Disclaimer: This is not a review of Apuan Alps. This is simply my experience summiting one of them. The story represented is personal and is not intended to malign the location where the story takes place.
The mountain near Lucca called Pania della Croce is the fourth highest peak of the Apuan Alps, and is referred to as “The Apuan Queen.” It has hefty rounded sides that heave up to a pointed peak– and it has claimed the lives of quite a few trekkers. But none of this I knew when I joined some friends for a mountain excursion.
I had admired the peaks of the Apuan Alps from Lucca, and from the Versilia coast, but I had not know their names and thus when I agreed with my friend Isa to do an excursion to “Pania” that her friend Paolo had organized, I had no idea it was the formidable mountain I could see from my bike rides.
Paolo’s email gave a brief overview which stated that we’d drive to a trail head and start hiking around 12:30 at night and that we’d hike up a mountain and sleep up there and that a “spettacolo” was guaranteed when the sun rose. He said in the morning we’d eat in Gallicano. I didn’t know where that was but I figured it must be a little village that we’d be walking through.
After the brief description of the excursion was a packing list:
A water bottle that can be refilled at rifugio Rossi, a head lamp with extra batteries, hiking shoes, a sleeping bag, and wear light hiking clothes and bring something warm for the mountain top.
The list did not include food but as I prepared myself at 10:00pm I boiled two eggs and made two peanut butter sandwiches to bring. I know enough about mountain safety to always bring food.
I am no alpinista but long ago when I moved to Boulder Colorado I was told to take a mountain safety course because Colorado consistently leads the nation in avalanche fatalities, and because the weather in the Rocky Mountains is unpredictable and known to change dramatically within minutes. The course sounded like good idea so I took it.
While I don’t recall everything from the course, I do remember the mantra “cotton kills” and I never wear any cotton (including socks) when going into the mountains. In my pack I keep an emergency thermal “blanket” (that looks like a piece of tin foil) which I’ve never had to use, and my headlamp.
So, while I possess virtually no first-aid knowledge and I’m a slower hiker than many people I have hiked with, I do have some knowledge of how to be safe in mountains. And I noticed things going on during the excursion to Pania della Croce that set off alarm bells in my head.
It’s easy to say, after returning safely home, “Hey we made it. No big deal.” But in fact I think we were lucky.
When I say “we” I mean my friend Isa, her husband Benny, and myself. I don’t mean Paolo and his wife and daughter and their friends who all seemed to fly up, and back down, the mountain, and appeared capable of doing so with little water and no food. They were either radically more in shape than us, or super human.
When Isa sent me the email, my immediate thought (because of experiences in Colorado) was, I’d rather hike to the rifugio, stay the night there and then in the morning, consider going up the summit, when I can see what’s really involved.
In Colorado, in my thirties, I had hiked to huts at 11,000 feet, and I found that after a very strenuous long hike, it was wonderful to arrive at a hut and have a decent bed. Plus, sleeping at altitude allows the body to adjust. Often the next day I was too pooped to go clambering up summits. Often I opted to do simpler shorter hikes near the hut and hang out and read.
While I knew there wasn’t an altitude issue with the Apuan Alps, my hunch was that I’d be better off staying in a rifugio, and not trying to go straight from Lucca to the summit of a mountain, get one hour of sleep on the summit, and then come back down all in one fell swoop. It sounded like a marathon.
But then Isa said that she and Benny had zero mountain experience. They’d never backpacked in their lives. And they didn’t have any equipment, and Paolo knew this. Thus she and I concurred that Paolo wouldn’t take them on something difficult.
Now I will move to present tense to describe the hike:
When they pick me up, Benny tells me that in fact he did this hike in the far distant past with a school group. “It’s a passeggiata.” (A stroll) he says.
We arrive at the trailhead at about 12:30am and as we get our packs out of the car, Isa says to Paolo, “It’s just an hour’s walk, right?”
“Oh no, it’s almost 2 hours to the rifugio and then another hour to the summit.” He replies, and I see Isa’s eyes widen in surprise.
For water I have both my water bladder inserted into my pack, and my Kleen Canteen. When I can’t find the hose to my water bladder over my shoulder, I ask Paolo to hand it to me. “You’re well equipped.” He says.
“Well, I have this stuff, but haven’t actually hiked with a pack since I did the pilgrimage eight years ago.” I tell him.
