Yes, I know what some of you will be thinking. We are well and truly in the summer now. Heat has been blasting across Europe like the roar of a flame thrower. Much of Spain is on fire. Parisians are melting like ice cream in the heat. The citizens of Rome feel like they have detached from the earth and are drifting towards the sun. Even in London we are stepping outside to be greeted with a blast of hot air, like walking into a politicians’ debating chamber (but without the accompanying waft of bullshit).
So why am I writing about the last snow of spring? Well, you know how it is. I have a full-time job and I’m also in the process of publishing my second full-length book. It’s not easy writing a weekly blog post as well. I have a whole stack of trip reports piling up, ready to be written. So here, belatedly, is one of them: the second half of our return to the Apennines over Easter.
You may recall that back in May I wrote about our easy if enjoyable hike up Pizzo di Camarda in the Gran Sasso range. It was still quite early in the afternoon when we arrived back at our car that day, so we decided to drive up to Campo Imperatore to check the condition of the road. This impressive thoroughfare climbs to over 2,000m. In the winter it lies under several metres of snow, and the only way up to the high plateau of Campo Imperatore is by cable car.
It was late April and the summits of Pizzo di Camarda and Monte Ienca had been dappled in snow. We weren’t sure whether the road would be passable yet. If we were able to get up to Campo Imperatore in the vehicle, a place surrounded by a ring of mountains, then we would have many more options for the following day.
We managed to get as high as 1,600m, rising high above lush grasslands, and we were blessed with a fine view along the ridge we had climbed earlier in the day. The turn off to Corno Grande, into the heart of Campo Imperatore, was still closed, but we could drive along the fringes of the plateau to Fonte Vetica on its eastern edge. The plateau was already alive with spring colours. Carpets of purple and yellow lit up the floor.
This eastern end of the plateau was already familiar to us from an epic traverse of its two dominant mountains Monte Prena (2,561m) and Monte Camicia (2,564m) two years ago. We left the summit of Prena at 3pm, with Monte Camicia’s silver crown still a long way off, but we decided to press on. It was a difficult ascent with some hairy sections. But we reached the summit shortly after 6.15 as the last glow of the evening sun lit the mountaintops above Campo Imperatore. It remains my favourite of all our days out in the Apennines.
We didn’t need to climb those two peaks again, but there are two more 2,000ers east of Monte Camicia – Monte Tremoggia (2,331m) and Monte Siella (2,027m) – that we hadn’t climbed. These two peaks are the dying embers of the Cresta Orientale, a 20km ridge extending east of Corno Grande that sports a number of 2,000m peaks, including Monti Prena and Camicia. They were an obvious objective for the following day.
Our reconnaissance completed successfully, we descended 1,000m to spend a night in the ancient and picturesque village of Assergi, where we enjoyed steak and red wine, but I emerged with an impressive scar on my forehead after smacking my head on a low beam in our guesthouse (which had once been an old shepherd’s byre). In these rural parts of the Apennines, you have to take the rough with the smooth.
Perhaps I was still feeling a little groggy when we reached the car park at Fonte Vetica for the start of our climb. It was cloudier than the previous day, when we had experienced beautiful blue skies, but the clouds were above the summits. Monte Camicia loomed directly overhead, still crowned in a mitre of winter snow. It was the obvious peak to climb, but we’d already done it once before. Without considering this, I described to Edita a route up the two much smaller peaks east of it.
‘We go up to the col between Monte Tremoggia and Monte Siella. We turn left up the first one. Then we come back down to the col and go up the second one.’
We were both looking at Monte Camicia as I said this, which caused me to err.
‘Of course, if we get to the top of Monte Tremoggia and decide we want to climb Monte Camicia again instead, then we can continue over the top, but that means we’ll have to come back and climb Monte Siella another day.’
‘Why don’t we go up to the col and turn right up Monte Siella first?’ Edita said. ‘Then come back, climb Monte Tremoggia and continue over the top to Monte Camicia. Then we could do all three.’
