Italian Alps 1996 day 1 - getting there

We take off from Heathrow at 7 am, and are quickly above the clouds, with glimpses of the Thames, Epsom Racecourse, and other bits of land below. Later gaps reveal water - the English Channel - we cross roughly from Eastbourne to Dieppe. The cloud ends at the French coast, and the skies are clear right across France. We pass mainly agricultural landscapes, with the strip farming of divided inheritance showing clearly in the Paris basin. Then there is Paris itself, and the Seine. More farmland, and for a while the strips give way to larger irregular-shaped fields. Then a more wooded landscape, and lakes. There are reservoirs, with low water levels at the end of summer. The landscape becomes more wooded and hilly as we pass the west end of the Jura mountains. The co-pilot announces that we are flying at 400 mph at 29,000 feet, and are now passing Geneva. Cars on the motorway below are barely-moving dots. The River Soane carves a broad sweep through a patchwork of fields and woodland, but few hedges. A new road scars the countryside, and a line of reservoirs on the north side of the Alps stand out clearly. We fly over Lake Geneva - it's huge.

The tips of the Alps show above clouded valleys. Mont Blanc stands proud, and I take advantage of my window seat to take a few photos - reminding myself not to waste film on this elevated landscape, as I have done before. Other peaks mark the Gran Paradiso National Park - I hope I the cloud will clear for some of my time there. The cloud gets higher and thinner, and obscures everything, then we start the descent to Turin. Below the cloud, the landscape turns to the green fields and terracotta roofs of Torino Province. Magpies and hooded crows inhabit the grassy areas of the airport. I manage to leave my fleece jacket on the plane, and have to go back for it.

The woman at the tourist information desk insists that it is impossible to walk anywhere from the airport - the only road in and out is autostrada - fast and dangerous. I can take a bus to Aosta (this evening) or I can take a bus to Turin anytime. The buses go to Turin every half hour - going in the wrong direction through miles of built-up area. We stop at the main bus/tram station, and I ask the driver about getting to Pont Canavese. He points ahead to a building, so I collect my rucksack and take a look. It is the railway station. There are trains to Pont Canavese (end of the line) nearly every hour, the cost is 5,000 lire - less than the bus fare from the airport to Turin. Italian trains are either fast and expensive, or slow and cheap. This one is slow and cheap.

On the train, the conductor complains about something - it seems I did not cancel my ticket before getting on - he punches it for me. He returns later to tell me that I have to change to a bus at Riverola. OK. But then later he tries to explain again and leaves me confused. However, we (passengers and conductor) get on the bus at Riverola and continue the journey. The bus goes through some impossibly narrow town streets, between fields of maize, and along steep valleys, before depositing me at Pont Canavese.

My plan for the next few days is to hike along the south side of the Gran Paradiso National Park, taking the road which starts off as a gentle slope and gets steeper as it goes - hopefully I will get fitter as I go too. I can walk the distance (50 km to the Col du Nivolet) OK, but I am carrying a heavy pack with photographic and camping gear, which will slow me, and which I am not used to. It's downhill on the other side of the Col. What happens afterwards depends on how I feel, and on the weather and the time. Apart from getting to Cogne for the conference by next Tuesday evening, I don't have to worry about the time.

My guide book tells me little about the place, "the road veers west up the Val di Locana, lining the river Orco. The scenery becomes increasingly splendid as it approaches the waterfalls of Noasca. The snowbound peaks of the Gran Paradiso rise up majestically around the meadows and larch forests of Ceresole Reale". I have that to look forward to. First, Pont Canavese - an old town with cobble streets. The buildings are cream or yellow, with brown shutters and either terracotta or grey slate roofs. There are pots and baskets of geraniums and other red flowers everywhere. A church, a monastery and other old buildings overlook the dwellings. It is early afternoon - siesta - and nearly everything is closed.

It takes me a while to get out of this small town - I am confused by a one-way system designed for cars. At the edge of town is a fish farm, with water diverted from the river Orco to flow through tanks crammed with large fish. Fish are an important part of the economy of the region. Then there are the cows. I stop to photograph the cows - some with wonderful handlebar horns, and faces full of curiosity. There are red ones and white ones, and skewbald ones, a local breed known as the red patch cow. This herd - about thirty animals - is confined to a meadow by an electric fence. A few animals have cowbells which clang as they graze. White wagtails - ballerina bianca in Italian - fed on insects disturbed by the cows' feet. Thin cloud hangs over the valley, keeping the temperature reasonable, but when the sun does break through, it feels quite hot.

