There and back again: Part I

GIU! Lombardia to Sicilia

Have Dobby, will travel. Packed up, tuned up, ready to roll!

Our life feels, in general, like a honeymoon these days - we're constantly experiencing new things as we work in various mountain regions of Italy, and it is definitely a big change from our past office routines. We had not originally intended to take an "official" honeymoon, but events aligned in the right way and we needed to be in Valtellina on April 11 and Sicilia on April 18. Seven days and a whole country apart... what could be better than roadtripping down the entire length of Italy! We packed our backpacks and our dogs into the back of our yellow Doblo, affectionately called Dobby, and set off down the road. The plan (a loose one): work our way down through various national parks and beautiful towns, sightseeing, camping, and hiking on the way. First stop: Cinque Terre.

Day One

We set off under gorgeous sunny skies and immediately headed for new territory, driving down the less-traveled west side of Lago di Como. After working our way through the tiny towns squeezed between the lake and the steep mountain slopes, we blasted past the outskirts of metropolitan Milano and turned up into the narrow, windy mountain roads of the Ligurian Apennines. We took brief breaks along the way to enjoy the scenery, including a little hike in the Riserva Naturale Monte Alpe, a walk to the summit of Monte Penice, and a tasty gelato in the main square of the town of Bobbio. Our trip took us through Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna to stop in Liguria for our first night.

The view from Monte Penice, one of the highest points in the Ligurian Apennines, is a beautiful panorama, but elevation of the peak makes it a prime point for cell towers, of which it hosts at least ten. 

The church in Bobbio, a small hillside town in Emilia-Romagna, near the borders with Lombardia and Liguria. 

The valley of the Aveto winds its way through the hills of Liguria.

Taking the back roads made for a beautiful drive, but it increased our hours on the road and we were definitely ready to stop for the day by the time we got to Moneglia, a little beach town just up the coast from the famous five villages of the Cinque Terre. We found a nice campground by the coast just outside of town and were ready to pitch our tent when we discovered, embarrassingly, that we had forgotten the poles back at Rifugio Madioce. Not exactly a great start to a two-week camping trip! Fortunately the campground manager was kind enough to loan us his vintage tent for the night and after a little walk on the beach, a wade in the chilly ocean, and a delicious pizza in Moneglia, we went to sleep in our borrowed shelter. 

Enjoying the sunset above Moneglia.

Beach waves just outside Moneglia.

Day Two

Putting off our task of solving the tent poles issue, we woke early to enjoy a little hike in the Cinque Terre before hitting the road again. We drove to Monterosso al Mare, the first of the five villages, and explored the town, hiking above it to a monastery and trekking a bit of the trail that leads to the next village. Despite the early season for tourism, the path started to fill with people as the morning passed. We decided Cinque Terre deserves more exploration, but it was time for us to get on the road, with a quick stop at the nearest Decathlon (basically the Italian version of REI) to buy a cheap salvation tent. 

The pathway of stone steps and cobblestones that connects Monterosso with Vernazza. 

Looking back at Monterosso al Mare. 

We worked our way from Liguria through the rolling hills of Toscana to Umbria. Our intent was to camp for the night in Monti Sibillini National Park, but as we approached Assisi, the beautiful walled town settled on the hillside of Monte Subasio drew us in. There were signs for camping so we diverted course and made our way up the hill to a campground just outside the ancient town walls. The campground was fairly empty and the lots were nicely secluded, as opposed to most Italian campsites which are more like developed parking lots, with electrical plugins, lights, etc. We pitched our new tent and walked to Assisi, climbing to a castle at the highest point for a panoramic view. The rolling hills of Umbria make a beautiful setting for the quaint, historic town. We enjoyed a glass of wine and some typical antipasti in a small restaurant in which we were the only patrons; the owner (and chef) took the time to talk to us about the roman history of the town and showed us an animated reconstruction of the roman ruins that have been found. Later we walked to see some of the ruins that are still above ground; most of them are underneath the current buildings. It was a lovely evening; Assisi is a quiet, serene place - fitting for "the city of peace" with its history of St. Francis.

