A day on the Nordkante

(by Conor Warner, August 2008)
An ascent of the north ridge of the Piz Badile.

It was Monday 7th July, it was lashing, and we just had to get out of the camp site and away out of the valley. It had been raining more or less continuously since we were rained off the north-east ridge (or central spur) of the Spazzacaldera early on the Sunday morning. James and Barry had already spent the previous week in the Bernese Oberland where they climbed a number of wonderful snowy peaks, while I had just arrived on the Friday into Zürich. On the Saturday, which was a cracking day, the three of us, Barry, James and myself, climbed the south ridge on Piz Balzet (III / IV) (a relatively short but excellent route on prefect granite), descended the east ridge (after having a bit of banter on the top with a few wandering Milanese), followed by a short trek down marmot-infested slopes back down the Albigna Hut where we stayed over the night very comfortably.

Photo 1: South Ridge on Piz Balzet

The next morning Barry and I attempted the route on Spazzacaldera, as mentioned above, before retreating back down to the Vicosprano via the compact cable car and zooming down across the border to euro land to Chiavenna for a mountain of Italian food in a side-street restaurant.

Barry and I had set our sights on completing two other routes before the trip was over namely the Meuli Route on the Punta da l’Albigna and the North Ridge of the Piz Badile.

The weather forecast however looked ominous. Tuesday looked like being the best day with the weather set to deteriorate on Wednesday and the remainder of the week lapsing into thunderstorms with downpours. So, having discussed plans with the mountain guides at the MCI meet and having contacted the guardian of the Sasc Faru hut, we decided to pull out all the stops and head straight for an attempt on the North Ridge of the Piz Badile. James dropped us off at Laret (1,252m) which is reached by a private steep winding toll road above Bondo. From there we trudged our way up through larch forest and dense undergrowth via a winding path, crossing several rivers en route, in literally a continuous downpour to the Sasc Faru hut (1904m).

Photo 2: Tuesday morning, a view of the north ridge from the Sasc Faru Hut

The guardian, Heidi, was very welcoming (considering we were the only two booked for that night) and amused when she saw the state of us, soaked to the bone, drowneded cats, Paddies on tour. She advised us that the weather forecast had changed and that the weather was set to improve from Tuesday morning onwards and that both Wednesday and Thursday looked like being settled, warm and sunny, and basically that we should hold off going for the route until the Wednesday when a number of other teams were also going to give it go. Local wisdom. That evening we discussed the route in depth with Heidi (she had climbed the north ridge twice), read up the various guide book (in German) that were available in the hut, with particular attention to the descent route (read the pictures), had a few beers and hit the sack.

On Tuesday morning we dried out our gear, chilled out until noon and read up on the route a little more. We then decided to walk up to 2,400m just below the route proper to give it a good reckie and to stash our gear so as save us the effort of lugging up a heavy load the following morning. (note: between 2,300m and 2,400m there were plenty of good bivy sites and running water from springs). The reckie proved invaluable, helping us to visualise and plan the route; the initial snow field and slabs up to the col at 2,589m, the start of the ridge, the Risch slab and its overhang, the daunting ridge above, the crux section, another steep looking ridge section, another large slab (which we nicknamed the Shimmering Slab), and above that the route seemed to continue endlessly to a ever-narrowing ridge. The rock looked dull grey, smooth and compact and the ridge as a whole looked somewhat like the prow of an upturned US navy aircraft carrier.

Photo 3: Tuesday afternoon, a view of the north ridge on the way to 2,400m

Piz Badile was first climbed in July 1867 by William Coolidge with guides F. and H. Dévouassoud by the south face, while the north ridge, also known locally as the Nordkante, wasn’t climbed until 4th August 1923 by Alfred Zürcher with the guide Walter Risch. From 2,400m we could vaguely view on the east face the line of one of the most famous routes in the Alps, the Cassin Route, which was infamously climbed in July 1937 by Riccardo Cassin, V. Ratti, G. Esposito, Mario Molteni and Giuseppe Valsecchi. Heidi had informed us the evening before that Cassin still lived locally.

When we got back down to the hut other groups had already arrived and there was a buzz about the place. We relaxed for the rest of the evening, had dinner and hit the sack early enough planning to be up and at ‘em around 3:30am so as to get out by 4:00am.

We left the hut at 4:10am in darkness and with the aid of head torches arrived in good time at our stash point, just below the final snow fields. We donned our harness, arranged our gear and with ice axes made our way to the col (2,589m) at the start of the route on the north ridge, where we roped up, put on our climbing shoes, put away our axes and set off moving together. By 6:20am, under clear blue morning skies, the five groups who were attempting the route were established on the ridge, consisting of two Austrians, two Italians, three Swiss, two Czechs and ourselves, two Irish.

