A couple of weeks ago (before the Emmental Bandits made away with my camera), a friend and I hatched a plan to walk up a mountain. We had no maps or compasses, no proper footwear and, basically, no clue, but it was a sunny day and the mountains were looking appealing so, standing in the garden, we pointed at one of the largest peaks we could see and said “let’s go up that one.”
That one, as it turned out, was Monte Mondolè. At 2,382 metres it’s not going to be worrying Mont Blanc any time soon, but it is one of the larger mountains in the southern Alps. It’s just above Artesina, a ski town about 45 minutes to our south. It was starting to look very much like a plan.
My wife, aware that I have responsibilities these days, did the sensible thing and called the Artesina tourist office before we left to check that they had maps that we get us safely to the top. “Si, certo”, she was told. Of course they do, they’re a tourist office!
As a town, Artesina has taken a fair few beatings from the ugly stick. It has also been dragged backwards through the ugly bush, before being kicked in the face a couple of times. It’s not very pretty. It was purpose built, presumably at a time when nobody really cared what a building looked like, so long as it served its purpose. The buildings are all basically colourful concrete triangles. The setting is incredible though, and being perched on the very northern edge of the range, it affords uninterrupted views across pretty much the whole of Piemonte.
We parked in the centre of town and went to find the tourist office. Ski towns off-season can be strange places. Some really embrace the summer, marketing themselves as walking and mountain biking destinations, others (see, for example, Artesina) don’t. It was like a ghost town. Everything was shuttered up. Except the ski shop. That was open. Though I’m guessing they’ve had a fairly quiet couple of months.
We eventually tracked down the tourist office. It was at the wrong address, inside an estate agent’s, obviously. I ran through my opening gambit in my head a couple of times, just to get it perfect, and then in we went.
“Buongiorno,” I said. “Ha una mappa dei sentieri, per favore?” (Do you have a map of walks, please?) Nice. It came out pretty well. She appeared to understand and even responded (in Italian): “Ah yes, your wife telephoned this morning.” This was good. She had been expecting us. With this, she scurried into the back room to find the maps she had put aside for us.
Five long minutes later, she re-emerged with two rather pathetic looking leaflets. The first, she informed us, was of a different area… “lontano da qui” (far away from here) apparently. The second showed all the refuges in Piemonte. No walks though. And that was it. Nothing more. I managed a disbelieving “ha solo questi?” and was greeted with a solemn, slightly embarrassed nod. Crap.
Time for plan B. We walked up to the ski shop, startled the owner, who clearly wasn’t expecting anyone for the next three months at least, and picked up a ski piste map. Looking at the various lifts around us, we worked out where we were and spotted what looked like a blue run snaking up to our left. This should take us halfway up the mountain, at which point we could pick up a red which would take us to the top of the ski area. From here, we could leave the pistes behind and hopefully head up to the top of Monte Mondolè. Not traditional navigating, granted, but we figured it should get us there.
So, we set off. Within minutes we were high up above the town. It looked a bit more attractive from up here; the triangular peaks of the buildings seemed to fit in slightly more from above, and the views across Piemonte had got even better too.
For an hour and a half we continued upwards, passing only a herd of rather large cows and a few marmots, until finally, hot, sweaty and tired, we neared the top of the ski area.
We passed the final lift station and crested the ridge to be greeted by one of the most bittersweet sights of my life… a mountain refuge with at least 50 cars parked out front. Children ran around screaming, old people lazed in deckchairs, making the most of the late-summer sun and two nuns were setting off up Monte Mondolè. Here we were, having climbed for nearly two hours in complete solitude, ready to add our names to the list of great British explorers, and everyone else had just driven up. Rubbish.
On the plus side, we got to sit outside the refuge and have a nice plate of polenta and salsiccia and an ice cold beer. There’s the sweet bit.
Having watched a few people, nuns included (though they had God to help them I guess), heading up towards the peak, we were now pretty confident we could make it. And we did. It was another hour and a half, with a few steep and challenging sections, but the 360 degree views more than made up for it. Behind us, pristine mountains stretched all the way to the coast, to our left were the western Alps, going as far as the eye could see, dominated by Monviso, while straight ahead were the Langhe hills, looking pretty insignificant all of a sudden.
At the summit, we signed a visitor’s book of sorts and plotted our route back down. On our way up we’d noticed several paths below us that we reckoned would get us back to Artesina, and we always had our trusty piste map to fall back on if we needed.
The descent was just as beautiful, and remarkably uneventful considering we had no idea where we were going. We made it back to the car in a couple of hours, tired but rather proud of our unexpected success. We even managed one final success, finding an open bar in Artesina for a celebratory beer.