Tempo fa ho detto che l'alpinismo era fallito, ma oggi dico no, non è vero, perchè ci sono giovani come Hervé Barmasse

Reinhold Messner

Alpinista, atleta del Global Team The North Face®, scrittore, regista di film di montagna. Hervé nasce ad Aosta il 21 dicembre del 1977 in una famiglia segnata da una lunga tradizione e passione per la montagna. Guida alpina del Cervino da quattro generazioni, il suo nome è legato a importanti ascensioni. Itinerari di grande difficoltà ed esposizione realizzati in tutto il mondo, come la via nuova aperta in solitaria sul Cervino, la prima ascensione della liscia lavagna granitica del Cerro Piergiorgio e la nuova via sul Cerro San Lorenzo in Patagonia, la prima salita del Beka Brakay Chhok in Pakistan e altre ancora. Sulla sua montagna di casa, la Gran Becca, Hervé ha lasciato in modo incisivo la sua traccia fino a diventare l’alpinista che, tra vie nuove, prime invernali e prime solitarie, ha compiuto più exploit. Di recente si è reso protagonista di un’ascensione esemplare in Himalaya salendo in stile alpino la Parete Sud dello Shisha Pangma 8027m in appena 13 ore.

Alpinista, atleta del Global Team The North Face®, scrittore, regista di film di montagna. Hervé nasce ad Aosta il 21 dicembre del 1977 in una famiglia segnata da una lunga tradizione e passione per la montagna. Guida alpina del Cervino da quattro generazioni, il suo nome è legato a importanti ascensioni. Itinerari di grande difficoltà ed esposizione realizzati in tutto il mondo, come la via nuova aperta in solitaria sul Cervino, la prima ascensione della liscia lavagna granitica del Cerro Piergiorgio e la nuova via sul Cerro San Lorenzo in Patagonia, la prima salita del Beka Brakay Chhok in Pakistan e altre ancora. Sulla sua montagna di casa, la Gran Becca, Hervé ha lasciato in modo incisivo la sua traccia fino a diventare l’alpinista che, tra vie nuove, prime invernali e prime solitarie, ha compiuto più exploit. Di recente si è reso protagonista di un’ascensione esemplare in Himalaya salendo in stile alpino la Parete Sud dello Shisha Pangma 8027m in appena 13 ore.

Per la sua attività alpinistica ha ottenuto importanti riconoscimenti tra i quali si ricorda il premio accademico Paolo Consiglio ricevuto quattro volte. Nel 2010, alla sua prima esperienza come regista, esce con Linea Continua. Un film che racconta l’apertura di una nuova via sul Cervino, realizzata insieme al padre Marco. Nel 2012 è la volta di Non così lontano, un film documentario che racconta Exploring the Alp, il progetto che l’ha visto protagonista nel 2011 con l’apertura di tre nuove vie – sul Monte Bianco, sul Monte Rosa e sul Cervino – e che dimostra come anche sulle Alpi, ci sia ancora spazio per l’avventura e che il valore dell’esperienza non dipende dalla montagna che si scala ma dagli occhi dell’alpinista. La montagna dentro, edito da Laterza, è la sua prima fatica letteraria (maggio 2015). Un libro in cui Hervé racconta se stesso, la sua storia, la passione, la fatica, l’emozione delle scalate.

Matterhorn 4478 m - first solo ascent of the Via De Amicis and first man to have climbed all six peaks of the Matterhorn solo.

Closing the circle implies completing a personal goal. It indicates a series of individual experiences that, when put together, transform into a greater whole. In my case, soloing Via De Amicis means I have become the first to have soloed the six ridges of the Matterhorn: the Lion Ridge, the Hörnli Ridge, the Zmutt Ridge, the Furggen Ridge, the Deffeyes Ridge and, last but not least, the De Amicis route. How often have I looked up at the Matterhorn and scrutinised its flanks? Countless times no doubt, and despite the fact that many years have passed, whenever I look upwards it’s still as if my eyes set sight on this mountain for the very first time. I have “special” eyes for this peak and it’s with great pleasure that I’ve shared many first ascents with it, often alone. It’s precisely when you find yourself alone on a mountain that you begin to comprehend who you really are, that you take off your mask and your armour, that you strip yourself bare and give the best you possibly can, because there is no margin for error. And you do all this not for fame, or glory or money even. No, you do it because – incomprehensible to most – it makes you feel good. Of course, I understand those who say to me “you shouldn’t be doing these things”. I myself wouldn’t like to see my daughters climbing the Matterhorn, on its crumbly and friable rock. But I disagree with those who reckon I’m crazy, or those who believe that those who climb solo despise their lives. Solos have existed for as long as mountaineering itself. Obviously the risks are far greater, just like the sensations and emotions that are amplified by our subconscious in order to recognise the boundaries that you must not cross. My first important Matterhorn solo dates back to 2002, nineteen years ago. I chose Via Casarotto Grassi which, in addition to having been established by the legendary mountaineers Renato Casarotto and Gian Carlo Grassi, had only been repeated once before in winter, by my father with his friends. Since that solo I have continued to climb alone up routes that had never been climbed before in that style, until I added a new one of my own, which is perhaps the epitome of what a mountaineer can achieve. But I only did so when I was inspired by something or someone, like on Wednesday 3 March. It was all grey and it was snowing. At 7.45 am I cautiously skinned up from Breuil Cervinia to the base of Via De Amicis. The forecast had been for sun all day, yet I struggled to see the peaks in the Monte Rosa massif. Shaking off all those negative thoughts that weighed me down far more than my rucksack, I started to climb while thinking about the history of these six ridges. The first to complete this “sextuplet” was Luigi Carrel (known as Il Carrellino) with various different climbing partners, but no one had ever climbed them all on their own. And since I’d already “bagged” five, including the fearsome Déffeyes route, why not give this last one a try? I knew I was capable of doing it and I did so savouring every single hold, climbing lightly where the rock was particularly loose. Only once, on the famous Crétier section, did I use the rope for a few meters; using a technique I invented on the spur of the moment and which, had I fallen, would not necessarily have avoided the most serious consequences. But even this decision was carefully considered, much more than one might think. In the end, everything went smoothly and at 4.30 pm sharp I was back in Cervinia where my parents were waiting for me to share a beer. A few days have passed since that solo and the idea of having followed, in an original manner, in the footsteps of both Luigi Carrel and my father, fills me with joy. I did not set off on this climb with the presumption of setting some form of record, but instead because, all of a sudden, I needed to carve some time out for myself. To enjoy a fleeting moment that I accepted readily, in order get to know my inner self, through a solo climb that, through its very essence, provides knowledge and awareness. Knowledge of oneself, of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Awareness about the importance of your loved ones, like my family and friends, and of those who admire you from afar and make you feel special. Even if you are not very special at all. First solo ascents on the Matterhorn 2002 – First solo of via Casarotto Grassi, October 2002 2005 – First solo of Via Deffeyes (in less than four hours),October 2005 2007 – First solo of the South Face of the Matterhorn and first solo of Via Direttissima, April 2007 2007 – First solo of Spigolo dei fiori – Via Machetto, September 2007 2011 – Solo first ascent – Picco Muzio SE Pillar, April 2011 2014 – First winter enchainment and solo of the 4 Matterhorn ridges, first winter solo of Via degli Strapiombi del Furggen, March 2014 2021 – First solo and first winter solo of Via De Amicis. First alpinist to climb all 6 ridges solo, March 2021

