© Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted.
However, short extracts from it may be used, for non-commercial purposes, provided their source is fully cited, acknowledged and referenced as:
Conway, M. (1903) The Morteratsch Sattel. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 2 Number 5: pp1-12. Leeds: YRC

The Morteratsch Sattel.

Extracts from a Diary written in 1876
By Sir Martin Conway, President Of The Alpine Club

"You infernal mountains!  I should like to have you
rolled out flat and sown with potatoes."

(Exclamation heard on Mont Blanc).

First Attempt

East side of Morteratsh Sattel, from the Diavolezza Pass. © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
East side of Morteratsh Sattel, from the Diavolezza Pass

ON Saturday, August 5th, 1876, I started out to cross the pass lying between the Piz Bernina and Piz Morteratsch.  All the guides in Pontresina agreed that this had never been passed, but it afterwards appeared that a Mr. Robinson, in 1868, had crossed the ridge with Jenni and Fleury as guides.  I asked Fleury about it, and he said that they started from the Boval Hut and took to the rocks almost immediately, keeping to them the whole way.  In fifteen hours hard climbing they reached a point on the ridge between the two peaks.  This point appears to have been somewhere above the pass, and here they erected a stone man and left their names in a bottle.  I never saw the stone man, so they cannot really have crossed the saddle itself, though doubtless they made a pass between the two peaks.  They were obliged to sleep out on the rocks, and did not reach Pontresina till the next day.  Their route and mine were different throughout, and the point of crossing was not the same.

I was alone, with Johann Grossas my guide.  Our plan was first to reach the saddle from the Roseg Glacier, then to turn south along the aréte of the Piz Bernina, and try to reach the lower white summit which at that time had never been ascended, and from that to try and get to the highest point of the mountain.  This course was actually taken by Messrs. Middlemore and Cordier with two Oberland guides on the   following Tuesday.  They avoided the rocks which turned us back, and thus reached the white peak over the long snow aréte.  They named it Monte Rosso da Tschierva.  They say, however, that to pass from the white to the highest rocky summit is perfectly impossible.[1]

We started from Pontresina about 2.30 in the morning,   walked along the Roseg Valley, and past the chalets of   Miscauna.  Our way lay by the side of the eastern marginal moraine of the glacier, which we did not cross till we found ourselves just below the little ice-fall of the glacier between Piz Morteratsch and Piz Tschierva.  Before entering on the ice we had our breakfast, and scanned the long broad couloir which leads to the saddle we wished to reach.  The upper part of this Gross pronounced to be pure ice, and he advised our crossing the bottom of the couloir and   keeping up the right side of the slope; I was for making our way to the left side and skirting by the edge of the rocks.  He stuck to his opinion, however, and I had to   give way.  Events showed that my route would have been the better.

We took to the glacier at the foot of rather a long ice-fall [2] up which we slowly made our way, cutting every step we took.  We did not yet bear to the right, but kept straight up.  At the top of the ice-fall a bergschrund had to   be crossed, and then followed a small snow field.  At the top of this we had another breakfast.  It was now 8 o'clock, and we had still a long pull before us.  Another ice-fall had to be surmounted, and then the long slope, which Gross pronounced to be ice.  He still adhered to his opinion that we ought to cross to the proper left side of the couloir.  Accordingly when we started again we took a diagonal course, crossing the slope and ascending at the same time.  Before crossing far we had to make our way round the end of a wall of ice which stands across the head of this upper fall.  This surmounted, the slope became more and more steep, and we had to proceed with caution.  Gross cut small steps and left them for me to enlarge, so that they should last till our return.  Up to this point we had cut about 400 steps.  We were now on the left side of the couloir, and just under the rocky precipices of the Bernina.  We directed our way straight at the rocks to the south of the pass, and about 500 feet above us.  Rather more than two hours' hard work brought us up to these, the slope being all the way so steep that the little pieces of ice we loosened in making the steps flew down it and over the ice wall far below us.  When we reached these rocks we were on a level with the top of the pass, and had come up 800 feet of ice-slope, over the whole of which we had cut steps.  The rocks barely rose out of the surface of the ice-slope, and afforded neither footing nor anything to hold by.  They were very steep and in many cases were glazed with ice.  We were obliged to cut our way over slopes of black ice, and in and out amongst these for about 100 feet higher, but as matters grew worse rather than better Gross said he could go no further.  He had already made over a thousand steps, and it seemed as though several hundred more would be required before we could get on the snow aréte, along which the way to our white peak was clear.  We accordingly turned to descend in the direction of the saddle.  This was no joke.  Cutting up a slope of black ice is bad enough, but cutting down is far worse.  Our old steps were in the wrong direction so we had to make new ones.  I went first and cut away as well as I could till we reached some better rocks, where I was able to get a firm hold and pay out the rope, while Gross cut steps to another point of rock and then drew me in.  Proceeding in this manner we reached the crest of the saddle, when a marvellous view suddenly burst upon us.

