Trip Report
Piz Badile Via Cassin - Adventure and Tragedy in the Swiss Alps.
Friday October 13, 2017 8:49am
Having visited the Italian Dolomites and the Alps several times, I've always been blown away by the pioneers of the 1930's and 40's like Cassin, Comici, and Bonatti, who set these bold and preposterous lines up massive rock and ice faces the size of El Capitan and often bigger. One of these routes, first climbed by Ricardo Cassin in 1937, ascends the Piz Badile in the Swiss Alps, and is considered one of the six great north faces of the Alps.

Credit: blindclimber
Piz Badile looming in the background.

I trained for six months, and in mid-August left with my friend and climbing partner, Eric Alexander. After layovers, delays, and hours of travel, we rendezvoused at the base of the mountain with our Italian friend Marco Bergamo, an amazingly fit guide who I'd met a couple years ago on another classic climb of the Marmolada. Marco would be our rope gun, our secret weapon in moving fast up the 27 pitches of technical climbing and 3,000 feet of vertical granite, with several pitches of 5.10.

Credit: blindclimber
Hanging out at the Sasc Fura Refugio. Left to Right: Marco, Me, Eric.

We approached from the small mountain town of Bondo, up a long dirt road cutting through a narrow river valley and along an equally steep rocky trail to the Refugio of Sasc Fura. We arrived in the pouring rain and hung out for a few days, hoping that the big north face, which is often wet and running with water, would dry a bit. Climbing slick granite cracks and chimneys pouring with water was out of the question. Fortunately, a north wind sprung up, drying the face enough for us to give it a try. We hiked up steep granite slabs and boulders, scrambling to the saddle between the Piz Badile and a neighboring peak, where we shivered the night away. To save weight, Eric and I'd only brought one sleeping bag, which we both slid our feet into and used as a blanket. We built a rock wall around us to cut the cold gusts of wind and (full disclosure) "spooned" together to preserve body heat. As climbers like to say, "What happens in the mountains stays in the mountains."

Eric and me on our "Spooning Ledge"
Eric and me on our "Spooning Ledge"
Credit: blindclimber
Eric and me on our "spooning" ledge.

Throughout the night we listened to an adjacent mountain, Piz Cengalo, exfoliate granite. There was a near-constant roar as huge boulders and rubble clattered and tumbled down the face, eventually exploding onto the glacier below. The Alps are a mountain range known for continual erosion, a force that shapes the majestic and rugged fins and spires, so this wasn't unusual activity. Thankfully we, as well as our route, were totally out of the line of fire.

At 5:30 AM, we rappelled down to the starting ledge, which sat hundreds of feet over an ominously steep glacier, and traversed the tricky ledge to the base. The route had amazing climbing, from smooth slabs to dihedrals and hand cracks to incredible Yosemite-style Bombay chimneys in which you had to push your feet on one side and back against the other, inching, groveling, and sweating upward. A tough moment happened early on a long leftward traverse. Even though I was on a top-rope, my foot popped off a small hold and I fell, swinging far out to the left. With the rope stretch on our thin ropes, I probably fell 20+ feet down and swung 20+ feet left, slamming onto a ledge. Although shaken, I felt good enough to continue. Adrenaline worked in my favor; I was mercifully numb to the pain in my side that would emerge over the next few days. Turns out, I'd broken a rib.

Credit: blindclimber

Credit: blindclimber

Credit: blindclimber
Climbing on the Cassin Route

Eleven hours later, we merged on to the North Ridge, another classic climb that would lead us to the summit. We followed a knife-edge ridge with some crazy climbing, downclimbing, and traversing - some sections were so narrow it was like riding a granite horse with 3,000-foot vertical drops on both sides!

Credit: blindclimber

Credit: blindclimber
The Summit Ridge and "Granite Horse"

Another couple hours later, we reached the tiny bivouac shelter that lay on the summit, perched on the edge of a huge cliff. The next morning consisted of hours of downclimbing and rappelling into Italy, 3,000 feet down to the Gianetti Hut and then a slippery, steep, and seemingly-endless 4,000-foot descent into a small village, some of the day in the rain.

Credit: blindclimber
Summit Party!