Cicadas are singing along the roadside, and a few grasshoppers try to make themselves heard. Apart from more hooded crows and magpies, there is little sign of birds. Then I look up and see a dozen crag martins working their way down the valley. The road follows the valley bottom, not far above the river. I have a brief view of a dipper on the rocks below, then a couple of great tits. There are other bird noises, but they are difficult to distinguish with the noise of the river and the traffic and the cicadas. A long-dead snake on the road is unidentifiable - it looks a blackish colour. A lizard scuttles off the road, and I wait to see it again. It is a young wall lizard with a bluish striped tail. Then a family of long-tail tits fly across the road and disappear into the bushes. Some sparrows and possibly a rock bunting forage around a scrap heap - it is difficult to make out detail against the light.

I've been stopping every mile or so, looking to get a few yards off the road (somewhere to hide in the bushes to have a pee would be nice!). I take the rucksack off and rest my shoulders. The sun is out now, and the late afternoon is pleasantly warm. Since my last stop I have heard more tits, chaffinch and chiff-chaff. There was also a freshly squashed edible dormouse on the road (the Romans used to consider them a delicacy) - I have never seen a live one. I am sitting by a small field with ragged robin, gallium, bladder campion and harebell. Along the roadside are hops, Canadian goldenrod, tansy, a mauve storksbill, a chrysanthemum, and many others I can't identify. I have not reached the Gran Paradiso National Park yet, but there are steeply wooded slopes to the south, and even steeper rocky wooded slopes to the north. Alongside the stream at the bottom are small grass fields, and some signs of industry. The village of Sporane is just off the main road, but a couple of factories on the roadside provide much-needed local employment. At least one of the factories is linked to a quarry on a hillside.

Since getting off the bus, I have spoken to only one person - a coloured American wheeling an elderly invalid up and down a hotel drive. She looks after him five days a week and has weekends off. Although she has been here some years, she has not been further up into the mountains. The only other people I have seen on foot were two farm women. The first was middle-aged, and carrying a large sack of grass on her back - fodder for livestock kept indoors most of the time. The other was much older, and permanently bent double. She struggled to get a wheelbarrow full of fodder across a field on the other side of the river. It is no wonder they viewed me with suspicion. They have a lifetime of carrying heavy loads by necessity, and here am I carrying a heavy load voluntarily - I must be mad, or a foreigner, or both. I reflect on what a woman of my age should be doing - not backpacking along in the mountains in strange country, that's for sure. I was not allowed, or given the opportunity to do this sort of thing as a child. I could not afford the equipment to do it later. Jim wasn't interested - I just managed to get him out for a couple of weekends early in our relationship, but he preferred to travel by car. So now, the opportunity is here, and I'm enjoying it while I can.

The sun disappears behind the peaks, leaving a prolonged dusk. I find a small paddock with a few fruit trees, almost invisible from the road, and no house in sight. It won't get the morning sun, but it is flat, and I am tired. Even though I have walked barely seven kilometres. . . . .


Italian Alps 1996 day 2

I sleep well, snug in my Buffalo bag, waking a few times to turn over. It is still dark at 6 am, so I reset the alarm. At 7am it is light, but still cold. By the time I have breakfasted and packed up, the tent still wet with dew and condensation it is 8.20. There is no hurry. Jays and tits forage noisily in the trees. During the night I had heard something crunching noisily on something near the tent.

I stop in a patch of sunlight a few kilometres along the road. The sky overhead is blue, but clouds are already forming over the high peaks. A vehicle pulls in behind me, and the driver asks if I am going fishing. He is going to Noasca to fish. He works for the fire service, and likes to fish on his off-duty days. He had been on a fishing vacation in Norway, and showed me a postcard of Santa Claus in a Norwegian village. I decline his offer of a ride - I am here to walk. Later, a lady comes out of a nearby house. I don't understand much of what she says, but manage to explain that I am going walking (footing, she calls it) in the Gran Paradiso for a few days, etc. She asks if I am going to France - it is possible to cross the border at the top of the valley. I'm not. She tells me it is 22 km to Ceresole, the last town on the road.

At Locana, an information board signs the national park straight ahead. It shows pictures of many of the birds, mammals etc, including bearded vultures which I do not remember being here before. The reminder of the Italian names of things is useful - stambecco (ibex), camosco (chamois), marmotta (marmot) etc. I find a food shop - Alimentaria - for drinking water, and note that cheese and sausage are about £10/kilo. Even bread is £2/kilo. I have rations in my pack for a few days, but soon I will have to buy local foods.

As I leave the village there are two dippers bobbing on stones in the river. Suddenly one of them walks into the water and disappears under the surface. Dippers feed on invertebrates living on the stream bed. The bird reappears on a another stone, then flies back to the first stone and feeds the juvenile bird waiting there. Marsh tits are abundant. A hummingbird hawkmoth feeds on the soapwort, and then buzzes around me for a few seconds before flying off to find more suitable food. There are more lizards, two of which pose for the camera. Cloud is really building over the peaks now.

