Difficulty: S-, III to IV with places of IV+
By Alan Carroll
Having flailed our way up one short pitch of VIII the day before - pulling on draws and sitting in our harnesses practically the whole way - we figured we’d done enough training to attempt the 3000 feet of alpine granite on the North Ridge of Piz Badile, so we went out and got totally arseholed.
Time Required: Most of a day, if not more
Summit Elevation: 10853 feet
The technical part of the ridge rises about 700 m (2,300 feet) yielding about 1,000 m (3,280 feet) of climbing which is mostly UIAA III to IV with at least two places of IV+ (YDS about 5.2 to 5.7). Several years ago, a rock fall took away one of the IV+ places. Most consider the "new pitch" to also be IV+, but some grade it at V-. The climbing is wonderfully clean and exposed with fine views across the NE Face to the Cassin Route.
At 5am I came to with a blinding head ache and realized that the rock we had chosen to pass out under was right next to the road, in plain sight of passing traffic and any carabinieri that happened to go by. Before we fell out of the bar they told us that the campsite was full but you could kip under a rock outside of St.Martino as long as you were out of sight, because the police will fine you 1000 Euro if they see you. I tried stuffing myself down further into the rock but ended up with my head in nettles, so I didn’t last long. Neil snagged the nicer space deeper under the rock out of sight the night before- he wasn’t as drunk as I was - so he could sleep a bit longer. Having flailed our way up one short pitch of VIII the day before - pulling on draws and sitting in our harnesses practically the whole way - we figured we’d done enough training to attempt the 3000 feet of alpine granite on the North Ridge of Piz Badile, so we went out and got totally arseholed.
Being hung over was no way to climb, but this was the only day we had to do it. The weather had been shit in Switzerland for a few days, so we had gone around to Val di Mello for some sport climbing and to wait it out. Now we heard that Monday was going to be good, and the rest of the week after that it would close in again. So we packed up our stuff and headed back around to Bondo to hike up to the base of the climb. We didn’t think about the fact that it would be impossible to get food for the trip on Sunday morning in Italy, but managed to grab 10 bread rolls and some chocolate bars by the time we hit Bondo. When we crossed back into Switzerland we caught the first sight of Badile. We’d been trying to spot it from Soglio between breaks in the clouds for days before we got to Val di Mello, but finally we could see the whole thing, this huge silver fin rising above the valley. We couldn’t believe we were actually going to attempt something as stupid as that, it’s an awe-inspiring sight that no photograph can do justice to. I had read somewhere that it was “one of the truly great climbs of all time” and I was dying to see why.
It took us an hour and a half to hike to the SascFura hut from Laret after we bought the road pass for the drive up the narrow road from Bondo. You can get the pass in a machine in Bondo for 9 Swiss francs, well worth it. The Swiss have it sussed with the huts; little racks of slippers for the guests so you don’t track dirt in, neat little racks for ice tools. They even sell beer. Someone said it was 60 Swiss francs to stay there, which includes a 4am breakfast for those heading up to Badile, but we only planned on stopping long enough to have a cigarette and get water before heading up as far as the notch to bivy and hopefully get a jump on the crowds going up the Ridge. Our packs were as stuffed as bananas and stupid heavy, so I tried to spend my time at the hut trying to look as though I had a fucking clue what I was doing in front of all those healthy wankers whittling clogs out of firewood and sitting around guffawing in lederhosen. Truth was I was starting to get worried. Even with the foreshortening, the ridge still looked massive. We rummaged in the trash, pulled out a few old Gatorade bottles, filled them full of water, clogged their toilet and got out of there before people started pointing as well as laughing. The hike up to the base took an hour and a half. I was wrecked and we hadn’t even started the real stuff. A bad stomach bug had me feeling really weak. We dropped everything on a flat rock still about twenty minutes from the notch and started sorting. After wasting our time carrying 60 pounds each this far, we jammed half our rack under a rock along with a bunch of other stuff we wouldn’t need. Even without the sleeping bags and pads our packs still seemed to weigh a ton.
