3 MONTHS HIKING ACROSS THE ITALIAN ALPS
When we say that we have hiked more than 1,000 km (650 miles) from West to East in Italy, people immediately think of gondolas, leaning towers, pizzas, pasta and laundry drying on the windows.We will not lie, yes we ate pizzas and pasta :)
But believe us if you tell you that the rest did not happen like this at all!
Crossing Europe was our project. Crossing the Alps was our dream. And the weather window to realize it was relatively short: before June it was too early, after October it would have been too late and we had to count 3 or 4 months to do it. Our departure date on February 5th in Sagres was fixed in anticipation of this epic section of our trip.
Of course, even now, our vision of Italy is very partial. But it's the same for all the countries we crossed and the one we will cross during this thru-hike in Europe. Even though we are progressing slowly, spending a lot of time in some countries, we only discover a narrow line across a whole country.
For almost 3 months hiking in Italy, we discovered the Italian Alps, crossed 6 regions, climbed 69,500 meters (230,000 feet) of elevation gain, stayed 30% of the time at the inhabitant and spent twice our planned budget, an average of 20 € per day and per person.
People are surprised when we say that we have not managed to keep our budget in Italy. It's not so much about the country itself, but about the mountains in general. The products are difficult to transport and therefore more expensive, the shops are rare so we are content with what we find and at the price we find it, difficult weather conditions can quickly become dangerous and sometimes it pushed us to sleep in a refuge where else we could have camped, the villages and therefore the meetings were also rarer and so the help we received.
The encounters were less frequent, but they were still there! We cannot thank enough all those people who welcomed us or helped us in one way or another!
The bivouacs (bivacco in Italian) were really helpful too, these cabins, of any size, any form and any level of comfort, usually built, maintained and made available by the Italian Alpine Club. The most comfortable take the form of a large one-room cottage with a dozen beds with sheets and blankets, gas, electricity and a large table for meals. The more basic ones looked like giant cans with between 2 and 8 berths where sometimes we could not stand up.
You are never really ready
These bivouacs have often been beneficial. Yes, crossing the Alps is without doubt one of the most difficult things we have done. Physically and mentally. We arrived at the foot of the Alps after 6 months of walking. A good training yes, but in fact, nothing could have prepared us for what was coming: an average of 1,000 m (3,280 ft) of positive elevation daily over such a long period of time. One might think that after 2 or 3 weeks of this diet, we get used to it. Actually no. At least, we are not all equal on the subject.
If there is one thing that has helped us to get to the end of this alpine crossing, it is the "wow", "pfff", "hey, that's really beautiful" that we let out dozens of times per day. Neither Nil nor me had ever experienced such daily, systematic wonder. We have discovered sublime places in all the countries we have crossed but never at such a high level of concentration!
The best of the best
This article could be 30 pages long without exhausting the subject of the fantastic sites that will mark our spirit forever. Still, we will try to give you an overview.
The largest protected natural area in Piedmont
We entered Italy by the Parco delle Alpi Marittime. For us one of the wildest and richest places in the Italian Alps. Everywhere ibex, chamois, marmots, sharp peaks and mountain lakes where sometimes we had the courage to bathe, to be honest, especially when we needed to have a wash!
Best of all, we went again to the Rifugio Emilio Questa that we had discovered a year before, during the preparation of our hiking trip. There we found Flavio, guardian of the shelter for 31 years. Besides, he speaks of it better than us:
Gettin closer from the stars
Seeing Mount Viso from really close has got us a little teased. The weather was not really on our side, we chose to go around and did not regret it for two reasons. The first is that we ended this day caught in a storm of wind and rain. The second is that after sleeping in the lovely bivacco Punta Venezia, we woke up with a breathtaking view of the Viso.
Anyway, the temptation to discover the high mountain, even on a small scale, followed us. When Jesse, our first guest in Italy joined us and he told us that it excited him a lot too, we decided to go. There we were, on our way to the Gran Paradiso.Our itinerary led us at its feet and the Gran Paradiso (4061m) is known as one of the 4000+ most accessible of the Alps.
