Category Archives: Tourism

¡Vamos a Santiago!

High Andes on descent


The air travel can be the hardest part of these international trips, with one or two sleepless nights spent in airports or on airplanes, ending in an hour-or-more plod through customs in a language you don’t understand — like Irish. Then you either stumble to a hotel at some unholy hour, or try to sleep on benches deliberately designed to hinder sleeping. Fortunately this time was much easier. Leaving Denver in the early afternoon, I had a reasonable layover at Dallas, then an overnight flight to Santiago that got me there at a normal hour.

No longer fast or light

I was worried about packing for this trip: not only did I need to bring the usual mountaineering gear, but I also needed to pack enough stuff to support three months of bike touring in a place with very limited spare parts. I also needed to cram almost all of my gear around my bike and trailer in their boxes, convince the airline that these two mince-gear pies were “sports equipment,” and keep them both under 50 pounds. I did it, though barely: my bike shared a box with my mountain boots (stuffed with socks) and a few other things, every nook of the trailer was filled, and both boxes weighed somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds. So much for fast and light… Ted snapped a picture of the unusual scene, only to anger some TSA rent-a-cop who was captured in the photo while playing around with his phone while on break. I found this ironic, given that I’m almost positive that both Ted and I appeared on TSA surveillance footage, and would not be surprised if we were run through a facial recognition database fed with state drivers’ license files. But anyways…

I found some reasonably good and healthy lounge food in both Denver and Dallas, and tried to get in as many vegetables and fresh things as I could. Low weight and volume, and high tolerance for hot and cold, will define much of what I eat for the next few months. That means a diet of primarily powdered stuff poured into boiling water, fruits and nuts, and canned fish. They don’t even seem to have pop-tarts down here, though the Latin American junk food scene is strong, and I am trying to become a locavore.

The leg from Dallas to Santiago was my first time on a Boeing 787 — the plane with the wings that flex alarmingly upward when it flies. I found it mostly pleasant, with larger windows than other planes, tolerable cabin noise, and plenty of leg room. It would have been better had the original seating arrangement remained in place. I had a window on the east side of the plane, with an empty seat and a friendly older woman completing my part of the row. Unfortunately that woman somehow upgraded to business, to be replaced by a younger one who immediately stuck in her headphones to preempt any social interaction, and put her legs up to make it awkward for me to get up and fetch anything out of my pack. Later, another similar woman took the middle seat after finding that her original one did not recline.

At least I had a clear view of Aconcagua and the other high peaks in the region as we descended into Santiago. The backlight through the partly-tinted glass made it hard to get a photo, but I tried. It was already 70 degrees when we landed around 9:00, and into the 80s after spending an hour or more going through customs. I was finally reunited with my bike and trailer. Both boxes had been rifled through by TSA, but they appeared unharmed, as did their contents.

My bike shop

I briefly explored various options to store and recover the boxes, but quickly realized that it just wasn’t worth it. It was painfully hot outside, so I assembled my bike in the terminal, which apparently did not disturb either travelers or security. This was when I realized the third thing I had forgotten, pliers (the others being a pin for SIM removal, and a pen to fill out the customs form). The BOB trailer is almost entirely assembled and disassembled with a hex key and Phillips screwdriver, but its hinge requires two pairs of pliers for optimal assembly. I spent a half-hour or so wandering around the airport trying to desribe pliers with broken Spanish and hand gestures (“kind of like scissors, but not”). Finally, a woman at a phone store lent me hers once I allowed her to hold my phone hostage.

Weird graffiti

It was early afternoon by now, so I ditched my original plan to just ride away from Santiago into the sunset. A quick online search turned up a hostel toward the center of the city that was too much ($24) but not ridiculous. Wheeling my monstrosity out of the airport, I had to smile when one of the employees asked if I was going to Patagonia or Atacama, then made as if to climb on my trailer. The hostel actually turned out well, as there was a supermarket right acruss the street, and I got to spend the afternoon seeing a bit of downtown Santiago, some of the only “culture” I plan to experience this trip. It has the usual somewhat run-down Latin American feel, but is cleaner and less dog-infested than Huaraz, and far more sane than Mexico City, Lima, or Quito. I felt mostly comfortable riding through the streets, though a crazy mess of one-way roads and some map-reading errors made the short ride take longer than expected. Tomorrow the real trip begins.

