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Like growing bananas on Piz Palü

Fast progress through Valmalenco with Alpine Power: Sometimes the detour – deviazione in Italian – is faster than the normal route. © Heinz Heiss/Zeitenspiegel Reportagen

It is important to keep your feet on the ground. That is the reason why CIPRA members held a cross-border trek along the Alpine chain – as a network-building project and a kind of Long March, which also made tracks on Facebook.
The valley bottom now lies far below them, framed by the mountains, a still life that is very much alive. The hedgerows draw a picturesque patchwork of fields and meadows around Poschiavo, a village of 3,600 souls. Only an hour earlier they were still down there in the old buildings, having sat for days discussing “The Renewable Alps” as part of AlpWeek 2012. But now, together with friends of CIPRA, they want to come into closer contact with the Alps themselves, to feel them and talk to the people who live there, about their problems, experiences and ideas. It is to be a walk with time to stop for more than getting your breath back.
“For me, Valposchiavo is one of the most interesting valleys in the whole of the Alps,” says a tall man with bushy eyebrows and a flat cap: Dominik Siegrist, President of CIPRA International and leader of the eight-strong group on this section of the trek, on a day that is fresh and sunny. Alpine Power is the name of the long-distance walk devised by CIPRA to mark its 60th anniversary with the aim of strengthening and extending its cross-border networks. The trek is to last from July to October and cover the whole length of the Alpine chain from Slovenia to France. The various sections of the walk are being organised by the corresponding national CIPRA offices and are to be backed up with regular postings on Facebook.
Barbara Ehringhaus, President of the Pro Mont Blanc organisation, neatly illustrates the paradoxical life that Alpine protection entails: “Since I started getting involved, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in front of my computer and have had hardly any time for walking.” Dominik Siegrist leads the way with a long and regular stride, his sticks sounding a leisurely rhythm. “Walking for me is the discovery of slowness,” he says. “It turns my mind to new ideas.” Back home he has a big map on the wall showing all the itineraries he has ever walked; it resembles a gigantic spider’s web covering the whole of the Alps. His observations and experiences as a walker are an additional source of knowledge about the various regions and their inhabitants and as such contribute to his teaching as a professor of tourism at Rapperswil Technical University. “You have to learn to read the signs of the countryside,” he says, raising his eyebrows and indicating the many carefully arranged stones on the ground in front of him. “This, for example, is a fine old mulattiera, which farmers used for centuries to drive their cattle to the huts on the spring pastures higher up the mountain as a stopover on their way to the summer pastures of the main alp. It is a typical element of the cultural landscape of the Southern Alps,” Dominik explains. “Many of these tracks have now fallen into disuse, while others – like this one – have been rediscovered in the context of green tourism and walking holidays.

