Finsteraarhorn (14h30)

The Finsteraarhorn is the highest peak in the Bernese Alps, which contain many of the range’s largest glaciers, including the Grosser Aletschgletcher, as well as the famous Eiger (one of a handful of Alpine peaks falling between 13,000 feet and 4000 meters). Unlike the Eiger and its neighbors, which can be easily reached by those willing to pay for the cable car from Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch, the Finsteraarhorn is a long glacier hike from any access point. I chose to come in from the high trailhead at Grimsel Pass, circling around the south side of the peak to reach the hut and standard route. This took about 14h30, about nine hours of which was spent on various glaciers. From the Oberaarsee, the route climbs the Oberaar Glacier to a glacier pass with a hut, then descends the Studer Glacier to its junction with the long Fiescher Glacier, finally climbing that to reach the hut.

I started out up the road to the Oberaar Reservoir at 4:30, jogging some flatter spots to hopefully cover as many miles as I could on decent snow. Reaching the dam, I realized that I could have paid 5 Francs to park at a large overnight lot nearby. I put away my headlamp on the way across the dam, then followed a clear trail along the reservoir toward the toe of the Oberaar Glacier. Something about glaciers’ shape often makes them appear shorter than they are, and this one was no exception: though it looks small, it rises nearly 3000 feet to the col, and takes just as long as one would expect to climb. Also, flowing eastward, its tongue is highly asymmetric, with the shaded southern side extending much lower than the northern one, mostly covered in talus.

I made my way up the rocky northern side for awhile then put on crampons to make my way up the bare ice, winding around and jumping over the exposed crevasses. There was still snow covering the glacier’s upper reaches, but fortunately there was a boot-pack drawing a safe line over and around the more hidden slots. I saw two people at the base of the path leading up to the small hut, but they did not seem talkative, so I continued over the other side, following another bootpack down the Studer Glacier. On the way down, I got a good view of the southeast, i.e. wrong, side of the Finsteraarhorn, and a sobering reminder of how far I had to go.

This bootpack seemed to be contouring farther south than I would like, so I left it near where the glacier became bare to take a more direct line to the junction with the Fiescher Glacier. This turned out to be a mistake: the lower Studer Glacier branches around a rock island, and the right (north) branch is steeper and more broken, while the left is an easy walk. There were some hijinks required, including going in and out of the moat on the left, but I eventually got back on track.

I saw a few boot-prints crossing the large rib of debris to the Fiescher Glacier, and was then back on bare ice for awhile, dodging the many crevasses and looking for an easy line up toward the hut. It is difficult to mark routes on glaciers, and boot-packs do not form on bare ice, so each person has to find his own way. In any case, I saw no other people after the Oberaarjoch Hut, a surprising change from the rest of my time in the Alps, and it felt particularly lonely on the big, quiet glaciers.

After endless glacier shenanigans, I spied the hut far up on the right bank. I had been planning to do another peak, and had forgotten to take photos of the guidebook, so I mistakenly thought that the route went up a glacier tongue from the Fiescher Glacier to the Hugisattel. Unlike on my map, this tongue does not connect to the main ice, and the route in fact climbs the rubble above the hut to reach it higher up. The weather was gray, but not truly threatening, and I had come a long ways, so I decided to try to figure something out for myself.

I continued up-glacier, then turned up a side branch toward the saddle between the Agassizhorn and Finsteraarhorn, hoping to find boot-prints. I unfortunately did not, and as I got higher, the glacier became snow-covered and crevassed. I proceeded carefully, climbing the right side under some seracs, which had filled in or bridged a lot of the holes, but did not currently seem to be active. I eventually crossed a ‘schrund around 3750m, then hacked my way up a bit of bare ice to the awful rock of the ridge. I found a sling around a block, but this was clearly a seldom-visited spot.

The clouds had lowered by now, so I made my way up the ridge in mist, climbing class 3-4 garbage, staying close to the crest where it was a bit more solid. I was not looking forward to reversing this, and hoped that I would find a boot-pack on the correct route at the Hugisattel. I crossed one small snow-saddle, then, after passing a decent-sized toilet paper deposit (that’s a thing in the Alps, even in Switzerland), saw recent crampon tracks where I hoped to find them.

The rock to the summit was actually decent, with plenty of crampon scratches and bits of trail here and there. I climbed as fast as my fatigue allowed, since the weather seemed to be worsening. Reaching the summit just as it started to graupel, I stuck around just long enough to put on my windbreaker and take a photo of the cross, then raced back down in full GTFO mode. I needed to get to that crampon track before it was buried.

Back at the saddle, I swapped out my soaked fleece gloves for mitts, put on my crampons, and started jogging down the boot-pack while annoying ice pellets stung my eyes. It dodged a number of crevasses, crossed a narrow and sketchy ice-bridge, then disappeared on some bare ice as it seemed to traverse to the rock on the left. I followed where I thought it might lead, and soon found a pile of historic garbage (rusted cans and broken glass), and a decent trail leading down the scree. I continued on the trail for awhile, eventually losing it at a flat spot. I believe the route goes left onto another glacier, but I carefully made my way down some horrid talus, then slid down a scree-chute to more talus and snow below.

I passed just below the hut, and almost stopped in to check it out, but it looked like there might be no one home, and doing so would require going uphill. Instead, I stopped for a snack on the edge of the glacier, then began the long walk home. It had stopped precipitating, and the weather seemed to be either stable or slightly improving. Going up the Studer Glacier, I even caught glimpses of some summits to the west. I slogged past the hut, where two people watched me silently from the balcony, then continued down the Oberaar Glacier toward home.

