Twenty four hours – Pollino in Winter (Part I)

This year’s November and December must be considered “lost months” for anyone who, like me, might have been waiting impatiently for winter’s snows to cover the peaks and slopes of the Southern Apennines. About fifty centimeter of fresh snow had fallen around new year in the lowlands alone, and one would expect the mountains to have received their fair share respectively. A misconception, and rather a common one, that is.

As the plan was to make a full traverse of the southern chain of the Pollino range (1st day), the so-called “Traverse of the Infinite”, and a solo ascent of the east face of Serra delle Ciavole (2nd day), I found myself pranked doubly. The forecast had been nearly perfect. Except for a “stiff breeze” from a northern direction.

Well, what I actually found on reaching my trailhead was a full-blown gale. An oneiric sunrise, not a cloud in the cobalt blue sky, and then that: a glacial wind coming in with more than 60 mph, and this at an altitude of only 4,000 ft (1,200 m). I had to use both hands in order to open the car door, and when I stepped away from the car I got hit by a gust that almost knocked me over. After just five minutes outside without gloves I couldn’t really feel my fingers anymore. It didn’t take much imagination to fancy the wind speed at the altitude of the exposed ridge I had intended to climb with a 40lbs backpack. No way!

From inside the car I could also see now that both the ridge and the east face of Serra delle Ciavole didn’t hold a desirable amount of snow. In fact, the ridge was almost devoid of snow and the rocks of the face look rather ‘divested’, too. I knew that, unless I wanted to return home without having accomplished anything, I had to come up with a fallback option.

A decision wasn’t made instantly. Some mountain roads had become almost impassable. Not because of the snow, for there wasn’t any, but because of a thick and hideous crust of ice covering the asphalt entirely above an altitude of circa 1,400 m. It took me several hours to find a passable road, and I finally parked at ‘Colle d’Impiso’. There was no sign of the gale I had experienced on the other side of the mountains. 10:30 AM, still unsure where to turn I found myself inclined to do a repetition of the north ridge of Serra del Prete, an ascent which should leave me enough time to figure out where to stay for the night.

There was only one thing I hadn’t reckoned with. There was plenty of snow on the tree-covered north slopes, its consistence of the worst conceivable kind: a hard frozen layer on top which purports to take a load but inevitably gives in as soon as one’s body weight shifts from one leg onto the other. Progress was made accordingly, slow, and still it was utterly exhausting. What a relief it felt reaching the timberline! At approximately 1,900 m the remaining snow on the windswept ridge was frozen trough, and the exposed rocks were coated with ice. No real problem for a pair of crampons.

An ascend of the north ridge of Serra del Prete is always rewarding with great views, weather permitting. Also this time it was spectacular. The only drawback – but I had expected it – was the strong wind which still sent violent gusts over ridges and peaks of the mountains.

As neither the central depression of Serra del Prete nor any of its slopes held enough snow to dig a useful snow cave (or at least a snow shelter) I decided to descend right away and either try to find a better spot on the slopes of Mt. Pollino or prepare myself for a stay at the bivouac on Colle Gaudolino.

The descent, however, was almost as exhausting as the ascent. Wet, knee-deep snow, again! After traversing the inevitable beech forest I fancied a short break at the bivouac. A cup of tea and I thought myself ready for an ascent of Mt. Pollino via one of the snow gullies of the north-west face. As I finally reached the treeline and the scree ramp that precedes the entrance of the gully I had chosen long, dark shadows were already rising from the valley bellow. With the sunset approaching fast I figured that I would not be able to reach the summit before nightfall.

From my position the upper slopes looked all ice and exposed rock. Unless I would be wanting to do some mixed climbing in the dark it would be better to turn back. So why not enjoy the colors of the imminent sunset, catch some breath and collect some dry wood for the bivouac’s fireplace instead? And this I did.

With the stars already twinkling in the night sky high above the mountain tops I reached the bivouac and managed to light a small but pleasant fire. Some cup of tea and a hot soup later I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the flames consuming the few twigs and dry branches while slowly dozing off.