Getting to Grips with Vertigo (part 10, Monviso)

For someone who spends most of my life in the mountains for both work and fun, vertigo is a seriously tricky affliction, affecting both walking and driving in annoying and often completely illogical  attacks. For example – a 3000ft drop posing no problem as long as there are trees, whereas a 30ft drop down a steep grassy bank or scree slope cut into a hill can be paralysing and walk-ending.  I’ve struggled with this for years and while I’m making inroads into overcoming it, it’s excruciatingly slow and I’d love to hear any ideas or success stories anyone has to share before my endlessly patient husband finally loses the plot with me altogether.

For our wedding anniversary this year we decided to continue with the age-old tradition (started last year) of popping up to the higher hills to see off some of August’s more intense heat and gain a bit of altitude. I’d got it into my head for some reason  that I’d like to hike up to 3000m and Viso Mozzo in the Monviso Natural Parc seemed like a reasonable bet.

Scaredy cat that I am, I actually googled the road up to the Rifugio Pian Re where I’d booked us in for a couple of nights and finding it on the  DangerousRoads.org site did absolutely nothing to reassure me – “The road is difficult and it’s a nightmare in the wet or dark (or both). The road still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs”.  Lucky for me the road was pretty fogbound, and I wasn’t driving, so didn’t have to worry much on the way up.

Our destination was so utterly spectacular that our little legs carried us straight off on a mini-hike to see what was round the corner.  What you get in the alps more than Liguria is a lot more water, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands and you immediately notice the difference that a river makes as a companion on a hike – the ever present rush and burble.  What you also get, in this part of the Cottian Alps is the Salamandra Linzai – a very funky looking shiny black salamander that constantly gets under your feet when you’re not looking – one even walked along under my camera bag when I stopped to grab a shot.

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We turned in early after delicious food, some vino and a round of cards,  ready for a bright start the next day – we’d calculated something like a seven hour walk. At the crack of 8.15 we were off, striking out from the car park and soon encountering the source of the River Po, sparking some musings on it’s length and destination (the Adriatic, apparently).  The path climbed steeply upwards, magnificent crags on both sides and we’re on the shores of Loch (ok Lago) Fiorenzaan impressive lake, it’s blue hue reflecting the mighty Monviso. A bit more climbing follows, all on very friendly, non challenging terrain – apart from one tiny section but I push through it without too much worry.  Around the next corner and the delicate Lago Chiaretto reveals itself, named after its startling turquoise waters.

It’s here that I get my first taste of the collywobbles – I can see a traversing path along what looks like a steep scree slope and I start to get myself worked up – I’m feeling pretty strong and determined though so we agree to get on up to it and see how it feels.  Which turns out to be OK, huge relief that I’m not calling the walk off after less than an hour.  It’s a short-lived reprieve though, as in no time at all we reach a rockfall with alarming – “very dangerous, fallen rocks” painted on the boulders which sets me a-jittering again, just in time to get onto the narrow and steep traverse around the edge of the hill.  I’m not liking this much, even though the exposure is only genuinely lethal in about one place – question here for other vertigo sufferers, is anyone else really bad when there’s a blind corner combined with a drop? Because I’m still feeling determined I manage to round the corner and can see the path gets a bit less tricky up ahead, with solid ground on both sides again.  It’s all very rocky, there was a big glacial collapse here in 1989 and it’s not long before we encounter another couple of scary bits, with a fallaway path which Ted coaxes me over – I don’t enjoy it but the drop isn’t the worst I’ve seen and soon we’re onto the boulder field proper which makes me very happy – although it’s not ideal for the dog with lots of big gaps to potentially lose a leg in.  This goes on for a while and with another one or two tricky* sections we finally pop out onto the Colle di Viso and it only takes one look at Viso Mozzo for Ted to firmly declare there’s absolutely NO WAY he’s taking me up there (we reflected later that we should have just started up there and seen what is was like, as a lot of the paths look worse from a distance).  Given that I’m wobbling on a fairly flat wide path that slopes steeply down to the lake, he’s probably right and so we carry on the few hundred metres to the dramatically located (and reachable only on foot or in a helicopter) Rifugio Quintina Sella for a brief refreshment.  The clouds are coming and going on the face of the mountain and I set up a little time lapse while Ted is photographing stills – there’s background sounds from almost constant rockfalls and I think of the climbers up there and hope they’re all safe.

