Backpack on my shoulders, heart in my throat
It's 3:00 am. Despite the fact that I've been trying to nod off for hours, my mind is having none of it. It keeps wandering, perhaps wanting only to make sure that what I am experiencing is not a dream. That it is all real. Or perhaps it's simply because I am hunkered down on the front seats of a van, inside a sleeping bag, lit up by the full moon that tonight looks like a lighthouse. Time goes by and my eyes close. All things said and done, it's not so bad sleeping in this strange position. I just need to remember to move my legs every so often, which are entangled between the door and the steering wheel, and look out for the awkward hand break when turning over.
It’s 5:30. Morning has not been shy in coming forward, flooding the van with light. It looks like Pietro and Giorgio are also awake, who — unlike me — are lying in the back of the van on a small makeshift double bed. After a little hesitation due to the unusual hour, we decide that it's time to be efficient and leave our warm rifugio. Outside the air is fresh, but not biting. With the feeling still coming back to my legs, I arrange the last few things in my backpack. Meanwhile, Pietro prepares a hearty breakfast. Giorgio is still in bed and doesn't seem to be doing his Swiss genes proud, yet on other occasions they are forcefully evident.
After doing a quick check of our materials, it's 7:15 and, despite the fact that they've criticised me mercilessly for my rather unsuitable mountaineering attire, I'm excited to be back walking in the mountains. During the last two and a half months, spent between the four walls of my own home, one of the things that cheered me up was remembering moments like this: my hiking boots crunching on the gravel, the grass dusting my calves with frost, being able to move freely in a place that is isolated from the world, where you can still smell the scent of damp earth. And now I'm here. I'm walking on a trail in the mountains, going uphill, and while I start to get out of breath, I'm thinking about how stunning everything in front of me is.
Giorgio is setting the pace ahead of me with two backpack coils of rope tied to his shoulders. A few horses are grazing undisturbed in these endless meadows while behind them, the Paretone rises up in all its magnificence. If you look carefully, you can see a little cabin on one spur of the rock. It's the Franchetti rifugio.
After around an hour and a half of walking, we arrive at the south-west face of the second shoulder of Corno Piccolo. The sun hasn't reached here yet and the difference in temperature is evident. We put on our helmets, our harnesses and various pieces of hardware to get ourselves ready for the route. Giorgio and Pietro dabble with the sacred and inviolable law of the "Chin Chin Clan" to decide who gets to go up first. After an intense contest, Pietro wins. Giorgio is obviously lucky in love.
We take a last look at the guide, locate the route and start to climb. The rock is frozen and our hands don't seem to be taking commands very well due to the cold, but it doesn't matter. We're finally climbing and there is no temperature that could douse our enthusiasm. The first pitch we climb is "Amore Gambini", which is made up of six routes that will take us to the peak of the second shoulder. While on the first pitch, I try to regain some confidence with this strange climb, which doesn't feel very natural to me: I try to keep my weight distributed well, at times on four, then on three solid holds. I can't afford to slip or snap pieces off the rock face by mistake, because it would put both myself and my other two climbing companions in danger. So I proceed carefully and, despite the fact that I still feel a little rusty, after about ten minutes I've reached the first belay station that Pietro has so carefully and meticulously built. Continuing the ascent, I'm able to loosen up and feel more smooth in my movements. Now my hands can feel the rock and my feet move with precision on the wall. I finally feel at ease. The wind caresses me and I can really enjoy the climb.
We've arrived at the fourth pitch. Giorgio is climbing and laying the protection devices, but he's taking a long time. Obviously something is preventing him from climbing smoothly. In the meantime, Pietro and I wait, hanging from the belay station, which is now exposed and uncomfortable.
Now it seems like the icy wind is literally slapping us in the face. It’s not long before my teeth begin to chatter like a woodpecker carving out its nest in the trunk of a tree. I think back to the criticism about my shorts...and how right they were! Luckily, my quivering is interrupted by my rope going taut: Giorgio has reached the fifth belay station and now it's my turn to climb.
The climb isn't enough to heat me up fully and I struggle to stay concentrated. Once I am 3/4 of the way through the route, I realise that Giorgio has only placed one protection device in the last 15 metres. That means that had he fallen, he would have had a narrow escape and suddenly I get why he took so much time to climb this part. I begin to feel nauseous, which is amplified when we get to the belay station. We find ourselves stuck together at the convergence of a gully. As soon as my vision becomes blurry, I realise that I don't feel so good. I attempt to lie down hanging from the rope and, despite the position not being the best, after a few minutes I begin to feel better.