Looking down on Assisi from Rocca Maggiore, where there is an ancient castle that dates back at least to the 12th century. The strategic location of the hillside above Assisi means it has been settled and fortified since pre-Roman times, and there are Roman ruins under many parts of the town. 

Looking down on the fields of Umbria. 

Assisi, city of peace. 

Lupa and Balto enjoying a nearly empty piazza at the duomo of Assisi. 

Day Three

We woke to another beautiful sunny day, packed up camp, and headed towards a monastery near Assisi where a trail map the campground host gave us indicated there was a route up Monte Subasio. There were plenty of tourists flocking around the monastery, but once we found the trail, we saw almost no one. We deviated from the trail and didn't quite summit Monte Subasio (another peak that plays host to many cell towers) but got on top of the ridge and were rewarded with panoramic views, pleasant sun, and only two horses for companions. We enjoyed the sun for a few minutes before winding our way back to the car to continue our journey south. 

Horses grazing on the ridge. 

Relaxing in the sun.

Bella vista from the ridge. 

As we continued our way south, I did some internet searching to make plans on the fly. We decided to head toward Parco Nazionale del Cilento, in Campania, where there seemed to be many hiking options. Camping options, however, were not as clear. In Italy, camping in the national parks and wilderness areas is not technically allowed, and the campgrounds tend to be in the more developed, beachy, populated areas. We figured we would find the closest option, enjoy the beach for the evening, and head into the park in the morning. After skirting the metropolitan craziness of Roma and Napoli, we were ready to stop for the evening. We found ourselves in the small town of Paestum, originally the Greek colony of Poseidonia, and host to some of the most well-preserved Greek temple ruins in the world. Despite that claim to fame, the town itself does not present itself as touristy. This part of Italy is more gritty, more run-down than the northern areas. The resort-style hotels that dot the main road are a severe contrast to the concrete houses and shops that all appear to be in various stages of disrepair. 

We pulled into one campground that looked more or less like the resort hotels; swimming pool, gardens, playground, etc. The owners informed us that it was not yet open for the season, however, so we drove until we saw the next campground sign, faded from years in the sun. We drove through the gate into a park full of campers, each with a little deck, garden area, and sun shade - but each looking like it had been abandoned for at least ten years. An older gentleman was raking leaves and we asked if the place was open; it was, and he directed us to what was likely the only tent spot in the park. Despite the abandoned feeling of the place, the tent spot was nice, with a working sink and an electric light over a covered picnic table.

We walked to the beach, abandoned except for the gentleman's wife, sweeping up sand from a covered area. As the sun was setting, we hurried back to the car and found our way to the temple ruins a few kilometers, just in time to see them in the last light and to pick up some bread, cheese, and salami to have a picnic dinner back at our campsite. 

For Alessio, Paestum and the surrounding areas were a bit of a shock, a first glimpse of a region of Italy he had never experienced, coupled with ingrained ideas of mafia presence in that vicinity of Napoli. The appearance of the place was certainly different than the north and other touristy zones, but our night was comfortable, the people we encountered were friendly, and overall it contributed to the growing diversity of our experiences on our road trip adventure.

Our somewhat sketchy but actually quite comf

The temple of Neptune in Paestum. 

Day Four

Eager to get back to the mountains, we woke early, packed up, and headed into the national park. After winding our way through the countryside, slowing gaining elevation, we made a brief stop in the small mountain town of Ottati to refresh our fruit supplies from a little fruttivendolo on the main street. We continued our journey up a narrow dirt road, hoping not to encounter anyone coming down, since there wasn't much space to maneuver. Fortunately, the whole park seemed nearly deserted.

At a certain point the road petered out and we found a place to park the doblo near a rifugio that was clearly still closed for the season. A trail sign indicated a route up the highest peak of the area, Panormo, so we set off in that direction. We soon hit the elevation of snow, and found us winding our way through a dense forest, transversing the slope more than climbing it, for what seemed like quite a while. Luckily the trail was well marked with signs painted on the trees, because aside from those red and white stripes it was indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.

