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Rare Winter Ascents on the Piz Badile

The Piz Badile (3308m), Bregaglia Alps, Switzerland, from the northeast. The classic Cassin Route lies right of the shadow, more or less just right of the large white rock scar that forms the central depression in the middle of the face. The British Route climbs the much steeper east-northeast face mostly in shadow to the left. The upper rightward-facing corner that provided the continuous aid climbing on the first ascent forms the left edge of the prominent white rock scar above the shadow, and below and a little to the right of what appears to be the highest point in this photo. To the left of the Badile, and in profile, are the walls of the north face of Pizzo Cengalo. [Photo] Lindsay Griffin

Mid February saw several impressive winter ascents on the mountain synonymous with the Swiss Bregaglia, the 3308-meter Piz Badile. The most notable feature on this iconic mountain is the 800m northeast face, sweeping granite slabs that Gaston Rebuffat dubbed “one of the six great north faces of the Alps.” The “scooped out” appearance explains the derivation of the Italian name–the Shovel.

On Sunday, February 17 Christoph Hainz and Roger Schali made a rare winter ascent of the ultra-classic Cassin Route (TD, 800m, Cassin-Esposito-Ratti and Moltoni-Valsecchi, 1937). This rock route climbs the rough-hewn slabs lying wholly to the right of the stoneswept central funnel and is undoubtedly the most famous route in the Central Alps. In perfect summer conditions the crux of this thirty-plus-pitch route is around 5.8/5.9, but the upper section is often wet and sometimes icy, augmenting the difficulty. The aspect and slabby nature makes it entirely unsuited to a winter ascent: verglas forms readily, and any snow sticks to the slabs, though almost never with a consistency that would make it climbable with modern techniques. The first winter ascent, from December 21 to January 2 1967-8, completed in a joint effort by two very talented teams, the Italians Paolo Armando, Gianni Calcagno and Alessandro Gogna, and the Swiss Camille Bournissen, Michel Darbellay and Daniel Troillet, used siege tactics: the wall was completely plastered, and the climbers spent considerable periods of time either climbing or clearing away the snow/ice. It was climbed again in relatively dry conditions in January 1981 by the Swiss, Danilo Gianinazzi, Marco Pedrini and Michel Piola (three days), and then a couple of weeks later by Dante Porta, solo (four days). Porta’s has developed into a somewhat controversial claim, and at best he appears to have jumared ropes left on the face. His later solo of a new route to the left of the Eiger’s North Pillar also seems to remain controversial. The first solo ascent was made in 1952 by the legendary Hermann Buhl for the eighth overall ascent.

Hainz and Schali climbed the route in a single day, a remarkable achievement, but no doubt reflecting unusually good conditions on the wall, which appears to have been endowed with a lot of compact neve. They didn’t bivouac on top (there is a small hut on the summit) but continued to rappel the North Ridge through the night, back to their start point. It is not clear how many, if any, winter ascents there have been of the Cassin between 1981 and this year.

On the same day the Italian-Swiss pair were climbing the face, the Italian, Fabio Valseschini, was starting up the British Route (ED1, 600m) on the east-northeast face, alone. One year ago Valseschini had made the first solo winter ascent of the adjacent Brothers’ Route (TD+: 5.9 A1/2, 800m, Rusconi-Rusconi, winter 1970) to the right. The British Route rises out of the couloir leading to the Colle del Cengalo, well left of the Cassin. Valseschini bivouacked at the base and completed the route with three more bivouacs, arriving on the summit at 4 p.m. on the 20th.

The British route was put up over two days in July 1968 by Dick Isherwood and Mike Kosterlitz. The left side of the northeast face–the east-northeast face rising out of the Colle del Cengalo couloir, itself a 400m D- ice climb–is much steeper than the walls to the right. In 1953 Italians, Felice Battaglia and Claudio Corti, climbed the first route here, largely on aid. Battaglia was struck by lightning and killed soon after reaching the top. The correct line of this enigmatic route remained a source of debate for many years, prompting Corti to return and make the second ascent in 1975. Isherwood and Kosterlitz planned to make the second ascent using the sketchy information available at the time. The rimaye at the foot of the couloir was not crossable, so the pair approached from Italy, reached the Colle del Cengalo from the south and descended most of the couloir below to the foot of the most prominent crack system splitting the wall. Starting up this line they immediately discovered numerous pegs and wedges and congratulated themselves for being on track. However, after the third pitch these stopped. Corti’s route makes a slightly unobvious rising traverse at this point to reach a parallel crack system to the left. The British pair continued up the obvious line without undue difficulty until the right-facing corner system reared up to a triangular roof. The next 150-200m to the shoulder were climbed largely on aid with a bivouac in etriers below the roof. During the night a piton came loose, and Isherwood almost ended up on the glacier. Next day they reached the summit having climbed the elegant line at around 5.8 A1/A2. At the time it was one of the top three hardest routes in the Bregaglia. Slowly it developed into a great if not often-climbed classic (summer access from the couloir always problematic, particularly in later, dryer years). But despite the cracks being ragged and often wide enough to accept fingers, no free ascent was recorded until quite recently. Notably, over five days in February 1982 the route received its first (and until this year) only winter ascent by two young female alpinists from Czechoslovakia, Zusanna Hofmannova and Alena Stehlikova. It remains one of the most impressive performances by an all-female team on a major route in the Alps. The first known solo ascent was made in July 1979 by the British climber, Martin Moran. He used a back-rope on the harder pitches and made one bivouac at the exit from the big corner.

Notably, over five days in February 1982 the route received its first (and until this year) only winter ascent by two young female alpinists from Czechoslovakia, Zusanna Hofmannova and Alena Stehlikova. It remains one of the most impressive performances by an all-female team on a major route in the Alps. It also received a solo ascent in the ’80s. It was the talented local Italian activist, Rossano Libera, who made the long awaited first free ascent at around 5.11d.

Isherwood and Kosterlitz, Cambridge University graduates, were excellent rock climbers for the day (Kosterlitz made the second ascent of the American Direct on the Dru). Isherwood went on to become well known for his exploratory Himalayan ascents (first ascent of Dorje Lakpa, new route on Kanjiroba, to name just two) and still climbs today. Kosterlitz moved to Turin and became a leading light in Italian rock climbing during the early 1970s; his name, ironically, remains far better known to Italian climbers than to those in his native country. Both now live in the USA.

But to return to the present and spurred on by the two recent ascents mentioned above, Rossano Libera started up the Cassin Route, alone, on February 21. He had dreamed of a winter solo for years, and this was his fifth or sixth attempt. Most of the route was completed using ice tools, with difficult mixed climbing in the long final chimney. He traveled light but made two bivouacs on the face, reaching the summit late in the day on the 23rd. This is Libera’s second major winter solo on the Badile: in 2004 he climbed the difficult Ringo Starr (ED1, 650m, Fazzini-Fazzini-Gianola, 1985) on the northwest face.