Let no-one call a Cavapoo frou-frou.
“Did someone switch off the Matrix?” I asked Mark when he opened the shutters on the day. In a perfect metaphor for coronavirus lockdown, the entire world beyond our garden had vanished! All we could see was a grey emptiness; as though we were the only remaining oasis of life, while the rest of creation had been erased.
There had been 69cm of snow in the forecast, but at village level, rain pelted down all day. No pups wanted to go outside and since we were almost out of data, no Netflix or internet for us. Housebound once again, our recently-restored freedom removed by the weather, we were all just so BORED.
“If it’s nice tomorrow, we’ll do a proper walk…” we promised the pups.
The following morning, as the surrounding mountains held the banks of cloud at bay, the shutters opened on a Staffal that was now a bright oasis of sunshine amid a sea of grey. Thankfully, the wider world had been restored into existence, albeit in monochrome.
Rather than just warming himself on the stones in the wall, the adder, our personal barometer, was poised motionless on the ground in hunting mode. We kept the pooches at a safe distance and determined to head for the hills.
We joined Footpath No. 1, which rises up the bank directly behind our apartments. The footpath is well marked and we knew we could descend quickly if the weather came in. Besides, I had promised Dad a special photograph…
We spent most of our family holidays in a cottage in a remote and lonely Lake District valley. Ennerdale was and is my first Spiritual Home. Nestled beneath the iconic peaks of Pillar and Great Gable, it is a place that truly captured all of our hearts. When I spoke to Dad at the weekend, I described the location of our Italian apartment,
“We’re the last building in the Lys valley, like Black Sail Youth Hostel at the head of the Ennerdale valley; right under the mountains!”
“But do you have Drumlins?!” Dad asked.
As children, we had been terrorised by the Drumlins. We knew that they were to be found somewhere near Black Sail, a few miles away from our friendly cottage at Gillerthwaite. Their territory was the bleak and unfriendly head of the valley, beneath the imposing crags of Great Gable.
Our fertile young minds needed no encouragement; Drumlins were clearly terrifying monsters. Mum and Dad never did enlighten us; the threat of Drumlins proved a useful tool to keep three boisterous and inquisitive siblings from wandering too far from base. It worked perfectly until we studied glaciation at school. Then, we discovered that Drumlins are nothing more than oval hills, carved out and left behind by a passing glacier.
“We don’t have Drumlins, but we do have some beautiful lateral moraines,” another form of glacial debris. “I’ll get you a photo!”
We departed No. 1 where it forked left to Bettolina and turned right to cross the wooden bridge over the River Lys. Staying high, we joined Footpath No. 7, above the tiny, summer hamlet of Courtlys. There, we saw some of our friends, the stambecchi – Alpine ibex and some small furry creature, which might have been a marmot, although its dark fur and long tail suggested it was something more akin to a polecat.
“Shall we drop back into Staffal from here?”
Since the sun was warming our backs and we were all loving being out of the confines of the apartment, we decided to continue upwards. As we rose high above the Lys and emerged from the shade of the larch woodland, the path was mostly clear, although we still had a few snow patches to cross. Snow slopes are to be treated with care; if you slide, you might not be able to stop and in one, Mark’s legs disappeared up to his hips!
Ahead, the giant, snow-covered, 4,000 metre peaks of the Monte Rosa massif hove in and out of view through the clouds.
The path afforded us fantastic views of the off-piste ski itinerary of Bettolina Bassa on the hillside opposite. We could clearly see the two different lines of descent that we had taken when we skied it with a guide a few years ago. One of the benefits of walking in the mountains is that it helps greatly with getting your bearings and off-piste route finding!
At the next junction where the path divided, the sign promised that Sorgenti del Lys – the Sources of the Lys, was only half an hour away. It seemed rude not to! Had we taken the right fork, Footpath 7C led up the Val de Salza – an off piste ski route yet to be ticked off our bucket list. 7C’s ultimate destination is the peak Punta Alta Luce / Hochlicht (‘High Light!’) at 3,185m, and the iconic mountain refuges of Gnifetti and Mantova on the massif itself. Like most footpaths in the Lys valley, the only way was up, but at 3,647 and 3,498m respectively, just below 12,000ft, this was a little beyond the scope of our un-equipped afternoon stroll!