Immediately below lay the Morteratsch and Pers Glaciers spread out like a map; beyond were Piz Palü, the Bella Vista and Piz Zupo.  This was the first view I had had of the latter mountain, and very fine it looks from here.  It is in reality only a few feet lower than Piz Bernina, but it is hidden from almost every other point of view.  Beyond lay the Orteler and Oetzthal groups without a cloud to interfere with the clearness of their outlines.  The crags of the Piz Morteratsch on one side and Piz Bernina on the other bounded our view in these directions.  Behind us in the direction from which we had come, the principal attraction was the Piz Roseg.  From here for the first time I had a clear view of the precipitous eastern face of the mountain.  The two summits were seen as distinct peaks, and the knife-edge aréte which connects them was very well seen.  To the right of Piz Corvatsch the mountains of the Oberland were visible as though they had only been a few miles distant.  We crossed to the lowest, point of the saddle where there is a patch of rock and there we sat down, and on looking at our watches discovered it to be half-past eleven o'clock.  We set to work on some lunch and then examined the rocks which lead up to this point from the side of the Morteratschglacier.  The first 600 feet of the descent on that side consists of very steep crags, below these is a long steep and narrow glacier, much swept by stones falling from above; this reaches down to the Morteratsch glacier which it joins just below the great ice-fall.  The rocks below us were so steep that we could throw stones which would clear the whole lot of them and fall on to the surface of the snow slope, down which they would whirr till lost to sight in the distance.  While we were examining all this, a great avalanche fell from the Piz Bernina down a very narrow couloir within a few yards of where we sat.  It was a splendid sight, but warned us not to attempt to descend down that side at this hour of the day.  After spending an hour on the top we left our names in a bottle and then prepared to descend, following, however, the route which I had proposed for our ascent; and by which, if we had followed it, we should have reached the saddle without a third of the step cutting, and lots of time to have made the passage of the rock aréte above and thus reached the white peak.  This, in fact, was the route actually followed a few days afterwards by Cordier and Middlemore.  I led down and skirted along by the edge of the rocks at one time on them and at another on the ice by their side.  By this means we avoided most of the step cutting, not having more than 100 or 150 the whole way; we also avoided the greater part of the two ice-falls.  We ran over the snow field and glissaded over some slopes, up which we had toiled in the early part of the day.  By this means we reached the Roseg glacier in about an hour from the top.  We then went to the Roseg Restaurant and had some milk, and found that it was then about 5 o'clock.  Here we waited for some time as Gross said that Hans Grass would probably bring an ein-spanner for us.  This did not turn up so we started to walk, but met it shortly afterwards.  The only other adventure we had before reaching Pontresina was the coming off of a wheel, which happened twice, and we were all thrown out in a heap by the road side.  Hans took it as the usual thing, and merely cut off a lump of the cart to make a new lynch-pin.  This of course soon wore through, and we were pitched out once more.  We however broke no bones before the hotel was reached.  On the way we met several people who had come to meet us and hear how we had prospered.

