Back at The Badile

"Suddenly I heard a crack and a whistle, and a sort of roar. I looked up and saw a huge boulder breaking loose. I shouted to Esposito to hold the ropes and I attached myself to the sling and swung under the overhang. At that very moment, the boulder thundered down exactly where  I had been hanging, exploding into a thousand pieces...
...We could not take a moment of rest. We abslutely had to continue upwards in order to find a bivouac spot before nightfall."
Riccardo Cassin

Many years after this, the first ascent, I would find myself hanging beneath the very same overhang whilst retreating down the route that Cassin pioneered between 14th - 16th July, 1937 in what was a giant leap in the standards of Alpine climbing at the time.
At 10,852 ft, the Piz Badile is amongst the most dramatic and toughest of summits in the Alps. Steeped in climbing folklore having claimed the lives of a number of talented mountaineers, Molteni and and Valsecchi most famously when they died of exposure on the descent in 1937, and offering superb granite face climbs as well as the iconic and hugely popular north ridge, it is a magnet for climbers worldwide: in 2004, its northeast wall was also the first and most significant alpine face I had attempted.
Of the five italians involved in the first ascent of the northeast face, including Molteni and Valsecchi who tragically died, it is Ricardo Cassin (who climbed with Esposito and Ratti, all from Como) who will always be most readily associated with the face. It was his route, known to most simply as The Cassin, that Paul and I attempted.
After a bivvy at the foot of the north ridge, the day started with a scramble to the notch where the climbing of the ridge begins in earnest, and then an abseil to access sloping ledges which lead to a few easy chimney pitches and eventually the Cassin Boss. Here we geared up for the start of the harder climbing.
After leading the first pitch which lead up a steepening slab and corner, over a bulge and then up onto the sweeping slabs, I constructed my belay and turned, euphoric, to call 'Safe'... We were finally on the face. We were here; climbing it; now; we could do it...
It took several more pitches, one much harder than all that had preceeded it, before I realised things were not quite right.
The sun was high. Too high. We were late, climbing too slowly, tiring in the heat as the sun bounced off the steep walls surrounding us. The glacier glittered below, a long way below, but the ridge above was still much too far above.
If we continued, we might make the summit before dark, but it was a gamble. The last pitch had been hard. I doubted I could have lead it. If there was much more like this, how long could we keep it up?
We had already passed Cassin's first bivouac. A desperate affair of pegs hammered into thin cracks, a 50 degree slab capped by a small roof offering protection from stonefall. I did not want to relive the dramas of that expedition so many years ago. We would go down.
Of course, to descend a route such as this that rises diagonally across the face is not simple...we downclimbed, placing gear where possible, abseiled, constructed tension traverses with slings draped over rounded spikes...the day grew hotter still and the tension rose...and then the ropes jammed.
Paul climbed back, freeing the knot that had caught behind a large flake, when a explosion sounded from across the glacial bowl...
It was the Cengalo, a huge area of rock, perhaps 200m sq had broken loose and pulverised the lower face and glacier below. The cordite smell reached us seconds later as a massive billowing cloud of dust rose from the ice.
With nervous glances above, I continued the descent, abseiling down a steep corner.
In front, Paul had clipped the rope into old pegs on his way down, guiding me towards the sanctuary of his belay. As I unclipped each in turn, so the stretch in the rope and the angle of the descent combined to throw me out across the face, away from Paul's anxious stance. At the last peg, keeping the ropes as taught as possible, I unclipped. A sickening swing followed as I skittered uncontrollably across the face and then suddenly over the lip of an overhang. The ropes sawed relentlessly across the lip above me.
At last all was still. The ropes held. I hauled myself horizontally towards the belay, my prussiks designed to halt an uncontrolled slide, now making progress difficult.
I think we stopped at that point, gathering our wits, taking a moment to eat and drink before resuming the descent, eventually traversing back across the easier slabs towards the last climb back up to the notch from which we had abseiled in the grey light of dawn that morning.
 Six years after our attempt, looking upon the face once again, I traced our route, noting the overhang under which Cassin had sheltered and beneath which I had slid. The enormity of the face loomed above the broken glacier, huge and impassive, steep grey slabs rising into the mists...I was content to walk beneath. To absorb the drama of the scene and remember the tension of that day, the awe, fear and joy of climbing in such places...
Perhaps one day I will return to such routes, but for now, as my passion for sea kayaking continues to grow, it is enough to revisit such places, to explore new ranges and take pleasure in new ways from the mountains that will always be a part of my life.
Leaving Bregaglia and the smooth granite walls of the central Alps, I was content with what had gone before, and excited at the prospect of exploring a mountain range which would be entirely new: The Dolomites.

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