"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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!