Another clear day welcomes us at the foot of the Val Porcellizzo as we park under a thick forest of coniferous trees and sharp rocks. I start thinking about how lucky we’ve been with all these beautiful days. And how when (because sooner or later - statistically speaking - it will happen) the mountains will show us their dark side, made of cold, rain, and wind, we’ll be shedding bitter tears.
But not today - today, we’ll enjoy the sun. So, we begin walking – this will be a long one.
More than 4 hours of climbing await us before we arrive at the Gianetti hut, our destination, nestled at the foot of the Pizzo Badile at over 2500 metres. We’ll have to climb about 1300 metres after a long summer of time off. Our M4810 training was put on hold for over two months since the Methodos Red Week and the Vallée Blanche.
So, this is not just any outing. In many ways, it’s the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. The last of the first outings from various points of view.
September 2019 should have been a milestone on the M4810 calendar: our first 4000-metre peak. But, following the suggestions of the Courmayeur guides that are preparing us for this undertaking, we decided to postpone the more difficult climbs to 2020. Spring will see a development in our training and technical tests that should prepare us for the final challenge of the Mont Blanc.
In fact, we’ll shortly have to define the future of M4810 by booking our spots in the hut to participate in the Mont Blanc expedition.
It will be an introspective choice - a personal one. Because those that will do it will be aware that the group training won’t be enough, that total individual commitment is needed to follow through with the endeavour.
With all of its pros and cons, this new awareness transformed the outing into a sort of return to the origins. We’re on our own, no guides. We’re not split into group 1 and group 2: we’re simply here as Methodos, all together and united. No distinctions, no groups; “we’ll break up into groups along the way”, as they tell us at the start of the climb.
I think about how we’ve changed, how a statement of that sort wouldn’t have had the same meaning a year ago. We’ve gone through an incredible evolution, not just at the technical and physical level but, above all, at the psychological one. The variety of paces in the group - what seemed to be an obstacle until a few months ago – is now an acknowledged strength. We know that groups will take shape and that no one will be left on their own. Our various outings have taught us that when there’s a choice between the peak and the team, we’ll always choose the team.
There are many of us, I see some people that I haven’t seen in a while, and many new faces. Our perfectly matching uniforms provided by Salewa today are “stained” with green, pink, and orange: a beautiful patchwork that characterises the new arrivals in Methodos, who – for obvious reasons - couldn’t fully take part in the expedition, but who wanted to participate in this beautiful learning experience anyway.
We being climbing into the thick of the forest and we understand immediately that it’s serious. The road immediately starts winding up the mountain and begins claiming its victims. Add some granite blocks to jump to and from, and the muddy puddles left by the streams that run through these valleys, and you begin to understand that this won’t be an easy hike no matter how you look at it.
In exchange for our efforts, the view is magnificent and surreal – characteristic of this part of Lombardy. Big, lush valleys that somehow, almost magically, lead to the sharp granite tops of the mountains. It’s paradise for rock climbers and a pleasure to the eye, but also another return to the origins since just over a year ago we were on our second outing in a nearby valley.
We pass through a tight rock gate that is, ironically, labelled “Thermopylae” in Greek. We walk by herds of sheep, waterfalls, and streams the colour of ice. At this point, we’ve been walking for over two hours when someone points up.
I struggle to understand what they’re point to. I see a wall of rock, the Pizzo Badile, but nothing beyond that. Then I take a better look: at the bottom of the rock there’s… a window. It’s the hut, camouflaged by its grey rock walls. It’s very faraway and very high up. My palms begin to sweat as I think about how far we’ve got to go and the effort that it will cost us.
But by now we should know how it’s done, no? One, two, one, two, one, two… step by step we continue climbing. Even though, this time, the rhythm lacks the usual continuity: one, two – jump on the rock – one, two – avoid the puddle. It’s hard keeping a good pace while climb what seem like massive steps laid by ancient giants.
Our calves are burning and the silence around us is deafening. No one says a word, we’re all focused on the final metres of the strenuous climb. One of the groups loses sight of the trail and ends up doing sort of terrifying free climb on a slope of rock and grass, but nothing can stop us now: the hut is so close it hurts!
As always, setting foot on wood and – above all – sitting on a bench, is the most beautiful feeling in the world. We share laughs, stories, beers, and chocolate. We’re all exhausted, as was expected. We’re in contact with those that decided to stop at a lower point: apart but close, we’re all aware of our own level and our own choices. With every outing, we challenge a part of ourselves, as individuals and as a group.
The descent, as we already know, is the hardest part for many of us. Some have knee or ankle pain and the paces differ… it’s during the descent that we remember that nothing can be taken for granted. This path also seems to be doing everything to challenge us with its slippery rocks and its camouflaged mud puddles.
It’s while I chat with a colleague and try to jump over a stream that… PLOFF! I sink into the mud and find myself on the ground. I look back to where I stepped and I can see that I was knee-deep into the brown puddle. I pull out my leg, cursing, and realise that… unfortunately, it wasn’t all mud.
I walk the following kilometres towards the river surrounded by the laughs of the rest of the group and the delightful smell of manure.
In part for necessity and in part for pleasure, when I arrive to the next stream, I take off my t-shirt and jump head-first into the ice-cold water, with my filthy pants and boots still on. Freezing but beautiful, the way that only a mountain stream can really be. I can feel the bite of the cold on my tired legs.
And I’m not the only one who took the plunge: from the CEO to the intern, we find ourselves splashing around among the rocks. For a moment, we were all kids again, despite our various ages and levels of seniority – the way a project like this should be!
When we find ourselves back in the valley at the end of the day, I see smiles all around. Strangely, above all among those that didn’t make it all the way to the top. “It’s the first time I don’t make it to the top, and I thought I would have been angrier. Instead, I really enjoyed this hike! I always discover something new, on the outside and on the inside,” shares Sabrina while we sit on the grass to debrief.
Another smiling face is Lilly’s. “My word for today is trust,” she shares. “Trust in the group, but also trust that I can still be part of this project, in some way.” This hike tested her, but her face tells a story of a battle won. The peak, the goal of reaching it, is fundamental. But it’s not the only one. It is also important to push our own limits a bit further that we thought we could every time. And she has been teaching us all this since the first outing.
We should not be scared of the Mont Blanc or of the challenge. We know that the M4810 “school of Change” is long, difficult, and challenging. But we have to look at the road walked so far and what awaits us positively. There are no failing grades. The diploma is within reach, and if we give our best, we’ll all reach the final goal. All according to our own possibilities, but all together.
From now on, every step forward will be as personal as it much as it belongs to the group.