I led up the first section, moving together over relatively straightforward terrain of perfect granite (II/III/-IV), starting on the left side of the ridge before moving up on to the crest and on from there, with some exposure, to the base of the Risch slab (about 170m up from the col). The Austrians were just preparing to pitch the slab. Barry took over the lead. He started up on the left side, continued to under the overhang at the top and worked out right to exit the slab (IV+). During the next four or five superb pitches of (IV/+IV) of slab and dièdre climbing on the ridge proper, there was considerable traffic and delay with the position of 2nd, 3rd and 4th on the ridge continually changing between us, the Swiss and the Italians, while the Austrians stormed ahead. The interaction between the groups was in general good humoured, with the odd bit of f-in and blinding at the Italians over some ungentlemanly climbing behavior (simply just not cricket!). During these pitches, which were amazingly exposed and weaved from one side of the crest to the other, from bright sunshine to shade, the temperature plummeted as a wind gusted from the east. These proved to be the toughest pitches of the route due to a combination of the sustained climbing, the cold and the jostling for position.

We arrived at a stance that appeared to have two options, to traverse left below the ridge or go right across the ridge passing through a tight dièdre (which the guide book advised was the correct way). I got jammed in the dièdre with my big west-of-Ireland shoulders but managed to barge my way up to the next belay point, with Barry awaiting, grinning, pointing to the crux pitch. The crux pitch (-V) took the form of a short steep wall involving some easy bouldering moves, with lots of in-situ bolts and unlike the section of the ridge before, not in an overly exposed position.

Photo 4: Glorious climbing on the North Ridge

With the crux completed, the ridge eased for two pitches (III/-IV), with some short dièdres with some loose stone, that led to the base of the ‘Shimmering Slab’. This slab (IV) was climbed via numerous cracks; reminiscent of ‘Skull Slab’ at Aill na Crónáin back home in the Burren. From the top of this slab the route continued to another dièdre that traversed up across to the right side of the ridge and disappeared around a corner. The next belay stance was in an outrageously exposed position, a small sentry post situated on an overhanging ledge covered in snow with the full extent of the vertical north west face visible directly below. Barry led from there (-IV) on around to the right, singing a wee tune, leaving me with my thoughts. Each belay turnover took only moments with very little said, just the odd “ya horse!” and “you’re on”, “climb when ready”, “climbing” and “best of luck ya ol’ mucker”.

The climbing grade eased after the next pitch (-IV) and I took over the lead at this point giving Barry a very well-earned break. The next few pitches rose up over easy slabs (III) from one side of the ridge to the other, then mostly on the right-hand side avoiding small gendarmes with the occasional short back-climb until a small col was reached just before a posed block. We could see the top. From this col the route followed down to the left along a small narrow, snow-covered, gangway avoiding the last prominent gendarme before reaching a short tunnel between huge boulders that otherwise blocked the ridge. From the tunnel and after some easy terrain we had gained the summit at 3,305m.

Photo 5: Evening abseiling down the south face.

The North Ridge of Piz Badile was climbed. With over 10 hours since the col at 2,589m, 22-plus pitches of continuous glorious climbing on superb granite, we had now to turn our attentions to getting down the south face to the Gianetti Hut.

The pair of Italians had just started descending from the peak when we had arrived. We could hear the Swiss team further below while the Czech team had turned back several hours before, opting to abseil back down the North Ridge. The Austrians, we imagined, were sipping coffee in the hut by that stage.

We changed into our big boots, had a quick snack, gathered ourselves and started the descent from immediately below the summit trig point via a short chimney (into Italy) to the top of the descent route that is defined on the east side of by a steep couloir and on the west side by the south ridge. The guide book suggested that we should descend the top section of the couloir. On closer inspection of the snow- and rubble-filled couloir, we decided to set up an abseil and descend down the slabs to the right of couloir. We could see the Italians immediately below us in some confusion, slipping in the couloir and untangling their ropes. I backed up an existing abseil point with some 8mm tat that I’d brought along and we started to arrange our two 50m ropes for the descent. One of the Italians came bolting back up to our newly set up abseil point and threaded their ropes through before we had a chance to get started (as I said early, simply just not cricket!). After an inconvenient delay we then abseiled down to another ledge and lo and behold there was an abseil point and some streaks of orange paint to indicate the descent route. Sorted! For the next few abseils the Italians were slowing us up big time and they kept asking which way now and then they’d rush off down ahead of us. At the end of our second 50m abseil we noticed that the pair of Italians were preparing to abseil down the right hand side of the ridge via a new looking bolt and chain abseil point. Like a haunting memory we remembered Heidi, back at the hut, warning us not to abseil down via this chain saying “you must stay on the left side of the ridge until the cross!” and that there was another abseil point further along the ledge. And there was. We convinced the Italians to follow us, away from their deaths, and we reconvened our descent down the south face.

