Category Archives: Tourism

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 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.

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.

Écrins to Chamonix

La Meije from the Galibier


Though part of me wanted to spend more time in the relatively laid-back Écrins, I needed a day off, and figured I would be bored if I didn’t put it to some use. So it was time to drive boldly into the tourist pits of Chamonix. My phone plotted some stupid toll route through Italy, but I saw a little gray line on the map that looked more direct. If it was both more direct and slower, I suspected it would be more interesting. I was right — the road turned out to be the Col du Galibier, a ridiculous mountain road I had seen many times on TV while watching the Tour de France.

Aiguille d’Arve

There were quite a few cyclists on the road, and some motorcycles as well, but not much car traffic, so the narrow road with no guard rails and lots of blind corners was not too stressful. There is a sort-of useless tunnel cutting off the final few switchbacks of the pass, but I drove to the top, then got out to look at the informational sign pointing out the various peaks. Probably most impressive, I had a clear view of the nearby La Meije, a complex 3983-meter peak on the northern end of the Écrins range. Farther away, the Barre’s glaciated north face was finally visible, standing tall above its neighbors. The nearby Aiguille d’Arve also made an impression, looking like a small Matterhorn. I probably should have climbed the nearby Grand Galibier, but this was supposed to be a recovery day.

Mont Blanc

I continued down the eastern side of the Galibier, through a ski town and over the Col du Télégraphe, a barely-noticeable bump on its west side, then continued descending to the highway. I put in some quick, mindless driving, then turned off on the road through Ugine to reach Chamonix. This part of the drive was much more engaging, with the road winding along the side of a narrow gorge, and enough traffic to keep me alert. The road eventually deposited me at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, which was near my next trailhead, but also proved to be a terrible tourist pit with no usable WiFi. I needed to get online and also buy another SIM card to replace my Spanish one that, though promised to work in France, did no such thing.

Wading through the weekend mobs, I eventually found a parking spot and some usable internet outside the Montenvers cog-rail station. It was mid-afternoon, so in addition to the expected tourists, there were lots of fit, attractive climber-couples coming off the train in mountain boots, with various route-dependent climber-stuff hanging off their packs (ropes, rock shoes, ice tools, etc.). There was also a steady stream of mountain runners, more and less poser-ish, in the requisite uniform of compression leggings and Salomon running vests.

After taking in this scenery and completing my internetting, I headed into town, where I found a news stand that sold overpriced French SIM cards and data plans. Whatever… I’m saving money by sleeping in the back of a little Citroën and not riding trams, so I can afford to spend money on communicating and not being lost. Then it was back through Saint Gervais, where I tried and failed to get the rental up a steep dirt road toward the Chalets Miage, then gave up and slept near the base around 1000 meters. It would be a long day…

Pico Tesorero

Pico Tesorero


[Sorry for the lack of place-names, but this was written with super-slow internet access, because Ailefroide is like that. Also, not all the photos uploaded. — ed.]

This was supposed to be the day for me to climb Torrecerredo, the highest summit in Picos de Europa. However, a combination of a less-than-awesome map, unsettled weather, and general wussiness led me to instead tag this consolation peak, which had a good view of what I should have climbed.

No camping?

I picked up my rental car in León, then managed to escape the city without getting lost or in a wreck, no small feat. Once on the open road, I had a chance to relax a bit and get used to driving stick as I made my way to the eastern side of Picos de Europa. The first part of the drive was familiar, while the second part became new and interesting as I climbed the gradual side of a pass, then descended a windy, switchbacked, lane-and-a-half road down to the edge of the park. I wasn’t sure about the dirtbagging situation, as this part of the park seems more developed than Valdeón. I was momentarily dismayed to see a “no overnight RV parking” sign at the entrance to the large lot near the tram, but then I saw several RVs blatantly camping there, so I figured I would be fine curled in the back of my little Citroen.