We get to the top of the second shoulder at around 1:00 pm. We climbed the last 100 metres in a kind of convey, given that the climb wasn't so complicated. It's finally time for some refreshments, but knowing how seriously Giorgio takes optimising space in his backpack, my expectations are very low. Indeed, I'm not wrong: we eat a bar quickly and then we set off for the second pitch.
After about 20 minutes spent on scree trying to identify the route to take, we find the starting point for "Mario di Filippo": a V+ five-pitch route. Black storm clouds in the distance try to make us question our ascent, but after taking a quick look at the weather forecast, we decide to climb all the same. The wall is beautiful and the rock solid. I admire the confidence and professionalism with which Giorgio and Pietro move from one crevice to the next on Corno Piccolo.
Now it almost feels like swimming: hand reaching up high, right foot at hip height, left foot a little below and a left-hand stroke to reach past the right hand. At times my feet are in micro holds placed at dubious angles, but the cold and the wind make the friction of my shoes effective against the rock.
The wall doesn't give an inch, despite the fact that in theory the difficulty grade isn't overly high. I start to blame my tiredness and my feet begin to rebel inside my shoes, having being imprisoned in their rubber cage for six hours at this point.
There are only two pitches left to the top. Pietro is at the umpteenth crevice, defending himself from gravity with knee wedges, which allow him to place a few friends during this difficult climb in opposition. We climb the last 100 metres surrounded by fog, which is rising rapidly and plunging us into a situation that is totally isolated from reality.
Now I've arrived, I've done it. With a bouldering hip movement, I use my leg to get myself to my feet at the summit of the wall. Pietro shakes my hand tightly. Giorgio stops taking off his shoes and we hug, full of joy and satisfaction. I'm happy. Seven hours of hard, non-stop climbing. Eleven pitches for a total of approximately 550-600 metres. We’re here.
The clouds seem to have discreetly disappeared. Below us lies Val Maone, with the imposing pillars of Intermesoli before us. In a few gullies you can still glimpse some snow, which hasn't seemed to want to stick around on this mountain for long this year, perhaps because there wasn't much snowfall, or perhaps due to the unusually high temperatures.
After walking for ten minutes, we get to the cross, which marks 2,650 metres of altitude. It’s time it takes to drink some water, take a couple of photos of the incredible panorama, and then we get ready to descend. We follow the normal route for about an hour to the Franchetti refuge, then another hour and a half to Clementino. Pietro's van is parked in Prati di Tivo. During our descent, we begin to fantasise about the food we will eat when we arrive, partly because our stomachs are beginning to revolt, and partly to ignore the ache from our tired legs.
After passing the last hill, I see three figures in the distance from up high: it is undoubtedly Flavia, Maddalena and Maddi's tiny puppy that has a myriad of names. I call him Gnoccolino. I'm happy to see them, so we greet them and, utterly destroyed, we can finally get off our feet and rest our legs, which haven't stopped moving for about thirteen hours. While the girls build their tent, we quickly prepare the substantial aperitif that awaits us: pecorino cheese, various kinds of salami, taralli and a lot of beer. We want for nothing.
We weren't sure what Romolo would have brought from Rome for dinner, so when 8:00 pm comes around, our stomachs are full. Yet a short while after, and to our great surprise, Romolo arrives with industrial quantities of meat skewers and sausage. So we decide to light a fire to heat us up and make a barbecue. While we're eating dinner, telling stories and getting our hands greasy, Flavia grabs her guitar from the car. I was sure she'd bring it with her. So we try to strum something and I can see that she's improved a lot since the last time I heard her. Gnoccolino tries to get into the circle with us around the fire every so often, but his attraction to our meat skewers is too strong for us to establish any kind of peaceful cohabitation. After all, he is a Maremmano sheepdog and no covered dish will be enough to prevent him from stealing a sausage.
The moon rises from behind Monte Camicia and the fire dims. Many decide it is now time to give their bodies a little rest, but I prefer to stay up a little longer in front of the embers that are still gently warming me.
Not much time passes before Maddalena joins me. She's also a scout and she is obviously also familiar with the magical performance of a dying fire.
After a nice chat, my eyes are getting heavier and heavier. I realise that it's time to go to bed. We say goodnight, and while I put out the last little tendrils of flame, I think about how important it is to recognise the beauty and the depth of the experiences that we have had today.
So I go into my tent, I slide into my warm sleeping bag and I finally fall asleep, satisfied and ready to start again tomorrow.