Val Malenco and upper Valtellina among wild landscapes and strongly retreating glaciers

14 August – Fellaria Glacier

After the mission dedicated to the east face of Monte Rosa, we move to Lombardy, more precisely to Val Malenco. We are guests at Camilla’s “B&Be Happy” and her companion and mountain guide Giovanni Ongaro, both of them are good climbers.

The weather forecast looks good and the day before the 15thof August, we move to Val Malenco. We leave our cars at the Alpe Gera dam and reach, in about two hours’ walk, the Fellaria glacier, at 2,650 metres above sea level, long monitored by Riccardo, who feels at home in these mountains.

Our aim is to verify the emerging poles that control the evolution of the glacier and the correct functioning of the time-lapse cameras of the Lombardy Glaciological Service that record its dynamics. However, when we arrive before the front, we find a nasty surprise: the tripod with the camera closest to the glacier, despite its solid steel construction (welded by Marco’s skilful hands) and the large bolts that fix it to the ground are clearly damaged. Riccardo cannot hold back the discomfort: the many hours of work spent in preparing the structure, transport and installation and above all the precious images that the camera records seem seriously compromised.

Luckily, after a quick check, we realize that the camera was not damaged and most of the images are recoverable. Only later, we were able to clarify what happened, thanks to the photographs recorded by a second camera positioned higher up. A collapse of the glacier caused a wave in the glacial lake that threw large icebergs against the tripod, knocking it down: a further testimony to the state of crisis of the front of this glacier, exacerbated by the presence of a large proglacial lake that accelerates its disintegration.

In any case, the time-lapse that we will obtain, on our return, from the processing of the recovered images will give us an extraordinary vision of the dynamics of the glacier in the last two months.

 

15 August – Sasso Moro

Today was a decisively unusual mid-August: we woke up early and after a rich breakfast at the Bignami refuge, where we spent the night, we left to reach the summit of Sasso Moro (3,108 m) from where we repeated a photograph by Alfredo Corti of the Fellaria glacier to show its dramatic retreat.

Before leaving, by Roberto, a.k.a. the”Popi”, a colleague of Riccardo and Marco at the Lombard Glaciological Service, joined to help us in the mission of the day. Roberto is a nice and genuine Valtellina inhabitant and his company will cheer us up throughout the day.

Once we reach the summit, we discuss about the route to follow: climb along the usual more direct but uncertain route due to its steepness and uneven ground, or continue up to the Forcella di Fellaria, from where we take the summit ridge that leads to the summit with several up-and-downs. We choose the second option and, leaving the overnight equipment in a ravine on the pass, we follow the precarious ascent route among little stone men, reaching the summit after having gone in the wrong direction at least a couple of times.

While the team reaches the panoramic peak of Sasso Moro, from where you can enjoy an unparalleled view of the Bernina group and its glaciers, Federico takes a wonderful shot with the drone, following the team’s passage through the steep summit channel, suddenly opening up on the vast surrounding panorama.

Once on the summit, I immediately look for the exact position from which Corti had taken his picture and I realise, from the alignment of the boulders in the foreground, that the photographer most probably placed the camera on the ground or used rocks instead of a tripod, and this fact forces me into a very uncomfortable shooting position. Almost all photographic repetitions require long and tiring operations going from mounting the camera, choosing the lens, framing, exposure, focusing to shooting, but this time the effort is amplified by the fact that I have to shoot at only 20 cm from the ground! I grit my teeth and with acrobatics like a contortionist, I continue to take this complicated but fundamental picture.

Going back, after a few days, the effort will be rewarded by the result. I already imagined the particular impact of the comparison between the historical image and today’s situation, but the visual effect of the fading of the two images is really impressive. The Fellaria glacier, in fact, not only split into two sections, creating a glacial tongue fed only by the collapses of the upper portion, but the entire valley, almost entirely abandoned by the glacier, has completely changed its morphology with the formation of a huge lake as wide as 30 football fields.