Dolomites - Cortina d’Ampezzo, enchainment of Tofana di Rozes, Lastoni di Formin and Punta Fiames

Play the game: do what you love and you’ll always be happy. Using fast alpinism differently, not to break records but as a way of spending more time in the mountains. This was my thought when I invited Cristian Brenna to the Ampezzo Dolomites with me. I had never climbed there before and wanted to link up Tofana di Rozes (climbing Via Costantini-Apollonio), Lastoni di Formin (Paolo Amedeo route) and Punta Fiames (Spigolo Jori route). A normal roped team would take two or three days to climb these three routes, but by simul-climbing, placing gear only where needed and keeping a constant rhythm, I was sure we could do it all in a handful of hours. We tied up with 40 metres of rope between us, and the plan was to meet up at a belay every 300m to swap places. On average there are about 15 to 20 metres of run-out between bolts. We were super focussed, just a slip of a foot and we knew we would both get hurt, but after the first few hesitant metres I gained confidence and the climb turned into an exciting experience. Of course, tying in with Christian is a kind of protection in itself. Not only because of his natural flair for climbing, but also thanks to his light-hearted way of enjoying the mountains. With Christian you can live in the moment, without any regrets. We started and ended our 47 pitches in exactly the same way: joking. It took us less than six hours to complete the 1400 metres of climbing on the three routes (not including the approaches and descents), and at the end of the day this accomplishment could be seen as impressive, but boasting about the speed is the last thing on my mind. These days connecting with nature is so important for all of us, that the speed doesn’t matter. In other words: do what you love and you’ll always be happy. Or, if we want to be really trendy: #playthegame

New route, Dall’Inferno al Paradiso, on the Torre del Gran San Pietro 3692m

After a few years’ hiatus Stefano Perrone and I teamed up again to attempt a new route in the Piantonetto valley in Canavese. It was an opportunity we just couldn’t let pass. The mountain we chose was the Torre del Gran San Pietro: at 3692 metres it overlooks the valley and offers the chance to climb a new route without crossing any other routes. The line is obvious, from the start you just go straight up, following the smooth, apparently holdless, motorway where the lane markings are perfect cracks that alternate between slabs and roofs. It is sublime climbing and for someone like me who’s used to the poor quality rock on the Matterhorn, it seems unreal. At the top there was just about room for our feet, sore from our climbing shoes. There was nothing but space around us, with the Gran Paradiso in the distance and the Becchi della Tribolazione and the Becco di Valsoera below us. It was 18th August and we were all alone, at the height of a summer in which tourists, mountaineers and everyone in between were flocking to the mountains, we could hardly believe our eyes. What a great feeling! We called the route Dall’Inferno al Paradiso, from Hell to Heaven, as Covid-19 and the first lockdown showed us all how pain and suffering can catch us unawares and how vulnerable we all are, how the virus killed so many leaving a shadow of fear in its wake. Yet as we continue with our lives and regain the freedom we lost, we can find happiness—heaven—which for Stefano and me will always be the mountains.

Nepal - Chamlang 7319 metres, no, but 6000m peaks and training, yes

The timeframe was perhaps too short, just 23 days, we knew that. Good weather for a good few days meant that David Göttler, Andres Marin and I could get acclimatised: warm weather, sunshine, not even a breeze. It’s just a shame that the bad weather arrived at the crucial moment. But that can be expected in the Himalayas. As on other trips, I decided to make the most of the trip anyway, making progress with the new direction of training for mountaineering that is more focussed, researched and effective. From base camp we climbed various peaks over 6000m, covering almost 2000m of altitude difference and 20-25km, and returning to base camp within a handful of hours. Take note: speed is not the goal in itself, but a means to an end. Because the less time you spend exposed to risk, the higher the chance of not getting hurt. Talking of progress in mountain preparation, we also tried out the new set of mountain clothing called Advanced Mountain Kit.

Patagonia - Cerro Domo Blanco and a visit to Cerro Piergiorgio.

Your wish? One Cerro Domo Blanco, and to see Piergiorgio again. Some people thought I was crazy. What? You’re going back to Piergiorgio? The idea came about after talking to Maurizio Giordani who wanted to finish the route on the west face that he had started with Gianluca Maspes in 1995. We booked our flights and in early December we set off for El Chaltén with Mirko Grasso and Francesco Favilli. I accepted Maurizio’s invitation out of curiosity. I wanted to see what I had managed to do 10 years earlier and above all to see if I would have a chance to go one better and climb a new route in the space of one month, after having taken three attempts the first time round. Just one week of good weather would be enough, something you definitely can’t bank on getting. In fact, the only sunny day out of thirty was just enough to climb the closer and tamer Cerro Domo Blanco. That’s life, that’s the mountains. I have no regrets. From the top of that snowy summit, I had a view of some of the most beautiful natural spires on our planet, and I felt privileged to be there.

