A Return To The Alps | Paul Ramsden
Words by Paul Ramsden
To be honest I don't actually get out climbing that much. Climbing is integral to my life but it's not something I have to do every day. That's probably why I never became a full-time professional climber. As a dog owner, lock down in an English village was pretty pleasant if the truth be told, even if I do live in a pretty flat part of the country. However, there is a big difference between not wanting or needing to go climbing and being told you can’t go climbing! The mere fact I couldn't press that climbing pressure release valve on an irregular basis slowly started to mess with my head. Before I knew it, I was screwing holds to the side of my house and manically traversing backward and forward dreaming of the day I could get back on the rock. I have spent a lot of time working overseas and have gone for years without hardly climbing at all, but voluntary abstinence is so different from forced abstinence.
As restrictions slowly lifted, we began to meet friends for walks in the Peak District. First on the list was my old climbing partner Richard and his family. In our teenage years we had ticked off many of the classic north faces of the Alps and as we wandered through the dales of the white peak, we reminisced on times gone by and the fact that we never climbed the Cassin Route on the Piz Badile.
My last dedicated trip to the alps was with Richard nearly 30 years ago. We had gone to the Bregalia with the intention of climbing the Cassin route on the north east face of the Piz Badile, one of the six classic north faces from Gaston Rebuffat’s book Starlight and Storm. For reasons we can’t fully remember, probably the number of climbers planning to do the route the following day we instead climbed the north east face, a route called Ringo Star. Richard felt like it was unfinished business and a really good excuse for a quick trip to the alps once restrictions lifted enough to allow it.
Then one day the need for quarantine when visiting the alpine countries of Europe was lifted and the plan was made. A week’s road trip to the alps, minimum interaction with others, so stock up with food, cross the channel with Eurotunnel so we could stay in our car, motorways (two things that didn't really exist on our last visit together), no mountain huts or other accommodation. A box full of face masks and a load of alcohol gel. Perfect.
The key with quick trips to the alps is to follow the weather. Initially it had looked very promising but as our departure grew nearer things deteriorated considerably until it looked pretty unstable throughout the alps. As we cruised across northern France there was much swiping of weather forecasts and indecision. It’s not quite in the alps but there was a clear weather window over the Vercors, maybe we could find something to climb there for a few days until the alps improved. I had heard a crag called Presles offered some good big limestone routes.
Presles is now relatively unpopular and we didn't see any other climbers for the two days we were climbing. The routes are about 300m high offering 8-10 pitch routes of excellent quality. The only downside is that they face south and can get very hot in the summer though fortunately the unsettled weather gave us good cloud cover and combined with early starts we ticked two excellent routes. I particularly remember a route called Chrysantheme being very good.
The weather in the alps appeared to be slowly improving and a small weather window appeared over the Dauphine Alps. Not a long enough window for a big route but enough for something more compact. In the end we opted for a route on the Aiguille du Dibona the following day. A very early start walking up to the hut in the fog wasn't promising. You had to have confidence that the forecast would be right but miraculously as we geared up at the foot of the Voie des Savoyards the cloud dropped to reveal a full cloud inversion below bright blue sky. The Savoyarde provided 12 pitches of superb granite climbing. No bolts but lots of good trad gear, though a bit thin on the crux traverse. We had opted to carry just our approach shoes for the descent as we just needed to descent a few snow patches; however, an unusually cold day left the snow distressingly hard and frightening.
The following day looked unstable again but then the weather looked set for the rest of the week. Clearly there was nothing to stop us cruising across northern Italy to address the main point of the trip.
Since the north east face of the Piz Cengalo decided to fall off in 2017 the Cassin route has seen little traffic. A new path has been cleared up to the Sasc Fura hut since 2019 but due to Covid has only seen a few weeks use. All I can say is its now a very tough hut approach for the alps! As we stopped to fill our water bottles the hut warden seemed genuinely upset that we wouldn't be stopping for the night having decided to bivi near the foot of the north ridge in a more amendable position for our planned route.
From the col at the foot of the north ridge an easy descent brings you down to the foot of the north east face in a matter of minutes. Remnants of the old snow patches linger from the winter but again its easy to weave around these on good ledges. Keep traversing left until the ledge ends and the start of the route is pretty obvious. From hear about twenty pitches of superb granite climbing lead towards the summit. The hut guardian had informed us that the first ascent of the Cassin this year had been the day before and the lack of traffic the route has seen in the last three years was immediately obvious with the abundance of vegetation, predominately beautiful alpine blooms sprouting out of every crack.
Apart from the scattering of pitons the route was possibly in the most similar conditions to the first ascent since the 1940s. No line of chalk to follow, beautiful flakes hidden under draping blooms, the odd loose hold persisting from the recent winters made the route feel like a real adventure. Only the double bolt belays and the absence of a heavy pack loaded down with big boots, crampons, ice axe and bivi gear reminding us that we hadn’t stepped back in time. Modern superlight equipment certainly compensates for old joints.
All too soon the route was over, and we were heading down the north ridge. Pleasantly descending through the throng of climbers heading up. Maybe 30 years ago we would have packed up our tent and bombed down to the valley in the failing light heading for a round of beers at the bar. This time though we were content to put our feet up, stare at the mountain and contemplate youth, the passing of time and how things can change profoundly while not changing at all.