West Face in Winter

Posted on: July 1, 2006


In January 1978 Innocenzo Menabreaz, Leo Pession, Rolando Albertini, Augusto Tamone, the brothers Arturo and Oreste Squinobal and I had a common goal: to make the first winter ascent of the most direct route on the Matterhorn's west face, the line that Matterhorn guides Renato Daguin and Giovanni Ottin had climbed in August 1962. Problematically, we were two separate groups.

Oreste Squinobal on the first winter ascent of the Daguin-Ottin Route on the west face. Opened in 1962, Renato Daguin and Giovanni Ottin's route represented the first integral ascent of the face, via a direct line through the central overhangs that had thwarted previous would-be ascensionists, including the famous Il Carrellino. After the ill-fated first winter ascent, Barmasse would go on to become one of the area's most well-known guides and activists, a tradition his son, Herve Barmasse, author of this article, would continue. [Photo] Marco Barmasse

All of us were guides in the Valle d'Aosta. At the last minute good sense prevailed, and we united to confront the wall. There was just one handicap: with so many of us it would be slow going.

Compared to winter climbs nowadays, our cumbersome tents and equipment made our group the ultimate "heavies." But we bonded quickly and, working well together, we reached the middle of the wall by the end of the first day. That evening Arturo and I fixed the first overhang while the others prepared our bivouac. We sang mountain songs after dinner.

Harsh wind, snow and severe cold surprised us at daybreak. As we had the day before, our group worked to perfection even in the midst of the storm. We reached the summit in the afternoon, then quickly made our descent via the normal Italian route with a south wind that froze our beards.

Arturo and I descended first, looking for the route we knew by heart, but in those conditions it had turned into a maze of precipitous traps. Just above the ledge, we started to prepare a new bivouac while the others set up a rappel to join us.

Rolando rappelled. Suddenly Augusto screamed, "Look out! Rock!" In the storm, Rolando had gone too far toward the west face and the rope came undone, throwing him inexorably down the wall.

I was hacking at the ice to level the bivy site. Without a second thought I hurled myself to try to grab the ropes. It was in vain: the cord that secured me to the bivy caught me and held me back. A rock tore open my down jacket and fractured the head of my fibula. There was no trace of Rolando.

Searching with our headlamps, we screamed his name into the blizzard with no answer. Demoralized, we retreated into our tents, me with the Squinobal brothers who massaged my leg all night long.

The weather was still hideous the next morning, but one of us made out Rolando's lifeless body at the base of the wall. We started the descent with infinite sadness in our hearts. It was an ordeal for me, but everyone did his utmost to help. I still remember Innocenzo with snow up to his waist making space so we could get through.

We finally completed our descent from Pic Tyndall and reached the hut, where we spent two days until an Air Zermatt helicopter flown by an incredible pilot evacuated us.

Our climb was a great first winter ascent with magnificent companions, but for me it lost meaning after Rolando died—for what, in the end?

And he was the one who said it would be his last winter climb.

—Translated from the Italian by Linda Eklund

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