Disclaimer: very little actual "Hell" was encountered, my title is purely for whimsical purposes. Actually it refers to a great 1920s movie made on the mountain.
Our ridge at sunrise.
"The White Hell of Piz Palue!" I had the gleam in my eye that makes Josef wary. We were at the Thalkirchen climbing gym.
"How hard is it?" he said.
"Oh, I think some 5th class, some steep snow, that's all."
He still looked dubious, so I added "I hear it's quite popular." Oops, wrong move. Josef likes solitude and his face fell visibly.
"Although, popular in the context of such a demanding, isolated climb has a very different meaning! I expect 5 parties maximum," I confidently intoned.
"We'll see." he said, and went off to dangle upside down for most of the morning, twisting the rope into quickdraws.
Only three days later we were hefting heavy packs at the Diovelezza valley lift station. The night before, feeling virtuous, I had railed against the "soft comforts" of lifts in the mountains, and rhetorically turned up my nose at the prospect of replacing a multi-hour tedious, scree covered hike with a 10 minute lift ride. "I came to climb the mountain," I thundered, "not to dally upon it with the aid of infernal machines!" Now, I racked my brain for a face-saving way to take the lift. But Josef was already walking, probably used to my backpeddling ways.
After the long drive (4 hours) from Munich, we bought a sport climbing guidebook and spent the noon hours at the Morterasch crag. After a couple of interesting climbs, Josef proposed practicing aid climbing with improvised slings. "Why not? Everything else here is too hard for me anyway!" So we spent a couple interesting hours "high stepping" in floss-like Dyneema slings. Pretty fun! After a bit of top-roping, we hiked back to the car and got ready for the hike to the Diovolezza Hut.
The Hut and her environs...
Wide open views on the hike in.
Trail led up through pastures, eventually reaching a beautiful torqoise lake. We continued up a ridge on the left side and came to a rather bleak scree basin, and two annoying hills to climb over and down. I knew from experience how painful those climbs would be on the way out! I was wearing heavy mountain boots, something I hate to do. Already my feet were complaining. But when I thought of the view of the Piz Palue we'd seen on the drive in, I regained my energy. It looked like a great Andean snow giant, scarred by great black cuts, one coming down from each of the three summits.
Finally we reached the hut, somewhat annoyed by the collection of bulldozers sitting idly all around, intent on improving the hut as a winter downhill skiing destination. There is something wrong about bulldozers at 9000 feet! We found our bunks and got our packs ready for the next morning. After an hour of hanging around in lounge chairs with blankets in front of the hut (channeling early 20th century cruise ship aristocrats), we had dinner. At which point we both became incredibly tired for some reason. Somehow there was a feedback loop where I'd look at Josef, who looked tired, and then he'd say he was tired, and then I could barely keep my eyes open, and Josef would remark that I looked tired, and so on. Also it was really hot and stuffy in the dining room. I went outside for a while and felt more lively.
On the Pers Glacier.
This was my first stay in a mountain hut since moving here, and it was fine. But I wished we sat at another table. At all the other tables it was like "Hi, I'm Ralf, how the hell are ya, ya old bastard?" and "well git on over here...you!" Real friendly folk. At our table there was a group of four who seemed to want to keep to themselves. Though Josef gleaned from their conversation that they thought it was a-ok to climb a via ferrata without a special device...just use a sling. Apparently they didn't know about the forces involved that could break their sling and carabiners in a real fall. So, we recovered a measure of dignity with our superior wisdom in these matters. Meanwhile the other tables were breaking into song and smashing a few plates. Somebody told a joke where the punchline was "arschloch!" and the opposite side of the room roared and heaved.
So we went to sleep, where I dreamed about people repeatedly opening and closing little nylon ditty bags and swishing their nylon pants importantly, and fumbling with zippers, straps, cellophane and crampons. All the while an overlay of whispering and occasional loud random words. "NOCH?" or "WIE BITTE?" some guy would say, seemingly immune to the pile of bodies less than a meter away. Finally by 2:30 am or so everyone was done with that and we were ready for the morning alarm. Many more straps and zippers needed to be fumbled with, so a coterie of "early birders" made sure to start an hour before.