Pakistan - attempt on Gasherbrum IV, 7925m

In the end Gasherbrum IV won. Actually, the bad weather won, stopping David Göttler and me from reaching the summit. On all other accounts we got lots of useful data from this project. Above all, following on from Shisha Pangma in 2017, information regarding our comprehensive preparation methods which are without a doubt more appropriate and scientifically-based. This was thanks to the plan put together with Elena Casiraghi’s input on nutrition, Piero Cassius for the athletic training, and my trusted physiotherapist Lorenzo Visconti for his knowledge of the human body. As a result, in Pakistan too, a little over a week after arriving at base camp we were able to sleep at an altitude of 7100 metres and, if we had been able to have more food with us, we would have been able to attempt the climb within a short time frame. This much shorter timescale than normal showed that there is such a thing as specific training for mountaineering and, hopefully very soon, it can be shared with everyone. Gasherbrum IV, I’ll be back.

Tibet - south face of Shisha Pangma 8027m in alpine style in 13 hours

I first starting thinking about this project two years earlier, when I was in hospital after the operation on my neck. And then in 2016 I had had to take a break for my meniscectomy, but now I was ready. I knew this choice to climb my first 8000er in pure alpine style (without fixed ropes, without oxygen and without preinstalled camps) would make my life harder, but that’s ok, because if there hadn’t been any uncertainties it wouldn’t have been my way of interpreting alpinism and finding limits. Compared with the great Himalayan climbers of our time, like Steve House and Ueli Steck, who had gone to high altitude to see how their bodies coped before attempting an 8000m peak in alpine style, I just went head first into this adventure. The only good weather window was forecast for 21 May 2017, and on that day, in just 13 hours from advanced base camp we arrived three metres short of the top. Just three. But at that point, due to the extremely dangerous conditions, especially the high avalanche risk, we decided to stop. It was a bitter but sensible decision. Three metres higher are about seven small steps, but just like a Russian roulette with one round in a seven-shot revolver, it only takes one shot, one step, and you’re dead. I came away from Shisha Pangma with the idea that training is important, but our limits are often more mental and psychological than physical, and it’s important to find goals that really ignite our interest. Otherwise we’re better off watching films at the CineMountain festival with a beer in hand, chatting about rugby or Valentino Rossi…

One more stop

Used to so many injuries, a meniscectomy might seem like a routine operation, but this was not. Firstly, because it was on a knee that had already been operated on twice in the past, or three times if I also count the removal of the fixation devices following the operation on the cruciate ligament. Secondly, because I had just recovered from another injury, the cervical herniated discs, and my body had had to adapt even more to the situation by adjusting and compensating all the time. It was a pretty slow recovery. I got back into my full training regime in December 2016, and in April the following year my goal was to climb my first 8000er without following a normal route (ideally establishing a new route), without external support and in alpine style. So far, no one had achieved this on their first experience on one of the planet’s 14 highest mountains.

Nepal - solo ascent of northwestern ridge of Amphu Lapcha Peak 6400m

The original goal, together with Daniele Bernasconi, was the south face of Nuptse, 7861 metres, where we wanted to climb the British route in alpine style. However, due to the prohibitive conditions the mountain was in, we had to give up on this plan. Despite this setback, I still had my sights set on putting my body to the test after the neck operation in 2015. And so, setting off from Chukung, I headed towards one of the three peaks of the Amphu Lapcha chain, which I managed to reach—on my own—in a few hours. As is always the case with solitary alpinism, I felt a huge sense of adventure climbing that peak of about 6300 metres, and it also gave me the chance to get my confidence back after a year-long hiatus. With this quick ascent (less than 9 hours there and back) I proved to myself I was back on form and in good shape. A good sign as I thought about the possibility of aiming even higher: my first 8000m peak.

STOP2015 – 2015, the year of the fragment and the 150th anniversary

The year 2015 won’t be forgotten easily. There were the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn and also, at the start of the year I began writing my first book, La Montagna Dentro, an experience that was both new and trying, partly because it kept me away from the mountains for a long time. It was also the year when I had a delicate operation on my neck due to the herniated discs, with the added complication of a free-floating fragment of disc, which could have caused damage to the bone marrow with very, very, serious consequences. Luckily, it all was all sorted out and, after yet another long and significant recovery period, I went to Nepal again where, in 2016, I managed to make a solo ascent of Amphu Lapcha Peak.

New route on Grandes Murailles, Bon Noel, December 2014

Stefano Perrone is an incredibly accomplished alpinist. In fact, I’d even say he’s one of Italy’s best mountaineers. Two days before Christmas, we established a new modern mixed climbing route on the Grandes Murailles, a group of peaks that, after the Matterhorn, are the highest in the local area. Having already established two important routes here (Ammazzageko and Petit Lumignon), to finish the job there was just this line left, Bon Noel, on the harsh but alluring northeast buttress of Dent d’Herens, the same vertical arena as the first two routes. Conditions were not good, and in the end we climbed on more rock than ice. In any case, it was a wonderful experience shared with a great companion. It’s just a shame that we hadn’t reached the top on the first attempt together with Martino Peterlongo. It was my fault because, after setting off early in the morning, I realised I had forgotten my harness. After going back to get it before continuing with our ascent, in the end we arrived at the last pitch when it was dark and it was time to come down. When Stefano and I climbed it, Martino wasn’t able to join us.

Matterhorn - first winter enchainment of the four ridges, March 2014

This was another time when I looked to my trusted Matterhorn for inspiration. Having recovered from a neck hernia, I was wondering what I could do to improve as a mountaineer and the enchainment was an amazing dream to make a reality. Naturally, I decided to attempt it on my own, and in winter, seeing as in summer we can easily take clients on the route. What’s more, that winter we had some of the heaviest snowfall in years, with snow a metre and a half deep outside my home. When the big day came, 13 March 2014, I was on top form: really motivated, physically in good shape, focussed on the idea of a non-stop venture across the four ridges, where no one had even been before in the coldest months of the year. The history of the enchainment dates back to two Zermatt guides who were the first to tackle this route during a summer in the sixties. My father had then repeated it and completed the first solo enchainment of the four ridges, adding on the first solo ascent of the Furggen Overhangs; I decided to follow the same route but in winter, making the first solo winter ascent of the Furggen Overhangs. As with any solo climb, the most complex aspect was managing the risks involved. If you decide to climb alone, you can’t make any mistakes. Fear, the unknown, doubts, the rhythm of the ascent, it’s all on you. It’s just you and the mountain. Achieving this goal brought a huge feeling of joy. On the Matterhorn, where I’ve always felt happy.

