Arriving at the village of Promontogno, in the Bregaglia area of Switzerland, Paul Nunn and I were immediately taken by the unspoilt beauty of the steep, wooded side valley leading up to the jagged peaks of the Badile, Cengalo and Sciora. The main Val Bregaglia which leads to the Maloja Pass is home to the medieval villages of Bondo, Promontogno and Vicosoprano and is a special place even to the Swiss. Being mainly owned by farming families who have refused all efforts to get them to sell their land, it has remained picturesque and unspoilt.
Stopping the bike we looked up at the N.E. Face of the Piz Badile. We were disappointed to see that there was a lot of ice glistening on the north ridge in the late afternoon sun. This meant that our objective, the Cassin route on the NE face, was probably out of condition. Driving through the narrow streets of Bondo the noise of the exhaust reverberated off the walls as though announcing our arrival. On up the rough and winding forest track, passing through a couple of rough hewn tunnels, we eventually crossed a wooden bridge over the torrent which had its source several thousands of feet higher amongst the glaciers and snowfields.
Driving slowly trying to avoid hitting the largest rocks, we came to a small parking area at the end of the track. This was where the footpaths to the Sciora and Sass Fioura huts started. Not able to go any further on the bike, we parked it and crossed a wooden footbridge over the rushing glacier river to pitch our tent on the far bank. After our evening meal, lying in the tent discussing what to do the next day, Paul produced from his rucksack, descriptions of routes in that area. These he had copied on to note paper from an Italian guidebook, all in Italian; Guidebooks to this area being unavailable in English at that time. The usefulness of these descriptions was called into question when it was found that neither of us could read more than a dozen or so words.
In those days the Cassin Route on the N.E. Face of the Badile had a big reputation and although there had been a number of ascents by continental climbers there had been very few by British climbers. We were hoping to make what we thought would be the third British ascent.
This face had first been climbed by the great Italian mountaineer Ricardo Cassin with friends Esposito and Ratti. They were joined by two other Italian climbers and achieved success in storm conditions taking three bivouacs but at the expense of the lives of two of his companions who died of exhaustion and hyperthermia.
The second ascent by the French guide Gaston Rebuffat and Bernard Pierre was also an epic, taking three whole days. The dramatic history of the climb and our lack of a detailed English description, gave it an air of great seriousness. We were aware that Herman Buhl had climbed it solo in four and a half hours but he was in a class of his own!!
Waking to a dull and cloudy day, we decided to pack our sacks with food and climbing gear and go up to the Sciora Hut, where we could decide what route to do when viewing the mountains from close quarters. With our heavy loads the steep walk up through the forest was very tiring and seemingly never ending. Taking our time and many rests, drinking in the majestic scenery, we eventually reached a bend on the path above the tree-line where a large slab of rock faced us. Knowing Oliver Woolcock, a good friend of ours, was coming here to attempt the Cassin route in two weeks time, we decided to leave a message for him scratched on the slab, it said, “Tired Youth?” We walked on, chuckling, hoping that he would see it just as he reached this most tiring section of the walk. Knowing that we had been there before him, he would realise who had written it and curse us all the way to the hut.
The mountains were cloaked in clouds, the Badile NE face in particular was hidden from our view from about half height. Arriving at the Sciora Hut, we found that there was plenty of room, a guide and his client being the only paying guests. Paul and I claimed a place each in the dormitory then returned to the eating area for a coffee and a bought meal. The hut guardian was an old lady who came up in the spring to spend all the summer there. Her grand-daughter, who was around 19 or 20, helped with the cooking and other chores. She was a typical dark haired Italian girl very attractive and from all accounts an experienced climber.
The guide asked us which climb we were planning to do; we told him the Cassin route on the Badile. He shook his head and said the face wasn’t in condition. We said we would have a look anyway as we could always come back if we didn’t like the look of it. After the meal we made our preparations for the following day then retired early to bed. As is usual for me before any big event, I didn’t get much sleep and in the warmth of the hut I drifted in and out of consciousness. Too soon it was time to get up. Creeping down stairs we were surprised to find the young woman had risen before us and was busy making our breakfast.
The time was 3am when we put on our boots, shouldered our sacks and stepped out into a dark, cold morning. Waving goodbye to the girl, we set off, our head torches lighting our way down the path towards the moraine. The going was very tiring. After crossing the river swollen with melt –water and negotiating some wet boiler-plate slabs, we arrived at the first of three steep dune like and extremely loose moraines where large boulders supported by rock dust and rubble waited to pounce on the unwary. These were followed by a long narrow glacier leading up below the N.E. Face to the start of our route. Kicking steps and regretting only having brought one ice axe between us and no crampons, we made slow progress up the steep hard snow.
