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Spotreport: On Touring Skis To Gemsfreiheit

A tour up to Gemsfreiheit on the foot of Piz Palü doesn’t start as usual, with putting the skins on your skis. First we need to get up to Diavolezza which fortunately only takes a ride in the cable car.

The Diavolezza skiing area is located at 3,000 metres above sea, a great starting point for many popular hiking or ski touring routes in the Swiss Eastern Alps. Already the cable car ride makes up for every mile travelled to get here. Untouched powder slopes as far as the eye can see, countless summits, wind lips and kicker spots. Up on Diavolezza we drop off our luggage at the mountain hut and hurry out to the terrace to enjoy the last rays of sunshine. The view is incredible: We see Piz Palü, Piz Zupo, Bellavista and Piz Bernina with its steep, technically challenging Biancograt ridge on the west face. At 3,900 metres, Piz Palü might be a little smaller than its big brother Piz Bernina at 4,049 metres (the only four-thousander in the Eastern Alps), but he is just as beautiful. As I watch its western summit turn red in the evening sun I suddenly understand the incredible achievements of first climbers Sir Kenelm Edward Digby and his guide Peter Jenny in 1866. There were no exact weather forecasts at the time, nor was proper equipment for such tours. But what they had was an irrepressible drive to discover new territories and conquer this mountain. Less sometimes really is more, I think to myself.

But back to our tour. Early next morning the first group of mountaineers sets off as the first sunrays hit the eastern summit of Piz Palü. We have a little time left and meet our guide Anselm in the breakfast area of the Diavolezza mountain hut. After going through the route together and checking our equipment one last time we are ready for our little adventure. We put on our skis and make a few turns down to the Pers glacier. The sun is out in full glory now and the snow is fantastic. Surrounded by breathtaking glaciers we finally put the skins on our skis and start ascending. Avoiding the crevasses on the left, we move towards the Fortezza ridge on flat terrain. After only a few metres we realise that the Pers glacier is a lot bigger than we had expected; from Diavolezza, the distance up to Gemsfreiheit looked like a stone’s throw but from down here the horizontal distance of 4 kilometres we were told about seems more realistic. As we trudge through the snow I can hardly take off my eyes from Piz Palü’s north face. So many tours, so many options for ascent and descent... Well, maybe another day.

The north face on its part seems rather unimpressed by my admiration and looks down on me, stone-faced. We leave the glacier behind us and approach Gemsfreiheit from the east. The days prior to our arrival have seen some fresh snow and, due to the sunshine and rising temperatures, several big avalanches. It feels good to have our guide Anselm who knows the area like the back of his own hand. Born in the German town of Mittenwald, Anselm followed love to Switzerland ten years ago and has been working as a mountain guide in Pontresina ever since. In summer, he also runs a mountain hut on Muottas Muragl.
As we reach the mountain’s shoulder I see Anselm pull an ice axe from his backpack. We are already at 3,000 metres above sea level and the snow has not yet turned into firn here on the southwestern traverse. Anselm prefers to be on the safe side and uses his axe to prepare a short track for us. He has an original Bhend ice axe from Grindelwald; a product combining the skills of a master craftsman with highest functionality, making it much coveted in the mountaineering scene. “Got it as a present when I completed,” Anselm says, meaning when he completed his training to be a mountain guide.

Now there are only a few metres left up to the summit, and the sun glisters over the Bernina massif. As we reach the top we reach for our snacks and just enjoy the moment. The skies are windstill, almost cloudless. We see the Ortler summit in the Southeast and Piz Buin and Piz Ot a little more to the West. Behind us is the Fortezzagrad ridge, and the western summit of Piz Palü seems to be within grasp. But enough with the daydreams. We take the skins off our skis and get ready. 1,300 metres of altitude difference await us and I can hardly wait to finally tackle the perfectly firm powder. Many turns later we meet up, and no one can contain their excitement. Wide grins all around. That’s what you call a soul run! 

Just underneath the Gemsfreiheit peak we turn back towards Diavolezza and ski down the Pers glacier. After another 150 metres of altitude difference, the Pers glacier tongue meets the one of the Morteratsch glacier. The ice falls shine in all shades from turquoise to dark grey, reminding us that these mountains and glaciers have been here long before any humans were. We follow the wide, moderate slopes down the Morteratsch glacier all the way to its abrupt end. A narrow slope leads us out into the valley. About 40 metres after the end of the glacier we see a sign with the number 2015 on it, and there are many similar ones all the way down to Morteratsch station. It is an informative trail on the geomorphology, vegetation and glacial recession of the Morteratsch glacier. Since the beginning of its scientific documentation, the glacier has lost 2.5 kilometres in length. Today, one can’t imagine that the glacier was still reaching all the way down to the station in 1870. Despite its recession, at 1.2 cubic kilometres the Morteratsch glacier is still one of the biggest glaciers in the Eastern Alps. As we reach the station, we take off our skis and wait for the train. One last glance back to Gemsfreihei and Palü, and I know: I will be back.


Starting point: Diavolezza mountain station (2,973 metres above sea level)

Finishing point: Gemsfreiheit summit (3,186m) /  Morteratsch station

Duration (ascent): 4.5 km / about 2hrs

Duration (descent): 10 km / 25min

Equipment: basic touring equipment including hip belt, band sling and HMS carabiner

Altitude covered: about 200 m

Suited for: everyone

Difficulty level: 2-3

What makes the tour appealing

stunning views, short ascent with a long descent. 


Altitude (hardly ever under 3,000m), crevasses (particularly in early winter and early spring), general orientation in the terrain


Glacial landscape, Piz Palü, Piz Bernin, incredible panoramic views from Gemsfreiheit to the South and West

Fun: 7-8 out of 10
Adventure: 3-4 out of 10


Pro tips

What makes this tour unique is its scenic beauty. You will pass some of the highest peaks in the Eastern Alps and the impressive ice falls of the Morteratsch and Pers glaciers. Moreover, the cost-benefit-ratio of this tour is unrivalled: 400 metres in altitude difference on the way up to ski down 1,300 metres of altitude. Another benefit of this tour is that it’s rather safe from avalanches so that even rookies who need to be kept on the safe side can get a real ski touring experience. “This tour is super easy,” says Anselm. One of the reasons why it’s very popular.

Text: Robert Maruna //
Photos: Heiko Mandl //

Dec. 13, 2017

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