CUNEO – THE ALPS
In 2009 I went to Cuneo in Italy to trek around the Alps and get some experience of walking through deep snow in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Patagonia and Antarctica in 2010.
I invited a friend of mine Ady, an experienced mountaineer from up North who offered to give me some tips on the different types of snow grades to look out for and how to get myself out of a snow pack, this is when you suddenly find yourself waist height and above in snow and have to kick your way out of it.
Ady told me that there are 5 types of snow that you need to know about when out and about trekking or climbing, it is essential to know about these for your own safety:
The five types of snow
This is the fresh fallen snow, it is extremely soft and easy to walk through and if you fall over generally you will not be hurt, often referred to as ‘forgiving’ snow it is a pleasure to walk through as so little effort is required. Though please be aware that it does cover up and hide rocks and crevasses which are dangerous and so care is still needed at all times regardless of the snow grade.
This is widely known as the next step up from powder and is where the snow gets packed in certain places and piled up in others, it tends to form an even uneven surface with slippery patches along with large lumps of powder and is uneven and bumpy.
This type of crust snow forms when the sun melts the top layer of powder and the cold wind then makes it freeze solid again, this crust will then sit upon softer powder snow, sometimes it can be walked upon as a harder layer but often it will give way as the crust can be patchy and this can break ankles so be aware and use caution in this type of snow.
Slush is basically snow that has started to melt and therefore becomes more wet, this snow is heavier than light drift/powder snow, and can be slippery to walk through and will soak any none waterproof footwear and trousers.
Up on the slopes you will find snow that has been melted and frozen many times this then forms icy compacted snow which is the opposite to powder as it is hard, slippery and nowhere near as forgiving as the powder snow. It is incredibly rare that you will encounter a slope full of this icy stuff but beware that it can happen.
You must also be aware of cornices the overhanging formations of windblown snow which can be unstable and hard to see from the windward side, these are lethal and care must be taken at all times, never hurry, move slowly and take your time to ‘test it out’ before moving forward.
Avalanches are common in these mountainous areas and occur when a large amount of snow falls down a slope, this is usually triggered in a starting zone when gravity forces the snow to fall and gain more in mass as it falls, avalanches usually accelerate rapidly again from the force of gravity as it starts to fall downwards.
Avalanches can also be triggered by people doing snow sports such as skiing, some animal activity, explosives and of course weather such as high winds and thunderstorms.
Galimberti Square, Cuneo
This upmarket shopping square is full of fine chocolate shops, fancy cake parlours and plenty of boutiques full of Italian fashions – all very expensive and exclusive shopping, it was fascinating to walk around and see so many people immaculately dressed all with little pedigree dogs on leads.
Some of the cake and chocolate shops were like nothing I had ever seen before, the choice was quite remarkable like something out of the story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Cuneo was founded in 1198 and is part of Italy’s Piedmont region, it is situated more than 500 meters above sea level, snowfalls here are frequent owing to high altitude and wind patterns.
The province of Cuneo extends to the south-western tip of Piedmont bordering France to the west and Liguria to the south and the Alps cover most of the higher areas, while at the centre there is a vast plain traversed by Po, Tanaro and other rivers. The Parco Naturale delle Alpi Marittime (natural park) features high altitude lakes that reflect the surrounding peaks with stunning views on a clear day and I saw these reflections which were picture perfect. This area is particularly stunning with a landscape view any artist would love to paint or photographer capture on camera.
As it was late December, almost January there was thick snow everywhere and the square looked very pretty, it was swept and maintained daily, at the back of the square out towards the villages and mountains were huge snow drifts, some of which were thigh high and were good practice to walk through.
Further out we hiked for a day much further up near the mountains where the areas had really deep crevasses some of which were above waist height and it was here that I experienced walking through snow one minute and being plunged into a deep pack of it the next.
Ady told me that I had to get myself out of the snow and that he would not help me as it was good practice to learn how to do it unaided, the snow felt tightly packed around me and he said to kick myself steps out of it and climb out.
This is incredibly hard to do and took a lot of strength and effort, but once I had practiced it a few times, as I had found myself waist height four times during this day, it did get easier, the powder snow was of course easier to move than the cruddy crust snow which had patches of harder stuff packed in.
It was a good practice day in familiarization of trekking through uneven snow and some valuable lessons were learnt in how to move through it, respect and judge the area.
The Alps – frozen avalanche climb
On one of the days we caught a local bus out of the town past deep drifts of snow and up towards the Alps, jumping off in the middle of nowhere we began trekking upwards and onwards.
We climbed steeper and steeper until we reached a trail track on a mountain, it was stunningly beautiful up there and the snow was very deep in places with mini crevasses hidden under the snow and warning signs for avalanches dotted along the track.
We moved further on, passing only two other people in the whole day spent up there, huge icicles had formed and entombed mosses and other greenery inside them, they hung like huge transparent and green jewels from the rock face.
We continued on passing by more and more evidence of former avalanches where whole trees had been ripped up and covered in snow with just a few branches sticking out, one of the avalanche warning signs had been ripped out and was tangled untidy in the snow pile up.
Eventually we reached a dam that reflected the mountain flawlessly in its glass like still water, this was perfect as the sky was perfectly blue and the breeze still, the water reflected like glass.
On moving on we came across a huge frozen avalanche and rather recklessly began climbing up it, the snow was hard and compacted in places, much of it in the crust stage of formation and it was tough to climb. The snow had compacted into balls of really hard snow in some places which was like walking on small rocks, it was interesting to experience.
The day was long and tough with all the climbing and hiking and on the way back around 4pm the weather suddenly changed and it snowed heavily, we had a long 3 hour walk back in the falling snow and even with our hoods and gloves, etc. on it felt mighty cold.
Clothes wise layering is the best way to keep warm with wind and waterproof layers over the top of these, gloves or mittens should be lined with silk liners as these really keep the heat in, when we got back to the first village we stopped in a bar for a hot chocolate with whiskey in to help warm us up.
We went to a small friendly ski resort in the Italian Dolomites called Alba, which has 10km of Piste (1520m to 2430m) situated at the end of the Fassa Valley with a ski area on Ciampac close to the Marmolada Glacier.
Ady is an excellent skier and snowboarder, he practised both and did so with ease, but due to my already having smashed up my right leg in a former accident and having 4 operations on it I am not allowed to ski for obvious reasons so I did not risk it.
Instead I photographed the area of skiers which contrasted beautifully with their bright colours against the white snow and then went off on a walk of my own for a couple of hours where I discovered icicles and snow drifts galore, it was a beautiful white wonderland, some houses that looked as though they were made of gingerbread were covered in snow with just the roofs sticking out.
One of the villages I walked through had a snow plough slowly dredging up snow, there were villagers on their roofs with spades getting the snow off and vehicles had snow chains on the wheels, it is clearly a constant and ongoing battle.
The wind chill picked up again by around 4pm and I felt cold to the bone and so headed steadily back, again stopping for a hot chocolate and whiskey at the first village, then at the second and also at the third village on the route back, this drink was now so comforting and warm it was required at any opportunity.
The short time had here, 5 days, was spent wisely in doing as much hiking as was possible and of course climbing the frozen avalanche was a bonus of being out there, the views were stunning and it is a place that I would go back to, perhaps as a holiday to explore a bit more of the area rather than my chosen reason of snow practice as the area is beautiful, however for my chosen purpose it was also an ideal experience.