Credit: blindclimber
Summit Bivouac Shelter

Our climbing window had been perfect. On the descent, a local guide remarked, "You are blind? Piz Badile? Wow. It must be a lot harder for you and your guides." I considered his comment and the last few days. Approaching on a 4,000-foot ascent up a treacherous trail, feeling every step with my trekking poles and listening to Eric ring a bear bell in front: Feeling for every hold on one of the Alps’ hard classic rock routes. Downclimbing into Italy, death drops looming on both sides, with Eric and Marco constantly feeding me specific directions. Eric even downclimbing below me tapping the foot holds, a few times even placing my feet into the right ones, then a final six hours of knee and ankle-crushing descending down scree, slippery slabs, and boulder fields while grabbing Eric's pack. I'd taken at least three hard falls, bashing my shins and elbows.

After a pause, all I could think to reply was, "Harder? You might say that."

Credit: blindclimber
A Tough Descent

At the Gianetti Hut, on the Italian side, we learned the news that would change our outlook on the climb and what it meant. A massive landslide had occurred, shedding away a huge chunk of nearby Piz Cengalo. Over 4 million cubic meters of debris calved off the face and formed a river of rock, mud and water that poured over the tiny town of Bondo, taking out houses, cars, and roads, and cutting off the village. It also destroyed the dirt road and trail we'd ascended just a few days earlier. We heard it was the biggest rockslide the Alps had seen in the last 40 years. We were safe, but stuck since all of our extra clothes, gear, passports, and cash was trapped on the other side of the landslide. This was inconvenient, but overshadowed by the evacuations of the entire town and the 8 people who are still missing and presumed dead. We were finally able to access our rental car which had been parked lower in the valley. The emergency crews had cleared a narrow track through the rubble, so we could catch our flight home. For a last bit of drama, we learned that 30 minutes after we'd escaped with our car, another rockslide swept the road and cut off access again. As far as Marco’s truck – it remained stranded for more than a month up the valley dirt-road that may never be rebuilt. It finally had to be flown down via helicopter.

Now safely home in Colorado, I'm grateful for our good fortune, and am keeping the people of Bondo and those who are missing in our thoughts and prayers. These journeys aren't as simple as a motivational poster. They don't always end in perfect triumph. There's adversity and sometimes darkness around the edges, but we commit to pressing forward, not allowing our fears and the risks of living to hold us in the prison of our minds.

Erik Weihenmayer

Photo Credits: Marco Bergamo

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Comments
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Stewart Johnson

Mountain climber
lake forest
  Oct 13, 2017 - 08:56am PT
Superb!
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Oct 13, 2017 - 09:10am PT
Words do not suffice at times although you inspire through yours. Fabulous trip report! It’s always better to be lucky than good but you’re both! :-)
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
  Oct 13, 2017 - 09:35am PT
Wow! Most excellent story. I am glad you and your team made it through all of that safely. Best wishes for your continued healing, and thanks for posting up your story - a real inspiration.
kingtut

climber
Jingus Newroutaineer
  Oct 13, 2017 - 10:08am PT
Thanks for posting your triumph of the human spirit.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Oct 13, 2017 - 10:15am PT
Thanks for posting Erik....you are simply amazing!
ontheedgeandscaredtodeath

Social climber
Wilds of New Mexico
  Oct 13, 2017 - 10:19am PT
Thanks for the great report! I also recently listened to and enjoyed your Enormocast interview- we share some Arizona climbing roots!

ionlyski

Trad climber
Polebridge, Montana
  Oct 13, 2017 - 10:37am PT
Wow! I'm just going to say it and I'm sure I'll step on some PC taboo but certainly mean nothing but the highest of respect for Erik who needs no help from me or anybody for that matter. Erik can surely crush me out in the mountains on anyday but for those of you who don't know-Erik is blind.

Fantastic trip report and adventure. I wish I would get off my ass and do half what you do.

Arne

NutAgain!

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
  Oct 13, 2017 - 11:24am PT
Timing is everything! Congrats on a good adventure, dodging disaster, and sorry for those who were not so lucky and those who must live with the consequences of the landslides.
Don Paul

Mountain climber
Denver CO
  Oct 13, 2017 - 05:39pm PT
Seems to be rockfall season everywhere. I am just finishing reading Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage by Herman Buhl, it has a section on the Piz Badile you should read if you haven't already.

"Already at this point last year's rock-fall was making itself uncomfortably noticeable. The slabs were covered with a fine dust inches thick, which filled every wrinkle and almost nullified the friction of one's rubbers. ... The climbing would have been easier if the cracks hadn't been full of silt, and so demanded extreme caution. Very slowly I pushed my way up."
Brian in SLC

Social climber
Salt Lake City, UT
  Oct 13, 2017 - 12:37pm PT
Great trip report!

