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Archive for June, 2006

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Opening 2006

Sunday, June 25th, 2006


As of last Wednesday, Rifugio Boccalatte is officially open for the climbing season on the Grandes Jorasses. Luci made a convincing argument to open by helicopter. We came up to Valle díAosta on Monday and stayed with our friend Matteo at his campsite in Val Veny. We traveled with Matteo in New Zealand back in February.

On Tuesday we did our big shopping to initiate the season. The guy that usually transports our supplies up to Val Ferret, where we stage our airlift, was unavailable which was potentially disastrous for us. We talked to the owner of the wholesale warehouse where we get our supplies and he set us up with a new driver. He has a much larger truck which barely fit up the narrow road in the upper reaches of Val Ferret. The nice thing was that it has a lift on the back which make for much less work for us. This way we can build our helo loads right at the store checkout down in Aosta city and load them pre-made into the transport. The morning of our flight we just have to wheel the two helo-bags out of the back of the truck and weíre ready to go. It saves having to build a palette only to break it down and build the sling load the next day.

Wednesday was the big opening day. We still had one glitch in the plan though. We needed someone to empty our garbage bags. The Region of Valle díAosta reimburses us for half our flight minutes if we are flying down garbage. This helps to discourage hut keepers from starting their own little dumps around their huts.

Two weeks ago I was up at Boccalatte with some friends from Antarctica. Meg I know from my days with the Appalachian Mountain Club. She met her friend Kirk at the South Pole about the time Luci and I were looking into working in Antarctica. We stayed with Kirkís parents in Denver when we went to the RPSC job fair. Andy was the head of the Science Support division when we starting working in the field at Siple Dome, and I met Guillaume via his website when he was doing the first winter-over at Concordia; the joint Franco-Italian base on the south-polar plateau. Meg and Kirk were in Europe on vacation visiting a friend in Switzerland and they came over to see the hut. Andy happened to be in Europe at the same time. He keeps a motorcycle in storage in Heidelberg, Germany and comes over every year to ride for a few weeks. Guillaume lives nearby in the French town of Briancion with his Italian wife. Since we were all going to be in the same area at the same time I figured it would be a good excuse to get together a bunch of Antarcticans to play around in the snow.
There was still a bunch of snow on the hike up to the hut so we got equipped with axes and crampons; none of which we used in the end. We were able to kick steps up to the hut with out any problems. Once up at the hut, we all got to work digging it out of the snow and airing it out from the long winter. There was no major damage over the winter so we got right to work getting the place ready for the summer. With everyoneís help we got the railing and gutters up and two helo-bags of waste staged on the porch. We also put together a great sausage grilling for dinner.

So, for the flight on Wednesday we already had the trash staged on the porch but, since we were flying up first we needed someone to empty the trash when it arrived in the valley. Usually our truck driver takes care of it but the new guy had other work to do elsewhere. We talked with one of the other hut managers in the valley who was also doing sling-loads at the same time. She agreed to help us with the trash. To make it easier on them we did our air-lift from the same pad they do theirís from. This adds about 3 minutes to our rotation but it was worthwhile for their help.

We are using a new helicopter company this year organized by the hut keepers association. The company, Pelissier Helicopters, was founded recently by a well-known Valdotain helicopter pilot and his sons. He knows the area well and has flown for us before when he worked for a different company. He was a couple of hours late through no fault of his own (the clouds rolled in at a hut in another valley) but when he finally arrived the air-lift went off without a hitch. Luci and I flew up and he dropped us on the roof of the hut. We lashed together our two bags of trash that were still on the porch from the week before and waited for our 1000kg of shopping to arrive. It still amazes me how they can drop a 500kg bag on our front porch that is only a few centimeters wider than the bag itself, as if they were putting a carton of milk in the refrigerator door.
We spent the better part of two days trying to find space for everything in this tiny hut. We managed, as always. We are still fine tuning but are, for the most part, up and running. We have had a steady stream of guests including our old guide friend Christophe Profit who came up a grand total of 7 times in 2004. He made an effortless ascent with two clients up to Point Walker and back leaving a good track in the snow for successive climbers who will inevitably be arriving throughout the summer. We also have a steady stream of water which is a great boon to running a foodservice operation.

