I grew up hiking in the Adirondack mountains of New York, and later the White Mountains of New Hampshire – places that are still near and dear to my heart – but ever since I was a young boy, leafing through pictorial mountaineering books from legendary climbers like Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner, I’ve dreamed of ‘Real Mountains’ capped with snow and glacier. Yesterday, I finally had my chance and summited Piz Palü (3900m, 12,811′). Although relatively simple on the grand scale of mountaineering, it was nonetheless the most challenging mountain I’ve experienced in my 50 years of hiking. Read on and definitely do not miss the gallery – we were blessed with outstanding weather and snow conditions.
It all began several months ago when Felix, a colleague at ETH and University of St.Gallen, invited me hiking; we had some fabulous days climbing Kronberg in February and Säntis in June. He encouraged me to join him for a guided climb of Piz Palü, one of the higher peaks in the eastern Alps and, arguably, one of the most beautiful. Certainly, it is a stunning part of the view from Diavolezza, a hotel on a rocky ridge overlooking the glaciers formed by Palü and its neighbors.
Felix and I arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday, after a beautiful drive through the St.Moritz region and up over the Julier pass, then a short ride on the Diavolezza gondola. At 2978m (9,770′), Diavolezza is high enough that we could immediately feel the altitude. After a quick lunch, we headed out on a warm-up hike to Munt Pers, a 3206m (10,518′) rocky promontory about a mile away. It offered us panoramic views of the glaciated Bernina region (video), and a chance to acclimatize and stretch our legs.
Just before dinner we met with Patrick, a licensed Swiss Mountain Guide with whom Felix has climbed many times [website]. We studied the view of the mountain and discussed two different routes: the classic glacier route to Piz Palü, or the Palü Traverse, a circuit that begins by climbing a ridge to the northwest of the peak, then over the three peaks of Palü (west, middle, east), then descends by the standard route. After quizzing me about my experience – and I admitted I’d only been in a true crampons-and-rope situation once before – he advised we take the standard route. Wise choice.
We enjoyed a rosy sunset view of the peaks while stocking up on a hearty dinner prepared by the hotel, along with about three dozen other guests – some tourists, and many climbers. We set our alarms for 3:10am, and tucked in with hopes of catching some sleep.
At 3:30am the dining room was busy with several dozen sleepy climbers, and a nervous energy filled the room. It was still dark outside, but the weather forecast looked good: clear weather until mid-afternoon, then a potential for late-afternoon thunderstorms. By 3:50am we were outside, pleased the waning moon was still high in the sky and generating a crisp glow across the landscape. It was a balmy 5°C as we headed south on a rocky trail around Piz Trovat, another promontory on the Diavolezza ridge. The vast eastern horizon just was beginning to glow orange, with Venus hovering brightly nearby.
Indeed, Venus was not the only thing in the east: nearly as bright, and not far away, was the distinctive shape of a comet. A comet?? Although I pointed it out to Felix and Patrick, we were all a bit too sleepy and too focused on following the trail to stop and investigate. Little did I know at the time, but Comet NEOWISE is prominent right now – indeed, some say today was the best day to see it! – and was just discovered four months ago. Although some of my blurry early photographs include the comet, my iPhone just doesn’t have the resolution or dynamic range to capture it. There are many photos online; the second video on this page is particularly impressive. What a treat!
Soon we had traversed Piz Trovat and reached the glacier. We paused to put on our crampons and rope up. Although this glacier is fairly clean and stable, there is always a risk of snow bridges collapsing over a crevasse – and higher up, the slope becomes extremely steep – so a rope is a critical safety measure. As the least experienced climber, I was placed in the middle of our three-man rope line; we then walked, spread out, following the well-worn path toward the peak, now quite visible in the morning twilight. Shortly after 5:30am the sun rose and cast a rosy glow across the peaks.
The key reason for such an early start is to climb while the snow is still firm from the overnight cold; indeed the trail crunched under our crampons. Later, on the way down, the top layer would be soft corn snow – great for descending, but difficult (and less safe) to ascend. As we gained altitude, slowly zig-zagging our way up the ever-steeper glacier, we could really feel the altitude. Step, step, breathe. Pole, pole, as I learned on Kilimanjaro.
We hopped over some small crevasses and detoured around major ice falls, following the path used by hundreds of other climbers this season – and a dozen climbers ahead of us this morning.
By 7am we reached the saddle, a low spot on the ridge east of Palü’s eastern summit, and paused for a break. Now at about 3720m, the climbing effort was mostly behind us – but the challenging part was just beginning. I looked up at the trail ahead, a daunting climb on an incredibly narrow ridge toward the east peak. At points it is barely wider than two bootprints, and drops hundreds of meters on both sides. Patrick coiled the rope, shortening the gap between each of us to just a couple meters.
As we climbed this ridge I found it best to keep my eyes focused on Patrick’s boots in front of me, carefully placing each of my steps in his footsteps, and not pausing to look to either side. It’s not that I thought the view down such a vast snow slope would frighten me; it’s that I thought one glance might distract me from keeping my balance or my footing. Any mis-step in this situation could… well, not lead to a happy outcome.
Patrick, who has climbed Palü many times, told us the snow conditions were excellent, and the ridge was unusually wide(!) relative to his experience. By 7:30am we were at the east peak, enjoying the vast view down to the glacier and Diavolezza below, across Switzerland to the north and into northern Italy to the southwest. And, of course, to the west we could see the middle (highest) peak of Piz Palü – across an even narrower ridgeline. Whew, here we go.
The traverse to middle peak was surprisingly quick. We reached there by 8am, pausing to survey the view, to snap photos, and to chat with other climbers. Fantastic!
Although it was mentally challenging to cross those two narrow ridges to reach the peaks of Piz Palü, the climb was not over. We had to cross back over those same ridges, now going downhill, on softer snow. In many ways I was more nervous about this traverse than I was about the ascent.
Nonetheless, we reached the saddle without incident, and paused again for a snack and to lengthen our rope line. We began the long descent of the glacier, which was now in full sun and its surface quite soft. It’s hard to describe the vastness of this glacier until you are on it, and despite the relative speed possible on descent, it still took us nearly an hour to reach the edge and the rocky moraine we’d last seen before sunrise.
We traversed around Piz Trovat – a totally different experience in the sunlight! – and reached Diavolezza before 11am. We settled into tables on the sunny terrace, surrounded by tourists fresh off the gondola, and ordered some well-earned coffee and tea, basking in the view of Piz Palü and its neighbors. Below is a rough diagram (in red) of the route we took, though the traverse around Piz Trovat is hidden.
To return home, I decided to take the historic rail route run by Rhätischen Bahn, which cruises past gorgeous views of the mountains and waterfalls and valleys of the Graubünden region, and over marvels of engineering including a spiral track that criss-crosses a valley over bridges and through tunnels. Incredible!
Gallery: be sure to check out the gallery – for more photos and videos, and most photos are best viewed at full resolution.
Climb stats: 11.5km, ascent 994m; start/end at Diavolezza (elev. 2973m), high point Piz Palü (elev. 3905m). Climb time 4 hours from 03:52 AM to summit 07:52 AM; back at 10:57 AM. Total time 7h05, including all rest and photo stops. Four maps follow. The first two show our tracks for Piz Palü (green) and our warmup hike to Munt Pers (blue); the fat pink line is the border with Italy. The second two maps are from brochures. Full-res versions are in the gallery. An interactive map showing the Piz Palü traverse route (the eastern half of which is our route) is here.