BLOG Go with Noakes... - Exercise Blue Bernina first phase...
This week I am working in the Bernina range in southern Switzerland with a group from Oxford University Officers' training Corps. One of the students, James Smith has been planning this trip for about a year and it has been with great excitement that the whole team has embarked on this wonderful adventure. The plan was to take a climbing team of six students and a trekking team of eight away for two weeks. I am working with the climbing team, along with a Military Alpine Instructor Ade Mellor and my mentor through the BMG Guides scheme, Steve Hartland. The first week we planned to introduce the six Alpine novices to the challenge and rewards of Alpine climbing... with the hope of completing some fine ascents along the way. The second week is planned for rock climbing in the Bregaglia and Val di Mello. (The whole group is seen above in the carnage after the Bondo flood)
The weather saw fit to interrupt our plans almost immediately. The first day saw such heavy rain that meant we had to change the itinerary somewhat. We stayed in the valley to do some preliminary training rather than head up to the Albigna hut. A second night at the campsite in Bondo proved to be fairly eventful with the storm raising river levels to such an extent that the campsite had to be evacuated. After some chilly standing around waiting to find out what was going on we were moved to the local Hospital for the night and finally got some sleep. In the morning we woke to find the bottom part of the campsite had washed away.... thankfully we had already moved most of the tents... but not quite all of them! The local authorities told us that the river had burst its banks around midnight. An uncomfortably close call... so much debree had been deposited in our former campsite that it doesn't bear thinking about what would have happened had we not been moved.
(Above right, ascending the West Flank of Piz Palu on day 3 of the expedition)
The weather, however, was due to improve. I was keen that this turn of events would not impact the expedition more than necessary and we shifted the itinerary around so that we could best make use of the next three days fine weather. With the trekking team safely on their way with the first of their six day self-sufficient journies, the climbing team made their way to the Diavolezza lift and the fine Diavolezza hotel. Further training was conducted that afternoon on the dry glacier below the hotel to prepare the team as best we could for the challenge ahead.
(Left, Expedition Leader James Smith and Debbie Morgan on the summit of Piz Palu).
We'd planned a great three day progression... first a traverse of the mighty Piz Palu and a descent to the Boval hut. (Right, traversing the Piz palu West to East PD+)
The next days plan was to traverse the Piz Morterasch and drop down to the Tschierva hut, before finally, if we had continuing good weather and the training of the group was going well we hoped to climb the Biancograt on the Piz Bernina. The Piz Bernina is the most Easterly 4000m peak and a considerable challenge for alpine novices as it is reasonably long and has difficulites on both snow and rock. It was also one of the major objectives for the expedition.
For the first day, we had a fantastic mountain planned- Piz Palu. The route is a worthy goal for any Alpinist, and truly a memorable and beautiful journey. Although it is nowhere very hard, it has a little bit of everything in it and is a good start for a fit alpine novice. The descent proved to be much longer for us than the ascent, not just due to the group being somewhat unacclimatised, but also because there is considerable technical ground to get down and we were unfortunate to get stuck behind some slower moving parties. The group did exceptionally well though and after a full twelve hour day we made it to the very hospitable Boval hut and were able to bask in a real sense of achievement for the whole group. A truly excellent start to the expedition, with the whole group of six students performing exceptionally well bearing in mind this was their first alpine day! The Boval hut was a little more rustic than the five star accommodation at the Diavolezza, but the food and sleep were both immensely welcome. The day had been somewhat longer than I'd anticipated, so I hoped to be able to allow the group a lie in. The hut had other ideas though and the only possible breakfast was 4.30am. The group very quickly adjusted to this news and were somewhat mollified by the knowledge that the earlier start would allow us to be at the Tschierva hut in the early afternoon and perhaps even allow an afternoon snooze...
(Steve Hartland, Joe Fischer, Kate Wray and Dave Allen on the final slopes of Piz Morterasch).
So the second day presented another mountain traverse, and this time somewhat easier and shorter in time. The mountain itself is a great route for novices and involves some easy scrambling to a very benign Col and then a great little snow ridge to finish. The summit of Morterasch afforded the group some fantastic views of the Biancograt which we hoped to be able to climb the following day if conditions allowed.
(Left, trying to spot familiar shapes on the horizon)
The descent to the Tschierva hut was very straightforward and the group was thankfull to arrive in time to enjoy the afternoon on the sun terrace surrounded by wonderful views. The rest and chance to allow weary limbs to recover was also very welcome, particularly in the light of our aspirations for the following day. For any alpinist the Biancograt is a challenge that deserves respect, and for our novices on their third day, we were under no illusions that the challenge might be too much at this stage. I left the hut that afternoon to conduct a recce of the approach to the route, and it was a good job I did. The rains of the previous days had completely washed away a large part of the normal route, and meant that some fairly unpleasant 'freestyling' through lose morraine would have to be conducted in the dark. When I got back to the hut I had a long discussion with Ade and steve about what I had found and the condition of the group and we decided that it would be best if we worked 1:1. As a result we would only be able to take half the team. (Left, climbing the rock after the snow arete)
(Right, James Smith part was up the snow arete on the Biancograt). We chose the three most experienced students who had demonstrated that they had the climbing skills and determination to take on the route. Understandably disappointed, those who would not be doing the climb quickly put the decision into perspective and started planning to help us with the logistics of walking out to Italy. I have every confidence that given more time, all three would have been at a level ready to take on this climb by the end of the expedition... but they just weren't quite there yet.
James Smith, Dave Allen and Joe Fischer joined Steve, Ade and myself for the Biancograt the next day.
The forecast continued good, but we were well aware that the following day would see a deterioration in the weather. Time to make the best of this fortuitous weather window! Due to the massive eroision of the approach path we agreed a 3.30 breakfast with the hut guardian and other parties.
(Left, Joe Fischer on the rocks above the Biancograt snow ridge) This meant that most of the approach to the Fuorcla Prevaluisa was done in the dark, and it isn't always obvious where this goes. That said, the team made excellent time and were at the col for the start of the ridge proper in about 3 hrs, under guidebook time.
From there, a pleasant rocky ridge bars the way to the iconic snow arete. The holds and belays are great and it is almot like a little micro-meije in feeling. Our three students made short work of this section and after a short ice pitch we were soon back on the main ridge at the start of the sinuous snow arete. I'm pretty confident that all the team were very focused on this section having heard them talk about it, but also that they enjoyed the exposure and stunning line. But the climbing is far from over once you reach the top of the snow... after that more rocky and mixed scrambling, always thoroughly enjoyable delivers you on the main summit. Steve, Joe,James and I were able to enjoy a very leisurely lunch on the top whilst we waited for Ade and Dave, who had managed to get caught up in a tangle of ropes behind us.
It was great to have a little rest and the chance to enjoy the view... and the satisfaction on climbing the route was much appreciated by all! The descent from the summit also has some interest, but thankfully is quite short and delivers you to the marvelous Marco e Rosa hut relatively swiftly. It wasn't too long before the whole team was reunited and we were able to celebrate an amazing four day period of 'Intro to Alpinism' and some very successfull routes. All that remained was a somewhat more technical than expected descent into Italy and a reunion with the rest of our group of alpine climbers. The final two hours of our walk out to Campo Moro was in very heavy rain... another firm reminder that we had quite surely made the absolute best of our weather window. Now we head to Acquafraggica campsite for a welcome regroup with the trekking team and some preparation for the next phase... alpine rock climbing!