We had made a reservation at a rifugio in Parco Nazionale della Sila for the evening, so we were a little concerned about getting back on the road and we were not completely convinced the forest trail was the right one to get on top of a mountain. We decided to detour slightly up the slope to what looked like a clear area, and we were rewarded with a view of the summit we were heading for. With the goal so close we didn't want to turn back, so we immersed ourselves back in the trees to find the correct route to the ridge. We soon reemerged to beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys as we made our way to the summit; well worth getting back on the road a little later than planned. 

We emerged from the snowy forest for a glimpse of the ridge we were ascending.

Heading up the ridge towards the summit of Monte Alburno, or Pizzo Panormo.

Panormo provides panoramic views of the Monti Alburni in Campania.

Balto, Alessio, and Lupa enjoying the sun and views from the top of Panormo. 

We were nearly back to the car when we encountered likely the only other two people in the valley that day. They had managed to get their car stuck in a deep snow drift. With only the two of them, their prospects were looking grim to get the car out, but with our help we pushed it to dry ground. They were grateful for the help (I think they had been trying for a while). We figured out what they had been doing in the area when they gifted us two truffles, fresh from the ground.

Alessio displays our prize truffles. 

As we drove out of the park, we got a view of the back side of the ridge we were walking on. The forms of the cliffs give these mountains the nickname "Dolomites of Campania." 

Our reservations for the evening were at Rifugio Casello Margherita, a rifugio nestled into the forests of Parco Nazionale della Sila. We found the place with only a little difficulty (the iphone navigator took us down a tiny dirt road that was blocked with fallen trees), and were greeted enthusiastically by the proprietors and their many dogs. The rifugio is run by Simonetta, a Canadian who has been living in Italy for many years, and her husband Eduardo. The building is a restored casa cantoniera, a typical structure built to house highway workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. We chatted with Simonetta and Eduardo in a mix of English and Italian and they gave us recommendations for hiking in the area. The couple prepared us a delicious dinner with many small dishes for a variety of tastes from the region, and we went to sleep tired in a comfy bed, enjoying the comforts of the rifugio after several days of camping out. 

I forgot to take a photo of the rifugio, so I stole this one offline. The case cantoniere are typically painted this red color, and Simonetta and Eduardo wanted to keep the historic appearance. 

Day Five

Simonetta was excited to make us pancakes for breakfast, and I was excited to eat them, since Italian breakfasts typically consist mainly of coffee. After our delicious meal, we headed out to the recommended trails, loaded with fruit, walnuts, and some homemade jam, all gifted to us by our generous hosts. With the trail map loaned to us by Eduardo, we easily found the route he had suggested. We hiked through a dense forest of tall pine trees until we came out in high altitude meadows full of warm sunshine. We stopped by a calm little lake to do some stretching and soak in the sun. The adjacent fields were filled with little purple crocus, the flower that appears everywhere in Italy just after the snow disappears. It was a wonderful and relaxing little hike; the high plains of Sila present a pretty landscape, and we already want to come back and try the cross-country skiing in the winter. 

Alessio and the pups relax by the lake. 

Signs of spring; crocus were everywhere. 

Feeling relaxed and rejuvenated from our sojourn in the Sila, we got back on the road heading south. The sun was strong and when we stopped at a gas station towards the southern part of Calabria, the heat was radiating from the pavement. We were able to purchase our ferry ticket at the gas station to avoid lines at the ferry terminal in Villa San Giovanni. We drove straight on to the ferry and left the dogs and the doblo parked on the deck while we watched mainland Italy shrink away behind us. 

Dobby parked on the ferry.

Enjoying the breeze on the ferry. We make it look warm but we soon grabbed our jackets.

After docking in Sicilia, we made our way through the traffic jams of Messina at rush hour, and drove down the east coast of Sicilia to arrive in Giardini-Naxos right around dinner time. We had been searching for a campsite, but the only ones within the town were for campers only. We found a hotel (a relatively luxe one, with a nice pool!) for hardly much more than the campgrounds cost anyway, so we opted for luxury for two nights while Alessio had to be in Giardini-Naxos for a seminar. We met up with the rest of the group attending the seminar and went to a nearby town for a fish dinner; heaped plates of a huge variety of delicious seafood were brought to our table faster than we could eat them, and we left the restaurant very satisfied and ready for bed!