At the foot of the face, we stopped for a snack and a quick brew which went down very well. At this point, I would like to describe our equipment, which was quite basic even by the standards of the day. We had two full-weight Nylon ropes both 150 ft long and quite heavy, an assortment of pegs, two hammers, some slings and about 20 heavy karabiners. Divided between our two sacks, we had a stove, food and water, a Billy- can and warm clothing in case of bad weather or bivouac. This consisted of a duvet jacket each and in the absence of thermals, pyjama trousers. We climbed in boots, corduroy trousers, thick shirts, sweater and gabardine smock style anoraks.
It was just about light when we roped up. Above us a vast sweep of overlapping slabs rose up to meet a canopy of dark cloud halfway up the face from which large snowflakes were beginning to gently fall. What should we do? Our discussion went something like this; “he who always watches the weather gets nothing done but he who ignores the warnings courts disaster!” The decision was made to press on for a while to see how the day would develop. A steep corner and a few diagonal pitches up slabs led to the site of the first Cassin bivouac. The face had steepened again and we had an impressive view down to the snowfield some hundreds of feet below.
By that time the snow had stopped falling and the cloud appeared to be lifting, we decided to go for it. The view across to the north ridge of the Cengalo put these mountains in perspective and made us realise the size of our undertaking.
Leading through, making good progress, we soon arrived at the snow patch which at approximately half height on this face used to be a permanent feature.
Stopping here for a bite to eat we were impressed by the wall above which reared up into the cloud. Time to move on, a steep crack led directly upward then out right, Paul tackled it confidently, it was bristling with pitons. Climbing swiftly, clipping the occasional peg he was soon out of sight. A tug on the rope told me it was my turn. The rock was steep but superbly rough in texture. The exposure was impressive. I joined Paul at the foot of a steep corner capped by an overhang.
I led 70 feet to the roof, which caused me to stop and ponder the best way round it, turning it on the left, feeling grateful for the abundance of pitons in situ, I arrived at a stance. The angle eased off again and a few more pitches led to the foot of the long chimney system which leads towards the summit ridge. The climbing here got quite serious, the cracks being filled with snow and ice. At first, we were puzzled by the absence of pitons, then realised they were there, but unreachable under a thick covering of ice. Feeling unprotected, fighting our way upward, the strenuous climbing helped to keep us warm. At the top of the chimney, our progress was barred by a bulging icy wall. The obvious way was out to the left, and according to our description led to a long traverse to the central couloir.
Due to our lack of crampons and guessing that the couloir would be iced up we decided to take a more direct line up delicate slabs. From the stance, Paul cautiously moved out on verglassed rock, round the left arête of the chimney, then climbed direct up slabs right of the couloir. Out of sight round the corner he was obviously experiencing some difficulty as the rope snaked out very slowly. I shouted up to let him know that he was nearly out of rope, “How much is there?” he asked “ about 20ft “ I replied. “There’s a stance 40ft above me, take the belay off we’ll have to move together.” I did as he asked and climbed very carefully on the iced rock hoping that he had clipped some pegs on the way up. After what seemed an eternity, I was relieved to hear a peg going in. At the stance, we agreed that this pitch must have been HVS. Paul had sunk the belay peg in up to the hilt. I led through towards the summit ridge. When Woolcock passed that way a couple of weeks later, suspecting it was our peg, he tried to remove it but soon gave up.
He knew Paul didn’t give away gear easily and that if it had been removable, it wouldn’t have stayed there. At the ridge we turned left and climbed the last few feet to the summit. We had done one of the six classic north faces of the Alps; 3000ft graded TD Superior it had taken us 8 hours. We had been the only ones on the face so were not held up at all, in fact we didn’t see anyone else all day on the whole of the mountain.
At the summit ridge we were hit by a strong wind so deciding to forego the brew that we had promised ourselves began to descend as quickly as possible by the North Ridge. Somehow, we got onto the SW face on very loose rock, enormous loose flakes but nothing solid enough to belay on. Deciding that it was too dangerous we retraced our steps to the summit and went down the Italian side reaching the glacier at dusk. We could see the lights of the Gianetti Hut and following these arrived there after dark feeling very tired.
The guide and his client from the Sciora Hut the night before were there and seemed pleased to see us. He asked if we had climbed the Cassin Route, we told him we had. Both he and the hut guardian said,” bravo, bravo, bad conditions much ice. ” We agreed about the ice, but thought conditions could have been worse. They asked us our ages, I told them,”22 for me 19 for Paul,” Ah Bambino!” they said pointing to Paul. We all laughed and they poured us some Red wine. As the night wore on they kept on pouring it. We thought this is great, until at the end of the evening they gave us the bill.
We had been convinced that they were so impressed by our ascent in what they had said were bad conditions, that they were treating us to free wine. No such luck! We paid up reluctantly and went to bed. A little later we were awakened by a group of around a dozen Italian youths shouting and wrestling on the dormitory floor. Ignoring them at first we tried to get back to sleep. Suddenly there was a loud bellow, “shut up or I’ll flatten the lot of you.” There in the middle of the floor stood Paul fist clenched and raised. Silence descended.
Alpha Males-The story of the Alpha Club: Reviewed by Steve Dean with purchase details.