History and legend
of the highest altitude alpine skiing in the world
A good skier takes one step and gets
As far as the ear can hear, he takes another step and
Gets as far as the eye can see
(from an old Swedish chronicle)
All the news indicated is taken from the book by Umberto Pelazza and Antonio Vizzi " Mezzalama Trophy- Myth and Reality 1933-1997
OTTORINO MEZZALAMA - The father of ski-mountaineering
"Tall, with a square build, a serious yet expressive face with a big black moustache on each side,” is how Pietro Ghiglione, mountaineer and mountain writer remembered his friend, Ottorino Mezzalama, artillery sub-lieutenant when they joined the 3rd Alpine Corps in Turin in October 1915 with the other skiing instructors-officials who had been called up for the “war races”
Born in Bologna in 1888, Ottorino Mezzalama had taken part in the 1912 operations on the Libyan front as a sergeant, earning a commendation for having “performed his tasks with calm and without regard of the danger to himself, also in areas under enemy fire”. He was called up again at the outbreak of the First World War as reserve sub-lieutenant: he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1916 and captain the year after.
By the eve of the fateful 24th May, approximately three thousand Alpine soldiers had gained some sort of knowledge of the methods of using the new equipment and each battalion its own a platoon of skiers whose main tasks were of an exploratory nature. But it soon became clear that enemy training had been done in far greater depth.
In fact, when hostilities broke out older skiers and instructors from sports clubs had to be called up to organize regular courses planned during the winter break in military operations. Courses took place in various parts of the western Alps not involved in the conflict, where even the poorest of barracks, alpine huts or shelters were available.
The technical manual "Instructions for using skis ", published by General Staff in 1908 was edited in 1912 further to the adoption of two ski poles. Skiing equipment was usually in ash (Norwegian hickory articles were rare as they were costly) and were 85 inches long and 3 inches wide, and weighed around 11 pounds.
The first course was held in October 1915 on Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo; the second was held in the area surrounding the former royal hunting lodge of Dondena, in the upper Champorcher valley: its technical director was Ottorino Mezzalama.
"He was reticent, quiet and fond of his own company " continued Ghiglione "but once he had his skis on he became active, enterprising and dynamic; he was single-minded and had an iron will supported by stamina on which one could rely entirely ".
Colleagues and pupils were impressed when they saw his enormous mountain rucksack which he would never hand over to anyone, not even the assistant. In it he would put anything that might turn out useful, even in anticipation of the most unlikely events. “You never know,” he was often heard to say, “you know when you go off to the mountains but not when you are going to come back.”
Courses continued for the entire winter season of 1916/17 in Valle Stura, at Bardonecchia, at the Monginevro pass, at Salice d'Ulzio and at Breuil. They then relocated to behind the units at the front lines. In 1917, 26 skiing groups divided into 13 battalions were formed (the 3rd Alpine Corps was given the skiing battalion "Courmayeur"). They were to enter various arenas of battle, achieving great success in Valcamonica and Valtellina and they were to go down in history as " The white warriors of Adamello".
The first mass ski training at a national level was led to the fringes of battle but went virtually unnoticed by the annals of events that were enveloping Italy and Europe in such turmoil. Nevertheless, it was to sew an important seed that would bear fruit in subsequent years.
The first period of experimentation could be considered over by 1920: the cumbersome skis became more of a domestic item in Italy and seemed to gain greater fluidity. Whilst the war-inflicted traumas began to heal, snow-related sports began to take off and branch out into different disciplines; downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, luging and bobsleighing with the inevitable aspect of competition.
Yet ski-mountaineering did not seem to be caught up in the general euphoria. With an inborn reluctance, like a nobleman loyal to his family origins, solitude and silence were its ideal terrain. The ski-mountaineer did not care much for the downhill pistes or the cross-country circuits where he was unable to take his own decisions. Competition was an alien concept to him and even in appearance he was to reveal his individuality with outfits of a markedly mountaineering guise, shorter skis, twin-purpose equipment for going uphill and downhill. He would set off with his rucksack before daybreak and all mechanical means of ascent were unknown (the first sleds towed by rope date back to 1930). The tiny female patrol which took on the new discipline had to get rid of their skirts and boldly don trousers (their husband’s or father’s, at least initially).
Systematic exploration of the Alps began by seeking out paths which did not necessarily culminate in the conquest of a peak. Hollows and slopes were not the inevitable midway points of arrival but had the same importance as vertical walls for mountaineers.