At midday I stop at the hamlet of Casetti. The sign says Ceresole 19km - have I really done only six kilometres this morning? It is still not easy to find a place to get off the road. A purple emperor lands briefly on my arm to drink salts, but it doesn't like the sun cream. I hear ravens and something that sounds like a buzzard, but I haven't seen any raptors yet. There are at lest three types of grasshopper stridulating, and a large green lizard scuttles across from on patch of scrub to another. A pair of coal tits visit a tree in the garden across the road. There are various yellow, white and brown butterflies.

At Fornolosa I try to buy a postcard, but they have no stamps for sending cards abroad. Later I have an extended rest on a concrete crash barrier and eat a late lunch. My shoulders are complaining, and so are my hips. Each time I start walking, my legs feel as though they don't belong to me. But after a few strides they are OK. A blister is developing on my right foot. I am wearing soft sandals - they are better than hiking shoes on a hard road surface. The blister is not a problem yet.

At about 3 pm I see a patch of boulders and grass above a bend in the road. Fortunately it is easily accessible - despite the weight of my pack. I lay on the karrimat in the sun for an hour or so, also let the tent dry, which it does within a few minutes. At 4.15 a strong breeze comes up the valley, and the sun intermittently disappears behind clouds. So I move to where there is a bit more shelter from some small chestnut and birch trees. I am surrounded by lizards, and several kinds of grasshoppers, including a blue-winged one. I decide to stay the night. There is no point in overdoing things and spoiling the rest of my trip. I have hiked about twelve kilometres today, and gained 300m in altitude. Besides, there is a wonderful view down the valley.

At about 6 pm the wind drops completely, and the clouds come off the mountaintop to cover the valley. A couple of lizards bask with their bodies flat against the still warm rock only inches from where I sit. Once the rock cools, they are gone. The cicadas started up mid-afternoon, they switched on and off several times. Last night, they stopped well after dark.


Italian Alps 1996 day 3

This morning the clouds still hang over the valley, and in the still air there is again no chance of drying the tent out. Fortunately there is virtually no dew, though there is still condensation. I am not so stiff, and set off at 8.10 with a bit more energy than yesterday. The pack feels more comfortable, although I said that yesterday too. I have decided to stop at every kilometre marker rather than wherever I feel like stopping - it gives a better feeling of progress. Almost from the start I am sweating, which did not happen yesterday. The first kilometre was easy, but I stopped anyway to get my breath, the second was harder, the third one I was looking for the marker. I haven't quite reached the fourth one yet, but on the outskirts of Noasca is a caravan site and next to it a field with picnic tables. So I have been seduced by somewhere comfortable to sit.

The sun has been shining, but it disappears behind clouds every now and then. Ahead, the mountains are bathed in sunlight, except for the very tops which again have their own hats. I have heard raven and nuthatch, and seen dipper, white wagtail, marsh tit and house sparrows this morning. Further down the valley there were acacia trees, here I can see birch, oak, ash, rowan, larch and chestnut, the latter with a good crop of nuts. Two buzzards soar high over the alps, and two ravens fly across the valley. The sound of the river is drowning out any small bird noises.

Noasca is the largest settlement along this road. As well as shops, post office, banks and boarding houses, it boasts an excellent National Park Visitor Centre. The park boundary has been close to the road since Locana, but is set at the edge of cultivation, ie on the far side of the small roadside fields. The Gran Paradiso National Park was created in 1922 to protect the ibex which were threatened with extinction through over-hunting - they were a royal hunting quarry. Numbers have increased from a few hundred to over 3000, and surplus ibex have been exported for reintroduction in other parts of the Alps. They are pretty easy to find in the park, and I took loads of pictures of them on my previous visit. The park covers some 260 square miles, about 18% of which is above 10,000 feet or covered with glaciers. Less than 10% of forest cover survives, making it an ideal hunting ground for golden eagles which prefer open country. There are few roads into the park itself, although it is crossed by a number of long distance footpaths.

The visitor centre has excellent displays of geology and wildlife, the latter including two stuffed ibexes, which, being related to goats, had a characteristic smell about them! The main captions to the displays are in Italian, but occasionally a misspelt English or French translation creeps in. The diagrams are good enough that anyone with a little knowledge of the subject can understand them. The geology is important, because the area has been exploited largely for its mineral wealth. Now the quarrying and mining are less important, but hydroelectric power (HEP) generation is taking over. A number of small deep reservoirs have been constructed in the park, with tunnels and pipes taking the water to the generating stations. A couple of panels depict the human history of the Valle di l'Orco, and show the changing population of some of the villages. Noasca for example, had a population of 1184 in 1881, but less than 300 in 1988. It is a difficult place to live. Apart from the climate, and the limited amount of flat land for agriculture, the mountains give rise to problems of flooding and landslips in the valleys. Farmers are now encouraged to construct terraces and canals across their fields to allow the water to drain away without washing the topsoil into the river.