Days Six and Seven

While Alessio attended his two-day seminar, I spent the days exploring Giardini-Naxos with the dogs. We drew a lot of attention as we walked around; Giardini-Naxos is not a town with many huskies! 

Etna towering above Giardini-Naxos.

The beach in Giardini-Naxos, not crowded at all in April.

Enjoying sunshine on the beach!

Even early in the season, the sun was beating down on us as we explored, and after an hour or so of beach time with the dogs, I decided they were better off in the air-conditioned hotel room while I enjoyed the pool. I met back up with Alessio and his group for more delicious seafood and enjoyed the extra time to relax - driving and hiking all day every day can get exhausting! After Alessio's seminar ended on Sunday afternoon, we were ready to get back to the mountains. Stay tuned for Part II as we explore Etna and work our way back north to the Apennines!

Sunset behind Etna from the beach in Giardini-Naxos.

Avventure appennine

The Apennines of Emilia-Romagna.

After descending from Rifugio Bignami, we spent a day getting moved out of our apartment in Morbegno and headed to our new home, a little further south and a little lower in elevation: Rifugio Madioce. Madioce is located at about 1000 meters elevation in the Apennines of Emilia Romagna, nearly on the border with Tuscany and practically a stone’s throw from where the Tiber River is born as little mountain stream. Originally the area was part of Tuscany, but Mussolini, a native of Emilia Romagna, shifted some borders to put the Tiber’s spring in his own region. 

Lupa and Balto enjoying freedom in the fields before the cows arrive for the summer. The Rifugio is visible to the right in this photo, surrounded by the rural and sparsely populated hills and peaks of the Apennines of Romagna.

Rifugio Madioce is owned by Carlo Lisi and his family. For many years they have been working to restore and renovate the two historic structures on the site. They have converted what used to be the barn and storage areas into a beautiful little house, maintaining much of the historic look and rustic charm. The larger structure on the site is still in the process of being converted to the guest area of the rifugio as well as a bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, some ill-performed work during the construction of the stone walls has led to moisture infiltration and the project is mostly on hold while the issue is in litigation. Thus, the rifugio is not yet open, and Carlo and his family are focused on developing the agricultural side of the business: constructing a chicken coop, establishing an orchard, planting two large gardens (one certified organic and the other using permaculture techniques), etc. We arrived just as the snow was disappearing and the weather starting to warm up; Carlo had just begun to plant the new saplings to form the orchard. 

The first day we started working was cold and pouring rain - not good conditions for tree planting. We worked inside on the renovation project, cutting staining hardwood sills for all the windows and various small tasks. It was nice to do a little construction work and interesting to see a little more in depth how things are built here. My Italian tool vocabulary expanded a lot in one day of work!

At dinner the first night, Carlo introduced us to a very important aspect of life at Rifugio Madioce: the food. Another seasoned WWOOFer, Luciana, was spending the week at the rifugio, and the talk around the table was focused on the typical foods from the various regions around Italy. We feasted on a traditional Romagna dish: homemade piadina (typical flatbread) filled with cooked cabbage, a salty dried fish, and squacquerone, a soft ricotta-like cheese. Delicious! 

Signs of spring! We had these flowers and their leaves in a salad of wild herbs one night. Yum!

The sun soon came out and started to dry up the mountains of mud that the previous weeks rainstorm had created. We finished planting the orchard and I made a map of the 30-some trees: various pears, apples, and cherries. Over the next week we did a little more work on the house, tilled the soil to prepare the organic garden, and cleared a lot of brush where wild rose brambles line the trails. We clipped the roses back along a trail that goes through the orchard and cleared a large space for the chicken coop that we’ll construct soon. 

Lorenzo using the rototiller to prepare the field for the organic garden while Carlo, Alessio, and I cut and trimmed willow boughs for fence posts.