Patagonia - two virgin peaks and a first winter ascent, August 2013

This expedition gave me a double sense of freedom, which is why Patagonia 2013 will always be an unforgettable experience for me. This part of the world is spectacular, and even more so in winter: without the crowds of climbers that usually come in the summer, the roads are almost deserted, there’s a relaxed mood in the air and the people are even friendlier than usual. I had had a taste of this different atmosphere in 2006, when we climbed a new route on Cerro San Lorenzo. On both occasions it was a place where you felt welcomed without feeling like an outsider, a place that filled me with joy both thanks to the beautiful natural environment, pristine, wild and rugged, as well as the kindness of the people I met. From a technical point of view, both ascents—one of Pollone and one on the Colmillos—were stunning, but not the hardest, although when you attempt anything in winter you’re also taking on the dangers of avalanches, the intense cold, short days and long approaches made even more tiring by the snow. On the Colmillos, being the first ascent of these mountains, we also experienced those moments of uncertainty that characterise explorative alpinism; step by step, you climb in search of the best line of ascent with just vague idea of the difficulties and problems you’ll meet. There’s no route description to follow, as you are the first. You are also very lucky, as nowadays the playing field for explorative alpinism in places like El Chaltén is significantly reduced. Another reason that Patagonia 2013 gave me a sense of freedom is because it marked my return to the mountains after a dark period that had begun after my trip to Pakistan in 2012, caused by neck hernias. An odyssey of treatment and physiotherapy went on until March 2013. When I realised I would be able to return to alpinism, I set my sights on Patagonia, on my own and without deciding beforehand which mountains to climb. In the end, I shared this experience with a couple of local guys, something which reminded me a lot of the experiences of my grandfather in the fifties, back when it was essentially all very remote.

2012 Doubt, uncertainty and injury

We can feel as strong as a lion, eager and hungry for summits and ascents only as long as our bodies and minds allow us to. But as the years go by, inside we know that this can’t last forever. Age, motivation, work and, above all, accidents and injuries change us, they shape us and often decide for us when it’s time to stop. Talking of injuries, since 1994, when that serious accident put an end to my career as a skier, year after year, operation after operation, the doctors have predicted the end of alpinism for me. When I was young they seriously doubted if I would ever walk or run again, and now thanks to two cervical herniated discs, when they think I should stop there is only one thing I can do: prove them wrong once again.

Pakistan – Three virgin peaks and an attempt on the north face of Ogre, July 2012

‘All good, except…’ would be the ideal title for this experience in a magical part of Pakistan. I went there with Daniele Bernasconi to attempt a first ascent on the virgin north face of Ogre, one of the most difficult futuristic projects of our time, and probably one of the most intriguing mountaineering challenges in years to come. This magical place, Snow Lake, is remarkably unique: geographically it’s at Himalayan altitudes, and it’s like the Antarctic with Patagonian style weather conditions (or at least it was in the summer of 2012), making even an apparently straightforward ascent tough and dangerous. It’s a place where you need to ski to approach the base of the mountains, even in summer, and carry your material on sleds like in Alaska. All these features make this a one-of-a-kind place in Karakoram, and possibly even in the whole of the Himalayas. The ‘except…’, alas, is the fact that we didn’t succeed with our ascent of Ogre. The bad weather stopped us. In compensation we managed to climb three easier virgin peaks, the highest being 6400 metres. Once again I try to look at the glass as half full: it means I have an excuse to come back to Ogre…

New route on Monte Rosa, Viaggio nella Memoria, October 2011

For this wonderful climb on Monte Rosa that concluded the Exploring the Alps trilogy, it seems right that my extra special rope partner for the occasion, my father, should tell you about the experience: ‘A year after the Matterhorn, I roped up again with my son to attempt a new route on the southeast face of Punta Gnifetti. It goes without saying that for a father, to plan, and of course to succeed in an enterprise together with your son is one of the most unforgettable experiences there is. Even more so because, on a technical note, the idea was to go and find a previously unexplored route. Of course, the night before, I was kept awake by doubts and worries; what concerned me most was the fear of anything happening, as the risk for our family was double this time, and when establishing any new route you don’t always have the chance to fully weigh up all the risks involved. Compared with the Matterhorn winter ascent in 2010, this climb on Monte Rosa was brighter and sunnier, thanks to the exceptionally mild late-September weather. On the Matterhorn couloir, on the other hand, it was winter, and you could feel the cold walls of the mountain as if they wanted to embrace you and let you go no further.’

Mont Blanc - new route La classica moderna, August 2011

Heavy snowfall had made the south face of Mont Blanc even wilder and more severe. The pace was slow, but we weren’t in a rush. The silence was broken only by the sound of seracs collapsing and some avalanches. It was the middle of summer, but the conditions made it feel like winter: all the couloirs on the south side were in perfect condition for climbing; everything sparkled, the snow, the ice, even the red granite. We had chosen the south side because it’s less crowded, and also to mark the 50th anniversary of the epic attempt, which sadly ended in tragedy, to climb the Central Pillar of Frêney by a French party led by Pierre Mazeud and an Italian party led by Walter Bonatti. Things went much, much better for us, even though conditions were not great. We climbed a few pitches following a crack, followed by a rough slab, a technical ridge, then up over a few snow-covered rock ledges where we used crampons and then some more physically demanding pitches, all of it stunning. We finally reached the top of the pillar, and it was midnight by the time we reached the summit of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. The weather was good and we had sleeping mats and warm sleeping bags. Maybe it wasn’t the comfiest of places to stay, with our feet dangling into space, but it was a clear and starry night; the lack of wind and the temperature just below freezing gave us the opportunity we had hoped to find and which we simply couldn’t turn down: the chance to watch a beautiful sunrise from the highest point in the Alps. As the sun emerged on the horizon it shone on us and warmed us. Part two of the Exploring the Alps trilogy was complete, thanks to another great adventure on my doorstep, shared with Eneko and Iker Pou.