The guy manning the visitor centre was as helpful as his limited English and French, and my limited French and Italian would allow. He gave me some leaflets, told me where various animals could be found - eg otter downstream of Noasca, bear in the eastern part of the park, etc. He confirms that the bearded vultures are new here. They were re-introduced to the neighbouring Vanoise National Park (the other side of the French border) a few years ago, and are now seen occasionally in the Gran Paradiso. He answered the telephone as I shouldered my pack ready to leave, and then desperately indicated for me to wait another minute. He had just realised that I was on foot, did I know to go along the old road and not through the Galleria (tunnel)? My map did not indicate a tunnel, but his showed about 3.5km of underground road. He did not recommend walking in the tunnel because of the noise and the fumes.

I would like to buy some books about the park, but the thought of adding to the weight in my rucksack does not appeal to me. So I just buy a postcard, and find a post office which sells stamps for foreign places just along the road. (The Italian mail system has a reputation for being expensive and slow. This postcard eventually arrived at Rushmoor the day before I got home). I stop on a bridge where a stream crashes down the mountain, joining the river below the town. A ruined house hangs over the stream, evidence of the torrential rains which hit the area in September 1993 and June and September 1994, breaking the rainfall records. The water carried away land, eroded and modified the river beds and the surrounding landscape. Already most of the roads, aqueducts and sewers have been repaired, and the bridges through the villages redesigned and rebuilt. Now the local government is concentrating on reconstructing the landscape, using ‘naturalistic engineering'. This simply means using living plants as ‘building materials' next to inert materials like stone, wood and soil, to ‘naturalistically and aesthetically mitigate the introduction of certain constructional works considered indispensable'. As well as making repairs that are less visibly intrusive, it includes planting trees on slopes and riverbanks to reduce future erosion. Time will tell how successful it is.

Just beyond Noasca the road climbs nearly 120m (400 feet) via a series of switchbacks. Yesterday I could not have faced this. Today I stride up it, stopping halfway to catch my breath and for a swig of water. Three quarters of the way up is a waymarked path, part of the Grand Randonee des Alpes - a long distance footpath that goes through several countries. I had originally planned to get onto this route some way back along the road, but had abandoned the idea when I was struggling with the pack. Now I consulted the map. The path will take me to Ceresole, climbing to 2000m, and back down to 1500m en route. I feel it would be more sensible to stick to the road. Beyond the tunnel entrance the road is little used, and is more comfortable walking than a footpath. In two hours I see one motorcycle, one bicycle and two cars.

At midday I stop in a patch of sunshine. After a while the sun disappears behind a cloud over a mountain peak. Then, when a cold breeze comes up the valley, I pack away the karrimat and am almost ready to go when the sun comes out again. So I stay put a little longer - what luxury not to have to be anywhere by anytime! I have been visited by the ubiquitous ants, flies, hummingbird hawkmoth, two wrens, coal tits, red and blue winged grasshoppers, several white butterflies which fly too fast along the road to be identified, and a migrant dragonfly. The valley sides are narrow and steep, and there is little vegetation apart from the larch trees growing in every large crack in the rocks. Dry ground vegetation such as juniper and broom grow by the roadside.

The road goes up another set of switchbacks, taking me up to the Galleria. I have to walk in the tunnel for a few hundred yards where it goes along the old road. But where it goes into the rock again, I continue outside. A large boulder tumbles down the slope and crashes to the road just behind me - a lucky escape indeed. On the second switchback a rock bunting makes its thin ‘tseeep' calls from a larch tree. And then a small bird with a flash of red lands on the rocks below - a black redstart. At last the road levels out somewhat, and I find myself striding on again. I now have the weight of the pack properly on my hips, which no longer feel as though they disown me every time I start moving after a break. The river has been sluicing down its channel, but slows where the road flattens and the valley widens. There are more black redstarts, a grey wagtail, a grey heron, as well the occasional dipper, and the ubiquitous white wagtails and jays.

I have seen quite large fish in the river, and at the next building are a pond, a line of fishing rods, and a weighing machine. It seems to be a ‘catch-your-own-trout-in-our-pond' kind of set up. The proprietor sends a friendly stream of Italian in my direction, and is taken aback when I say ‘no parlo italiano'. He apologises - he had thought I was someone else. A farmer comes along the road with a group of cattle, goats and a sheep. I watch the animals, who mostly take at least a sniff of me as they pass. A few take longer to satisfy their curiosity, and the farmer shouts back at them to move along.