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As we’re not going up the ‘big hill’ we decide to carry on for another hour or so in the direction of a different pass and we stay on splendidly friendly terrain for the duration, giving us time to admire the waterways and the magnificent mountain flowers, omnipresent in both this area of the Alps and Liguria where we are based – every mountain seems to have it’s own unique variety – I swear I see a new flower on every walk.  Today’s special is a rich purple delphinium.  Given that the clouds are swirling and we haven’t seen a weather forecast since yesterday – deliciously wi-fi and cellular signal free up here – we decide that we should turn around, it’s no place to be in a thunderstorm.

The return walk is almost strife free – despite the fact that I’d spent the last two hours dreading the scary bits on the way back with my mind conjuring up all sorts of hideous unwanted scenarios (one of which was disembowelment on a sharp rock!!).  I was only properly scared on one bit but by keeping an eye on the path and putting one foot in front of the other, thanking the universe for the wonderful cloak of fog it had again provided, I make it over the gnarly bit and can breathe easy again for another day.

It was genuinely satisfying to know that I’d stuck with it and managed to do a bit of fear conquering and we decide to celebrate by adding another night on to our trip and do some more walking the following day.  Unfortunately for me, exposure to The Fear has a sensitising rather than alleviating affect and on day three (with hardly any sleep the night before) the chimp part of my brain has got up early and is banging on in my ear from the first sight of steeply traversing path which I’m praying isn’t our route.  I’ve got a whole different level of wobble going on today, I feel dizzy, shaky and almost physically sick on the first few metres of said path and have to beat a very hasty retreat (anyone else do the dangerous drunken run/stagger thing when faced with exposure?) leading to an instant change in destination for the day.  Luckily we’re in another very beautiful valley and it’s no hardship to divert up the other side of the hill.  Until about 100 meters from the top that is, when I find myself completely incapacitated again. Dang and blast.  Ted goes on ahead and comes back saying I’ll hate it (!) and won’t gain anything by carrying on up – but in spite of the fear I’m also seriously pissed off about being beaten, so we decide to stop and have lunch and give it some thought.  There’s another path higher up which I think looks much friendlier and so after a very pleasant hour spent lunching and lazing we go off piste and upwards (following the ibex we’d been watching ascend the hill earlier), clambering up a bit of scree/grass and onto a path that’s pretty much identical to the one we were on, just a bit higher.  For some bizarre reason it’s less frightening than the other one, yet I still grind to a halt (another bend) and Ted has to spend another 10 minutes coaxing me round and up and over with admonishments to ‘really dig my poles in’ and ‘stay upright’.  Embarrassingly there’s actually people up there having lunch who must wonder what this weirdo woman is scared of, but knowing I’ve got to clamber back down again the same way I can only allow myself about 45 seconds of admiring the view on the other side of the Col before I have to go immediately back down before I freak myself right out again.  Ted makes me take the scarier of the two paths on the way back – maintaining that it’s actually the least dangerous of the two and I reluctantly but firmly join him and arrive back where we’d left our packs – because life is always less scary without a pack, right?

Anyway, to cut a very long story short, we had a few really lovely walks in the Monviso park, finished off with a delightful hour sat on a large rock watching the light roll across to us down the valley on Saturday morning.  I’d be fascinated to hear anyone else’s vertigo/fear of heights stories, especially coping strategies or ways to overcome it entirely, please feel free to message me privately or share your experiences in the comments section.

 

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*only for me, it seems

 

 

 

Pizzo Di Ormea

16km 1100m ascent

Climbing out of Chionea and Tetti Soprani we are almost immediately stopped in our tracks by an outstanding flower meadow, progress is halted for a while as we attempt to get some shots but mindful of the weather that might come in later and wanting to avoid any possible storms on the high open tops we tear ourselves away, vowing to return and do it justice on another occasion.