A Night At The Boval Hut

Encouraged by my partial success on Saturday, and by the seeming practicability of the rocks on the east side as seen from the top of the pass itself, Wainwright, Warren and I determined to try and cross the pass from the Morteratsch glacier.  Wainwright and Warren engaged Hans Grass as guide, and I took Johann Gross again.  We started at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of Monday, August 7th, from Pontresina, intending to spend some hours of the night at the Boval Hut.  This is situated on the left bank of the glacier and just opposite to the Isla Pers.  The way to it from Pontresina is along the road as far as the Morteratsch Restaurant, and then either up the glacier or along its bank.  The latter was the route we followed.  There is a rough path all the way.  In one or two places the rocks to be traversed are steep, and at one point a natural staircase of a most remarkable construction has to be ascended.  Here and there a few patches of snow must be traversed, between the bank and the high marginal moraine.  The hut is reached in about four hours from Pontresina.  It is a curious shelter.  One side consists of the bare rock, the other three are formed of rough stones.  The roof is made of a number of loose planks with stones on the top to prevent their being blown away.  There is neither window nor chimney in the place.  Along one end of it is a broad shelf, on which a good deal of hay is thrown to serve as bed, and some sackcloth is used for bed clothes.  A small table is fixed in another corner, and in the remaining one the fire is lit.  A shelf with a few pots and a frying pan form the p remainder of the furniture of this remote resting place.  The situation is grand.  It is just at the foot of the Piz Bernina;  in front is the splendid ice-fall, from nowhere better seen l than hence ; above it is the Cresta Agiuzza To the left are, the four peaks of the Bella Vista, succeeded by the triple   Palü, and then by the Piz Cambrina.  Above hang the crags and snow slopes of the Piz Morteratsch.  We arrived at 7 o'clock, in time to watch the sunset tints fading from the mountains, only to be surpassed in splendour by the glorious light of the almost full moon.  Our attention was much occupied with the rocks on the near side of the couloir which leads up to the Morteratsch Sattel.  These did not look at all nice from here, so we decided to proceed to the bottom of the couloir itself before finally selecting our route.  While Warren and Grass proceeded to cut up a small tree for firewood, I made a couple of sketches and watched the sunset.  Everything seemed to promise a perfectly fine morning.

 We all soon assembled in the hut, and set to work to unpack our knapsacks and make some soup for supper.  There is a spring close by, so that good water is easily   obtained.  After supper we turned out for a few moments to look at the splendid night, and then we lay down in a row on the shelf to sleep for four or five hours, as Hans said we ought not to start much after 2 o'clock in the   morning.  We tossed up for choice of places, and good luck; gave me the one between the wall and Wainwright, and furthest away from the guides.  Warren lay between Hans Grass and Wainwright.  Report says that one of us snored so loudly that he kept all the others awake, but I slept so soundly that I did not hear anything of it.  Just before going to sleep I heard a tremendous avalanche which fell down a track somewhere near the hut.  At half-past one we began to get ready.  The fire was stirred up and some coffee warmed in the frying pan.  This formed the staple of our earliest breakfast.  We packed up in our knapsacks everything we did not require to take with us, and left them and the hut at 3-50.

Passage Of The Morteratsch Sattel[3]

Immediately after leaving the Boval Hut on Tuesday, August 8th, we entered on the patch of snow field which lies just before it.  The bright moonlight rendered the use of a lantern unnecessary.  The snow was hard, and we did not rope.  We crossed towards the moraine, which we traversed, and then we found ourselves well out on the glacier and moving right towards the bottom of the great ice-fall.  The shivered seracs shone like silver in the moony light, and we wished we were going to thread our way through them towards the Cresta Agiuzza.  This, however, was not our purpose.  We proceeded straight up the glacier for some time, till we found ourselves at the bottom of a long narrow glacier descending very steeply from the saddle between Piz Bernina and Piz Morteratsch.  As seen from near here by daylight, the whole of the route we intended to follow is visible.  The glacier referred to descends in a very steep narrow gully, shut in on both sides by dark precipitous rocks.  At the top it is surrounded by rocks, and the last five or six hundred feet of the gully consist of very steep rocks.  At the bottom near its junction with the main glacier, this little one is much narrowed by two buttresses which stand out into it.  The result is that the ice is here very much broken; it is steep, and ice avalanches are frequent.  Above this ice-fall the narrow snow field is rather steep and leads to another small ice-fall, above which the snow field grows narrower and ends at last at the foot of the steep rocks.  From the highest point of the glacier a narrow couloir leads towards the left to the aréte of Piz Bernina.  This couloir is constantly swept by falling stones and sometimes by avalanches.  When Gross and I were on the crest of the saddle on Saturday, we saw a large avalanche of mixed stones and snow plunge down it and sweep the surface of the snow field below.  This snow field seemed from above, as it afterwards proved to be, quite covered with stone-runs.  It is traversed by two great bergschrunds.