As I approach Prese, the clouds build up again. A woman asks me where I am going. She speaks some French and we talk for a while. For want of something to say, I ask if there is a campsite nearby, she tells me about a kilometre down the road. I continue my journey. A car pulls up beside me and the same woman offers me a ride. She had mentioned our meeting to her husband who said the campsite was actually about 5 km! So I think she was trying to make amends. As the ride saves me a long uphill through Ceresole itself, I can't complain, except that I don't have a chance to see if there is a bank there. She drops me at the entrance to the campsite with a gift of two brioches (sweet bread rolls). I wave goodbye, and suddenly realise I no longer have my fleece jacket - I must have dropped it when getting into her car. I hope I can make do with just the Buffalo jacket - it isn't worth going back five kilometres only to find that someone else has picked it up. I have covered another twelve or so kilometres on foot already, but this time with a climb of 700m.

The campsite is pretty basic, but charges 6,000 lire for the tent, and another 6,000 lire for me. It is next to a hydroelectric power station, so there is a constant hum of turbines. However, there are also marmots whistling, and the distant sound of cowbells. The hot shower is most welcome - I feel I should have one before I get to the point where I can't stand myself.


Italian Alps 1996 day 4

The hum from the HEP station had stopped when I came out of the shower yesterday. At 8pm I had just got into my sleeping bag when there was a sound like a vehicle going uphill and opening the throttle ever more until BANG! The hum stayed constant for the next hour or so, then rose in intensity again until BANG! And then died down to silence over the next few minutes. I was not surprised when the same thing happened at 8 o'clock this morning.

I walk back to Ceresole, hoping to get information (especially about the weather in the mountains), food and cash. The tourist office does not open until 10 am, there is no indication if or when the national park visitor centre will open, and I haven't seen a bank. The town comprises mainly tourist accommodation and restaurants, and a few old farmhouses. A small meteorological station near the tourist office tells me the temperature is 9 C (50 F), humidity 70% and the pressure over 1000mB. I am sitting in the municipal park waiting to see if the visitor centre opens at 10, or the tourist office. The sun and cloud are coming and going. Ceresole is at 1600m and last night was cold. I have seen a fieldfare, I can hear chaffinches, and I think there was a crossbill, but I need to see it for I am not too familiar with this species.

The visitor centre did not open, and the tourist office opens on weekends only at this time of year. Fortunately the girl in the small general store speaks some English. She phones somewhere and tells me that at least two Rifugios are open, and it costs 20,000 lire to sleep in one, food is extra.

I return to the campsite, stopping to watch marsh, great and coal tits, willow warbler, chiff-chaff, green woodpecker, jay, heron, goldfinch, grey wagtails, robin, and raven. The small birds do not hang around to be watched; this would be a frustrating place for a novice birder. A treecreeper (brown creeper) lands on a tree trunk and rapidly works its way up and around the back, then flies to another tree trunk. The glimpses I get are not enough to distinguish common and short-toed treecreepers - according to my books, the habitat and distribution maps indicate it could be either. A clouded yellow butterfly poses nicely on a plant, but out of camera reach on private property. Back at the campsite, white wagtails lay siege to my tent - one even crapped on the top. But they soon disappear at my approach. It is nearly midday when I am ready to leave the site. The Rifugio is 16 km away, with a climb of 1030m - and I want to be there before dark!

There are no more towns, only a few farms and a summer village. In fact, if it wasn't for servicing the hydroelectric reservoirs, there probably wouldn't even be a proper road. I look at the fresh black tarmac, and find a small black viper making a beeline for my feet. It is probably investigating the warmth, but should find them too big for a meal. This poisonous snake will not bite unless I frighten it. It stops in a rigid pose and watches as I get the camera into position to photograph it. Then slithers off into the grass before I can get a second shot. At a later stop I watch black redstarts, rock buntings, and a woodchat shrike. A marmot shrieks in my ear from about 50m away, and a flock of crossbills fly overhead.

I stop for a late lunch at Chiapilli de Sopra, at 1850m. It is a summer village, used when farmers bring their livestock up to summer pastures. Except for some workmen on one house, the place is deserted of humans. But marmots are common. Butterflies race about in the sunshine, although the only ones I have identified are chequered skipper, and red admiral. There are still plenty of lizards and grasshoppers. Among the plants are yarrow, fireweed, harebell, eyebright, long-headed rampion and various yellow compositae. The countryside is more open and the slopes less steep as this is above the classic U-shaped valleys created by glaciation. Nevertheless there are some steep and deep valleys cut more recently by meltwaters.

I have been on my way again for only a few minutes when a truck pulls up and the driver asks where I am going. He works for the Area Energy Management (ie the HEP brigade) and has passed me several times over the past few days. He spent a year working in London some time ago, and his English is good, so he translates for his mate as well. However, I have to explain where Wales is - he hadn't heard of it, though he had visited Scotland. When they have gone, I look up to see a flock of black birds - can they be alpine chough - all eighty or so? A small raptor, a kestrel, is dive-bombing them, but with little effect. Half the choughs land, while the rest, and the kestrel, go over the horizon. I take my pack off so I can watch them more comfortably as they forage amongst the vegetation. Then they fly again, a swirling group of black wings that disappears over the horizon. Close to the road, a family of whinchats call to each other.