After some bread, butter and tea we started out. Comically, we actually didn't know that the route went on the east side of a big scree mountain before getting on the glacier. We expected to drop right onto the glacier below us. I just couldn't believe it when a whole crowd of people took this circuitous looking path. Some of them even got lost and mistakenly climbed the scree mountain. I saw headlamps way up there and said "no way, that can't be right!" We stopped and looked at the map ourselves to determine, yep, we do need to go around this mountain. With new resolve, we hiked along in the dark and soon found ourselves on the glacier. After a dawn walk across a plateau of ice, we roped up and kept going, starting to weave among interesting crevasses. Intent on our mighty buttress, we passed a few parties via alternate steeper routes. Then as the sun struck Bernina to the west, we followed a thinner path through crevasses to get closer to the buttress. Within 30 minutes, we were there, making the first "mixed" moves onto the granite face with crampons.
Parties gaining the ridge.
All systems go...
There were probably three or four parties who got up earlier than us, and some were silhouetted dramatically on the ridge with snow slopes of Bernina as a backdrop.
For rope management, what I wanted to do was simul-climb and place gear, stopping to make a fixed belay when things got hard. I think Josef was thinking more along the lines of alternating between soloing and making fixed pitches. He was willing to give my idea a shot, but still has serious misgivings about the whole simul-climbing practice, misgivings which were not becalmed by our experience on the ridge.
But anyway, we organized the rope for simul-climbing and placing gear. I started off, and before long was jamming my hands in a nice granite hand crack. My boots wouldn't fit so it felt a little sketchy. I placed some gear and moved slowly. Finally we got to a bulge we'd have to delicately traverse around and Josef gave me a fixed belay. I was overjoyed to see granite again for the first time in 2 years! Wow, it felt like "home." I placed 4 nuts on that long pitch, and each one would hold a truck...it seemed so much stronger and less brittle than kalk (limestone). I belayed Josef up, and he took the rack for the first pitch going up the ridge.
Michael climbing a slab.
Josef looking down.
I don't remember how many pitches we did in here, though at one point we lengthened the rope between us so we wouldn't deplete our rack so quickly. Every party had their own style. One party was using all fixed belays and we passed by them very early on. Another followed the somewhat alarming (to us) style of having about 5 feet of rope between each person and no intermediate protection. The ridge was very long and we never felt crowded by the other parties above and below.
And the weather was just perfect. No wind, sunny but a little chilly, which gave us comfort against afternoon thunderstorms. We climbed corners, cracks and chimneys, enjoying the sunny left side and being careful for the verglas on the shadowed right side of the ridge. Nuts, slings over horns, and cams provided excellent protection. Finally I asked for a rest to eat "second breakfast." We stopped at the base of a steep, golden tower about 30 meters high. We had read you could go around it, or over it which was much harder. We'd seen some people on it from below and wanted to climb it. After all, we had plenty of time! After a good sandwich, I started up carefully.
Beginning the free/aid pitch.
But after some nice cracks I was completely puzzled at a piton on a blank near-vertical slab. I attached a sling and stood in it, with a higher piton still too far away. Very careful moves, holding my breath, I mantled onto a ledge with the help of a marginal sidepull hold. I could just barely clip the next piton. Bounce testing it carefully and watching it flex a bit, I hung on this one and gradually climbed free again around a corner to the left. An overhang was keeping me from a nice set of cracks above. But one last piton was here, and by pulling on it I could just get my feet up enough to reach a sloping handhold above. It's amazing how useless your feet can feel in big mountain boots! Now some good climbing led to a crack with a new-looking fixed cam (I tried briefly to retrieve it). Then I thrutched up a chimney to ride au chavel on a hogback ridge. Just as I was thrutching maximally, a yellow helicopter buzzed us. "Great!" I thought.
It was an enjoyable, memorable pitch. Very old-fashioned with a mix of free and aid, I thought. Josef liked it too. It took a lot of time, but it was worth it.
