First point: fellow travellers"I left for Peru together with Thomas Gianola, aka Buba, who in recent years has been my friend, roommate, colleague and travelling companion in Jordan. Then Alessio Miori, another Alpine Guide we met in Jordan, and Nicolò Geremia, a climber, engineer and rope worker from Padua with whom I had shared a few vertical adventures and a few beers.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, I went with Enrico Mosetti, known as 'il Mose', an Alpine Guide and skier from Gorizia, and Davide 'Dade' Limongi, a ski instructor and helicopter rescue technician. If with Mose we had spent a few days climbing and wandering together in Sardinia last autumn, with Dade we met and shook hands for the first time at the airport.
Both trips had several mountain guides as participants, but not only. The mountaineering level and experience of everyone was very high, while personal knowledge was very mixed. I think it is important to go with other mountaineers who have similar skills and experience, without improvising, like when you go on a challenging route in the Alps. When travelling and in stressful situations that can arise in the mountains, it can happen that you get into an argument with your best friend, just as you get into an argument with a stranger.
In choosing companions, I have always paid more attention to the feeling, to the vibe I feel in the moment, than to the solid foundations of a past relationship."
How did the idea born?"There was no dream carved out for a long time and pulled out of the drawer in due time when all the stars aligned.
In Peru I joined my companions a few weeks before leaving, they had taken the ticket, without having planned much more, a few months in advance.
The idea of Pakistan, on the other hand, had been in Enrico's head for some time. One evening during the long winter working season, over a few beers, he sent me a photo on Whatsapp of a mountain he had never climbed before, asking me if I would like to try climbing it (and skiing down it) with him. First I told him yes, and then I thought about everything else. The plan was to spend a week climbing that mountain in the nearby of Passu Glacier, and then move somewhere else for another week."
How much time is needed for such a trip? Do you need special visas?"I would say the minimum is three weeks, better if you have a month.
Travelling in Peru, as in any South American country, is very easy. You don't need special visas, if there is some permit to pay, for example to camp in a national park, you pay on the spot.
In Pakistan, as in the Himalayas and Karakoram mountains in general, one has to be more careful. An application for a tourist visa to enter the country must be made online some time in advance. Depending on the mountaineering objectives, there may be climbing permits to be obtained and paid for (especially for peaks above 6500m). We have chosen targets outside of special controls and taxes."
Logistics: how do you get around in a foreign country?"Peru: we landed in Lima, immediately went to the bus station and boarded the first 'colectivo' heading for the Cordillera Blanca. After a night of sitting and bouncing through the hairpin bends of the Andean passes, we arrived in Huaraz, a small town at 3000 metres altitude, the gateway to the mountains. There we met Ale Franchetti, a friend of friends from Trentino who has moved down there and is an alp...ehm Andean guide in those mountains. Ale, as a true local, gave us a lot of valuable advices and the right contacts. We then decided where to go and what to do on a case-by-case basis, without any prearranged plan. The first step was to find a hostel where we could stay and a nice taxi driver willing to take us to the start of the trails in the coming month.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, we had the full support of a local agency that organised accommodation and transport for us. We decided broadly what the stages and timing of the trip would be, although we were prepared for some minor weather-dependent variations. It must also be said that without the support of a local agency, I don't know if we would have even obtained the Visa in the tight time frame available. Travelling in Asia, from what I have experienced, is more complicated than in South America."
Did you have local guides with you?"In Huaraz we made friends with the family that runs the Caroline Lodge, and with Rober, the taxi driver with whom we established a good relationship. For the rest we were on our own, wandering around the markets doing our shopping or at 'Andean Kingdom' leafing through guidebooks to decide on our next target.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, Fida, our guide, was with us the whole time, organising cooks and food for us for the weeks of base camp, porters and everything else. Fida hosted us in his home, introduced us to his family and took us on a discovery tour of Pakistani culture. Having the trip organised was mentally relaxing, but it was also a way to get more in touch with the locals. If Pakistan is now a special place for me, I owe it more to Fida, Ali and Abbas than to the magnificent mountains."
How do you prepare for climbing mountains at high altitude?"The altitudes we have reached are high, but not very high.
