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Switzerland's Bregaglia in 1951

Switzerland’s Bregaglia in 1951

DON M. WOODS

One of Switzerland’s finest granite climbing areas is Val Bregaglia or, as it is known in German, the Bergell. There are three climbing huts on the north (Swiss) side of the Bregaglia Group, the Forno, the Albigna, and the Sciora. The Forno Hut (8478 ft.) is reached by a path from Maloja Pass, leading past Cavloccio Lake to the foot of the Forno Glacier. The route across the glacier to the hut, which lies on the east bank and about 200 feet above the glacier itself, is well marked. The usual time is about 3½ hours from Maloja. There are many small climbs on the ridge just behind the hut to the east, but perhaps the most interesting are Cima del Largo, Piz Bacone, and Piz Casnile to the west, across the glacier.

The Albigna Hut (7008 ft.), also 3½ hours from Vicosoprano, is reached by a path leading upward through the forest. It is headquarters for ascents in the Sciora Group and other peaks around the head of the Albigna Glacier. Capanna Sciora (7051 ft.) is reached in 3½ hours from Promontogno, the village on the main road near Bondo.

We had driven from St. Moritz through Silvaplana and Maloja, through Maloja Pass to the quaint village of Bondo. The town is off the highway and only three miles from the Italian frontier. We camped for the night across the mountain stream from the village. Driving through streets just the width of the car, we crossed the stream on a bridge the same width. After a supper of our own cooking we enjoyed a comfortable night. Karl Lugmaier, my Austrian climbing companion, and I got up while it was still quite dark and cooked our breakfast, leaving my wife asleep. We then made up our packs, taking quite a little food with us, and started up the path to the Capanna Sciora just as light was streaking in from the east.

The path was almost a road to a meadow about two hours’ time from the car. From here not much trail was in evidence as avalanche snows had covered it for some distance. A sign finally directed us upward beside a swift-flowing stream. From here a steep, rugged trail led to the climbing hut another hour distant, at an elevation of 7057 feet.

We left most of our food at the hut and continued on past the rocks and moraines above the glacier that descends from Passo di Bondo, south of the Sciora Group of peaks. The path was well covered with snow, as it was July 28th of a very heavy snowfall year, and it formed an excellent highway up steep snow slopes. Just below the pass we turned left to a high point on the granite ridge. We continued along this south ridge for a long way, passing over several gendarmes, to the summit of Sciora di Dentro, my first Swiss summit. The elevation was 10,752 feet. An immense snowy peak, Disgrazia, was visible to the southeast. Far to the northeast the high peaks of the Bernina Group were apparent. Close at hand were the many granite spires of the Gregaglia, particularly that of Piz Badile.

On our return we took a short cut above a snow basin and found thin snow on very steep rocks. We were soon below the Pass and descending the snow slopes to the Sciora Hut. Here we found a model of compact efficiency. It was built of granite blocks in 1947 by the Zurich section of the Swiss Alpine Club. The interior was finished in unstained polished larch. It was beautiful and clean. As you came in from the outside, a rack for your ice-axe was the first thing you noted. Next to this was a shelf with hut shoes, inviting you to take off your heavy climbing boots and leave them in this entrance way on another rack. Inside the main room the tables and benches shone brightly. About 24 rectangular wicker baskets were neatly stored on shelves. These were for the food, one basket for each party. The sleeping rooms upstairs were beautifully clean. There were mattresses and pillows with blankets for each person. All slept together, men and women, as they have no dividing line. We praised the hut keeper, Uli Gantenbein, of Silvaplana, for his well-kept hut.

It was possible to get full meals, or just enough food to supplement your own. Since all supplies must be backpacked, it is a kindness for each person to bring as much food as he conveniently can. Almost everyone had enough food for about half his needs. Gantenbein’s soup was especially delicious.

Next morning Karl and I left early for the climb of Sciora di Fuori. My wife, Lynda, had arrived late the night before. We ascended a long steep snow slope that eventually led us into a steep couloir, which placed us on the north ridge. We then followed the narrow ridge of granite blocks to the summit, 10,380 feet in elevation. Soon we saw other climbers coming toward us along the ridge from Punta Pioda di Sciora, the next peak to the south. In a short time we had an international party on the summit of our peak, two Italians, two Austrians, one Swiss, and one American. From the summit we saw Cassin, one of Italy’s finest guides, and a companion, several hundred feet below, attempting a route that had never been made since a huge piece of granite had fallen some years before. This route was climbed for the first time later the same summer. Our descent was a duplication of our ascent and we were soon enjoying Gantenbein’s soup at the hut.