I am going to try to keep updated every Sunday throughout the summer so stay tuned.


Monday, June 5th, 2006


I passed the motorcycle safety course, got my permit and got the motorcycle endorsement on my international drivers license. Now Iím more legal than usual to drive my ageing 1991 Honda Transalp xl600vm. I have been spending quite a bit of time at my friends shop working on it. In addition to replacing parts that have reached the end of their operational lifetimes, I have been doing a bit of customizing all in preparation for our trip to Sardinia.

I have been having problems with bearings. The steering stem bearings were completely shot; rusted and pitted to the point that Iím amazed I could still steer. The rear wheel bearings were also starting to go so I changed them preemptively while changing the rear brake pads and tires (it was all apart anyway). The brakes turned out to be the most difficult project. The pads are held in place by a pin that goes through a loop in the pad. The pin is stainless and the housing is aluminum and the corrosion that forms between the two has incredibly adhesive properties. We spent the better part of a day trying everything to free the pin with no luck. Ultimately we had to drill it out and tap a new hole for a custom-made pin. I also changed the spark plugs and made some long-overdue and very successful carburetor adjustments as well as an oil change in the forks and the crankcase to top it off.

When we were in Christchurch, NZ after our season at Siple was over, we ordered a new seat for the Transalp from the American saddle manufacturer Corbin. We had it shipped to my parentís in Lebanon, Maine where we hand carried it to Italy. It took a bit of tweaking of the top-box to make it comfortable for Luci. Now it is really starting to take on a look of its own. Not many Transalps with Corbin seats around. It was a bit hard a first but, with a passenger, the difference is incredible.

At this point we were more-or-less ready to embark for Sardinia. We had a bit of a problem with the new front tire and the front wheel bearings still hadnít arrived from the dealer. After messing around with the front tire a bit, we determined that it must be a flaw. The hard part was convincing the tire people (gummists as I call them). Italian companies have not all discovered the benefit of customer service and would rather have you pay for a new tire. If I hadnít had my mechanic friend Cristiano with me that is probably what I would have wound up with. But he put up a good argument and got me a warranty replacement. The same goes for tools here. Tool makers would rather make cheap tools that break so people buy more. Even top-end tools like Beta are crap with poor warranty service. We broke more than one Beta tool just working on my bike. My friends tell me that they do have a warranty but it takes months to get a replacement. They still donít believe me that you can just pop by Sears with your broken Craftsman tool and they give you a new one or that Snap-on will deliver to your shop.

The Honda dealer kept telling us, ďthe bearings will be in tomorrowĒ. This went on for two weeks so we just decided to go a head and leave for our trip. We left on Friday, May 11th for the Cinque Terre. When I talk to Americans who have been to Italy they always talk about how great the Cinque Terre are but in the 10 years Iíve been coming to Italy I have never been. It is not a big destination for Italian tourists. A friend of mine from Antarcticaís parents have a gestalt meditation center nearby and he recommended that we stay in the town of Levanto. Since we were going to be exploring the Cinque Terre on a weekend we convinced Luciís parents to drive down and meet us there on Saturday.

What an amazing place to go on a motorcycle. The roads are beautifully curvy and variable enough that I can really put to good use my multi-terrain motorcycle. On Saturday morning, my birthday, we rode and walked to the town of Vernazza, before meeting Luciís parents. We didnít have too much time to mess around because we had to meet them in Porto Venere at the bottom end of the Cinque Terre for lunch. After lunch, Luciís parents took the coastal route to Lucca while we took the inland Via Francigena along a medieval pilgrimage route between Rome and Paris. In Lucca we fell victim to poor dining. Because Tuscany is so full of foreign tourists who donít know how truly good real Italian dining can be, there are tons of restaurants that serve a sub-par dining experience. Not the first time we have eaten poorly there. In the morning, Luci and I had to be up a the crack of dawn to drive to Livorno to catch our ferry to Olbia in Sardinia.

