Stuck in lockdown in a deserted ski resort in Italy, we have had to revise our parameters – and not just because of coronavirus.
My Dad introduced me to mountaineering. “Once I’m up here, I never want to go down,” he observed wistfully, as we sat on a summit cairn, gazing across creation from the roof of the world.
I took my friend’s teenage son up Starling Dodd in the UK’s Lake District. He lived in the Netherlands and had never climbed a mountain. On the top, he spontaneously started to leap through the heather, whooping, flapping his arms and laughing with excitement. Witnessing his pure joy is one of my most treasured memories, but mountains can do that to you. They give you a different perspective.
And talking of mountains, do you know your Munros, Corbetts and Grahams?
Munros are Scottish mountains with an altitude greater than 3,000ft (914.4m) plus a little social distancing. If the peaks are too close together, they are not ‘Marilyns’, as ‘proper’ Munros are called by those in-the-know, they are just ‘Munro Tops’.
‘Munro Baggers’ are the elite force of mountaineers who aim to climb all 282 of them – or 509 if you include The Tops.
Your Corbetts and Grahams are more minor peaks. The 222 Corbetts rise between 2,500-3,000ft (762-914.4m) while a Graham is one of the 212 Peaks-Formerly-Known-As-Lesser-Corbetts at a mere 2,000-2,499ft (610-761m). Munros are the tallest peaks in the UK and at 4,413ft (1,345m) Ben Nevis; ‘The Ben’ is the mightiest of them all.
Mark and I have climbed a few Munros. The toughest Munro is Sgùrr Dearg, which is as difficult to conquer as it is to pronounce. The true summit of ‘Scure Jerrack’, which means ‘Red Peak’ in Scottish Gaelic, is the ‘In Pin’ or ‘Inaccessible Pinnacle’ – an airy rock climb which requires ropes. We were terrified as we sat on Dearg’s ‘non-summit’ and had no intention of dangling on a knife edge. (Click here to read all about that abject failure in Skye is the Limit.) So, Dearg is the only mountain ascent that we have tackled without bagging a summit. Until…
In Staffal, we sit beneath another Red Peak – the Rothorn, although this one exists on an entirely different scale. You might think The Ben is big, but it’s just peanuts compared to the peaks around here. Staffal’s Rothorn rises to 3,000 metres, not feet; the equivalent of at least three-and-a-bit of your basic Munros piled on top of each other. And although the Rothorn is a 3M (Three Munro), it is not even one of the Big Boys. Monte Rosa’s Top Spot is Dufourspitze, the second highest peak in Western Europe. At 4,634m, Dufour is a 5M; a touch above 15,000ft.
Our functional dog walk up the zig-zag path next to our apartment is an ascent of almost exactly 1,000ft – or half a Graham. Around here, that’s just a stroll and even after all that climbing, it’s miles below the peak of the Rothorn. Unless you limit yourself to the valley floor, the hikes in Gressoney are all up. And very steeply up at that!
Kai is shy of other dogs, so we are delighted that he has struck up a bit of a bromance with our Italian neighbour, Lampo. Lampo sneaked along to walk with us for the first time in ages, although he was supposed to be taking it easy. A few days previously, his mum, Luisa, explained tearfully that he was going to be ‘done’. He had spent most of the previous week tied up because a bitch in the village had come into heat. It tested our conversational Italian, but we reassured her that Kai was castrato; that the procedure was no tears, a quick recovery and ultimately, beneficial for the dog.
With only one pair of testicles between us, seven of us set out to walk to Bedemie. This is the location of one of our favourite mountain huts. We christened it ‘The Cuckoo Hut’ because a home-made bellows contraption makes a cuckoo whistle when you open the door.
I have long had a bit of a downer on dandelions. As kids, we were told that if we picked them, we’d wet the bed, and if we blew a dandelion clock, we’d never be a gardener’s friend. I used to spend an inordinate amount of precious leisure time when we lived ‘in the brick’ trying to lever this prolific and pestilential weed out of my lawn with a special tool. It became an obsession. As blisters developed on my hands, I often mused that if pesky dandelions were a cash crop, I’d be rich.
Just before we started our climb, we met a young woman harvesting dandelion heads from the bright sea of yellow that has washed over the meadows around the village. “Why?” we asked her.
“I mix them with sugar, lime juice and water to make a syrup,” she told us. “It is good for the throat.”
Well knock me downy with a feathery seed head. Dandelions have purpose!
I thought the syrup sounded quite nice, but when I looked up a recipe later, I had no idea the myriad uses for a dandelion. They are tasty (apparently!), nutritious, have medicinal properties – and bees love ’em.
You can make them into caffeine-free tea, coffee, salad, pesto, wine, soap, shampoo, anti-inflammatory muscle rub, yellow dye and cup cakes. They contain more beta carotene than carrots and are packed with minerals, anti-oxidants and vitamins. Medical claims suggest they are anti-bacterial, strenthen bones and immune function, help regulate cholesterol, aid digestion, prevent cognitive decline, remove warts, protect skin against premature ageing, kill leukaemia cells without affecting healthy cells and have proven potential in treating other kinds of cancer.
