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Mountains, Mongrels and Motorhomes Part Three: Hilda

Update 2: Getting Started

UNITED KINGDOM | Sunday, 28 August 2016 | Views [293]

1.       Leaving England (30th April – 27th May):

The month between leaving work and leaving England proved to be considerably more hectic than either I or Rachel had expected. With hindsight there were two primary reasons for this. The first reason is that when you have spent a long time doing a job that involves spending lots of other people’s money, you get used to the people that you are spending the money with doing what you want them to do and trying their best to rectify things if they screw up. It came as somewhat as a shock to realise that when I spent my own money, the people that I spent it with didn’t do what I wanted and didn’t give a monkey's that I wasn’t happy when their service didn’t do what it was meant to do - they also seemed to be fully aware that there was nothing that I could do about it. By way of an example I phoned my motorcycle insurance company to ask about insurance whilst I was away. I waited for twenty minutes and when someone answered they said that they couldn’t answer my question as I was not in their renewal cycle. I decided not to bother with the insurance but a few days later got a letter telling me that my policy would automatically be renewed. I called again and waited for thirty minutes this time and the person who answered simply told me that there was nobody available to take my call and I would get a call back within twenty fours hours. They didn’t call back. Thus, I was then in a position whereby they were going to take my money for a product that I didn’t want and there was no way to contact them to tell them not to do it!

The second reason for the stressful departure was that, in the modern world of call centres, systems and templates there is no longer a place for human judgement, thus, when you don’t fit into the standard model, you don’t get what you need. The big issue was insurance and by way of example I was told by the British Mountaineering Council that we would never get insurance for this type of trip and I was told by a well known motor insurance company that we wouldn’t get motorhome insurance. In the end we got the insurances that we needed but it was an incredibly difficult and time consuming process. The absurdity of it all was captured in one e-mail conversation with an underwriter; they had imposed a climbing height limit of 4,000m so we were debating what would happen if I were to break my arm at 3,999m but the helicopter evacuation point was at 4,001m. The contrast between people in offices in London selling mountaineering insurance and the reality of the mountain environment was absolutely farcical.

Anyway, we got most things sorted but the motorhome was very late and was more problematic than we had hoped so moving out of the house was also a very frantic affair. Over the last three days we had eight hours of sleep in total and didn’t manage to catch up with any of the folk that we had hoped to, although we did have a great night in the local pub and we were both really grateful to everyone who turned up.

Anyway, the night before we left, we stayed with my old pal Alex and his family en route to Dover and spent a lovely summer’s evening in their garden and then set off th enext day in the heat and sunshine.


2.       Dover, France (28th to 30th May):

We entered the Channel Tunnel in bright sunshine and exited into an overcast afternoon and headed for the nearest campsite to the terminal. On previous trips, getting away had been less hectic and we had always taken the ferry to northern Spain and spent some time relaxing. This time, the first days of our trip consisted mainly of re-packing the van (things were so last minute that, when we left, we had three dustbin sacks full of stuff that we hadn’t found a home for) and sorting telephone contracts and other life admin. that we had not managed to do at home. We did some food shopping and walked Hilda on the beach but the constant rain and cold coupled with the ongoing frustration of trying to explain our trip to various service providers that really couldn’t grasp the concept served to make our first few days a much less relaxed and somewhat underwhelming start to the trip.


3.       Chalons en Champagne, France (31st May):

After a huge storm in the night that scared the life out of Hilda we decided that we might as well move on from Dover and so headed in a generally Alp-wards direction and eventually ended up in Chalons en Champagne.


4.       Epernay, France (1st June – 2nd June):

We drove to Epernay having seen a leaflet at the Chalons campsite. We had a long walk along the river in a dry couple of hours then set about fixing broken things in the van (by now we already had a box of bits that had fallen off and had become quite au fait with the wiring and fuse systems). On the second day we did the tour of the Moet and Chandon champagne cellars which, aside from keeping us out of the rain, proved to be really interesting.


5.       Vesoul, France (3rd June):

Having left Epernay we drove south for three and half hours in the rain. Although we were generally heading towards the mountains, we were in search of Burstner service centres as we decided to get a storage box fitted to the van and there were a couple of service centres in the area. This turned out to be rather a can of worms as there was no consistent story from the dealers as to whether or not a box could even be fitted and, if it could, which type would be suitable so we found a campsite and had a walk around the lake that was nearby. I called an old work colleague who now lives in Basal to see what he was up to and it turned out that he was free the next day...