Obviously, before going, we spent a lot of time researching, we met and consulted several guides, repeated our security procedures, etc.
A few things we learnt on the way:
- A proper ascent must begin early, like really early. We are talking about 4am there. Why? Because you do not want to find yourself crossing a glacier full of crevasses during a sunny afternoon.
- “No arms, no chocolate” (French saying). Here, no sun, no heat. Are we stating the obvious? Yes, but cold down in the valley and cold beyond 3000m, does not mean the same. So cover yourself!
- When the sun finally showed, we saw one of the most beautiful things of our whole life and we quickly forgot the difficult hours to get up there.
Shortly after, it was in the Monte Rosa massif that the euphoria of the peaks took us back. Finally, especially Nil and Jesse. I felt too tired to follow them, so I stayed in the valley to rest and work. We had been crossing the Alps for 3 weeks and, far from getting used to the effort, I felt more and more tired.
The boys stayed in the beautiful Capanna Gnifetti and climbed the Pointe Parrot (4432), the Ludwigshöhe (4341), the Balmenhorn (4167) and Vincent Pyramid (4215). Yes, all this!Seeing the incredible photos they brought back, I was almost jealous…
Ich spreche kein deutsch
After crossing Switzerland, we went back to Italy through the Trentino-Alto Adige region. We were terribly impatient to find a warmer culture and a more familiar language. Fail. We must believe that our history books had failed to tell us about this detail. For centuries, the situation in this German-speaking region has been complex, changing sides with conflicts. Until the First World War, it belonged to Austria, which finally ceded it to Italy in exchange for its commitment alongside the Allies. Crossing Europe on foot is also discovering its history!
So here we are in an German-speaking Italy where the culture is definitely more Germanic than Latin.
The Val di Non, in Trentino did not mark us by its breathtaking landscapes but rather by its intensive monoculture of the apple. Indeed, for over 2,000 years, apples have been grown in Val di Non. Its altitude between 500 and 1000m and its microclimate make it a particularly favorable environment for this crop. Until the end of the 1980s, this production was essentially the result of many family activities. Anxious to protect their product and its name and streamline their sales process, they have formed a cooperative under the Melinda brand. Today Melinda represents a significant share of apples sold in Europe and imposes strict standards on farmers to standardize production…
Art that brings people together
100,000 people, for us, it's a big city. By the time, we lose the habit of crossing such crowded places and in addition, we take no pleasure in it. But we stayed in Bolzano for quite a long time. We met Maria who is Spanish but has lived in Bolzano for several years. She immediately agreed to accommodate us and from one night we finally stayed for almost a week. At Maria's, we also met Jacopo. He is a circus artist and with others, he created the association SLAM whose mission is to teach the practice of circus arts but especially to create social link between people who might not have met otherwise. We had the chance to follow them during a street performance as well as during an animation for the open doors of a refugee reception center.
Winter is coming
We will remember for a long time our day around Piz Boè. Why? Because it marked our arrival in the Dolomites! This cold foggy day also sent us a signal clear enough: winter was coming.
As we told you, this region was strongly marked by the First World War. Mount Lagazuoi marked the front line between the Austrian and Italian armies. To dislodge the Austrians from their positions at altitude, the Italian army has dug kilometers of galleries in the mountains. These tunnels are accessible today. From the pass, it is possible to descend a few hundred meters lower through these tunnels.
Bloody Instagramers :)
Our next two guests were spoiled for their arrival. We took Caroline and Antoine to see one of the most photographed lakes in Italy. We understand why. Lake Braies is surrounded by high mountains, the white limestone around and the colors of autumn match perfectly. Small drawback, even off-season, early in the morning, this very accessible place was assailed by photographers, groups of tourists, all came to take the same picture.
Approaching a place as famous as Tre Cime di Lavaredo, we could not help wondering if we were going to be disappointed. It's true, our expectations were very high, the idea that we had was probably distorted by all that we read or heard.
