10,000ft up on Marmolada in the Dolomites. On an otherwise glorious day, we were caught in a whiteout. Apart from the members of our party and two small rocks, I could not see anything other than white. It was like a Doctor Who set. It incidentally fulfilled an ambition I'd had since I was eight years old and reading Willard Price novels. Thanks to the sun a few moments before and the reflection off the snow, it was quite hot, especially after trudging through the deep snow with full pack and ice-axe. The whiteout only lasted a few minutes. Having heard that such conditions ruin completely one's judgment of distance, I guessed the rocks to be a foot across, ten feet away for one, fifteen for the other. Whoever told me was right. They turned out to be small crags, perhaps a hundred and a hundred and fifty feet distant.
On our way up, we'd noticed the snow was beginning to loosen. Right before the whiteout, we came close enough to see small flurries - a few feet of snow in each case, having slid down the slope. Understandably, this raised the question of whether we were about to meet a large avalanche head-on. It dawned on us that we were in a steep, relatively narrow gully, with deep snow, after a week of sunshine. In other words, perfect conditions for disaster. The fog was penetrated only by the shhh noise of running snow in short bursts all around us. Then a deep, pervasive rumbling.
It grew nearer. It was uphill from us, but seemed to be from left, right and centre. "Bollocks, avalanche" was, I believe, the prevalent thought amongst the party. We looked at each other apprehensively. We looked up the slope more so.
The aeroplane passed a few hundred feet overhead without disaster.
When the fog lifted, there were more tiny avalanches to the left and right of us. We turned tail and ran.
Walking up a steep slope of deep snow is exhausting. Running down it is enormous fun. Unlike everything else on a mountain - with the exception, maybe, of falling off - it involves no care, consideration, forethought, wisdom, experience or sense whatsoever. Especially with an iceaxe flailing madly from one hand.
Having moved from right in front of any imminent avalanche to where aforementioned avalanche would reach thirty second later, we did the sensible thing and stopped for lunch. This was shared with two sexagenarians. One, Hungarian, was equipped with goggles and snowpoles. He smiled and said nothing, but turned back when told about the loose snow at the top. The other, a native of the Dolomites and now a Roman doctor, wore only boots and trousers. His skin looked perfectly roasted. It also looked like he had been emptied by some crazed colleague: across his skinny midriff was a deep scar, the remnant of a series of life-saving operations. "From these," he said lovingly to a packet of Marlboro. "My wife, she died - " He waved off our awkward condolences. "No, no, she die - six - sixy - eight - years old. The doctors," and we understood these were other doctors, without an appreciation of the finer things in life and thus highly un-Italian, "they sayed - you smoke four. Forty. A day. You must stop, or you die. She give up, and woomph! She die. One month later." He smiled at us benevolently, with a backdrop of Alps, the packet held in front of us. "When I die - no flowers. Just these on my chest. And two hundred packets on my grave!"
He insisted on the Hungarian taking a photo of him with his "sons". "I have four sons. Here are five. Is no different." Estelle was a son for the day. Two of his sons had not married but lived with their girlfriends. "I have only one son. Sonson. Grandson!" He went on - he was retiring in a year, and on the realisation he only had a short time left with his beloved cigarettes, resolved to reclimb the mountains he knew when he was twenty and a champion climber. Yesterday, he said, he had climbed Violetta without equipment. "Is there a cliff at the top?" we asked. "Yes - two hundred, forty metres. Straight up." We looked at our iceaxes, crampons and waterproofs with some humility.
We explained about the avalanche risk. "Is possible," he mused. "Lots of sun, the snow, it is loose. I think I turn back with you." We explained that we'd just come down, deciding to retrace our steps instead of heading for the solid, but precipitous, rocks on the right side of the glacier. "Ah, is good. This" - he gestured to the slope behind us - "this is OK. This" - to the right - "is no good. All the way down. Is many - " a gesture, inverted steepled fingers. "Crevassi. Crevasse? Crevasse." He grinned. "Is many people fall - woomph! dead!" Much laughter.
On the way down, we noticed a party of schoolchildren sledging directly below where the glacier was "no good".
I fear the woomph.
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