Matterhorn - Solo ascent of a new route on Picco Muzio, April 2011

I had already completed various first ascents on the Matterhorn, in summer, winter, as well as solo climbs: routes such as the Casarotto-Grassi, Deffeyes, the Direttissima and Spigolo dei Fiori. On the Matterhorn’s characteristic poor quality rock, which certainly adds to the difficulties, I had solo climbed where others had climbed with one or more rope companions, successfully completing ascents that had never before been done in this style of climbing. But if I wanted to try something totally new on the Gran Becca, Picco Muzio was my big chance. It was the last unexplored corner of the Matterhorn, where I could establish a new route in complete solitude. In the history of the Matterhorn, only Walter Bonatti had managed to complete something of this scale. He did so in 1965, the year marking the 100th anniversary celebrations of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, and the year Bonatti ended his incredible career as an alpinist to dedicate himself to exploration. In 2011, I was really inspired by the idea of exploring my home mountains. And so this ascent became part of a bigger project, Exploring the Alps, in which I planned to climb new routes on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa, as well as the Matterhorn. Why? Because imagination is the winning hand if you want to play at being an alpinist and experience true great adventures, and also because there is no need to jet off to far-flung places to be explorers. This trilogy of ascents gave rise to the film Non così lontano, where I tell the tale of my experiences on these three giants of the Aosta Valley. It was a way of demonstrating that it is still possible to practise alpinism in its purest form and in more eco-friendly way (as local as you can get in my case) without having to necessarily jump on an aeroplane.

China - North side of Karakoram, first ascent of Venere Peak, July 2010

Even the name, Venere Peak, captures the imagination. Daniele Bernasconi, Mario Panzeri and I gave it this name because every evening—weather-permitting—the planet Venus (Venere in Italian) shines over the 6300m peak. We were also inspired by the shape of the mountain itself: a great ridge of snow cornices and rock pinnacles. The joy we felt at being the first to climb Venere Peak eclipsed the fact that our original goal had been an 8000m peak on the north side of the Karakoram: the north face of Gasherbrum I, a never-before-attempted wall of ice and snow almost 3000m tall. This was a big project that I had wanted to pursue following my explorative spirit, that for me represents and defines the word ‘alpinism’, but which dematerialised due to logistical problems when we were 50km from the mountain. So we decided to change our plans. Never mind. In fact, once we had reached the virgin summit of Venere Peak, we also had the first ever chance to photograph the north side of the Gasherbrum range, Broad Peak and K2. A supreme sight, such an extraordinary panorama that even now, looking at these images that no one else has and which didn’t even exist before, it makes you feel even more the explorer.

Matterhorn - New route on the south face, the Barmasse Couloir, March 2010

At home, the Matterhorn is more than a mountain. It’s almost a part of the family. My father and I often talk about it: reminiscing, thinking about the protagonists of its climbing history, or dreaming up projects. One of these, the Enjambée Couloir cropped up time and time again, as in 1986 my father and Walter Cazzanelli had stopped just a few hundred metres short of the top the route. The great alpinist, ice and mixed climbing master Giancarlo Grassi described the couloir as ‘the last great logical mixed route in the western Alps’. So, as you can guess, this all added up to me asking my father to climb it with me. ‘I didn’t succeed the first time, what makes you think I can do it now I’m 60?’ he replied. Luckily, we did in fact do it. It was a success for both of us, for me especially it was an extraordinary adventure with a very special rope partner. The experience led to the making of a film, Linea Continua, a story about how my family—from my great-grandfather to my grandfather, to my father and then to me—is connected by a desire to follow our dreams and find happiness climbing mountains.

Pakistan - Winter Project, Shimshal Valley, January 2010

The most important and most intense experiences are not necessarily those of a first ascent. I fully realised this when I went to Pakistan as part of a community support project together with three other mountaineers as well as Dr Marco Cavana, who organised a clinic to deal with health and hygiene issues in the local area. We went to Shimshal and the local Climbing School—the first climbing centre open to women in the Karakoram—to teach seasoned porters and budding students basic technical skills such as knots and simple rope and self-rescue manoeuvres. For the women, this school was their first opportunity to break away from the traditional domestic life to experience the mountains and work as porters. Although there is another reason this 20-day visit to Pakistan was unforgettable: when climbing an ice fall above the village, I was caught in a volley of falling ice, snow and debris. Even now I don’t know how I came out alive. What is certain is that afterwards I learnt one of the most important lessons there is to learn: death in the mountains is possible, and not just for other people, but also for me. An alpinist doesn’t need tougher training or harder mountains to improve. An experience like this can be enough to make you reflect and make it crystal clear that we only have one life, and by turning back today, you’ll be rewarded with another day in the mountains tomorrow.

Patagonia - Crossing the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, January 2009

It’s rare that an unsuccessful climb has given me such a positive experience and such great memories like the project to climb Cerro Riso Patron in Patagonia after crossing the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. I had been inspired by photos and images taken by Casimiro Ferrari, whose team made the first ascent of the mountain. They had arrived by boat from Chile, and after climbing the mountain they had left on skis, travelling from west to east and then to El Chaltén. Our plan was to establish a new route on the mountain’s southern pillar and so we had to make the same journey, but the other way round. First on skis, then the ascent, and then by boat (with a good feast on fish). What we hadn’t taken into account is that, over time, the glaciers have melted and crumbled, becoming the perfect trap of seracs and crevasses, meaning we could ‘only’ cross the world’s third largest ice field, and not reach the base of the mountain. The beauty of the experience was due, quite simply, to our one and only GPS breaking down. This forced us to orient ourselves using the moon, the stars and the sun (when we could see them) to find our way to Chile. On top of this, there was also the sight that awaited us as we entered the Estero Falcon fjord: sea lions climbing on the small icebergs while we waited for a fishing boat to come and pick us up. What’s more, I didn’t have my passport with me, and for the Chilean authorities we were regarded as terrorists…well, all in all, you can see why this trip to Patagonia was one to remember!