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Flower Meadow 1
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Flower Meadow 2

The track turns up and along a ridge, and is quite rocky in places, the sun and gradient making for sweaty work. Before long we catch sight of a porcini patch in our peripheral vision, some makeshift bags are prepared from coats and waterproof camera covers and we’re back on our hike with an few extra pounds of weight in the bag (Ted’s not mine by some stroke of luck).

After following a track for a while we realised the path we’d been trying to join was now above us, we must have been so excited by the ‘shrooms that we lost concentration, nothing a quick cut up the hill couldn’t fix so we traverse across the vegetation until we’re back up on the ridge. It’s here I spot the first wild clematis I’ve seen in the mountains, a real treat and I wish I’d stopped to photograph but thinking there would be more ahead of us, and with the cloud coming down we kept moving.   Not for long it turned out: not a hundred metres further along we looked down to our right and saw a sweeping expanse of wild azaleas – bright pink and impressively puncturing the mist swirling in the valley.

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A Gentian and Three Violas to make up for the missed Clematis

After a happy interlude with the flowers we stopped for a snack lunch, jackets on now the sun had disappeared for good. A quick review of the path forward and we opted not to go to the highest summit with visibility being less than ideal.

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Traversing around the hill we came across the Rifugio Valcaira (an unmanned site) and immediately decide we need to go and stay there for a week, we could only guess at the view but it was bound to spectacular. From here the route started to follow a track and flattened out across a plateau before we came to a crossroads where we began our descent in the direction of Quarzina.

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Rifugio Valcaira
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Ted and Zed disappearing into

Zed had the first of two run-ins with a husky here, luckily it’s owners were on the case and they called him back before any swords were drawn. All of this while we’ve stopped to photograph two old enamel baths up on the hillside, presumably at one time there as water troughs, although their current placement – one wedged end on in an impossibly small gap in the rocks and the other upside down suggested those days were past. More spectacular azaleas up here amongst a boulder strewn Tolkienesque landscape before we round another small peak – Monte Castello di Quarzina – and turn east again to head back to Chionea along the lower track.

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Azaleas and Boulders
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Bath Number 1

Not far along and we happen across a bizarre boulder and barbed wire combo – it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Tate and we could only ponder it’s reason for existence as there were no old fences around suggesting it was abandoned materials from an old field boundary. We took some photos anyway, it was an interesting juxtaposition, especially surrounded by wildflowers.

 

The signposts were soon promising a lake, which was getting me quite excited, it was easily warm enough for a dip. We arrived to find it very small by Scottish standards but it was tempting enough for me to strip off and dip the feet in, before deciding to beat a retreat having found it occupied by hundreds of very fierce looking newts (or were they baby crocodiles?).

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A Brief View of our Path
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Baby Crocs?

The husky owners had also advised us to steer clear of the pastoral dog further down the hill (at least I think that’s what they said, my Italian not being quite what it could be).   On hearing the jangle of cow bells lower down we decide to make a detour to avoid their pasture, missing out on a church en route, but it’s always good to leave something for another day.

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Lofty stuff for a vertigo sufferer
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A few more flowers, because why not…

More mushrooms and an set of abandoned farm buildings peaked up out of the mist, grabbing Ted’s attention for a while, Zed and I pondered where the twenty or so horse riders had arrived from, their ranks being swelled by a steady trickle coming up the track to meet them, at a canter.

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A Lesser Spotted Ted

We were well out of high mountain territory by now and seeing more signs of civilisation, the path lit up by dozens of laburnum trees in flower. There were also some gigantic chestnut trees, they must have been hundreds of years old and very impressive.

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A handful of laburnums
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Two chestnut trees, can you tell we’d moved onto iphone pics by now?

Passing through another couple of remote villages with little or no car access and in various states of abandonment, and our weary legs were glad to see the rooftops of Chionea come back into view. We were both buzzing from the day, agreeing wholeheartedly it was one of the finest walks yet.

 

Stopping off to verify the mushrooms with Antonio who runs our local bar (Bar Centro in Borghetto D’Arroscia – highly recommended by the way) meant we were easily lured into staying for a primo – gnocchi with trombette and pancetta washed down with some delicious rosé. A fitting end to a truly grand day out.

If you would like to see an animation of the walk on a map, click on this link:

https://www.relive.cc/view/1627442895