Articles - Climbing in the Eastern Alps

The East Ridge on the Sparzacaldera brings you up to the foot of the spectacular Fiamma
The East Ridge on the Sparzacaldera brings you up to the foot of the spectacular Fiamma

by Bruce Goodland 

    People often think of the Eastern Alps as Austria and beyond, but for me they begin with eastern Switzerland and two mountains in particular: Piz Bernina and Piz Badile. Each peak sports a world famous ridge-line: for the Badile it’s the North Ridge and on the Bernina the Biancograt.

      Graubunden is the Canton of Switzerland that’s lucky enough to be home to these great peaks and it doesn’t see that many British climbers. I had been in this part of the world before, climbing in the Bregaglia and I had done a ski tour round the Piz Bernina but had been beaten back from the summit ridge by bad weather.The plan on this trip was to have 4 days climbing on the granite peaks of the Bregaglia before moving north to the glaciated peaks of the Bernina.

      Paul and I met in St Moritz, which is always an entertaining place to wander round, ideal if you are looking for some designer clothes but not much use if you need a guidebook or some climbing gear. St Moritz was also a bit out of our accommodation budget so we headed down the Maloja Pass to find something a bit more sensible.

Access

 


    
There are not many mountains in the Bregaglia that are accessible by cable car but the peaks round the Albigna Dam are serviced by a small cabin that provides access for people working on the dam. It also gives access to loads of great routes, most of which can be completed between the first and last lift, or you can go and stay in the delightful Albigna hut. There is a good selection of ridges and face routes to get you warmed up for the larger challenges of the Badile.

      Having climbed a couple of routes around Albigna, we felt we were ready for a crack at the classic North Ridge of the Badile, which is climbed from the Saas Fura hut, just a couple of hours above Bondo. You can walk all the way from the village or you can pay a small charge and drive up a private road, which saves about an hour’s walk.The hut is beautifully situated in a wood with the route standing proudly above it, but if you keep on walking past the hut there are loads of places you can bivvy.

An early start on the Badile

 


    
We checked into the hut and were a bit surprised by the 4am breakfast. The route’s only a big Severe, I thought, but I suppose these guardians know a bit about their local mountains. We managed to be up and out the door in less than half an hour and were soon enjoying the walk through the wood, catching glimpses of the Badile in the moonlight. The woods quickly give way to a grassy hillside with strips of exposed granite and, as height is gained, more and more rock appears until you are walking up perfect granite slabs and hopping from boulder to boulder. Although it was only early July, the snow patch mentioned in the guide book had already disappeared, so we only had a little bit of snow to negotiate before we could get the rope out and start climbing.

      The initial slabs look easy but aren’t, running with water and with quite compact rock not providing many runners. A couple of pitches, still in big boots, give way to a scramble up a bouldery gully to reach an obvious notch at the start of the Ridge. Many people bivvy at this notch for the North Ridge or routes on the North Face, as it is from this point that a downward traverse is made onto the ledge system that leads to the famous Cassin Route.

The climbing begins

 


    
We left our mountaineering boots and ice axes here so we could climb with a nice light sack, in hindsight not the best plan, and started to scramble upwards. After a hundred metres or so you are forced onto the left side of the ridge and the climbing begins properly. The route moves diagonally up and left across a series of overlapping slabs. From below it looks like protection will be sparse, but bolts appear just about everywhere you would want one.

      The entire route has been equipped by large ringbolts at every belay, 30 to 40 metres apart. They are just far enough apart that you couldn’t use a single 60m rope to abseil off, but they do make setting up belays incredibly fast.

      Four pitches led us onto the crest of the ridge where you can begin to enjoy the exposure and the view.The climbing for the next couple of hundred metres is right on the crest of the ridge; fantastic slabs, shallow grooves, cracks and flakes, with protection a mix of natural gear and bolts. We took some coils so that there was only 40m of rope between us – not having to pull in that extra 10m of rope at every belay really speeds things up.

      We very quickly lost count of the pitches we had climbed, over rock that is almost entirely excellent. (There is one 40 metre pitch where there has been a rockfall but this has stabilised.) Compared to anything you would find in the Valais it is still pretty good.

      At about two thirds height the ridge steepens in front of you, don’t be temped by the ledge leading to the left but climb the chimney and the grooves on the right. Just when the way ahead starts to look difficult a tricky little traverse leads back left to the crest, this is well protected by bolts but is probably the most difficult pitch on the route. More perfect rock and excellent climbing follows before the ridge begins to lie back and you can start moving together.

The summit and descent

 


    
The guidebook talks about 100m of scrambling to the top but it feels a lot longer. There is a small bivvy shelter just below the summit, which is insulated from the mountain to protect anyone caught on the summit from lightning strike.

      There are two options for descent. Scramble down the Italian side to the Ginetti hut for the night, then hike back to the Saas Fura over two cols the following day or descend the way you have come. This would be the second time I had opted for the ab descent, but I wouldn’t do it again. The angle of the ridge isn’t quite steep enough to abseil easily – you can’t throw the rope more than 20 metres and after about 10 abs we were really wishing we had brought our big boots. By the time we had got back to our gear my toes were hamburger. We ended up abseiling down the lower slabs too, as they were now running with water.

      However, stepping into the shower and lying down in a real bed rather than roughing it at a high hut made all the pain worthwhile.

The Morteratsch


     After a well-earned day off we drove up to the Bernina and walked in to the Boval hut, the plan being to traverse the main watershed of the Morteratsch glacier, traversing the Piz Morteratsch, the Piz Bernina and the Piz Palu.