High pasture

My crappy map (the “global topo” from Peakbagger) showed two similarly-long routes leading toward Torrecerredo from this side, and lacked contour lines over much of the relevant area. Somewhat arbitrarily, I chose the one to the west. It started out nicely, with efficient switchbacks leading through a break in the cliffs ringing the valley. I enjoyed a jog around a meadow in a high valley, home to some cows that I heard but did not see, then began regretting my route choice.

Poky limestone “slabs”

I passed a single man putting a junction sign back in place, then began climbing to a col. I quickly found myself on solid snow, reduced to following the line on my crappy map, an occasional cairn on an exposed outcropping, and bits of what might have been an old boot-pack. The route was up and down and generally slow: even when I was not trudging through snow, I was making my way across limestone slabs eroded into small, sharp fins that would do some serious damage if I tripped and fell.

Torrecerredo, left

By the time I reached the col where I could finally see the semi-famous cliffs of Naranjo de Bulnes, it was late morning, I was low on food, and it looked like the forecast rain might arrive. Rather than simply head home, I decided to tag the peaks on either side of the col as a consolation prize, Torre de los Horcados Rojos and Pico Tesorero. The former was pretty lame, a minor bump on a ridge, while the latter was a semi-legitimate peak, with good views of Torre de la Pardida and Torrecerredo to the north, taunting me in the sun.

I took some frustrated photos, then boot-skied down to the trail, this time taking the eastern trail, which leads past the top of the tram. As I should have guessed, this trail was easier, better-maintained, and well-used, and I passed crowds of tourists as I drew close to the tram. Rather than doing the obvious thing and following the trail down from the tram station, I trusted my evil map again, taking a more direct “trail” that dropped basically straight down a narrow cleft that I would never have otherwise attempted. It was steep and slick, but efficient, and it even had a decent hand-line to get around a waterfall and chockstone. Below, I chased a chamois for a bit, then managed to touch some plant that gave me an itchy rash for the next hour before reaching the real trail. With my new firsthand knowledge, I could have stayed around another day to tag the highpoint, but I was getting impatient to reach the alps, and would have been bored hanging around an entire Spanish afternoon, so I decided to take a chunk out of the painful drive to eastern France instead.

Cain, El Bermeja

Trail along cliff

After taking care of various errands in León, we drove up to Picos de Europa, Europe’s oldest national park, arriving in Posada de Valdeón
sometime before Spanish dinner. The weekend forecast predicted a
significant amount of rain and thunderstorms, but I still hoped to get in some peak-bagging, or at least to see some peaks. While it would have been easy to dirtbag it by myself in the area, Mike and Linda would not have put up with it, so I stayed in a hotel and even had the prix fixe dinner at a restaurant. My chosen dessert course was a scoop of the local (and supposedly famous) Valdeón cheese, which was like a soft, pungent Roquefort, best eaten diluted onto crusty bread.

Head of canal

Saturday dawned looking like an indoor day, but Mike and I set out downhill anyways, first driving the steep, winding road down the narrowing canyon to Caín, then continuing along the Ruta del Cares, a trail along a canal mysteriously paralleling the Rio Cares toward the Atlantic. Both trail and tunnel were built around 1920; as was then typical with ambitious construction projects, around 40 people died in the process. As we started out, the river was clear and swift-flowing, with a tinge of the blue typical of a glacier-fed river: the Picos were home to some glaciers in the not-too-distant past.

Canal overflow

Both trail and canal are carved high into the walls of the narrow gorge, while the river drops away below. The trail starts off as a series of tunnels, with occasional tunnels and half-tunnels continuing along the way. The canal is similarly built, with overflow slots to limit the amount of water that makes it downstream. This being the melt season, many of those slots spouted waterfalls down to the river. The many warning signs along the canal alerted me to the fact that this would be an amazing inner-tube run later in the season, when the water might be low enough to avoid being drowned in the canal’s tunnel portions.

