Sometimes the photo end of our lives do not always play out as we would like. Thankfully, what we shoot is also exactly what we want to be doing, so either way, photos or no photos, we enjoy what we do. And so we went to Switzerland’s Piz Bernina, the easternmost 4000 meter peak in the Alps which is home to arguably the Alp’s most perfect alpine line, the Biancograt, or “white ridge”.
Our idea was to shoot stock, but also to shoot photos for our friends Matthias Larcher and Jürgen Kinzer. They are young Mountain Guides from our town in the Sud Tirol and have just launched into business guiding in the Dolomites and Alps: Bruneck Alpin
Matthias met us there after guiding Mont Blanc, his total sleep for the previous 3 days was roughly 4 hours During our trip, his daily average would not improve. Arriving late, Jürgen decided to wait so they could walk in together, which they did at 2 a.m. to meet us for 5 a.m. breakfast at the Tschierva Hut. While Janine and I took a horse drawn carriage halfway up the approach, the Guides stumbled through the darkness for three hours.
What would be the daily norm for weather started. Mostly clear, blue skies – but – dense fog & clouds swirling amongst the peaks. We climbed in warmth, but with no visibilty. Torment comes to the photographer always rising higher in the mountains only to go the same speed as the day’s rising cumulus. Matthias and Jürgen provided welcome comedy relief and I am sure the four of us could be heard laughing in the mist.
The Tschierva Hut is on the Swiss side of the Bernina and is a combination of hut circa 1800’s and modern 21st century architecture. The staff runs an immaculate and friendly home for alpine climbers. Being Swiss, dinner is at 6:30 sharp, breakfast is at 3 a.m. for Biancograt climbers – don’t be late.
The hardest part of alpine climbing is hearing my Suunto watch alarm go off at 2:50. I have been doing this for 20 years and it never gets easier, the first 10 minutes is a combination of dread for leaving the warm bed for the cold glacier, also for the imminent bone dry bread and instant Swiss coffee that needs to be consumed.
The climb itself was nothing short of perfect. We had perfect conditions, dry rock, little ice, and warm, no wind weather – but the low clouds remained preventing us from ever having more than 5 minutes of view below. The climb itself took us 5 hours from the hut, then another hour to descend to the real fun… The Italian side of the Bernina and the Marco e Rosa Hut.
While the Swiss Hut is orderly, clean, and clearly a business, the Marco e Rosa is something more like arriving to your eternal bachelor friend’s pad. The guidebook even warns, “the Hut is run by men, all men” – Italian Men. And these men live together, in complete isolation, at one of the highest huts in the Alps, tucked into rock amongst glaciers. As a visitor, one gets to visit their lives, see their porn posters, listen to their music blaring in the dining room and enjoy all things quintessentially Italian about the hut. I loved it.
Dinner was at 6, but 6 sharp means nothing in Italy, and so we ate at 7:15 and continued until after 9. But here in this hut, we had something I have never seen in the Alps… choices. These 3 Italian men, smelling somewhat of alcohol, manage to pull off an impressive dinner each night, complete with a selection of dolci and even an espresso machine for post dinner caffe. Homemade beer rounds out the selection, also with choices, bionda, rossa or wheat.
The next morning we rose at 4:45 to complete our climb, a traverse of the Piz Palu. Once again we headed out into thick clouds and little visibility. Soon the sun rose, indicated by the brightening of the white environment. Finally like magic, it lifted, and just in time, we were on the summit of the Piz Palu. The warmth was welcome at 3900 meters, we laid out in the sun as if we were on holiday at the beach.
Descending the Palu is a quick affair down the glacier and through the crevasse field straight to the Diavolezza Hotel and a magnificent lunch before riding the tram to the rail station and a train ride back to Pontresina. Once again, a perfect trip. Maybe not for photography, but for the great memories that are stacking up. The Piz Morteratsch, Piz Bernina’s Biancograt and traverse of the Piz Palu – possibly the finest alpine tour in the Alps.