Firstly, I have to qualify this by saying that my brother and I are a couple of neophytes when it comes to alpine climbing, in case that wasn’t obvious. Like many idiots, thinking that we could pull a few number grades harder than anything the North Ridge had to offer suckered us into it. But it’s definitely as beautiful a line as they say, and had we reached the summit, it probably would have just gotten better. We had planned on going up and over to the Gianetti hut and hiking back around to the notch at the base of Badile the next day to pick up our gear. We had extra warm gear because we knew that the weather was going to turn to shit the next morning; just as well, because we ended up using it when we had to bivy on the North Face that night. It should have dawned on us that things might not go as planned when Neil was sucking on his CamelBak a half an hour into it and found that it had emptied into his backpack. “It’s alright Al, I still have this 16oz Gatorade bottle, should I pour this in the CamelBak?”
We were at the notch by about 5:30 and scrambled up for another hour or so until we started the technical climbing somewhere above the notch at about 6:00. We simul-climbed a lot of pitches including a few we should have belayed. Every other party we saw was belaying on double ropes, which I’d definitely do in retrospect. Safer and you don’t have the head-fuck of ‘if I fall here we both die.’ That’s another thing: I had read nothing that said you need double ropes. I even read one description that ‘a 40 or 45 m rope is adequate, but a 50 m rope would be better if rappelling off.’ Bollocks. You definitely need double ropes. Simul-climbing had also made us lose track of which pitch we were on which made following the topo nearly impossible. I figured hey it’s a ridge, how lost are we going to get?
So after hearing one party pass us on the correct route out to the left of us, we gain this little stance that takes us back on route. Neil clips into a rusty old piton as the sole anchor, and off I go with Neil saying “Yeah, the real bolt must be just around there, I heard those guys talking really close.” I stepped out left around a big blocky flake, and had I had my glasses I would have seen the shiny new bolt out to the right, right where the topo said it would be, but I didn’t. I looked out left over this gaping hole all the way down to the slabs at the start of the Cassin route and then down again to the glacier, and I saw this lovely overhang above me with a nice crack under it. So I stuck a #2 Camalot under there as the one and only piece of protection between myself and the anchor, and thought ‘that looks like fun.’ Now I know why the topo has a big exclamation mark on it with DON’T GO LEFT. There was nothing at all above the overhang but a vertical slab. “Falling” I yelled. “You’re not fucking falling!” was all I heard, and then Neil said he saw a body tumbling down over the North Face. I was there for a second looking straight down at the glacier before I realized that the Cam held. “Holy shit! Wait ‘til you see what we almost fell down.”
Going off route was sucking up way too much time. We had been averaging about 10 minutes per pitch at the bottom, but this bullshit time-wasting was making everyone else disappear above us. Then we (I) did it again. Misread the topo and that big exclamation mark that said DON’T GO RIGHT. The topo was shit in all fairness, I mean how can you condense 3000 ft of climbing into 4 inches? The climbing was never hard, and that was part of the problem for us; there was no obvious line of weakness. With so many options it’s easy to stray off route. Anyway, this time I saw a shiny bolt out right after some flustering up left, so I went out to it, clipped a draw and kept going, stepping out right around this sketchy block. Right when I was putting a nut behind this huge flake and the whole thing started sliding straight downwards I realized that I was on an old section of the route I had read about that had fallen away. I told Neil and he told me to come back down. I said I couldn’t reverse the moves and all I heard from below was “FUCK FUCKFUCK”. “It’s alright” I said, “ I think we can make it. There’s an overhang above me so I can’t see anything, but it should take us back left if you can get over it.”
I belayed him up to me and warned him not to breathe on that flake, and then he led out around the roof with one little nut stuck under a crack with no idea what was above or if he could stay on. I kept saying “put a fucking piece in over the roof” but I remember hearing “shut-up” as I fed out another 50 feet of rope. Eventually, I heard “safe” and I had to snap a photo of the view down between my legs at the miserable glacier 1500 feet below that we would have been smeared all over. There was one party earlier on who, when passing us asked, “where are you guys from?” Now I knew why. He wanted to be able to tell the helicopter guys that there were two Irish guys who were climbing the mountain by mistake, and they needed to go down.
At this point we had been on the move almost 12 hours and still hadn’t made the summit. We were completely alone and faced with another huge block that looked like you followed a snowy crack around to the left, but who the fuck knew anymore? It was getting on and we were both shivering, out of water, sitting on this fin with a leg on either face, and looking at this huge pile of rope between us when we realized two things: We definitely had to turn around, and we definitely would need two ropes to get down.