The road continues almost level (by comparison), but then starts a series of switchbacks. I know they are steep from the speed of the few vehicles I have seen negotiating them. I surprise a couple of marmots who dash for the nearest culvert - one disappears down each side of the road and I wonder what they say when they meet in the middle. A few scarce coppers (yes, that is their name though they are actually quite common butterflies in the Alps) stop still long enough to be identified - males in iridescent orange, the females much duller. As I climb the switchbacks, I pass water pipits and pair of ring ouzels, and more marmots. I stop to photograph a flower - a giant carline thistle, and at last see a butterfly that is keeping still - pity it's a small tortoiseshell - a common European species.

The swtichbacks are hard work, necessitating lots of stops to catch my breath and gulp water. But every time I stop I look back along the valley - it is so breathtakingly beautiful, it brings a lump to my throat. A car, which passed me earlier, is stopped at a layby, and the driver is taking photographs. We communicate in a mixture of French, English and Italian, maybe even with some Spanish thrown in, the words all running together so the languages are indistinguishable. Photography is his hobby, but he knows the mountains well because of his work as a geologist. We talk about the mountains and the animals, then he offers me a ride to Rifugio. There are 5 km to go, and I still have three hours of daylight. But I accept and get a geology lesson en route. We pass the reservoirs for HEP, and he confirms that water goes through underground tunnels to the power station. He points out the overhead cables and pylons taking electricity to France (perhaps I misunderstood, for later I was told they are bringing electricity in from the nuclear power station in France). He has not been to Britain but would like to visit Cornwall. He gives it an Italian pronunciation and I do not immediately understand where he means. He explains the interesting geology there, and suddenly the name clicks. When I say that I am from Wales, he tells me how old the rocks are - Cambrian and ancient, as if I didn't know. He points out the Triassic strata we are passing.

At the Rifugio Chitta di Chivasso, I feel cheated. I have not arrived on foot, and what might I have missed en route. Still, I had carried the pack for 11 km and 700m climb, as well as the 4km round trip to Ceresole this morning. And physically I feel pretty good.

The Rifugio is a stone building, probably an old hunting lodge (most of them are, but I didn't get any specific information on this one). It has a ‘wet' room in the basement, a kitchen, bathroom, dining room and two bunk rooms on the ground floor. The bunkrooms sleep six in each, and there are spare mattresses for extra bodies that turn up in bad weather - nobody is turned away in adverse conditions. (unless, of course, they have just arrived by car!) There is a guardian and two assistants, so food is provided - in remote areas, rifugios may just provide bunks and somewhere to cook your own food. The warmth of the heater is inviting as I enquire about the prices and whether or not there is space. It is 45,000 Lire for dinner, bed and breakfast, and they will accept British currency. Nobody else has booked in for tonight.

There are two hours til supper, so I walk a few hundred metres back along the road to a lookout point. The 300 or so metres down to the lakes looks an awful long way, perhaps cheating wasn't such a bad idea. From the viewpoint you look straight across to the French border. Most of the border is above 3,000m, so there are also glaciers, aretes, snowfields, moraines, the lot. There is a route across into France, an ancient trail used by salt traders, but it is passable only in summer.

I talk with a French woman who has been at the Rifugio for two nights, spending the daytime walking the nearby paths. She had been visiting a friend in Turin who told her she must see the Park, so she came, and stayed. She wants to stay longer, but doesn't like the weather forecast. The guardian at the Rifugio says tonight will be very cold, possibly with snow. I may have to change my plans for the next few days - snow-covered mountain paths are not safe places to traverse alone.

Supper is at 7pm. It starts with a rather greasy vegetable stew, hot and tasty, with bread. That would have been a meal on its own. Then came a cheese omelette (more cheese than omelette) made with the local Fontina cheese, and a salad of tomato, carrot and white cabbage, sprinkled liberally with oil and herbs. The dessert is prunes, and I can honestly say I am too full to want them - they are not my favourite fruit anyway.

The scenery today was magnificent. The weather was wonderful too. I could not have had a better birthday except that Bob was not here to share it.


Italian Alps 1996 day 5

With last night's threat of sub-zero temperatures, I happily piled blankets on top of the sleeping bag, and soon was as snug as a bug in a hearth rug. At about midnight I woke up too hot, and threw some of the blankets off. The wind was howling outside, but inside was slightly smokey due to the faulty stove in the dining room. I got up to check the stove, and found the fire was out so the smoke would not get any worse. Nevertheless, I opened the bedroom window for a while (it was on the leeward side of the building) to get rid of the smell. Then I went back to bed and fell asleep again, dead to the world until the alarm went off.

