Valtellina, Gran Zebrù, Adamello, following the traces of Vittorio Sella and the great War

The “Alps 2020” pre-expedition is about to end. From Val Gerola we move directly to the upper Valtellina to reach the Forni refuge, one of the first examples of glaciological tourism. In fact, the refuge was built at the end of the 19th century to allow tourists to visit the Forni glacier front, which at the time was just a few hundred metres from it.

The following morning we reach the pastures half an hour walk away from the refuge, from which we can repeat a famous photograph of Vittorio Sella of 1887. The valley is beautiful but it is impressive to see, comparing the landscape with the historical image, how it was completely emptied by the huge mass of ice that once was the terminal tongue of the glacier. The search for an identical shot is not very simple, the huts and stables taken from Sella in fact are no longer in the same position as once so I am forced to make an abstract effort and use only the ridges of the mountains for the necessary alignments. It is always exciting to repeat a historical photograph seen on many publications.

In the early afternoon we meet Prof. Claudio Smiraglia and Prof. Guglielmina Diolaiuti to climb to the Branca refuge and continue towards the Forni glacier front. We would like to repeat some historical photographs and let them tell us their long scientific and educational experience on this glacier and take some photos of the front and its stream. In the afternoon, the light becomes sharper and going down to the valley I approach the stream near some rocky jumps, from which the water descending vigorously forms real waves of several meters height. The quantity of water, and its impetus in going down to the valley, makes me think about how quickly the glacier is melting in this summer period when temperatures are above average.


The following day, thanks to a scientific permit issued by the Stelvio National Park, we managed to climb with the Jeep to the Pezzini refuge so as to bring all the video and photographic equipment. From there we leave, after a quick selection of the material, always accompanied by Prof. Smiraglia, towards the Zebru pass to reach the Zebrù Summit, from where Vittorio Sella took three interesting photographs in 1887.

Along the ridge we pass by, the remains of the Great War are very evident, in fact we see a long barbed wire stretched out on the ground for hundreds of meters and many trenches in the middle of the stones.

As we climb, the Great Zebrù begins to be covered with clouds while the Cevedale is still free. With the photographs in my hand, almost on a peak, I realize, after several tests of alignment to find the photographic points, that Sella had placed his stand in a single point from which he took all three photographs. In this case, however, it is more complicated to find the alignments because the ridges around the summit were completely modified by the military during the war for the construction of the trenches.

Waiting for the shadows to be in the same position as on the historical photographs, we contemplate the landscape, reflecting on how the First World War was something crazy and at the same time on how mad is the human kind that blindly continues to exploit natural resources in a crazy and unsustainable way.

In the evening, being unsatisfied with the shots, I decide to stay one night at the Pizzini refuge to climb again to the summit the next day. The following morning, the weather is always very variable, but in the afternoon the clouds that cover the ridges suddenly thin out and I can repeat the historical shots, compared to which there are huge differences not only regarding the glacial tongues, withdrawn of hundreds of meters, but also all those hanging glaciers and seracs that in 1887 filled the rocky ridges that today, 132 years later, have remained completely bare and barren.

  • Mid-August is approaching, I am very satisfied with the work on field, but we are planning one last stage. On August the 15th I have to hold a conference at the sports hall of Ponte di Legno in collaboration with the CAI and the Pro Loco on the results of the project. An opportunity to visit the Adamello glacier, which will therefore be our last stop. In particular, I am interested, also on Riccardo Scotti’ proposal, in repeating the historical photographs of the terminal tongue of the Mandrone glacier taken by Austrian mountaineers as early as at the end of the 19th century and others taken by Italian soldiers during the Great War.

Going up with the cable cars of the Tonale, we see the huge white sheets that, positioned above the Presena glacier, would have the purpose of preserving the ice ablation while doing nothing but slowing down its agony towards its already inevitable fate. In the morning, we reach the Mandrone refuge and, while Matteo and I carry out some inspections to find the photographic points, Riccardo and Marco reach the time-lapse room of the Lombard Glaciological Service to download the card and make a check to verify that everything works before winter.

The next day we managed to find several photographic positions, from which the historical photographs of the Mandrone glacier front were taken.

We repeat a shot of the Leipzig hut shot down by the Italians during the war with an artillery shot from the Corni di Bedole’posts . The most interesting photograph that we can repeat is, however, the historical shot, of the end of the 19th century, of the then glacier frontal serac, which, considering the particularly frontal perspective and the one from below, highlights, compared with the modern image, the enormous volumetric contraction of the glacier that then occupied the entire valley of the Mandrone.

Today this valley remains a testimony of what the glacier was, the granite and white plates polished by the ice and the huge waterfalls of melt water represent a great change in the landscape and are the irrefutable proof of how climate is rapidly changing.

This change is well represented by the many photographic comparisons that we have managed to make on the occasion of this pre-expedition “Alps 2020” and that next year we will complete throughout the summer period. I therefore hope that these comparisons can help those, who observe them to be more responsible towards nature so that we can ensure a more sustainable future, in harmony with the environment.

Below is the video and a selection of backstage images











Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this page