In Courtlys, Ruby had managed to find a bog at 2,000m. Here in the little valley just before we mounted our moraine, our water-baby was unperturbed by the fringe of ice that rimmed her paddling pool!
Then we climbed. We reached the moraine and ascended steeply until we reached the knife-edge top. Cloud was bubbling up around us, but we were now determined to get to our destination.
“It’s like making a push for the top of Everest!” Mark said.
Being obsessed with a target is how mountaineering accidents happen, but unlike on Everest, we had a clear path and could descend very quickly if the weather came in. Indeed, the sign on the footpath reckoned we could reach our base camp, Staffal, within forty-five minutes.
There was no-one else around. We had the magnificent, mountain wilderness to ourselves – until I decided to pee.
I did squat in a prominent spot, overlooking the whole valley. “I’m having an ironic pee, since we’re up here all alone. This is my loo with a view!”
“I wouldn’t be too sure!” Mark replied. “There’s a bloke down there by the glacier lake!”
I thought he was kidding. Although hidden from view while I had my trousers around my ankles, when I shot up, I was astounded to see that Mark was not fibbing! A lean, tanned type in shorts, with a halo of curly, black hair, arose from where he was taking photos of the glacier across the lake. He hoiked a rucksack on to his back, gave us a quick wave then set off to descend at a jog. I mean, that’s just showing off!
The final ascent was steep enough to warrant cables in the rock to offer a steadying hand hold, although it was still a path; not a sheer face. Mark and I stayed close together so that if we dislodged rocks, they would not land on each other’s heads. Ruby was less careful and sent a reasonably-sized pebble bouncing down the hillside to miss Rosie’s rump by a whisker. A sixth sense seemed to prompt Rosie to move out of the way at the last moment. It wasn’t life-threatening but it would have smarted!
The darkening sky began to look ominous, but we passed a cairn, whose sign reflected The Stranglers’ song, Five Minutes and You’re Almost There. I’m not sure The Stranglers have ever been five minutes from the Sorgenti del Lys, but we couldn’t give up now!
The view was impressive, despite the cloud. I was so proud of the pups making it all this way on their little legs! I took a photo of Lani, a tiny, Toy Poodle cross, with the mighty glaciers and seracs of Monte Rosa behind her. During the puppy pose at the summit cairn, the wind was so strong that it lifted Lani’s ears!
The route back was a re-trace of our steps, but with a different view. Instead of a moody Monte Rosa massif, the sun-kissed Valle del Lys spread before us.
Soon, we left the bleak, rocky amphitheatre of high mountains and glacial debris at head of the valley and re-entered Staffal’s little puddle of warmth. On our return journey, Courtlys still bathed in sunshine and we saw even more stambecchi grazing contentedly on the verdant pastures to the front of the two empty, stone cottages. When I stopped with Kai to admire the herd, my ear worm was an homage to Elvis Costello; we were Watching the Stambecchi. (Detectives!)
There were plenty of streams for the pups to drink from, but since we had not intended quite such a long walk, we had not taken water with us. We were certainly ready for a cuppa as we dropped back into Staffal.
Lani decided that she wanted a quick cuddle and a carry, but the pups always run about three times the distance that we walk. And after climbing 564m or 1,850 ft at altitude, I think her little paws had earned it!
An important reason that we chose Cavapoos for our active lifestyle was that the breeder told us, “They can take as much exercise as you can throw at them.”
The Fab Four certainly proved that today. You shouldn’t underestimate a Cavapoo. They may be fluffy, cuddly and look like Teddy Bears, but as I said at the start – let no-one call a Cavapoo frou-frou!
Join us next time for a few more peaks and troughs of Lockdown Life in Italy.