I tried this classic traverse three times before. The first time was in mid July of 2008 with Anna and Carlo, two friends from northern Italy with whom I have shared several great skiing tours in the previous years. For the summer of 2008 we decided to join for some outings in the western Alps. The first plan was a five days crossing in the Monte Rosa group including Lyskamm, Castore, Polluce and the Breithorn traverse. Quite a rude start for me coming from Rome, but not a problem for them living close to the mountains and always fit, acclimatized and ready to go high. The main obstacles of this crossing are Lyskamm and Breithorn.
That year had been unusually cold in early summer, with big snowfalls in june and early july, so we were quite uncertain that we would be able to traverse Lyskamm and Breithorn by their summit ridges, but both could be bypassed, in case of bad conditions or weather, by lower and easier routes. We arrived at Rifugio Mantova with a good 20cm of fresh snow on the ground from the previous night. Although I had never been there before, the Lyskamm south face looked very winterly to me. Anyway the plan for the next day was easy, go to Punta Gnifetti or Zumstein and back to the hut, nothing more than a long acclimatizing walk on the glacier, but providing a close view of the Lyskamm east ridge, the start of the Lyskamm traverse and our program for the next day. On the way to Lysjoch a team of two climbers from Spain turned left toward the east ridge, and a team of three was already starting up the ridge. At least from what we could see the ridge was loaded with fresh snow, and there was no evidence of a track. As we proceeded toward Punta Gnifetti we watched the attempts of the two teams and their quick retreat before the leveled section of the ridge, the first tricky part of the traverse. The ridges of Lyskamm have a bad enough reputation to attempt them unless they are in good conditions, at least for us, so it was an easy decision to settle for the easy alternative to the traverse, the following day we were going to take the Naso route to the next hut. We then completed the crossing to Plateau Rosa` with Castore, Polluce and a piece of the Breithorn traverse (the problem there was the weather). Five fine days in the mountains but the main goal remained in the wish list for another time.
The following year the problem was different. I returned in Valle d'Aosta but Anna and Carlo could not join, so I had to rely on other friends spending their vacation in the area and did some nice climb with them, but Lyskamm was not in their plans. One day hiking alone in the Gran Paradiso I meet a couple, resident in the area, and started talking. It turned out that they also had the Lyskamm traverse in mind, so we exchanged telephone numbers. A few days later she called and we set an appointment. This time was going to be a blind date, with all the associated uncertainties, and the idea of roping up with unknowns on a narrow snow ridge was problematic. But they were living in a valley in the area and knew those mountains well, so I assumed they were up to it. Moreover it was not the first time I was going to make a team with someone I didn't know. It's either that or no outing sometime. To cut a long story short, the weather was fine, the ridge in top condition but, after the first section of the east ridge, when the ridge becomes narrow and exposed, she pretends to continue the route belaying. So I pretend that we turn around and come back. The end of the second attempt, but I was too upset to wait another year for the third.
On the way back the route pass near the Balmenhorn, an outcrop in the middle of the glacier with an unguarded hut perched on its top, bivacco Giordano. While walking down I decided that I was going to untie from the rope, stay at the hut for the night and try again the next day, maybe someone would arrive at the hut for the Lyskamm traverse and I could join, or attempt the traverse alone. There should not be technical problems on the traverse and the advantage of being in a team with unknowns, over being alone, was not obvious. So I said goodbye to my first date and prepared for the second one. Quite late in the afternoon two guys arrived at the already overcrowded hut, nine people were there with six bunks to sleep. When I realized they were headed for the Lyskamm traverse I quit trying to persuade them to go back to the Gnifetti hut. Guglielmo and his friend accepted my proposal to join for the traverse the next day, although they were also suspicious about me and suggested to proceeded un-roped, maybe. The night was awful, two more climbers arrived and thirteen people had to share the bunks and the floor. The wake up call was welcome, but outside was quite windy. We quickly worked our way to the start of the ridge and, by the time we got there, the summit of Lyskamm was already choked in clouds. When we reached the point where I turned back the previous day, and could see the other side, a thick layer of dark clouds was proceeding toward us pushed by a fairly strong northern wind. We watched the weather deteriorate for a while uncertain about what to do, then after an hour or so, we all agreed to go back. The morale was low but, given the early time, Guglielmo and I decided to head for the Parrot, an easy target nearby, Guglielmo's friend returned toward the hut, carrying the rope which we did not need. Halfway to the Parrot the weather improved and soon the Lyskamm was free of clouds. For a moment we considered returning to the east ridge, but it was late and we didn't have a rope, so we reached the Parrot and returned talking about our past experiences and planning the next attempt to Lyskamm.
