Monte Amaro, a mountain worth drinking to

I’m going to start my latest trip report from the Italian Apennines by talking for a short while about alcohol.

One of the more accessible peaks in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca is 5752m Pisco, which happens to be the name of a popular brandy-like liqueur drunk in large quantities in South America. It is also the name of a city on the Pacific coast, and there is a story (which I don’t quite believe) that the French climbers who made the mountain’s first ascent in 1951 celebrated their achievement with an extended pisco drinking session in the city of Pisco, and that is how the mountain got its name.

After bagging 2912m Corno Grande, the highest mountain in the Apennines, back in July, Edita and I decided to turn our attention to the 2nd highest, 2793m Monte Amaro (if you’re familiar with obscure cocktails then you may be guessing where this is heading).

Could it be that Monte Amaro in the Apennines was named after a booze-up?
Could it be that Monte Amaro in the Apennines was named after a booze-up?

According to my guide book, the excellent Walking in Abruzzo, published by Cicerone, which has provided a fantastic introduction to the highest parts of the Apennines, Monte Amaro is known as the Mother Mountain, for reasons which aren’t explained.

But the word amaro in Italian means, not mother, but bitter. It also happens to be be the name of a herbal liqueur, frequently polished off as an after-dinner digestivo. Quite by chance we were served a glass after our steak at Edita’s local restaurant in Rome the day before we were intending to climb the mountain, which had to be auspicious. Could it be that Monte Amaro also acquired its name after a memorable night on the booze by its first ascensionists?

Edita certainly had reason to be bitter about Monte Amaro when she tried to climb it with a friend a couple of weeks earlier. It lies in Maiella National Park, on the eastern side of Abruzzo and only a short distance from the Adriatic Sea. It is frequently susceptible to thunderstorms, and they were caught in one on a narrow pine-clad ridge about 2000m above sea level. They were about 5km from their car, and with nowhere to shelter they had no option but to retreat along the ridgetop, and twice the lightning struck so close to them that they received shocks.

The Middle Earth-like Orfento Gorge is a much safer place to be in a thunderstorm
The Middle Earth-like Orfento Gorge is a much safer place to be in a thunderstorm

I didn’t fancy any of that myself. There was a thunderstorm in Rome the previous day, and I was in the bathroom when lightning struck about five metres away from the window. I was in the right location, because it scared the shit out of me. We checked mountain-forecast.com, and discovered that after heavy rain on Saturday we could expect beautiful blue skies the following day. We set off late from Rome, and enjoyed a very pleasant gorge walk in the Orfento Valley on Saturday afternoon, before tackling Monte Amaro on the Sunday.

As well as containing the 2nd highest mountain in the Apennines, Maiella is the second highest massif, after Gran Sasso, the range which contains Corno Grande. We have spent a few days exploring Gran Sasso this year, but this was my first time in Maiella. Like Gran Sasso it contains half a dozen peaks over 2500m, but unlike Gran Sasso, whose highest peaks can mostly be described as distinct mountains in their own right, Maiella’s highest peaks are joined to Monte Amaro by a series of interlinked ridges, and could conceivably all be polished off in a single day if you put your mind to it.

Outside of this cluster of peaks, the surrounding landscape of Maiella is much lower, which meant the view was stupendous as we drove up to the trailhead at La Maielletta, where the Italian Alpine Club runs a comfortable mountain hut called Rifugio Bruno Pomilio. Corno Grande was very clear, rising up 60km away across the lowlands nearly 2000m below us.

Up ahead we could see the more barren tops of the Monte Amaro massif rising up out of the forest
Up ahead we could see the more barren tops of the Monte Amaro massif rising up out of the forest

Apart from the roof-of-the-world feeling, the start of the walk from the hut was less than pretty, from a car park surrounded by radio masts. We started by walking up a road along a ridge, which was happily closed to traffic (or else we would have driven as far as we could go). It was unusual because there were quite a few other hikers heading in the same direction as we were. Apart from Corno Grande, which was very busy, we have nearly always had all the mountains we’ve climbed in Abruzzo to ourselves.

A narrow film of cloud obscured the view to our left, but we were fine with the view to our right, to Gran Sasso in the north. The road ended, and the trail continued along the ridge through a grassy moorland of shoulder-high pine bushes. Up ahead we could see the more barren tops of the Monte Amaro massif rising up out of the forest. We soon climbed out of the cloud, and for the remainder of the day, until we came back down again, we enjoyed beautiful clear skies and superb views of the interconnecting peaks and ridges.

