Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bastianin and the rifugio Garelli

Pian del Lupo, Alta Valle Pesio, Italy (October 3, 2008)

When I was in high school we were living in the "big city" of Torino 5 days a week, but we were spending most of our weekends in Valle Pesio. This was our routine: at noon each Saturday, when both me and my sister finished school, we packed out Fiat (later on it was an Alfa Romeo) with all five of us (that included our cat) and drove to the mountains of Valle Pesio. We did this even in winter when we probably were the only tourists (not residents) in the Valley. In those dark and cold winter evenings, if I didn't have to do my homeworks, I spent an awful amount of time visiting Bastianin, the old mule conductor of the valley, and the caretaker of the rifugio Garelli.

The Garelli is the CAI (Italian Alpine Club) mountain hut in the valley. It is the Valle Pesio stop along the Grande Traversata delle Alpi, the long distance hiking trail that goes from one end to the other of the alpine chain. It is located at the Pian del Lupo (Plateau of the Wolf) at the feet of the Marguareis massif, about 2 hours hike along a scenic mountain trail. It is named after Piero Garelli, president of the CAI of Modovi (a nearby town), who died as prisoner in the Mauthausen concentration camp during WWII.

The original rifugio Garelli was built in 1949, just after the war. Shaped as an half-barrel, like an hobbit-house, it could only host about 20 people. This is the Garelli I associate with Bastianin, who was its custodian for many many years. Every spring, as soon as the snow started to melt in the high valley, Bastianin and his mule left their home in San Bartolomeo, to open the rifugio and make it ready for the mountaineers aiming to climb the Marguareis, for the skiers competing in the annual "three refuges mountain-ski race", or for the tourists seeking just a few days off from the city. Bastianin was the human counterpart of the Garelli for a lifetime. Even in his retirement, when I was visiting him in those long winter evening, while he was making straw brooms in his stable, heated by a cast iron stowe and the breath of his last mule, he was the off-season keeper of the Garelli's keys.

Bastianin's rifugio burned out, in mysterious circumstances, in 1987. The people in San Bartolomeo only heard loud bangs when the gas bottles in the hut finally exploded due to the intense heat, after the structure burned for several days. I visited the site a few weeks after that happened, and all you could see were the corrugated tin foil of the roof, and the glass sculptures made by the windows as they melt (I still keep some of those in my parent's house). Being the rifugio one of the symbols of the valley (and one of its main attractions) it was decided to rebuild it on the same site. To save money, everybody was asked to contribute in kind for the construction work: a pile of sand and concrete bags was left at the beginning of the trail for the hikers to put in their backpacks, and transport up to the construction site. I did my part, and even had my very brief career as construction worker. One day while I was there unloading my sack of concrete, a crazy irresponsible guy decided to hand me a huge pneumatic hammer so that I could do my part in demolishing the burned out foundation of the rifugio. As soon as the diabolic power-tool was turned on, I was shot through the air while the pneumatic hammer jumped around destroying everything in its path. The crazy guy finally decided that I didn't have the physique du role to be a construction worker, and from then on I stuck to carry concrete bags and, a few years later, to physics.

The large photo above shows the new Garelli, a large structure that can host as many as 90 people. The panoramics below shows the Garelli in his setting against the magnificent rock wall of the Marguareis. The small picture on the left shows the view from the Garelli, looking down the valley. The stone construction is the Gias Suvran d'Sestrera, one of the temporary housing for the seasonal herders that live with their cows, goats and sheeps in the high valley during the summer. If you look carefully, you can actually see, beyond the opening of the Valle Pesio, the mists of the Po valley and, even farther away under the clouds, the mountains on the opposite sides of the Alps, all the way to the Matterhorn.

Pian del Lupo, Alta Valle Pesio, Italy (October 3, 2008)

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