I felt a few raindrops as I neared the reservoir, where I saw a young couple out with a baby, and a party of three other dayhikers. The rain picked up about halfway around the reservoir, so I put on my poncho, immediately tearing an ice-axe hole. This was the first time I had used both on a single outing, and I clearly should have thought more carefully about how they would interact. The rain continued as I crossed the dam, passed the Oberaar Berghaus, and started down the road to the pass. I hoped to get a ride with someone headed down, but the one car that passed did not slow down. Fortunately the rain had mostly stopped, so I could put away the poncho and jog back to the car. I had grown a bit complacent, and the Bernese Alps smacked me for it. I have a few more similar outings planned, which I will take more seriously.

PS — I saw dozens of shells embedded in the glacier, slightly smaller than my hand, which seem like they might have been fired at or by an airplane. Does anyone know what they are, or why they are all over a Swiss glacier? Does the Swiss Air Force practice by strafing the Bernese Alps?

Alagna area

Having driven all the way over to Alagna, I figured I might as well spend some time in the area, checking out some of its lesser peaks. Alagna and its neighboring villages are inhabited by the Walser people, who live in the high valleys of the area and (I believe) speak their own dialect of German. One unique and immediately noticeable bit of “Walserity” is the style of their houses, which have the slate roofs of the ones I saw on the Swiss side, but also outward-sloping wooden trellises supporting their eaves. I probably should have taken the time to visit the local Walser museum, but my time in the Alps grows short.

Cima Tagliaferro

I slept in after the Monte Rosa expedition, then did some writing and tooled around town for the rest of the morning, buying a few groceries and scoring free WiFi at the tourist information center. I was planning to take the day off completely, but started getting antsy around noon, so I decided to take an afternoon hike up Cima Tagliaferro (“iron-cutter,” I believe), a handsome and easy peak on the east side of the valley. It probably has an excellent view of Monte Rosa on a clear day, but those seem to be rare.

The trail up from above Alagna is nicely shaded, but it was still punishingly hot and humid as I climbed out of the valley past a number of traditional slate-roofed huts. The trail emerges from the trees a short hike below a popular-looking restaurant which is unfortunately in the middle of a cow pasture. Above, it deteriorates on its way to a pass, climbing through a mixture of greenery that I was once again reminded includes nettles.

From the first pass, an exposed trail climbs along the west side of the ridge, with a couple of fixed ropes, to the higher Passo del Gatto (Cat’s Pass), where it joins a supposedly less-exposed trail from Rima, a village in the next valley to the east. Above, it is a straightforward hike to the summit. I had passed several hikers on their way down, and met three climbers on the summit, who had just finished the north ridge, a moderate route I should probably have tried to scramble. I admired the mostly-cloudy views for awhile, then hiked back to the car, much more nettle-aware than on the way up.

Corno Bianco

Corno Bianco is the highest peak on the west side of the Valsesia. There is a sort-of trail up its south side, while its north ridge is (according to Summit Post) rated AD+ III+, the same as the Liongrat on the Matterhorn. It is actually nowhere near that hard, but was still a delightful ridge scramble with a few fifth class moves.

I hiked down through town at dawn, then wandered around a bit until I found trail number 3, which leads to both the south-side route and to the Passo Uomo Storto (Crippled Man Pass), the start of the north ridge. The ridge climbs a bit less than 500m in over a kilometer, so it is mostly not steep, and fortunately the less-steep parts are fast, rather than requiring intricate traversing. The rock is generally good, with stable talus on the flatter sections, and positive holds on the steeper steps. On the first part of ridge, the best route stays on or just right of the crest.

I was cruising along, surprised not to find any real difficulties, periodically checking my progress on my map since the clouds streaming off the east face obscured my view of the ridge ahead. I eventually reached a northern false summit, where the rock quality deteriorated, and from which I saw what looked like some tricky towers in the mist ahead. Surprisingly, they turned out to be no more than fourth class via blocky terrain on the left. I sat around on the summit for awhile, catching occasional glimpses of nearby terrain through the mist, then began finding my way down the trail.

Checking my map, I realized that “the trail” was actually leading to the next valley west, so I traversed east, partly trying to remember the route description from Summit Post, and partly taking the most natural line toward the trail at Laghi Tailly. I eventually picked out the markers for “trail” 3a, and followed these down toward the lakes. The route is blocked by a steep step at the end of a hanging valley. Here there was a 40-foot fixed cable hanging over a steeper part of the step, which would be difficult to descend hand-over-hand, and would not stop a fall using via ferrata gear. It seemed easier to downclimb the third class rock to its right.

Below, I descended some wretchedly slick grass to the lakes, where I picked up a gradually-appearing trail. This trail eventually became an old road, then rejoined my trail from the way up just above town. I stopped to wash my face and get a drink at one of the public fountains — a nice feature of many Alpine areas, especially prevalent in Italy — then hiked back up the road to the car. Alagna had been nice, but it was time to get back to business.

Monte Rosa (Piramide Vincent, Parrotspitze, Signalkuppe, Zumsteinspitze, Dufourspitze, 14h10)

Dufourspitze from Zumsteinspitze

The Monte Rosa massif includes many of the Alps’ highest peaks, including the second-highest, the Dufourspitze. I had written off climbing Monte Rosa, since it is buried behind the huts and cable cars of Zermatt. However, some of its subpeaks are normally approached from the Italian village of Alagna (1200m). These climbs are normally done with a fairly egregious cable car (3200m) and hut (3600m). However, they can also be done car-to-car, and I realized that I could not just reach the Dufourspitze, but also sweep up some of the lesser satellite peaks along the way. It would require 3500-4000m of elevation gain, similar to what I did for Mont Blanc, making it a tough but not ridiculous day.