Whew on the rockfall...we climbed the Pizzi Gemelli in 2012. In comparison with the Badile, only a short, little 15 pitch route. From the hut on our approach, part of the trail to your first hut was closed due to rockfall from Pizzo Cengalo. The whole time we were in the area we could hear rockfall...

L to R:  Gemelli, Cengalo, Badile.  Swiss Italian border.
L to R: Gemelli, Cengalo, Badile. Swiss Italian border.
Credit: Brian in SLC

Good to see (ha ha) you still gettin' 'er done! We ate dinner together a number of years ago at a Nepali restaurant in SLC. Good times. Also dimly recall meeting you in Argentina on the tail end of one of your not fun trips (December '95? Aconcagua).

Cheers!
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
  Oct 13, 2017 - 12:45pm PT
Thanks, Erik. Great job!

It's easy to see from your experience how bad-ass the PB is and why it's on "The List."

Footage from Bondo, post-slide.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxhgIay4P-c
T Hocking

Trad climber
Redding, Ca
  Oct 13, 2017 - 02:58pm PT
Proud effort Erik and team.
Best wishes to the town of Bondo.
Thanks for the cool reports and pics.
Welcome to Supertopo,
Tad
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
  Oct 13, 2017 - 01:00pm PT

Awesome. Wild...
... where angels dare not go... should not go...
Brandon-

climber
The Granite State.
  Oct 13, 2017 - 02:47pm PT
Dude, proud.

Mike.

climber
  Oct 13, 2017 - 03:00pm PT
An elevated level of badass. Congratulations! TFPU.
originalpmac

Mountain climber
Timbers of Fennario
  Oct 13, 2017 - 05:33pm PT
Erik, I once waited on you at the Beaumont in Ouray. It was an honor. To say you are an inspiration is an understatement.
Cheers,
Pierce
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Oct 13, 2017 - 06:21pm PT
These journeys aren't as simple as a motivational poster. They don't always end in perfect triumph. There's adversity and sometimes darkness around the edges, but we commit to pressing forward, not allowing our fears and the risks of living to hold us in the prison of our minds.
Indeed!

Nice write up, Erik.

My old friend, Bill Roos, RIP, said people would be astonished by the burliness and resilience of your physical constitution, and just speaking of your lower locomotive chain, described what a beating your ankles and knees absorb on the approaches alone.

Though you are made of flesh and bone like the rest of us, it would seem your will and spirit, through your training and persistence, have been transmuted into steel!

Yes, yes: welcome to the forum!

Berg heil!
L

climber
It's a Bear Affair
  Oct 13, 2017 - 07:29pm PT
Thanks for posting Erik....you are simply amazing!

What Jim said....times 10.
Kalimon

Social climber
Ridgway, CO
  Oct 13, 2017 - 08:00pm PT
Awesome adventure Erik . . . the fall sounds severe. So glad you shared your experience with us. Thanks for setting such a good example!
Bargainhunter

climber
  Oct 13, 2017 - 08:36pm PT
Jesus F*#king Christ Impressive!
phylp

Trad climber
Upland, CA
  Oct 13, 2017 - 09:34pm PT
I am in awe.
Thank you for the excellent trip report.
nah000

climber
now/here
  Oct 13, 2017 - 10:02pm PT
holey fUck... on many, many fronts!

thanks so much for dropping your report here!
Inner City

Trad climber
Portland, OR
  Oct 13, 2017 - 11:17pm PT
What an inspirational TR.

Thanks for the great write-up and I must say you are incredible!

Holy Mackeral. Other challenges are really put into perspective by
your amazing perseverance and achievement.

Hats off...
mcreel

climber
Barcelona
  Oct 13, 2017 - 11:22pm PT
Wow, I was enjoying a great TR about an impressive climb, when I got to the part where the guy said "it must be harder for you", and I was wondering, "why is that?", so I went back and noticed your handle.
drF

Trad climber
usa
  Oct 13, 2017 - 11:31pm PT
Nice job man! This trip report goes to 11!!
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
  Oct 14, 2017 - 12:07am PT
hey there say, blindclimber... (erik) ...

wow, this is fantastic stuff... i love the Italian Dolomites and the Alps ... oh, i JUST love them! ...

say, great shots, great trip... sorry to hear of the rockfall, etc,
but GLAD you are safe...

ps:

lilabeine (audrey) SEND me one of your "REACH" necklaces... i love it,
as, it works 'spiritually' as well as physically, EVEN as it should...

i keep it on every day, and i remember your
tenacity, and overlap it, into the spirit, of each day, :)
and--the message of 'reach' ...

it is something god showed, me, too, when things got rought...

keep going, and reach for the 'next steps' in life...

so very happy to see you here, erik... :)





edit:
say, friend tarbuster... as to your quote:

Berg heil!
you just reminded me of rod...
and how he'd post that, at facebook...

good to remember folks, while sharing with others...


