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Snow and Boredom

Friday, August 18th, 2006

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The weather improved slightly at the beginning of last week. Enough to increase our lunch counts but, since the climbing conditions were still affected by the previous weeks snow, overnight guests were still only a trickle. Because of the good weather, the guys who were planning on coming up to work on the emergency radio came and made their improvements. It seemed a good opportunity to fly down some stuff that doesnít need to be up here, including myself. I got to fly in a helicopter that I havenít been in before; an Agusta Koala. Comfy. I took the lead photo on the descent. After my three minute descent, I loaded the van and drove to Milan where I was greeted by one frustration after another.

I havenít kept the blog updated every Sunday because we have been having internet problems. I have tried everything and, after a call to the ISP, we discovered that it is a problem with the server. We use an old-school dial-up server that we signed up for for free back when the internet was almost unknown in Italy. It was a promotion by the Italian Telecom. Things moved very fast and now, like in the states, most people use a DSL connection. But we held onto the free dial-up service to use with the radio bridge phone at the hut. I also used to from time-to-time when we were having problems with the Iridium satellite phone software at Siple Dome last year. But, after weeks without being able to connect, a few phone calls and a long time on hold, we discovered that they are having ďproblemsĒ with the free service server. My theory is that because it doesnít earn them much money, they just stopped maintaining it in hopes that people will sign up for a pay service.

When I got to Milan, I was looking forward to using the Pandolfiís high-speed wireless to catch up on some stuff but, alas, they were having problems as well. I spent the better part of a day trouble shooting their system with no luck. I determined that it is a problem with the line and finally gave up. I also found out that I had gotten a speeding ticket from back in June that I had to deal with.

Many towns in Italy have started using what they call the AutoVelox. Sounds like some kind of anti-venom doesnít it? What it is is a guy with a camera and a radar on the side of the road who takes your speed and picture and sends you the bill if you are going over. They have somewhat recently introduced a points system to Italian driverís licenses. If you lose all 20 points you lose your license. So, along with an envelope containing the $200 speeding ticket, I received a form to fill out with my license details so they could deduct 2 points.
The catch is that I donít have an Italian driverís license. For a foreigner to get a driverís license in Italy you have to go back to driving school. It takes months and cost hundreds of Euro. I have decided to take the easier and legally questionable route. According to the law, if you are in Italy for more than a year you are required to get an Italian driverís license. But they are not specific about how to count a year. I have decided that since I am never and have never been in Italy for more than a year I should be fine with an international driverís license that anyone can get at their local AAA in the states. Of course these expire after one year so every time Iím back in the states I have to make a trip to the AAA for a new one. Luciís father offered to take the hit for me and send in his license but, in a sort of masochistic way, I am interested in testing the system Iíve been using all these years. I guess weíll just have to wait and see.

While I was in Milan sorting out all this business and getting the motorcycle ready to take back up to Valle díAosta, the weather at the hut had gone bad again. By the time I got back up, there was another six to eight inches of snow on the ground. In the past week we have had one nice day which happened to be the 15th of August or Feragosto; the big summer holiday day. We served a few lunches to people who had struggled up in the snow that still blanketed the trail well below the hut but we had no overnight guests. In fact, today is a week without any over-night guests. We are bored out of our minds.

With no internet either I have been losing my mind. Last night I made a deal with Luci that I would call our Antarctic employer to see if they had received her new dental x-ray if she would call telecom to figure out how to set up our cell phone to connect to the internet. I had spent at least 20 minutes a day over the past three on hold with them waiting to talk to someone to help us configure our new phone. True that we have nothing to do but doing nothing is better than sitting on hold. To make matters worse, there is this horrendous jingle that they use in a new ad campaign on TV and on the radio. At least in commercials you only have to hear it a few seconds every-so-often but when you are on hold with them they play the same ten-second loop over and over again punctuated with a recorded voice saying ďall our operators are busy. We invite you to wait until one is available.Ē Of course, when Luci called she got right through. They made the necessary adjustment to our account and, before I knew it, I was checking my e-mail. Phew. The call to our employer went equally as well. In under two minutes I found out that Luci had been physically qualified for Antarctic deployment. Now we can dedicate our full attention to our boredom.

