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Italian Alpine Meet

Date: Jul 2012
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney



PJ and I decided to take the kids to the Italian Alpine meet in Val Masino this year. Eoin was off with his mum in Turkey and Colm actually had a job so that left us with Tom, Holly and Pol. We paid an extra £15 a head to fly Aer Lingus and avoid the Ryanair shenanigans and had a relaxing flight into Milan Malpensa, picking up a brand new Astra Estate with only 18 km on the clock. I had to mutter "Don't scratch it, don't scratch it" for most of the holiday and packing 5 20Kg bags and 5 rucksacks into it was a feat worthy of a Tetris world champion but it was a cracking drive. Better than my ageing Touran whose wipers stopped working on the drive to Dublin. Massive turbo lag though!

We arrived at 2am in San Martino so Sandra and Dave offered us the spare bunks in their apartment and the kitchen floor, but sadly had omitted to buy any beer. The proffered Haribo just didn't cut it as far as I was concerned. Next morning we went to the campsite just up the valley, it was a bit small but we soon mapped out a spot for our 3 tents and spied the advert for the Fri night BBQ written on a paper bag and taped to the toilet wall. After supply shopping and a bit of investigating the local crag we joined said BBQ at the cafe next door in the pissing rain. Still it was great craic with a ceili rammed into one of their tiny rooms, the locals joining in and taking loads of pictures of the mad Irish.

Saturday was very sunny and we went to the local crag and found it bustling with kids from the local rock school who hogged all the best lines all day must to my consternation. We steadfastly clung to the one free grade 4 route and PJ, Tom and I climbed it various ways. I must have tried 4 different, progressively harder finishes before we got bored and went to join the other MI folk on the other side. It was busy too but we queued and got 3 grade 5 routes in, the final one a belter. Much laughter at Gerry Kenny berating his friend Stephen on proper belaying, rope management and lowering. "Not too fast now Stephen, too slow, too slow, a bit faster, right stand in a bit, you're too far from the wall, have you got that rope tight now Stephen?" etc.

We'd spoken to Owen the guide at the BBQ and he'd suggested the Punta della Sfinge 2802m, as a good multi pitch rock route but it involved a stay at the 2100m Refugio Omio. The walk in to the hut is quite steep starting at the Bagni del Masino hotel at 1172m, up through a wooded section emerging on to a sloping Alpine plain. Holly was happy to be left at the campsite, so we took the two boys and warned Alun Richardson not to get her too drunk. Sandra and Dave joined us for the humid walk and I'd say everyone was a few pints of sweat lighter by time we reached the hut. We played cards as usual, had a lovely meal and enjoyed a full night's sleep, one of the best hut experiences ever.

We'd no guide book, only a map and pencil notes from Owen, and our lack of Italian was embarrassing but we managed through loads of pointing and a mixture of French, English and Dave's Italian phrasebook to indicate that we were climbing a grade 4 on the Sfinge. I think the lady who ran the hut was looking at the 2 boys and worried we were gonna tackle something harder than the 250m grade 4 but we assured her the boys would just walk down in the morning. Others had been rained off the Sfinge just the previous day but we awoke to bright blue skies and so it was on with the shades and shorts for the 1.5 hour walk to the base of the climb.

There was a little snowfield there and things were somewhat colder so we donned longer clothing for the climb. I spied the first bolt and an obvious start up a 20m layback crack. The whole peak was just one big slab of overlapping rock, which got steeper the higher you went, but the rock was supremely grippy and I found myself just bouncing up, smearing, smearing, smearing. The route trends left almost to the top and we found rings or tat maybe every 30m or so. Sandra led Dave, starting just behind PJ and we all stayed very close for the whole route. PJ led through the second pitch and I led the third, probably steepest section but it was no great shakes, apart from tearing a hole in my shorts leg pocket and watching my suncream bounce all the way down. PJ then led a tight move through the chimney, lost the route a bit and then had to traverse and downclimb to her belay. From there we were unsure where to go but I just picked a likely looking line and set off. Turned out to be right as we found more tat up there and then it was just a scramble to the top.

Dave and Sandra were right on our tail, the boy did well for his first Alpine peak, he's come a long way from the indoor wall in Birmingham. A few pics on top and we just reverse the route on abseil, tying the ropes PJ and I had and backing up some of the dodgier tat. I used Sandra's rope to make a head start on some of the pitches because 4 on a rope is a bit slow but we were down pretty quickly, notwithstanding a rope jam, the need the abseil to the right all the time and me abseiling off the end of the rope at one point and downclimbing 5m to a ring. The others cleverly stopped at the tat above. The walk back to the car was interminably long and steep, murder on the thighs and knees, and the heat was as bad as the day before. We sucked down those first beers at the cafe in short order.

