Of all the thoughts and important advice about life my mother shared with me while I was growing up, I particularly remember her ideas about friendship. Friends have always had a very important part in her life as she considered them the family she was choosing for herself. Although I must have been only about 10 years old, I still have very vivid memories of how much she used to encourage me to spend time with my friends. So, although since a young age I remember enjoying spending time on my own more than the average child or teenager of my age, I have also been able to develop amazing friendships, some of which so true and strong that still last today.
Perfect examples are my good friends Daniele, Giovanni and Stefano. They are some of the people I have been looking up to in the past and I am sure I will keep doing it in the future. I have known Daniele for approximately 30 years and Giovanni for about 20 and it looks like we are going to be friends for the rest of our life. The 3 of us have the same passion, enthusiasm and respect for the natural world; we share the love for human powered sports that require practice and mastery and have a disdain for activities that require the use of polluting engines like snowmobiling and jet skiing; a respect for real adventure defined best as a journey from which you may not come back alive – and certainly not as the same person and a belief that less is more, in both design and consumption. We believe that there is no such thing as good or bad weather, there is only good or bad equipment. I better stop here before you start thinking my friends and I have some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain. That might be true actually.
Sadly, these days we don’t get to spend much time together. Daniele lives in Rome, Giovanni in Berlin and Stefano in New York. Benedetta, Daniela and Isabella are very lucky girls to have met them. They are awesome boys and wonderful fathers. Ops! Sorry Ste, I included you in the fathers group even if you have no children yet! I am sure he will be a great dad too one day.
Over the past 20 years we have travelled together around Europe, US and Canada, mainly looking for mountains to explore. I am sure that the combination of amazing places and opportunities we have been exposed to were not the only aspects which made those trips some of the most memorable trips of my life. Only years later I realized that what made those travels really special was sharing the experiences with people like them. If I look back, I have to confess that, sadly on a more personal level, it took me a while to come to terms with the concept that happiness doesn’t feel real unless shared. Oh well, at least I got there, better late than never.
Daniele and I were both excited like little children thinking about spending a few days together hiking around my backyard. The other reason to be very excited about was Daniele’s brand new Splitboard. A Prior Backcountry 165. Isn’t it a beauty?
The first thing we did when we got home from the airport was set up the bindings, cut the skins and check the rest of the equipment, crampons, ice axe, harness, etc.
The refuge de Folly is one of the most popular summer walks of the area. The reason why it’s not very popular during the winter months is because the first hour of the track is a narrow, fairly exposed traverse on mixed ground and rock which, when covered in snow and ice can be quite tricky. Here we are at the beginning of the track, altitude is 1,000mt, it’s 7:30 am and it’s -5°. We probably have about 1 hour in front of us before we can put skins on, a perfect example of what I call a dry approach. This is me at the beginning of the track checking out snow cover. Although it’s very brown and green here, I know there is lots of snow up there where we are going, trust me.
There is nothing better than starting the day nice and early with a walk in the woods. Daniele enjoying the leafy track.
I love being here. The atmosphere it’s so wonderfully tranquil and peaceful. Although we are only a couple of hours walk from the nearest person it somehow feels more remote than that. We didn’t know whether the refuge was going to be open but I have to confess on the way up I was hoping we would have found it closed. Being the only people around here makes entering the valley a more intimate experience. The absolute mountain silence is occasionally interrupted only by the twitter of the birds. It’s in these moments, looking at all the peaks around me that I feel I am only a guest up here.
We are heading towards the end of the valley, Pointe de la Golette, 2,638mt. We are aiming for the the shady valley right next to the peak in the centre of the photo. The mountains on the left hand side are the Dents d’Oddaz. You can clearly see how much better the snow cover is on this shady side.
For the little I have seen so far, snow conditions seem excellent. We are skinning on 20 cm of new snow which had a few days to settle, so if nothing changes I am not worried about any snowpack instabilities. However, I do have a couple of questions in my mind: how long are we going to have before the sun hits this side of the mountain and how warm will it be?
Daniele negotiating a traverse over and old avalanche debris, frozen and cover by the new snow. We didn’t waste any time in getting out some of our favorite toys, crampons and ice axe.
One of the many rewards of being here. The view gets better and better.
I am now back on my board in touring mode, skinning up whereas Daniele decided to keep his crampons on. It was really nice watching him enjoying every single step, so proud and confident with his new Grivel G10 W safely strapped under his big feet!
Remember the questions I had in my head about an hour ago? We are in the sun now and the temperature is rising quicker than what I was expecting. It’s strange because if you look at the calendar, it’s says we are in mid-February, but if you feel the temperature at this time in the morning on a slope with this aspect, you might as well be in mid or even late March. It’s definitely something to think about. The other aspect to concentrate on is the type of snow we are on. I recognized it the moment I stepped on it. It’s snow brought here by the wind which means we are on a lee slope. It makes sense as I took note of the wind direction during the last snowfall, south east. This is something important to be aware of but at the same time it’s not something that will send us running away. I quickly share with Daniele these thoughts and mention the concept of islands of safety as I knew this would have been something relevant once on our way down.
