Friday, 22 May 2020

Alta Via 1. Monte Pelmo Ascent. A Bambino Could Do It. Via Ferrata. Part Two.

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A day later in our walk across the Italian Dolomites on the Alta Via 1 we reached a hut directly under the base of Monte Pelmo, one of the giant mountains of this region. We spent the evening in the hut trying to find out any information we could about the climb but apart from one line 'Monte Pelmo: A long and tiring ascent, if an easy one.'  in our guidebook and a post card of Monte Pelmo with a dotted line snaking up it, available for sale in the hut, we gleaned nothing else. We could order beers in Italian, ask about campsites, but that was about it and no one at this hut understood much English on that particular day.
The post card view. This side of Monte Pelmo, the one directly above the hut, at least looked not entirely impossible, if still steep. Other than that we didn't have a clue what was ahead of us. Being a backpacking tour we didn't have ropes, ice axes or crampons but the summit slopes looked to be clear of snow.
The next morning we set off... and the scrambling started almost immediately ... a zig zag line up a steep mountain wall. Attacco was our only clue to the start of the route, no one else around as it was an early start. Fortunately Brian, who rock climbed several grades higher than us, up to E1 level, took the lead, which gave us confidence.
Technically, the scrambling was easy... mostly walking along a narrow ledge system... but as the exposure grew.... and the ledge climbed higher then ran straight across the vertical walls of Monte Pelmo... it took on an entirely serious aspect.
One misplaced step or stumble here and you would be falling a very long way to the green meadows below. It was still easy scrambling but being a first ascent for us, with no clue as to how hard it was round each corner it was a memorable one.
In places it was so exposed you could skydive off this narrow ledge, filled with loose stones underfoot, and soar into mid air, taking minutes  to contemplate your own death on the way down before you landed. And amazingly.... not a sign of any via ferrata, confidence boosting fixed ropes, or anything else to hang onto other than bare limestone and a few scattered pitons where you could put a rope hand line if you had one. No other hillwalkers either. We had the mountain to ourselves mostly. I wonder why?!!!
And then... on one of the crux sections on this long exposed traverse... with overhanging cliffs above and screaming exposure below... we spotted the bambino... a little toddler... about three years old... happily walking along this ledge system with his unconcerned parents.....
or at least that's what it looked like when I got the photos back....our friendly base-jumper was correct... a bambino could do it...
I compared Monte Pelmo to a giant, heavily eroded, white dice in the last post, which is true viewed from some angles with its steep vertical edges falling thousands of feet but here, on this side, the only 'easy' way up this amazing mountain, think of it as a high backed school chair. We had just traversed across the vertical legs and now we found ourselves in a dazzling white limestone scoop of the seat section. It's not called God's Throne for nothing.... and looks like it from afar.
Thankfully this was easier, just a faint but well defined path up scree and a few small ramps to negotiate cliffs. But this was not a mountain to relax on. It's still the scariest hill I've ever climbed in my life. Even these photos give me the creeps all over again. This is the ascent/descent route right behind me... and the thought of going back down to that vertical drop of thousands of feet to find a narrow ledge leading back across the cliffs filled me with dread. It still gives me the creeps thinking about it to this day.