The first bud on one of the fruit trees!

On the weekends, Carlo’s son Lorenzo comes up to help out. He is studying agriculture in Padova and his knowledge is very useful for the food production aspects of the rifugio. The first weekend at Madioce, Carlo’s wife Oriella came up as well. She works in Rimini but comes up to Madioce when she can. She taught us to recognize and collect some of the wild herbs that grow in the area and then cooked them into a cassone - like a piadina but folded to make a pocket filled with the fresh herbs. Oriella cooked quite a feast for us when she came to visit. We definitely eat well at Madioce! 

The crew: Carlo, Alessio, me, Lorenzo, and Luciana. Enjoying a delicious dinner prepared by Oriella.

For Easter weekend, Carlo went down to Rimini to be with his family and Alessio and I held down the fort at the rifugio. The first day we took a trip to Sansepolcro in Toscana, the birthplace of 15th century artist Piero della Francesca. We visited the museum to see his frescos and toured the small Tuscan town. It was starting to rain as we walked the town, and by the time we got back into the mountains in the evening, the rain was turning to sleet and snow. We woke up to a good 20 centimeters of snow covering the fields, cold temperatures, and a biting wind. So much for spring! We weren’t going anywhere with the road conditions as they were, so we hung out by the fire and experimented with cooking while it continued to snow for a couple of days.

Winter returns to the Apennines.

Ice on the trees after the freezing rain turned to snow. 

The forecast had called for a little snow that was likely to melt quickly, but when Carlo and Lorenzo returned to the mountains they were shocked to see that the world was still completely white. Farm work was on hold for a little while - a good time for us to take a short break and depart on another big adventure: roadtripping Italy from top to bottom!


Tangent

Rural Arctic Studio summarizes my passion for working with the villages of the polar north, but there is much to learn from the wider world. This tangential blog is to document and share the adventures of my husband Alessio and I, along with our two huskies, as we explore life on this lovely planet. We are currently living in Italy, working as WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) in the Alps and Apennines, building things, planting things, and cultivating the earth and our futures. 

Cinque giorni di Inferno

Lupa and Balto at Rifugio Bignami.

"Five days of hell" is how Luca, the proprietor of Rifugio Bignami, introduced his plan for opening the hut for the spring ski season when we met him for dinner in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Sondrio a week or so before our wedding. We were planning to talk to him about working at the rifugio in the summer, but he was hoping to convince us to come earlier.

Rifugio Bignami is an historical mountain hut in Val Malenco, situated at 2401 meters elevation, below an impressive calving glacier and the rock faces of the central Alps which line the border of Italy and Switzerland. The hut has 70 beds and a traditional alpine kitchen and has hosted summer excursionists for many years, with the approach an easy hour-long hike from the large dam of Gera below. In the summer, the rifugio offers full comfort accommodations, but it has never been open in the winter before. The slopes above the rifugio are a paradise for ski mountaineering, especially for skiers who approach in descent from the Swiss side, and Luca wanted to make the place available for those who venture out in the winter. Adapting the building's systems to wintertime use would not be easy.

Over dinner, Luca described his plans for making the hut winter-ready. We would helicopter up from near the dam with loads of supplies. Once there we would start shoveling snow; we needed to dig out the winter bivouac hut, uncover the solar panels, discover whether or not the mountain spring was running and if not, melt heaps of snow for potable water, adapt the frozen septic system to winter use, and install and stoke wood stoves to heat the cold stone structure. While the work was in progress we'd all be camped in the main dining room near the masonry chimney to stay warm. A tech-y friend of Luca's was coming to help get the systems running, and the new rifugio chef. A couple with Alaskan wilderness experience, prepared for the rustic living and cold temperatures were just what Luca needed to help get the place running. "Five days of hell" meant hard work and uncertain amenities...but guaranteed mountain beauty. We were sold. 

Sunset over Monte Disgrazia.