Huayhuash trekking

I prefer not to merely dump a pile of photos on the internet, but the Cordillera Huayhuash is worth looking at, and I probably won’t write a detailed trip report. This was the last of my travels in Peru this summer, but I hope to return soon to take care of much unfinished business.

Mina Raura, glaciers, and rock

Privada, cerrado


My “guidebook,” a John Ricker article in the 1996 American Alpine Journal, suggested that most of the central Cordillera Raura peaks were best approached from near the high Mina Raura, so I made a long road-hike down from Surasaca, around Yarupá, and up to the pass near Nevado Santa Rosa, stopping near dark at what turned out to be a singularly unpleasant camp site. Not only was it shaded well into the morning, but a thick frost collected on the exposed surfaces of my bivy sack, pack, and shoes.

Santa Rosa from camp

I had a few handfuls of peanuts for breakfast, then painfully put on all my clothes and started up the road around 7:30, stomping my boots to warm my feet, hoping to find my way to Nevado Santa Rosa’s northwest ridge. For my first attempt, I started down a side-road just past the guard-post at the pass. One of the guards, who were not interested in inspecting the passing cars and trucks, waved me over and took me to speak with his boss. The jefe told me that my chosen road was closed due to falling rocks, and that I should continue over the pass to some lakes. This would make my late start even later, but I still had plenty of daylight.

Condorgsenga from the north

So I continued down the other side of the pass, stepping to the side of the dusty dirt road from time to time to let the semis pass. I neared a lake after a couple of switchbacks, and saw a side road heading toward Nevado Santa Rosa. Before I even made a move toward the road, a mine guard in a Hilux stopped to ask where I was headed. I told him that I was trying to climb Santa Rosa, and he said that all the surrounding land was privado and cerrado. He seemed surprised that people as far away as the United States had even heard of their Nevado and, apparently sympathetic to my situation, made a call to his boss.

Nevado Santa Rosa, route to the right

The call went on for awhile, with the guard repeatedly put on hold, so we had some time to attempt conversation. I explained how to use an ice tool, and showed him my crampons, which he had apparently never seen. I asked how long he had been working at the mine (three years) and if he had ever thought of climbing some of the surrounding peaks. He replied that he was busy working and, when I asked him about his time off, asked me rhetorically how much my gear had cost. He had a point, and could only shrug and grimace. He asked what my family was doing while I was wandering around Peru, and I replied no familia, no casa, nada. Had I been thinking quickly and better at Spanish, I would have gone on to say that he could buy decent used boots, crampons, and tools for under 1500 Sols ($500). That is a lot of money in Peru, but probably on the order of a month’s rent or a few months of a child’s school fees.

The mine seems to be the cornerstone of the local economy, while the locals have no time or use for the mountains, so I imagine the Mina Raura will outlive Santa Rosa’s glaciers. Someone may even have achieved the peak’s last ascent, since the underlying rock is mostly steep choss. The former standard routes on Torre de Cristal and the Siete Caballeros already looked much more precarious than when they were covered with snow.

Lake below Mina Raura and Siete Caballeros

Evidently I needed to speak to some higher-up to possibly get permission to cross private property, so I got a ride down the wrong side of the pass, then waited an hour or so outside the gate to be called in. While I sat, I took some pictures of Nevado Santa Rosa and the Siete Caballeros for posterity. I also noted with amusement that the corporate safety sign (“1. No drinking on the job; 2. Follow the 10 safety principles; …”) had been recently repainted to add “5. Only use your cell phone when appropriate.” I have been amazed by how many people, even in the poorest and most rural areas, are constantly staring at their phones, frequently checking Facebook (which doesn’t count toward their data caps). It seems our digital pollution has spread to even the most remote and isolated corners of the globe.