Tram tower

It was absolutely bucketing rain as I drove west and north to Alagna, nearly overwhelming my wipers at full speed, but the next day’s forecast looked good, so I set my alarm for 3:00 AM and tried to get some sleep. I started hiking around 3:20 and, after a false start up the path to someone’s house, found the path to the Rusa district of Alagna and on up the ski area (trail number 205 or 5). I passed the usual ski area detritus on the way up — huts, snow-making machines, lift stations — but all were quiet in the dark. The sun rose near the upper lift stations, around 3000m, hitting the peaks intermittently through some scattered clouds above the valley.

Piramide Vincent

Above the lift stations, I followed a marked path with some hand-lines along a ridge to some ruined-looking building with a diesel motor inexplicably running inside. The faint path then continued across a mixture of talus and snow to join the boot-pack from the tram station. The glacier above was slushy in places, but mostly hard enough for crampons. I crunched my way across, passing two groups of four who I thought were descending early to the tram. Later, I realized that they were climbing Piramide Vincent by its southeast glacier, something I probably should have done.

Piramide Vincent ridge

Instead, I continued up the steps and hand-lines to the ridge on the glacier’s other side, from which I could see the two high huts. The Citta di Mantova hut is the usual solid stone structure, but the Gnifetti hut is a sprawling thing that looks more like a high-altitude shanty town, a sprawling structure with bits of wood and tin roof mixed in with the stone. I skipped both, following Piramide Vincent’s rocky southern ridge and the glacier to its left toward the summit. Given the previous day’s precipitation, this turned out to be a poor choice, since the talus was spotted with a mix of fresh snow, ice, and rime. It was awkward climbing, but I made it work, and beat the glacier-climbers to the summit. I was cold, and only stopped for a few seconds before descending the track on its northwest side.

Lyskamm from Piramide Vincent

Here I began to meet the hordes coming up from the hut. There had been maybe half a foot of fresh snow on the glacier the night before, but thankfully the trail crews had been out installing fresh boot-packs, so I had only to follow the right lines. I jogged down to the saddle, then traversed around and through some lesser summits, including one with a small hut and huge Christ statue on top. Past these, I followed a path up the Parrotspitze’s narrow north snow arete. The fresh snow and cool overnight temperatures made for perfect travel conditions, with no need for crampons until near the end of the traverse.

Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze, Signalkuppe

I continued on the path over the summit, passing more people in the next saddle before joining the main road to the Margherita hut on the Signalkuppe’s summit. At 4556m, this full-sized hut is the highest building in Europe, and seems to actually be used by people “climbing” the nearby peaks. I sat out of the wind to have part of a sandwich, decided that I did not need to go to the top floor of the hut to reach the summit, then returned to the saddle to the north, passing a dozen packs people had left there to summit the nearby Zumsteinspitze. There was some sort of bottleneck on the rocks just below the summit, but it had worked itself out by the time I reached it, carefully climbing a steep track for which I would use crampons on the way down.

Someone offered to take this…

There was a small crowd on the summit, with its fine views of the nearby Dufourspitze to one side, and Lyskamm’s impressive north face to the other. Clouds were rising off the Italian side of the peaks, obscuring the valleys to that side, but it was sunny on the Swiss side, and I could see the whole of the long Monte Rosa and Grenz Glaciers. Since there was no sign of the weather deteriorating, while everyone else returned toward the hut, I started off down the ridge toward the high point, following a much fainter track.

Ridge off Zumsteinspitze

About 50 yards down, I realized that it was stupid to descend this compacted snow arete without crampons, and awkwardly stopped to put them on. This snow descent was probably the day’s crux. The prevailing wind seems to be from the west (Swiss) side, creating hard-packed snow on that side, and corresponding cornices on the other. I passed a guide and two clients shortly below the summit, who were either scouting the route or retreating; beyond, I had only hints of an old boot-pack to follow. Most of it was a careful snow descent, playing a game of “cornice chicken” to stay on the softer, lower-angle snow near the crest. However, one short rock step gave me particular trouble. After some experiment, I eventually dealt with it via a bit of dry-tooling, sliding the pinky-rest into position on my ice axe, then wedging the pick in a slot to create a handhold in the right place.

Lyskamm from Dufourspitze

The south-facing climb up from the saddle was the only real rock scrambling I did the whole day. There was still some fresh snow hanging around, but it had melted off enough for climbing without crampons, and the underlying rock was fun and solid. I strayed right of the ridge on the way up, but would have had better climbing staying on the crest. Reaching what I thought was the summit, I was disappointed to learn that I was on the Dunantspitze, named for the founder of the Red Cross. It would take another ten minutes of careful traversing to reach the actual highpoint, a bit over an hour from the Zumsteinspitze, and nine from the car.


I was surprised by the absence of a summit cross and presence of a register, though it was just a wad of wet paper. I took in the views, briefly contemplated traversing on to the Nordend, then sat down to eat the last of my food. Just as I was starting back, a helicopter came from the direction of the Margherita hut, along the ridge over the Zumsteinspitze, and flew slowly quite close to the summit. I made an obvious “I’m okay” wave, with one hand up and the other down, and received a response, so it seems like they were checking in on me.

Gnifetti shanties

It took about an hour to return to low-angle snow on the other side of the Zumsteinspitze, where I put away my crampons and turned off my brain for the day. The highway of a boot-pack back to the Gnifetti hut was finally starting to deteriorate, with occasional calf-deep postholes into the old underlying snow, but it was mostly easy going. There are several crevasses on the final descent to the hut, but the pack followed a safe path, and I did not see any ominous leg-sized holes like I did on Monte Cevedale. The lower glacier above the tram station was in wretched condition, with some of the bare ice turning to an unavoidable morass of ankle-deep slush. I wrung out my socks as best I could on the other side, then tenderized my feet on the 6000-foot hike down the ski area to the car. I was impressed by Lyskamm, a more impressive-looking peak than Monte Rosa, but would probably take the tram if I went back to do it. This is a once-a-year approach.

