5 of the best alpine routes to aspire to

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 02/09/2016
Joe Williams on the traverse of Liskamm. Photo: Tania Noakes
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Have you climbed these? The next in our series of alpine ticklists. Claim one of these technical snow and mixed routes to alpine peaks and you can call yourself a real mountaineer.

If in any doubt of your skills and experience, you know the score: hire a guide.

Dômes de Miage PD and Aiguille de Bionnassay Traverse AD

By Tim Blakemore

Climbing snow ridges has a purity and simplicity that just feels right. The way forward is undeniable and modern equipment has done little to change the excitement and inherent uncertainty of placing one cramponed boot ahead of another, while thousands of metres above the valley below.

This three-day, high altitude expedition is one of the finest ridge traverses of its kind in the western Alps. It takes in a multitude of summits, culminating on the razor-like arête of the Aiguille de Bionassay 4,052m.

The climb starts in the sleepy hamlet of Cugnon (Val de Montjoie), in the quiet end of the Mont Blanc Massif. A beautiful, though steep path is followed through forests before the Tré-la-Tête hut is reached. From here the gorge is passed via the ‘mauvais pas’, which is well protected by chains and steel staples. The glacier is then followed to the Conscrits Hut - the final way is dependant on snow and the season (call the guardian for up to date information). Around five hours in total.

Bionnassay. Photo: Tim Blakemore

After an early breakfast to take advantage of the overnight refreeze, the first of five main summits is reached: the Aiguille de la Bérangère 3,425m. From here the way is logical and the ridge followed mostly on the crest, firstly over pointe 3,564m (a classic ski descent drops down the Armancette glacier from here!) then on to pointe 3,670m.

Here the iconic snow arête is followed easily but in a spectacular situation to the Col des Dômes (many people start the traverse from here as an aller-retour from the Conscrits Hut). From here the route takes on a more serious feel as you commit onwards; you can encounter a little loose rock on a small abseil and there is no easy way down or shelter until the Col de Miage and the superb Durier Hut is reached (you must reserve a place here). Those who are leaving for Mont Blanc get up at 01:30am, those ‘just’ traversing the Aigulle de Bionassay about an hour or so later.

The traverse starts out over broken ground and then technical rock (a move of IV is climbed, sometimes verglassed) which is often tackled in darkness. After a couple of hours though the snow arête is reached and then followed to the tiny, exposed summit. The NE ridge is then followed, sometimes precariously, sometimes corniced to the col at 3,888m.

From here there are a variety of options for descent. One option could be to extend the expedition by another two nights and continue the traverse= to the Requin Hut. I recommend climbing the Dôme du Goûter via the piton des Italiens (more nice, exposed ridge climbing) then descending via the Goûter route of Mont Blanc for a more homogenous outing.

Tim Blakemore is an IFMGA mountain guide based in Chamonix. He enjoys climbing in all its forms, especially in wild places: alpinemountainguides.com

Biancograt AD

by Andy Perkins

The Bernina at the eastern end of the main alpine chain packs a mighty punch. It holds the most easterly 4,000m peak in the Alps, the Piz Bernina, nestling in the middle of a complex area of glaciers, riven by deeply crevassed glaciers. The north ridge of the Piz Bernina, the renowned Biancograt, is the jewel in the crown of the Bernina. It has a committing approach, moderate technical difficulty, and the aesthetic allure of a sinuous snow ridge snaking towards a major alpine summit.

Biancograt. Photo: Andy Perkins

The normal approach to the Biancograt starts with a ride in a horse drawn carriage to a hotel with a very fine terrace and excellent cakes. Getting past this is often the crux, but if you can put in a big effort, the walk up to the welcoming Tscheirva Hut is straightforward. You can acclimatize on the Piz Morterasch just to the north on the next day, before you set off the Biancograt.

The route itself is long, and so you’ll need to be moving easily and fluidly on the full gamut of alpine terrain, ice, snow and rock. And you’ll need a decent forecast. It’s not a place to get overcommitted in bad weather. It’s also helpful to have decent snow conditions on the snow ridge while having the rock on the summit section reasonably clear too.

Once you’re on the summit, you still have a way to go with the descent down the standard route of the Spallagrat to the Marco e Rosa hut with its colourful hut guardian and … ah . interesting décor.

Even after a night of great food at 3,600m (take note please, wardens of the Gouter), it’s still not over as a complex glacier descent awaits. For my money, the traverse of the Piz Palu is a great way to extend the trip to four days of alpine awesomeness.