An island of safety can be a rock, a tree, a small ridge, etc. Essentially any terrain feature I could grab or that could become a safe spot if an avalanche did release. Regardless I am skinning up or riding down, I always try to look for islands of safety, especially on the way down. I never drop into a line before having clear where my islands of safety are and in cases I fear some form of instability in the snowpack, I even travel from an island to another, even if another line could be a lot more fun to ride.
It’s often difficult when you are out touring and in your group there are people willing to take bigger risks to ski a slightly steeper slope, or a slope with better snow on. I belong to the category of not very popular people (often referred to as “boring”) who put safety before fun which means that when I choose a line, my top 2 priorities are low(er) angle and islands of safety. Ok, I might miss out on a bit more fun riding steeper terrain, who cares?! My objective is simply to spend time in beautiful and remote places like this and making it safe for me and for the people I am with. Remember, I live to ride another day.
This is where we drop in. As you can see we are nowhere near the end of the valley. I didn’t like how quickly the temperature was rising, it was already 1pm, Daniele was starting to feel a bit tired. He is a great family man and doesn’t have much time to exercise these days. This was enough for me to decide to start heading down.
The snow is really good and the scenery around us is awesome. Riding terrain like this in solitude makes me feel incredibly free. I can decide where, when and how to make a turn. It’s the reward for the hard work to get all the way up here. We reach a spot where we have to decide whether keep going straight or turning right towards the bottom of the valley. We decide to go straight and engage a portion of the terrain which had a decent cover of small trees and bushes and was gradually getting steeper. Not a good sign.
Daniele is ahead of me, he stops. I ask him whether he thinks we can get down from where he is. He says “yes, no probs” so I trust him and move below him. It looks steep, very steep. It’s around 55°-60°. We probably are a few hundred meters lower now and I find strange that at this high temperature there is still snow on a slope that steep. The first thing I do before I even make a decision on what to do I move on my toe edge and get my ice axe out. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to talk about, I was already too low to safely step out of the bindings and climb up.
I suddenly realise that despite my efforts of getting some grip with my ice axe, my toe edge was starting to slide on what it didn’t feel like snow, it wasn’t even ice – I wish!- it was rock. I was on a rock face at around 55° covered in only few centimeters of snow strapped into my board and with no rope. My only anchor was my ice axe buried into a few centimeters of snow and I knew too well how useless it would be if I made a mistake. How did I get here in the first place?! Well done Matteo, this is what you have learned after all these years in the mountains. My mind goes blank and the only thought I have is that nothing like this has ever happened to me.
With our crampons and ice axes we thought we were prepared for anything, or at least for anything that could have happened during the day on our splitboard tour. We were obviously wrong. In one of my favorite movies “180° South” Yvon Chouinard says that the word “adventure” has been overused. He believes that adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong. I could not agree more with him. We obviously didn’t set off in the morning with the idea of down climb a rock face with our boards and with no rope. So I guess, yes, we were in the middle of our little adventure and it was very scary. Daniele is above me, he still has a number of choices –perhaps only one is safe though – my only option is try to negotiate a way down the exposed face barely covered in snow with the tools I have.
I shout something at Daniele to let him know I don’t have a good feeling about it (a serious understatement) and notice fear in my voice. It’s been a long time since last time I remember being so tense. Fear is the danger though, so every time it comes you have to try and push it away. I am committed now, there is no going back. So I go for it, trusting my toe edge (on rock?!) and balancing on my board my legs begin to tremble.
After managing the first half of the face, not surprisingly, I lose it. The next thing I know is that gravity takes its course and sends me down. I am falling, trying to use my hands to protect my head. Luckily I am only about 5-6 meters from the bottom – high enough to come out of the fall with some sort of injury. I end up crushing against a small tree and fortunately only with a massive bruise on my left shin and few scratches. I have no idea who my guardian angel is but I am sure he, or she was right next to me while I was falling.
Daniele is still at the top. He nervously watched me falling and crushing against the bush. I shout at him that I am OK and that now we have to work out a plan to get him down safely. From where I am I have the advantage of having a very good view of the face. So once he is ready with crampons on and ice axe in his hand I start guiding him. Both of us soon realize that trying to negotiate a way down with the board attached to the rucksack isn’t the wisest thing to do. We then agree that a safer solution is for him to let go of the board and the rucksack. So he sends both down and with no weight on his shoulder he manages to get down safely.
This episode just shows that when you are sure you are prepared, think again. In the past I would not have gone anywhere without crampons and ice axe, from now on I will not be going anywhere without crampons, ice axe, harness, belay device, screw gate carabiner and a rope – stuff which by the way I already have and I am perfectly capable of using. Yes, even more heavy equipment to carry but this is part of the backcountry “package”. When you choose to leave the ski resorts you are on a different program and the habit of carrying all the necessary safety gear is something you have no choice but get used to.
Once I heard a mountain guide saying that experience is what you learn just after you need it. The truth is, sooner or later you’ll reach a point where it will be difficult to draw a line between sliding down a mountain face using skis or a board and rappelling down a rock face. It will all merge together into one experience and it will require one big set of skills. I guess that’s what makes this type of travel through the mountains extremely technical, fascinating and possibly dangerous at the same time.
It’s now 4pm, my right shoulder is in a lot of pain and Daniele is resting on his rucksack, tired but happy. His Grivel G10 W crampons are officially his new best friends. The car park is about 1 hour walk away from here. Once again, memories were made and lessons were learned