And they are diuretic, so they do make you wet the bed.
If only I’d known. On my weed-riddled lawn, I was sitting on a goldmine. Literally!
On the track up to Bedemie, we noticed some wooden sculptures for the first time. On previous excursions, they had been covered by snow. We suspect that they were created by The Cuckoo Hut’s owner; a lovely man, with a kind, gentle face, who always sports a bandana over his wispy, white hair. He reminds us of a character out of a fairy tale.
Working with wood is a popular craft in the area – and in the past, making toys and decorations was one way to help pass the long winter. The traditional Stadel houses, built by the local Walser people, were constructed from wood and stone. Faces fashioned from tree stumps are common around the valley.
When we reached Bedemie, our panorama took in Orsia, a pretty hamlet composed mostly of eighteenth-century Stadels. Close up, many have religious writing or symbols carved into the ridge beams. We could clearly see a fenced gassò (a path enclosed by walls or fences to prevent livestock in transit from disturbing crops), which connects Orsia with the pastures at Bedemie.
Along from Orsia is Selbsteg, literally ‘the bridge that made itself’. An enormous boulder wedged between the walls of the narrow gorge has created a natural crossing over the river Lys.
Rothorn towered above Selbsteg and Biel, whose name means ‘summit’. There, on a knoll to protect the buildings from the river in flood, the chapel Cappella di Santo Rocco e Santo Sebastiano was founded after the plague of 1630. Rather appropriately, these two saints are protectors against epidemics. They have done their job admirably and we must thank them. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic in the hotspot that is Italy, there have been zero cases of Covid-19 in the upper Gressoney valley.
It was too lovely to turn back, so we hatched an ambitious plan to do a circuit, by walking up the red ski run towards the lift station at Gabiet, then returning down the black slope, Moos.
We cut a corner via one of our off piste routes. In the trees, through which we once skied Japanese-style powder with our lovely, Scottish guide, Dave, we saw an ibex. It was the more usual view of a stambecco – distant and obscured. Not the princely poses afforded to us by the herd that we have encountered several times above our residence at Courtlys. (Click here to check them out!)
The red piste is actually a road – and it made a huge scar on the landscape. For many years, the environmental lobby has opposed the proposed lift to connect Monte Rosa with Cervinia and Zermatt. If it went ahead, it would create the third largest ski area in the world. Seeing a ski resort in summer without the snow, it is very evident that there is a lot of infrastructure and it ain’t pretty.
This project gives us mixed feelings. We enjoy going places on skis, but we can already do that in the Three Valleys, the Vanoise, the Grand Massif, Zermatt/Cervinia/Valtournenche or the Dolomiti Superski. Uncrowded tranquility makes Monte Rosa unique, but it doesn’t contribute to the balance sheet.
It was a steep and tiring climb. The top of the black piste Moos was bleak, and the slope was still holding on to lots of soft snow. Our descent was tentative; it was slippery, even more precipitous than the ascent and in places, there were hidden hollows beneath the snow. Mark is six-foot-six. I have stated previously that the difference between my husband and a tractor is that one has hydraulics, the other has high bollo…
Mark fell through the snow right up to them at one point.
A chamois bounded across the piste, directly in front of us. Once it had left the slope and entered the boulder field on our left, it vanished. As with ibex, it never ceases to amaze us that creatures the size of small horse are invisible in their natural habitat, especially the ones who choose to hang out in herds!
Mark and I were shattered as we dropped back into Staffal. Our sat nav told us we had covered a distance of five miles, with 1,826ft of ascent and descent.
That’s the best part of a Lesser Corbett and it was just an afternoon stroll! At no point had we been anywhere near the top of anything.
This is what I mean about revising our parameters. We’ve had to get used to climbing a multitude of Marilyns and Grahams without ever ‘bagging’ a thing!
Japanese martial artists used to train until they were deemed worthy of their ‘Dan’ grade and were awarded a black belt. The grading system of coloured belts was introduced by Sensei Kawaishi Mikonosuke when he brought judo to Paris in 1935. He felt Europeans needed reward and recognition to encourage them to progress.
Are we too obsessed with conquering, bagging and achieving? Are Tops any less of an accomplishment than Marilyns? Is the walk still worthwhile if it isn’t a tick for your list? And are dandelions just weeds?
We saw carvings, chamois and got a change of perspective.
It was definitely worth it!
If you want to know what to do with your dandelions, I have posted some ideas below. I can’t wait to try them, since we are doing our best to go plastic free – see Zero Waste Caravanning – Save Money, Weight, Space & The Planet!
Here is a recipe for making your own dandelion syrup, along with 12 things to make with dandelion flowers, including dandelion shampoo bars, or dandelion magnesium lotion to ease aches and pains, all from this fab blog The Nerdy Farm Wife.