Natural arch

The rain started a short ways down the canyon, and soon became steady and drenching, filling the trail with puddles. I had fortunately brought my poncho, Mike had a semi-waterproof cycling jacket, and the air was warm down below 2000 feet. Still, I hate being wet, and probably would have turned around if Mike were not along. I am glad I did not, because the trail and gorge are both worth seeing, and because the rain stopped after about an hour, and mostly held off for the rest of the hike.

After contouring along above the river, the route drops about 1000 feet to the trailhead at its north end. A serious-looking ranger warned us about the rockfall danger along the trail, but couldn’t really do anything to us when we told him that we were returning to our car at Caín. We jogged many of the flat and downhill sections on the way back, passing many more tourists than on the way out, and reached the trailhead late in the morning. Despite the weather, the town was becoming overwhelmed, with groups of old Spaniards, some German-looking motorcyclists, and an American tour-guide explaining to her flock how to adjust a backpack.

Chamois

Afternoons are long in Spain this time of year — sunrise is around 7:00, sunset around 10:00 — so I decided to check out a trail I had seen across the river from Posada de Valdeón. Not sure what I was doing, I started out with just my phone and a water bottle in hand. Like many area trails, this one started out as an old roadbed to a water-tank, then became fainter as it continued above cow territory. However, it was extravagantly-cairned in most places, so I had little trouble following it as it traversed back south, then climbed up along a scree-chute and crossed to a bench hidden from town by some cliffs.

Summit marker

Near the top of the bench, I flushed a herd of Cantabrian chamois (rebeccos), which look like a cross between deer and bighorn sheep, and are remarkably fast on turf, scree, and rock. The weather continued to be iffy, but it did not look like serious rain, so I paged around the map on my phone, and decided to try climbing El Bermeja. The trail continued to a point south of the peak, going over and around some lingering snowfields, then faded without a line of cairns. I traversed and climbed around west, ascending a class 3-4 slot and class 2-3 ledges. While it creates imposing cliffs, the limestone also seems to create solutions to such problems.

The weather seemed to be turning as I topped out on a ridge near the summit, so I wasted little time jogging and scrambling to the top. I found a fake ice axe, a shiny summit plaque, and a register canister holding a few wet business cards, a novel yet reassuringly familiar marker for my first European summit. Worried about the rain and cold — I only had shorts and a t-shirt — I spent all of 30 seconds taking in the limited view before trying to lose elevation as quickly as possible.

I had seen a cairn near the top of a snowfield just below the summit, so I decided to descend that way, carefully sliding more-or-less directly toward my roundabout ascent route lower down. I made my way back to the trail on a mix of snowfields and horrible limestone scree, then hike-jogged past the chamois toward town, taking a more direct trail lower down. The whole descent took about 1h20 — not bad for 4300 feet — and landed me in town with a few hours to rest and clean up before dinner.

Bienvenidos a Benavides

Back of cathedral and tapas tables


Because my connecting flight took off at 6:15, and because I am cheap, I saw no reason to get a room in town when there was an airport to sleep in. The Dublin airport is not big and busy enough to sleep unobtrusively in a corner, as I have in Mexico, Ecuador, and the United States, but it looked like a few people were sleeping in the 24-hour food court. I tried my best, getting maybe 2-3 hours, and was fortunately awake when an employee inexplicably came around at 4:00 AM to tell people they couldn’t sleep there. I shuffled back through security, then made the most of a meager airport lounge before boarding the plane. Oddly, we boarded by taking a bus to a holding area, then climbing stairs from the tarmac; similarly, we disembarked via stairs and buses in Madrid. I assume that Aer Lingus saves money by doing this.

