Getting out of my Comfort Zone

I needed a change. I was stuck in writing about climate change, renewable energy technology and frankly not feeling free or able to discover new opportunities. It was a video about the Medici that was the first stepping stone to get out, the Medici had several generations and each wielded power in different ways. The whole history is fascinating because it left traces all over Europe we still see today. One of the traces was a tunnel in the Alps of 75 meter long, at about 2896 or ~9000 feet altitude.

It stuck in my mind to go see that tunnel. It would mean about a 1200 km ride to the Alps, and then (in my mind) a hike up the mountain. The tunnel was used for trade on donkeys, so I figured it could not be that difficult to reach it. The col, or mountain pass, de Traversette has been proposed to be the place Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy. This added some interest to the journey and I actually visited another place Hannibal is more likely to have used after visiting the tunnel. So i packed my sleeper car and drove to the Alps.

To travel light and easy in Europe I convert my station wagon (gasoline) to what I call a ‘Sleeper Car’. The backseat is removed so that the interior can house a comfortable matrass and boxes with clothes and cooking stuff. I made blinders for the windows for privacy. That’s all you really need. What you don’t need as a result is a hotel! I took a solar panel and battery charger with me, so that on the bright days I could charge the battery and use it to charge the laptop and phone in the evening. The other travel convienience I introduced was quitting coffee. Without a coffee habit your cost drop dramatically. If you’re not driving around you can easily live of 15,- euro a day. For sanitation lakes are excellent 😉 With this type of vehicle Europe is your oyster, there are no laws against sleeping in your car except in Holland and Belgium I know of.

My alpine experience is ZERO. I have been a cyclist for most op my life, and cycled up cols as a sport, but climbing at altitude has never been my thing. I love mountains, so this is why I was interested in this objective. My idea was to drive to the valley with acces to the col de la Traversette, on the french side, which is closer (and which happens to be the sunny side). Then just walk up to the tunnel. It was a bit harder than I thought.

I didn’t know that the valley was really secluded and more or less economically not happening. It’s not part of a large skiing area, most of it did not have cell phone coverage (which made using google maps difficult), the towns where apparently so empty at times people decided to place manaquins in all kinds of different positions and roles along the streets. It remained a bit creepy. Some bleached hotels had a real ‘The Shining’ atmosphere.

I settled at a camping, which charged 6,50 per night so that didn’t hurt, mainly for the shower. It had a population of guests many of which where hikers, some where role playing enthousiasts. It had no rules about campfires. People had started them all over the valley. It had a really free atmosphere. The Alps are not really rope climbing mountains, although I met some people coming down. There is a ‘Kira’ route which is for real alpine hikers, and the last lively town of Abries was full of hikers and enthousiasts.

According to Google Maps it was a 9 km hike to the top from my starting point. The starting point was at 1800 m (5905 feet) which turned out to be significant later. Hike is 500 meter at a modest incline, then 500 meter at a steep incline. I didn’t really check that out. I hiked for 3 and a half hours and reached the point on the picture, which is right after the 500 meter steep incline began. I had to stop, I had no energy left and I calculated I’d be down around six pm, quite late. I turned around, also because I didn’t want to break my motivation. A wise choice I think. The return walk was only one hour and I felt like I tasted a bit of the alpine experience. My heavy Timberlands had caused blisters though. I went to enjoy the french experience..

Another name for my objective is the Monte Viso tunnel. It cost about $12 million (12.000 florins) to ’cause’, and the work took two years. I say ’cause’ because a tunnal is air in a usefull place, it is ‘negative architecture’ a purposefull absence of rock. The resulting tunnel was not finished in any way, just made big enough for the donkeys loaded with salt etc. to pass. To me it is incredible that this feat was accomplished, also because it is so high up. Above is a picture how it was reexcavated after it had fallen into disuse in 1907. To me it is fascinating to see essentially a piece of economic infrastructure (that is essentialy not there) of 500 years old almost 100% intact.

I decided to take some days to get acclimatized. The altitude does matter, even though I didn’t really feel it. I hiked up to Lake Egorgeou, which was good practice and allowed a nice fresh dive in icy water. The Alps are a glorious place, even here where it is not super green. Hours of stepping up and down rocks and roots and riverbeds certainly gets your mind of things.

I decide to take one more day to get fitter and then attempt the hike to the tunnel. My ability to more or less die trying is well developed, but it is best to go for it when you feel you should be capable. I had bad luck with eating bad meat from a badly run store in Abries, so I spend the day pretty sick and exhausted. This was just the body dealing with a problem, It should not sap my fundamental energy.

The next day I drove to the starting point, which was to be a parking lot at the end of the valley. You can drive to the last 500 meter part but then you also have to open a gate and the road is terrible in places. This time I coverded the 3,5 hour part of the first day in 1,5 hours (more red blood cells?) . The question of Hannibal and his elephants was also part of this experience. Did I think he could have passed by the same route with 37 of them, packed with army stuff etc.

The path was certainly doable for a donkey, and it is hard to determine how much today’s path matches that of 500 or even 2200 years ago. It is certainly a steep path. I would imagine an elephant would have a hard time just because it’s pretty wide and its feet would slip easily. They can live in the mountains, so who knows how easy they would get up here.

The tunnel starts right under the col, on the french side there’s a constructed entrance and a concrete reinforcement, which seems to be because the rock is not stabile. They are pretty sharp at the top, the rock crumbles easy as you can see in the picture below. Such rocks are very hard to climb over, no route between those peaks. Some climbers came down from ropes from these peaks though, a level above what I was doing 😉

The nicest view of the tunnel de Traversette is on the Italian side. On that side it really looks like a natural cave entrance. The tunnel towards it has no light so you need a light to find your way even though the total length is a mere 75 meter. It took men two years to chisel out the space.

What is fascinating to me is that in 1000 years, this space will still be air, the concrete and masoned side of the tunnel will have crumbled but the ‘raw’ side will be about the same, but unmarked. Will it be recognized as artificial? Yet it is an engineered feature, the names of the engineers are still known : Martino di Albano and Baldassarre of Piasco. How long is this tunnel likely to last?

It turned out to be as hard to reach the tunnel the fourth day as it was to reach the halfway point the first day. Pretty exhausting. About 6 other people passed it while I was there, yet there was quite some time to enjoy the idea of donkeys with salt climbing up the steep path towards the entrance as many had from 1498 onwards.

It seems the italian side is more barren because it is colder more of the time, its the shadow side of the mountain. Walking back to the french side, you can see the slope there still had some snow. Being there was ultimately very pleasant. The fatigue was gone quickly and now the only task was to get down again. This was mission accomplished.

The total hike lasted 6 hours and 20 minutes, I burned 2800 (k)Calories and covered 22 km. These are not distances I’d normally walk in Holland, that would be to boring really. Now I was finaly on holiday. The whole idea was to pick something and do it. Now, three weeks later, what I am left with is a feeling of bigger mental strength. It may be true that dedicating attention to effort for a long time teaches the brain to put more resources behind all actions. The goal was to see something interesting, but the side effect was an exercise in endurance and effort that has created an appetite for more 😉