6.       Basal, Switzerland (4th June):

After a longish drive we met up with Ian and Denise at their house in Basal. The sun came out and we had a lovely walk along the Rhine. You have got to love a country where dog training is mandatory and Hilda had a fantastic time playing with an abundance of her fellow species (in one particular encounter both dogs leapt/fell off a twelve foot wall which, fortunately, didn’t seem to have any negative consequences). We had a drink at a bar by the river and then spent a great evening catching up. We had breakfast with Ian and Denise the following day before heading off. It had been the first sunshine we had seen and it was great to catch up with old friends and, for the first time, I thought that I was starting to relax.


7.       St-Moritz, Switzerland (5th June):

For no reason other than we had heard of it and never been there before we headed for St-Moritz. As soon as we left Basal it started to rain heavily again and we arrived in the afternoon to a damp and misty campsite that was charging around €45 per night!


8.       Forcola di Livigno, Italy (6th June):

We had a walk around the lake in St-Moritz but we didn’t find the place too inspiring. Moreover, free camping appeared to be very much discouraged and the campsite costs were extortionate so we decided to head for Italy. We drove over the Bernina pass and found a lovely spot to camp overnight on the Forcola di Livigno pass. It hadn’t rained that much and our first proper free camp felt a bit exciting. We decided to live the dream and play on-line Scrabble on our tablets in afternoon sun using some clever gadget that Rachel knew how to work but we made the mistake of checking our e-mails first. Ten thousand pounds had left our bank account destined to load up pre-paid debit cards but the cash had not arrived. Frantic phone calls ended up with bank blaming the card provider and card provider blaming the bank. We were missing ten grand and, because each party blamed the other, neither was prepared to do anything about it. It seemed like this sort of shit was never going to end.


9.       Passo di Stelvio, Italy (7th June):

A sunny and clear morning lifted the spirits and the pre-paid card providers found our ten grand so life took a turn for the better. We headed for the town of Livigno but it didn’t really capture our interest so we decided to make a clear call – it was time to stop milling around and head for the mountains proper. We hadn’t had the best of starts and with all the van and admin. problems coupled with the constant bad weather we were not really enjoying taking our time heading to the hills as we had hoped so we decided to aim directly for the Dolomites on the grounds that we knew two friends who were on holiday there.

One potential route involved crossing the Passo di Stelvio (2,757m) which was marked difficult/dangerous on the map and Rachel had read that it was unsuitable for motorhomes. Naturally we took the pass and it turned out to be an interesting drive to say the least. There were the usual abundance of alpine hairpin bends but the tunnels where also a lot of fun – the van fitted in them with a good few inches to spare but the road was two-way. Fortunately, out of season there wasn’t much traffic but driving round a corner in a dark tunnel to meet a car directly in front of you but coming the opposite direction certainly kept you awake. En route to the col we took great satisfaction from the look of surprise in the eyes of folks who had parked up in lay-bys to take in the view. We stopped at the col (and bumped into three Brits. on Lambretta scooters who had done two and a half thousand miles in two weeks!) and decided to stay the night there given the rather special views it offered.


10.   Arraba, Italy (8th -11th June):

After our first free camp in the snow we took the forty eight (yes, forty eight) hairpin bends on the other side of the pass and then took Passo di Sella (2,244m) and Passo Pordoi (2,239m) to meet Stuart and Morag who were halfway through their weeks’ holiday in Arabba in the Dolomites.

We very much enjoyed our time with them and we were finally walking in the big mountains for the first time. Moreover, the 10th June was the first day of the trip without any rain! We did a couple of relatively long walks and one very wet via ferrata and did start to get a feel for why we were on the trip although, to be honest, I was still a long way off settling into the lifestyle.


