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Tuesday Climbing Club Journal 1963
© Mike James
Whilst trying to explain what UKClimbing and the internet were all about to my father the other day, I accidentally showed him an article we had published about an ascent of the North Face of the Piz Badile - Third Time Lucky by Malcolm Phelps. A couple of days later he presented me with a tatty old journal dating from 1963 called 'ARETE - Tuesday Climbing Club News'. A quick look inside revealed the reason the journal had lasted 43 years - it contained my father's own account of his epic ascent of the Badile in August 1961. More digging around produced a few photos so I thought we would run the article again here since it gives both an interesting historical perspective on climbing in the early 1960s as well as involving a few fascinating characters from climbing history.
Epic on the Badile
Full as the Sciora Hut was, there was yet one table virtually empty, occupied by a darker looking character in a scarlet sweater, obviously a climber and probably Italian. This impression was confirmed immediately we sat down, he wore the badge of the "Ragni Lecco", the Spiders Club of Lecco, a small town by Lake Como. His hairy hands gave the impression of great strength and his heavy features somehow reinforced this. Inevitably we fell into conversation with him, using our special brand of fabricated Italian, and we got on well. He brought out photographs of the route we intended to do, the North East Face of the Piz Badile, and showed us odd places to watch out for in case we went off route. We were five in number - Geoff Grandison, Ian Clough, Nev Crowther, Sid Clark and myself. Noticing that we were an odd number, the Italian asked if he might join us, and as he knew the route, we readily agreed.
He told us he was called Claudio Corti, and we recalled rather hazily that he had had some publicity, but at that time (August 1961) few of us had read "The White Spider" and "Climb up to Hell" had not been written so we were quite happy about the arrangement. Had we known Claudio's reputation amongst his club-mates and Italian climbers in general, and had I know the misfortune that generally overtook his companions on big routes, we would perhaps have been more wary of accepting him. We knew he was well-known and, at the time, the Badile was still a big climb, so we were glad to have somebody who had done it.
As Ian Clough was in our party, there was none of this nonsense of warming up on easy climbs and using up good weather. We were up and about two or three hours after going to bed on the night of our arrival, and left the hut at 1am. We began the climb at 5:30am. Claudio and I went first, Nev and Sid followed, Geoff and Ian went last.
As a climber we found Corti slow, particularly up to the snowfield, for the rock was warm and dry and we were quite happy to climb as we would on the slabby routes of Cloggy, without pegs and too much messing about. He used a great many pitons and slowed us down a lot. Ian in the last pair took the majority out, as was the arrangement - a system which resulted in the face being almost completely stripped of pegs as he didn't know which were ours and which weren't, so took them all out to be on the safe side. As it happened, speed would have availed us little, for we quickly caught up with three Italians who had bivvied the previous night on the snowfield. Their slowness was due to the second man's having only one finger and thumb on his right hand, and to the enormous sacks they were carrying. They were not too keen on our passing them, so we had long waits between pitches and it was pretty late when we reached the traverse left at the top of the long slanting chimney-groove. We were following the original route, traversing left, abseiling diagonally to some easy slabs, and following these to the summit. The three in front of us were slow on the abseils and darkness was closing in as Claudio and I reached what were usually the easy slabs to the top.
Claudio Corti climbing the Great Groove on the North Face of the Piz Badile
© Mike James, Aug 1961
The next nine hours I shall never forget, the actualities were frightening enough but the possibilties are terrifying. The bumbling Italian party were messing about in a snowy gully so Claudio and I waited where we had landed, on a narrow ledge, just large enough for the two of us and wide enough for us to stand on only one leg. Nev was already descending upon us, and neither Corti nor I were belayed, having just finished the abseil. Straight over the ridge above came the storm, utter blackness and noise, wind and buckets of hail streaming down the slabs like milk, everything hissing and crackling and screaming. Two seconds later I had a peg in about an inch and Claudio and I were tied on. Nev attempted to land on a ledge which collapsed under him and he was left dangling on his abseil rope. The lightening bounced in great purple and green flashes across the slabs, punching us through our pegs and krabs, and smiting the top of Nev's axe as he hung on the rope. Attended by pretty well continuous flare of St. Elmo's fire, he climbed hand over hand back up the rope and joined the others on a relatively good ledge - an immense effort of strength and will power. The four of them then spent a reasonable night in sleeping bags - certainly a five-star night compared to that of Claudio and myself.
The storm abated and left us with pure darkness - cold and uninviting. "Do not sleep", said Claudio frequently, hopping about to keep the circulation going. "No chance", I said, you can't sleep when you are standing on one leg and frozen stiff, belayed by a single peg above a two thousand foot drop. I promptly fell asleep and tottered off into space, to be held by this meagre peg. Naturally enough Claduio was not too happy about this, but after this I no longer needed his frequent proddings to keep awake.
Dawn came slowly, melting the ice above and showering us with ice flakes. It was decided that the other party of Italians should join us and eventually we set off on two ropes, Ian and Claudio leading off up what were now slabs of soft snow and ice. We reached the North Ridge and the summit in brilliant sunshine at midday.
