As each season comes around I somehow feel that it must be the best time of year right now. Each autumn my father, in his sixties and ever keen for an adventure, comes out to visit. We usually head out to explore some corner of the Alps I havn’t visited before so it is an adventure and research for me too. He has spent much if his life working in the woods and so we each see very different aspects of the landscape. Traveling together on shares different aspects than one sees individually.
I find even the idea of wilderness, emotionally loaded as it is these days, to be a refreshing idea for the mind. Riffling through maps, planning routes, cols and nights in remote refuges. It is easy to think that the Alps are so worn into the groove of tourism that no wilderness can be found. One only has to explore them on skis in the winter when all civilization is hidden under the snows, or stride out for in the autumn, to find enormous tracts of land can be traversed with little contact with the trappings of society. Though much of the landscape is busy with hikers and climbers throughout the summer months only a few seem to venture out in the Alpine hills in the Autumn!
Though the valley hardwoods have only just begun to turn, the frosts have already touched the high pastures and the top of the tree line. The larch needles have already warmed to a fiery orange and are ready for a gusty storm to scatter their colour. As I walked under some low branches they caressed my shoulder, covering me in needles and filled the open camera bag at my waist. When meandering in the mountains without specific objectives in mind I find I am more open to the experience of the landscape. I find the anticipation of each horizon fills me with a quiet euphoria and I savour each revelation as the landscape unfolds. For me this provides a rhythm to these delicate mountain days.
All the Swiss and French national Alpine Club huts and refuges I have visited have had a ‘winter room’. In Italy this seems a little more irregular. The weather forecast in the western Alps for the week my dad was out was atrocious, with repeated bands of weather from the northwest. We opted to drive 5 hours east across northern Italy to outflank the worst of it. My Italian is very poor and I had failed to find out conclusively whether the Rifugio Cristina, high above Valmalenco would have a winter room.
On arriving at the Cristina we found there was no winter room, but by good fortune the ebullient guardian Marcello was doing some maintenance work on his Rifugio and kindly let us use one of his outbuildings for the night.
Overnight the rain tapped politely on the tin roof. The beams were the full round lengths of a mature larch trunk, each over a foot thick and vastly oversized for stature of the small cabin. The blankets had that characteristic itch, and the pillows had a mild odour of disuse, or maybe overuse. Nevertheless mildew and the passage of bodies somehow takes on a rather cosy feel after a good walk with a big pack full of camera equipment and provisions. Later in the night the rain restarted with renewed faith and vigour. We were pretty happy to be in a building rather than a tent as we heard the water running off the roof and forming a moat in the saturated turf around us.
During the summer season my schedule gets pretty busy with both personal projects and guiding and photography assignments. I guess everything is relative to ones expectations… This is not a metropolitan hectic, but a mountain hectic where everyone is trying to squeeze as much fun into their days as possible. The pace of things usually carries me along until my body crashes with fatigue and the summer season runs itself out.
The autumn in the Alps however rarely gets hectic. I treat it as a time of recovery and taking stock of the year, maybe a little like people greet New Year after the excesses of the festive season. I enjoy the autumn. The rainy days feel like great excuses to catch up editing the seasons images, hang out with friends and little by little recover from the weight loss of the summer’s work. The valley smells are rich with moist wood, mulching leaves and fungi. The snow advances down the mountainsides in fits and starts, refreshing the clear lines of the high mountains.
With each snowfall a new high water mark is drawn across the landscape, valley after valley. The lines are sometimes clear, like a statement of intent. The changing colours and softening light seduce me out to chase the morning light and search for new angles on these well visited and well photographed landscapes.
After a long day’s hiking through sunshine, up over a barren windy pass and through an afternoon of short yet dramatic rainshowers we arrived at the Bivacco Anghilero e Rusconi.
It was a remote tin shed bivouac hut in the Italian Swiss border and situated on a col with a magnificent view. There was a stove and gas, mattresses and a few blankets but little else.
The changing of the seasons are keenly felt in the alps. They are not quite like the apocalyptic shrinking of daylight that one experiences in the autumn in polar regions, but nevertheless the changes can be quite dramatic. As the sun turns a lower arc the warmth leaches back out of the rocks. Both the climate and vibe of the mountains turn over together. In early September all the bustle of tourism mysteriously vanishes and one by one the refuges close, the trade extinguished and the guardians descend to the valley. With the busy season is over I revel in the renewed spaciousness of the landscape.
I always wonder why everyone takes their holidays at the same time. In the summer there is of course more likelihood of classic ridges being in condition, but we all end climbing together and on top of each other! As the seasons seem to be less and less predictable I find there is often plenty to do at all altitudes in autumn. Nevertheless the weather is often a little capricious and as many refuges are closed trips certainly demand more improvisation. In the high mountains the snowline leaps and bounds back down the slopes, only to retreat and start one again. In some autumns this can lead to exceptional climbing conditions on the big Alpine faces. Other years they stay bare and icy and one is better off heading out without into the mountains without objective or intention!