Nothing disappointing in what followed though…
The approach was already sumptuous but the discovery of the Three Peaks has taken the breath away to all four. These giants coming out of the earth, surrounded by formidable screes, would leave anyone speechless. Here we split. The boys followed a path closer to the giants and the girls, a more direct path to the Rifugio Locatelli, closed in this season, but with the hope of finding an open winter refuge, as we had been told. Thus, we were able to gather a loot of various shots, our stars of the day taken from all angles.
Mountain for everybody?
With the last rays of sun, we met a couple of tourists in jeans and sneakers, little fur jacket, taking pictures of Tre Cime. "Do you know that night will come very fast and that the parking lot where you have probably left your car is 2 hours away on a difficult path? Soon it will be very cold, you should leave, like NOW! "But our concern did not really look contagious and they continued their photo shoot. The next morning, we find about ten meters from the door of the bivouac a man trembling with cold in his down from another age. Visiting the region for a few days, he did not expect to find the refuge closed, did not find the entrance to the bivouac and got surprised by the night. We shared with him our breakfast and a hot coffee (no, he had no stove either...).
These meetings push us to wonder if making the mountain accessible more and more accessible... and especially if the illusion of its accessibility through social networks is a good thing. On one hand, it allows the greatest number to discover fantastic sites, on the other hand, it obviously represents the danger of seeing unprepared and poorly equipped people arriving up there.
What do you think?
Meeting with Adrian
After leaving Antoine and Caroline, we realized again how lucky they were. First, they have accompanied us in what will remain for us one of the most beautiful places of the trip. Then they left just before the storm Adrian hit Northern Italy and in particular, the exact place where we were! We were very lucky too. Lucky to meet Gigi who welcomed us in his Bed & Breakfast and then to meet Patrizia in Forni di Sopra, more lucid and better informed than us on the weather for days to come. Without asking more questions, she gave us the keys of her family house so that we could stay there for a while. We thought we would spend one night, we stayed 3 days. Yes, it was a serious storm. No electricity or telephone and internet in all surrounding villages during this period but a roof over the head and a wood stove.
We tried to keep ourselves busy. Alongside Timilin, an enthusiast of the rural history of his region, we visited the local museum and learned a lot about the way of life of the past century.
A strong finish
The storm left impassable roads, collapsed bridges, trails covered with dead trees but we knew our window to cross the Slovenian border was thin. We were looking for a way not too high (we were already too advanced in the season to play this) but not too boring either. Basically, we were looking for a way to finish honorably our crossing of the Alps.
The pass of Sella Prevala, close to Mount Kanin ticked all the boxes: 1195m above sea level, several bivouacs on the road so several sleeping options and on the Slovenian side, we would arrive directly in the village of Bovec where we had to meet with our 13th guest a few days later. A perfect plan... in theory.
The good side of this capricious weather is that we were absolutely alone in the mountains and we met countless animals!
After our night at the Bivacco Igor Crasso where fortunately we were able to dry our shoes in front of the wood stove, the things got complicated. The more we climbed, the more we understood that up there, there was going to be snow! At first just a little on the trail then more and more. On the last 1.5 km (which took us 2 hours), the trail simply did not exist anymore. The rock beneath the snow was cracked with crevasses. At each step, we did not know if we were going to hold, slip on a frozen rock or sink a meter. We arrived at the Bivacco speleologico "Davanzo - Vianello - Picciola", soaked with sweat, exhausted but amazed by this place.
To reach Slovenia, we had to pass two passes. Before reaching the first one, Marie slipped on the butt and just catches up with the feet to avoid a crevasse.
The knees shook for a long time.
The first pass was finally a snowy wall. A non-existent path, a meter of snow, a slope almost vertical and always these rocky crevasses. The climb was hard. In particular this passage really abrupt. Honestly, we got scared!
To reach the second pass, it was a matter of going up a ski slope. Not dangerous but long and tiring. And then up there... the view of the path behind and the excitement of the first Slovenian landscapes in front of us…
A chapter is ending.
Marie & Nil