Illustration of Narrow Gulley. © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
Illustration of Narrow Gulley

Such was the information we had gained by means of a telescopic inspection of our route from below and above.  Arrived at the bottom of this glacier (it was now 4-50 a.m.) we roped ourselves together in two parties, Gross and I, on one rope; Hans Grass, Wainwright and Warren on the other.  We took to the rocks on the south side of the foot of the gully at first, in order to reach the snow field above the ice-fall.  These were very steep and very smooth, being rounded by the action of the ice which must have covered them years ago.  When these had been crossed and a little bit of ice-fall surmounted, we walked quickly over the hard surface of the snow field just as the sun rose.  It was a grand morning, the most perfectly clear sky, over mountains  and glaciers at our feet, with the sharp peaks above shining , with the beautiful pink light-peculiar to an alpine sunrise.  Nothing was wanting for our enjoyment, and enjoy ourselves we did, as we have seldom done before and seldom will again.

We were bearing now to the right in order to avoid some big crevasses above which was some avalanche débris, which looked unpleasantly suggestive  just under the precipices on our right we had our breakfast, and left a bottle to mark the routeWe waited here for about half-an-hour enjoying ourselves and discussing the prospects of success, and then got under weigh again, this time all roped together in one party.  Hans Grass led, followed in order by Gross, Wainwright, Warren and I.  We found the snow much softer now that the sun had been shining for some time on it.  Our way led almost straight for the highest point of snow below the rocks.  In order to get to this we had to cross two bergschrunds.  The first of these presented no difficulty, and we crossed it by a bridge near the north side of the glacier.  Between this and the next bergschrund the snow slope was very steep, and the snow, which lay on very smooth ice, was soft and rotten.  For these reasons our progress was slow as we had to cut steps in the ice below the snow, which reached above our knees. 