So at that point a couple of unfortunate bastards appeared above us. Much to my shame I asked them if we could ab down with them. The first guy conferred for a second in German with his rope-mate above, and said fine. I guess we didn’t leave them in much of a position to refuse. We had seen two tiny specks moving quickly up the Cassin route out on the Face that turned out to be these guys. They seemed unimpressed with their time of 6 hours to the summit. When the second guy came down I could see that he was over 60 years old and had these stumpy boots on. He’d obviously lost his toes on some desperate climb. I looked him up when I got home and was very humbled to see that it was AnderlMannhardt. First winter ascent of the Eiger North Face in 1961.Second ascent of NangaParbat in ’62, with SigiLoew and Kinshofer. This was only the third ascent ever of an 8000m peak, and they had had to bivy above 8000m on the way down. His climbing partner Loew had fallen to his death, and Mannhardt and Kinshofer had to have toes and/or feet amputated. The route is named the Kinshofer route and is still a major undertaking. We had accidentally run into one of the greatest living mountaineers and he couldn’t have been more accommodating.
I was actually reassured to see that these two montagnards were having a lot of trouble finding the way down. At one point we all ended up rapping into a horrible couloir where we clipped into this crumbling escape anchor that someone had thrown in who knows when. Mannhardt was the last one down the ropes and when he saw what the rest of us had clipped to he started yelling and didn’t stop until we had all basically soloed back up to the top. So by 10pm we all still hadn’t found the way down. I didn’t feel at the time that we were holding them up too much. My brother and I were rapping down like maniacs, and I found a nice big rap bolt just as they were about to take us all down into another couloir to who knows where. It didn’t help; we still ended up disappearing over the lip onto the North face and spending a night sitting on a ledge hoping it would get bright before the weather closed in. We weren’t the only ones. There was a steady stream of headlamps picking their way very slowly down. At 2:30 a group of English climbers appeared about 400 feet above us on the Face. By next morning it was raining and we had to go down in dense cloud, but by the time we hit the slabs at the notch everyone we met was having a good time. All in all an experience I won’t forget any time soon.
Some useful information:
There’s a little yellow guide book in Italian that’s really good. You can get it in the climbing shop in St.Martino at the entrance to Val di Mello. It covers the Val Bregaglia and di Mello, but it’s in Italian. Has every route marked in detail. There’s also a shit guide book called something Val di Mello with the worst topos I have ever seen. Impossible to find the start of the route. Don’t get them confused.
‘SchweizPlaisirSud’ is an excellent guidebook. The text is german/French/Italian, but the topos are fantastic.
‘Swiss Rock:GraniteBregaglia’ is good too, and in English. As is ‘Bernina and Bregaglia selected Climbs’ by Lindsay Griffin, Alpine club guide books.
Descent is a major issue from any route on Badile. The ridge is huge and the descent on the South side to the Gianetti hut is just as notorious. There’s an insulated metal hut just over the summit on the S side that’s been used more than once. The descent topo to Gianetti in ‘PlaisirSud’ is the best one I saw. The hike back around to SascFura is a big deal too. At SascFura the guy told us in broken German that we didn’t need ice gear to get back around, but some topos disagree. At Porcellizzo pass there is an icy couloir, or not, depending on which topo you look at. I personally was glad not to have had to face a long hike back around to the hut, and then back up to the notch to get our bags, then trying to get back to St. Martino before closing time.
If there is not a need to return to one of the Swiss huts, one can hike out to Bagni de Masino and obtain public transportation from there. It is recommended that schedules be checked in advance. The bus schedule has not been ideal in the past. It is apparently possible to arrange for a taxi by calling from the Gianetti Hut to take you around to Bondo.
Double 60m ropes.
About 9 quickdraws.
Cams #0.5- #3
Nuts: I like nuts so I brought a full set.
4 double-length slings.
Side trips/where to stay:
There wasn’t much of a scene up around Albigna and Bregaglia camp sites, but the facilities are great, and the high huts are too expensive to stay in for long.
Phone# +41-(0)81-822-1035 (081-822-1223)
Fax #+41-(0)81-822 10 30 (Gemeinde)
GiannaGiovanoli (+41-81-822-1877, 079-620-7415)
Val di Mello is the place to go. It’s sometimes called the Yosemite valley of Europe. Basically, you'll find all types of climbing there: 2 meter boulder problems, bolted sport routes between 1 and 10 pitches, trad. routes, cracks, slabs, long runouts on beautiful granite. there are also 3 day bigwalls if you're more into aidclimbing. in winter you may even iceclimb there. All in a beautiful setting.
