For the tour overview: an introduction to Walter Bonatti and his climbing career; the trip concept; locations of all three chapters (cimas); our bikes; and our bikepacking kit list >> head over to our Bonatti Bikepacking Tour Overview…
Hut + Bivvy
Walter Bonatti’s first inspiration as a young boy, visible from Vertova near where he grew up…
“When I was a child, I used to get away from home…and go where I could watch the eagles fly…in Vertova di Valseriana, one of the valleys north of Bergamo. Higher up the ridge, was Monte Alben, the peak that, of them all, most triggered my imagination, thanks to it’s limestone spires which were often wreathed in mist. At that point in my life, Monte Alben was the best example of nature at its most austere…making it the very symbol of my aspirations to adventure.”
It’s hard to top the ‘swapping your cycling shoes for a pair of mountain hut slippers’ moment at the end of a big day on the bike. Even better if they are bright pink Crocs. We arrived somewhat late and beaten at Rifugio Capanna – sited at exactly 2000m and directly overlooking Monte Alben – after threading our way through derelict ski-stations on the steep gravel climb up from the rolling alpine meadows of Oltre-Il-Colle, where farmers worked hard scything and shepherding.
As we climbed, the setting sun just about warmed our backs and turned the big Alpine skies a classic sunset orange fade over Monte Alben – “the peak that, of them all, most triggered [Bonatti’s] imagination, thanks to it’s jagged limestone spires which were often wreathed in mist” and the very symbol of his aspirations to adventure…
Run by Attilio and his family, this rifugio was one of a network of 774 Club Alpino Italiano refuges – an integral part of mountain life offering desirable, and sometimes vital, shelter in stunning places. Upon arrival, his daughter led us straight to the alpine-memorabilia-cluttered dining room, in our funky footwear, for a hearty three-course meal of tomato, cheesy pasta, stewed meat and fruit tart … and beers – not quite what we expected in this somewhat remote Alpine theatre, but just what we needed after a punchy dusky climb.
To be fair, Attilio knew exactly what we wanted because Marco – a motorcyclist friend of his – had called in advance to laugh and let him know three English guys were on their way up … still. I’d hailed Marco down after hearing the glorious sound of his bike engine descending the switchbacks above us, just to ask if the refuge at the end of this seemingly dead-end track was actually open…
Walter Bonatti’s first climbing experience, and first climb – 1948…
Jordan, Dan and I were stoked for a room and shower after our frosty bivvy night before, overlooking the sprawling spectacle of Milan, at the foot of the southern Grigna or Grignetta (2184m) – the rugged mass of limestone pinnacles, towers and ridges where Bonatti and his friends “The Skin and Bones Club” learned to climb. On the outskirts of Lecco, the peaks and faces accessible from the small village of Piani dei Resinelli had been a playground for Milan climbers since the 1930’s. None more important, it seems, than the Nibbio – a 80m sheer (and at points overhanging) face of limestone – where bolts and chalk-marks chequer the rock, carabiners scatter the floor, and Bonatti had his first climbing experience. Standing at the foot of the Nibbio, necks cranked, was a humbling moment. Less epic than overlooking Grandes Jorasses, sure, but more somewhat more meaningful because this place holds an important place in Italian mountaineering history, with Bonatti, Cassin and Messner all passing this way on their route to bigger climbs.
“I was still living in Monza in the years after the Second World War…It was during those years that I came to know the Grigna…I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the spires and crests of that beautiful peak on which, with wonder and envy, I used to see climbing ropes at work…
…One day, at the foot of the Nibbio, one of the Grigna towers, a sympathetic chap called Elia came up to me and, with the air of an expert, said, “How’d you like to try it?”… It was August 1948, and that first climb on the Campaniletto galvanised me…I was now devoted heart and soul to rock faces, to overhangs … More than that, I came to know the satisfaction of passing where others had not been able to go … I felt alive, free, and fulfilled more and more every day… Above all, I was discovering my way of life.”
We had no option but to spend the night sleeping out in a bivvy bag at the Grigna, if this was to cut it as a Bonatti tour. His obsession with the mountains, nature and challenge was so rife from a young age that every weekend as a fearless teenager, he and his climbing pals headed to practice icy bivvys out in these peaks, using whatever pocket money they could cobble together. For Bonatti “there could be no better way to measure oneself against the cold and difficulties of the mountains.” Compared to him, we were sleeping out in relative luxury. No slab-edges, and whilst clear skies led to a starry spectacle it wasn’t cold enough that we couldn’t slice our cheese and bresaola dinner, or pour ourselves a Campari drink. In fact, we slept straight through until the headtorches and voices of climbers hiking up to the faces from the refuge below, via the Direttisima path, woke us at 04.30. A path trodden regularly by Bonatti and co…
On the last morning, we packed our bikes over one of Attilio’s fine refuge coffees before riding out from Rifugio Capanna, in the wake of the morning sun and Pizzo Arera peak 500m above us, to complete our circumnavigation ride of Monte Alben – descending the Zambla Pass and joining the Val Seriana bike path back to Vertova. As all good bikepacking trips should, we finished off with a refreshing swim in the River Serio, amongst the company of bronzed deckchair-ridden locals, on the outskirts of the town where Bonatti lived and studied overlooked by Monte Alben. The place where the seeds were first sewn – the nature and the luring peaks inspiring Bonatti into the outdoors, and then into climbing.
Our next stop was Cortina D’Ampezzo…
WORDS & ILLUSTRATION
RIDERS / ADDITIONAL PHOTOS
The Mountains Of My Life – Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti: The Vertical Dream – Angelo Ponta
Lecco (no.105) 1:50,000 – Kompass Maps