The descent of the South Face was uneventful, and I think we had intended to stay that night in the Gianetti Hut before walking round to the Sciora. However, Claudio announced his intention of going round that afternoon. Two hours he estimated. So, impecunious as we were, we set off with him, thus letting ourselves in for an even worse epic than the night before. The trip from the Giannetti to the Sciora side, via the Passo Bondo, is a low and easy walk up snow and moraines, but you must be aware of a feature known as the Falso Passo Bondo, which, from the Sciora side, is an ice route of considerable length and some difficulty. Sure enough, as evening was closing in we stood on the Falso Passo Bondo and gazed down the awesome glacier we were to descend. "Two hours", said Claudio, pointing down and winking - we learned to be wary of this remark, for it had cost us six hours already.
We began our nightmare descent in almost total darkness, equipped with two ice axes between us and roped together as a six. Claudio had indicated that we needed no axes or crampons on the North East Face, and it is fortunate that Ian is a man of providence, for the descent would not have been possible without either. As it was it was a harrowing and dangerous descent since the ice falls in a steep slope for many hundreds of feet, and we could not afford one slip. Claudio cut the steps, the middle four groped downwards and Ian belayed behind. Blood appeared in the holds as fingers were cut on the sharp ice, it was intensely cold and everyone was exhausted from the lack of food and the previous night's efforts, so it is a miracle that no-one fell. Claudio hacked steadily downwards and eventually the slope eased off to where we could stand without using hands. We could see nothing beyond a yard or two but Claudio soon disappeared and off we went trogging along behind him until we reached the seracs, an immense jumbled mass of tottering ice-pillars, frightening in their size and instability.
The middle slabs on the North Face of the Piz Badile. Nev Crowther and Sid Clark climbing.
© Mike James, Aug 1961
Incredibly Claudio soon found a way down, involving some delicate steps and some hair-raising jumps from top to top, and finally a communal slide over a large overhanging cornice to finish in an untidy pile in a snowdrift. By this time we were staggering with tiredness, and seeing all kinds of hallucinations - buildings and tents and people – bobbing about in the flickering lights of our headtorches. Fortunately we soon reached the end of the glacier on easy slopes which Claudio persisted in taking at high speed which we resisted by sitting down until the he hit the end of the rope. Time was no longer of any importance and we were taking it easy. The moraine was hell, like all moraines but Nev found a new lease of life from somewhere and shot off to find the hut. We had to persuade the now-exhausted Corti not to sleep but to come with us. The hut was in darkness as it was a little past midnight, but became alive with people soon after we entered. Wine food and hot stuff were passed around, compliments and so on were showered on us, and eventually we dragged ourselves off to our doss below the main hut.
We spent the next morning drinking gallons of hot liquid and eating continually, signatures were exchanged along with handshakes, and Claudio left for his home, seemingly none the worse for the experience. Had he not been with us we should probably have done the climb in efficient style and good time, descended the North Ridge and chalked up another successful, but uneventful ascent, rather dull in the telling as most successful expeditions are. Fortunately, we did not make the headlines as had Corti's previous exploits, but I am certain we could not have got any nearer to making them than we did.
Why Claudio Corti has this evil luck is hard to say. Technically he is a sound climber, safe if slow, extremely strong and with a quick understanding of how any problem before him is to be solved. Give him a problem and he will find a solution but ask him to find a good and logical route and he is lost. He has a great deal of experience as was shown on the descent of the ice route, but the fact remains that we should never have been there. When one meets a climber of obvious high calibre, climbing in his own region moreover, one does not question his choice of route, neither does one ignore his suggestions about what to take on a route he has done twice before. To our misfortune, Claudio is an exception to this, for he obviously retains very little in the way of situations in his mind, and deals with problems as they arise. I can understand how he survived so long on the Eiger, and how he led the party the whole time, for his strength and determination are great, especially in difficulties. In retrospect, climbing with Claudio Corti was an experience to remember, but not to repeat.
1961 Badile team. L to R: Grandison, Clough, Clark, James, Crowther
© Mike James, Aug 1961
Where are They Now
Ian Clough - At the time of this ascent Ian Clough was already establishing his credentials as a great mountaineer. Also in 1961 he climbed the Central Pillar of the Freney and then the North Face of the Eiger in 1962, both with Chris Bonington. Throughout the 60s he climbed widely across the Alps and Scotland in particular. In 1970 he was part of Bonington's successful Annapurna expedition where Dougal Haston and Don Whillans made a very highly rated ascent of the South Face. Sadly Ian was killed by a falling ice pinnacle on the lower slopes of the mountain. In November 1999 a plaque was erected in his memory in his home town of Baildon, Yorkshire (local news report which incorrectly states that Ian summitted on the Annapurna Expedition).
Claudio Corti - Died on February 3rd 2010 aged 81. Corti received a testimonial from Ragni in Lecco in 2006. At the time of the ascent of the Badile he was being shunned by many of the Alps top climbers owing to his shocking ability to get himself involved in epics. His most infamous epic occurred on the North Face of the Eiger in 1957 and is described in detail in Jack Olsen's book Climb Up To Hell.
The Eiger's formidable history includes one of the strangest episodes in the annals of mountain climbing -- the 1957 expedition of the Italians, Corti and Longhi, and the Germans, Nothdurft and Mayer. One man alone, Claudio Corti, returned from that expedition, and he did so only with the help of some fifty of Europe's finest climbers, assembled virtually overnight in a spectacular rescue attempt.
Mike James, father of Alan, lives in Sheffield, has three children and 5 grandchildren.
Nev Crowther is alive and well and living in Edinburgh.
Syd Clarke is alive and well and living in Whitstable in Kent.