Protecting the Alps right across the board
Thirty minutes later and the group arrives at the mountain pasture with its collection of little stone houses complete with red shutters, pots of geraniums – and satellite dishes. The cars standing outside the houses have number plates from Canton Grisons. Two little chapels overlook the freshly mown meadows. The mountain ridge across the valley is bathed in the last rays of the setting sun. The walkers are joined by a Mountain Wilderness activist and a geographer from Erlangen. A group photo is taken for the first Facebook posting for this section of the trek.
The very first posting for Alpine Power on Facebook includes photographs of Bruno Stephan Walder, the new Executive Director of CIPRA International, cycling through the Logar Valley with colleagues from CIPRA Slovenia and talking to a number of local mayors. On the Hoher Ifen in Bavaria, the Alpine Power group joined an event organised in protest against the construction of a new cable car there. They held a mountain-top vigil, unrolled banners and posted CIPRA’s demands on Facebook. And their efforts were not in vain – in October 2012 the proposed cable car project was rejected by the local people in a referendum. A converging walk in Liechtenstein led straight on to the section organised by CIPRA Switzerland, crossing the pass at St. Luzisteig and traversing Canton Grisons as far as Poschiavo, the point of departure for the group led by Dominik Siegrist.
“Ahead of us lies a three and a half hour climb with almost 1,200 metres of ascent to the Cancian Pass,” says Dominik in his role as our guide the following morning. After two hours the vegetation becomes sparser until only lichen adds colour to the grey of the rock and scree. Piz Palü is shrouded in cloud. A wooden arch marks the border on the Cancian Pass at 2,498 metres above sea-level. The boulders on the Italian side of the pass are no different from those on the Swiss side. The border nevertheless plays an important role for the protection of the Alps, as the subsequent encounters show.
Below the pass, the walkers are joined by the Legambiente Valtellina activist Ruggero Spada, a tall man with black curly hair. He wants to show the visitors an “alpe sana”, a healthy alp. Clad in jeans, our new guide glides light-footed ahead of the group through a fairytale landscape of glacier-carved rock and pine stands. Dominik Siegrist asks him what became of the petition launched to save the Stelvio National Park, which he signed five years ago. “The project has come to a standstill,” says Ruggero. He explains that the Italian government under Silvio Berlusconi has no interest in ecological concerns but hopes that things will improve with the new government – in spite of a lack of support on the part of the local inhabitants, who simply do not identify with the mountains: “The people here have their eyes set on Milan; the younger generation go there for leisure and learning.”
All the greater is the pleasure Ruggero takes in presenting such a successful symbol of regional identity as Alpe Acquanera. The stone cottage nestles against the mountain slope. Andrea, who runs the alp, receives us with a firm handshake and a loud voice. A head of dark wilful hair radiates good humour. Farm dogs fuss around the walkers’ legs. Andrea serves salami, spicy mountain cheese and a fruity organic red wine – “home-made without sugar or sulphur”. Bruno Stephan Walder tastes the food and declares the salami “ottimo” – simply the best! Andrea proudly shows the visitors his cheese-making facility: a sooty room with an enormous copper pot over an open fire.
Andrea’s family has farmed on this alp for the last five hundred years. He spent many years working as a lorry driver, but the call of the mountains proved irresistible. He took the bold step of becoming an Alpine farmer and has never looked back. “My herd of cows has grown from eight to thirty strong. Customers are not interested in supermarket products and are willing to pay the extra.” As a result, he can afford to send his two children to university. Alpine Power gives Andrea moral support for his mountain farming philosophy: “I’m going to make a cheese called Forza Alpina!”
Dusk is falling; the walkers must hurry. “A fine example, but not a lifestyle that everyone can emulate,” says Dominik Siegrist as the group descends from the alp. Further up the mountain, at Alpe Palü, the old mountain huts have been left to decay, and plastic sheeting now covers gaping holes in their slate roofs. For their role as stewards of the countryside, the local farmers are paid very little by the municipality, which is treated similarly by the regional authorities, who receive a pittance from the government in Rome. The Facebook posting for this day is apt – a photograph of dilapidated stone houses with a ski lift in the background and a question for users: “What are our values? What are we prepared to spend money on?”

Storming the summit together
In Chiareggio the group is joined for dinner by Giovanni Bettini. The 74-year-old chairman of Legambiente Valtellina has an ironic smile on his lips and a weary look in his eyes: “In Valtellina, protecting the Alps is like growing bananas on Piz Palü – an unlikely undertaking.” Efforts to protect the national park have faltered, yet permission has been granted for the construction of a hundred small hydropower plants. This involves diverting natural streams, resulting in stream beds drying up. But Giovanni now has new hope – in the past his organisation had little contact with Alpine protection organisations from other countries and only loose ties with CIPRA itself. For Dominik Siegrist, the main message of the meeting is clear: “In Valtellina, Legambiente is alive and kicking.” Contact has been re-established – one of the many little steps forward achieved through Alpine Power.
The fourth day again sees the group engaged in lively conversation. Reto Solèr of CIPRA Switzerland, an experienced walker and author of several guide books for walkers, waxes lyrical on the subject of bivouacking in the open air. Bruno Stephan Walder discovers some rare veins of quartzite in the rock that look rather like pork belly. And Barbara Ehringhaus tells Dominik Siegrist of her sense of frustration that UNESCO has not yet recognised Mont Blanc as a World Heritage site, mainly because of opposition from the local tourist trade. Dominik advises her to have the massif’s OUV evaluated, its Outstanding Universal Value. “UNESCO takes such assessments very seriously.”
The group descends a scree slope and follows the dry bed of the Orlegna River, which is composed of white stones the size of medicine balls. Before Maloja, the walkers come to the Salecina do-it-yourself holiday and conference centre. A sunbathing visitor on the seat outside the renovated farmhouse sips her cappuccino. Dominik Siegrist, who is a member of the Salecina board of trustees, provides a guided tour of the facilities, which include a library with long shelves of books on the region. Like all visitors to the centre, the members of the group do the cooking and cleaning themselves.
Everyone agrees that now would be a good time to sit down and take stock of the days they have spent together as a group. But the cause of protecting the Alps also calls for work to be done in offices and meetings to be held back home. The fine threads established on this section of the Alpine Power trek need to be woven into the CIPRA fabric – perhaps accompanied by a spicy mountain cheese by the name of Forza Alpina.

Tilman Wörtz
Zeitenspiegel Reportagen

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Source: Annual Report 2012 CIPRA International
www.cipra.org/en/CIPRA/cipra-international