Another sunrise gives start to this day. It’s something that you learn quickly when you hike: you have to wake up with the sun, there’s no way around it. A long road awaits us today, we’re going to Val Masino for the second outing in preparation for the M4810 project. We’re crossing the whole eastern side of Lake Como, up towards Switzerland, and the mountains become higher and higher as we approach our starting point: the slopes of Monte Disgrazia.
In the shadow of its imposing shape, we look up at it a bit perplexed by its name (Mount Calamity would be its name in English). It doesn’t look particularly welcoming! But our guide, who will be with us for the trek towards the Ponti Hut, at 2559 metres, laughs at us and assures us that there is nothing to be afraid of on this mountain: in fact, its name evolved as a play on words of its original name, Monte Des’giascia (of ice), given for its glaciers, whose pronunciation the locals started to distort.
We left the Milan heat, a sweltering 31-degree June day, and came to find a freezing wind. The mountains around us are white tipped… snow! We’re getting serious, going straight to high altitudes. The day’s path is different, rugged and mountainous, more similar to the one we’ll encounter on the Mont Blanc.
The spirit of the group is also different from last time. Some miss the attendance call, but most people are motivated and more than willing to do it. They made it through the first experience, which for many was the very first, becoming aware of their own limits but also of their ability to do it. Some trained again in the last month. So, this time it’s looking good: maybe we’ll be able to have lunch at the hut all together!
We start climbing in this idyllic place that is Val Masino: the river flows through the middle, a blue that doesn’t look real, and the sound of the water accompanies our footsteps. The group is rowdier and more active than ever, all chatting loudly, laughing and joking as if it were a trip with friends. This extraordinary vibe continues to surprise me. Seeing them like this you’d never say that they’re colleagues, they look like more like a group of childhood friends!
The route is pretty trying, rocky steps that make our calves call for mercy. As always, there are the experts that guide the line, with a fast and sure step that us average walkers envy. Then there are small groups, divided by their different paces, that chat and share the fatigue, to then find themselves occasionally pausing by the river to play in the water and take some photos.
“How great!” someone whispers triumphantly when they reach the view point. “I hate the mountains,” hisses someone else, sweating and destroyed by the climb. Even this is part of the challenge… who knows who will reach the end of this journey having surpassed even their own convictions.
We climb and climb, the elevation that we gain seems crazy when we look back to see the blue river flowing far below. It’s beautiful to see how the more experienced team members - those who could easily take off on their own - look after the less experienced ones, reminding us that we are doing this together. When we find ourselves with the hut in sight I look at my watch, surprised. Two hours have passed, flew by, between chats and laughs, and I can’t understand how we managed to climb so fast, without even stopping talking… the training worked! And, to complete our hike, we break out into a snowball fight while crossing a north-facing section where the summer sun hadn’t yet done its work.
We arrive at the hut, a small passage signals the path to the other valley in sight: part of the group is already there, taking in the sun, the other is making its way… a short radio check confirms our feeling, that we all made it, that the last group is arriving! We did it, this time all together, with the strength of individuals pushing the group and vice versa. Obviously, the spirit at the table in these circumstances is different: there’s a lot of us filling the hut’s lunch room, getting up to toast others, changing seats, happiness (and wine) flow like rivers.
By the time we finish eating, energy levels are still high, and some of us decide to do the craziest thing of all: continue hiking, even on a full stomach!
It was actually crazy because the path couldn’t even be really called a path… just a series of rocks to climb and jump from one to the next – more reminiscent of the sea than of a trek. But even the highest amount of energy gets set straight by the mountains: we get blocked by a massive snow field. Those who dare to walk onto it sink into the snow as if they were just missing their skis, to the laughs of the others. Never mind, we’ll conquer this one another time.
We get back to the hut to find out that part of the group had already started to walk back down. It’s time to go. The day’s energy comes out on the descent, some of us running and jumping like mountain goats. As opposed to those of us with weaker ankles, who hobble along this terrible terrain hoping not to step on an unstable rock! The energy turns into a challenge, and we quickly lose sight of the first group, who disappear in the shadow of the Monte Disgrazia.
We feel the descent much more than the climb – maybe because we didn’t feel the climb enough. It’s a pleasure to get back down to the river again. We all take off our shoes, the braver of us dipping their feet in the ice-cold water, yelling in pain and pleasure. A frisbee appears out of someone’s backpack and seems like it also wants to cool down. It ends up in the water and is bravely rescued, to the delight of many laughs.
An end that is too good to be true… right?
Exactly. When the last of the group arrives, we realise that one of us is missing! A tense moment comes on as we ask each other: who’s seen him? When did he come down? Was he in front or behind? It turns out that he, with another member of the group, got so into the competition that they forgot the number one rule of the mountains: always follow the path! They found themselves alone at a certain point and, while trying to find their way, the others lost sight of them.
It’s just that one made his way back and one is missing. And the Monte Disgrazia is ironically living up to its name, cutting our telephone signals, and making it impossible to call him. Some worries stir the group. Did he get hurt? Did he get lost? No one understands where he ended up, and no one had seen him, even in passing by! One of us musters up the courage to climb back up, in an attempt to look for him; others head toward the parking lot where the cars were, hoping to find him directly there. Some stay in the same spot, acting as a midway radio point, in order to be able to communicate. Though it’s unlikely that something serious happened, the atmosphere is a bit tense, as would be expected.
At a certain point the radio goes off, and we hear the voice of the disappeared: “What’s going on? You’re all so slow!” Everyone laughs, relieved.
The group that went back to the cars found him there, exhausted and a bit scratched up from a small incident along the way. After having strayed off the path and lost sight of his partner, he didn’t manage to find the route again, so he cut across the juniper plants to get straight to the cars!
When we find each other again, we don’t hold back on teases and laughs. The guide jokes with us, recounting that from all the children’s camps that she’s done, the first person she’s lost is a consulting manager. Some things you can’t not laugh at! But there is also a serious note to it, a necessary awareness that this is not a game: the mountains don’t joke around, and to get onto the Mont Blanc we can’t joke about it too much either. And while we worked together to face the potential emergency, someone comments that even this taught us something. And it’s true.