The second and higher bergschrund was a very broad one with only two bridges across it, one in the middle of the slope and the other near the rocks on the north side.  The only way to cross it was by one of these or by taking to the rocks.  This latter was, I believe, the best way to have gone, as the middle part of the slope is swept by falling stones.  But the guides elected to try the middle bridge owing to our nearness to it.  This bridge was a most peculiar one, and I shall perhaps be able to make myself more clearly understood by aid of the accompanying sketch.  In the first instance the reader must imagine a split about 20 feet broad and 50 or 100 feet deep separating the glacier across its whole breadth, from the rocks on the left to those on the right.  I have mentioned before that at the top of the snow is a narrow gully or couloir (visible in the full page illustration) constantly swept by avalanches and falling stones.  These have made a regular track down the face of the snow slope up which we were climbing.  This track is in the form of a semi-cylindrical gully, about 9 or 10 feet deep, and about the same width across the top.  It is continually swept by falling stones which always bring down a little snow with them.  When the stones reach the bergschrund the velocity with which they are moving carries them and the snow across it.  By this means a narrow snow bridge has been formed over the crevasse, composed of the snow brought down by the falling stones.  This bridge the guides thought would bear.  We paid out the rope as Hans and Gross went across and cut steps in the ice below the snow on the other side of the schrund.  Just when they were across there was a cry of "Look out for falling stones," and we dodged aside in time to see two or three about the size of one's head whiz past us.  Then Wainwright went over, the bridge bearing beautifully, and the guides were able to go a little higher up and get out of the stone-run.  Warren in going over put his foot , through the bridge, but was all right on the other side.  When it came to my turn to cross I could look through the hole which Warren's foot had made, and see the blue chasm below and the icicles hanging all around.  Such peeps as these are among the numerous pleasures in Alpine climbing which non-mountaineers cannot have explained to them.  They are among the delights reserved for the comparatively few who scramble in the regions of eternal snow.  The bridge did not give way under me, and except the slight risk of falling stones, which constantly passed us, there was no difficulty in getting over the bergschrund and on to the snow slope above.  From here we steered straight up to the highest bit of snow, where the slope started from the foot of the rock precipice.  The slope became exceedingly steep and we had to continue the most careful step-cutting.  The sun was shining on our backs with great  power and I was almost afraid of a sunstroke, feeling, as I did, the most unpleasant pains about the neck and shoulders.  However, by the constant application of melting snow under my hat and down my back, I managed to ward off the unpleasant consequences, and the great heat abated when we reached the rocks.  These improved very much on acquaintance, though very steep they gave a good firm hold, and there were always little nicks for the hands and feet.  The only thing was that there were numbers of loose stones lying on the little ledges, and these we had to be very careful not to dislodge.  Gross sent one down on to Wainwright's foot which hurt him considerably.  About an hour of this sort of work brought us just under the crest of the great wave of snow which fringes the saddle at the top of the pass.  This seemed ready to topple over us at any moment, though in reality it was quite firm.  At 9 o'clock we found ourselves at the top of the Col, at the point which Gross and I had reached on Saturday.  Here we found our bottle, but the provisions we had left had been eaten up by some animal or other.  Gross said it was a fox.  The first thing, we did on reaching the top was to start a small stone avalanche down the rock precipice up which we had climbed.  The stones cleared the whole height of rocks and then dashed down the stone-run and over the snow bridge we had crossed, obliterating our footsteps, dashing against each other and breaking into little pieces, raising echo after echo among the crags around.  The noise of the stones and our shouts attracted the attention of a party crossing the Pers glacier who were on the look out for us.  We shouted at each other, then settled down to eat some lunch and drink Grumello in honour of our success.  Hans Grass was in great form.  He drank his bottle of wine, shook the first finger of his right hand in a manner peculiar to him, and declared that the proper name for p the pass was Grumello-sattel.  The descent to the Roseg Restaurant, as Gross and I knew, would only take about three hours, so as it was 9 o'clock in the morning we determined to enjoy the magnificent view for two hours or more.  So we ate and talked and drank and enjoyed ourselves as only those can who know that they have done a bit of work and deserve the pleasure they have won.  We could see a party of people on the top of the Piz Morteratsch above us; we shouted to them, and after a few seconds we heard the faint echo of their respondent jodel.  The view on both sides of us has been described a few pages back.  To-day the horizon was clear and every peak was distinctly visible.  There was nothing to be desired in this respect.  Our old steps cut on Saturday were still remaining, and we could trace the laborious route by which we had ascended.  At 11-30 Grass, Wainwright and Warren went off, leaving me with Gross to sketch the top of the pass and follow afterwards.  At 12 o'clock Gross and I started and descended as quickly as we could by the same route as we had followed in our descent on Saturday.  We came upon Wainwright and Warren near the bottom of the steep part of our route, and after a run over the Roseg glacier we found ourselves again on the path to the Restaurant, which we reached in comfort at 3-10.  Here I met some ladies who had just come down from the Corvatsch, and they gave me a lift in their ein-spanner to Pontresina, to the great disgust of their guide Gabriel, who had looked forward to being carried by them the last eight miles of his day's work.

[1] It is now frequently done.

[2] I imagine that these 'ice-falls' were really groups of crevasses, which assumed somewhat exaggerated proportions in my youthful mind.

[3] It is now called Fuorca Pievlusa, I believe.