Josef took off, leading up some interesting, slabby terrain. It wasn't an easy pitch, especially with simul-climbing where I knew no mistake could be made. He ran out of gear and sent me off. I went for a very long time on easy (grade II) terrain. It was so fun to be scrambling for hours and hours, not a care in the world! Eventually the right side of the ridge got snowy and icy, and I moved to the sunny side through a little notch. Overhangs blocked me, though it looked just do-able. Remembering that we are simul-climbing, I prudently went back to the other side and found a merely vertical corner with some good holds that got me up onto the crest of a tower. 5 minutes later, we were standing on the last patch of rock below an elegant fin of snow leading to the East Summit.
Climbers on the Pers Glacier.
Josef on the snow arete.
Michael near the summit.
"Whoop!" I said. We were happy to be here. Putting on crampons, Josef recommended we unrope, as there was no way we could arrest a fall on the thin wedge of icy snow. "Unless we put in ice screws all the way," I mused, "and that would take a while." So we sent Josef off first with his ice axe. I had two rather stubby ice tools, and I would trail the rope behind me. If we got to a dicey spot, Josef could wait and I'd climb up so we could climb fixed pitches for a while.
But in fact it went quite easily. It's not really that steep (45 degrees? Maybe 50 at the top), but it's icy and the glacier 3000 feet below doesn't help your nerves! Previous parties had kicked steps, though they disappeared at the icy sections, and we would just front point up carefully. I really like using the axe in the position where you hold the head and drive the pick in for balance. It's the perfect technique for this angle of ice.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. Clean and cold, all the way up. And there we sat for a while, on the sunny south side of the summit, looking at Monte Disgrazia to the west. That's near the fabled Bergell area...a sort of mini-Bugaboos. I hope to go there later this month.
Josef on the East Summit.
The Central Summit is nearby...
The final ridge climb.
Chestbeating summit pose!
We hiked down and then up to the central summit, really impressed by the steep north flank beneath our feet. It was a bit after noon, so we decided we had enough time to traverse the west summit as well and come down the Fortezza Ridge. Hiking along, we soon came to a long rocky ridge with stunning views and endless, easy climbing. For about an hour we worked our way down, then took a long rest to eat lunch at the Bernina Pass. We watched a poor guy cross the southern glacier alone, seemingly swimming in deep slush. After a brief resting of my eyeballs beneath their "lids," he still seemed to be in the same place!
Descending the rocky ridge from the West Summit.
Skirting the Bellavista Terraces, we continued down snow with a few hidden crevasses (looked like someone punched through in a minor way) to another ridge with 6 people waiting to rappel. I thought it would take a while, but folks here are pretty competent. After a 10 minute wait, we could start down. We became indecisive about whether we should rappel or downclimb and comically took out and put away the rope several times on the descent of the ridge. Some more downclimbing and a second rappel finally sorted it out, and we could bomb down slippery snowfields to a notch. Tiring noticeably, I fell behind on the long hike down talus and boulders to get onto the Pers Glacier. I stopped by a stream and drank a full liter, gradually feeling better. Josef waited for me and we continued on.
Abseiling on the Fortezza Ridge.
The three mighty ridges from the west.
Crossing the glacier was pretty exciting. We just wanted to go straight across, but kept getting shunted to the side by ever-larger crevasses. We got used to crossing them, though I had a tense moment when what I thought was relatively solid ice was only snow and it collapsed under my weight. "Whoa!" I said, and shifted my balance back to the island of ice I was on with the other foot. Josef had good instincts and was already looking elsewhere for a better crossing. Eventually we got down and still had to walk a long ways to cross the glacier.
The only actual hell despite my sensational title
Feeling completely tapped out at this point, I wasn't looking forward to the hike up to the Diavolezza Hut, probably 700 vertical feet above. Argh! I took it really slow, meeting up with Josef at various points. He was feeling very good, having not even had 2 liters of water to drink in a 12 hour day by this point! I could only admire his strength as he bobbed and skipped along the trail far ahead. Okay. No more beer for me!
At the hut we hung out for 30 minutes and started down. Or actually up, for the first of 4 hills to be climbed on the descent. Man, they were painful. My feet were really sore in the heavy mountain boots. Josef had the same model and somehow had the ability to run in them. My feet felt like poor bananas on a dirt road journey from Argentina to Texas. But enough complaining! Somehow or another, we reached the car a bit before sunset, the end of nearly 16 hour day.
"Good-bye oh Piz Palü," I said. "Oh ye of the mighty snows! Oh verily--"