Three similar lists

By an interesting coincidence, there are almost the same numbers of Colorado 14ers (53), Canadian Rockies 11ers (50), and Alpine 13ers (58) — somewhere in the mid-50s, depending upon your definition. The Colorado 14ers are definitely the easiest list to complete, with very few requiring more than 4000 feet of elevation gain or any scrambling. Probably thousands of people have climbed them all. The other two lists are much more serious, with probably only a handful of people having completed either.

Having now climbed a good number of the other two lists, I have been debating with myself which would be harder for me to complete. The Canadian peaks are certainly wilder and harder to access; some like Clemenceau, I believe, cannot be done as dayhikes. On the other hand, access to the Alpine peaks is almost too easy, making all of them dayhikes from their huts. They are harder from the car, but probably still all doable in a day. None of them is very far from a road, though many rise 3000m or more above their trailheads, making for hard days. They are also more technical than the Canadian peaks, and while I think they are all within my ability by their easiest routes, I have not climbed enough of the hard ones to be sure. For example, I will probably not attempt the Aiguille Blanche near Chamonix, which sounds like it has a sketchy descent.

Some plots

I made a few plots comparing the lists. Apologies for the ugly format, but I don’t have my preferred plotting tools working on my computer right now. First up are some histograms of the prominence of all but the highest peak in each list. Prominence is the drop from a peak to the highest saddle connecting it to a higher peak, a measure of “independence.” Both the Alps and the Canadian Rockies’ most prominent peaks are significantly more independent than Colorado’s, because the Colorado peaks all lie on a high plateau. However, the Rockies 11ers are, on average, more independent than the Alps 13ers, reflecting the fact that many of the Alps’ high peaks are clustered in a few groups (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa).

Next are some altitude histograms. Colorado’s high peaks are all clustered within less than 500 feet of each other. This continues lower down, with over 600 peaks between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. Both the Alps’ and Canadian Rockies’ highest peaks, Mont Blanc and Mount Robson, are outliers. Both ranges also have much more variation among their highest peaks, with the Alps’ spread over 2700 feet, and the Rockies over 1900. I am not sure what this means.

Anyways, I had some time to kill today. Back to mountaineering-related programming activities tomorrow.


Dawn on Forni Glacier

After a somewhat disappointing choss-hike, I looked around for something a bit more like mountaineering, and a route on the König-Spitze or Grand Zebrú seemed to fit the bill: from a relatively high trailhead above 2000m, it climbed a couloir on the peak’s southeast side to the glacier on its east face. With snow/ice supposedly up to 50 degrees, it sounded like a potentially fun big-boots route. Unfortunately, the SummitPost page I used for the route is 16 years old, and does not reflect current conditions. What I found instead was a scree-chute leading to a bare glacier with a chossy rock bypass. I made it work, but it was pretty wretched business.

I unhesitatingly paid the three euros to drive up to the parking area near the Forni refuge, arriving around dinner in torrential rain. The next day’s forecast was not great, but at least it wasn’t supposed to rain until the afternoon, so I settled in for the evening in my humid car. I started out by headlamp around 5:00, hiking a road to the upper refuge, at one point passing through a herd of cows. Ah, the Alpine experience…

Wonderful couloir

Beyond the refuge, I followed a faint trail and line of cairns toward the Grand Zebru Glacier, winding my way through endless moraine. The trail gradually faded out of existence, and I continued stumbling up more moraine and then rock-buried glacier to a point where there was enough exposed ice to put on crampons. I dodged a few obvious crevasses, then followed a bit of boot-pack to the glacier’s upper edge. There I saw what I had feared: the “45-50 degree snow couloir” was completely melted out, exposing a huge scree-pile with rotten rock to either side.

Gran Zebru Glacier

It was gray and chilly, and it even started to drizzle a bit; faced with a likely slog, I almost turned around, but managed to motivate myself to paw my way up the scree, then perform some careful chossineering on the rock to the right when I could. I eventually reached the east ridge, where I saw bare glacial ice on the northeast face, and a fixed rope leading up the rock to its left. I had brought the big boots, so put on crampons and started up the ice. However, with only one tool, it was not the most secure climbing, so I soon returned to the rock, finding a bit of hardware and a couple of fixed lines.

The rock was class 3 covered in rubble, neither especially difficult nor fun. Where the slope eased, I found the ruins of some wooden structure, perhaps from the Great War, then followed an old boot-pack back onto the snow. The final summit climb was on rotten rock covered with a bit of fresh snow. I was in a mixture of clouds and mild graupel at this point, basically just heading up the path of least resistance, following fixed gear where I found it.

Summit structure

There turned out to be another wooden structure on the summit, this one in better shape, but covered with “access denied!” signs. There was also a large summit cross with a register box. I signed in, then almost immediately headed down, since there was nothing to see. I took the rock route on the way down, freely using the hand-lines when available, then did some decent scree-skiing higher up. On the rock stretch from the lower structure to the top of the scree chute, I could not help knocking down all sorts of rocks, but I was confident that no one else would be out on the mountain today.

Probably the best part of the climb was scree-skiing down the chute on mostly perfect ankle-deep rubble. Emerging below the clouds, I was pleased to find that the rain was holding off, and I had a limited view across the valley to the large Forni Glacier. The hut was crowded when I passed, with many people having ridden up on mountain bikes. I passed a couple dozen more on the hike down the road, and found the parking lot completely full of day-hikers. Despite the forecast, it actually turned out to be a nice day, so I hung out for awhile, then tracked down some WiFi in town to figure out an easy outing nearby.