China - First ascent of a virgin peak, September 2008

There are lots of options for what you can give a friend for their 40th birthday. For Marco Cattaneo, I decided I would take him to China, to the Mutzagata and Kongkoerh, to climb a virgin 6250m peak together with another friend and fellow alpine guide, Fabio Salini from Valtellina. It wasn’t a technically difficult route, but after a week of acclimatisation, the heavy snowfall, icy winds and extreme cold (signalling the arrival of winter) made our project a bit trickier. It was an achievement for both of us: for me to demonstrate that anyone can find their own unclimbed peak, and of course for Marco himself; when we came back down, on finding out that even the locals didn’t have a name for the mountain, he decided to call it after his wife: Miki Sell.

Pakistan - First ascent of Beka Brakai Chhok, August 2008

Simone Moro and I had probably set off without enough gear: four pitons, six ice screws, a litre and a half of tea and four energy bars. After a big wall climb like Cerro Piergiorgio, this time the goal was a fast ascent on mixed terrain of snow and ice of an unclimbed peak in the Karakoram, almost 7000 metres high, Beka Brakai Chhok (6970m). We took so little equipment because we aimed to complete the ascent in a single day, setting off from advanced base camp at 4700m. However, we were forced to bivouac somewhere between 6300 and 6400m, without a tent and without even a stove. What’s more, we were dressed for a day out on the Alps: jacket, waterproof, down jacket and nothing else. We reached the summit just the next day, after a night that, to say the least, was tough, but even today the greatest memories are of sharing the experience of the cold, hunger and the bivouac together with Simone.

Patagonia - First ascent of the northwest face of Cerro Piergiorgio, February 2008

It felt amazing to finally be there looking back down the route from above and be able to shout ‘Cumbre’, ‘summit!’ What an unforgettable moment of comradeship. And what a great memory, Cerro Piergiorgio. After three years, on my third attempt, the northwest face was finally ‘ours’, mine and Cristian Brenna’s. The ascent certainly  wasn’t lacking in difficulties, particularly that darn ice avalanche that caught the third member of our group, Giovanni Ongaro, breaking both his hands when we were about halfway up the route and forcing us to abort our first attempt. This was when true friendship came into play.
It’s easy to be friends with everyone when things are going well, but when things don’t go to plan, you can see where there’s real solidarity. After the accident, it became really tricky to descend, a lot of ropework was needed which of course Giovanni couldn’t do himself. But we managed to get out of that dramatic situation. This adventure demonstrated to us, if proof were needed, that you don’t win or lose in the mountains, there are just great moments to be experienced.

Matterhorn - First solo ascent of Spigolo dei Fiori, September 2007

We must always listen carefully to the mountain. If, at any point on a climb, a rock or stone brushes past you, you need to take it as a warning; that’s what I did, and I would do exactly the same again today. This time I had an ambitious plan on the Matterhorn, maybe too ambitious: climb the Spigolo dei Fiori, abseil down and then carry on to make the first solo ascent of Padre Pio prega per tutti, having previously made the first winter ascent of this same route with Massimo Farina. I completed the first part of the project, the first solo ascent of the Spigolo dei Fiori, but when that rock fell, passing just a few centimetres past my head as I was abseiling down, I decided to stop. I had definitely lost my concentration; I had become distracted once already that morning at the base of the mountain when I came across the helmet, jacket and ID card of someone who had lost their life falling off the Matterhorn’s south face.

Matterhorn - first solo ascent of the south face, April 2007

Let’s start at the end. A hot meal from my mum, brought to me by my brother. After almost seven hours to get to the summit, as well as all the time it took to come down, I was happy, but tired. I passed a snow groomer on my way down to Cervinia, and even though the guy saw me making my way through the darkness, he didn’t stop. Never mind. The joy and pride at having solo climbed the south face of this mountain for the first time in history were greater than any other feelings I could have. When I set off in the morning I knew I was ready. I had enough mountaineering experience to attempt the ascent on my own. The south face, reaching up for 1400 metres, is longer than the famous north face which is barely 1100 metres tall. The route was the one followed in 1983 by my father, Walter Cazzanelli and Vittorio De Tuoni. I didn’t ask Dad for any advice for two reasons: firstly, he was away (in Nepal) and secondly, because I didn’t want him to reveal what I would soon be able to discover for myself. And so I dived in, just me, my thoughts and my willpower, as well as that pinch of rashness that makes you climb unroped. Unintentionally, I even opened a new, even more direct, three-pitch variant to the 1983 route. Why? Quite simply, I accidentally went off route. An unplanned turn of events that brought even more satisfaction and gusto, and another reason why I still remember that first solo ascent as a fantastic experience.

Patagonia - second attempt on Cerro Piergiorgio, January 2007

What happens when you’re forced to a standstill by various accidents? You come up with a mad plan! That’s what happened to me at the end of 2006, recovering from a fractured vertebra and on the mend after the umpteenth operation on my right knee after my famous skiing accident at 16. The mad plan was to reattempt the west face of Cerro Piergiorgio after our unsuccessful trip in 2006. I would be going with three climbers from the Ragni di Lecco alpine club: Giovanni Ongaro, Matteo Bernasconi and Cristian Brenna. There was just one caveat: their club would provide all the financial backing we needed but only if we attempted the route followed by Casimiro Ferrari, another member of the Ragni group and one of the key players in Patagonia, having climbed new routes all over the region. For me this meant giving up on the idea of another attempt on the 2006 route on quality rock where we could progress pretty quickly, and instead focus on Ferrari’s route, which was mostly aid climbing and therefore slower to climb. In fact, because of the slow climbing and the bad weather, we were forced to give up. For me, this was the second time. On the way back, we made a little pact that at least three of us would be back to finish the route the following year.

Don’t follow my example

Falling a few metres off a wall can be more dangerous than the first ascent of an unclimbed summit. For me it was certainly enough to send me straight to hospital with one fractured lumbar vertebra, another one damaged, and a hole in the cartilage of my right knee. This was in August and I was in such a bad way that I wouldn’t be able to train for months, but I needed to recover quickly—I was determined to climb Cerro Piergiorgio. This is what drove me to make the mistake, while still in an orthopaedic back brace, of going back into the operating theatre for an operation on my knee. I didn’t give my body the time to recover from one injury before facing another recuperation period. The consequences dragged on for months. Don’t follow my example.

