Bianco Ridge in winter
High above the valley floor, appearing to float in the heavens, illuminated by a golden-pink alpine glow, elegantly curving its way towards the summit of Piz Bernina - Bianco Ridge has been created to be admired and then climbed. In other words: whoever sets eyes on the Bianco Ridge wants to get up there and do it.
The challenge was doing the Bianco Ridge in winter and have one of the most awe-inspiring routes in the Alps all to ourselves - something that many dream of but only few manage to experience.
And yet the strategy for the Bianco Ridge is so straightforward: go when nobody else is there. And that‘s exactly what Toni Mosshammer and David Kreiner did.
It is only in exceptional cases that you can enjoy the Bianco Ridge in solitude. It is far more likely that your enjoyment of this alpine highlight will be tarnished by the following conditions: sardine-style accommodation in the Tschierva hut, the starting point of the tour. Followed by a confusion of light beams from innumerable headlamps when you set off at 2:30 in the morning. Then footsteps in front of you, behind you, to your left and to your right, on the scree slope ascent. A little later, ice cascades caused by climbers above. As the day goes on the crescendo of rotor noise arrives as the rescue helicopters move in. And finally the impossibility of getting your camera out to snap the indescribable panorama from the summit because it is usually too crowded to even move.
THE ART OF WAITING
When Toni Moßhammer and David Kreiner pay their respects to the Bianco Ridge then it is going to involve a strategy that includes simply waiting. Wait until winter has set in, wait until the days are shorter and the conditions more fierce. Wait until wind, weather and low temperatures leave the area people-free.
Wait until the Bianco Ridge pleasure trip has transformed into a real alpine challenge.
January 2013: it is freezing cold and the days are as short as they can be. Daylight shuts shop from four o’clock in the afternoon, plunging the stage in darkness.
THE STRATEGY IS WORKING
Toni Moßhammer and David Kreiner have just arrived in Pontresina after a long drive from Tyrol in Austria. There is no time to lose because they both want to catch a glimpse of the ridge before it becomes pitch-black. What the conditions look like up there at the moment none of the people they contacted in advance were able to say. For one simple reason: nobody has been up there recently. Why not? Because you only do the Bianco Ridge during the season. Certainly not in winter. Interim status report: the strategy seems to be working.
In order to obtain an overview of the situation they first need to reach the Tschierva hut at 2,573m, and this is more than just a stone’s throw away. Toni and David put on their skis, shoulder their backpacks and set off up the mountain. To have an Olympic champion and world champion in Nordic combined putting the tracks down in front of you is an advantage, especially when you are in a hurry. So David sets the pace, and instead of the standard three hours it only takes half as long – thanks to their extremely athletic progress – until they reach the completely snowed-under Tschierva hut. No light, no footprints, no smoke: the hut was shuttered up for winter months ago and it looks like nobody has been here since. The last entry in the hut logbook is from October last year.
PROS AND CONS
Swiss mountain huts have their pros and cons. The prices are one of the cons. For a litre of hot water (without a teabag, obviously) you will often be asked to hand over € 6.00. On the positive side, as a kind of reimbursement for the exorbitant summer prices, some hut keepers equip the winter quarters with an oven and plenty of wood, as is the case in the Tschierva hut. An offer that Toni and David, sweating and frost-covered from the ascent, find impossible to decline. Within the hour the winter room has transformed into a 70°C sauna: “We sat there in our underpants and watched the glue drip off our ski skins,“ says Toni.
TWO EARLY BIRDS – ONE COLD START.
When the alarm goes off the next day, it is still pitch-black outside. The backpacks are ready and their skis are skinned up in the corner. A quick breakfast, a few sips of lukewarm tea, and they are off. It is important they do not waste a moment: every hour of light is invaluable in deep winter. Just before six o’clock, Toni and David set off by the light of their headlamps in temperatures of minus 20 degrees.
THAT SINKING FEELING
The first stage across the Tschierva glacier immediately reveals its stubbornness. A stubbornness that hardly exists in summer because at this point you have an easily crossable scree slope in front of you that you can march across relatively quickly before reaching the glacier field. But not in January, when all the paths are covered by several metres of snow. Toni: “First it was David who sunk in up to the waist. Then I followed and thanks to the 20 kg extra weight strapped round my ribs, sank into the same track, just even deeper.”
For Toni and David this is neither a surprise nor unwelcome - this is precisely the challenge they were looking for here in the middle of winter: No holds barred.
The two-man team ploughs on until they reach steep ice and have to secure their skis to their backpacks. The 45 to 50° steep ice slope is in sound condition and they manage to run up quickly. Two and a half hours into the tour Toni and David reach Fuorcla Prievlusa (3,430m), the saddle at the beginning of the first section of rock. In summer, this grade-three climb would not present them with much of a problem. All the gnarly bits have been ironed smooth with steel cables and ladders. A situation that Toni and David are not able to take advantage of on this occasion. Loose snow is lying everywhere, not offering a safe foothold, and has to be painstakingly swept away before placing mobile protection. Plus it is freezing cold. Toni: "This section went on forever and we lost a lot of time covering these few meters."
WALK THE LINE
Toni and David are on top form, but at the moment they still don’t know what the conditions on the ridge are like. It is not until they reach the 'Shark Tooth', a prominent rock pinnacle at the end of this section, that they set eyes for the first time on the heart of the tour: the ridge itself.
There is nothing you can do apart from stand there and stare in awe. Toni and David do just that as the Bianco Ridge stretches in front of them in all its glory. Still, a real mountaineer does not stand around with his jaw hanging open, he gets started. “Walk the line” commands the instinct. However: “Now and again we just had to stand there and let our jubilation sink in. It is difficult to believe that a place which is overrun with people on a fine day can also be so mystical and lonely.”
After a euphoric 45 minutes, the ridge – which offers a mix of smooth ice, hip-deep powder and perfect foothold-safe snow – is behind them and they reach Piz Bianco (3,995m), a kind of intermediate peak on route to Piz Bernina (4,049m).
But there is still a ridge to come: Toni and David yet again have to tackle a technical section and this time it is the crux of the whole route. On this second section of rock it is also difficult to fit protection and tough to climb. Thrash about, search for hold, thrash about again. Toni takes the lead and is first to reach Piz Bernina. David is right behind him and at 1:30 pm they are both standing exhausted but satisfied under a perfectly blue sky on the summit of Piz Bernina.
What's more, they can enjoy their achievement in perfect solitude.
An icy cold winter’s day, a dream ridge, a summit and a team that quickly managed to ascend and descend without incident. It could not be better. And it looks as though the Bianco Ridge will not be the last team expedition undertaken by these two.