17 Apr The Alpine Trilogy
by Floriano Martinaglia
In climbing, “The Face” is the name used for the flank of a mountain or rocky structure, divided into very steep distinct facets and separated, at the sides, from the adjacent features. Generally the face is identified by its orientation. The are about 90 faces, above all in the western Alps, which exceed 1000m in height; Most of these face north. Thanks to this geographic accident, and the climatic consequences that follow from it, these faces hold snow and ice even in the warmest months, and are nearly always in the shade. It wasn’t by accident that the north faces, also for a series of historical reasons, became, from the 1930’s onwards, the symbol of risk and difficulty.
Norman Neruda (with the great Swiss guide Christian Klucker and Josef Reinstadler), on the Liskamm’s norh face, and Damiano Marinelli (with the guides Pedranzini and Imseng, together with the porter Corsi) on the east face of the Monte Rosa at the end of the nineteenth century had inauguarated the climbing of the great faces. But the attention for the great collections of ice and mized ground of the Alps really only hotted up in the twentyfirst century.
I first climbed on rock, almost as a game, in 1982, with my brother Raffaello. At the time in Ticino there were few crags for climbing and no-one wanted to make long car trips. Contact with the rock, and the athletic moves linked in a slow upwards progress challenging fear and gravity, contributed to make our passion for the vertical world grow. For a few years, as well as climbing on crags, we walked all over the Ticino Alps, reaching the sumit of numerous 3000m peaks. But these summits were always missing something; as Reinhard Karl would say: what you climbed to wasn’t a true “summit”.
When, in the summer of 1984, I climbed the north face of the cima di Rosso in the Grigioni massif, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d have continued to do this type of climbing in all the years to follow. It was a sort of enlightenment. I’d discovered that the climb had more character if I climbed one of the faces, if possible one covered with hard snow or ice. Even sinking the pick of the axe into the frozen crust and measuring the route pitch after pitch opened to me a world that I’ve never imagined.
We came out into the hot August sun on the summit after hours spent in the shade, and during the descent I couldn’t stop thinking about the ascent, sorry it was already over. The years passed and my wanderings in the Alps, from the Maritime Alps to the Retiche and the Julian Alps, led me to climb many of the great rock and ice classics. I got to know the cold granite of the early morning on the NW face of the pizzo Badile whose darkness emerges from the Trubinasca glacier. I tasted with joy the clear dawn lighting up the Brenva face of Mont Blanc, and I was stunned by how thrilled I was to be alone, in the cold of January among the maze ofice-choked couloirs, on the north face of the Aiguille du Midì.
But as often happens in life, at a certain point, you’re no longer satisfied. The classic ice faces seemed to represent a limit to my mountaineering. Some of them, such as the Liskamm’s north face or the dangerous north face of the Ortles I have climbed very fast or solo. I now felt the need to test myself on more treacherous, diffcult and if possible friable terrian …and the mixed faces were perfect.
In July 2003 my friend Flaminio suggested we do the great rock and mixed route, the “Cassin” on the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif. A never-ended granite spear 1200m high; many alpinists’ dream. With the north face of the Eiger, the Walker Spur was the Last Great Problem of the Alps, and was climbed in 1938 by Lecchesi Cassin, Esposito and Tizzoni from Lecco, Italy. In the summer of 2003 conditions were excellent. The fine weather meant the rock was dry and our climb, with light boots, was a real pleasure. Only in the sections in the shade, every so often did the odd slab of verglass slow down our safe progress.
Ignoring the jump for joy that my ego had made in these days, I continued to summit-bag with partners who were never the same and, to tell the truth, I was often alone. Until one late February afternoon when, talking about climbing waterfalls with some friends from Brescia at the restaurant “Placido” in Val Daone, I was intriduce to Giorgio, an ice climbing specialist, who turned out to the the ideal companion to tackle what I’d long dreamed in secret of doing: climbing the north face of the Eiger, the highest, the most dangerous, finally audaciously climbed after numerous attempts and 8 deaths by the Austrian-German team Harrer-Kasparek and Heckmair-Vorg in 1938.