Tuesday was a rest day and we were treated to an early morning cacophony of thunder and lightning. It seemed we were lucking out with the weather; rain on the days we wanted to rest and sunshine on the climb days. San Martino is a lovely wee village and you can eat and drink really cheaply in it. The Val Di Mello leading from the village was described by Sandra and Dave as a lovely walk so we decided to picnic up there. There are 100s of rock climbs in the valley too but most are grade 6 or above which was probably a bit out of our league (in fact we were hard pushed to find any easily accessible routes that were in our grade range apart from the local crag). They'd also described the pools you could swim in so we packed swimming gear and towels. The valley was as beautiful as we'd been told but we didn't go very far as a warm rain started and hampered the picnicking.

Undeterred Pol and I decided to dive into one of the pools, jumping on the count of 3 and breaking back to the surface spluttering, stammering and swearing at just how COLD it was. I briefly though Pol was gonna be in trouble as he floundered back to our diving rock and I gave him a mighty push which only served to scratch his chest on the rough rock. I paddled back to shore and pulled myself out gasping, as Holly and PJ laughed and took pictures of the 2 eejits. Nothing would do but we had to have a second go to prove our virility but twice was enough and I could barely feel my skin as I towelled off. A crowd had gathered and was now also laughing at the 2 eejits. In all the commotion we plundered back to car, realising too late that I'd left my Suunto Core on the rock. We returned but it was gone. Most unhappy.

A lot of people at the meet had done Mont Disgrazia 3678m, including Maeve and Cliona, so we picked their brains for details and made a plan for the 4 of us to walk up to the 2500m Refugio Ponti on Wednesday and do the peak on Thursday. The 3 kids were happy to be left again, so we showed them how to use the stoves without burning the campsite down and left them money for lunch in town next day. Needless to say they were fine the whole time we were gone and PJ and I were happy to escape the endless drivel that teenage children seem to be able to verbalise ad infinitum.

You have to pay €5 for a pass for Predarossa in the little village of Fiorella. Much pointing and Italian stumbling later ("Permizzio! Carpeggio! PredaRossa! Euro! We pay! Vroom vroom! L'Auto!" You get the picture.) we were on the 24km looping switchback road up to Predarossa, climbing 1675m to the car park at 1955m. At one point the tarmac runs out and it gets quite rough, they're obviously rebuilding, and you also go through a little tunnel that looks like the 7 dwarves hand carved it. Dave and Sandra met a car in it but we were luckier. At the car park we were treated to a helicopter landing next to us, picking up what looked like a supply crate for the hut and thundering off up the valley.

Predarossa is another stunning valley and the path winds its way along footboards at the edge of the flat Alpine plain, up through woods and onto a second flat plain. The path branched here and PJ and I thought the left branch went to a different hut so we stayed right. We met some people coming down and asked "Refugio Ponti?" "Si, si!" And then the rain began. And the thunder and lightning. Big cracking peals and flashes directly overhead. The rain turned to hail and we sheltered under a big dolmen for a while. Then the path petered out. A look at the map and it seemed we should take the ridge directly ahead, so we did, but I've never felt as exposed to the elements with ice axes hanging off the packs and the lightning continuing overhead. Every time a crack went off I scurried for a boulder but then realised the stupidity of this. By the time I'd heard the noise I'd already have been hit so it was a pointless exercise. During a lull in the downpour we spied 2 people on the ridge to our left in the colours of Dave and Sandra and then spotted the hut. Damn, we should have taken the left fork! We had a river to cross to reach the hut but it was in full spate and we made several abortive attempts before finding a way across. Luckily the hut had a drying room so we changed into the morrow's climbing gear and settled into the warm dining area for beers, wine, a fine dinner and the usual card game hilarity, Dave making vaguely sexual noises every time he got an interesting hand.

We aimed to start at 5 the next morning but I found my ice axe was missing, probably lying on the opposite ridge after one of my dives to the ground. The hut guardian lent me a fine axe though and we set off up the ridge to the glacier. At the glacier I realised I'd also forgotten my sunglasses and we'd left the ski goggles in the boot of the car. PJ worried about snow blindness the whole way up and I kept declaring I'd be fine. At the 3300m col however Dave had had enough, his clothes were still wet from the night before, his Asolo boots were having trouble with the strap on crampons he'd borrowed and they weren't really designed to keep out the cold of trudging glacier snow, so he and Sandra decided to turn back. "Lend us yer glasses!" I called and I was back in the game.

