The Bernina Alps

Following on from the climbing down in Italy we decided to head back to Switzerland and see if the weather would give us a break. James and Harry had intended to do The Cassin Route on Piz Badile but a quick drive along the valley confirmed that this classic rock climb was covered in snow. This set us about weighing up our options.

The Original plan: Piz Bernina
Piz Bernina

I had no particular objective so was happy with just getting up high, and do something productive. So the three of us set off to climb in the Bernina Range.

Day 1
The walk up to the Diavolezza Hut wasn’t particularly long or hard, just pretty boring following a large track for several hours. I presume the track was there from building the cablecar and hotel at the top. Getting the cablecar would have made life a lot easier, but none of us could bring ourselves to pay that many francs when it can be walked in only a few hours. However I’ve subsequently learned that in order to give yourself the best possible chance on any given route in the Alps it is paramount to reach the bottom of it in top condition!

From the Diavolezza Hut looking towards Piz Palu (lefthand  peaks) and the Bellavista range (righthand Peaks)
From the Diavolezza Hut looking towards Piz Palu (lefthand peaks) and the Bellavista range (righthand Peaks)

At Diavolezza we met some Germans with a guide planning to climb Piz Palu.
When we told them we were planning to stay in the winter refuge at Marco e Rosa Hut one exclaimed “peugh! It is little more than a container!” We thought that the winter refuge at Marco e Rosa Hut was fantastic. Not sure how they would have reacted if we had told them we were planning to sleep outside the hotel to save money!

Making food
Making food

The Diavolezza Hut gave us a good vantage point to plan the next day but most of what we encountered could not really worked out until we were on it the next day.

Weighing up the mountain from the Diavolezza Hut
Weighing up the mountain from the Diavolezza Hut

Day 2
This was a long day by any definition. A 4am start with a complex glacier crossing started the day off, followed by an extremely long steep snow plod with a section of mixed climbing.

A minor detour from the intended route actually took us to the highest point we would achieve Bellavista (3922m). This less frequented summit was actually quite interesting with a narrow ridge leading away from it which we decided wasn’t safe to use, meaning we had to descend the way we came up.

From the summit of Bellavista looking towards Piz Palu
From the summit of Bellavista looking towards Piz Palu

After coming back down from the Bellavista we started heading towards the Marco e Rosa Hut, which involved more slow upwards progression on snow slopes and glaciated terrain. with time ticking by a summit attempt on the Piz Bernina was now looking less than likely today. Just getting to the hut would be enough for today.

One of the “interesting” sights of this part of the day was the group of climbers having lunch under the shadow of a melting serac in the afternoon sun…

Marco e Rosa Hut
Marco e Rosa Hut. Preety amazing place to put a hut. I think the hut is located just inside Italy.

The journey from the Diavolezza Hut to Marco e Rosa Hut took about 9hours, by which time exhaustion and altitude were taking there toll. It was also too late to have a reasonable go at summiting the Piz Bernina, so we decided to attempt it the next day if conditions allowed.

View from The Marco e Rosa Hut
Evening view from The Marco e Rosa Hut

When I arrived at the Marco e Rosa Hut I was totally shot. The combination of exhaustion and altitude had really got to me. Taking my sleeping bag out of it stuff sack felt like too much, I had to just get inside with the kit I’d been wearing all day, try not to hyperventilate and sleep it off. Ive never felt that bad ever, it was like the worst hangover ever mixed with being really cold and not being able to breath properly. I managed to sleep it off for a few hours, ate some cheese and then seemed to feel ok again. If I’ve learned anything from this trip it is the importance of being properly acclimatised, going from near sea level to nearly 4000m in two days doesn’t work too well!

Feeling a bit better having got over the worst of the altitude/exhaustion at Marco e Rosa Hut
Feeling a bit better having got over the worst of the altitude/exhaustion at Marco e Rosa Hut
Sunset from The Marco e Rosa Hut
Sunset from The Marco e Rosa Hut

Day 3
Having not managed our initial objective the day before we had hoped to get an early start, but the conditions were doing all they could to put an end to this.

The sequence of events went something time this:

3:45am: too much wind.

4:00am: Harry volunteered to go outside to check wind situation. Still windy. Back to bed.

5:00am: Continuation of strong wind theme. Running out of time to do Piz Bernina.

8:00am: Pushing the limits of what can be considered an “Alpine start” but there was no point in getting up early if we weren’t doing the mountain.

Working our way back
Working our way back

After the “late” start we started making our way back. The first technical challenge of the day was to safely cross the glaciated terrain near the hut. This went pretty smoothly and we made good progress to the multiple abseils down the mixed section.

Descending towards the glacier
Descending towards the glacier…
Descending towards the glacier
More descending towards the glacier…

After the multiple abseils the only technical challenges left were descending the exposed slopes to the glacier and crossing the glacier. This decent wasn’t technically hard just typical Alpine “don’t fall off” terrain.

Looking over the glacier to the Bellavista
Looking over the glacier to the Bellavista

Glacier crossing is less stressful in the daytime because you can see more of what is underfoot, but I found it a bit frustrating when you can see the place you are trying to get to but cannot just strait line it because of the crevasse systems.

Even when you think you are off the glacier on the moraine at the side the glacier extends underneath you as this ice poking through shows from a few meters away from where the main glacier ends.
Even when you think you are off the glacier on the moraine at the side the glacier extends underneath you as this ice poking through shows from a few meters away from where the main glacier ends.
The Bellavista from Diavolezza Hut
The Bellavista from The Diavolezza Hut

Overall it was a good adventure but I am slightly disappointed to have not completed the planned goal of the Piz Bernina. The mountain will however always be there, and not always succeeding is just the nature of this game. I guess it just puts those times it does work out into context.

Made it down!
Back at the van
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4 thoughts on “The Bernina Alps

  1. I can read by email but the website is password protected…

    Definitely sounds an adventure. Do you think that taking the cable car would have made the difference in the long run? Or would the acclimatisation problems have been too much either way?

    “Glacier crossing is less stressful in the daytime”!! I smiled when I read this cos I think I am being very adventurous dealing with the camber on our village lane when it’s a bit icy.

    1. Thanks for telling me that, I think I accidentally made it private and would never have known if you hadn’t told me!!

      I’m not sure if getting it would have made the difference, although if the weather isn’t on your side there’s not much you can do about it. It’s an interesting idea though that simple decisions you make early on influence the outcome…

      Anyway hope you are doing well! Have you been back to the climbing wall?

      Alex

  2. I think mountain climbers are amazingly insane people and I admire you more than most any other thrill seeker. And frozen mountains to boot! The photos alone leave me breathless. Congrats on any heights you reach. I doubt I could get past the first chill on my nose..

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