I wasn’t going to blog about Italy, in fact I hadn’t intended on interneting at all.
This was going to be the week where I did the stereotypical ‘writer’ thing. An early morning walk followed by seclusion in the Italian villa, rolling Tuscan hills laid out in a calm inspiring landscape, hopefully with some tall poplar trees.
I really should have looked at a map.
Anyone subjected to my incessant instagram’ing will know l was not in the rolling vista of Southern Tuscany. I have been in Montigiano, a small village north of Lucca at the foot of the Alpi Apuane, a spectacular mountain range on the edge of the Mediterranean coast.
In addition, rather than in a writers solitude, I was prevailing on the good will of friends and their very nearly four year old who had a spare room in their holiday villa. It is very hard to choose to sit in a room on your own when a little blonde moppet wants to play ball.
I knew I would spend at least a couple of days with my friends; those were well planned out, including trips to Lucca and the beautiful villages of the Cinque Terre by rail and boat.
This left me four ‘writing’ days.
Plan: short morning run around the two local villages and the afternoon writing.
Reality: I nearly killed myself going for my morning run. Planning 5-10km I didn’t really take into account gradients and the additional 400m of ascent/descent added 3km. A 13km run in 28o heat was not my intention. Obviously I stupidly ran the first bit. I mostly stomped the last bit whilst swearing at having not taken out the suncream or a hat.. did a little bit of writing in between lunch and 4pm beer before dinner and the busy task of watching the sunset.
Plan: drive to the small medival village of Barga, find icecream and a cafe; write.
Reality: went to the Grotta Del Vento and met the lovely Maria, hope Kane really likes caves as I want to go back and do the 3hr tour.
Bought a better walking map at the caves. Went exploring up in the mountains. Found the medieval town of Barga and Fig and Walnut Gelato, took some photos and drove home. Played ball, drank prossecco, solved a massive plotline and wrote a short synopsis then gave up on writing and started planning a hike for Thursday instead.
I was lacking confidence in my fitness after the epic fail of Day One. However I still wanted to see more of the mountains so I ran through my plans the night before with my friends. I had chosen a route from a guidebook my friends had brought and adapted it. I included two obvious get out options; I could do a light walk turning back at the first refugio I reached, and I could also do an easier loop avoiding the Mountain summit if I chose.
It was 26o by 9am so I was glad to start the hike on forest tracks. The paths were well kept, marked and much easier to follow than my previous walks. I am actually happy with an uphill pull if I can take it at my own pace and the route was smooth and interesting. I made it comfortably to the refugio well ahead of schedule so I was happy to continue, although I still didn’t intend to reach the summit. I was about an hour into the walk, on the steep pull up towards a fork in the path, where a via ferrata route led off to the top of Monte Procinta, a vast stack infront of me. My path led out ‘across the blank wall of Monte Nona’.
Monte Nona. Grandmother mountain. ‘There are lessons to be learnt from Grandmother’ a rather erudite if dramatic thought ran through my mind in such a way that I can have only heard the saying somewhere, but who doesn’t need lessons? *
This was the first solo hike of any challenge that I had attempted by myself. I run on my own, a lot; I’ve travelled alone; quite frankly I drive alone, great distances, regularly and that’s probably the most dangerous thing I do (including climbing!), but I don’t trek alone. At least not in locations where spraining an ankle is potentially a seriously dangerous situation. Obviously I had my mobile but no guarantee of a signal and stuck out at night at 1300m is not a great idea.
I wasn’t really in any danger out here, it was one of the easier summits and I realise that I had risk assessed quite carefully; the route options, spare layers and snacks, knowledge of the nearest habitations at different points along the route, I even had a whistle. But this has come from a lifetime of passive absorption of outdoor knowledge through listening to my father; reading up on trail running; going climbing with friends and training for my SPA as well as over 9yrs in Science Education where an ability to risk assess everything is neccessary if you’re going to get 11b7 out alive.
But it also struck me that I’m 34, out on a moderately serious mountain hike and this is the first time I have done something like this solo or felt confident enough to do so and I have no idea if this is normal
Genuinely no idea.
I can name a couple of male friends who would, I think, go out on their own just to get outside and enjoy the challenge of a mountain. One female friend who might; but has only relatively recently started navigating herself rather than going on guided walks, and she’s been at this a while longer than me.
Is it age? Experience? Gender? Am I old or young to be doing this now? Is it normal? Does any of this matter?
A lot of this internal conversation and debate was prompted by, although did not take place at, the base of the vertical wall of Monte Nona.
Not at. At the base of the wall my mind was almost entirely occupied with the scramble and looming dread that if I was reading the direction and ….. lines correctly the apparently narrow ledge about a third of the way up the wall was going to be my path. I knew I was nervous as I was shaking out my hands as I scrambled steeply up. Of course the ledge was my path, and it was narrower than it looked. Narrow enough for the Italians to deem it necessary to put up a steel wire into the wall along it at a really uncomfortable level, just below waist height. I could stand sideways but defintely not next to someone. This is not a great situation as anyone who has read my blog in the past may know that I have a historical fear of heights and precarious situations. If I was too scared here that was it, job done. I started by taking photos but stopped when the change of perspective made me feel worse.
Breathe, Pause, Assessment: It’s wide enough to walk straight and easily, the rock is nearly all flat and the steel wire is clearly good and at a decent height at the only sloping bit; I’m more likely to get tetanus from the cable than to fall off and I’m pretty certain my jabs are up to date. It’s going to be fine and if its not well I couldn’t have asked for a better life.
Obviously it was absolutely fine. I was scared but not in the way where it starts to inhibit your ability and I was actually thinking through what I would do if I was walking up there with a group, both in terms of myself and guiding others.
The hike was beautiful, a combination of forest trails, mountain ridge, scrambling through rocky tunnels and down short descents or striding across smooth meadows. I stopped at an Auberge for coffee, ‘definitely’ found a cave with a Bear in it.. took photos of flowers, rocks and spectacular vistas, didn’t take photos of the genuinely scary rocky scree, passed mountain lodges, shrines, wells and wilderness. I revelled in the peace and space and sent photos and messages to friends and family I missed and wanted to share it all with.
That last point may have been the biggest of my lessons from the Mountain; a gentle reminder from Grandmother. I relish challenge and the outdoors, I love making my own decisions, I love the peace that comes with being out on the mountain. But none of those things mean to love it all alone. For some perhaps the mountain is enough, but I need people. More importantly I need the people I love. I have proved, felt I had to prove, over and over again that I am strong and independent and capable, there has been a driving force of ‘not having to need anyone else’. But that is a nonsense, an irrelevant point. None of my greatest, proudest achievements have been things I have done on my own. I may have been the driving force in many of them, but the things that have made me truly happy this year are the days spent and the things done with the people I love.
I am proud of climbing a mountain on my own, however little or big that may have been. But I am also happy that what I did at the top was send messages to the people I loved. For all my bluster, drive and independence it is me saying ‘I love you and I do need you’. But perhaps I need to actually tell them this; and then persuade them to come climb Mountains.
*post note: I didn’t realise that the spelling was incorrect and the Mountains name probably doesn’t mean Grandmother, Nona derives as ‘not at’ or not here. I honestly don’t know what nonsense I woukd have come up with if I’d known that but I’m sure I would have found something…