Santa Rosa from south mine road

I eventually gave up, hiking back to my camp with the help of a short ride from a friendly worker. I packed up and began the long march back to Oyón, less disappointed than ready to move on. The worker who gave me a ride passed again, this time escorting an oversized truck, and gave me an apple for the road. It wasn’t the first time random locals had been generous — a woman with more dental work than teeth had given me a double handful of animal crackers on my hike up the night before.

Several people at the mine had mentioned cyclists, so while I didn’t understand all that they said, I wasn’t surprised to be caught by bike tourists on the descent, the first non-locals I had seen since leaving Lima. They turned out to be a bad-ass French couple towing their young daughter in a trailer. We talked for a few minutes before a collectivo stopped to ask if we wanted a ride. They were of course fine coasting into town, but I was happy to pay the 10 Sols to save my soles. I was back in Oyón by mid-afternoon, reunited with my bag and figuring out the public transit marathon necessary to reach Huaraz.

Planes, buses, planes, and buses: welcome to Peru

Sunset on Yerupá


Although I complicated things a bit by starting and ending in Spain, last summer’s trip to the Alps was logistically simple: fly to Europe, rent a car, sleep in it at trailheads, and dayhike peaks. I knew that Peru would be more complicated, but did not expect the difficulties to start States-side.

Working the airport lounge

Only a few hours before it was scheduled to take off, my red-eye flight from Denver to Miami was canceled. After a last-minute scramble, I found myself on an even redder-eye flight to Orlando, with “efficient” seats that made it impossible to sleep. Arriving in Florida around dawn, I reclaimed my checked bag (TSA having apparently stolen my approved lock), then killed some time in a fine airport lounge. After a suitable delay, I took a local bus to the long-distance bus depot for my three-hour ride to Fort Lauderdale. Having caught up on the news while waiting, I realized that I had narrowly missed Donald Trump’s Orlando kick-off rally. A “Keep America Great Again” hat would have come in handy against the blazing Peruvian sun, but I was already far enough behind schedule.

Customs comes alive after midnight

My evening flight from Fort Lauderdale to Lima was bad enough, made only slightly worse by a one-hour delay with no obvious cause. I could swear that we taxied in a circle before finally lining up for takeoff. By the time I finally deplaned and made my way though the hour-long customs line, it was well past midnight and I was only semi-conscious, having been awake for most of two days. Ah, the glamour of international travel.

Welcome to my personal hell

Fortunately Ted had booked me a room at the airport hotel, which was much more pleasant than the airport floor I would have booked for myself. I slept better than I have in years nestled among six pillows, waking late to Lima’s gloomy haze and chaotic traffic, which instantly took its place with Mexico City among my “Places to be Escaped With Dispatch.” I stayed around long enough to enjoy the hotel amenities, including a breakfast of mini-hamburgers, then took a taxi to the bus terminal, where I eventually found a company with service to Oyón. The bus was late, but much more comfortable than flying coach.

Checkpoint on the road to Gas Town

Once out of the city, the scenery turned into something out of Mad Max: Fury Road: a desert wasteland sprinkled with abandoned buildings and crossed by old tire tracks. It was dark by the time things got interesting, and I only caught headlight glimpses of a narrow road beneath overhanging dirt embankments. It was well past dark by the time I disembarked in Oyón, and cold above 11,000′; shivering, I waited for the spare tires and sacks of potatoes to be unloaded ahead of my duffel. I walked into the first hotel I saw, and happily paid more than I should have for a run-down but reasonably clean room. It had internet, beds, and a toilet — good enough.

Nice town square in Oyón

In the morning, I was still a long walk or unknown transit from my intended base camp near Laguna Surasaca. I used my pathetic Spanish to tell the hotel owner that I wanted to leave my gigantic green duffel with him for “about a week,” and he instantly agreed. Now it was time to do some shopping. Since I had no fuel canister, I needed thousands of cheap calories that did not require cooking. Fortunately these are easily acquired in Latin America, and for less than $20, I soon had a dozen muffins, a big bag of Hawaiian rolls, four cans of tuna, a couple pounds of sugar-coated peanuts, and various crackers and cookies. I attached the haul to the outside of my already-overloaded pack, and began walking up the road.