I’m wearing REI hiking shorts, microfiber T-shirt, smart wool socks, water-proof day hikers. Benny has on jeans and street shoes. Isa has on light cotton pants and sneakers. Benny carries a flashlight. Neither has a head lamp.
I debate about taking my trekking poles. If it’s really just a “passeggiata” I won’t want them. When hikes are too easy I feel silly with them. But when hikes are hard they help immensely. Thank God I bring them.
We climb steeply up through woods for over an hour. I am amazed at how quickly Paolo’s wife, daughter and friends are hiking. Paolo stays back with me, and Benny and stays back with Isa, a few switchbacks below me.
We are doing this in the middle of the heat wave called Lucifer and the mountain has been baked. We are sweating at one in the morning.
Finally we come to a meadow which is pretty under the moonlight. I see Paolo’s group passing the rifugio and not stopping. He pauses there and waits for me. As I push myself up the slope toward him my body feels that it doesn’t have much left. It is used to resting in bed at this hour and I imagine it’s in shock from suddenly being forced to march and sweat up a mountain for two hours in the middle of the night.
“Aren’t we going to stop and re-fill water” I ask Paolo as I pull up next to him.
“The fountain isn’t there.” He says.
Not good I think to myself. I’ve been drinking consistently for the past two hours. I’ve brought as much water as I can possibly carry but I fear it won’t last for the descent. I hope that somehow we’ll come across a water source.
After rounding the side of the mountain and passing through more meadows, we come to a place that I learn later is called the Vallone dell’Inferno. (Ravine of Hell.)
Instead of a trail we are faced with the worst kind of loose rocks. I look up through the darkness and I’m confronted with a mountain that is almost perpendicular to the meadow we were just in. At the very top of this vertical chute of loose stones and boulders I can see the crest. It will be another hour I muse.
Half way up this acutely unpleasant route, my trekking poles are hampering me as I have to use my hands. Paolo takes one of my poles and then seems to gallop into the dark. Isa come up behind me and says, “Io ho paura.” (I’m afraid.)
“I’m not liking this part at all.” I say to her.
“I’m wiped out. How much longer do you think…?”
“It’s a while still.” I say, looking up toward the black line of the crest.
“I fell down and my pants have a hole in the butt.” Isa says.
“Crap.” I say. “You don’t have a head lamp. Honestly if I had know this was coming up I would have had you and I sleep in that meadow. My legs are trembly. We are both pushing our bodies beyond what’s comfortable and that’s when accidents happen.”
“OK, lets turn back.” Isa says.
“No!” Benny calls, out, hearing us. “No, that’s nuts. We’re almost there!” He calls up to Paolo, telling him that Isa and I want to turn back.
“No way! You’ll miss the spettacolo!” Paolo’s voice bellows down, sounding adamant.
“Come on you guys, you have to keep going!” Benny states.
“That’s a lot of male ego energy coming at us.” I say.
“Good for you Chandi.” Isa says.
“We need to take a minute and clearly assess how we are doing and what options we have.” I say.
“You can’t go down this, not in the dark!” Benny says.
“True, it’s much harder going down.” I agree.
“Lets just sit here all night then,” Isa says, waving at the inhospitable rocks. I take a closer look. There is nowhere to put a sleeping bag. Its all steep with horrid rocks. “No, I can’t sit up all night. I have to lie down.” I say.
My mind flashes to the book Into Thin Air, and to Rob Hall and Doug Hansen sitting against the mountain through the night, without oxygen, fluids, a tent or a sleeping bag.
“I think our only choice is to keep going up.” I reluctantly conclude.
When we get to the crest Paolo is waiting. “This is the most dangerous part.” he says.
I stop in my tracks. His words alarm me. My legs are seriously wobbly. I don’t want to cross the most dangerous part after three hours of climbing in the middle of the night, on shaking legs.
My head lamp lights the path on the crest, barely wide enough for two people to walk hip to hip. I don’t want to look at, or think about, the way the mountain so steeply drops away on either side.
Benny takes Isa’s hand across, and Paolo takes mine.
We arrive on the rounded knob of the summit. “Now, if you can find a place to put your sleeping bag…” Paolo says.
What do you mean if I can find a place? I must lie down.
And then I see them. The summit is covered in bodies in sleeping bags.
Isa and Benny choose a place and I pick my way through the bodies, and finally spy a patch of ground, covered in sharp little rocks. I sit down and carefully pull out my sleeping bag, worried about things rolling over the edge.
