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The Great North Faces

I may have been tired when I arrived in Val Begaglia, but at least I didn't bicycle into the river, like Hermann Buhl did in 1952.

A friend of mine, Jochen Hemmleb from Germany, is filming a TV documentary series on the Great North Faces of the Alps. It was the French climber Gaston Rebuffat who coined this term in the 1950s for a set of six walls that together epitomize the biggest and hardest challenges a climber can face.

The actual routes were generally accomplished in the 1920s and 1930s, so they are far from the most difficult that are being done today. But the mountains haven't grown, so the six north faces stay the same.

The reason they are all "north" is that these are generally the biggest and the coldest. They are cold because they face north and get little sun. They are big because glaciers have lasted longest and carved hardest on the cold side of a mountain.

The best known of them all is the Eiger, and a few days before I started this border hike, Jochen interviewed me in Leysin because his program on the Eiger focuses on Dad and the route that's named after him, the John Harlin Direct (Dad fell 1,300m to his death there in 1966).

During dinner Jochen told me about Hermann Buhl's solo ascent of the Piz Badile, which looms above me here in the Bregaglia (though I can't see it through the clouds). Jochen's TV program on the Badile tells the following story, which I'll relate in Jochen's own words:

"Hermann Buhl’s first solo ascent of the Cassin Route on Piz Badile’s Northeast Face remains a classic tale of mountaineering and an amazing feat of endurance. On July 4, 1952, 27-year-old Buhl took the evening train from Innsbruck to Landeck (Austria), mounted his bike and cycled to the Swiss border. After a few hours sleep — he hadn’t slept much the night before either, as he had been involved in a search for missing climbers — he continued his ride over the Majola Pass to Promontogno in the Bregaglia.

After hiding his bike in the bushes, Buhl hiked straight to the Sciora Hut in the Bondasca Valley, arriving there at 7 p.m. In the morning of July 6, Buhl set off for the face. He reached the start of the climb at 6 a.m. and, climbing swiftly several pitches of grade VI (hard for the time), got to the summit in 4.5 hours, where he was celebrated by a group of young Italian climbers.

"After some rest, Buhl descended by the North Spur, still a stiff grade IV rock climb. During the night of July 6 to 7, he cycled back across the Swiss border. At 4:30 a.m., some 15 km before Landeck, he fell asleep on the bike and fell into the Inn River. He suffered only minor bruises, but his bike was damaged. “To “Zum alten Zoll” guesthouse on foot, then back to Landeck by bus” concludes Buhl’s diary."

Landeck is on the Austrian side of Martina, where I slept in the hay it seems like countless weeks ago. Buhl's feat makes me feel like a whiner for yesterday's complaint about my big descent into the Val Bregaglia.

But then, he's Hermann Buhl, one of the greatest legends in climbing. I'm just an old guy trying to have fun.