Articles - Alpine Climber: Difficile & Beyond. Chapter 5 - Great Difficile Routes
by Martin Moran and Bruce Goodlad
Great Difficile Routes
Piz Badile, North Ridge (D-, IV+, 700m)
Hut: 5-7hr in ascent from Sasc Fura Hut (4-5hr in descent).
Valley base: Bondo, Val Bregaglia.
Guidebooks: Schweiz Plaisir Sud, editions Filidor, Bernina and Bregaglia, Alpine Club 1995.
The rock peaks of Bregaglia in Eastern Switzerland are unique in the Alps, a miniature Patagonia of chiselled granite blades rising from enchanting forested valleys. The 3308m Piz Badile is the showpiece of the range, and its North Ridge, first climbed in 1923, has claim to be the finest route of its style and standard in the Alps. Here the altitude is not an issue and in high summer there is little or no snow, axe and crampons usually being left at the foot of the difficulties, which are all on rock. However, the route is long, with continuous Grade III climbing, and three sections of IV+. A detailed route description is superfluous - simply follow the ridge crest, which scythes its line between the sheer slabs of the NE and NW Faces. The climb is well equipped with bolt abseil anchors every 25 or 30m, and nowadays most parties reverse the route, rather than descending the normal route on the south flanks of the mountain. The 20 abseils require swift efficient rope management and a 60m rope is helpful. This exposed arête is not the place to be caught in a storm, and congestion can seriously slow progress. For competent VS rock climbers the North Ridge is recommended as relatively safe and a marvellous climb for a first Difficile.
Other pure rock routes of quality:
Papillons Ridge and upper WNW Face of Aiguille du Peigne, Chamonix Aiguilles (D, V) – easy access, excellent granite climbing but not serious; a day route for fast parties
Douvres Blanches Ridge, Arolla (D, V) – superb gneiss arête with crux near the top, easy access and descent
East Ridge of Aiguille du Plan, Chamonix Aiguilles (D+, IV+) – magnificent classic of traditional granite chimney/crack climbing, long with serious descent
South Pillar of Schreckhorn, Bernese Alps (D+, V) – high-altitude pillar of orange gneiss on a magnificent serious peak; long approach and descent
Mont Maudit, Frontier Ridge (Kuffner Route), (D, III, 820m)
Hut: 5-7hr from Fourche Bivouac, 7-9hr from Torino Hut; descent to Aiguille du Midi (PD+, 3-4hr).
Guidebooks: 4000m Peaks – Selected Climbs, Alpine Club 2007.
This mixed ridge rises through grandiose scenery and has the blessings of quick access and a relatively easy onward descent. There are no especial technical difficulties, but the ground alternates from snow to rock, so that crampons are usually worn for the whole climb. The Fourche Bivouac Hut provides a high-level start but there is a short cut, which enable fit parties to gain the first big step on the ridge direct from the Torino or Cosmiques Huts. The mixed climbing is sustained Scottish Grade II with odd sections of III, and features an especially photogenic passage traversing a 60° slope under an ice meringue. The terrain is tailor-made for moving together with running belays, with 10-15m of rope between the climbers. The route finishes at 4250m on Mont Maudit’s NE Ridge, and escape is possible here, but a continuation to the 4465m summit crown adds extra piquance. With a relatively rapid descent down the Mont Blanc trail to the Cosmiques Hut this extra hour of labour should not be forsaken, as it properly completes one of the best mixed outings in the Alps.
Mixed routes of comparable calibre:
Cresta Signal, Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa (D, IV) – great climbing from a high remote bivouac hut with a hotel on the summit.
Zmutt Ridge, Matterhorn (D, III+) – Mummery and Burgener’s masterpiece; a benchmark of classical alpinism; difficult to approach, poorly protected and devious with a long descent to follow.
Frendo Spur, Aiguille du Midi (D+, IV+) – harder and steeper than the Frontier Ridge but finishes at a cable station; a good stepping-stone to TD routes.