Brian or John here, as close to the edge as he's willing to go. Unbelievably, the drop on the other side was even higher. I can't imagine anyone coming up here in winter, covered in snow, but apparently a few brave or crazy alpine mountaineers do. If you bag peaks in the Dolomites you need seriously big balls. I suppose you get used to this level of exposure but for me, even after 100 mountain rock climbs and dozens of Scottish scrambles it was intense and right at my limit. Yet I would not be surprised to find someone has carried skis up here to ski down the upper bowl, given how extreme the limits are for the best in that field. Climbing/ski mountaineering that is. One ascent was enough for me.
There was also a hell of a lot of loose rock around, dust and scree on every ledge... just what you want near a vertical/overhanging drop of 5000 feet.
The summit ridge. I can see why Italian's are religious....climbing mountains like this every weekend or holiday.... as I started speaking to God as well for one of the very few times in my life... promising inwardly that if he saved me from falling off this unbelievable lump of ancient sea bed I'd be a good little boy in future.
and thankfully we did survive. After Monte Pelmo we split up. Brian wanted to finish the Alta Via 1, clocking up 9 to 10 hour walking days in the process, whereas myself and John fancied a gentler pace once we got to Cortina d Ampezzo, a small mountain town and a hub for via ferrata enthusiasts. After Monte Pelmo we wanted to relax. So we went our separate ways but agreed to meet back in town on our campsite once Brian had finished. Market on a high road pass above.
John on a protected wartime path. During World War One there was intense fighting in these mountains between German and Italian troops and you can still see numerous remains of tunnels, carved ledges, and trenches dug out of these limestone coral walls. Hard to believe they were under the ocean at one point.
Although the next set of photos might look scary or exposed it was nothing compared to the levels of fear I experienced on Monte Pelmo. This was a breeze by comparison as we had wires, ropes, and ladders for safety in the event of a slip or fall. Just an enjoyable romp over several via ferrata routes above Cortina. A fantastic base for hill-walkers. World War One tunnels here.
An alpine hut with a huge cross above it. John on a via ferrata. We did the Paternkofel protected wartime path. De Luca- Innerkofler and the Paternkofel Wind Gap Path for anyone interested. Plus the Ivan Dibona High Level path... and Brian was back in time to join us for that one.
Snakes and ladders on a via ferrata.
Another vertical wall climb but easy and enjoyable rather than terrifying. Amazing the difference a wire makes to confidence.
Even the free solo stuff, see the small figure out on a ledge here, was not as frightening as Monte Pelmo's stark and threatening verticality- more friendly feeling somehow.
John happy on an easy via ferrata to a summit. Averau and Nuvolao. (German guidebook spelling)
These colourful swinging one person capsules instantly reminded me of the film Barbarella for some reason... and also the Alisha's Attic song of the same name- one of my favourite 1990s groups. It was a quick way up to a via ferrata route rather than slog up the scree slopes of what looks like a downhill winter ski run. The Dolomites being a popular and spectacular winter ski resort often featured on Ski Sunday TV shows.
Crossing the highest bridge in the Dolomites here. Dead easy. Via ferrata routes can get you into situations and places you would never dream of going.
Away from the via ferrata routes though, as here, it's still a scary place if you take a wrong turn.
Brian rejoined us for our last couple of days in Cortina and managed to bag a couple of via ferrata with us. The team reunited once more. A hut built into a mountain wall here, protected from snows, lightening strikes, and howling winds. Steep path up to it.
Inside, due to the chairs, it had a fairy tale quality.
Brian on another via ferrata route, this one if I remember correctly containing a long rising tunnel boring up through the mountain in the distance. A wartime tunnel 600m long. (A torch comes in handy.) Paternkofel. Monte Paterno. Sexten Dolomites group. The separate upright pinnacle, clearly seen here, being the 'frankfurter sausage.' This part of the Dolomites is close to the Austrian Tyrol border.
The end. What a great trip. Thanks to Brian and John for the company.