Cima di Piazzi

North glacier and NW ridge

Cima di Piazzi is a stylish-looking peak rising 2100m above the town of Isolaccia in the Valdidentro, its north face covered in glaciers. There are routes from all directions, with the easy standard route coming from the south. With limited information, I chose to approach the northeast ridge from the gondola parking lot in Isolaccia. This turned out be a pretty bad plan, since you can drive higher on a road out of Isolaccia, and the ridge is a long hike followed by some obnoxious choss. I found a shorter way down, though it was just as chossy, so I recommend using another route to the summit.

Long ridge…

I was woken by rain during the night, so I was in no rush to get started, getting a semi-alpine start with only a few minutes’ headlamp time. I located a likely trail using my Peakbagger map, and started up a steep dirt road past some houses, then up some ski slopes, passing under a gondola, then around some poma lifts higher up. This was not the most inspiring “climb,” but I hoped things would improve once I reached the ridge.

Old shrine

The peak finally came back into view at a shrine built in the 1600s, dedicated to a random Irish saint who supposedly granted women fertility, a belief apparently local to the Valdidentro. From there, I left the official trails to follow what I thought might be a goat or chamois trail along the gentle ridge. The trail saw a bit of human traffic, as evidenced by occasional cairns, but much more animal, with enough dung in some parts for it to smell like a barn. There was a bit of scrambling, but it was mostly an easy walk to the Corno de Colombano.

Frickin’ sheep, man

Descending to the the col on the other side, I finally saw what had made the trail: a herd of domestic sheep. They were lazing around the saddle until I passed by, then started to follow me a bit before giving up interest. This is where things got annoying. The rock is mostly garbage, either unstable talus, outward-sloping stuff with gravel on it, or rotten. The ridge also has a number of ups and downs, each different as to whether one should go around or over. The one highlight of this section was seeing a lone ibex, who watched me from a safe distance. I had seen them before below the Matterhorn, but those had remained silent. This majestic creature was more vocal, and it turns out that ibexes squeak like marmots. I never would have guessed.


The rest of the climb was fourth class in a few places, but mostly just annoying. However, it was uncrowded and nearly unmarked for a change: I saw no people or boot-prints, and only a single old sling. The summit had the standard cross, with a well-protected register attached, which I dutifully signed. The north glacier was too steep to descend with running shoe crampons, so my only option was to return down the ridge. I tried to cut off some distance by dropping north down a subsidiary ridge. It was more uber-choss, but at least it was short, and relatively easy going in the valley back to another road. From there, it was just a road-walk back to town.

Global warming strikes again

Europe is experiencing an historic heat wave, of which I was well aware while sitting comfortably on a 3400m summit in a t-shirt. This can be dismissed as just weather, not climate, but global warming is ever-present in the Alps, where you are constantly surrounded by rapidly-retreating and long-studied glaciers. Just today, Olivier Bonnet died when a rock broke under him on the Dent du Géant. As the article concludes, “because of global warming and the high temperatures of recent years, the mountain is drying up and is weakening.”

If you have some time, you should read this recent Times review of our sorry history of climate policy. I knew about some of the players, but did not realize how close we came to doing the right thing, or how richly John Sununu deserves a special place in hell. The takeaway is that we humans have known about the greenhouse effect since the 1950s, but have demonstrated fairly conclusively that we just don’t care enough about the future. Neither our political institutions nor, perhaps, our evolved psychology, is capable of addressing a long-term problem like climate change. I don’t think we will go extinct, as much as we may deserve it, but I’m sure glad I won’t be alive in another 100 years.

Monte Cevedale, Suldenspitze

Welcome to another edition of “hikes with spikes,” where Dr. Dirtbag shows what can be accomplished by hiking with crampons. Today, we will talk about Monte Cevedale, a glaciated peak near Sulden in the Ortler Alps. Like Ortles, it is very popular on a weekend. Unlike Ortles, it is dog-friendly rather than a friendly dog. Sulden is a nice place to stay, so I wanted to find an excuse to stay there without repeating any ground. Cevedale is normally approached from the other side, but there are a couple of feasible routes from Sulden: one goes over the Paso del Lago Gelado to the Longo/Cevedale glacier, while the other climbs the Solda Glacier to the usual hut. I went up the first, and down the second.

I once again got started just after 5:00, this time hiking the road on the left of the Solda River instead of the trail on the right. This road climbs acceptably steeply to a large refuge and gondola station, both silent as I passed. I followed the signs optimistically pointing to the Casati refuge. They are technically correct (the best kind!), in that the refuge is in that direction, but there is nothing like a trail leading there. There is a cairned path along the Solda Glacier’s left moraine, which fades as such things usually do.

My map showed a route onto the glacier, then back onto rock and up to the Paso del Lago Gelado. Given that it is an old map, and the glaciers are now much diminished, I thought I would be smart and keep on the rock to its left, avoiding awkward transitions on and off the ice. This turned out to be a terrible idea, as the ridge was a steep garbage-fest, while there appears to still be a path along the old route. It was slow going, but I made it work, eventually reaching the pass to find the remains of a hut destroyed in 1918 (bombs?), a memorial to that hut, and a banner celebrating the 120th anniversary of its construction. There was also a register, which I duly signed.

From the hut’s remains, I picked up a decent boot-pack up toward the Casati refuge, which for some reason has its own mini-refuge 100 yards uphill. The track started out across bare ice, then started playing with crevasses in ways that made no sense, with a couple of leg-sized holes in the snow. Not wanting to be a part of that, I took off on a shortcut across bare ice toward the lines of people making their way towards Cevedale. I skipped the hut, following a different boot-pack for awhile before making my way up to the one leading to the summit.