Snow

Saturday, August 5th, 2006

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The past two weeks have been complete contrasts. This time last week we were preparing for the onslaught of climbers that were to make our first full-house of the season. We ultimately had all our beds full and one person (arrival with no reservation) sleeping on the floor. Everyone had half-pension so we were lucky to have the new benches and tables which gave us enough room to serve all twenty-five people in one seating. We had two internationally known guides last Saturday, too, which made the climbing easy for everyone (people just let the guide find the route and follow him). The whole week before was nonstop; which is why I didnít get a chance to write. We had reservations for fifteen-or-so every night plus the unannounced arrivals from above to keep us up most of the night. Plus, three breakfasts every morning: 1:30am, 4:00am and 8:00am and a slew of day visitors wanting lunch.

But at the beginning of this week the weather forecasts predicted a steady en-worsening of atmospheric conditions. Because, to potential climbers, the forecast is more important than the actual weather, from Monday on our reservation book was blank. Wednesday was forecast bad but turned out to be an incredible day. Some friends came up to talk about filling in for us for a couple of days next year. Luci finally decided to bite the bullet and make a trip down to the valley to get the supplementary x-rays that our Antarctic employer was requesting. A couple of weeks ago, the radio-tech for the alpine rescue was up here and mentioned that they were planning on making an upgrade to our emergency radio. The battery doesnít hold enough charge for it to be left on at all times so they are planning to retrofit it with a larger panel and battery bank which would require the use of the rescue helicopter to bring up the materials. On the off-chance that they might fly up on Thursday, when she had the dentist appointment in Aosta, Luci decided to give him a call to see if she could hitch a ride down and up again with the helicopter. As it turns out, they were planning on flying up on Thursday and said it would be OK for Luci to hitch a ride.

So after our friends left on Wednesday Luci began preparing for her descent into the valley the next morning. At about 4:30 in the afternoon we got a call from the tech saying there had been a last-minute change of plans. The helicopter was going to be occupied with a hospital transfer the next morning and the works would have to be postponed until the next week. Luci was upset because she doesnít like to hike down. But, we really had everything going for us; she already had the appointment, the weather was good at the moment and we had no reservations until Saturday. So, we made the split second decision to hike down together to the valley. We locked up the kitchen and the basement and started down at about 5:20. By 7:30 we were dining on filet and poached trout sipping fine wine.

The idea was to hike back up Thursday afternoon after the appointment and the weather looked like it would cooperate. After raining all night, it had cleared up in most of Valle díAosta. But, by the time we got back up to the Mt. Blanc area, where Boccalatte is, it was obvious that it had not cleared up there. In fact, we could see during a break in the clouds that the bad weather had laid down a considerable amount of snow around the hut. Because it was likely that there was still no one at the hut, and on account of the continuing bad weather we decided to stay another night in the valley. We got a hotel room and watched the European diving championships.

Despite an improved forecast, the weather was worse on Friday morning and we could see that a lot more snow had fallen up high on the range. By now we had put off our ascent too long so we donned our rain gear and started up. It was drizzly up to about 2000m (c. 6200ft.) when it turned to snow. When we got to about 7500ft, the snow was about three inches deep and the trail was becoming difficult to follow. By the time we climbed up the ropes and got to the hut at just shy of 10,000ft there was between six and eight inches on the porch and the hut was empty as we expected. Even though the hiking conditions were not anywhere near optimal, Luci still managed to shave a good half-hour off her personal ascent record.

It snowed lightly all night and we awoke to another three inches this morning. This Saturday, instead of preparing for the hordes, I had to shovel a foot of snow off the porch and walkways. All but six people have canceled for tonight. We donít hold out much hope of them arriving, though. If there is a foot of snow here it means there could be at least twice that much on the climb making for bad avalanche conditions and difficult walking. Looks like winter has begun on the Mont Blanc.