León’s old square

Finally reunited with my heavy and awkward bag of climbing stuff, my next goal was to get out of Madrid. After a mistake, I figured out that I needed to take the Renfe train rather than the metro to the central train station, where I bought an overpriced ticket to León on the Avila, Spain’s version of high-speed rail. The trains can do 300 kph, but only on suitable tracks, so with three intermediate stops and unsuitable track on much of the route, the ride from Madrid to León took a bit over two hours. Fortunately my travails with monolingual Spanish speakers ended here, as Mike and Linda picked me up at the station. While I know enough Spanish to have dealt with similar circumstances in Ecuador, some combination of sleep deprivation and fast Castilian Spanish was getting the best of me.

Cathedral under renovation

Since we were already in the city, it was time for a bit of tourism. First up was the León cathedral, an impressive structure built in the 14th century, when the city had a population of only around 5000. I am not a cathedral connoisseur, but I found it worth the entry fee. Next was the old city, a walled section of the modern one with very restricted car access. Unlike many old cities, which tend to become museums full of tourists, León still seems to serve its inhabitants. Many of the buildings in the old city show signs of centuries of repair, and even feature modern graffiti, though I saw none on the church or city wall. Some people were even playing some horrible music as a sound check for what turned out to be a youth flamenco performance on a stage in the church square.

From a dirtbag perspective, perhaps the best thing about León is tapas. Order a corto (small beer) for about $1.50, and you get free food. Sometimes it is the kitchen’s choice, but often you get to pick from various appetizer-like things like sausage, ham, or sardines on bread. From 8:00 PM to midnight or so, you can go from bar to bar among the Spaniards, assembling a leisurely meal. Sometimes tapas even appear in unexpected places. On a later visit, we stopped at a meat-and-cheese shop for some cecina (basically dry Spanish ham made with beef). Unprompted, and before we had even asked for something, the lady behind the counter gave us each a piece of bread with samples of cecina and two types of sausage. Score!

The next day, we combined bureaucracy and tourism with a trip to Avila, a cartoonishly perfect medieval walled town. I was duly impressed by the architecture, but unlike León, most of Avila’s old city seems to serve mostly tourists. There is even a fee to walk on top of the wall, which I did not deign to pay. I could imagine living in León, but never Avila. But enough of that — while I may circle back for some cultural musings later, you come here for the peak-bagging, so I will provide.

Go to Erin, brah!

Midnight at 65 north and 38k feet


Those of you who know me in real life probably know what this is about. For those who don’t, it will begin to explain why June was relatively quiet. My friend Mike moved to Spain this spring, and invited me to visit. Also, people have been telling me for awhile that I should try climbing in Europe, despite the terrible expense. Putting these two things together, I finally decided to make both happen during the months of July and August this year. With the significant fixed cost of getting here, it makes sense to go once and go big.

Greenland ocean-bound glacier

The first step was figuring out how best to fly here from a place where I could stash my car. Seattle seemed like the best place to leave the car, which meant that Aer Lingus was the cheapest carrier, with a hop through Dublin. The first leg may be the carrier’s only flight out of Seattle, which seems to be representative of its broader plan: gather everyone to its hub in Dublin, make them wait for sometimes terrible amounts of time, then scatter them to their destinations.

Flying west-to-east over the Atlantic is fairly pleasant: take off in the evening, have dinner, experience a short night, then arrive in Europe in the morning. At least, that is what I remember from the last time I visited nearly 20 years ago. This was the first time I had flown such a long arc so close to the summer solstice, though. Taking off from Seattle, we arced across the North Cascades, then crossed the Selkirks and Rockies near or north of Rogers Pass (all in the clouds, sadly). Beyond, the flight peaked at somewhere around 65 degrees north, crossing Hudson Bay and the southern tip of Greenland before dropping to Dublin, which lies at a sunny 53 degrees north. It turns out that it’s not very dark this time of year at 65 degrees north when you are 38,000′ above the Earth, so I did not have much luck sleeping, though I got some interesting views of northern Canada and Greenland’s eastern shore.

