He pronounced it ‘the Low Valley’, but, since I am childishly drawn to places with slightly rude names, Loo had already been on my radar for a while.
Although lockdown in Italy had lifted, a relentless fortnight of heavy rain put paid to most of our more grandiose hiking plans.
The first dry day in a while took us to the stunning hamlet of Cialvrino. (Click here to read about that.) My camera battery ran out, so we returned the following afternoon to grab photos of the fields of orchids surrounding our dream house. From there, we continued up a forest path to the top of the ski lift at Weismatten. When we arrived, the darkening sky encouraged us to exchange our proposed circular hike through the woods by a lake for a hasty descent.
Just as we hopped back into our van, Big Blue, heavy spots of rain started to explode around us. Within two minutes, Mark and I were high-fiving our good fortune in missing the downpour, which quickly transformed into a full-blown thunderstorm. A wrong turn in Venice followed by a drive down the Grand Canal could not have been wetter.
Of course, such impeccable timing meant that we owed a debt to the Universe. A few days later, cicadas chirruped in sun-drenched, flower-filled meadows as we pulled up in Coumarial, a local beauty spot near the Mont Mars nature reserve. We have walked there several times in the winter, but to fully honour of the wonderful, June sunshine, we had packed a picnic of cheese, salami and fresh, home-baked bread.
It was not the day that I expected the Universe to collect on its debt. Sitting out a violent thunder and hail storm in a dilapidated cow shed with historic manure coating the floor, walls, ceiling and doors was not how I anticipated spending the afternoon. We didn’t dare touch our picnic for fear of contracting Escherichia coli.
“If you hear any creaking – run out of the door” Mark said, fearing for the structural integrity of our rustic shelter.
As the rain and hail hammered down, accompanied by sheet and fork lightning, I wondered what we would do. We were at almost the mid-point of the walk and hadn’t bothered to bring waterproofs – why would we need them on such a beautiful day? When the lightning passed to a safe distance on the other side of the valley, we made a run for it. It tested the wicking properties of our fleeces – we got very wet and cold.
The hot water system in our apartment is communal. It is temperamental at the best of times, but with the block deserted, it takes so long for the water to get hot that we only run it through to shower. To avoid wasting water, we normally heat a pan on the hob to wash up, while all other ablutions fall into the category of ‘character building’.
But the Universe wasn’t done with us yet. The warming, steamy shower that occupied my fantasies throughout our forty-minute drive home didn’t materialise. The deluge from our doccia refused to warm up and I couldn’t summon any enthusiasm to freeze myself any further by stepping under its stinging, Siberian stream.
A quick round of Cortlys, a stalwart circuit of Footpaths 1 and 7, on a bright morning, ended up with a hike to around 9,000ft.
“Shall we carry on?” we kept saying to each other, because the weather was so gorgeous and the scenery too stunning to turn back. We continued up towards Bettolina on Footpath No 1.
However, as dark clouds began to blot out the bright sunshine on the far side of the valley, we made the foolish decision to push on to the top. Had the Universe taught us nothing?
As happens so often in Monte Rosa. there was no top – at least not for another few thousand feet. Our ‘top’ was just a flatter bit before the next, steep rise. Had we not made that last push, we would not have got drenched to the skin in another thunderstorm on the way down.
Stuck indoors for weeks on end, we were bored. So bored. We had plenty to keep us occupied, but were tired of doing the same things and, in a deserted village, had very little social contact. It felt churlish to complain about our lot when people were dying and healthcare workers were, according to Italian newspapers, ‘waging war’. But it still doesn’t mean that we’re immune to what seems like a bad dream that reappears relentlessly every morning, like Groundhog Day.
Being trapped in the apartment due to the terrible weather felt like being back in lockdown. Now, though, instead of avoiding contagion, we were forced to watch the weather like proper Brits and be prepared to shoot out to walk the dogs the very second that the skies cleared. Then, just days before we were due to depart, the season suddenly changed. Summer arrived. It was Monte Rosa’s last smile; to remind us how much we love her.
We set out to do our last ‘big’ walk before leaving. Rather than drive to Loo or Principi, we opted for a hike on our doorstep; an ascent of the Valle di Salza, to recce an off piste ski route that’s firmly on our bucket list for next season.
After four hours of steep ascent, panting in the thin air, we reached 8,550ft, but were still 900ft short of the top of the col (not the summit of anything – the big boys that surrounded us are all staunchly in the 15,000ft club!)
A few days later, we would embark on the slow road back to the UK via France & Spain. Although we had been stuck in Monte Rosa for eight months, including three months in strict lockdown, we made the decision to return next season to ski.
Not just to take advantage of the 30% discount on our seasonal ski passes, offered in recompense for the lost months of coronavirus; or the Loo Valley and the Valle dei Principi, which still await. Despite spending four full seasons in Monte Rosa, she invariably lures us with the promise of more to do.
Both Mark and I were desperate to leave; to see something different. Yet we also feel a strong need to come back and experience Monte Rosa again as we remember her. A vast mountain wilderness that spells freedom and joy, rather than a beautiful prison.
Join us next time as we leave lockdown and get into a bit of a scrape…!
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