So, on Easter Sunday 2007 I found myself in the middle of the feared Eigerwand, with 150cm of fresh snow, with Gio` and another freind, Giacomo, a strong climber and caver who’d climbed a new route on Cerro Torre, and who sadly perished during a winter mixed first ascent in 2008. We’d started climbing at night with our headtorches, with a French team, but they sone packed it in. On the Stollenloch ledge, they decided they’d had enough and said their goodbyes, disappearing through the little door to the Jungfrau railway.
We proceeded with the tension under control, overcoming, full of emotion, the face’s long crux. Each ledge and hard pitch told a story about the epics of the first people to climb here: the Hinterstoisser traverse, the Swallow’s Nest bivvy, the Death Bivouac, the Waterfall Chimney, the exposed Traverse of the Gods, the gloomy top of the Spider and upwards to the narrow terrace where poor Claudio Corti bivvied. In the exit gullies, 1700 metres above the snow-copvered Alpiglen meadows, the late afternoon sun calmed our souls.
Beyond the last slopes, I reecognized the final part of the “Mittelegigrat”. The year before, with my partner Marina, we’d passed there on the way to the top. It was the end of the day and of 3 km of continuous climbing. The easy, sinuous crest led to the summit on that April day that for us was unique and unrepeatable. The day after, at Kleine Scheiddeg, at lunch I found myself talking to the legendary Christophe Profit, who’d reached the sumit the day before us, for the tenth time, with a client.
And after two north faces I was missing the third…so exactly a week later I headed for the foot of the north face of the Matterhorn to check conditions were good. The weather was good but, as usual, I hadn’t been able to find a partner and had to give it a miss. The thought of climbing the Matterhorn and completing “the trilogy” of the most difficult north faces became an obsession. This treacherous face was first climbed in August 1931 by two young Munich climbers, Franz and Toni Schmid.
For more than a year, I waited for good conditions and looked desperately for a partner, a friend willing to put himself to the test. But it wasn’t until 23 July 2008, when after 11 hours of climbing I came out in the mist to the Carrel cross on the Italian summit, that the spell was broken. Mauro, my friend from Novara, had like me cursed the bad rock and unstable snow in the last few metres, but I was happy. I’d nurtured a dream for years and finally seen it through to realization. I was free, it only remained to go down, then, once at the bottom, I’d had turned to look back at the folds of the face and would have started to dream again, perhaps about a new face, more difficult, steeper or maybe a mountain further afield.
Floriano Martinaglia was born in 1966 in the Swiss Canton of Ticino and lives in Cadro, near Lugano. An all-rounder climber, as can be seen from his extraordinary curriculum, he’s also a big fan of climbing frozen waterfalls. He’s climbed them all over, but above all where he lives and where he’s explored evey valley and carried out many first ascents. In the last few years he has travelled all over the Alps, repeating the most sought-after and difficult lines, from Austria to France. This last winter, he’s climbed all of 70 waterfalls graded from WI5 to WI6 of which 5 were first ascents in Ticino and made the first repeat of a splendid free-standing icefall in the Pitztal (Austria).