Rose garden

Landing in Dublin a bit after noon, I was planning to kill time in the airport lounge, then try to get a decent night of sleep, which would mostly reset my biological clock. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to like you doing this, so I instead went out through Irish customs. They were surprisingly probing, asking to see proof of my return flight, but thankfully friendlier than the Canadians, and I soon had permission to spend up to two days in Ireland. I had not planned to play tourist on the way over, so now I needed to figure out what to do. I used the airport wifi to get some idea of the city’s shape, then bought a bus ticket to somewhere fairly central ($12 round-trip) and began walking. My goals were to (1) get a sense of what the city and people are like, (2) see some old stuff, and (3) not end up ordering a pint of Guinness at the Irish version of Señor Frog’s.

Monster devil’s club

First up was the 220-year-old national botanical garden, because it was the closest interesting-looking thing to the airport, and because it seemed a good place to walk, relax, and avoid the midday heat. I have spent some time in Seattle’s botanical garden, and while the Irish one seems to have fewer exotic plants and be less beginner-friendly (many plants are only labeled with Latin names), its age has let it grow some giant trees, including both European things like yew and ash, and well-developed New World plants like California oak and cedar. Other highlights included a rose garden, a collection of orchids and pitcher-plants, and some heinous big brother of devil’s club with leavs 3-4 feet across.

From there, I made my way south and west toward the city center, passing through the historical things on my way to Dublin Castle, crossing the River Liffey on Capel Street, one of many bridges. Fortunately Dublin is fairly compact and civilized, so I made it across town without much suffering and without getting run over. I give a lot of credit to the cyclists and drivers for my survival, because the combination of left-side driving, one-way streets, and weird intersections had me never quite sure where to look for oncoming traffic.

Dublin Modular Castle

While I saw some nice church spires on the way, the castle was sort of disappointing. It consists of a single, large medieval tower, with a 19th-century gothic revival church bolted onto one side, and some other sort of 19th-century administrative structure coming off at 90 degrees to the church. I gather the incide is nice, but I was there too late, and they charged for admission.

Now to find food while avoiding tourist traps. I had no clue where to start searching for authentic Irish food (colcannon?), and assumed the chances of my finding an authentic pub by online means were essentially nil. I did see a Korean place nearby on Capel Street, though, which surprised me more than it probably should have. It looked fairly authentic, and a crowd of Koreans filed into a back room as I stood outside, so… what the heck? Being by myself, I ordered bibimbap rather than grilled meats, and was pleased to find the quality on par with what have eaten in Korean-rich cities on the west coast. I expressed my surprise to the waitress, and she said that while there is no Korea-town in Dublin, there are two other authentic places, catering to foreign students and some tourists. Based on both the food and the accents I heard in the streets, Dublin is diverse for its size, with a significant but not overwhelming number of tourists.

Hector (and Fairview)

Fairview

Cliffs are dangerous, yo

I thought it would probably be good to give my seldom-used ski muscles a rest after Columbia, so I drove south to Lake Louise to play tourist for a day. I even treated myself to some Montreal Smoked Meat, which is a bit like pastrami without the pepper coating, and only seems to be sold in Canada. Since I prefer “fitness tourism,” I looked around for an easy peak, and settled on Mount Fairview, a 1000-meter trail climb from Lake Louise. The lake was still slightly frozen, and the trail was snow-covered from the beginning, but Canadian tourists are a hardy lot, so there was a good boot-pack most of the way to the saddle between Fairview and Saddleback.

Thank God for this

Near the end of the bootpack, I met a half-dozen college kids, including a couple girls in short-shorts, debating whether to continue. I made some encouraging noises, but I don’t think they went much farther, which was probably for the best. The last half-mile or so to the saddle was fairly wretched, with stretches of crotch-deep postholing through slush. I tried a direct line toward the peak, failed, then continued up the bottom of the depression farther toward the saddle, where the snow was slightly more consolidated. Fortunately, there was a bare rib leading from the saddle nearly to the summit — I would not have had the energy or patience for another 1500 vertical feet of wallowing.