Drive north to and past the lagodicomo, then turn right in the valley that leads to the passobernina. look for valmasino and san martino. The valdimello lies just above san martino. Camping SassoRemenno in St.Martino is excellent, really close to town.
There’s an amazing stone village way up along the pedestrian path in the Val di Mello with a charming little Rifugio called ‘Rifugio Luna Nascente’, after one of the most popular routes in the valley. 11 Euro per night for a bunk in one of the coolest most rustic settings you could imagine. And they serve beer. The proprietress speaks really good English, if your Italian is rusty. There’s a great view of Kundalini from the benches too; a recommended climb.
Other recommended climbs:
-lunanascente, 7 pitches, 7- or 6/A0 = 5.10, gear.
-oceanoirrationale, about 14 pitches, 7/A0 = 5.10+ gear, the most impressive line in the valley
-anche per oggi non sivola, 11 pitches, fr.6c/A1, bolted, left of oceanoirrationale
ThevalBregaglia is about an hour and a half by car from valdi Mello. You pass through Chiavenna on the way which is a really nice little town, and worth a stop if you have time. Go to Longoni Sport in Barzano (just north of Milan)apparently the biggest, best, cheapest climbing/mountaineering/aerobics shop around!
Huts in the Bregaglia
Tel. # Hut: 081 - 822 11 38
-directly to the hut, or
- 081 - 822 11 64, or
- 01 - 780 00 74, or
Sleep places: 42
Food supply: Full or half-board, Snacks and route provisions, beverages, kitchen
Climbing routes: PizzoCengalo, PizziGemelli, PizzoBadile north edge, PizzoBadile NE wall "Another Day", Ago diSciora
Process card 1:25'000 sheet 1296 Sciora
Process card 1:50'000 sheet 278 M. Disgrazia
Tel. # Hut: 081 - 822 14 05
Reservations:- directly to the hut, or
- 081 - 822 13 16, or
- 01 - 780 00 74, or
Sleep places: 96
Full or half-board, Snacks and route provisions, beverages, kitchen
From mid June to the end of September
as well as according by agreement
Winter area always open
Process card 1:25'000 sheet 1296 Sciora
Process card 1:25'000 sheet 1276 V. Bregaglia
Process card 1:50'000 sheet 278 M. Disgrazia
Cable car at Pranzaira 9 Swiss Francs each way.
June - September daily, 7,00 - 11.30/13.15 - 16,15 o'clock
October - May only on advance notification (081 - 838 14 14).
PizBalzet, CimadalLagh, Piz Bacun, Piz Casnil, Punta d'Albigna (Meuli route), Punta d'Albigna (modern trend times), Scalin, Vergine,aluminium Gal
Tel#: 081 822 12 52
Barbara und RetoSalis
Tel#: 081 822 19 68
Tel#: 079 357 85 86 / 081 822 12 21
D- Piz Badile. N Ridge.Classic rock ridge (pitches of IV+) PD descent to Italy.
TDN Face, Cassin Route (VI).
D+ SE Face, Molteni Route (V).
AD- E Ridge.Rock (III).
Punta Sertori. S Ridge (IV).
TD PizzoCengalo.NW Pillar. Rock, glacier approach.
S Ridge Direct.Vinci Route (VII) “a narrow fin of granite”.
TD+ PizziGemelli.NNW Ridge, Flat Iron (V).
Torrione Est.SE Pillar, Parravicini Route (V+).
TD- Punta Allievi.S Ridfge, Gervasutti Route (V+).
Spazzacaldeira, Mosaico (VI+).
Piz Frachiccio.Kasper Pillar (VII).
AD+Monte Disgrazia.NNE Ridge, CordaMolla. Brilliant mixed route.
SpigoloInglesi. Snow and ice.
ADPunta Kennedy.E Ridge. Rock (pitches of IV).
Piz Bernina. N Ridge, Biancograt. Classic snow ridge, with some rock (IV).
D+ W Face, T Graham Brown. Mixed.
D- Piz Palu.N Spur of E. Peak (III+).
TD- N Spur of W Peak. Mainly snow and ice.
AD Piz Cambrena.NNW Spur, Eisnase. Early in season.Mixed.
TD Grand traverse of Roseq-Scerscen-Bernina.
Shops, banks, bars and restaurants in most town on the Swiss side. San Martino on the Italian side has shops, bars, climbing shop and restaurants. Public transport is good in both areas.