OOOOOOPS, extra edit:

THANK YOU!! to the great photographers, marco, and, eric, of your
trip!
justthemaid

climber
Jim Henson's Basement
  Oct 14, 2017 - 06:29am PT
Near misses like that really change one's perspective on life. Thanks for sharing your story'
Fritz

Social climber
Choss Creek, ID
  Oct 14, 2017 - 09:31am PT
I first became aware of the North Face of the Piz Badile back in the late 1970's, but never had the balls to try to climb it.

Thanks for sharing your great adventure & the fine photos.
lars johansen

Trad climber
West Marin, CA
  Oct 14, 2017 - 02:06pm PT
I really enjoyed your report, Thanks-lars
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
  Oct 14, 2017 - 02:43pm PT
hey there say, mouse... oh my, i JUST now had time to see that
clip of the rock fall ...

far more huge-reaching, than my small self could even imagine, :(

it registers, one way, by reading,
and is awful sad enough, :(

A massive landslide had occurred, shedding away a huge chunk of nearby Piz Cengalo. Over 4 million cubic meters of debris calved off the face and formed a river of rock, mud and water that poured over the tiny town of Bondo, taking out houses, cars, and roads, and cutting off the village. It also destroyed the dirt road and trail we'd ascended just a few days earlier. We heard it was the biggest rockslide the Alps had seen in the last 40 years.


but, to see that clip... oh my... :(

again, too, so glad erik and all, were safe, at that time...



also, one more note, now that i have a bit of time,
i suspected this, but did not realize it was REALLY that often
that it ONE could go to sleep just LISTENING to it, and be over concerned, oh my... i liked learning this "continual erosion"
in a more in-depth way, HERE--thank you, erik:


Throughout the night we listened to an adjacent mountain, Piz Cengalo, exfoliate granite. There was a near-constant roar as huge boulders and rubble clattered and tumbled down the face, eventually exploding onto the glacier below. The Alps are a mountain range known for continual erosion, a force that shapes the majestic and rugged fins and spires, so this wasn't unusual activity.
JEleazarian

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  Oct 15, 2017 - 08:38pm PT
Excellent TR! That route has always intrigued me since I first read about it almost 50 years ago. Unfortunately, lack of time and money have prevented me from making the trip. Thanks for giving me the next best thing -- your first-person account.

John
noriko nakagawa

Trad climber
sin city
  Oct 18, 2017 - 11:13am PT
Really great TR and congrats on the ascent (and descent). You're an inspiration.
Tami

Social climber
Canada
  Oct 18, 2017 - 01:20pm PT
Awesome trip report and thanks for posting it up !!!!
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
  Oct 18, 2017 - 10:12pm PT
Tfpu ... Piz Badile is on my bucket list for sure!
Flip Flop

climber
Earth Planet, Universe
  Oct 19, 2017 - 05:12am PT
Best post ever. So damn good. Is the author the handsome one in middle of the the group shot?
Bad Climber

Trad climber
The Lawless Border Regions
  Oct 19, 2017 - 07:18am PT
The best of Super Topo. Thanks so much for sharing your story. Doesn't leave the rest of us with many excuses! So glad you dodged the rock fall like Pass the Pitons Pete. Wow.

BAd
radair

Social climber
North Conway, NH
  Oct 31, 2017 - 11:16am PT
So rad it's beyond comprehension. Broken ribs hurt. Well done
guyman

Social climber
Moorpark, CA.
  Oct 31, 2017 - 02:00pm PT
There I was enjoying yet another grand trip report on the Taco....

Then I read the part about you being blind, my jaw hit the floor.

I have always wondered, "how does he do it??"

Now I know.... guts and grins.

Much respect and admiration to you.

Welcome to the Taco.

C4/1971

Trad climber
Depends on the day...
  Oct 31, 2017 - 08:36pm PT
Nice trip report....
Larry Nelson

Social climber
  Nov 1, 2017 - 03:25pm PT
Well written and inspiring.
Thanks for posting.
clode

Trad climber
portland, or
  Nov 1, 2017 - 03:37pm PT
First of all, great TR, with great photos! Thanks!
Secondly, the reason that part of the Alps is called The Dolomites, is because the rock type is, well, dolomite! This is a form of limestone, not granite.
Again, thanks for the TR, and prayers for those that the rock slides affected.
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