Four 50m abseils down from the top of the couloir (from just below the summit trig) brought us to a ledge and narrow track that led down parallel to the ridge to another abseil point. This abseil led down to another ledge at the bottom of the couloir where another abseil point awaited. The Italians kept slowing us up and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t get past them. Awkward individuals. We then convinced them to abseil down our ropes to speed things up as their ropes kept getting tangled and they seemed to be all up in a heap. I set up the abseil down and then one, then the other Italian and then Barry followed. This abseil ended at the path way to the cross which Heidi, like the oracle, had warned us was difficult to find. The path went down a bit, right a bit, up a bit (not down which is where some apparently go wrong), across a bit, left a bit and steeply down a bit to a ledge at the top of sheer gully which was marked by a metal cross erected by the Italian Climbing Federation. This cross doubled as the abseil point, or so all the tat suggested. Another nearly 50m-long free-hanging abseil, this time down the right-hand side of the ridge led to the final abseil point. By this stage it was getting late and the Gianetti hut, which had been visible for a lot of the descent, was lost in the darkness. The final abseil led down onto a snow field (c 2,900m) with a trail of foot prints leading to the moraine. We packed away our ropes, donned our head torches, and set off down to the hut in the dark. The Nordkante was climbed and the south face descended! Job done! Myself and Wattsie roared out an ol’ Clare shout, shocking the Italians a bit and fumbled our way down guided by the outside hut light that the guardian had put on when he spotted our head torches.

Photo 6: Panorama of the south side of Punta Torelli, Punta Santa Anna, Piz Badile, Punta Sertori and Piz Cengalo (in the early morning sun at the Gianetti)

We got to the hut (2,534m) sometime around 10:30pm. Relief. The guardian brought us a full dinner and beer, which were both very welcome. Soon after we hit the sack. The next morning I got up earlyish, hands and feet paining a bit, planning to get ready for our return journey back to the Sasc Faru hut via Passo Porcellizzo and Passo della Trubinasca. Another potentially long day which, to tell the truth, I wasn’t looking forward to. But, the Italians, who at this stage were singing our praises for having apparently “rescued” them from the south face, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. They had arranged for one of their wives to meet us at the village of Bagni del Masino at the head of the valley and to drive us to Chiavenna. Score. So after 2½ to 3 hours of downhill walking through the absolutely beautiful sun-baked Valle Porcellizzo, with waterfalls and springs, a cheese-making factory, and past enormous boulders and lizards and surrounded by magnificent peaks, we reached Bagni del Masino (1,172m). We paid a quick visit to the village’s famous thermal springs before being whizzed away back to Chiavenna in a Fiat Punto. Four smelly mountaineers, all their gear and one Italian lady zooming through the Yosemite of the Alps, passing by Europe’s biggest boulder, simply comical.

Photo 7: Barry, Conor (me), Mathew and Mario (the Italians) at Bagni del Masino

Photos 1,2,3 & 6 by C. Warner, Photos 4,5 & 7 by the Italians (and the Italian’s wife)


(shared between the two of us):

  • 10 medium sized nuts
  • 6 medium sized rock-centrics
  • 2 friends (size 2 and 3)
  • 2 50m ropes
  • 7 slings
  • 12 crabs
  • 11 extenders
  • 2 belay bugs and abseilers
  • Tat and Prussik loops
  • Head torches, helmets, harnesses
  • Ice axes and crampons (for the return trip back over the passes to Sasc Faru)
  • And the usual stuff, but not too much, had to keep the weight down.

Route Description Summary

  • Bondo (823m) via toll road to Laret (1,252m) to Sasc Faru hut (1,904m) to summit of Piz Badile (3,305m) and down to Gianetti hut (2,534) and finally down to Bagni del Masino (1,172m).
  • 652m ascent of a walk-in from Laret to Sasc Faru hut, less than 2 hours (or 1,081m from Bondo 3½ hours)
  • 1,401m of an ascent with 716m on the North Ridge (2 hours to 2,589m). Guide book time for the ridge is 5 to 7 hours, but easy to be delayed with traffic to 10 hours)
  • 771m of a descent with 405m on the South Face. (Guide book time of 2 to 2½ hours, but easy to be delayed with traffic (of the Italian type) to 4 ½ hours)
  • 1,362m descent of a walk-out to Bagni del Masino, less than 3 hours

Grade Summary

  • North Ridge circa 22 pitches of (III/IV) with one pitch of (V-) with an overall grade of (D-) with fixed belay points for much of the middle section and some bolts and pegs.
  • South Face (in ascent) is PD (II/III) with fixed rings for the majority of the abseil points.