Piz Bernina West Face

In the last week of my 4week-climbing-holiday, I had a “date” with the famous “Rubihorns Janitor” Alban Glaser. We never climbed together before, so I was pretty excited that he was willing to take me on a “big” tour. Being far more experienced and the better ice climber, he made many suggestions what to climb. Finally we decided to do the “Gabarrou-route” at the Piz Bernina west spur. It has bolted belays and some bolts in between. Climbing UIAA 6+ at 4000m sounded like a real challenge to me.

When arriving at pass Julier in the morning of September 10th, we could spot the magnificent Bianco ridge, the west face and west spur of Piz Bernina. Unfortunately, there was a lot of snow on the west spur.

Considering this and the challenging climb itself, we changed our goal to the west face, where a retreat was less likely: A 550m long and 55° steep ice wall, plus it  seemed to be in a pretty good condition. Off to Pontresina, where we parked, packed our stuff and started our approach to the Tschierva hut with mountain bikes.

Needless to say, we hit the sack early after dinner. At 3:40 the next morning, we got up, dressed and started at 4:45 after a delicious “Bircher Muesli” for breakfast in the hotel-like refuge. To approach the west face, we had to cross the first glacier tounge, then head straight up the rocky ridge, follow the secound glacier on an easy terrain and finally walk past a crevassed part of the second glacier. View Map

In the meantime, a beautiful day dawned and we arrived at the foot of the west face at about 8:30am. The last part was pretty heavily crevassed, there were some spots where you better don´t fall.

We chose the obvious route: Straight upwards to the little narrow passage, which had to be crossed fast due to rock fall. Then traversing to the right, moving up a little ice tounge which leads us to the ridge near the summit over a mixed pitch.

 After a short break, we started the climb. Alban leaded the first pitch. We moved simultaniously, while the leading climber placed an ice screw about every 20m. When our 10 screws were gone, Alban built a belay and we switched. We moved pretty fast that way, after switching two times, we were just below the rocky ridge.

  

  

Now it was on me to lead the last ice pitch to the top of the ice gully. It steepened up and I built a belay point in the last meters of good ice. Two screws went in about 10cm, and my ice axes as a backup should be enough.

Alban followed and then continued, leading the last pitch through what I would describe as loose blocks of rock glued together with a bit of snow. He was excited though, praising the gravel being “chamoniesque” and great to climb…

I was glad to follow, cleaning three pieces of more or less questionable gear. The last meters were pretty painful for my soaked fingers. I definitely have to get good gloves again.

After a short break on the ridge we climbed to the summit on the ridge heading east. We reached it at about 1pm. Then we continued quickly to descend over the rocky ridge and the bianco ridge. Climbers doing the bianco ridge usually descend at the other side, but we had to go back to the Tschierva hut to get our stuff. Meanwhile it got a bit foggy, the bad weather forcasted for tomorrow came in early…Alban pushed me to go faster, he wanted to reach the hut before dusk. But two times I refused to descend over steep pilars without protection, sorry for being such a whiny little bitch! ;-) So I rapelled/climbed down protected from above, which cost us quite some time. We arrived at the beautiful snow ridge which gave the route the nickname “Himmelsleiter” (translates roughly to “ladder to heaven”) at about 4pm. We descended it free, which went pretty well for me. Not so much for Alban, he had to fight snow sticking on his crampons.

  

It was an absolutely grand moment: We were the last ones on the mountain, the afternoon sun cast sharp shadows on the snow ridge, the wind punched in lacerated clouds… But we had no time rest and enjoy the scenery, we had to get down.

It dawned on us that we would reach the hut rather late. Luckily we didn´t know in advance, how late it would be… :-D After the snow ridge we avoided the last rocky point and traversed the ice beneath it.Then a little via ferrata led us down and we rappelled the last 15m to the glacier over a large bergschrund, where we arrived at dusk.

We couldn´t find the new path, which was set up just a few weeks earlier. So we followed some stone cairns, assuming they mark the old path. Unfortunately they ended after a while and we were forced to descend through the moraine and crevassed glacial remains… Rappelling, climbing, slipping and cursing the hours went by. We were delayed by sudden fog and a little storm. Luckily the nasty weather dissapeared after about an hour. We went out of water a few hours ago so I was pleased to find a glacial stream where I could fill up my bottle. The exhaustion is barely recognizable in the next picture…

Finally, at 11:30pm we reached the hut where the worrying warden stayed up awaiting our arrival. She made us really nice “Chäs-Sandwich” and some hot tea for a late supper. We enjoyed our meal with some very expensive, nevertheless tasty bavarian wheat beer and went to sleep.

The next day, we got up just in time to get some late breakfast. Then we descended fetch our bikes and go home. As we walked down to the valley, it started raining heavily and didn´t stop for the rest oft the day. Riding down my bike the path in full speed with mud filling my face slowly was a really satisfying experience! It was a really great tour and my first summit over 4000m. Thanks to Alban for being such a great partner!

Date of tour: 2012/09/11
Total time: 18h
Total elevation: 1650m
difficulty: 55° ice/M3/S+, descend via Bianco-ridge: III/ZS
Links: difficulty table, west face descriptionBianco Ridge description

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