With maybe 100 people leaving from the same hut to climb the same peak that day, you would think that the boot-pack would be clear and safe. You would be wrong. The crevasses were usually obvious: white-brown patches of snow among the blue-gray ice, making for easy if circuitous route-finding. However crampon tracks don’t last on ice, so there were a variety of paths and more leg-shaped holes. Since only had one life in this platform-jumping game, I took my time here, patching together bare ice and solid boot-packs, trying to scope out snow bridges from the side, and making a few leaps.

Approaching the long ridge between Cevedale’s two summit, the trails converged, and I gradually caught a group of three with… a dog?! Yes, the three men were roped together with a happy and impatient mid-sized mutt, who seemed practiced at following boot-packs. I passed this group and several others on the well-beaten pack to the summit, cranking away in just a t-shirt. The summit was the usual incomprehensible foreign language chaos, also featuring a very Italian man in big boots, a harness… and short-shorts and wife beater. It wasn’t that warm, so I put on my layers and sat to the side in the lee of the summit to admire the views. The König-Spitze, Zebu, and Ortler rose rockily to one side, while numerous heavily-glaciated peaks rose to the other. Breaking the routine, I interacted with some of my fellow summiters to share picture-taking duties, watched the bad-ass dog summit, then took off back down the glacier.

I had planned to tag the Suldenspitze and return to Sulden via the pass, but there seemed to be people congregated at the end of the wrong boot-pack I had followed on the way up, so I headed over to investigate. I got a bit lazy, and was chastised by putting a leg through into the void, reminding me to pay more attention. The end of the boot-pack turned out to be another mind-boggling bit of WWI hardware: three large guns on the edge of the glacier. The heroic and clever Austrians (Tyrol is still basically Austria) had stolen them from the Italians, then dragged them up there using teams of 120 men. They had then lobbed 30-40kg shells up to 9.3km at various Italian supply routes. Airplanes and helicopters have made this all obsolete, but no less awesome.

I returned to the Casati hut, then continued on the tourist trail to the Suldenspitze, an unimpressive bump that does not even appear to be the highpoint of its ridge, but which has a cross. I was about to head back to the Cevedale Glacier when I saw a couple and their young daughter topping out on the Solda Glacier, implying that there was a fresh boot-pack on a moderate route. This looked much faster than going around to the pass, so I blew by them as they were unroping, setting a bad example for their daughter by jumping and sliding down the glacier unroped with no crampons.

I found extensive bare ice lower down, and put on the spikes, winding my way down through a mild crevasse-maze and some streams, aiming for a cluster of people roping up on the talus. I wrung out my socks next to them, then hiked back to the tram and down the road. It had been just over an 8-hour hike, a fun and reasonable day out in the hills.

Ortler (Hintergrat)

While panning around looking for prominent and possibly interesting peaks on the way between the Dolomites and the horrors of Switzerland, the name “Ortles” caught my attention. Pronounced in an American way, it sounds like a perfect name for a large, happy, slightly stupid dog. It turns out, however, that while “Ortles” is in Italy, it is in Tyrol, which is basically still part of Austria. Everyone speaks German, and the peak is “der Ortler,” which sounds more like a sinister Nazi device than a friendly dog: “no, Herr Bond, you vill be given to der Ortler.” Anyways, it turns out to be a famous peak, the highest in the Tyrol Alps and, before World War I, the highest in the Germanic part of Europe. Because of this, it was first climbed relatively early, in 1804.

Also, in the midst of its transfer from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Italy, the Austrians dragged artillery to within 100m of its summit. Both here and in the Dolomites, I have been struck by just how insanely hard-fought the war was between Italy and the AHE, and how little I know about it. WWI in general was glossed over in my high school history courses, with more time devoted to the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and to World War II. Most of the time we spent on it focused on the northern war between the British/French and the Germans, possibly because one side spoke English. I don’t know how the southern war’s casualties compared, but Italy and the AHE basically waged trench warfare in the Alps, turning mountains into bunkers and artillery posts.

Anyways, the Ortler’s standard route follows a roundabout path from the village of Solda/Sulden, climbing far west to a break in the peak’s west ridge, then back to a high hut around 3000m. From there, it continues along a rock ridge and up a somewhat complicated glacier (which I think used to be simpler) to the summit. I decided to make things a bit more interesting by climbing the Hintergrat (east ridge), a more direct route with a supposed 5.6 crux.

Solda looks intimidatingly Swiss, but fortunately still has a camping/parking lot above town. Conveniently, the Hintergrat approach starts right from this lot, and is well-signed, so I had no trouble finding the start in the dark around 5:15. The trail climbed efficiently up around the toe of the west ridge, to a large 3-story stone hut where people traditionally start the climb. There were a couple of people standing outside the hut, and a couple more suffering a voluntary bivouac (i.e. camping) nearby, but I did not really feel like talking to anyone, so I hiked quickly midway between.

While it is about 1000m from hut to summit, much of that elevation is gained on limestone scree, which would be an absolute nightmare if there were not a nice boot-pack in most places. I followed the steep path, listening to a couple of very large ice-falls from an active sérac on Monte Zebu’s north face. This was clearly normal, as there was a nice fresh pile of white ice on the otherwise rubble-covered glacier below.

At around 3600-3700m, the climbing finally began. I was about to start traversing a jagged knife-edge ridge when I heard someone bypassing it to the left. I soon found the path, marked by a piton and some very polished limestone, and saw a few minutes later that my route would not have worked, as the narrow ridge ends in an overhang. A short distance on, I met two parties piled up below the crux, a 10-foot step with some polished holds and a chain on top. I probably could have climbed it without grabbing the chain in its pre-polished state, but was happy to have the aid given current conditions.

