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Exploring The Alps

Hervé Barmasse on the summit of the Signalkruppe (4554m), the final climb in his “Exploring the Alps” trilogy. [Photo] Damiano Levati/The North Face

The Alps was one of the first ranges to be explored by recreational mountaineers. It was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that alpinists first summited the tallest peaks of the range. But the peaks in the Alps are finite, and over the past hundred years the proverbial blank spaces on the maps of the Alps shrunk and slowly disappeared–exploration shifted from geographic exploration to the exploration of climbers’ limits and creativity: tackling the last great unsolved faces or linking up challenging features between already-existing routes. The range can seem crowded, with most peaks covered in popular routes and eager climbers. Alpinists seeking remote exploration often bypass the Alps in favor of South America or Central Asia, chasing the adventure that seems easier to find in those unexplored places. But in 2011 Italian alpinist Herv? Barmasse reexamined this popular view of his home range, hoping to uncover adventure in an area that is often regarded as “climbed out”. Over the course of the year he established new routes on three of the highest, and most traveled, peaks of the alps: the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Monte Rosa Massif.

The Alps, familiar, accessible and well known, are even more so for Barmasse. He was raised in Valtournenche, a small town in the Aosta Valley in northwestern Italy, at the foot of the famous range. The mountains were not simply his backyard, they were his playground, his school and his home. He grew up surrounded by the mountains and by people who loved them; both his father and grandfather were accomplished climbers and mountain guides. As a child, he was raised “to consider the mountains as an integral part of [his] family. They belong to everyday life and little by little they can even become a real friend or a close relative of yours.”

Despite having been raised in an environment saturated with climbers, it wasn’t until he was age eighteen that Barmasse began to climb. He admits that as a child his “best-loved sport was eating,” and he could be found hiding under the table snacking on cheese stolen from the refrigerator. He flirted with skateboarding, but realized that it was not an easy sport to practice in his mountainous home. He competed as an alpine skier as a teenager, but at age sixteen, his knees had to be reconstructed after an accident in a Super G competition.

So at eighteen, Barmasse turned to climbing. The Alps were his school; for ten years he explored the mountains in his backyard and perfected his climbing techniques. In 2000, at age twenty-three, Barmasse set off to attempt the first snowboard descent of Cho Oyu, but shrugged off acclimatizing. Only four days after leaving his home in Valtournenche, he struggled back to Cho Oyu base camp “crawling like a worm.” Barmasse says that “it was a well-deserved punishment” for his young and overly-confident self, and the experience taught him much about respecting the preparation that different ranges require. Four years later, he returned to the Karakorum, establishing three new routes and nabbing a first ascent. Since then, he has spent extended periods in Patagonia and Pakistan. “As an alpinist I’ll climb everywhere, always in search for the new.”

Barmasse during his solo ascent of the Matterhorn. [Photo] Damiano Levianti

It is more intuitive to pursue “the new” in remote and unexplored mountains, as opposed to a well-known range. “It is often difficult to be alone in the Alps,” Barmasse writes, citing the proliferation of guided climbing, staffed huts and ski lifts that bring vacationers to nearly all peaks. Barmasse wanted to experience the “authentic alpinism” that he found in distant mountains to his own backyard range. He wanted to try to keep the spirit of adventure alive, even in familiar and well-trodden territory. “These ancient and maybe old fashioned mountains, if explored from a new perspective, could be a foundation for alpinism of the future.”

So began Exploring the Alps, Barmasse’s project to rediscover adventurous alpinism in his home range. His rules for the project were simple: to establish three new routes on the biggest mountains, with different climbing partners and different techniques all within one calendar year. Each climb would work toward “rediscovering the mountains where alpinism originated” and try to “keep the spirit of adventure alive as much as possible.” The routes would fulfill not only the “usual and obvious alpine goals, and also the symbolic ones, which are much more meaningful.”

Barmasse insists that it is not the technical difficulty of climbs nor the accumulation of first ascents that drives him: “The true reason of this game is not the wish to be the best alpinist nor the hope of setting a record or a being a medalist. What drives me to make this choice is only the joy I feel whenever I challenge nature and all its hardships.”

On March 8, 2011, he began the first installment of his project–a new, solo route up the south face of Picco Muzio, a subpeak on the Furggen Ridge of the Matterhorn. His chosen line, a 700-meter overhanging pillar, had never been explored before, though many other routes cover the face. After two days of poor weather and lots of rockfall, Barmasse abandoned his attempt. For one month he continued to think about the potential on the Matterhorn, and on April 6 he tried again. Four days and three bivies later, Barmasse reached the summit. His father was waiting for him there, and the two descended the Matterhorn together.

According to Barmasse, his solo route on the Matterhorn was the most trying of his project and the most challenging and rewarding climb of his entire career. He stresses that you have to be more than simply a good climber when you solo a route. A solo climber needs to know the mountain so intimately that he or she can anticipate the risks and hardships of the climb. Barmasse writes that “solo climbing is a challenge with the mountain…it is an inner journey where the climber comes to terms with his own fears and weaknesses.”

The second ascent of Barmasse’s project was a new route on Mont Blanc, established with Basque brothers Iker and Eneko Pou, with which Barmasse wanted to “point out the great value of a roped party and the pleasure of sharing mountaineering with friends.” Their route scaled the Brouillard Pillars on the south face of Mont Blanc, chosen because it is the “most isolated, fascinating and severe corner of Mont Blanc.” Named La Classica Moderna, the route emulates the ethics and style of recently deceased Walter Bonatti, who was the first ascensionist of the Brouillard Pillars. Like Bonatti’s first ascent, Barmasse and the Pou brothers climbed all the way to the summit of Mont Blanc instead of rappelling off the top of the pillars.

For the final climb of Barmasse’s trilogy, Barmasse and his father climbed a new line up the south face of Signalkuppe on the Monte Rosa massif. Barmasse “meant to honor the mountaineering tradition of the Alps and the teachings given by the glorious past of these mountains” by climbing with his father. Their route climbs the ice and rock on the face and then merges with the southwest ridge leading to the summit.

Though Barmasse and his father both are accomplished mountain guides, they rarely climb together–Barmasse reckons fewer than tens times in total. But Barmasse credits his father with teaching him the most important lessons about the mountains: confidence, passion, respect and love for the mountains, lessons that he wants to share with others through his climbing as well.

In Exploring the Alps, Barmasse wanted to uncover authentic alpinism in a range that is crowded and well traveled. He reached his goal–but emphasizes that ticklists, new routes and recognition are not what is most important to a mountaineer. “First of all a good alpinist should be a good man and this is a really difficult goal to achieve, often a whole life is not enough.”