Patagonia – Cerro San Lorenzo, new route Caffé Cortado, March 2006

Spellbinding, unique and wonderful. That’s how I remember my first two months in Patagonia. Despite the problems we faced on Cerro Piergiorgio, the experience afterwards on Cerro San Lorenzo is one of the most vivid memories of my career. I felt a special connection to Cerro San Lorenzo because the first ascent had been made by Father Alberto Maria De Agostini, who my grandfather had been on some expeditions with, and who often came to the Barmasse house for lunch when he was in Valtournenche. There were still some great lines to climb on the NE and NW faces. The Patagonian climate typically only offers small windows of good weather, and this was the case for us too. Just 24 hours in fact. The hardest part of the climb were the final pitches, not only from a technical point of view, but also psychologically. I was leading on poor quality rock where there was nowhere to place any pitons or protection. A fall would be fatal not only for me, but also the person following me. Luckily it all went well and at 4 pm, welcomed by stormy winds, we reached the top of Cerro San Lorenzo. We shook hands, took a few photos together (with Giovanni Ongaro, Matteo Bernasconi and Lorenzo Lanfranchi), and quickly began to abseil down our route. It was a success. An unexpected success. And all the better for it.

Patagonia - first attempt on Cerro Piergiorgio, January 2006

South America. Tierra del fuego. Cerro Piergiorgio. At home, I had heard these names many times as I was growing up, thanks to my grandfather, who in 1954 and 1956 had gone with Father Alberto Maria De Agostini to map some of the area and complete some first ascents. Over time, added to this was my growing fascination with Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy and the Towers of Paine. All this, and my desire to visit Patagonia for the first time, led me to eagerly accept the invitation to join Gianluca Maspes, Yuri Parimbelli, Kurt Astner and Elia Andreola on an expedition to attempt the first ascent of the west face of Cerro Piergiorgio—an incredible granite wall, almost 1000 metres tall that overlooks Cordon Marconi and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The plan was to follow the route that Maspes had already attempted in 1996 with Maurizio Giordani: Gringos Locos, a logical line of cracks, corners and slabs on excellent quality rock that could be mostly free climbed with very little aid climbing. When we were about halfway up the route, Gianluca Maspes and Elia Andreola, who were filming and watching us from basecamp, were caught in rockfall at the base of the mountain. Luckily no one was seriously hurt, but it was enough to make us change our plans, firstly climbing Poincenot via the Willans Route, followed by Aguja Guillaumet via the Brenner Route. I then headed for something completely different: Cerro San Lorenzo, a rock, ice and snow face of Himalayan dimensions. The complete opposite of big wall climbing.

From the operating theatre to Patagonia

I couldn’t swallow; the anti-inflammatory nebuliser that was supposed to help wasn’t doing anything, and then something even more serious showed up on the ultrasound screen: a cyst with an ill-defined outline, almost 3cm across, in the middle of my neck. Luckily, a test excluded the worst-case scenario, a tumour, but I still needed to undergo emergency surgery to remove the hyoid bone gripped by that aggressive mass. It was December, the day before my birthday, and in spite of everything, three weeks later I set off on my first trip to Patagonia.

Matterhorn - First solo ascent of Via Deffeyes, September 2005

First there were the words of that other guide: ‘That route is too dangerous, too risky, it’s unrepeatable.’ And then there were the slides my father had shown me after he and some other guides made the first winter ascent of the Deffeyes route on the Matterhorn. Together, these triggered in me something that led me to attempt a solo ascent of the Matterhorn’s fifth “hidden” crest. A tricky route that’s not for everyone: you need to be really focussed and committed. Technically, it’s a ridge that rises up through the heart of the south face before joining the normal route (the Lion Ridge) that leads from Pic Tyndall to the summit tower. How did it go? It took me fewer than four hours from the base of the wall before feeling the icy north-west wind on my face, completing the route first climbed by Luigi Carrel and Alberto Deffeyes. A thrilling dream, with just nature for company.

Pakistan - Up Project, July 2005

Even setbacks can have their advantages in the end. This is something I learnt when I returned to the Chogolisa Glacier for the second year running and embarked on my first genuine solo climbing experience at high altitude, reaching a 5999-metre virgin peak. The original plan had been to go to Kondus Valley, an area of the Karakoram on the border with India, but when we landed in Islamabad, we found out that our permit to enter had been revoked. Oh well. In the end, our goal of putting ourselves to the test through explorative alpinism was achieved nonetheless. It was one of the experiences that confirmed me in the approach that I have tried to reinforce over the years: the idea of striving to go where no other climber has been, be it a new route that no one has climbed, or even the summit of an unclimbed mountain. It’s not about focusing on one type of climbing—ice, rock or high altitude—but embracing everything that is great about mountaineering.

Grandes Murailles - new route, February 2005

A happy memory of 2005, tainted by sadness: climbing a new route on the Grandes Murailles together with Massimo Farina and his younger brother Marco. A stunning line of ice and mixed climbing that until then had been pretty much disregarded by climbers as it was deemed impossible; but thanks to new technology, crampons and ice axes, it turned out to be great venture for us. Setting off from Cervinia at dawn, we climbed to the col between Punta Carrel and Punta Bianca on the Grandes Murailles in just one, long, but enjoyable, day. An experience right on our doorstep that I will always remember as it was the last adventure I shared with Massimo.

Pakistan - Unclimbed peaks and faces in Karakoram

You can become a black sheep by doing good things. For me this was the case in 2004, when I got a phone call from Gianluca ‘Rampikino’ Maspes, who I had never met before, inviting me on an expedition in Pakistan together with Maurizio Giordani, Ezio Marlier, Giovanni Pagnoncelli and Nancy Paoletto. Our goal: to find and climb new routes in an area of the Karakoram called Chogolisa Glacier. But what has this got to do with black sheep? The year 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of K2 (by the Italian team led by Ardito Desio), and most climbers were drawn to the Baltoro Glacier and K2, whereas we—the Italian black sheep as some journalists called us—went elsewhere completely. This turned out to be positive on two accounts: firstly, because we established some new routes, on ice, rock as well as mixed routes. Secondly, this approach of going against the grain and staying away from the most popular destination—the ‘Italian mountain’, K2—has now become modern practice: striving towards more explorative and technical mountaineering on unclimbed faces and peaks, and inevitably with less media frenzy.