I rested the next day, but indefatigable Karl made a solo climb of Punta Pioda di Sciora, 10,623 feet in elevation. It is a climb quite a bit more difficult than Sciora di Fuori. There is one slab that is very exposed and quite difficult.

Later in the summer Miriam O’Brien Underhill made the ascent of Ago di Sciora, between Punta Pioda and Sciora di Dentro, 10,502 feet in elevation. Here is her description of the climb:

Leaving the Albigna Hut, 7008 feet, we walked south up the glacier Vedretta del Albigna, with the Sciora Group ahead and to our right (west). As we rounded a rock buttress of the Pioda di Sciora, the Ago came into sight, a slender rock needle of striking appearance. After crossing a small glacier at its foot, we attacked the rocks not directly under the Ago but somewhat to the south. Diagonaling back to the north over easy rocks, we reached the Bochetta, a narrow notch at the south base of the final spire of the Ago.

Here the climbing becomes more difficult. About midway up, some large blocks have fallen out, leaving this pitch more tricky than it used to be. Here we found two narrow vertical cracks. Climbing up the left crack, we then traversed to the other crack, a passage of only six feet, but delicate. The top is airy. The Ago can also be climbed from the north, which looked easier to me from the top.

Now came our best endeavor of our Bregaglia climbs, the Piz Badile, no doubt one of the best known and most interesting climbs in the area. We left the hut early and crossed the deep canyon between us and our objective, the peak. A long, wide gully led us to the base of the north edge, or kante. Two swiss climbers preceded us by an hour and we could see them farther up the kante. The climbing is difficult almost the entire distance with little chance for relaxing utmost care. The first piton pitch was a very smooth and exposed slab, sloping down steeply from the edge. To advance upward we had to keep our hands on the edge with our rubber-soled boots clinging to the smooth granite by friction. Three pitons were in place and were used for safety.

Some distance above this slab we encountered a wide, open exposed gully with two choices of route. Karl took the upper route but advised me to take the lower, which had one piton in place for safety. This gully led to a sharp ridge with an exposed traverse around the head of the gully. From here a very tricky overhang required a pull-up above the gully below. Again a piton in place was an aid.

From this point on the climbing was nearly all on the very edge of the exceedingly steep ridge. There were many but small ledges for handholds and footholds. When we were two hours below the summit Karl followed steps in the snow toward the left of the ridge and along a ledge. They had been made by our two Swiss predecessors. We were soon on the terrifically exposed north face with very difficult climbing above us. Karl knew that we were wrong and we carefully retraced our steps. After a short traverse we followed a gully up to the ridge and were once more on the correct route.

From here with steep climbing we were soon on the summit. The elevation was 10,863 feet. It was now 7:00 P.M. We did not want to descend the steep kante we had just climbed. Instead we went down the opposite or Italian face. Two rappels were used; otherwise we climbed down. Just at dark we were at the base of the last rocky cliff and found snow. Far off in the distance we made out a dim light, a lantern hung outside the tiny Italian hut, Rifugio Luigi Gianetti, by the hut keeper at the suggestion of our two Swiss Piz Badile climbers. This hut is often called the Badile Hut.

Another hour of snow and rock hopping after dark brought us to the hut. Neither the hut keeper nor his wife could speak German or English, and Karl and I could speak no Italian. But food and a bed are international, with speech unnecessary. We were soon eating soup, bread and meat, and sleeping the sleep of tired climbers.

After breakfast next morning we joined our two Swiss climbers as far as Passo di Bondo, from where they went off to climb Sciora di Fuori which we had climbed five days before. We descended to the Sciora Hut, joined my wife, gathered up our belongings, and descended to our car at Bondo.

The climbs in this area are excellent in themselves, the peaks are lower in elevation and the climbs shorter than those of the more famous Swiss mountains of the Bernese Oberland or the Zermatt region. They lie on the southern slope of the Alps where there are more chances of good weather. All these considerations combine to make this a fine region for climbing when the higher peaks may be blocked off by bad weather. Our five days in late July saw no storm at all, except a hailstorm one evening that lasted about a half hour.