Il Don al tetto d’Europa
Don Stefano can be described in many ways; a stubborn old b*****d, outrageous flirt or an amazing inspiration. I guess when you have reached that certain age you can get away with anything and without realising it il Don has and does. He says his wife calls him a stubborn old b*****d and I can see why but on our traverse of Mount Elbrus he had us kids in awe.
You see il Don is 75 years old and has a freshly installed pacemaker. In fact he only had sported this device for about a month when we reached the summit of Kilimanjaro this time last summer. He wanted me to take out his stitches, “Not for me them bloody doctors” he said. I happily obliged and snipped away at his bare chest with my Swiss army knife; a truly memorable summit!
But Elbrus is a different beast and when I saw his name on the client list I hoped that he would at least have slowed down a little and become a bit more sensible. But old dogs don’t learn new tricks; “I only want to do the traverse, not for me the route where you take a bloody chairlift” knowing what was in store for him made me slightly anxious but I managed to wrestle him to the ground and get him to employ a porter to carry his loads to the high camp. He begrudgingly conceded and watched carefully as a young Russian porter hauled his pig up the hill; “I hope he don’t break my stuff”. The South-north traverse is the toughest route to climb to the top of Europe; hence the appeal to Don Stefano.
A summit attempt starts in a beautiful Alpine meadow, climbs through a surrealist volcanic landscape and a huge heavily crevassed glacier. No mountain can claim to offer such a magnificent variety of terrain as this huge double domed volcano. And Don Stefano loved every second of the ascent, I think; “This is all very good but that bloody American guy, he talks too much”.
We were a mixed team of nationalities and apart from Italy’s finest and his roommate the ‘bloody American guy who talked too much’, the team consisted of two well-travelled English ladies, a fun seven summit aspirant also from England, a sporty Aussie chickita and an adventurous lady from New Zealand. In command were myself and two Russian guides who according to Don Stefano, “don’t bloody smile too much”.
The don owes his fitness to regularly making love and marching up steep mountain sides when he returns home to his native Italian Alpine village; “I do this many times”. And the space age Juliet’s following this stone age Romeo up the mountain were left to wonder that perhaps in their regimes of regularly running marathons and daily gym work they might be missing out on something, “not for me them bloody machines.”
Despite talking too much for the Don’s preference, the American was the life and soul of the party and I noticed that the Don had a definite soft spot for him; “He’s all right that boy, just a bit simple at times”; he would smile fondly. Our traverse of the mountain from its south side to its north was successful but we did not reach the summit due to extremely bad weather hitting us just when we arrived at the saddle separating the two summit domes.
The temperature had dropped dramatically, a wind howled like a banshee and snow swirled around like confetti thrown at an Italian wedding; visibility was zero and navigating across the empty vastness of this giant saddle had become difficult. I asked the Don attached to the rope ahead of me if he was alright; “of-course I am, I just have my eyes stuffed full of snow but I am still gonna do this thing” the stubborn old b*****d growled.
We found the other side of the traverse and opted to descend. With fingers firmly crossed I promised the team that we might be able to attempt the mountain again the next day; “Good we are gonna get to the top even if you have to drag us there” the Don declared, perhaps not speaking for all of us.
The sun appeared again the next day and continued to shine as the entire team summited the highest mountain of Europe. To our amazement Don Stefano broke down in a flood of tears. It sure was an emotional moment to be here and everyone was hugely relieved to have achieved this great triumph together but to see the Don in such a state was completely un-expected.
Throwing my arms around him I asked if he was ok. “I am so bloody tired”, he sobbed, “It’ll be at least a few weeks before I can make love again”. When eventually we reached the valley floor and found a beer at our hotel we raised a toast to this remarkable man. How often do you meet someone who begins a climbing career in his seventies; who despite everything his doctors say travels the world to test himself in remote wilderness and who hugely enjoys the company of people not only a lot younger than him but who are literally from a very different world.
Recognising how he had inspired our small team I presented him with my guide’s badge; it was great to learn that through his example that we can look forward to a future where perhaps we too can climb mountains when we are seventy years young.