The Gross Furkahorn, The Cresta Segantini
and The Piz Badile
PW and I have been keenly climbing in the Alps over the last 3 summers and we have allowed ourselves 10 days, each time, to adjust to altitude and conditions. Our trips have been loosely based around the Piz Badile, with the aim to complete the climb on this, one of the great ridge climbs in the Alps, with 700 mtrs of clean rock at very amenable grades.
We first went in mid-July and found that the snowfields proved too much of a challenge (in logistics). Our next year was at the start of August, and again, the weather conditions did not allow the attempt. That year, the climb was completed by Cearbhall and Dave Keogh who arrived as we left. So another year in the Alps beckoned; to climb or fail on the actual route and with this in mind we travelled later in the month and put our plan and preparations in place.
The Gross Furkahorn
Peter came up with the suggestion of going to the Uri Alps for a few days, to get some climbing in and to acclimatise. He picked the Gross Furkahorn ridge, as it was a reasonably long route and it seemed the grade was doable, with the hardest route graded French 4c. Blinded by enthusiasm, I forgot to apply the maxim “all guide book grades and times should be treated as works of fiction”, I had plenty of time to think about this later.
We arrived in Bergamo, collected our hire car and of course the weather was stunning as we set off to drive past lake Como up in to Switzerland. I was a little worried about the prices in Switzerland, as last year, I found them expensive. This year the Swiss had stopped supporting their currency and it had revalued by 20% against the Euro. As we drove over the border from Italy, a dour Swiss Guard, insisted that we pull over into a siding and buy a ticket. Alas, this was not a raffle ticket for Harry Kane’s Cuckoo Clock, but a general toll for Motorway. Welcome to Switzerland €45 please! When we recovered from the shock, time for another one – €30 lunch at the service station!
We came off the motorway after 20 kms and then on the D roads to the Furka Pass. We had decided not to reserve places in the hut up from the pass, as it was midweek and we thought it would not be busy. We briefly discussed whether we should ring from the car park, but decided we needed the walk anyway, arriving at the hut, only to discover, that the Swiss Army were in residence and the place was packed with squaddies, so Mien Host said “no room at the inn”. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we trudged down the hill, back in the car, to a hostel some 2 kms away. This Hostel / Hotel was a great base, the food was good and no sign of powdered potatoes anywhere!
When we asked what time for breakfast, they replied that they had one group at 4:30 and another at 6:30, we thought ; easy route – we’ll go for the 6:30, on reflection a little late for a big days climbing.
We got to the parking spot at 7am next morning and started the pull up to the base of the climb. Our interpretation of the guide book instructions was to climb almost to the hut, then climb up the glacier and cross the glacier on the more level side. As we approached the glacier from the left side we saw a way to shortcut this traverse, left to come back right. There was a hill slope above us, which was heavily bouldered, and it seemed to make sense to climb this and avoid the tedium of crampons, axes etc. Agreeing this course of action we set off up the slope from boulder to boulder but after some 10 mtrs or so it dawned on both of us that this was an angled glacier, with a boulder field sitting on top and it would take only one move, to start a big boulder slide, a strategic retreat was hastily made.
We followed the guide book route and traversed up the snowfield and glacier, crossed higher up, reached the lower area of the Gross Furkahorn and scrambled up to the base of the climb.
Having reached the base of the climb at 9:45am, we discussed whether it was too late to start as there was a German climbing team gearing up to go and they were very slow to get started. We decided on our usual formula of climbing 3 or 4 pitches and abseiling off, if it was too slow. The first and second pitch of this climb had a guide book rating of 4c French, but there was no doubt, here in Ireland, we would grade them 4b VS . Peter led off, huffed and puffed and he would have liked an easier start for the first morning climbing, at an altitude of 2,800 meters, having only arrived the previous day and not yet acclimatized. I followed, struggled up onto the airy arête and then off on the left for an overhanging horizontal crack climb which reminded me of the Mourne’s type climbing. Climbing was demanding and our progress was slow. The German team ahead were very friendly, not fast, and their rope work was a mess. On pitch 4 Peter arrived on the belay to tell me that we had a Swiss guide right up our rear and it seemed that crowding would get only worse. I was concerned about the Swiss guide, as they have a reputation for being notoriously unfriendly and obnoxious. We were fortunate that day as the guide was good crack and as we shared belays all day, we had wide ranging discussions on music (we both had played in bands), the dangers of alcoholism from bands and, as he explained, the job of guide was a double whammy and he had to be very careful with everybody in party mood on holiday etc.