As usual I start planning well before the summer season begins, and as usual I plan to spend some time in the western Alps for the summer of 2010. Guglielmo is out, with an injured tendon. By early July Anna and Carlo are just recovering from an intense skiing season (90000m logged) so they are not eager to commit themselves. Giulio, a friend with whom I often go skiing in the central Appenines, is interested in joining, so by mid July we are ready to go. The weather is very hot, a north-african heat wave is extending over Italy and freezing level in the Alps is always well above 4000m. We avoid mixed and snow for the first couple of outings and hope for cooler weather. Meanwhile I keep calling Carlo trying to persuade him that conditions are not so bad after all. He rejects my advances and tells me about the horrible conditions and news he reads in the internet and climbing forums. The forecast improves and temperature should drop a bit in a couple of days, so we call the hut and make a reservation for four of us. Rifugio Mantova has been recently renovated and is a very comfortable staring point for this traverse, furthermore, with the new cableway, the hut can be reached in 45 minutes. Shameful luxuries of alpine climbing. We arrive at the hut in time for supper, and go to bed. At 3 o'clock in the morning we are the first group to wake up, we swallow something, rope up and, after 45 minuts we are on our way on the easy slopes of the Lys glacier. The snow is frozen hard, so far so good, and after a couple of hours, we are starting up the east ridge of Lyskamm. There is a well beaten track on the ridge granting an easy and quick progression, and I almost regret that. I remember the exhilaration of tracking one or two rope lengths on the ridge of east Breithorn in deep virgin snow two years before, at every step you have to guess whether the snow will stay or slide down, guess the distance from the cornice, and each step is a great achievement. This time it will be much easier. I said "almost regret" because with a 4Km narrow ridge to traverse, always above 4000m, there is nothing to regret about a well beaten track. It is the fourth time I start up this ridge, and everything looks good this time: weather, conditions and friends. After a steep section of 150m the east ridge levels off, becomes narrow and the void on the north side unveils, a void that will be companion for the next four hours or so. This traverse has little technical problems, but it is all about controlling your steps, movements and focus over that void. Some short sections downhill are especially interesting from this point of view. Then the ridge rise for another 150m and quite soon we get to the East summit. The deep view to the ridge below is one of those view for which we go to the mountains. The weather is fine and everything looks good, but I don't remember stopping even a minute on the summit. It is the first time on this route, and all we know is that we still have a long way to go. After an airy summit ridge the descent to the saddle between the east and west Lyskamm is the only section where we can relax, I can walk looking at the great scene around me instead of looking at the three meters of snow in front of my feet. At the saddle we encounter the first team from the opposite direction, an odd choice for this crossing, in fact most people choose to traverse from east to west. The next section of the ridge to the west summit is steep and narrow again and I switch focus to the three meters in front. After a false summit, there is a small notch and the terrain changes, outcrops and short snow ridges connecting them. Time to scratch some rocks. Then, in the middle of a rocky section something happen just ahead of us, a yell a call for help. There is a rock step followed by a vertical wall maybe 4 meters high to downclimb, landing on a narrow snow ridge. When we are at the top of this step we realize that a team of two just fell down the north face, about 900m high in that point. A team is on the ridge looking down, just faint marks on the snow slope. Silence, nothing to say, nothing to do. Those who realize what just happened are shocked, other parties, unaware, complain about the forced stop and want to bypass. In a few minutes an helicopter arrives and hovers in front of us, an alpine guide points to the slope below and the helicopter dives. Now it's our turn to downclimb the same step where the team probably fell, most likely a false step downclimbing the wall. It is the first time I am so close to something like this, it is not easy but we have to proceed. I run the rope behind a small slab and let Giulio down, then it's my turn, Giulio belaying me on the ice axe in the snow. When we are down I realize the outcrop and the downclimb could be avoided on the south side. We breath and we want to move away from that spot as quickly as possible. We climb some easy rocks and we reach the west summit while we see the helicopter flying to Zermatt. From the west summit we descend a steep slope, maybe 45 degrees, with some ice surfacing. Then another narrow and very esthetic ridge and we finally reach Felikjoch, from here it is an easy walk to Quintino Sella hut. At the hut, at about noon, we meet Carlo and Anna, they were just haead of the team that fell, and we were just behind, but none of us could see the fall. We don't talk much about it, we know well that a fall can happen, but this time is different. Even though I always felt secure on the traverse I have the clear perception that it could have happened to me. This time happened to someone else but I have to admit to myself that it is just statistics at work, there is no reason to assume that I wont make a false step sometime. So the traverse was finally accomplished, but an unpleasant bitter feeling will be attached to it.