Sheol, Lefroy, Victoria

The view is actually better than “fair,” with Lake Louise below, and greater peaks to the south, west, and north: Temple, some of the Ten Peaks including Deltaform, Sheol, Lefroy, and Victoria. Having nothing better to do, I sat in a sheltered spot on the summit for awhile, then returned the way I had come. The snow was even worse than on the way up, sometimes even too soft for a sitting glissade, but at least it was downhill. I passed another group of kids, these at least all wearing long pants, and encouraged them to try for the summit before skating down the icy trail through the woods to the teeming hordes of tourists by the chateau.

Hector

Hector’s summit at last


What a difference a week makes. When I first tried Hector seven days ago, there was (awful) snow almost right from the road, and I was almost completely dysfunctional with the flu. Today, I was able to hike the first 600 meters or so (to above the waterfall) in trail runners, and finished a bit after noon. The previous night looked like the last cold night for awhile, and I was just about done with the area, so I figured I might as well stick around an extra day to finish Hector. It is one of the Canadian Rockies’ 11,000-foot peaks, an ultra-prominence peak, and best done as a ski, so it would have been lame of me to leave it un-bagged while I was in the area.

Looking down to Bow Valley

I got a semi-alpine start around 6:20, finding two other cars parked in the small pullout across from Hector Creek. It took me a few minutes to adjust to my new dimensions with both skis and boots on my back, but I was soon making steady progress up the good use trail toward the waterfall without getting stuck on trees. Below the waterfall, I climbed a cone of avalanche snow, then a little third class cliff. After a few more minutes of trail, I reached nearly-continuous snow in the hanging valley around 2200 meters. I skinned up the lousy snow, then stumbled across 50 yards of rocks to reach the continuous snow to the summit.

Skinning toward glacier

The snow below the Hector Glacier was steep enough to require some boot-packing, but fortunately it was early enough for it not to have turned awful. Above, it was low-angle enough for efficient skinning. Rounding the corner, I finally got a glimpse of the well-hidden summit, and spotted a team of four on the upper glacier. They had taken a line well to the left, but it looked like most skiers followed a lower-angle line to the right. At the base of the glacier, I passed their four pairs of snowshoes, their tails stuck in the snow next to a red-flagged wand.

There were scattered clouds wandering slowly eastward, and as I reached the upper glacier, one of them parked on Hector. I wasn’t about to get lost — I had a map and GPS, and there were old tracks — but it was a bit annoying to climb with no visibility, and would be downright unpleasant to ski down in those conditions. I plodded on, eventually finding the party of four’s boot-pack, though I neither heard nor saw them descending.

Summit rock band

I stashed my skis and poles below the summit knob, then took on the final 100 feet of rock, ice, and snow with my axe and no crampons. I had them in my pack, but it would have taken time to adjust them to my ski boots, and this made the climb a bit more of a fair fight. I finally spotted the group of four descending the snow above the lower rock step. They turned out to be three novices and (probably) a guide, roped together and moving slowly. It seems like they had been going at a leisurely pace all day, since they had started around 3:30. I booted past them, then climbed a final 6-foot rock step to the summit, becoming slightly more comfortable climbing in plastic boots.

Time to go fast

The summit was better than I expected: a narrow ridge above the clouds, with a register and some dry sitting rocks. I spent some time looking down to Hector Lake and willing the clouds to depart the Hector Glacier, then carefully downclimbed to my skis. The group ahead of me had maybe a 10-minute lead, and I had to ski carefully up high while in the clouds, but most of the glacier was clear, and I soon flew by them, briefly hitting 50 MPH on a steep section with a good runout. I briefly screwed up below the glacier, heading too far right and having to hike some rocks to correct my error, and the snow was absolute garbage below 2400 meters. Still, Hector is an awesome ski, and would have been even better a month ago, when I could have skied all the way to the car, a vertical mile below. Canadians are so spoiled…