A 5 minute video here of the ascent of Monte Pelmo. These guys are very fast and make it look easy. Probably done it before or used to dolomite levels of exposure. One slip or stumble on that traverse and you are dead though. Probably due to increasing popularity or a higher degree of public safety awareness in modern times several fixed rope sections exist on this ascent by the looks of it. On our climb, over 20 years earlier, it was empty of any confidence booster worth the name but even today it still demands a good head for heights and steady footwork.

Monday, 18 May 2020

ALTA VIA 1. Italian Dolomites Hike. Part One.

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Another backpacking holiday trip from yesteryear when I had the energy, legs, and body to crawl over 10,000 mountains in 80 degree heat for 6 to 8 hours a day. Two weeks in the Italian Dolomites this time in mid July. Plane down to London, flight to Rimini on the Italian Adriatic coast, over night in a youth hostel then train to Belluno at the start of the walk. As usual we didn't start the hike until the afternoon as it took time travelling through Italy on the train so darkness fell before we reached this first hut. We ended up bivvying out under the stars in a deep, narrow, damp gorge below it about an hour short of this hut- a not ideal location, dark, dripping, and gloomy even in sunshine, but luckily the only things crawling over us all night were harmless but hand- sized spiders. Sort of daddy long leg types with peanut sized bodies suspended on long limbs.
The near vertical cliffs above proved to be our next challenge as a famous via ferrata starts just above this 7th Alpini Hut and is the sporting start or conclusion of the Alta Via 1. One thousand feet of vertical metal ladders, narrow ledges, and exposed scrambling later saw us attain the notch between the Pelf and Schiara and dump our heavy packs down to get a well earned rest. There is an easier alternative avoiding this first mountain range obstacle but having done years of rock climbing and scrambling back in Scotland we were sure we could take on the direct route over these two mountains. And so it proved.
My companions on this trip were Brian and John, two long time hill-walking and rock climbing friends from the club.This is the sight that awaited us on the other side of that first high  mountain wall- range after jagged range of steep mountains, the dazzling white limestone not doing much for the camera as a lot of the photos came back overexposed. And cameras were not as advanced then either to capture views like this clearly.
The dolomites are stunning though. A totally unique district of mountains sandwiched between the fertile Po valley and the Austrian Tyrol. This is John admiring the rock spires of Monte Tamer. A mountain massif that leans over at an angle, long before the tower of Pisa imitated it. The Alta Via 1 weaves a sinuous route under these sloping towers.
The Alta Via 1 is the classic 120km high level 10 day walking route between Belluno and Lago di Braies. We walked it south to north and it's a fantastic hike, as, unlike a lot of other routes we had done abroad once you climbed up to around 1000 metres or 4000 foot high it tended to stay near that height rather than plunge up and down into valleys every day. It made the walking easier yet took us through the heart of some fantastic scenery, weaving past spires and Gothic confections of rock architecture.
Even the smaller peaks, like this one, were stunning. And there are hundreds like this in every direction.
At times the route weaved under high cliffs, keeping to its level line as much as possible, like a railway has to thread through a landscape without encountering any steep inclines....
at other times it hugged a high ridge-line above a substantial drop, but unlike Corsica, this was a good wide path throughout and easy to follow. I really like the Dolomites. Fantastic walking area.
For the first couple of days it weaves around the various peaks and we could either camp near huts or stay remote from civilization in the wilderness as this stretch was empty of people and very wild- after the via ferrata section  hardly seen another soul hiking in this region.
Looking towards the Nuvelou peak at dusk. Amazingly there is a mountain hut on the top of this summit in the distance and we were heading there next.

Unfortunately, to get this dusk view we had camped lower down, seen here, on a grassy meadow, then walked 15 mins up to the top of the pass for the evening panorama. When we returned the local free ranging cows had found our tents and one had put it's foot through mine in our absence, causing a sizable rip in the side wall. They like to mock fight with each other and some get frisky so it was not deliberate, just an accident, which I managed to patch up with some tape. After satisfying their curiousity they wandered off to munch more grass.

By the afternoon of the next day we had reached this distant hut. A popular viewpoint and half day walk from a road pass so busy with tourists and sun lovers. We didn't mind the crowds here as we had been in a wild area since Belluno and could now get snacks and soft drinks at the hut. This is the view from that rock peak summit, taken just outside the Nuvelou hut. The lighter, further away, peak in the distant centre is Monte Pelmo, 3168 metres or 10,394 feet high and one of the giants of the district.
Like the Matterhorn, Monte Pelmo is one of those peaks that immediately captures your attention and mesmerizes you whenever you see it. A vast white cube of limestone- like a 10,000 foot high dice that over millions of years has eroded, slipped, and cracked slightly but is still a distinct cube in origin from certain angles. An Italian base jumper had recommended it when I'd asked his advice for a spectacular but easy peak to climb the day before. He pointed to it in the far distance. " Bella Monte Pelmo!!! he roared. Simpatico!!!! Bellissimo!!!!.... but you must climb this mountain boys- promise me you will!!! One of the finest peaks in Italy yet a bambino could do it!!!