Above this, I steadily threaded my way through parties doing various things with ropes. The terrain was mostly class 3-4, with maybe a harder move here or there, it was warm enough to climb without gloves, and I generally had a good time cruising to the summit. There were already maybe 20 people on top when I got there around 8:30, most or all having climbed the standard route from the other side. I found a spot to eat a sandwich, trying to avoid being stepped on by crampons. A layer of clouds hid many lesser peaks, but there were fine views of Monte Zebu and the Konig-Spitze (Grand Zebu) nearby, and some other high peaks I could not identify farther away.

The summit was only getting more crowded, so I started down the well-beaten path through the glacier. Fortunately I did not have to do any route-finding of my own, because the way down was actually somewhat complicated, with a ladder over a crevasse, several metal posts that guides were using to belay clients, and a few places where people had put a leg through a weak snow bridge. Finally I reached some rock near a bivouac shelter, and hoped that I was done with the day’s glacier-work. Unfortunately, I only had a couple hundred yards’ reprieve before getting back on the glacier for another stretch. This probably used to be a continuous glacier climb.

Back on rock for good, I traversed some metal steps, then followed chains and crowds down the rock ridge to another large 3-story hut. I hadn’t paid much attention to the route below this, and did not realize just how far out on the ridge it goes before doubling back to descend toward Solda. I jogged some of the path, but I was in no hurry, and did not feel like really trying for speed. As a result, I finally made it back to the upper end of town around lunch, taking longer for the descent than the ascent. It might have been quicker to reverse the Hintergrat, but this way was slightly easier, and it also gave me a feel for just how large Ortles (bad dog!) is.

To kill some time afterwards, I checked out the satellite Messner Mountain Museum in town. While it was not really worth the €8 entry fee, it still had some interesting stuff, including paintings of the Ortler and Aosta valleys showing their glaciers 100 years ago, and some historic ice gear. Having now seen some of the famous Alpine north faces, and the primitive ice axes, crampons, and protection used to tackle them in the 1930s, puts my meager efforts in perspective.

Cimon della Pala, Cima della Vezzana

Cimon della Palla is an impressive sight from Rolle Pass, rising 1100m above the road. Looking through things to do in the Dolomites on Mountain Project, its northwest ridge, a 10-pitch 5.4, sounded like a perfect target. Not so. The Mountain Project description turns out to be completely useless — “go up a ramp, then up the ridge, then up another ramp” — and the route does not see enough traffic for there to be a use trail on the approach. I started up something that seemed like it might be the northwest ridge, and found traces of previous use: an equalized piton and old hex, and a piton driven into an outward-sloping ledge traverse. I did not see anything I wanted to try above that second piton, so I carefully and somewhat scarily downclimbed the ridge. Maybe I just didn’t have it that day, or the overcast skies got me down, but that sure didn’t feel 5.4. I scouted out another potential start, but I was already defeated, and retreated to town to do laundry.

I returned the next morning to do the standard route, rated UIAA II-III (i.e. low fifth). I parked at a cowshed just over the pass, then took a long, traversing trail toward Passo Verde. Along the way, I ran into a sign for a ferrata leading to the bivouac hut high on Cimon della Palla’s southeast side. I thought for a minute, then decided to check it out. This turned out to be a great choice: while the ferrata had a few iron rungs, it was mostly unimproved, and the original climb was a fun scramble on awesome steep limestone, mostly class 2-4 with a few low fifth class crux sections. My main interaction with metal was not pulling on it, but banging my head on the stupid cable when it was in the way. Taking this route turns a fairly short summit scramble from the hut into a full 800m or so of fun.

From the end of the ferrata, I trudged up some limestone scree (the worst), following a faint use trail along the peak’s southeast ridge. I stayed close to the crest, eventually reaching the east side of a large notch below the summit. On the way back, I found that there is a north-side bypass, but I powered through by downclimbing some class 4 rock.

The first part of the summit climb has been partially ferrata-ed, so after messing around a bit, I followed the cable. Above, there seemed to be several options to proceed. I ended up climbing some rock on the far left, which I found to be the route’s crux, steep and somewhat rotten. Just past this section, I came to the natural arch mentioned in the route description. Supposedly the easiest route passes through the arch, but after playing around a bit on the wet rock inside, I decided it was easier to climb up and across arch, on exposed but solid rock. From there, a bit more scrambling led to the summit cross, which is actually short of the true summit. I scrambled over to the highpoint on the narrow ridge, then returned to the cross to have a sandwich.

I was a bit surprised not to meet anyone else on my return: surely there should be people climbing an iconic Dolomites peak on an August Friday. However, I quickly ran into crowds as I traversed to Cimon della Palla’s slightly taller but less impressive neighbor, Cima della Vezzana. Unlike Palla, which has no easy route, Vezzana is a walk along a trail with almost no exposure, skirting below the peak’s huge, steep west face until just before the summit. I passed a group of ten or so hikers on my way to the summit, seemingly enjoying the fine day.

I hung out for awhile, hoping to get a clear view of Palla’s north face, but the mist never fully cooperated, so I eventually gave up and headed home. Rather than downclimb the ferrata, I took a trail around toward the Rosetta refuge, which began with some fine boot-skiing down the Valle dei Cantoni. The shortcut trail toward Passo Verde was adequately marked, but apparently rarely used. I saw a group of men having lunch near the intersection with the traversing trail back home, whom I avoided. I continued along the main trail, past some picks and shovels, only to hear one of them yell at me. It turns out that they were a trail crew who had just rerouted the trail above a wash-out, and I had started onto the old trail. I thanked them, then pointed some French hikers in the right direction on the other side of the detour. The rest was just trail hiking, with a long break to let a single group of 20-30 people carrying helmets to pass. Maybe Cimon della Palla will be busy tomorrow.

