge area of rock, with a small rognon at the bottom (where the route starts), a couple of chimney lines on the far side and some ledges and grooves near the top being the only real features. It's big, real big. We know it's supposed to be 22 pitches to the end of the route, then some 200m to the summit, but it looks huge. Time to drink some water, have some food, gear up and "gird our loins" for the challenge ahead.
As I rack up for the first block of pitches, Alasdair takes the sack and one of the ropes and starts descending to a ledge system that will take us to the rognon, with glacier below and 800m of rock above. By the time I start after him, he is a small dot in the distance, dwarfed by the rock above him. After traversing below the face, some chimney work takes us up to the top of the rognon and to the steep pegged crack that is the first pitch. Ropes flaked (60m as we hope to run some pitches together) I tie in and start the route proper. The first pitch starts with a couple of nice jams, but soon the crack disappears and the only way upwards is a small edge for my foot far to the right. It's quite high, and there's not much for the hands. A peg in front of me suggests a quick "french free" move, but also promises protection, so I clip it an reach my foot over, wishing I'd tightened my boots for performance, rather than comfort. A quick worrying "am I going forwards or backwards" wobble onto it and I can jam again, over an overlap and onto a slabby crack, job done. I belay after 60m, having tried to run the first couple of pitches together. Alasdair joins me and we start getting into the swing of climbing fast - long run outs, only clipping pegs unless things are getting hard, seconding on a tight rope, and making sure the belays are as efficient as possible by equalizing with a sling and tying in only once. When Alasdair reaches the belay he clips in with a screwgate and immediately starts flaking the rope, while I grab any gear on his harness and have a glance at the photocopied topo. There's no time to do anything else and after a couple of pitches of flakes and slabs in the dry air, I'm parched. We stop for an extra couple of minutes, down some fluid, take of some layers, put on sun cream and don sunglasses. The sun is now on us properly and the day is beginning to warm up.
After some more pitches up slabs, flakes and cracks, none of them hard, we reach what should be the snowfield in the middle of the face. Due to global warming this is no longer present, instead there is a bit of choss on a series of ledges, and various rubbish, including the sole of a boot. On the one hand the lack of snow has made our lives easier - no need to carry crampons, but it has also reduced the seriousness of the route - it's now a rock-romp instead of a true mixed alpine face like it would have been 20 years ago. We're overtaken by some climbers moving together who turn out to be a guide and an aspirant, so we let them climb the next hard pitch - up a steep corner - while we have a rest, eat some power-gel and swap over gear. We're now around halfway, and it's only 9am. We're making good time as we started at 6am, and guidebook time is 6-10 hours.
Alasdair now leads and I'm left with the rucksack as he gets to grips with the next F5c+ pitch. After being in the lead so far, and because Alasdair has been seconding at very high speed, time passes more slowly for me. I soak up the rays and admire the view. Directly opposite us is the N face of the Cengalo, a complex face of steep buttresses and ridges that Alasdair would like to climb but just looks like a frightening death trap to me, with an immensely crevassed glacier below. A massive rock-fall from the couloirs between the Badile and the Cengalo and a smaller once down the N face of the Cengalo provides some distraction before Alasdair shouts safe and I start climbing. The corner isn't too bad, but a bit of a pain with the rucksack. I begin to wonder if it's easier to lead.
The next pitch is also F5c+, up and around a flaky roof to some rather thin layback moves. Alasdair dispatches it quickly, but I get an extra-tight rope for speed. We're now into the final third of the climb, and we both know it's "in the bag". We now have to climb up to a big chimney system that will take us up to the ridge. The chimney starts as a big V for a pitch. We've seen pictures of people nonchalantly bridging up this, but while it looks very stylish, it also means you can't place any gear. Instead Alasdair grovels in the bottom and squeezes up. I have to follow his example, led on by the rope and the runners. Great fun with a rucksack. Now the chimney widens, and becomes more box-like. The climbing is now via cracks in the back, sometimes using the features on the walls on either side. We let another party behind us through - they're climbing fast, while we've slowed down slightly, while we get some more water and powergel down. The next two pitches are much more British, quite steep face climbing in the back of the chimney, and very enjoyable. We're lucky to find the chimney dry. In most years it is damp and unpleasant. The angle eases off as the chimney opens out to more flaked cracks and we can hear voices from the North Ridge. Another pitch and I run out of rock on the crest of the ridge. The crest only a couple of feet wide, and cool air rises from the steep, shadowy west face. There are around a dozen people all over the place, and a convenient big ring to belay off. I belay Alasdair up and admire the view. We can see the rather crowded summit from here, which has a massive silver spike on the top. Luckily most of the people who do the North Ridge descend to the Gianetti hut in Italy to the South, so the traffic is one way. Alasdair changes into approach shoes, no such luxury for me. We pitch along the ridge, partly because moving together will just cause a traffic jam trying to overtake other parties. The way wraps itself around either side of little granite aiguilles, with quite serious exposure. At one point Alasdair has to belay half way along a narrow ledge on the West face, which is much steeper and foreboding than the NE face, not being in the sun. Stepping around him is made even more fun because he's still wearing the rucksack. After a bit of fun climbing we reach the summit at the top of the ridge. There is a small gap between the ridge and the main mountain where the official summit lies with the absurd metal spike. We could go over there, but excluding the metal spike, it looks lower than where we are now. We relax for a moment, finish our water and eat the last of our powergel and some beef jerky. Now all we have to do is rappel the North ridge, which will take at least 4 hours, but we have plenty of time - it's 12pm and there's no sign of any bad weather approaching. After 5 and half hours of solid effort we've completed one of the classic routes in good time. It feels real good.