July 12th, 2018
The most easterly 4000m peak in the Alps is Piz Bernina and there is really only one way to climb it. The Biancograd is a long slender snow crest reaching up into the sky on the north ridge of Piz Bernina. It's very well known and celebrated for the amazing snow ridge but there is also a lot of rock ridge to enjoy as well. Linking it with a night at the Marco e Rosa Hut and a traverse of Piz Palu to Diavolezza makes a wonderful high level traverse.
It's a long but gentle walk in to the Tschierva Hut from Pontresina in Switzerland. It could not be much more Swiss with horse drawn carriages in the valley, alpine meadows full of flowers and glaciated peaks high above. It's a long day requiring an early start so we got to enjoy a fine sunrise at the start of the ridge.
At first the climb is on rock with great exposure down both sides. The snow crest is soon reached though which lives up to all the superlatives it is given. There are few features in the Alps that are quite so perfect in their composition. Climbing the Biancograd early in the morning as you normally do, the rising sun casts it's warm rays across the crest to exagerate the sinuous curves.
Once at the top of the snow crest you ar enot at the top of the peak though. There is still a substantial rock ridge to traverse to the main summit, all at just about 4000m. For John and I the weather was not bad but it wasn't perfect. The wind cut across the ridge blowing clouds up from Roseg, covering and revealing the way forward with dramatic effect. It's a serious place and there is a lot more to the route than the snow crest. With this peak John and I have reached the 4000m peaks at the furthest extremes of the Alps, Piz Bernina in the east and Bar des Ecrins in the south west.
The Marco e Rosa Hut is only just into Italy geographically but it is totally Italian! It could not be much more different to the Tschierva Hut. Great food and a loud and chaotic atmosphere didn't make for a very relaxing night but we were away early to traverse Piz Palu. This is the easiest way down and ends up at Diavolezza where the cable car glides gently back down the road. It is by no means a descent route though. There is a great scramble up rocks on its west ridge, a wonderful view from the top and an amazing snow crest to descend on the east side. What a wonderful way to end an eventful trip with John.
The Bernina and Bragaglia areas are full of amazing climbs of all types. There is so much more than the Cassin Route and Biancograd. John and I found huge high altitude rock climbs, perfect long mountaineering rock ridges, glaciated peaks and high level snow crests. And we only met two other Brits in the whole two weeks. Go exploring!
On the east side of the Bregaglia is Monte Disgrazzia, a great mountain that is very different from the granite spires of the rest of Bregaglia. It is made of serpentine which is being quarried close to the road that winds up through 26 hairpin bends to Chiaregio. The rock is a bit like slate in that it cleaves well and is very useful for building. It also can get a glassy smooth surface which is not great for climbing. Thankfully it is quite soft rock and it weathers on exposed ridges. When it does so, the quality of the rock is excellent for climbing. Rough red rocks with excellent holds make up the ridges but beware the grooves in case they are glassy smooth.
John and I went to the Oggioni Bivouac Hut and we climbed the East Ridge of Punta Kennedy to get there. Kennedy was a british guy who climbed this peak and set up the Alpine Club. The East Ridge gets a great description but when John and I started up on loose rock and super smooth grooves we were wondering why. We got to a smooth tapering slab with a steep wall at its top and we'd already decided this could not be the route when we saw some pegs and belay anchors on it. Still scratching my head I went up the slab for two short pitches to its top and the steep wall above. Starting out up this I found it was full of excellent but hidden holds. It was all very improbable looking but it worked out very well indeed.
Above this key section the angle eases back considerably as does the difficulty of the climbing. However the rock turns into weathered rough red serpentine that was a joy to climb. We got to Punta Kennedy and made the short glacier crossing to the quite and lonely Oggioni Bivouac Hut. Or so we thought. Being a Saturday ten other people had the same idea and we all squeezed into the hut that was made for nine.
So after a broken night of sleep we went off towards the Corda Molla along with a few other teams. The sunrise was spectacular, lighting the sections of snow crest on our ridge. The snow was crisp and formed into narrow ridges on the rocks and we alternated between dry rock and snow. Moving together efficiently John and I were able to overtake the other teams on the ridge and enjoy the amazing views from the summit. All the Alps were layed out from Mont Blanc in the west to Tyrol in the east.
The descent has been equiped for abseiling down the last part of the Corda Molla and then down onto the glacier. By th etime we got there the snow was soft and we had a long walk down the complex and much retreated glacier back to Ventina. Here it was a different world. Great numbers of Italian day trippers were enjoying the sunshine by swimming in the stream, sunbathing, rock climbing and sharing meals at the restaurants there. It was quite a shift from the rock, snow and relative solitude of the summit!
When God made the planet he had a bit of rock left over so he put it all in Val Massino in Italy. This is the valley on the Italian side of the very well known Piz Badile. San Martino is just above 900m in the bottom of the valley and the peaks rise to a modest 3300m or so all around. From brilliant boulders in the valley to road side crags, crags on the slopes of the peaks of many hundreds of metres high and crags and ridges on the peaks themselves, there is more rock here than you can ever hope to climb in one lifetime. It's beautiful, inspiring and gives you a sore neck looking up at it all the time!
John and I walked past the boulders and valley crags to go straight to the Rifugio Allievi at 2400m high above the valley. Our interest is in the peaks and the stunning ridges that lead to them. Despite great weather and such amazing climbing we had the hut to ourselves for the first night and shared it with only four other people on the second night. Our first climb was hardly a warm up. We went for the Gervasutti Route on the South Ridge of Punta Allievi, about 600m of climbing up to F5c.
It takes a while to get used to the rock in any new venue you visit. The granite here is no different and the scale of place and nature of the rock are different to most other places. The rock must have cooled down very clowly since the crystals ar enormous. Some of the feldspar crystals are 10cm long and form complete hand holds and foot holds by themselves. We stepped delicately up the first pitch and we were much more in the groove by the fourth pitch. This was in fact a real rucksack wrecker of a groove that tapered as you got into it. It certainly left its mark on us.
Higher up the route follows the crest of the ridge where occasional bolts guide you and keep you from straying to the more inviting sides. Endless pitches of perfect rock finally gave way to the last few metres of gentle scrambling and the summit. We were surrounded by the pointiest granite spires you've seen with glaciers down on the Swiss side but a simple scramble and blocky descent back to the hut for dinner.
For our second climb we went for the traverse of Pizzo di Zocca, a slightly higher peak with a long and committing rock ridge on its NE side followed by a long and committing descent of its SW ridge. The rock at the start of the ridge climbing straight out of the col was pretty scary with very large blocks that had recently fallen out and a few more that looked ready to follow. We picked our way through this section and quickly came to clean solid rock with beautiful patches of vibrant wild flowers thaty softened the seriousness of the route slightly.
The route description only gave us a vague indication of where to go so by following our noses and very occasional bolts we made it up to the north summit. Unfortunately our luck changed here just when we thought it was all going very well. We were let down by a slight physical malfunction that made it impossible to carry on or to retreat back down the ridge. So we swallowed our pride and asked for a helicopter to take us back down to the hut. It was a simple job and an exhilarating ride thanks to the remarkable skill of the Swiss helicopter crew. So we're currently back down in Val Massino, gazing up at all this rock and hoping to recouperate sufficiently to go and explore some more it.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.