The trees provided a surprising amount of shelter, and after traversing up a boulder field to a bare shoulder of mountainside at 2500m, we were soon forced to put on windproof clothing. The temperature remained warm, however, and there was a moonlike quality to the scenery. From beautiful verdant forest we were abruptly into a land of silvery grey, but it was a magnificent landscape nonetheless.

We had a magnificent skyline walk ahead of us, up and down over peaks and along ridges, with distant Monte Amaro within view the whole way as we made our way towards it
We had a magnificent skyline walk ahead of us, up and down over peaks and along ridges, with distant Monte Amaro within view the whole way as we made our way towards it

A wide basin lay before us, and we could see across it to the first of the high peaks, 2596m Cima della Murelle and 2737m Monte Acquaviva. The first of these was buttressed by a striking jagged rock face, but the latter was gently rolling and more typical of the other peaks in this range. We discovered Acquaviva was the mountain most people had come here to climb, being much closer to the trailhead than Monte Amaro, which still lay another two hours away over the horizon.

We got our first sight of Amaro as we turned to the right and followed the ridgeline to the gentle top of 2676m Monte Focalone. At this point my camera battery chose to run out, and I discovered the spare one I had in the camera case was also drained. I’ve never tried extended mountain photography using a phone before, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of photos which my Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini produced.

We now had the massif to ourselves again and we had a magnificent skyline walk ahead of us, up and down over peaks and along ridges, with distant Monte Amaro within view the whole way as we made our way towards it. We crossed over the top of 2656m Cima Pomilio, descended to a col beneath 2658m Monte Rotondo, then had a lofty traverse beneath the rocky summit ridge of 2673m Cima dei Tre Portoni. The final approach to the summit of Monte Amaro was across a grassy plateau then up gentle ash-grey stony ground.

The approach to Monte Amaro from the north includes a traverse beneath the rocky summit ridge of Cima dei Tre Portoni
The approach to Monte Amaro from the north includes a traverse beneath the rocky summit ridge of Cima dei Tre Portoni

We reached the summit at 1.30 after about four hours of walking. It was marked by a dark red post, an eight-foot crucifix, a red golf ball-shaped hut that wouldn’t have looked out of place at some sort of early-warning station, a large bronze plaque, and several stone walls. There were even some Buddhist prayer flags to remind us of the Himalayas.

Apart from these things it felt remote, and a wonderful place to be. On the western side the land dropped away almost 2000m into emerald forests and fields, and to the east we could look across the Valle Cannella to Monte Acquaviva and the cluster of peaks we had crossed two hours earlier. The stone walls served a useful purpose, and we were able to shelter from the wind and have a sandwich.

The only way back was the way we had come, up and down over peaks and ridges, but the wide views remained for another couple of hours, until we descended into forest again and encountered a very different world. We’d had beautiful blue skies on the high reaches of the massif, but now we had descended into cloud and visibility was down to a few metres.

Edita arrives on the summit of Monte Amaro among golf ball shaped huts and Buddhist prayer flags
Edita arrives on the summit of Monte Amaro among golf ball shaped huts and Buddhist prayer flags

We stopped to fill up our water bottles at a natural spring, where a group of friendly Italians showed us some of the photos and videos they had taken of their walk. One of them had a poor head for heights, and not only did she have to suffer the humiliation of needing to crawl along an exposed section of the trail on her hands and knees, but then had the incident filmed on camera and shown to a couple of complete strangers. They also had some photos of chamois, which in Italy are known as camoscio.

We had a bizarre drive back to the lowlands. Visibility was down to little more than ten metres, and Edita had to trundle along in first gear until we came out of the clouds. We expected this to happen quite quickly, but the fog went on and on and on, and when we finally emerged into daylight my altimeter told me we had descended through 800 vertical metres of cloud.

The walk had been fantastic and I am falling in love with the Apennines. This time last year I had barely thought about them, but since January we have climbed nearly a dozen peaks over 2000m there, and had many more adventures. I have recently discovered that a group called Club 2000m has mapped out 249 distinct peaks over 2000m in the whole range. It’s taken me seventeen years to climb 86 of the 283 Scottish Munros, so the Apennine 2000ers will probably take me a while, but we’ve made a good start.

All 249 Apennine 2000ers? I’ll drink to that (hic).

You can see more photos from the hike in p.4 of my 2015 Italy photo album.

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