On March 18, we met Luca and the new chef Stefano early in the morning at the offices of the heli company. We drove up Val Malenco with our cars and Luca's rented truck packed full with supplies for the rifugio. At a parking area near the dam, with the rifugio just visible up in the peaks, the four of us spent a few hours loading stoves, tubing, materials, and a significant quantity of food, water, beer, and wine into helicopter bags to be flown to the rifugio. Luca and Stefano had to return to Milano in the evening, but Alessio and I had come prepared to camp out. Luca gave us the keys to Bignami to go up a night early, but we weren't sure how the conditions would be and it was already after 3pm. We hiked to the top of the dam to check out the trail, and determined it looked pretty sketchy - steep channels loaded with snow that could easily slide down to the dammed lake below. We opted to hike out toward Pizzo Scalino with our tent instead, a gentle trail that was well-packed and easy. We were rewarded with gorgeous views of the sunset over Monte Disgrazia, and turned in early to our warm sleeping bags as the day's warmth disappeared with the sun. 

First time camping in the Alps in the winter... for both of us!

 Room with a view. 

Room with a view. 

Our camp below Pizzo Scalino.

We woke early, packed our camp, and hiked back down to our staging area to wait for Luca, Stefano, and Luca's friend Marco to show up with more supplies. They were running late and when they arrived we started packing additional helicopter bags as fast as we could to be ready when the chopper arrived. Fortunately, this is Italy and everything runs on Italian time; the helicopter was running late by a couple of hours. We relaxed our pace and got the packages ready in plenty of time. Luca, Stefano, and Marco went up to the rifugio first, while we stayed back and helped prepare the slings for each load. The helicopter crew turned out to be two of Alessio's relatives, who had already heard that we'd just gotten married and passed on their congratulations. The last flight was for us and the dogs. They were not happy to have to wear muzzles (regulations for the chopper), and pretty terrified to get on board, but the trip was quick and seconds after landing the dogs were already comfortable in their new sunny, snowy home.

Loaded helicopter heading to Bignami.

Bignami from above.

We started work immediately on our first task: digging out the winter bivouac hut. The winter hut is below the main structure like a basement, but the entrance is set back a couple of meters under a concrete deck. The design of the structure creates a perfect basin to collect snow drifts, so the entire passage was completely buried. We had to uncover the doors to get access to the generator and the battery storage for the solar panels, but we also had to dig out a space big enough to pass two large plastic cisterns into the hut, cisterns that would be filled with either water from the spring or from melted snow and would serve the rifugio in the winter season. We managed access to the generator the first day, and it took until the afternoon of the second day to dig out enough space to maneuver the cisterns into place. 

We continued to exercise our digging muscles by excavating the area around the spring. There was water in two small tanks in the area, but not enough to flow to the rifugio. Marco and Luca installed one of the wood stoves we had flown up in the winter hut. On the stove they set up a system for making water: a metal basin to hold clean snow, with a pipe that runs the melted water into a small cistern. When the small cistern is full, a pump sends the water into the large cistern. Every 45 minutes, one of us had to go down to the bivouac hut to stoke the wood stove and fill the basin with snow. Slowly but surely, Bignami would have water. 

Despite the lack of running water and the cold temperatures in his kitchen, Stefano the chef managed to provide us with delicious meals every lunch and dinner. Stefano is from Milano, and not a mountain person, but he was high-spirited and ready for the challenges of cooking for our crew in the rustic hut. There were no lack of challenges for him; the kitchen was cold for the first few days until there was enough water to circulate through the wood stove that serves as a hot water heater for the rifugio. As soon as that stove was lit, it melted a small plastic valve that regulated the water flow, spraying water all over and filling the kitchen with putrid smoke. We had to wait a day for it to cool, then Luca patched the leak with electrical tape. 