At this stage the Swiss guide was muttering about the German team ahead, saying they were slow and he would not be delayed. Peter and I were also losing patience, wanting to overtake and move on, as we had fully committed to the climb. The Swiss guide and ourselves put some pressure on the German team. They decided to stop for lunch and we happily steamed ahead. The guide had a client that was reasonably fit but not a very skilled climber, so he was happy to stay behind us and we progressed up the ridge pitch after pitch. The Guide book had no indication of how many pitches and gave a climbing time of 4 to 6 hours. We did not count the pitches but reckon there were between 12-14, not what we expected for a first day’s easy climbing. Somewhere around pitch 9, the climb moves off the arête and descends 20 mtrs to the left and returns after 50 mtrs, none of this is very obvious and without the guide offering route advice we might have taken a few wrong turns and lost time. I was discussing the nature of the route with the guide and although there were bolted belays, there were no more than 10 or 12 more bolts on the whole route. He was of the opinion that it was one of the better alpine routes, because it was not disfigured by masses of protection and you had to use the rack all the way. I led another interesting pitch which was a 5 mtr crack climb, on almost vertical slab, this had a bolt at the bottom, but if you fell at the top it would be 13 mtr winger! This was a rounded crack, so protection would not work, but there was a great lip to hold on to – nothing for it but to get on there and keep moving till the arête thankfully was there to grab again.
We climbed on, pitching even on the short relatively flat area near the top, we arrived at the base of the 3rd last pitch and watched a new team of climbers (they may have been on another climb which joined ours) struggle up a layback crack. This looked so difficult, the lead climber struggled and the second also struggled and I thought, this climb is getting harder nearer the top, we are exhausted and need it easier. At this stage, the Guide decided his tea was getting cold and said he would go first and he powered up the climb. His hapless client was subjected to a lot of friendly abuse, to make her move faster, as she had run out of steam. I was secretly glad that Peter was leading this one as he got ready to go! Peter ignored the layback crack, moved left and swung effortlessly onto a jug and powered up the wall. The next pitch was straight forward and then for the last and most difficult pitch, PW was up again, phew! The guide’s client was now receiving a lot of advice, abuse and extortion’s to speed up and keep moving on this slightly overhanging pitch.
This pitch reminded me of Streetfighter in Dalkey quarry, but is was more difficult and twice the length. This would not normally be a problem for Peter or I in the quarry, or Glendalough, but at 3169 mtrs after almost 6 hours non-stop climbing, it was demanding……I was glad to hear the “climb when ready” shout and followed up to join Peter at the top. This climb literally finished at the top of the mountain, from the stance you could reach up to the highest point, which was exhilarating. So then on to a 25 mtr abseil, to the gap and some down-climbing to a traverse around the mountain, to another abseil 45 mtrs, a long trudge through a snowfield and again a nasty 70 mtr down-climb on very exposed ground holding on to grass and muck. At this point we could see the valley below and mapped out a route through the boulder-field to the river and then follow the river to the path. That was the plan, although, we spent a lot of time in the boulder-field and had to turn back a number of times, encountering big drop-offs berschrunds etc . We finally made it to the path, at approx. 8:45 and we were both musing on the fact that the kitchen in the hostel had a strict closing time of 9pm. We had not eaten all day and would have to scrounge for sandwiches and chocolate etc, but then my phone rang, mindful of my last disaster answering my phone! I stopped walking and saw a Swiss number – Swiss motorways ringing for more money perhaps? Extra tax for walking too long on the Mountain? No it was the manager of the Hostel, worried about us and wanted to know we were safe. My faith in the Swiss nation was restored, as she assured us that, yes they would keep the kitchen open and we did not have to go to bed hungry.
