So, we are now out of the mountains and back in Turin. A lack of internet access and problems uploading photos precluded posting to the blog while we were in the mountains. Nonetheless I will catch up now and post the updates over the coming days.
On our first full hiking day we woke early to clear sky and sun, not the rain that had been forecast. We set off West along an undulating path accompanied by the ubiquitous cow bells that are such a feature of the Alps. The landscape here was dominated by larch and hazel and undulated through grazing pasture surrounded by imposing rocky peaks. We crossed a himalayan style bridge and continued through low scrub. Several times throughout the day we would run into herds of cattle accompanied by a herder and numerous Maremma sheepdogs, a breed that goes back centuries in close association with alpine grazing, herding and the transhumance.
Our first big climb took us 600m up and over the Passo Delle Saline a name drawn from the pass’ history as a trade route rather than from surrounding mineral deposits. As we climbed we were chased by gathering and darkening clouds. The wind at the top grew fierce and cold and, ignoring the track up to the colle on our left, we quickly dropped down the far side descending through heather clad hillside and met our first hikers coming the other way, Germans who somehow knew before they reached us that we were English and greeted us accordingly. We wanted a quick stop on a rock for lunch but the rest was short lived as the cold wind that we’d left on the ridge swept down behind us to meet that coming up from below.
The sight of the darkening clouds was enough to hurry us on and accompanied by the bells of the cows below us we hurried on. The sky became darker and darker and we’d hoped to reach the Rifugio Mondovi that we knew lay on our route a short way ahead, before the inevitable rain caught us. We scurried forward and down but the valley below became darker and between the rocks ahead which hid a steeper descent, the valley had the grim appearance Mordor. The sky lit with a thick immediate bolt of light that crashed to the ground somewhere ahead that seemed directly in our path. Suddenly reluctant to push ahead we stopped and adopted rain gear in preparation for the imminent deluge. Cracks of electrified thunder burst above us and the lightening erupted around us again and again. We put our heads down, gritted our teeth and pushed forward, the Rifugio now in sight. Despite looking quiet and dark, it was not a hard decision to stop and we were relieved when we found the door open and life inside.
Within minutes of reaching shelter the rain came. Not gently at first but all in one go as if there would not be sufficient time for it all to fall. It came in waves, pelting the windows and the temperature dropped by as much as 15 degrees. Inside we were met by friendly guy with enough English vocabulary to make our order of drinks an easy request as the rain turned to hail and the lightening moved across the sky. We’d been incredibly lucky to reach shelter. Some hour or more later, when the worst had passed we continued, scaling our second pass of the day and began the long but incredibly scenic descent to the Rifugio Garelli, a haven perched improbably on a prominentary with a view that money couldn’t buy.
We woke again to clear blue sky and still air, a contrast to the wind and rain that had once again pounded down after our arrival the previous night. Our friendly host, had a powerful telescope trained on a distant crag where he was watching some Chamois, a mum with a couple of kids. He was running the Rifugio alone now but in a couple of weeks his wife would join him and in the Peak of the season, five people would be needed to run the place. All supplies and the food he was serving us were all hauled up to the Rifugio at 1965m by horse.
After a sparse breakfast of bread, jam and a hot chocolate, we got going. Initially downhill, over a ridge edge, and back on ourselves to skirt a gully around the tributaries of a stream. We were out of the sun and into the shade of the towering peaks and crags around us until the narrow path skirted gradually higher diagonally up the increasingly steep slope. The undergrowth here was thick and lush with dwarf pines competing for light with grasses, shrubs and wildflowers of every colour. We were unprepared for the crest of the ridge which buffeted our sweaty bodies with a brisk wind at the most inconvenient time. A scattering of paths meant we needed to consult the map and guide as the ubiquitous red and white markers of the GTA were not immediately visible.
Further confusion ensued at a later junction that appeared to be marked incorrectly with the red and white marker of the GTA. After several days we soon learned that there is more than one GTA. It is best described as main route with a series of possible options or variants.
As we travelled west our route began to use old military tracks initially down then past Hut Delle Ortica (surrounded by nettles as the name suggests) and then swooping a long curve back on ourselves to the next ridge system and the small concrete post marking the French border.
As we’d been scaling the last climb to the ridge and border we were surprised by a German couple coming the other way who greeted us earnestly with the question ‘are you the English?’ unsure initially what made us stand out so or why they would be expecting us, we tentatively acknowledged and they explained that Walter sends his greetings and looks forward to meeting us. Ah.. The penny dropped. We had asked our host at last night’s Rifugio to telephone ahead for us to make a reservation at the Hotel Arrucador, a small, if perfectly located hotel with just three rooms at the foot of the days mountain, just below the Colle De Tenda, right on the French/Italian border. Walter was the owner and our new German friends had stayed there last night.
Our route then followed the border often walking in France for long periods, ridge after ridge. Again and again we past these concrete marker posts, high in the mountains, marking the boundary that was set out in 1947 at the end of hostilities. Walking a boundary in this way only served to highlight the absurdity of our human imposed division on a landscape. No change was visible as we passed from side to side, no feature nor flora or fauna characterised France more than Italy or vice versa. The wolves that once again roamed these mountains did not discriminate, any more than the prey they pursued. Yet the politics and division that we create had set neighbour against neighbour across these mountains, more than once.
The first mountain fort that came into view was Fort Pepin. Deep on the French side our route did not visit it but my disappointment would be tempered over the coming days as I began to realise just how many such forts, barracks and other fortifications remain an enduring feature of these mountains.
After the remains of a smaller fort we made a navigation error. Missing a small path between shrubs, allegedly marked with the typical red/white base on a rock, we found ourselves on a long switchback into the French side on a gravel track. By the time we realised the only thing to do was continue as it would eventually return us to a point lower on our path but it added a couple of kilometers to an already long day. Then we were back at last to the Colle de Tenda and the imposing Fort Centrale, a short way below which lay our destination for the night. In our tiredness we made a further silly error and set off down the road without checking the map believing our hotel, the Arrucador, could be accessed from the road. We were wrong and it took a feat of will power to turn around and walk back up the road twenty minutes later to select the correct descent by a broad grassy path. The day had been a lesson in diligent navigation and our tired legs made us all the more determined not to make sure errors in the days ahead.