      The ascent of the Morteratsch begins with a steep hike up some moraine on a good path which in a snowy season this would lead into a snowy gully but the lack of snow last year made for climbing a loose choss-heap, so make sure you take a helmet. The rock quickly improves, though, to give some really pleasant scrambling to reach a col where crampons are fitted for a hike up a small glacier then a nice snow crest to the summit.

      The view from the top is fantastic – you look straight onto tomorrow’s outing: the mighty Biancograt.

      We retraced our steps to the col then descended to the Tschierva hut, which has recently been refurbished with small rooms and duvets on the beds, a great place to recover in time for the following days’exertions. The Tschierva can also be reached by walking from Pontrasina.

      The track from the hut leads across some steep moraines to the glacier which is followed until a left turn can be taken onto a subsidiary glacier, which leads to a broad 50-degree gully. It pays to get here early, as teams ahead of you can knock boulders off the rocky ledges at the top of the gully.

The Biancograt


      The first section of the ridge gives you a taste of what’s to come and it’s quite a surprise, as there is a lot of rock on a route that is famous for being a snow route. A series of short pitches and moving together on good rock lead to the start of the snow. We climbed the route in July and a lot of the snow had already been stripped from the crest of the ridge, so good crampon technique is essential. We climbed one short pitch, where the route is steep and icy, then moved together to the next section of rock.

      The rock, when it arrives, looks terrible but is much better than it first appears. There is a fair amount of horizontal ground to be covered before descending a steep step. If you down-climb it, this is probably the technical crux of the route, but there are big ringbolts, as per the Badile, that you can abseil from. The final section to the summit looks steep and intimidating but is steep blocky climbing on good holds with good protection. The steepness suddenly ends and you can sit on the summit and enjoy a view of the whole Bernina; we could even see the summit of the Badile where we had been a couple of days before.

      The descent is down a snow crest to some rock that can be abseiled or down-climbed.This can be a real bottleneck, with teams starting late from the Marco e Rosa hut meeting teams descending from the Biancograt and other routes on the mountain.

Descending the Bernina

      One of the great things about the Bernina is that the Marco e Rosa hut is so high as to be reached in just an hour from the summit.The hut had just finished a complete makeover and is a real haven high in the mountains. The summit of the Bernina is on the border with Italy and, though technically in Switzerland, the Marco e Rosa is defiantly Italian. An atmosphere of chaos reigns, particularly in the morning, when everyone in the hut is trying to pay their bills which they were too disorganised to sort out the night before!

 

     There are a couple of options for descent from the hut. Some people head straight on down after the climb, but I would recommend spending the night here and descending early in the morning when the glacier is frozen and safer. The quickest descent is to walk along the shelf under the north side of the Buena Vista then descend the Morteratsch glacier to the cable car station at Diavoletza. But a far more interesting descent is to take in the summit of Piz Palu, either via the Buena Vista or, as we did, take the shelf under the Buena Vista then traverse the Palu.

      The Palu is a bit like the Bernina in that what looks like a snow ridge actually has some really good rock on it. You start with a really nice rocky scramble to a col, then a snow crest to the first summit. This feels higher when you are on it but all the people coming up from the hut at Diavoletza go on to the second one. There is a really nice snow crest joining the two before a descent through some fantastic glacial scenery, weaving through some huge crevasses to reach the cable car station. Being Switzerland there is a rail link from the foot of the cable car which took us back to the car.

      It would be hard to imagine a better combination of peaks or routes. The Badile acclimatises you for the Bernina and is as good an alpine rock route as you will find anywhere and the Biancograt has got to be one of the finest mixed routes in the Alps.

Fact file

What gear do you need?

North Ridge of the Badile – usual clothing for alpine rock, light boots, crampons and a light axe. One full set of nuts and friends 1, 2 and 3, 8 quick-draws and a couple of long slings.

Biancograt – usual clothing for Alpine climbing, take a full weight axe as the ridge may be icy. A set of nuts and 4 extenders will be plenty for the rock. It’s worth carrying some ice screws for protection on the ridge and you may need them for descending the glacier.

Bregaglia warm-ups

East Ridge on the Spazacaldera is a really good route at about 4+ which puts you right at the foot of the Fiamma, one of the most enjoyable rock pinnacles, at around 5c.

Steiger Route on the Punta Albigna – 25 pitches of great rock, mainly bolt protection. Need boots and an axe to walk off early in the season.

Flat Iron Ridge on the on the Piz Gamelli, a great route, slabby 5a climbing with good bolts and an easy abseil descent. Accessed from the Sciora hut.

Guidebooks

Bernina and Bregaglia by the Alpine Club has all the info you will need.

Swiss Plaisir Sud (2003) brilliant topo guide, which covers the Bregaglia and lots of other alpine rock climbing areas. There is also a valley cragging guide available from the climbing shop in Chiavenna.

Accommodation

Good campsites in Bondo and Vicosoprano. I prefer the Bondo one as it has lots of shade but some people will be put off by the sawmill close by.

If you want to go a bit up market the Hotel Pranzaira close to the bottom of the Albigna lift pranzaira.ch is very friendly and does great food. There are other small hotels and pensions available in Bondo and Vicosoprano.

All mountain Huts should be booked in advance.

Food

There is a small supermarket in Bondo in the centre of the village you can also buy a ‘Vignettes’ there so you can drive up the private road if approaching the Saas Fura hut.

If you are looking for a larger supermarket you will have to go to St Moritz or more cheaply hop over the border into Italy and shop in Chiavenna.

Climbing Shops

Nearest climbing shops are in Chiavenna, which is really cheap, or in Pontrasina. The Hotel Pranzaira sells copies of Swiss Plaisir.

If you enojyed this feature then check out the Alpine Climber supplement, telling you all you need to know about climbing in the Alps, technique, training and gear.

For overseas insurance covering you for Alpine climbing check out the Climber Marketplace for a variety of options.


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