Matterhorn - first winter ascent of Padre Pio Prega per Tutti, February 2004

Massimo Farina was great company for any kind of climb; whether it was an ice fall, a rock route, or just a day at the crag, he was always ready for action. We’d quickly decide on a plan and then set off. Our plan that day was the first winter ascent of Padre Pio on the South Face of the Matterhorn. The route was first climbed by Patrick Gabarrou and companions over several attempts, and although we didn’t have a description of the route with us, we knew we could tackle the climb in a single day, especially as it was just over an hour from the ski lifts. Overall, we found it to be a stunning, simple route. It was bolted like a sport route to start with, and the second half was more adventurous, with fewer and fewer bolts until only the belay anchors were bolted. It was a really enjoyable day, as they always were with Massimo, rounded off with us tucking into a plate of spaghetti at my parents’ house.

Pizzo Badile - new route Ringhio, July 2003

From start to end, this felt like an alpine holiday, albeit with a spot of technical climbing thrown in. As part of the Mountain Guide Course, the idea was to get away from our home mountains in the west and head towards a historic peak, Pizzo Badile. In previous decades this mountain in the Central Alps has attracted many major alpinists including Riccardo Cassin and Hermann Buhl. Technically, we were looking at climbing a new rock route on the south face, a line up the prominent pillar to the right of the Molteni route with the crux being a 60m corner. The plan was simple: to climb it in two separate groups, respecting the climbing ethics of the area, so no bolts and, luckily for us as it wasn’t too difficult, climbing onsight. Thanks to the lack of objective dangers, the straightforward approach and the joy of climbing in the sunshine, that route on Pizzo Badile will always be classified as a ‘very relaxing experience’.

Grandes Murailles - new route Petit Lumignon, February 2003

Petit Lumignon, little candle, is a fleeting gift from nature, a thin line of ice that only forms after cold winter blizzard conditions, before melting and disappearing within a few days of sun. To have been able to successfully climb it, together with Ezio Marlier and my very dear late friend Massimo Farina, was like a gift from the mountain, an incredible opportunity that we seized by making our way up that gully nestled between two faces of crumbly, red rock. It takes rare climatic conditions for the ice fall to form, so much so that our climb wasn’t repeated until 16 years on from that 22 February 2003. Those who have climbed it talk of great alpinism. Even though the climb wasn’t easy that day, in all honesty we looked at it as a training climb. As has often been the case for me, especially in my early years, when I completed the climb I wasn’t thinking about what I had achieved, instead I was already focusing on what I would achieve next, thanks to the experience I had gained.

Matterhorn - first solo ascent of the Casarotto Grassi route, October 2002

Was this really the right choice for my first significant solo climb? Not only was I pitting myself against a challenging route, at the same time it was as if I was also taking on the two incredibly skilled climbers who had first climbed it: Renato Casarotto was possibly one of the strongest solo climbers of all time, and Giancarlo Grassi was a very skilled rock climber and excellent (if not the best) ice climber in the 80s. Understandably, when I started the climb, I was more uneasy than usual. I rope soloed the first two pitches and then free soloed the rest of the route. What’s more, I was sure that they wouldn’t have used climbing shoes on the first ascent, so I too climbed in mountain boots, as did my father, Augusto Tamone and Walter Cazzanelli, the only people to have repeated the climb before me. In the end, I probably took a few too many risks, even though it all ended well. Ultimately, this is what solo climbing is, and you must accept it for what it is: unparalleled experiences with risks that are much, much higher than the same experience on a rope with someone else.

Western Breithorn - New Route on the West Face, La via del Friend, October 2001

This (successful) attempt at establishing a new 400m mixed route represented two firsts for me. Firstly—and why this will always be a fond memory of mine—I climbed it with my father, Marco, who had already opened a new route on the same face in the 80s. I like to think of this adventure as a kind of ‘passing the baton’, the moment my dad ‘officially’ acknowledged my decision to become an alpine guide and choose the life of an alpinist. Secondly—and thanks again to him—I discovered that all mountains can offer magical experiences, not only the Matterhorn, not only the most well-known ones. This route is on the Western Breithorn (4162m), part of the Monte Rosa massif, and it’s a wonderful accessible climb for anyone looking for an alternative to the normal routes and, for me anyway, just a stone’s throw from home.

Matterhorn - New route Per Nio, August 2000

Patrick Poletto and I had to train for the Mountain Guide Course, and what better goal than the Matterhorn, or Gran Becca as we call it, for our debut as alpinists? Our goal: to climb a new route on the ‘Scudo’, (shield), a 300m triangular-shaped rock wall that divides the De Amicis ridge and the Casarotto-Grassi route. It was all going smoothly as we reached the end of the final pitch. The new route—which we later decided to dedicate to Innocenzo (Nio) Menabreaz, a Matterhorn Mountain Guide who had died prematurely—was complete. The real adventure began on our descent. After the first abseil, our ropes were stuck. Every time we tried to pull them down, they just wouldn’t budge. Even jumaring up to see why they were stuck proved fruitless. All this time, we didn’t even have head torches and were wearing just light trousers and T-shirts. Our backpacks were heavy, but we had nothing to eat. Hanging there like a pair of salamis, we resigned ourselves to sleeping anchored to the belay, waiting for dawn. With the first warm rays of sun in the morning the mystery was solved: the ropes had frozen solid. This was the first lesson the Matterhorn taught me: that we are insignificant compared to the mountains, and also that I had a long way to go if the former skier in me was to become a mountaineer.

Sliding doors, 1994

We often choose our own future without even realising it, but other times it’s life that decides for us. In 1994, I had high hopes of becoming a professional skier. Then, during a Super-G race, a moment, lasting just seconds and over in an instant, changed my life forever. The impact with the metal pole was just too much for my body to come away unscathed. When I opened my eyes and regained my senses on the frozen snow of Bardonecchia’s Mount Jafferau, the Hervé of a few minutes earlier was gone forever, and with him any dreams of becoming a champion skier. I had to create and write a future that was different to the one I had imagined. This is how it all began.

Credits: delineo