A great day’s climbing in sunshine, we completed the climbing part of the day in 5.45 hours, inside the guide book time and would have been faster without the initial delays. This was the most difficult climbing of the long days I had done in the Alps yet, the walk in and walk out were extended but the climbing was right, this was a quality day that never looked like descending into an IMC epic!!
Length of climb 375 mtrs , height at finish 3169mtrs
POL Test: Passed
The next day, despite the weather forecast, was sunny and would have been good for a day’s climbing, except we both needed to recover from our “quality” day before. We toured around the Uri canton, while Peter revisited his long forgotten Ski trip (it is always interesting to see the mountains you only knew covered in snow in the summer) and took in Andermatt and its hinterlands. The following day was for traveling, the weather was excellent again with thunderstorms forecast for that evening.
We decided on a long circuitous route to take us down to Chiavenna in Italy, through the Spelugen pass, for me this was the most dangerous part of the week, I found this description in a guide
‘’If you take a left here in Pinazzo, you will find the road running through the “old” Spluegen pass road, through extremely narrow rock tunnels. This way is closed for trucks and campers and asks for extended driving skills with a little challenge. Caution is required, since the tunnels only have space for a car in the tunnel width and usually a bend or curve is inside the middle of it. Ideally, when you want to ride the challenging “old” pass route, we recommend to take it from the south to north, uphill coming up from Chiavenna. Downhill the road is not as smooth to drive We always recommend – if you ride the Spluegen downhill – choose the right option, going uphill, then you really should take the challenge to ride the “old road”.”
We reached Chiavenna presently and I had to help my driver to the restaurant for his recovery. We continued with a climbing trip staple, a visit to the outdoor shop to buy more unnecessary gear! Reaching our destination later that day, the Hotel Sala in Interobio, which is in the next valley to Como in the valley of Valsassina. It is here you access the start of the Segantini ridge.
The forecast for the following day was showers and thunder storms in the afternoon, so we decided on an early start leaving at 6am. We reached the car parking at approx. 7 am the next morning and started the walk in to the start of the climb. The guide book time was 2.15 hours for this part, as it included some vertical ladders, fixed cables and chains. We reached the start after two hours and discovered two Italians also starting. Relieved to see they were climbing some higher graded variation of the climb, so we would be with them most of the day, but they would not be slowing us down. We decided to pitch the first section, having remembered from last year, there was a very nasty step over a void, onto an overhanging wall. Peter led off and immediately showered both the Italian belayer and I, with loose rock, which seemed a bad omen for the day. This was reinforced when the Italian lead climber decided to join the rock throwing competition and had us both jumping for cover!
After the step over, we decided to rope up and move together and move fast (the weather was about to change) so pitching was out. Last year we attempted this route with Barry and Vinny, pitching every section, and only managed a quarter of the climb after a few hours and were then forced off by the bad weather. This climb is graded from 2 to 3c throughout but probably under-graded at that, on the harder section it may be 4b, but not too serious. The problem for me with this climb was the back climbing, I had problems last year and when you are a second, you could take a very nasty fall with no protection above you. I have always had a problem with back climbing and decided to spend some time on practice on the climbing wall after last year’s attempt. Although I did not stick with it, I discovered my terrible fear of climbing down was now just the normal fear that keeps you making careful moves, I was enjoying the down climbing as much as the up……
So the climbing went on, this ridge is approx. 500 mtrs long and gains approx. 270 mtrs in height so there is a lot of ground to cover. We alternated leads when we ran out of protection and made great progress, reaching the summit in glorious sunshine after approx. 4 hours climbing. The decent was a steep treacherous walk off and 10 mins before we reached the car the heavens opened – I remember thinking they do get the forecasts right.