About a mile out of town, a car pulled over and the driver asked me ¿a donde va? I told him Laguna Surasaca, and he offered to take me to some unfamiliar village for 5 Sol. It was in the right direction, and only $1.50, so I awkwardly shuffled into the back with my pack, and off we went. The ride saved me a lot of annoying road-walking, and convinced me that figuring out local transit would be worth the hassle.

Llamas along Surasaca

The main road from Oyón across the Andes via Mina Raura sees plenty of mine and other traffic, the side-road to Laguna Surasaca almost none. I had a quiet but endless-seeming walk to the lake, then around its 5-kilometer length, passing a road worker with a wheelbarrow and shovel, and a llama-herd checking in on his beasts. I left the road beyond the lake, following cow-, llama-, and sheep-tracks as the valley gently climbed above 15,000′. Along the way I passed a flock of sheep, and learned that they are to be feared and avoided. Though the sheep are docile and stupid, they are accompanied by vicious guard-dogs, not the cute guard-llamas I had hoped for. They didn’t seem inclined to bite, but three of them efficiently herded me up a hillside, barking angrily from a few feet away until the shepherd came over and called them off.

I continued uphill until dusk, then made my cold, miserable camp on a hillside in a small patch of grass free of cow turds where I hoped cold air would not collect. It was not the best choice, partly because I needed to camp on the west-facing side of the valley, and partly because everything is backwards: the Cordillera Raura is just far enough south of the equator for north slopes to get more sun, and prevailing winds seem to come from the east. But I was tired, and far enough up the valley to reach any possible peaks the next day. I watched the sun set on Rumiwayin and Yarupá as I settled in for a night of pseudo-sleep.

Iztaccihuatl (Pies y Pecho)

Izta from Pies


Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third-highest volcano, and the second-highest that can be legally climbed, as Popocatépetl has long been closed for being too active. Translated from Nahuatl and Spanish, the title is literally “White woman (feet and bust),” and the mountain does indeed look like a woman lying on her back when viewed from the east or west. Her bust is the highpoint, her head and feet are legitimately separate peaks, and her belly and knees are minor bumps on the standard climb from below her feet to her chest.

Los Pies

I had hoped to climb Tlalocatépetl on my way over from Malinche, but confusion about the trailhead location and problems turning around on the divided highway spoiled that plan, so I kept on driving to Amecameca, then up the magnificent and windy road to Paso de Cortes, between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. I paid the $3.50 entry fee at the visitor center, then crept along the dusty road to the La Joya trailhead, arriving late in the morning. I wasn’t feeling especially energetic, so I decided to take a short, slow hike up Los Pies, which would be new to me and, at 15,387′, would give me some acclimatization benefit.

Trail toward Izta

I ate some junk food, then took off slowly up the trail, passing various hikers headed in both directions, and a group of Red Cross members possibly patrolling the popular area. I left the main trail near a saddle where the trail crosses from the south/east to the north/west side of Izta’s crest, finding occasional old boot-prints and cairns on the slope leading to Los Pies’ summit knob. I was feeling slow, but was cheered up by a couple stretches of seemingly mandatory class 3-4 climbing getting through rock bands. This was the most technical climbing I had found on this trip, slightly more difficult than the crux on Pico de Agila, and it even required some route-finding.

Los Pies’ summit knob

I eventually emerged on the ridge west of the summit knob, from which I could see the trail toward El Pecho below and to the north. The summit knob itself looked serious, defended by sheer cliff bands of questionable rock on all sides. However, tackling one problem at a time, it proved no harder than class 3. I started to the left, climbing near the crest, then crossed to the right, traversing a sandy slope below the main cliffs. Here I found a ramp trending back left, where moderate scrambling led back to the crest and to a couple old pitons and a dubious hand-line. After a brief wrong turn, I crossed back to the left near the hand line, traversed a bit, and was soon at the summit.

Los Pies summit plaque

I found no register or cross, but there was a plaque cemented to the summit rock that made no more sense to me even after running it through Google Translate. There also seemed to be an easier way down a loose chute on the other side of the summit knob. I hung out for awhile, looking for people descending Izta to one side, watching Popo puff on the other and listening to its deep rumbling, then retraced my steps off the summit knob.