Fedaia Pass

Fedaia Pass lies immediately north of the Marmolada, the Dolomites’ highest peak. It is home to the unusual Lago di Fedaia, a reservoir with dams at both ends. It is also swarming with tourists, who eat at a few restaurants near the larger dam, and ride a ridiculous old “stand in a basket” ski lift to another restaurant half-way up the long-suffering Marmolada.

Marmolada (Ferrata Eterna Brigata)

Marmolada is famous for long, hard routes on its sheer south face; the north face is an easy glacier climb, and the west ridge is an historic via ferrata. The peak was a battlefield during the World War I, and the west ridge ferrata was originally used to reach bunkers and artillery high on the peak. Most of the hardware has been upgraded in the century since, but you can still see the bunkers, and traces of the original ferrata. The opposing Austrians dug and inhabited a network of tunnels in the now much-diminished glacier on the face, which did not even last through the war, since of course glaciers move.

As suggested by Mountain Project, I went up the ferrata and down the glacier, taking five hours and change car-to-car. There are several trails leading to the top of the lift, and I followed the one starting at the large camping/parking area above the restaurants. Higher up, the trail was worse than the surrounding limestone slabs, so I took those instead. From the top of the lift, spotty cairns and bits of trail make a descending traverse to the base of the route. I started out staying too high, probably headed for a buttress on the north ridge, then descended some sketchy gravel-over-slabs to get back on-route.

I could have gone around the bottom of a small glacier, but I had my ice axe and crampons, so I instead followed the diagonal boot-pack up to the start of the cables. At the sign warning that this was a “difficult ferrata,” I put away the spiky things and got to work. A via ferrata (or kletterstieg) has two things: a cable attached to posts, and (usually) some metal hardware driven into the rock. I believe the idea is that you wear a harness with two short leashes with carabiners, used to attach yourself to the cable. You then climb the rock (and optional hardware), moving the leashes past the posts one at a time. If you fall, you will slide back down the cable to the nearest post. In practice, people just yank on the cable, in part because the limestone nearby becomes incredibly polished. I have not seen someone fall on a ferrata, but I imagine the results would be painful but not fatal, and probably not require a rescue.

I didn’t have the gear, so I just scrambled the thing. I was somewhat ambivalent about how to treat the cable. It is a less-than-ideal handhold, especially without gloves, so I ended up avoiding it when I could, but was not at all reluctant to grab it when it was useful. The climb remained fun, but it was more like playing on a jungle gym than mountaineering. I had gotten an “Italian alpine” start around 6:00 to hopefully beat the crowds and the rocks they could rain down upon me, and it seemed to have worked. I was well ahead of two other groups starting the route, and quickly left them behind since I did not have to clip things. However, I was surprised to meet a German couple descending. I had forgotten that there is a hut on the summit, where they had spent the night.

I climbed up various giant staples and metal bars for awhile, alternating with stretches of actual rock, then made a long scree-traverse to the summit, finally passing the hut’s apparent compost pile on my way to the cross. There were already a fair number of German-speakers at the top, who had come up the Glacier, including two young girls taking pictures hanging from the arms of the cross. I didn’t say anything, other than motioning that they should try some pull-ups.

It was early, so I hung around awhile longer, then descended the upper glacier in just shoes. I scrambled down an easy rock rib (more cables), then put on crampons to descend the main glacier. This was actually somewhat of a pain, with patches of bare glacial ice, small crevasses to be hopped, and a slushy surface making my crampons less solid. Near the bottom of the ice, I finally began running into the teeming hordes on their way up, who had possibly waited for the first lift. Mountaineering is sure different here than in the “real Alps”…

<4h>Via della Trincee (ferrata)

It was not even noon, so I needed something else to do. Another WWI-related ferrata on the other side of the lake had caught my attention for a couple of reasons: first, the rock was volcanic rather than the Dolomites’ usual limestone; second, it involved tunnels created during the war. I adjusted the contents of my pack, then walked across the dam to make the climb up the hot, south-facing hillside. I passed a handful of people on the trail, then a large herd of sheep, accompanied by a shepherd and two sheepdogs. There were considerably more people on the ridge, since it can be reached by a gondola from the other side.

I could see a steady stream of people on the first part of the ferrata, so I did not need the occasional signs painted on rocks. I was pleased to find myself the only climber at the base of the route, which starts up a steep face of dark, cobbled volcanic rock, with only a single metal step. I got maybe 10-15 feet up before getting stuck, unable to find a comfortable move up the polished face. I might have been able to go hand-over-hand up the cable, but probably not without gloves. I backed off and sat a minute, deciding what to do next.

There were several faint trails along the southern base of the cliffs, and I contoured along one of these, then climbed back up some class 3-4 terrain that, with very little route-finding, joined the ferrata after its initial climb, right before a rickety bridge. Oddly, the rest of the route was much more thoroughly equipped and easier than the first, easily-avoided pitch. In particular, two sets of continuous rungs have been added to a 40-foot pillar standing to one side of the crest, likely a modern addition.

I found a few tunnels after the pillar, but they were disappointingly shallow, leading to what I think were artillery windows looking north. The crest is long, but fortunately there were long, fast stretches of walking on a path through grass. I passed dozens of people, none of whom seemed to give me a dirty look for not having the proper gear. Finally, near the eastern end of the rocky ridge, I went through some significant tunnels. The first, maybe 50-100 yards long, passed from one side of the ridge to the other, through some living or storage quarters. The final one was more like a quarter-mile long, with multiple branching passages and painted arrows showing the path. It had a couple sets of steps, and connected troop quarters with more artillery windows.

Emerging from the other side, I realized I was at the end of the route. A short trail leads to the top of yet another ski lift, or a road switch-backing down to the eastern dam of Lago di Fedaia. I crossed to the south side, then walked the crowded pedestrian road back to my car, passing 20 or so young people swimming in the lake. Put together, the two outings made for a fairly full day.