From the comfortable flatness of London, Alpine trekking evokes images of paths meandering towards isolated peaks and a soft mattress of pine needles covering a path running through the woods. Not in the mountains surrounding my hometown, though.
Boulders make a natural staircase through the beech wood, ascending parallel to the rumbling torrent. A road has been dug through the valley that opens at the end of the treeline, but “road” is too much of a word. It’s a river of syenite, a stationary rock avalanche that somebody has half-heartedly arranged into something resembling a flat surface. The path, when I eventually got to it, turns out to be made exclusively of slabs of stone. There’s no bouncy padding of pine needles and leaves, here: only rocks, boulders and blocks of stone.
My brother and his other half, when unencumbered by their posse of Labradors, cover the 8 km and 1200 metres of elevation gain to Monte Camino in about two hours. Normal people, a sign said at the trail head, would cover the same distance in three. My aim, triggered by deluded self-respect, is to get there in under three. As I eat the peach that I’d promised myself as a halfway treat, I begin to question my optimism.
I press on, climbing up and down the boulders. From somewhere come the only words I know from an Irish song and my brain repeats them nonstop in a Paddy rendition of Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ.
One two three four five
Hunt the Hare and turn her down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol lol le rah!
And so it is that, repeating whack fol le rah like a possessed man, I scramble past the refuge, say hello to the early morning skyrunners – already on their way back and bouncing like goats from boulder to boulder – and land on top of Monte Camino. The time is 09.55 and I started two-and-a-half hours before.
I stand on the dichotomy between two worlds. Here are the lowlands, flat as a pizza and Vietnamese in their sequence of green rice paddies, humidity and clouds of mosquitoes.
There, instead, is the crystal-clear air of the mountains and a parade of icy peaks: the Monte Rosa massif. Mount Cervino, Matterhorn for the non-Italians, stands on its own with a cloud as a hat.
A Buddhist prayer flag flaps near the Catholic chapel. A Bernese shepherd dog is more interested in my bresaola sandwich than in my cuddles. Time to descend.
Hikers come in two types: those who find the way down a lot harder than the way up and those who are wrong. The ultimate StairMaster becomes trickier and more taxing as I negotiate it downwards, but there’s a constant stream of dogs to pat, of trekkers to say hello to and of things to photograph. A herd of cows is moving across a minuscule plateau with bovine placidity, guided by dogs commanded in dialect by the young shepherd.
A bee and a wanna-bee (I’ve been dying to write this for ages) pollinate some field flowers.
A cable car soars overhead.
Then I’m back in Oropa, where teenagers play violins and, somewhere, there’s a bar with Menabrea on tap and the Black Madonna smiles benevolently.