 

16 August – Monte delle Forbici and Scerscen Valley

Today, after having spent the night at the Carate refuge, we climbed up to the Vetta delle Forbici (Scissors’ Peak) at about 3,000 metres above sea level, from where I repeated a shot of the Scerscen glacier by Alfredo Corti. I remade the same image last year during the pre-shipment, but I was not satisfied with the result because I was forced to take it at a different time than the historical photograph because of some cumulous clouds that would have covered the shot if I had waited for the right time. In order to make the new picture that really convinced me this year, I had to get around a gigantic new steel cross, firmly fixed to the ground and located exactly where Corti had taken his image… A further misadventure in this “acrobatic” mission!

As we descended towards the Scerscen valley, we walk along the Scissors’ lake, from which I repeated a wonderful shot of Corti in which you can see the mountains of the Bernina chain reflected on the lake surface.

Soon after, we descended into the imposing Scerscen valley that goes up for over two thousand metres through rocky gorges and pastures to the Bernina’s glacial peaks. At the bottom of the valley, there is the “Cemetery of the Alpines”, the victims of two avalanches that caught them in 1917 during the winter movements for supplies: a first avalanche hit a team and a second one fatally overwhelmed the other soldiers, who came to the rescue. In the end, there were 24 victims, a sad story of our mountains.

From this intense place of memory, I was able to repeat some shots by Alfredo Corti that represented the cemetery and the small valley. Here, at that time there was a lake that disappeared due to the retreat of the glacier that formed the downhill edge.

 

20 August – Forni Valley

The destination of today’s mission is the Western Forni Peak, at 3,227 metres above sea level, from which we plan to repeat some images of Vittorio Sella of 1895. We have to climb about one thousand metres of altitude difference, bringing with us the equipment for the bivouac in the tent that we planned for the evening at the Manzina Lake, in order to be on top by 9 o’clock, the time we believe the historical picture was taken.

We wake up very early, therefore, and at 4:30, we are already on our way. Matteo Trevisan, freelance photographer, who is working on an interesting long-term project on the desertification of the Po Valley and is interested in documenting our work on the glaciers, accompanies us.

The early morning air is fresh and spurs us on as we ascend through a beautiful larch wood, lit only by our frontal lights. As we descend into the Manzina basin, a marvellous sunrise quickly arrives, with the surrounding peaks illuminated by the sudden warm morning light and reflected in the blue waters of the lake. An unforgettable spectacle.

Shortly afterwards, we met Emanuele Bompan, environmental journalist, and the geographer Valeria Pagani, who accompanied us on the climb for a reportage on the expedition.

Having left the bivouac stuff, for which we obtained the necessary permission from the Stelvio National Park, we first climbed easy moraines and then plunged into a steep detrital valley that with a little effort leads to the ridge that joins the numerous Forni peaks.

As often happens with the images taken from the crests, we were clouded by the uncertainty of not knowing exactly from which point Vittorio Sella took his wonderful photos over 130 years ago. Clock is ticking, with the shadows on the mountain gradually taking the shape of the original shot. Even on this occasion, Riccardo’s intuition was priceless in order to identify in the necessary time the exact point for shooting. With great satisfaction, I was able to repeat the important Sella’s shots that offer one of the most impressive views of the Ortles group and the Forni glacier. As was already evident at first sight, unfortunately, also in this case, from the comparison between the historical and modern images, a dramatic reduction of the glacial masses emerges.

The advance of the clouds that obscured the eastern slope of the Forni kept us on the summit for a few hours, waiting for the clouds to clear the view for a few more shots. Satisfied with the excellent photographic results, in the early afternoon we decided to descend towards Lake Manzina, where we could not resist the temptation of a nice swim in the cool waters of the lake!

Saying goodbye to Emanuele and Valeria, who planned to return to the valley, we set up the camp on the magnificent hill above the lake, which dominates the entire Forni Valley with the profile of Saint Matthew and Pizzo Tresero reflected in the basin in front of us.

While Federico and Riccardo prepared the cameras for the long night shooting and I took advantage of the last beautiful sunset lights for some suggestive shots, Marco and Dario prepared a couscous with vegetables accompanied by some bread and cheese. Once it got dark, we gathered around the cooker and tastefully enjoyed our simple dinner, satisfied with the excellent day and finding ourselves immersed in one of the most beautiful scenery of the Central Alps.

 

Below is the video of the dispatch and a selection of backstage images:

Gallery

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