In Peru we climbed up to the 6162m peak of Ranrapalca for a new ice and mixed route, and we climbed on rock up to grade VII at over 5000m. We climbed La Esfinge for the classic route on the wall, and opened three new routes in the Cerro Tornillo area.
The first Pakistani peak, that frighteningly perfect and beautiful unknown wall to descend on skis that Mose had found on the internet, turned out to be a little over 5500m high: before we left, we speculated that it might be between 5200 and 5400m, but we had no definite information. We then headed for Drifika, 6447mt. This peak had already been climbed a few times, but never done on skis.
The altitude, at 6000 metres, is felt, more than at 4000 metres. Let's say that you have to be well trained, and it is not bad to prepare yourself on the peaks of the Alps. Then you know that once you are on an expedition you will suffer a little more, that you will have to grit your teeth. But you don't need any specific equipment, such as down suits for very high altitudes.
The temperatures on these two trips were similar to those in the Alps in spring, with a more pronounced temperature change. It may be hot in the sun, but in the evening, then comes the frost. You need a good sleeping bag, let's say -12°C comfort (mine is down and weighs about 1.5kg), a heavy down jacket and good gloves. A 4-season tent is also essential to stay warm, dry and comfortable at base camp.
In the Ishinca valley in Peru, where we set up base camp at Ranrapalca, donkeys loaded with equipment arrive. We therefore decided to rent a tent-kitchen, which is heavy to transport but comfortable for the four of us all to be together and to be able to stand instead of always huddling in the low expedition tent. Again for convenience, we rented a petrol cooker, using the jetboil only at the advanced camp and on the wall.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, the carriers loaded onto their shoulders, in addition to the tent-kitchen where the cooks and all the food were kept, a tent-canteen, complete with table and chairs. A real luxury!"
How does one get information about the weather forecast?"For eight years I travelled the world without any satellite means of communication, without any contact with the outside world once I left civilisation. I would consult the forecasts on the various weather sites at the last available wifi, and then... nothing. I would watch the sky, the clouds, and sniff the wind. For a few years now I have had a Garmin Inreach that allows me to communicate with the outside world in case of need, reassure family and friends back home, and get weather updates.
In Peru I had taught my dad how to check the forecast on the mountain-forecast.com website: we had then agreed on a kind of code, with which he could send me a lot of information about the weather, rainfall and wind for the next 3-4 days on the satellite, using just a few alphanumeric characters.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, we used the weather service provided via satellite by Garmin, which proved to be accurate and reliable."
So what aspects do you need to pay attention to?"The first thing to determine is what kind of expedition you want to undertake: whether to ski, climb on ice and mixed terrain, or on rock, and so on. My advice is to gain a lot of experience before setting off, in terrain as similar as possible to that which you will later encounter on the other side of the world. Getting to know your body, your skills and the materials is fundamental to becoming familiar with what will still be a wild, new and sometimes hostile environment. Success requires great mental strength, which must, however, rest on the solid foundation of experience. The last ingredient, the bit of magic needed for success, is luck.
In Peru we set off on a two-day journey, first in two different taxis and then on foot, not knowing whether a farmer would arrive with his donkeys to transport our material. It was all happening in a mining area, with the unknown of the guards on horseback, who might chase us away if they happened to see us.
When we arrived at Borit lake, in Pakistan's Hunza valley, almost a week after leaving home, we hoped that 'our' mountain really existed, and that we had not come all that way for nothing. The photos we had seen, from previous years and different seasons, told us nothing about the possibility of actually skiing that face: maybe we were carrying our skis for nothing, and would only have climbed with ice axes and crampons. Maybe instead we would have sunk into the fresh snow, and not climbed even a hundred metres from base camp.
When we leave home to go to our mountains we often know what we are going to encounter, we have read reports and we know or imagine the conditions we will find. On an expedition, on the other hand, there are so many unknowns that thinking about them all makes one lose the desire to set off and invest time and money in something so uncertain. Preparation and experience are not enough to guarantee success, we also need a pinch of luck. Perhaps the beauty and satisfaction of the journey comes precisely from the unique flavour of the adventure, not from reaching the highest point on the map.