I thought it looked easier to drop north and join the standard trail on the main peak, but I was wrong. What looked like nice scree-skiing was a shallow and slippery layer with hard-pack underneath, with occasional patches of Izta’s evil mud. After numerous slips, I reached flatter ground and picked up the trail at the saddle northwest of Los Pies. With plenty of daylight left, I took my time on the trail down, passing (the same?) Red Cross group, this time playing around with ropes and gear next to the trail.

Radical Mexican bike design

It was only mid-afternoon, and I was bored, so I made the long drive back to Amecameca for some street tacos, which cost about $1 each and contained generous helpings of chorizo and cecina. Many of the region’s eateries advertised their cecina, and I was eager to try it, having enjoyed it in Leon. However, this “cecina” was a different thing entirely, more like thinly-sliced, salty roast beef. It was good in its own way, but I preferred the Spanish version. After ingesting real food, I drove back up the pass to sleep near the trailhead and turn my meal into red blood cells.

El Pecho

For my last Mexican climb, I wanted to try to set an FKT for Izta’s standard route. The climb gains just over 4000 feet, and I thought I could go faster than Joe Gray’s 2h11 ascent despite the altitude and somewhat indirect route. I had my doubts when I woke up, sore from 5 days sleeping in a tiny rental car, with my cough and headache worse than they had been the whole trip. I sat in the car for awhile, drinking cold instant coffee and eating bland crackers, then finally drove over to the trailhead and got ready. I started my watch and jogged down the trail, and almost gave up when my left glute and hamstring complained. But suffering up hills is what I do; instinct took over, and I got to work.

Crossing the first saddle before Los Pies, I was surprised to run into the Mexican Army. There must have been at least 50 guys in combat gear, most carrying assault rifles, some carrying regimental banners, hiking steadily up the loose climb. The ones in back noticed me and shouted to their companions, who stood aside for me to run through along the short downhill-to-flat section. I reverted to hiking as soon as the trail turned uphill, and slowly plodded past the rest. I was impressed by their progress carrying all that gear; one guy even had a gallon water jug strapped to the top of his pack.

Ayoloco Glacier

I saw no one at the hut, and only a few other people on the rest of the familiar route. I stuck to the rocks on the grind above the hut, and tried to run the flat and downhill sections along the undulating ridge. It was cold up high for a change, with a brutal west wind driving me to put on my hat and windbreaker, and to shelter my left eyeball. I sketched my way down onto the Ayoloco Glacier, passing two guys in crampons, then jogged by some people on the flat section before grinding out the final ridge climb to the summit.

South from north summit

Izta’s highpoint may have been its summit icefield many years ago, but it is much diminished, and is now an icy depression surrounded by three similarly-high points. I reached the south one first, where most people stop, then cut straight across the ice plain to climb the north one via its east ridge. This one had a couple of crosses, but both had geological markers, and the south summit looked higher from the north. ¿Quien sabe? Pleased to have made the south summit in about 2h02, and the north one in 2h08, I decided I was done with speed for the day.

Conquering Mexican Army

My plan had been to continue to La Cabeza, Izta’s northern distinct subpeak. However, I was sick of the cold wind, and it looked tricky from where I stood, so I moseyed on back the way I came. The Mexican Army had occupied the territory surrounding the hut, setting up brightly colored and very un-army-like tents. It seemed like they had plenty of time left to summit, but they were going to wait for la mañana. I made my way through camp, trying to be friendly and not get too close to any guns, then put on a bit of speed on the descent toward Los Pies. I stopped once to talk to a fellow American, then cruised back to the car.

I drove to the visitor center to rinse the volcanic dust off my feet and legs, then found a Starbucks to kill a few hours before driving to the airport. Using the Starbucks WiFi, I learned that I was far from the FKT, a blazingly fast 1h40 or so set (once again) by Santiago Carsolio. Oh, well… Luckily I left myself plenty of time to return the car, because it took me several circles and wrong turns to find the hole-in-the-wall car lot. I handed in the keys, got back my deposit, then began the 2-day transit nightmare home. It hadn’t been the Mexico trip I had planned, but non-tourist Mexico is still an awesome place.

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…