POL Test: Failed
The following day was the repeat “day after” rest and climber’s retail therapy, with a trip to Decathlon in Sondrio, followed by a gourmet lunch in one of Barry Watt’s recommended restaurants. We dined that evening in the garden terrace of our hotel, sheltering under the large umbrella/ shades when the rain showers started. Peter who cannot judge his own strength, pushed the sunshade and with a crack it broke and another perilous moment, as the shade toppled – with me thinking, we had a small lightning strike. This provided major entertainment for us and the staff and the other inmates.
The weather window was okay for the next day, with some rain forecast through the night, but Wednesday was to be good all day and the Badile was on. We drove up through Chiavenna into Switzerland and on to Bondo, where you leave the main road and donate another €10 to the poor roadmakers of Switzerland for the privilege of driving up the road a bit for an easier hike. Hiking up to the Sasc Fura Hut, it was full sun 27 degC and with the full load of Bivvy gear, I was wrecked when we got up the 700 mtrs of almost vertical path.
Peter and I decided to do some Yoga in Drag to pass the time and have something to eat before moving up the hill. The Rosti was okay for lunch but at €19 was a 5 star price.
When we recovered from the Rosti (price) and the Yoga, we set off to hike the next 600 mtrs to get us up to the start of the climb and our bivvy site. After a lot of huffing and puffing, we were up to the pass that brings you over to the Scirora hut. The pass is closed now, as one of the mountains in the area is in the process of falling down and they expect a serious amount of rock to fire down the mountain at any time (taking out in the process part of the Sasc Fura path). 3 years ago there were some serious rock falls when we climbed in the area and the path to the pass had been blocked in a number of areas, the moving mountain was not understood at that time!
We pushed on to the bivvy site, this is a series of shelters formed by leaning boulders to which various climbers had added some Galway-style dry stone, to give some protection from the weather. We found one such “cave”, but a group of helpful Italian Climbers showed us a better one, which they guaranteed was dry in the worst conditions, we believed them. We settled in for, as we hoped, a comfortable dry night. I cursed the bivvy bag I borrowed from Ian C and thought all that weight carried up the mountain and it was a waste.
PW headed up to the start of the face to check out our opening move the next day and when he returned we discussed the climb. I had been intimidated by the sheer size and length of the climb in the past. We both were pleasantly surprised at how the climb looked, positively benign from up close and the ridge was at a very amenable angle. Our timetable was set the alarm for 5am, beat the crowd in the hut onto the face and all the other slackers……… Then it started to rain, our dry cave was better than sleeping out, but as water began to run along the inside of the roof and drip down, I felt I was in for a soggy night, that’s when I remembered Ian’s bivvy bag! Once in the bag, I was snug and dry, and thinking to myself how perceptive I was and well prepared – all previous thoughts forgotten.
When we discussed the bivvy at the base of the climb, I had memories of Gaston Rebuffat’s great stories of the majesty of the Alps, the vast open spaces, the big sky, and most of all the solitude of it all. What we found was that it was as busy up at the bivvy as O’Connell St at 3 am on Saturday night, there were people partying and shouting till all hours and only (like Dublin) the rain shut them up. So a fitful night’s sleep and awake at 5 to discover a party of huttites passing with their head torches and a bigger group up at the face. With the 60 people on the mountain, some altitude problems and lack of sleep, we decided to abandon the attempt and head down the mountain once again. I was not unhappy to leave, it just did not seem like the right day, and if there is always going to be 60 people on the face I don’t think I want to join the queue. I think the only way to get a clear lead would be padlock yourself to the first bolt at midnight. Like all trips, the fun and entertainment happens as part of the journey and the sense of fulfilment is not only in reaching the summit, but what happens on the way. Two out of three ain’t bad.
POL Test: Passed
The POL Test was commissioned by the committee of the IMC to determine when we could call a day out mountaineering. Paddy O’Leary (hence the POL) a renowned member working with the finest climbing talent in the Club came up with a simple but brilliant formula ‘’ if you are back in time for tea you have not been mountaineering’’
Some problems have arisen with this in recent times , i.e. if you are so incompetent that you end up on the massive epic and are out till 5 am, you have been mountaineering! This is now under review.