We have been planning this trip since January at Siple when I discovered that the Italian GP of the World Rally Competition was happening there in a favorable time slot for us. A great excuse to take a road trip to an area known for its off-road. Being much farther south than Lombardy it was also much warmer and perfect weather for camping. It is also off-season there so it was pretty tranquil even in big tourist areas. But someone who goes to Sardinia for the tourist areas is an idiot. It is one of the wildest areas of Italy. Very old-west in most areas more than 10 miles from the beach; no fences and bullet holes in all the road signs. About 80% of this, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, is mountainous with great roads for an enduro bike.

We spend the first week on Sardinia around the Gennargentu National Park. We did many kilometers of off-road riding and stayed in an argitourismo (essentially a homestead who have an extra room for guests). The Rally was scheduled to start that weekend and we had scoped out a campsite that sat right on part of the track. We spent some time running the special stages sections on the Transalp with no bags. Great fun! The way a rally works is the teams base out of a town (in this case Olbia) where they set up their mechanics and media circius. Then, during the race days they do two rounds of a circuit cobbled together out of private and public roads; a different loop each day of the weekend. On certain sections of the loop the road is closed and on others it is not. On the closed section the cars are timed for a standing in the overall. The cars MUST make it back to the service park in the host city even if they make it through the timed special stages. Otherwise they are disqualified. This means they have to do their own repairs on the road with tools they bring along with them or face disqualification. Yesterday, in the Acropolis Rally in Athens, Greece one of the leaders, Sebastian Loeb lost his whole rear end and dragged his Citroen into the Olympic Stadium using only the front wheels.

What Luci and I tried to do on our motorcycle was catch each of the two laps from a different perspective; one on a closed, timed special stage and the other on a public road from a street-side cafť. A good combination for our multi-terrain bike. The best combinations were the ones where we were riding against the race flow on a public road to get from one viewing point to the other. This way we could pass all the cars head-on and watch them from the bike.

After three intense days of off-roading and race chasing we were read for a couple of days of relaxation. We got a bungalow at a campground right on the water in the town of Palau on the channel between Sardinia and Corsica so we could clean off all the dust we had accumulated over the weekend. At lunch we made friends with the owners of the restaurant. They recommended that we get a zodiac and cruise around the Maddalena Islands National Park for a day. In the morning we went down to the port with our picnic and picked up a gommone with a 30 HP motor. We spent the day swimming and island hopping. We spent most of the rest of our time in Sardinia around Palau until it was time to take the ferry back to the mainland.

On the first day of our trip the speedometer gear broke so we had no speedometer or odometer the whole trip. I called my friend Cristiano to have him order me the part so it would be there when we got back. Knowing the history of our neighborhood Honda dealer (Tresoldi Honda Pessano) I knew I would have to order it far in advance because they keep nothing in house and it take forever for them to get anything out-of-house. When we got back two weeks later, not only had the speedo gear not arrived but the front wheel bearings still hadnít arrived. I could have got the stuff quicker from Japan. To make matters worse, Cristiano said the guy told him he forgot to place the order in the first place. I sat down and called every Honda dealer in Milan looking for these parts and found one with a speedo gear. I went and picked it up and I asked Cristiano to cancel the order from Tresoldi but he said it was ďtoo lateĒ. They really donít make it easy. And Italian companies canít figure out why other European countries donít want to do business with them.
This morning Luci and her parents went to Egypt for the week. Resort life is not for me so I stayed behind. This weekend I am meeting up with a bunch of friends from the States. We are all going up to open Boccalatte together and dig it out of the snow.