Andy Perkins is a mountain guide based in Chamonix: www.andypmountainguide.com.

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The traverse of Liskamm AD

by Tania Noakes

The full traverse of Liskamm is surely the most sought after snow crest in the Alps. It consists of a narrow, at times knife-edge, snow-covered ridge with occasional scrambles over rocks.

Liskamm. Photo: Tania Noakes

In good conditions it is both fairly easy and objectively safe, although all 4kms of it are above 4,000m so be acclimatised!  It gives you such a sense of being perched up there, high on the spine of the biggest mountain mass in Europe, almost touching the sky above you, that it is sure to leave you in awe.

In poor snow conditions, or when the wind blows, the ridge is serious. It can be challenging both physically and mentally. Large, sometimes double, cornices, mainly on the southern side of the ridge may have to be negotiated, and strong gusts of wind corrode your nerve. Good footwork, judgement and timing are required, adding up to a challenging but realistic objective for any alpinist with experience and fitness.
The route can be traversed in either direction, but is most commonly done east to west, (so that the narrowest part can be done in ascent). This first section involves a knife edge snow crest for a few hundred metres, leading up to the East Summit. The difficulty then eases off for the traverse between the two summits, until it narrows again as you approach the West Summit.

The final descent down from the West Summit is over steep snow which may be icy, but the difficulties are soon over and the more gentle glacial slopes lead you quickly to the Rifuge Quintino Sella.

Tania Noakes is an IFMGA Mountain Guide based in Chamonix. Check out her blog classicclimbs.com, her guide profile, and her BMC article offering advice for wannabe female mountain guides here: Letter to me.

The Nadelgrat, AD, Mischabel chain

By Kenny Grant

The Nadelgrat is a fantastic high altitude traverse in the Mishabel chain that takes in four 4,000m peaks: Dirruhorn (4,035m), Hobarhorn(4,219m), Stecknadelhorn(4,241m) and Nadelhorn (4327m). You can start it from either the Mischabel or the Bordier hutte, with the Mischabel giving a longer approach in the morning. Either way, you’ll want an early breakfast as you’ve got a big day ahead of you!

Nadelgrat. Photo: Kenny Grant

To get established onto the ridge there are several options. If the Dirrujoch couloir is in good condition (more likely early season) then this gives rapid access to the ridge crest at the Dirrujoch. If snow conditions aren’t so good you can climb some slight chossy rock on the right, which has metal stanctions at regular intervals. If neither of these options seems attractive then a safer but longer approach to Dirruhorn would be via the Galenjoch. Check with the hut for the best approach in the current conditions.

Once established on the ridge proper you’ve got a super classic day ahead of you. While the Nadelgrat is long and at a high altitude, the technical difficulties aren’t particularly hard or sustained, the route finding is fairly straightforward and the descent down the Nadelhorn normal route is relatively quick and straightforward. You should be looking at about 10 hours hut to hut.

If you get the Nadelgrat ticked, you can certainly call yourself a ‘real mountaineer’!

Kenny Grant is an IFMGA Mountain Guide based in Scotland and the Alps. He’s equally at home mountaineering or skiing and happy working with all levels. You can find him at kennygrant.guide.

Grandes Jorasses

By Matt Helliker

With easy access to routes in the Alps, you could easily fool yourself into thinking you have 'made it' and you are an alpinist! Because an alpinist sounds way cooler than a mountaineer and that's what you want to be. So, you ski right? “No… hmmm, does snow-shoeing count?" … er, definitely not. But saying that, if you're looking sharp in the lift queue then let's face it you're already halfway there...

Grandes Jorasses
Grandes Jorasses. Photo: Matt Helliker

With 4,000m peaks within a few hours from the lifts, and the possibility of following tracks and guided parties, you can find yourself comfortable with little commitment. Climbing an alpine peak with just as much commitment on the way up as on the way down can be hard to find, with bolted belays and quick abseil descents being fashionable.

One peak that stands out to me that needs a level of expertise to climb would be the Grand Jorasses. With its huge North Face, its broken and tricky ridges, and its glacier-covered South Face, it's a complex undertaking. So, if you find yourself one day on its summit, then maybe you have made it — you are a mountaineer... or is that an alpinist!

Matt Helliker is one of the UK’s most accomplished alpinists and an IFMGA mountain guide: www.matthelliker.com.

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