‘Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?’ I said, rubbing the scar on my forehead.
From that moment on, there was no circumstance that was going to stop us climbing Monte Camicia for a second time, bar a sudden thunderstorm or earthquake, or perhaps an alien spaceship landing on the summit and zapping us with beams while we were still on the way up.
Some people say that you should never return to a place where you have enjoyed the happiest memories, because the second time will always be a disappointment. This is patent nonsense. I’ve climbed any number of peaks (Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Mera Peak, Jebel Toubkal and Chimborazo among them) where the second time has beaten a very enjoyable first trip hands down.
The fact is, there is no golden rule. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not as good, but if you enjoyed it the first time, then there’s no reason to suppose that the second time won’t be enjoyable too.
As I have already mentioned, if I had to nominate a best ever day out in the Apennines among the many enjoyable days we’ve had, then our epic traverse of Monte Prena and Monte Camicia would probably be the one. It was certainly the most satisfying, reaching the summit of Camicia at 6.15pm, after a scaryish ascent where both success and safety had sometimes been in doubt.
A second ascent of Monte Camicia would have a lot to live up to. But it was about to happen by chance. It hadn’t been my intention to climb it again, but the mountain was there, so why not (which sounds like the sort of thing George Mallory might have said).
We set off up a gully on what looked to be a popular route. There were hikers both in front and behind. The gully was still choked with ice, so we kept high to the left on a firmer trail.
It wasn’t much more than 300m from the car park at Fonte Vetica to the col between Monte Tremoggia and Monte Siella. Here we reached a snow field. Monte Tremoggia rose steeply to the left, and all the other hikers went that way, but Edita and I angled to the right to reach a long, grassy ridge. The rim of Cresta Orientale is a view of contrasts. Over to our left we were looking down to the lowlands and Adriatic Sea 2,000m below us. On the right of the ridge Campo Imperatore was much closer, a hidden grassy sanctuary hemmed in by the surrounding peaks.
It was an enjoyable ridge walk to the summit of Monte Siella, which was more of a high point on the ridge than a distinct summit. As we approached the top, a camoscio (chamois) was disturbed by our presence and we watched it charge down a steep snow slope to our left with all the speed of a skier. Not only was this an act of great speed but also great agility. It was mesmerising to watch.
Beyond Monte Siella, the ridge of Cresta Orientale continued over more summits as it descended to the lowlands. It would have made for an interesting walk, but we had other plans. We turned around and made our way back along the grassy ridge. Monte Tremoggia was clearly more of an ascent than Monte Siella. It looked like it would be a gentle grassy climb in the summer months, and much of it was now, but its summit was still encased in snow.
Behind it Monte Camicia rose much higher still. It was clearly the one you would describe as ‘the proper mountain’. But we had descended it that way before and we knew it wasn’t difficult from this side.
As we approached the col, Camicia disappeared behind Tremoggia and our focus returned to the latter. We could see little black dots crawling up the snow fields beneath its summit. One of them appeared to reach the top and ski back down again, but when we reached him he wasn’t carrying skis. Had he glissaded (a posh word for sliding down on his arse)? We didn’t ask.
Two more hikers passed us on their way back down as we were putting our crampons on at the bottom of the snow field. It was still too early for them to have reached the summit of Monte Camicia, so they must have turned around at the top of Tremoggia too.
We trudged up the steep snow slope, following their footprints. The summit of Monte Tremoggia was a small plateau. Most of its summit cross was still buried in deep snow. A couple we had overtaken on our way up the gully earlier in the morning now returned back across the summit carrying their ice axes. They also could not possibly have climbed Monte Camicia this soon in the day, so although they were equipped for a winter climb they had decided to abandon it.
The summit of Monte Camicia still looked a long way off, but we were undaunted. We knew that it was little more than a gentle snow traverse, much more straightforward than our ascent from the other side at a much later hour of the day.