We had laughed at his enthusiasm and promised we would have a go at it... but the closer we got to it the more serious and daunting a prospect it looked. Another view of it here in menacing shadow. Child's play indeed.
Mind you, all the Italian mountains along the Alta Via 1 looked daunting. This is the 'wall of walls' the Italian version of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite. A vertical cliff well over 1000 foot high and several km in length. Our base jumping pal had happily thrown himself off the highest summit here as well which didn't necessarily endorse him as a hiker on the same wavelength of difficulty as us. Maybe his 'bambino' was a ten year old E 3 climber.
Another view looking back at it. The 'Wall of Walls.'
This is us wild camping with the vast bulk of Monte Pelmo ahead. We hoped there would be a slightly less vertical /easier way up round the side we could not see here. Tomorrow we would attempt to climb it. A slightly troubled sleep that night for some reason....


Tuesday, 12 May 2020

GR20. The Walk Across Corsica. Last Part.

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A campsite next to a mountain hut in Corsica on the GR20. In mid August heatstroke is a distinct possibly in Corsica, even in the mountains, with the daytime temperatures nudging 30c or 90f which is why I'm wearing a wet towel here on my head. A few times on the walk after 6 to 8 hour days I felt close to passing out under the intense Mediterranean sunshine. Several people during our stint were helicoptered out, either through over exertion, trips onto rough ground, or heat related. By walking from first light to early afternoon we managed to avoid the hottest hours. Blue skies for the entire trip, no rain, and constant sunshine.
Scott contemplating another hot day traversing the ridge line. There was nothing that hard on the GR20, scrambling wise, but you had to keep concentration levels high as the ground was rough throughout and any stumble might result in a potentially fatal accident.
In places where the GR20 did venture into rock climbing territory metal ladder and wire ropes gave you something to hang on to although it was never exposed enough to warrant via ferrata type kit  protection. The only hard part was doing all this with a heavy suitcase strapped to your back, which is essentially what a rucksack is. Going up was not too bad....
but the weird thing was the descents... some of which were pretty steep,  climbing down over smooth slabs as here, above, with a huge drop below into a gully and completely unprotected, devoid of wires or ladders. It was easy when we did it in bone dry heat but I'd imagine it would be fairly tricky if the slabs were wet or snow covered, especially with a large pack threatening your balance.
Red and white paint markers were often the only way you knew you were on a path through the mountains as an actual trail was often absent. Just bare slabs of rock, walls, and ledges in places.
Not ground you wanted to slip over on so we were very careful and maintained an alert approach with every step, not easy to maintain for a full day under a blazing sun.
The highlight/crux of the GR20 is the Cirque de la Solitude, a huge steep sided stone bowl which the back packing ants had to negotiate. Although a mere arrow shot across as the raven flies it's so rugged and steep that it takes you several hours effort to crawl across it. Not being a scrambler Shime bailed out before we came to this point, opting to sightsee his way around sea level Corsica instead, meeting up with us later. He may have spent more money than us down in the coastal resorts but he did get a much better idea of tourist Corsica as a holiday island.
This scramble was not part of the route just an added extra, without heavy packs.
One of the huts we stayed at had an interesting feature. You could either stay in the hut.... or sleep in a bivi bag underneath it.... or pitch a tent in little cleared squares. Only about a dozen of these so first come first served.
We camped outside but you can also see the dry space under the hut for bivi folk with communal sinks and washing facilities at a cheaper rate that hut dwellers. A cracking idea.
It meant we could cook and wash under here, socialize with each other, stay dry if raining, and generally relax standing upright rather than lying flat down inside separate tents. My favorite hut of the trip.
It also had the climbing wall to end all climbing walls directly above this hut. An expanse of rock tilted about a 90 degree angle. Not quite vertical, but not far off it. It was even more impressive than an overhanging or vertical wall as crap climbers like us thought 'we might just get up that on a rope.'
