Finally, after weeks of heavy snow falls, freezing cold and nasty storm winds, the forecast for the Central Apennines was promising a small weather window of about forty-eight hours. Just enough time – so I thought – for translating a plan into action which had germed in my mind quite a while ago. This rather ambitious project was a full traverse of Monte Sant’Angelo (2,669 m), from the high plain ‘Piano della Casa’ to a peak called Cima Pomilio, a night at the bivuoac ‘Fusco’ and, with favourable snow conditions, an ascent of the west face of Cima delle Murelle via its steep central gully. To be blunt, none of my aspirations were met.
The avalanche bulletin for the Majella range had not foreseen major hazards. However, a minor negligence in my preliminary route planing turned out to be a decisive blunder. But let’s start with the beginning.
After a short night with only a little sleep – and a 3 1/2 hour drive – I reached the trailhead (the gorge of Fara San Martino, 470 m.a.s.l.) at about AM 7:30. I put on my boots, strapped my bag and started out on a perfectly sunny winter morning. For the first stage of this trip, the valley ‘Valle di Santo Spirito’, I had calculated no more than two hours. Even with a total load of 38 lbs on my back I made it to the trail junction ‘Bocca dei Valloni’ (1,100 m.a.s.l.) fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. The first larger spots of snow showed up at an altitude of about 800 m, and above 1,000 m snow was covering rocks and path alike. The snow itself was rather compact, so it did not slow me down too much.
I would head on straight, and also my calculations for the second stage – from ‘Bocca dei Valloni’ to another trail junction, situated right at the upper end of the valley ‘Valle di Macchia Lunga’ – turned out to be just about right. After almost 1,300 metres of elevation gain it felt right to pause, have some tea and enjoy the beautiful view on the surrounding peaks. While still melting snow in a small aluminium pot, persisting noises drew my attention to a high rock ledge right beneath the passage which was supposed to take me up to the high plain (‘Piano della Casa’) from where I intended to mount the prolonged ridge of Monte Sant’Angelo’.
The winter sun, slowly nearing its zenith, was working hard on the iced cliffs above, melting the crusted snow which had held loose rocks and larger blocks of ice. I could hear the trickling of water, the hissing sound of small amounts of snow rushing down the ledge and rocks plunging into the deep snow at the foot of the escarpment. Still observing the rocks, I sensed yet another movement. Massive pieces of ice, the size of diner plates, had become detached from the overhanging ledge. I heard thuds and, shortly after, a sound like rotor blades as these pieces came leaping down the slope.
I decided to press on with the ascend, passed the escarpment and, only after a few hundred metres, reached the steep slope which had to be traversed in order to meet the ledge. The lower part of this slope was strewn with massive chunks of frozen snow, about 1 1/2 meter in diameter. Checking their consistency, I also tried to push one of them over. That nasty piece wouldn’t move an inch!
The slope itself was about 300 metres high, this I could see on the map. The upper parts, however, were hidden from my view and held large accumulations of loose snow. I had a very peculiar feeling, like something was holding me back from behind. So I stopped. What was it? I scrutinized the upper end of the slope, the lumpy surface, the colour of the coarse-grained snow and the reflections of sunlight from the ice crystals. The slope itself was divided by a group of larger trees. With only about 30 metres between me and those trees I wanted to give it a try, but only after a few steps on consolidated snow my foot sank in deep, right up to the knee. Here the snow felt wet and very grainy. Another few steps and the it changed again. … And then again. I stopped beneath the trees and peered through the low branches.
The second passage would be much longer (approximately 150 metres) and slightly steeper. In order to reach the ledge I would have to gain another fifty or sixty metres in height. That strange feeling hadn’t left me. Think again! … That was when I REALIZED that I had rarely seen a slope looking more avalanche prone than the very slope I was just about to traverse. Here I had it all: a southern exposure, an inclination of almost exactly 40 degree, unstable snow (corn snow, probably interspersed with wind slabs), suspicious frizzles on the slope surface and, last but not least, the late hour (almost noon). I instantly knew that I was dashed.
A spontaneous wet snow avalanche might be slower and less dangerous than a man-triggered dry snow avalanche, and it is not very likely to kill one right away, I knew that. Anyway, I wasn’t very keen on finding myself (and my heavy bag) half-entombed under masses of cement-like snow, neither being able to free myself nor with anyone near to pull me out. The worst possible case I could think of was myself still contemplating the blue sky above while gradually turning into an icicle.
There were even more adverse aspects to consider, though. The snow above the ledge and that on the crucial part of the exposed ridge might be of the same unstable consistency. Turning back at a later point I would have to cross this very slope for a second time! A truly unnecessary risk. Only reluctantly I turned back on my tracks.
The disappointment was complete. During the descent I felt conflicted and stupid. Why hadn’t I calculated the exposure of this ridiculous slope while preparing the route? Why hadn’t I thought of any viable fallback option? And what about my assessment? Had I become overcautious? But what about this strange and very intense gut feeling which made me reflect on the given conditions in the first place? I guess, I will never know whether my decision to turn back was accurate. Perhaps nothing would have happened. But I can’t help remembering the words of Hermann Buhl: “Mountains have a way of dealing with the overconfident.” Basic lesson learned this time around: Don’t tempt providence when on your own.
Addendum: A few weeks after this failed attempt I learned from a local that my gut feeling really kept me from committing a terrible and possibly fatal mistake. Only days later the very slope I had turned away from became the scene of one of the most violent and devastating slab avalanches of this winter. With the heavy bag (40lbs.) on my shoulder, I can imagine, I might have triggered this wet and concrete-like snow pack all too easily.