It was past midday, so we decided to sit down for some lunch looking along an attractive ridge that curled around to the left, dropped a little, then rose again to the summit. The left side of the ridge was a basin of snow with more tracks cutting across it. We had a choice of routes: we could either keep to the ridge or traverse across the snow slope below. Neither option looked especially difficult.
One peak that looked more of a challenge was a tooth of rock protruding from a spur beneath the steep right side of the ridge. In winter, the north face of Monte Camicia is a true alpine mountaineering objective, a sheer 1,000m wall that only the most gifted climbers can even contemplate. But this little tooth that I studied as I ate my sandwich, appealed to less talented folk. Its name was Dente del Lupo (literally ‘Tooth of the Wolf’) and it was 2,267m, which made it one of the Apennine 2,000ers. It was the Apennine equivalent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle and therefore something I might have to climb myself one day. I didn’t like the idea.
Our sandwiches eaten, we returned to Monte Camicia. Until now, you could say that we had been hiking, but it now felt like a proper mountain climb. There was plenty of snow and we traversed an enjoyable, winding ridge. Although we could see the obvious trail across the steep snow field below the ridge, I generally prefer ridges, so I decided to follow somebody else’s footprints up the crest.
We now saw two more climbers ahead of us turn down the snow field to the left and start descending. They had clearly decided to abandon the ascent as well, like the four or five people we had seen before. Why? It wasn’t clear. All of them were equipped with axes and crampons for the winter conditions. Confidence on steep snow was going to be needed, but it was still what I would describe as winter hill walking. Italy can boast some hardcore alpinists, but perhaps here in the Apennines the average hill walker is less intrepid than their counterparts in the UK. Many Munro baggers wouldn’t think twice about continuing in the conditions we now saw ahead of us.
We could see two more hikers still making their way up the snow basin below us. It wasn’t the most enjoyable way to climb Monte Camicia: hard work through soft snow. Apart from these two, Edita and I had the mountain to ourselves now and we were certainly going to reach the summit before they were.
Whoever’s tracks I was following up the ridge was more experienced. They picked the easiest way along the crest for the most part, but as the ridge dipped, curled around and rose again, their tracks occasionally dropped below the ridge to take a shortcut beneath. I was impressed, and he or she had made it easy for me.
Eventually the ridge petered out and we were faced with a short, broad snow slope up to the summit. We joined the summit ridge at a place where I remember breathing a sigh of relief on our previous ascent. I had been nervous on the way up, and never sure whether we would make it up and down safely. But once we were on the summit ridge and Edita, who had been up before, had reassured me that the way down the other side was easy, it was a magic moment: relief mixed with a sense of achievement and delight in our surroundings.
I still have a photograph of that moment as the desktop background on my laptop. The black silhouette of Edita’s figure makes its way up the summit ridge. A shaft of evening sunlight touches the summit of Monte Prena, and Corno Grande rises behind it wreathed in a halo of cloud. The clouds and the light conditions were different today, and there was a little more snow, but I asked Edita to wait on the ridge as I ran up to the summit to try and recreate that photo. It had been such a happy moment that I wanted to try and make it happen for a second time.
There is rarely a repeat performance in real life. You can’t press the rewind button and experience it all a second time. Our second ascent of Monte Camicia hadn’t been quite as satisfying as the first: it had been a much shorter day along an easier route. But even so, Monte Camicia is a great mountain, and it was fantastic to be there for a second time. We sat just below the summit and had a second lunch. We had plenty of time today, and we wallowed in it. We were there for quite some time and the two climbers we had seen on their way up never joined us. We were the only people to climb Monte Camicia that day, despite there being many starters.
It was late April, and I knew that back home in the UK, the peaks would be losing their winter snow. Here on Monte Camicia we had experienced the last snow of spring. It was my first visit to the Apennines in two years and I promised myself that I wouldn’t leave it so long again. These mountains are easy to reach from London: just a two-hour flight to Rome and a two-hour drive.
As we raced down the snow basin back to our car at Fonte Vetica, below us Campo Imperatore felt like a second home.