From the col we traversed to a well trodden snow chimney that was maybe Scottish grade 3 to reach the ridge. We'd been on the go for 2.5 hours and we thought we'd easily surpass the 6 hour ascent time Maeve had said it took them. It seemed to be all rock from there and we only had 300m of climbing left. We weren't getting off that easy though. We took off the crampons but an hour of difficult, at times airy, scrambling later we reached a steep snowy section that began with a tight chimney, so back on they went. There was a party well on front of us but we couldn't see what path they'd taken, so I fixed PJ into a boulder with 2 good friends and set off, kicking steps in the icy snow, at times having to use my adze to cut a good foothold. When our 60m rope was almost fully played out I reached a few big rocks and was able to belay PJ up.

From there it was more difficult scrambling, lots of wrapping the rope around boulders for protection and taking a great deal of care on the narrower sections. We could often see the top but it was taking a looong time to get there. Just when PJ was making noises about turning back we were there, exactly 6 hours after we'd started. We barely stopped for photos, as is the nature of these things. You struggle to get up the blasted thing and then barely take in the view before going "Right, let's go back down again!" The descent took 5 hours, PJ leading all the way down, for I'm a nervous descender, only too aware that that's when most accidents happen. The steep snow field should have been easier with the steps already cut in, but I found it more nerve wracking, maybe because I had to keep looking at my feet and the big drop just visible through my ankles. At the first snow chimney we rigged an abseil because by now the snow was very soft and a tumble here would lead to a long slide down the glacier.

We'd spied 2 climbers descending behind us, they must have climbed up from another valley and, sure enough, their first question to PJ was "Do you have a car in Predarossa?" That 24km walk down from Predarossa was obviously unappealing because they stuck to us like glue, even though we "walk as you talk - very fast!" We stopped briefly at the hut for food and drink and then I went looking for my ice axe, while PJ took the proper path down with the 2 fellas. I found the axe sitting happily in the sun on a boulder near our first crossing attempt. It very nearly joined the list of lost things on this holiday: Tom's  wallet (which turned up again), my watch and Holly's camera (which did not). Back at the car I pulled some beers from the shaded boot and we all happily supped away and chatted on the drive back. One of the Italians had had an English girlfriend so his English was very good and he invited us to a party on the Saturday. Alas our plan was to head to Croatia before then.

That evening almost the entire MI meet went to the local pizza restaurant to celebrate the week's achievements and there we drank Lemoncello and downed many beers and glasses of wine. At the pub across the road we met up with Padraig, who PJ and I had accompanied on the Ailefroide 2 years ago, and a fwew of his friends. The craic was mighty as we swapped stories of the Jungfrau and other episodes in our climbing history. We could have stayed chatting and laughing all night but for the wave of tiredness that caught up after our long day on the mountain.

We'd had thunder and lightning almost every day in San Martino but Friday was a bit special with it starting very early about 6am and never really stopping. Fed up with wet tents and clothes that never really dried we forwent the second BBQ on the Friday night, packed the car with a pitchfork and set off for the Milan - Venezia autostrada and the 8 hour drive through Slovenia into Croatia, losing only an hour or so going round and round Trieste looking for Slovenia signs. Rovinj was lovely, PJ and I had been here before one May a few years ago, climbing at the limestone quarry just out of town and staying at the Polari campsite right on the sea shore. This time round it was too hot to climb, reaching almost 40 degrees some days so we stayed near the pool or the sea, read a lot of books, drank beer, ate ice cream and counted the ant bites. 5 days and a burgeoning suntan later we did the 5 hour journey back to Malpensa.

Drove home from Dublin 3 hours in the rain in a car with no wipers. Typical Feeney ending to a holiday.



03 Aug 2012

This looks a great report, and good to see you back writing again Ant. Will read it as soon as I finish 'Younghusband in Tibet'.

03 Aug 2012

This looks a great report, and good to see you back writing again Ant. Will read it as soon as I finish 'Younghusband in Tibet'. Only kidding!

07 Aug 2012

Great story. Thanks for writing it Ant. I have done 2 routes on the sphinx and I enjoyed them both on remarkably good rock for the alps. Incidently Alan if you are interested in Younghusband and need help sleeping, I can recommend his book "Through Tibet to Everest".

07 Aug 2012

Of course that book was by Noel Odell and is reasonably good. Yhusband actually wrote "The Epic of Mount Everest"

07 Aug 2012

Bloody hell, I've forgotten what happy torture a Feeney tale can be! Great tale and I wish I'd been out there with you. Great yarn and times Ant.

09 Aug 2012
Des O'Connor

great trip folks, great story too!

Photo of Route