I have no idea what to expect of an Italian breakfast. My place at the table is provided with a glass of orange juice, a few slices of bread with butter, cherry jam and honey available. Then I am presented with a large bowl of hot chocolate. Apparently I am supposed to dunk the bread in the chocolate, but I never managed to work up enthusiasm for dunking biscuits or donuts or anything else, so I just drink the chocolate and put butter and honey on the bread.

Outside, the bitterly cold wind is still howling up the valley - from the direction I want to go. The guardian says it will be like this all day, and maybe tomorrow too. I am in no hurry to leave, but eventually I step out into the teeth of it. At least I am going downhill, but it is still hard work. The sun is shining, but it makes little impression on the cold air. There is no extra snow from last night - there were already snow patches in shady places at this altitude (2,600m). The few flowers in bloom vibrate madly in the wind, so photography is impossible - though I do manage a picture of the pass dominated by electricity pylons and power cables. Marmots are abundant, and there are a surprisingly large number of small birds, probably on migration - water pipits, white wagtails, northern wheatears, and a few alpine choughs.

The Col du Nivolet is said to be one of the longest high altitude valleys in the Alps, it takes 5.5km to drop from 2,612 m at the Rifugio in the south to 2400m above the Croce Arolley, then drops another 450m in about 1km - an almost vertical stairway - to the village of Pont. Some thirty years ago, someone had a bright idea to build a road through the valley. As I said before, the road to the south of the col has been maintained for the HEP reservoirs, but on the north side it soon becomes a dirt road, and eventually just a mule track. At Pont (I remember this from 1989) a road was built, snaking up the hillside, with a tunnel blasted through the rock. Above the tunnel is a plaque in memoriam to a 21-year-old worker who was killed in 1971. But the road was never completed, the northern part ends in another partially built tunnel, the southern part just peters out. Yet I have a couple of road atlases that still show this as a complete road, or as under construction. Yesterday I was asked by a passing motorist if the road was open. Near the end of the southern part of the road, I find a place sheltered from the wind, so I stopped to photograph the few plants in flower, and an alpine fritillary butterfly. A chalk-hill blue butterfly perched on a long-stemmed flower which still wavered in the wind.

From here I choose to follow the mule track through the valley, rather than the option of the higher and more exposed path. With the end of the paved road comes the end of wearing sandals. Reluctantly I change into hiking boots - I will almost certainly end up with blisters when going downhill, but the sandals do not have enough grip to be safe on unpaved tracks. While I am on my own in remote areas, I prefer to play extra safe. In 1989 I hiked this far from Pont, then it rained and I turned back. I have always wanted to complete the journey over the pass, and now I have done it.

The flat grassy bottom of the valley is grazed in summer by cattle, youngstock from the dairy herds which produce the local cheese (more about that later). There are some old buildings, long neglected, but in which the cattle still find some shelter. Marmots are grazing close to one building, and I decide to find a sheltered place there to try to photograph them. The construction of the barns is interesting - one has a partially collapsed roof so I can see how it was built. This is above the treeline, so large construction timber is not readily available, however, there is plenty of stone. The long low barn is built like a tunnel, but of flat pieces of rock with the ends to the inside. From the inside it looks like brickwork, but is about 18inches thick, and it supports a roof of huge and heavy flagstones. A newer barn uses timber to support the roof, it is very drafty, and rickety, and does not look as though it will last very long. Despite the strong, stale smell of cow dung, I take shelter in the doorway and wait for the marmots to return - they all dashed for cover as I approached the buildings. A baby marmot comes out first, but stays out of camera range. The wind drops a little, but clouds are now obscuring the sun and the warmth goes out of the air. The longer I wait, the colder I get, and the thicker the cloud becomes.

It's midday, and I decide to have a cup of chocolate while I still have some shelter for the stove. By the time the water is hot enough, the first snowflakes are falling. There are several marmots in view, but too far away to photograph. Two animals have a slight scuffle before returning to their burrows, and beyond them, on the far side of the valley, are a group of chamois. I finish my drink and hurriedly pack everything except the camera with the long lens. The chamois move along the valley parallel to me, and I hurry along to get warm and keep pace with them. The snowfall is heavier, but the wind has dropped considerably. The chamois, three adult females and two youngsters, come close, wary but not worried about me. I finish off the film as they cross the track ahead of me, then hurriedly put the camera away before it gets too wet. The snow is not getting any worse, and the sun manages to break through occasionally. I do not want to be caught up here in a snow storm, nor do I want to be hurrying down the steep part of the path, since that can be slippery when wet.