I started climbing in March 1982, and immediately started climbing the mountains of Ticino with my brother Raf. We discovered ice climbing together with our ascent of the north face of the Cima di Rosso, and in 1985 we climbed the cascata del ponte in Val d’ Avers. As the years have gone by, the high mountains and Alpine climbing have become the most important things in my life, and I have chosen the profession of restorer which occupies me half the week, and I have plenty of free time … and if someone still asks me, “When you’re not working, what do you do?” I reply that I have climbed almost all the “Four thousanders” in the Alps. I am missing the 4 Jorasses summits (I am looking foor a partner for the integrale traverse), and the Picco Luigi Amedeo. I have climbed lots of classic north faces: Obergabelhorn, Lenzspitze, Petit mont Collon, Pigne d’ Arolla, Brunnegghorn, Granparadiso, Ciarforon, Breithorn W and E, Disgrazia, Aletschorn, Mönch, Monviso, Ortles, Fletschorn, Weissmies, Presanella, Grand Casse, Lyskamm solo and in a day, going there and back by motorbike, to save time! The never-ending NE face of the Bernina with the “gorgia” start (spectacular setting), the north face of the Palù, which I truly love, along the 3 spurs and last summer soloing the direct couloir between the “Zippert” and the “Bumiller” and exiting on the posied serac (A new finish I think, very dangerous). The same day I descended by the normal route and climbed back up the “Parravicini…” couloir.
In July 2008 with my friend Mauro Mairati on the Matterhorn, I completed the “trology” of north faces, the only Ticino climber to have done so.
Of course, I also climb on rock. I rock-climb less intensely, but really enjoy it (…there’s never time to do everything you want to do, I go caving as well). The Bregaglia and the val Masino are my preferred places, the Badile by the classic Cassin, the Chiara, Another day, the north arete, the Direttissima Fiorelli. Then the Cengalo by the “Vinci”, the Gaiser-Lehmann , the Sciora massif, the Trubinasca, the Picco Luigi Amedeo, the Punta Allievi, the Qualido. In Albigna, with my brother, we opened in July 1995 a nine pitch bolted route (6b obligatory) on the Pizzo Frachicchio. I have climbed as well in the Maritime Alps, in Presolana, in central Switzerland and in France.
In the last few years I have concentrated on Monte Rosa, with fantastic solitary days on “Marinelli”, the Brioschi, the cresta Rey, the “via degli Italiani” on the Parrot and the cresta di Santa Caterina, the only climb made with a companion. On the cresta Signal my partner Marina was with me.
But it’s the Mont Blanc massif, above all, that’s the focus of my attention. I greatly admire Patrick Gabarrou and like him think that here there’s everything that an alpinist could want to find. I have climbed the classic north faces of the Bionnassay, Verte, Courtes, Aiguille Blanche, Chardonnet, the west face of Mont Blanc, Supercouloir by the direct start, soloed the Brenva and the Küffner. The winter 2006/2007 conditions were so good that I climbed 12 goulottes, among which the Gabarrou-Albinoni, the Modica, the Carli-Chassagne and Fil à plomb, all solo and unroped. With Emanuel Panizza (Alpine Guide from Sondrio) and my friend Lorenzo Lanfranchi (Pala), we climbed the very good “Pinocchio” route, really enjoyable! With Marina we climbed Filo`d’ Arianna, Pellissier, the Jager couloir, and the eperon Migot.
Even if I’m not a great fan of ridges, I have done the Innominata, the Les Aiguilles du Diable, the Rochefort integrale, the Miage-Mont Blanc traverse. Unfortunately, my problem right now is that I can’t find companions who want to do hard climbs. So I keep waiting for the chance to climb “il Pilone”, the Droites, the north face of the Pilier d’angle, the “MacIntyre” on the Jorasses and the odd goulotte on the Brouillard.
In spring and autumn I climb oin the crags near Lecco, on the Medale which I love, on the Ossolane crags where I know a lot of people. One day Maurizio Pellizzon told me he was sorry not to have got to know me before his accident, or we’d have climbed some good waterfalls together. Sometimes I also go to the valle del Sarca, to Finale, to Bergamo, to the valle d’ Aosta, but I have also climbed in Corsica, Sardinia, Slovenia and Croatia.
During the winter I change my axes, since for me ice is the best thing and I climb ice even in the summer. Last July with a friend from Ivcrea I climbed the very good “Grassi-Bernardi” at the Roccia Nera…A perfect Eighties-style ascent.