Innominata Ridge, Mont Blanc
Traverse of Les Drus (D+, IV+)
Hut: 10-14hr for a round-trip from the Charpoua Hut
Guidebook: Mont Blanc Vol II, Alpine Club
The West Face of the Petit Dru may be falling down but the original traverse from Petit to Grand remains intact as one of the finest legacies of pre-1914 alpinism. An awkward start along ledges from the shrinking Charpoua Glacier creates a sense of seriousness in the expedition. The rock climbing on the ascent of the Petit Dru SW Ridge is properly described as rude, with steep Grade IV cracks and chimneys interspersed with terraces that are often snow-covered. Then comes the pièce de resistance, the ‘passage du Z’ up the terminal buttress of the Grand Dru, which ends in a spectacular bottomless chimney, hanging giddily over the abyss of the Dru Couloir. Two 50m ropes will be found highly useful on the long abseil descent of the SE Face of the Grand Dru back to the glacier. This neglected classic will test your powers of D climbing to their limit!
Other great D rock traverses:
Traverse of La Meije, Ecrins massif (D-, III+) – showpiece of the Dauphiné Alps.
Diable Ridge, Mt Blanc du Tacul (D+, V) – most spectacular and technically demanding of all the D ridges.
Traverse of the Aiguille Verte (D+, IV+)
Hut: Ascent of Sans Nom Ridge 9-12hr and 1350m from Charpoua Hut; descent of Jardin Ridge to Couvercle Hut 7-9hr.
Guidebooks: 4000m peaks – Selected Climbs and Mont Blanc Vol II, Alpine Club.
The Aiguille Verte offers the best range of mid-grade mixed routes in the Alps. A traverse of any two ridges is magnificent, but the Sans Nom–Jardin combination is undoubtedly the finest, a splendid tightrope across the mountain’s main axis. The upper ridges must be clear of soft or fresh snow, yet the approach couloir to the Brèche Sans Nom needs a base of névé. Finding the right conditions is a conundrum that could be solved any time from May to October. With 16 hours climbing time – even at a good lick – parties should take lightweight bivouac kit in reserve and ensure a 2am start from the Charpoua Hut. The Gx0rade IV corners of the Aiguille Sans Nom West Ridge are chill and sombre in the shade. In recompense the upper arête will be enjoyed in mid-morning sun and is truly breathtaking in its slender beauty. Highlight of the Jardin descent is the crossing of the Col Armand Charlet, a wafer of snow tipped to an improbable angle. From the Aiguille du Jardin several abseils can take the sting out of the descent to the Talèfre Glacier, but only swift parties will reach the Couvercle Hut before nightfall. For fast-moving sustained mixed climbing this traverse has few rivals.
Big mixed traverses to savour:
Weisshorn – Schaligrat and NNW Ridge (D, IV) – can be a three day trip with approach over the AD Schalihorn.
Peuterey Ridge, Mont Blanc (D+, III+) – access to the SE Ridge of the Aiguille Blanche is critical, best tackled during or after a snowy spring; the royal road to the Monarch!
North Face of Ober Gabelhorn (D+, 1270m)
Hut: 6-8hr from Mountet Hut, 4-5hr for descent to Rothorn or Mountet Huts.
Guidebooks: 4000m Peaks – Selected Climbs or Valais Alps East, Alpine Club.
Though only 400m high this face has a complex approach, a 60° finish and taxing onward descent. Its symmetry and purity inspired Kurt Diemburger to call it ‘the wall of crystals’, a compelling objective for all snow and ice enthusiasts. Conditions must be finely judged to ensure a rapid ascent. During a cool snowy spell the face will get harled with accommodating snow-ribs. The AD approach via the Coeur or direct up an ice chute on the side of the Ober Gabelhorn Glacier must
be mastered at night. With snow on the face a confident party can move together on a short rope or even solo much of the face, but ice is usually unavoidable on the final 100m, where careful pitching is demanded. An early arrival on the summit allows a descent to be made of the NNW or ENE Ridges before the snow gets dangerously soft. Parties arriving on top after 11am in hot weather are advised to use the rocky Arbengrat (WSW Ridge) as the only sure way down.
Other North Face classics:
Tour Ronde, North Face (D-) – a great introduction to steeper face climbing.
Bethmann-Hollweg route, Breithorn North Face (D+) – accessible with easy descent but a meaty 800m face.
Neruda-Klucker Route, North-East Face Liskamm (D+) – direct line to a sublime snow peak.
Don't miss Chapter Six in the supplement, which looks at what gear is needed to tackle these suggested routes.
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