The snow eases off as I reach the treeline - a sparse growth of larches - I stop to take a few pictures of the scenery, and watch a kestrel flying overhead. The stream through valley now starts tumbling down the steeper slope, and I marvel at finding a dipper at this altitude - in virtually the same place as I saw one in 1989. There had been common frog tadpoles in a pool higher up the valley - they will take at least an extra season to turn into frogs. A backwater of the stream is dammed to form a small lake, and two large logs make a convenient resting place - they do not appear to have changed in the last seven years. A couple of other hikers, who had passed me going towards the rifugio this morning, now hurry past again on their way downhill. The path is much steeper here too. Then a tall elderly man hails me in non-native Italian. ‘No parlo Italiano' I answer, and he asks if English will do. He wants to know if the lake with the logs is just ahead, I tell him yes. He is an American called Skip, and behind him is his English wife Jeannie. They are in their seventies, and have just climbed that 300m vertical path! We talk for a while, the light snowfall continues. They decide not to go to the lake, considering the weather. They offer me a bed for the night, and, considering the weather, I accept. We go downhill, stopping at the Croce Arolley where Skip takes a photo of Jeannie and myself, and I take one of them. Then we are on the really steep downhill. The path has been built up with rock since I was last here, and some of the more awkward places are now more like staircases. Safer, I am sure, but still hard on the knees and ankles. Jeannie and Skip have walking canes, I use my monopod - though it isn't designed to support human weight, and buckles slightly under the strain.

About a third of the way down we stop to watch a golden eagle soaring above us. After a few minutes it disappears, but we see it (or another) later towards the peak of the Gran Paradiso itself. Looking across the valley, I recognise some of the places I walked in 1989 and take a few photos. By the time we reach the bottom the weather has improved somewhat. There is more vegetation, and more birds - marsh and coal tits, chaffinch, black redstart, and a rock thrush still in his blue and orange breeding plumage. The path ends beside the campsite where I had stayed previously. Jeannie and Skip have been disappointed at not seeing ibex or chamois on their walk today; I tell them of one of my memories from the first night I was here:

As dusk fell we (Jim and myself) heard some short squeaky calls coming from something moving above us. We looked around for birds, but then caught sight of three ibex racing back and forth on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the valley. It seemed that two young males had transgressed onto an older male's territory and he was telling them what he thought about it. He had got the intruders separated and the squeals were coming from one who found itself trapped on the edge of the rock with no way out but straight down. The older male then turned his attention to the other intruder who put up more of a fight. Several times there was an audible crack as they met head-to-head. Meanwhile the terrified youngster managed to work his way back up the rock. Eventually the older male chased them both off.

Higher up the rock (about 500m above us) another gathering was taking place. Some 15 - 20 young chamois were out for playtime. With three or four adults watching over them, they raced back and forth along a section of the skyline, leaping, bounding, and kicking their heels as they went. The activity continued for at least an hour by which time the animals were just silhouettes moving along the rock. Suddenly it all stopped. The adults moved further down the slope looking intently downwards, some of the youngsters followed suit. We could see nothing, but wondered if there was a predator down there, or had one of the youngsters (the Italians called them piccolos) overdone it and fallen over the cliff. We would never know.

Jeannie and Skip are staying in a holiday cottage rented by some friends of theirs on the north side of the Aosta Vally, 1500m up at Meod. Being on the sunny, south-facing slope, and in dairy farming country, the place is surrounded by meadows of wildflowers, mostly being irrigated. The sun is shining here, but the valleys of the Paradiso are dark and cloud-covered. Gradually the cloud moves away to leave the Grivola and other mountain tops bathed in the evening sun. It is a beautiful place with an incredible view, and Jean and Skip considered themselves lucky to have friends who let them use it. It is a small house, with a reception-cum-living area downstairs, plus a narrow kitchen with room for only one person at a time, a small bedroom (which I am in) and a small bathroom. Upstairs are two bigger bedrooms and a bigger bathroom. The cottage is equipped with a small washing machine, a small dishwasher (Jeannie called them toys) and a small bath. The bath is for sitting in only - how Skip gets his 6'3" into it is a mystery. The water is hot, and I get myself and a few clothes washed. Like all Italian houses, there are shutters at the windows and doors, they keep the heat of the sun out, and the warmth of the stove in - depending on the season of course.

Jeannie likes to cook, but on vacation is happy to use ready-to-boil packet meals. Skip cooks sliced veal and asparagus risotto, followed by cheese with a green salad, and finally pear sorbet, and of course red wine. Jeannie, as she says often enough, is 72 and proud of it and what she can still do, like walking up the mountains. She used to be a physiotherapist. Of Welsh parentage, she grew up in London, worked in Canada, then in Boston. Skip is her second husband - age not divulged except that he should be retired by now. He is a psychiatrist. They have two children of about my age.