The biggest issue for the kitchen and for the functionality of the hut as a place for paying customers, however, was the lack of a septic system. The underground pipes carry the waste water from the rifugio to a large buried tank, but the system was frozen and unusable for fear of backups. Alessio and I were tasked with the seemingly impossible goal of uncovering the buried pipe near where it enters the septic tank, so we could adapt it to empty onto the ground - a temporary fix. Luca had an approximate idea of where it was located, and had put a stake to mark the spot last summer, but wind and several meters of snow rendered his notions of the exact location to dig vague at best. Like looking for a needle in a haystack, Alessio and I spent three and half days shoveling the snow off half the hillside below the rifugio. The work was good exercise and enjoyable when the sun was shining down, turning us tan and keeping our spirits up. There were moments when the task seemed like a joke - was there no other way to access the pipes? There was not. The best Luca could do was say maybe a little higher up the slope... but his guess seemed not much better than ours. 

On the fourth day, Luca’s fiance Becky, a ski instructor from Britain working in Switzerland, came up to help out. Luca actually went down to meet her at the dam, and the two of them came up the trail together. It turned out that the trail Alessio and I had looked coming up the first day was really not in good condition for winter touring, so Luca and Becky took a longer, still challenging route around the lake. Luca had been planning to take Marco down on foot, but Marco was adamant that he ride down in a helicopter. He had very little mountain experience and the trail required some technical knowledge and better gear than Marco’s slippery snowboard boots. Fortunately, the helicopter company gave Luca a deal for being a frequent customer, and they came in a window of sunshine on the morning of the fourth day to take Marco on the 30 second trip down the mountain. 

With Becky around, the language switched to a mix of Italian and English, since she doesn’t speak any Italian. She was happy to have us around and I didn’t mind the chance to feel a little more proficient while speaking. While Stefano finished organizing the food and his kitchen, the rest of us focused on the most important task: searching for a small pipe under some rocks, buried beneath 10 feet of snow. And finally, we found it! Luca took on the distasteful task of cutting it open (it was full of semi-frozen waste) to modify it for winter use, and we were one step closer to getting Bignami running right. The last tasks were to dig near the building to close the taps that drain the water systems (much easier to find in comparison to the septic), to uncover and install the remaining solar panels, and to install a stove on the second floor to spread some heat beyond the main room and the kitchen. With only a few minor mishaps (Luca accidentally cut some wires giving power to the bedrooms, and the generator died), the tasks were more or less accomplished. 

Alessio taking a break on day three of shoveling.

Triumphantly enjoying the sun after finally finding the septic pipe.

Our excavation zone... with the rifugio for scale.

Evening walk with the dogs.

Happy mountain pups.

We were working hard but having a wonderful time; breathing fresh mountain air, living the rustic life we like, enjoying great food and company. Alessio and I would have very happily stayed longer, but we had another obligation to Rifugio Madioce. We had not promised an exact day, but the weather forecast indicated several days of snow, potentially creating avalanche hazards and keeping us at Bignami for an extra four or five days. On the morning of the 25th, we woke to falling snow and heavy fog. The snow was quickly covering Luca and Becky’s tracks for us to follow on the way out. We had hoped for good weather for our descent, but we didn’t want to get stuck for days waiting for conditions to improve. Luca outfitted us with crampons and gave us tips on the trail, setting a deadline for us to turn back if we were taking too long. Fortunately, the visibility improved as we dropped in elevation, and we were able to spot the Luca and Becky’s tracks for most of the way down. The large channel that was most prone to avalanches had a very stable snowpack, and we made it across with no issues. In the steep parts of the trail, we were very happy to have the loaned crampons. The last segments of the trail, a fifteen minute trek in the summer, took us an hour and a half of steady, careful stepping, planting poles firmly and clearing the packed snow from our crampons every few paces. The trail was completely drifted over, and a bad slip would mean sliding all the way to the lake. We were happy to set foot on the dam by the time we were done!

Starting the descent, visibility improving.

Geared up. Modeling the old school jacket.

The easiest part of the trail.

Alessio studied the maps when we got back to Morbegno and decided on a potentially better route if we go back to Bignami from Valtellina in the winter - next winter when he will be able to ski. For now, our plans are to return to work in June, when the trail will be a comfortable hike. 

We heard from Luca the evening we got back - all the systems were working and they had been able to take the first hot showers of the winter season. We just missed appreciating the amenities, but we were happy to have helped get them up and running. We’re looking forward to going back!

Lupa, queen of the mountain.