Visible from the glass-walled house here, Mount Zucchero (Mt. Sugar), one of the highest accessible peaks in the Verzasca Valley, beckoned. Though 8,400 feet may not be much higher than Smoky Mountain peaks, unlike the rolling terrain of the Southeast U.S., the mountains here wear sheer granite cliffs and shifting rock. A few years ago, one huge boulder the size of a three story building dislodged from higher up to stop in the Alpe Muggai (a high mountain summer farm), crushing a small rustico (the local stone houses). These boulders pepper the descents. The locals are used to the unpredictable shifts, avalanches, extreme rains and mud slides. But the wild, rugged nature of the place means you find few fellow trekkers high up.
To conquer Zucchero we set out on Wednesday and stayed overnight in a hut (Rifugio Sambucco) at about 6,000 feet. The refuge had improved since my last visit. Now instead of heating and cooking with a wood stove, the owners had installed a small gas burner – much easier for making dinner of hot pasta and boiling water for tea. At that altitude, the spirals with tomato-basil sauce seemed a thousand times better than the same eaten at home. Carrying them up on your back improves the flavor. The shower was an outdoor fountain with a temperature of about 50 degrees F. Invigorating to a tired body, but the wind chill made it a two-wool-blanket night for sleeping on the hard mattresses.
Earlier on the red and white trail, we passed a mad man from Zurich – mad because he’d brought along his four and a half year old son. They picked wild blueberries and I thought they would turn back before reaching the higher path and 1,800 feet elevation gain to Sambucco. But they followed us. In many years of Alpine hiking, this was the first time I’d seen a child this young. He wore baby hiking boots and a cartoon backpack. Despite the long distances (four and a half hours the first day and six and a half the second), the child didn’t whine or complain, but instead seemed elated by the mountains and studied the maps with interest. His face reflected calm and contentment. Some of the rock passages proved too high so he’d pull with his arms and push with his little legs to scamper over the stones. The child’s efforts made my own seem meager.
We passed them again on the second day. When we finally headed up Mt. Zucchero above the pass, the child and his dad didn’t’ follow but headed down – a wise decision since the exposed path virtually disappeared into powdery dust and small chips of stone during the last 200 meters to the peak. With only about a hundred meters to go to the top, I made a mistake. I looked down. The snow-covered Alpine peaks circled around. The world fell away into angles – all slanting down at 60 degrees to the valley and our little home in Sonogno visible some 5,000 feet below. A 90 degree drop off lay behind me. Already at the refuge, I’d felt the dizziness of heights. The tiny stone hut lodged on the only relatively flat area at that elevation. If you dropped a bottle or anything round, it seemed it would roll straight down over the cliff to the river valley thousands of feet below. I once was used to this, but looking down from near the peak of Mt. Zucchero, I lost my nerve and could go no farther. So close and I’d even made it to the top once before, but this time I committed the error of looking back. Last time I’d kept my eyes fixed firmly on my feet and on the path ahead, above. I didn’t look out until I’d climbed to the small flat area on the very peak.
In mid-writing of my book, it’s the same story. There are moments for reflecting and looking back, but mid-draft is not one of them. “Don’t look down or back, not yet. Keep going until you get to the end,” my better angel whispers. I listen and keep working one step at a time. I returned to the valley and my desk with renewed energy.
Copyright: Debra Moffitt, 2008 www.debramoffitt.com