It's hard to get a real impression of how amazing this wall was in reality as it doesn't look 1000 foot high here but standing underneath this mighty slab it appeared to soar upwards as a direct conduit straight into heaven. It was that impressive a slope at such an improbable angle, consistently slabby throughout over such a huge upward distance that it played strange tricks on the mind and eyeballs staring at it as the clouds drifted past. Literally pushing the giddy limits of sanity as staring up at it too long made you lose your equilibrium and sense of where you were in relation to yourself and gravity. Truly mind-boggling.
French troops hunting Corsican bandits in the interior. The only sign we observed of any unrest on the island was this single appearance of the military and they waited until the cool of evening before setting off as their packs were double the weight of our own. Scott and Gavin took a further seven long hours here climbing Monte Cinto, the highest peak in Corsica at 2,706 metres or 8,878 feet in height. It looked a very steep tough hill so myself and Julian preferred a more relaxing exploration of the forest in this area as it was picturesque with numerous large fallen trees to play around on. We had a great time crossing small ravines like Tarzan.
This area seemed to be a small ski resort in winter, hence the wide cleared downhill run the troops are walking up.
Gavin coming out of the wilderness like an old testament prophet. It was that kind of landscape.
On the second week of our GR20 trip the landscape opened up into easier but still spectacular territory. Mountains were individual units, spaced apart.  We could now stride out on better paths rather than watching every step through boulder fields. It was equally enjoyable to eat up some miles at normal marching pace.
The second highest mountain on Corsica beckoned and this one I did fancy. A different beast entirely from the slender wand of Monte Cinto,  Monte Rotondu, 2,622 metres or 8,602 feet, seen here, was a wide sprawling peak with several long ridges. It also held, in a high rock bowl, a substantial body of year round water. This was Lavu Bellebone, frozen solid for six months of the year, but in summer a tranquil deep pool of blue water with an unlikely beach of dazzling white sand,
Gavin on the beach. Hard to believe this is 5000 foot up a mountainside and it's also special as one of the few large bodies of water along the GR20. Another bonus for this hill is a more gentle upward ascent, only four hours round trip as opposed to seven hours, yet it's also a diverse gem of a mountain.
Gavin on an easy but spectacular ridge line on his way to the summit. As he climbed both peaks he should know and he did say Monte Rotondu was the better hill for variety of scenery and ease of ascent. I loved it. Hard enough scrambling to be exciting yet easy enough to just pick any line and go for it ... and have fun.
We also found this unlocked emergency shelter near the summit. A high level bothy in other words, above 8000 feet. What a cracker of a hill. Highly recommended winter or summer.
It was a ten day walking adventure- two weeks in total when you include travel time to get there and back. We stopped at Vizzavona, getting a train to Corte, the interior capital town. To complete the rest of the GR20 takes another full week over Cairngorm plateau type scenery but as usual we did not have enough time off work to do it all, just the most spectacular sections. Backpacking holiday trips were always two or sometimes three weeks long as no-one could face working all year without another shorter break if we used up our full holiday allowance in one go.
On the train back to lower levels we could see where all the grime and dust on the trail came from as several of the hillsides near the coast had extensive fire damage with forest fires still raging either side of the railway line and fire fighting planes dropping massive dumps of water over the burning pine trees. Intense summer heat and a lack of rainfall was bad then in 2001 so I can only assume, with climate change, it's worse now. A great trip and a cracking island.

Found this link to one of the best outdoor documentary films I've seen that shows off the real beauty of the GR 20. Well worth watching in full. Traversed in July these walkers had cooler temperatures, some snow still remaining high up, mountain mists, and plentiful water in the streams and lakes. Even so, anywhere I've backpacked abroad we always put iodine purification tablets in any drinking water, as recommended in the guide books. Does not help the taste, turns the water brown, but keeps you safe and kills any bacteria. Usually essential in hot countries.

 Continuing the run of astonishing short visual animation gems here's another beauty you should not miss. Imagine if an alien race wanted to visit another planet in their universe. Who is to say it might not look like this? Stunning, fascinating, clever, original, and completely strange. So strange and uniquely different from anything else I've seen  it takes several views to really appreciate what's going on here.