11.   Covara, Italy (12th – 14th June):

After Stuart and Morag left we headed for Covara where we had spent a two-week summer holiday a few years ago. We managed one walk in the sunshine (which we had done on our previous visit) but generally the weather was poor and the forecast was for it to get worse, the campsite was ridiculously expensive (€112 for two nights!), we were somewhere where we had been before which was something that we had decided before we came away that we would not do and we were realising that the van simply wasn’t as suitable for these types as trips as the old one was and that we had made a very large mistake in buying it. When the conversation turned to returning home to sell the new van and attempting to buy the old one off the person who had just bought it from the guy we sold it to we realised that, despite being on a two-year holiday, we were actually quite unhappy. Neither of us had relaxed since I left work and we made our second call of the trip there and then - we were going to keep the current van, head for the sunshine and spend some time chilling out.


12.   Camping Pilu by Lago Idro, Italy (15th – 27th June):

It was sunny when we set off which seemed to test our resolve to leave the mountains and we passed what seemed like thousands of Knaus motorhomes (the make of our old van) on the motorway which also seemed to test our resolve to keep the new van but we stuck to our guns on both accounts. We stopped at the first campsite that we came to which was an archetypal ‘Italian Lake’ campsite in that the approach was not the most inviting and, on the site itself, there were a large number of somewhat shabby permanent caravans with large extensions all crammed next to one another which gave the place a shanty town feel. However, it was out of season so most of the non-permanent places were empty and we were offered a lakeside plot and free internet for €19 per night. The view across the lake and the surrounding mountains was certainly five star (even if the view behind to Sangatte was one star) and, when we put out our awning, chairs and table and sat outside in the sunshine with a beer for the first time on this trip we both sensed that we had done the right thing.

We planned on staying a few days but in the end we stayed for nearly two weeks. The weather was hot and sunny in the daytime and we were treated to some spectacular thunder storms most evenings. We had no objective other than to chill but we ended up doing quite a lot of exercise and started to get fit. We both started running – the path along the lakeside making an ideal outing - and we did a lot of walking, sometimes around the lake to the other villages and sometimes up into the surrounding hills. There were a couple of local via ferrata and we discovered a climbing park a few miles down the road which had around fifteen sport via ferrata, lovely walks and some climbing, all of which helped build up the fitness and climbing confidence...

...The only exception being the Via Ferrata Sasse. Rachel and I did this early in the morning and left the dog in the van so we were keen to get back to her before the midday heat cooked her. The via ferrata itself was an easy and somewhat tedious affair but the return path (the Senterio Contrabbandieri) was known as an exposed and exiting walk. On completing the via ferrata we were surprised to see that the path was closed but, partly to get back to Hilda and partly because both Rachel and I have had a number of adventures arising from ignoring 'road closed' signs, we took it. The path was indeed exposed but there were cables for your hands in the more dodgy sections, or, at least there were until we met the landslide. A thirty metre wide section of the path and metal cabling had been swept away and we were faced with a very steep slope of soil and tree roots leading directly to the cliffs below. The option to go back was clearly the more sensible but to reverse the path and then the whole via ferrata left us with a serious risk of roasted dog and the next thing I knew Rachel was clambering over an upside-down tree and heading across the landslide. In the absence of a better plan, I followed hanging on to bits of branch and kicking into topsoil as if it were snow in a gully. The whole surface moved and rocks and branches fell down the slope and over the cliff as we crossed (which really frayed the nerves) but soon Rachel grabbed some of the metal cabling coming from the other side and hauled herself onto the path. I am not sure in how many parallel universes we didn’t make it across but we did and to date it is the second most stupid thing that I have done on this trip.

And so the days went on. Every morning we would have breakfast outside the van looking over the lake and enjoying the morning sunshine, then we would do something energetic and then undo all of the benefit by eating pizza and drinking beer in the evening. Hilda got to swim every day which she loved and we made our first new friends of the trip – a lovely Dutch couple whom we spent a couple of evenings with.

Overall, we had definitely done the right thing. We had enjoyed the environment, started to get fit and, most of all, relaxed. I even managed to complete my tax return which was nothing short of a miracle. In hindsight, we should have done something like this from day one and it was difficult to leave but we were in a much better frame of mind and the mountain weather was improving so, with some regret, we decided to move on.

Rachel outside the Moet and Chandon champagne cellars

Rachel outside the Moet and Chandon champagne cellars

Tags: alps, climbing, dogs, hilda, motorhomes, mountaineering, mountains, rachel, simon, walking

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