Ghost Face, new Hubshorn climb by Zanoli, Pagnoncelli, Gallian
On 26 May 2013, Paolo Zanoli, Giovanni Pagnoncelli and Davide Gallian made the first ascent of Ghost Face (TD+, 850m length, 550m height) up the North East Face of Hubshorn (3192m, Pennine Alps). The peak is located on the border between Italy's Piedmont and Switzerland's Canton of Valais and the winter-style ascent, although strictly speaking "out of season", was a great feat of... alpinism. Giovanni Pagnoncelli provides the details.
Domodossola is a small town in Piedmont, unknown to the Piedmontese in that it is located far from the capital, Turin. It's here that I decided to live. A few minutes drive from here there are great crags, created by legendary and tireless Maurizio Pellizzon ‘Pelli’ which attract world-class climbers. Just a dozen or so minutes further away you can reach fantastic multi-pitch rock climbs, both sports and trad, Canadian-style icefalls and some of the most beautiful ski mountaineering outings in the Alps. And then of course there's plenty of "steep skiing" which has become extremely fashionable recently. And there's also Sempione, a gateway northwards towards the rest of Europe which creates weather patterns than mean you can climb or ski in the sun in the north when it's pouring with rain in the south, and vice versa. But it's in alpinism where the true, authentic beauty lies, more than you might ever imagine. Without wishing to belittle Mont Blanc, my first true love but alas an area which has grown out of proportion and is constantly in the eye of the media, the Ossola Valleys offer a romantic form of alpinism of days gone by, with long approaches, little information to go on and complete solitude. The highest face in the Alps is located on Ossola territory and the fact that the locals haven't taken advantage of this unique potential, as would be logical and as has occurred in other alpine areas, is one of the reasons why I love this place and the mountaineering it offers so much. There's still plenty of new alpinism to be done here, you just need to be a dreamer, have a practical approach and vision, and really want to test yourself.
This morning I woke up to two incredible surprises. Although located at the foot of towering peaks, 'Domo' is only located at three hundred meters above sea level, but instead of the usual sparrows, mountain crows circled and screamed up above, the very same who more often than not have plenty to say when mountaineers invade their territory, regardless of what altitude this might be. Sometimes even above four thousand metres. I had never noticed them this low before and I certainly never expected to see them in a city. They, too, gone crazy by this whimsical season? And then I received a surprising SMS from legendary Mauro Rossi, Ossola's equivalent of Giancarlo Grassi who, along with the equally legendary and still excellent and ever-enthusiastic climbers Paleari, Pe and Masciaga, established the area's greatest rock climbs during the '70s and '80s. The SMS stated: 'I don't know how to say this... but I'm very pleased that you climbed this new way. Confirmation that those who have eyes that see, acts! Mauro'.
Hubshorn had been stagnant in my thoughts for about three years, ever since an end-of-season ski mountaineering trip when I noticed a series of ice drips which however only lasted a couple of days. Research showed that the face had been breached only via two winter routes. Over the past three years I skied beneath that face dozens of times, either for pleasure or training, but it always revealed its most ugly, dark, treacherous slabs. Despite its name, which in German means 'cute horn', local legends refer to Hubshorn as a pile of lichen rubble, so the prospects of climbing it didn't seem too tempting. In truth, after having climbed the Re Alberto NW Ridge in summer, the rock didn't seem all too bad. Evidently those who told the legends were 'fussy'.
A few days ago I noticed a photo on FB taken by friends of mine skiing to Monte Leone: the face was clearly plastered in an absolutely unique layer of white. 'Seize the day' springs to mind in cases like these. The good weather window was about to come; all that was needed was a reccie to find out what the white stuff consisted off and find a team, sufficiently motivated and pissed off, to trust me. Those with these characteristics tend to be young, aspiring mountain guides or aspiring aspirants, but they almost always live in different provinces. Who could be more motivated than two youngsters who only need High Altitude module to finish off their Mountain Guide's course? And so it was. A pleasant alarm at 6:15 (for me) and, armed with a twin set of micro friends, micro nuts, knife blades, deadmen and short screws we hit the ramp straight on, having located it two days earlier. Convinced we'd reach the summit in 4 - 5 hours.
The mountain was incredibly wintery and atypical for this place and the season. Low temperatures, a tense northwesterly wind and fog led us to think that we were on a different mountain altogether, on the Eiger perhaps, in Scotland or even Norway. In January. I knew which line we needed to take, a leftwards rising route would lead us through an initial steep section to a snowfield and then an upper wall which leads to a snowy ramp below the summit. Simple, intuitive, logical. Unfortunately though things changed when we were on the face, the view was often blocked by rocks and crests which didn't seem to exist on the photos taken straight-on. In addition, the fog led us leftwards to the steeper section of the face. Nevertheless, one pitch after the next was climbed, the hours slipped by and we climbed a series of corners, ramps and ledges. The trail needed beating through waist-deep snow up on the ridge and this led us to the summit cross.
We had fun, the climbing wasn't all about tension and a knots of fear, tragedies and difficulties. Yes, there were some tense and difficult moments, delicate and thin sections, an overhanging crusty ice blob, sections which we short-roped where none of us could afford to make a mistake. But a partnership of three, on terrain like this, can grin and joke around in dramatic moments, and build on the friendship which Paolo and I had forged during earlier climbs and create a new one with Paolo, pissed off because he would have preferred to climb a sunny face with view out onto the sea. So, apart from my harness made of cordlets due to my head in the clouds, the poor visibility on the summit and the fear of falling through a cornice, we simply couldn't have wished for a more beautiful climb. Friendship, being in-tune with each other, control, honesty and loyalty, far removed from envy and jealousy the ruin the valuesof mountaineering. With onesself, with partners and with the mountains.
We graded the route TD+ and climbed the line in 9 hours in those conditions, but the difficulties can vary greatly, depending on the quantity and quality of ice and snow. We short-roped circa two hundred metres and climbed 12 pitches. 13 belays were established on rock, sometimes we had to dig through the snow to search for cracks. The belays were almost always good, while the pro along the pitches were less good and more run-out. We spent a lot of time making the belays. We didn't leave any gear in-situ, for those wishing to repeat the route we recommend you take as much gear as you feel is necessary. And we invite all alpinists to complete the most logical and obvious line that still awaits to be climbed.
by Giovanni Pagnoncelli
Hubshorn, 3192m, Pennine Alps
First ascent: Paolo Zanoli, Giovanni Pagnoncelli, Davide Gallian - 26 May 2013
length: 850m / 550m height