As promised, my impression of climbing the Nordkante. Details may be fuzzy given the fact that my brain got so cold I can’t remember the middle 1000 feet of climbing.
Four days, 1600m of vertical rock climbing, and over twenty miles of walking later it was all over. My climbing partner and I had bagged a life long goal: the North Ridge of Piz Badile. In terms of technical difficulty it is not that hard but it is a full 1100m long. Its length, exposure, lack of escape option, and complex decent make the Nordkante a ridge to be reckoned with. We had tried to climb it the year before but weather kept us grounded for the duration of our week in Bregaglia, a rugged valley linking St. Moritz and the north end of Lake Como. Knowing I was moving back to America this fall lent extra urgency to this summer’s trip, generously supported by a Wadham Society travel grant and an A.C. Irvine Fund grant.
Climbing the Nordkante involves far more than just climbing it. After three days of torrential rain Rob and I walked up to the Sciora hut one afternoon, praying the rain would stop and the rock would dry, and spent an uneasy night in the Sciora hut wondering about the weather. Thankfully a 3am trip to the outhouse revealed skies hard, cold, and clear, as well as a brisk wind sure to dry the face. The next morning we packed and set off to Torre Innominata, our ‘warm up.’ The West Ridge of Torre Innominata is a 500m ridge of a slightly harder standard than the Nordkante. We figured that if it went well, and the weather held, all would be good for a summit bid on the Badile the next day.
I am from Kentucky and unused to biting cold. Whereas my English climbing partners loath climbing in the boiling heat of summer, I love it. I though, become almost non-functional when the mercury dips below 5 C. Though sunny and dry it was well cold and the wind was whipping. Climbing gets hard when you cannot feel your hands, I discovered, but all was well, we got on with it, got up, and concluded the next day would be fine as the Nordkante comes in the sun a good 6-7 hours before Torre Innominata. Thus we reasoned the sun would warm up the rock by the time we hit it. After a rather brief but strenuous walk to the other side of the valley we settled into the Sasc Fura Hut for a brief nap before our 4am breakfast.
We were out the door by 4:15, scrambling up the wildly exposed approach slabs by 5, and gearing up at the starting notch- with about 40 other people- at 6am. And it was cold. Very cold. So cold we almost bailed. I wanted to, but could not lower my self to break the news to Rob, my climbing partner. He is from Scotland. He feels no cold. No sympathy there. So we set up, wearing all the clothes we had, pounding frozen snickers bars just to keep the metabolism going, and generally wishing we were still taking rest days on the shores of San Siro.
Usually, when climbing in the Lakes or the Peak or Snowdonia, I can keep track of how many pitches my party has climbed. I will know we are on, say, the fifth of seven. By pitch seventeen I’d lost count. We were just leap-frogging up the ridge. I would lead until I ran out of rope, I would then build an anchor and Rob would climb up to me, pause for some water or to get some gear off me, and then be off into the clouds on his lead. Rinse, and repeat. Thirty-odd times. Somewhere around mid day and mid height, I started to loose functionality. I replaced verbal commands with grunts and nods, and finally had to skip a pitch I was to lead because I was just too cold. Finally, though, the sun began to beat back the cold, progress increased, and we gained the summit at 330pm that afternoon. Then we had to get down.
There are two options: abseil the way you came up, i.e. 30 abseils down a broken ridge, the last few in the dark. I hate abseiling and to be honest, 30 abseils seemed like more work than the climb. We opted for eight abseils down the SE face and down to the Gianetti hut in Italy. The only problem with this was that we were now in Italy and not Switzerland. We were now separated from our campsite by a wall of granite whose primary weakness had already required our full energy to surmount. After falling asleep in my risotto at the dinner that night I rolled into bed and slept for 14 hours. The next morning we surveyed our options: take the quick walk to Val di Mello, pay 50 euros each for a taxi to San Martino, then take the long bus/train back to our camp in Chiavenna or take the epic long walk around the Bregaglia Massif to the shores of Lake Como and then catch a train back to camp. Given that we had 27 euros between the two of us- minor point: no matter how expensive beer is in a hut, it is impossible to resist after a major climb- the decision was simple: go the long way. So we descended, by foot, close to 3000m in a single day. By the time we got back to camp and, I had dislodged my entire foot from the front third of my shoe, I was done. The trip was over. I was sitting by the lake and eating Gelato until Sunday.