I’m desperate to pee, but where? My only choice is to squat a few feet from a woman’s head.
I pull my long underwear shirt on over my sweaty micro-fiber shirt and take off my shorts and pull on my long underwear leggings. I put my wool hat on, get into my bag, and sleep for an hour.
Yes, we have a pretty hour up there, when the sun comes up. And thankfully I have my food. I would have perished on the descent without having eaten first.
I have never done well with going down hill over steep rocky terrain with a pack on. Paolo and his group are soon so far below Isa and Benny and me, that Benny phones Paolo and tells him not to wait.
Before we reach the rifigio I have run out of water. Suddenly I fall off the trail and find myself clutching thick (and luckily sturdy) mounds of grass at the edge of the trail as my body smashes itself into the slope—thankfully a grassy slope and not a rocky cliff face.
“Chandi, you could have fallen all the way down!” Isa cries out, pointing at the grassy gully.
“Well, it’s one way to get down!” I reply with a laugh.
Despite my laugh the last two hours are torture. I can tell from my breathing that I need water, and from the way I become light headed and even more wobbly. We keep thinking that we must be close to the parking lot and we are not.
Suddenly Benny sprawls across the trail. Now all three of us have fallen. Luckily all in safe places.
Isa and Benny seem to react better to the lack of water than I do. As we descend through the woods I keep looking at the soft ground and longing to take off my pack and lie down.
Isa and I take only one break, and I pull out my water bladder and in desperation tip it upside down, hoping to find a drops in it.
“God damn” I say, my head dropping toward my knees. “My body is shaking Isa.”
“Benny!” She calls out into the woods, “Do you have waaater?”
I force myself to keep going. I am clutching my trekking poles so much that for a few days later one of my hands won’t work. Gallicano, the place Paolo had mentioned for breakfast turns out to be a town one gets to by car. We spend almost four hours descending. Four hours without eating after getting one hour of sleep on the summit? That doesn’t work for me.
When I get home, I’m hit with the force of the Lucifer heat wave. I have no fruit or electrolytes in the house and that’s all I want. I drink tap water and sleep for three hours. That night I go to a pre-planned movie night at my friends up the hill. I tell them about the excursion.
“There have been deaths up there.” They say.
“Really? I didn’t know.” I reply.
“Oh, yes, actually there are usually many victims every year.”
Later, when looking up the deaths online, I read a trekker’s description of the Ravine of Hell:
“L’ambiente è aspro, brullo, roccioso e sassoso a sfasciumi…Secondo leggende locali in questo canale “ci si sentiva” cioè era palpabile la presenza di spiriti cattivi.”
“The environment is sour, bruised, rocky, and stony…According to local legends in this ravine one feels the palpable presence of evil spirits.”
A few days later an Italian guy about my age who runs a winery nearby tells me, “I climbed it once. I’ll never do it again. I couldn’t even enjoy myself at the top because I was concerned about getting down.”
I have decided for me too, this mountain will be my last. I was shocked that I found it so hard no matter my prior experience, no matter by ability to have the right clothes and equipment, and no matter that I’m in decent shape for my age.
I will still do day hikes on pleasurable trails, but I am concluding that something has changed in my body and summiting mountains no longer works for me.
The Apuan Alps, I am sure, have many other trails that are easier where one can enjoy the mountain scenery from a pleasant trail without overly stressing one’s body. But don’t take summiting them casually: be in excellent shape and know super well what you are doing.
I write this post as a reminder that safety is always more important than ego.
Mountain Safety Guidelines:
- never be ashamed to turn back
- drink a pint (473 milliliters) every hour whether thirsty or not
- always bring food and eat regularly
- tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back
- bring appropriate equipment
- never wear cotton
- use good judgment when choosing a route or deciding when to turn back
- be responsible for your own safety and the safety of others
- if you run into problems Stop—Think—Evaluate Options—Make a plan
- if lost or stranded, stay in a safe place where you can hear rescuers calling, and make yourself visible
- to acclimatize to altitude:
- spend a night at an ‘intermediate’ elevation below 10,000 feet (3000 meters)
- above 10,000 feet (3000 meters), increase your sleeping altitude by only 1,000 feet (300 meters) per day.
- “climb high and sleep low”: you can climb more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) in a day as long as you come back down and sleep at a lower altitude.