The path of the year Two Thousand
In the meantime, Ottorino Mezzalama had also obtained a degree in Commercial and Economic Science and moved to Turin. He became a member of the CAI (Italian Mountaineering Club) Ski Club and took up gymnastics, fencing and canoeing. But his gaze would continually wander from the windows of his office towards the Alps that rose on the distant horizon as he began to dream of a long skiing route that would envelope them, “the path of the year Two Thousand".
He remained a bachelor and lived at home with his elderly mother. “Who do you think will marry me?” he would say. “I’m too ugly and I haven’t got time: one finds a wife on Sundays and on Sundays I am always alone and at high altitudes".
On Saturday afternoon (the long working week was still in force) he would throw his large rucksack, skis and ice axe on to the train and in the evening he would reach a mountain destination, at an hour when respectable people would be shutting themselves in their homes for their evening meal.
He would eat a simple meal, take a nap and at the first break of day he would already be climbing up some snow-capped crest or crossing a swollen gully, trying to recognize a path he had examined in the previous summer, seeking out the most suitable crossing for a slope, studying the best point and way of making a curve. He did not hesitate to go back on his steps if caution advised it and he did not forget to capture a shot of the most stunning scenes on his camera to go with the report he would send back to the CAI.
The twenties were to be his golden decade, an interrupted period of intense commitment in every season and at all times, aimed at the methodical and painstaking execution of a project he had drafted during his military service: to explore the entire Alpine chain from the Maritime to the Julian Alps on skis to demonstrate the great opportunities our mountains hold for the ski mountaineer and create a vast range of literature on all possible itineraries.
In 1930 he wrote: "Studying a skiing route always has the feel of exploration and affords the same satisfaction as a first ascent ... connection between the numerous peaks, glaciers and valleys is highly interesting because of the variety of aspects and the continuous observations and reflections one is forced to make, both to find direction and choose passage and slopes. Indeed, at the end of a crossing one has the impression of having completed a real journey ".
This complete sensation experienced to the full made Mezzalama the most knowledgeable person on the Alps circle, from the Tyrhennian Sea to the Brennero Pass. In June 1927, together with Ettore Santi, he completed the first Italian ascent on skis up Mont Blanc.
His famous rucksack normally contained rations for a minimum of three days, winter clothes, thirty metres of rope, crampons, ice axe and photographic material. The load fluctuated between 15 and 25 kg when it was not further weighed down by his skis. Strangely, he never made use of sealskins, although he recognized their usefulness, but all in all he preferred ski waxes.
On 31st January 1931, in the Rochemolles valley above Bardonecchia, he took part voluntarily in the search for twenty-one Alpine soldiers from the 3rd Alpine Corps who had been swept away by an avalanche. This is the memory Angelo Manaresi had of him on that day: "...with his long, gangly gait which never betrayed any signs of fatigue or the difficulty of the ascent, he walked with all that equipment on, which made him resemble a soldier on fatigue; every so often he would raise his eyes calmly upwards and his pointed moustache added an almost dated touch of warmth to his thin, dark face".
After a few days it was in fact the Alpine soldiers, the 6th Corps together with the mountaineers from the Bolzano section of the CAI, who would bring his lifeless body back down.
He was taken by surprise by the bad weather at the peak of the Bicchiere on the Breonie Alps and was forced to stay for three days in the icy mountain hut Elena (now called Dino Biasi) together with his friend, Mazzocchi. On the fourth day, on the return journey, he was knocked down and overwhelmed by an avalanche. His companion searched for him desperately until dusk, but in vain raced down the mountain in search of aid. The morning after, a deathly hand protruding from the snow led rescuers to where he had met his death.
Ottorino Mezzalama’s great dream had been brought to an end by the very same mountains he had tried for so many years to join by a single itinerary. But the tracks left by his skis were to leave a permanent and indelible trace along the entire chain of the Alps.
His last report, published posthumously in the introduction to the CAI journal, under the title “Multi vocati, pauci vero electi" (“many are called, few are elected”) seems to express to his friends the technical handbook of the ski-mountaineer. These were to be the principles that were to inspire them in organizing the great event in his honour: the Mezzalama Trophy.
"Knowing how to get the most out of one’s skiing capabilities at altitude and on long excursions, requires training that is by no means brief, and the closer to perfection one’s technique the greater the results will be. Whereas the mountaineer can acquire the knowledge for using crampons and ice axe in a relatively short period of time, only after long usage and many crossings can all the miraculous results possible with skis be achieved...
My experience of many long crossings makes me convinced that the skier should exploit his skis to the full and not consider them an accessory instrument, like some who, by limiting their use, show their lack of proficiency with them. Only in really exceptional conditions of terrain, slope and snow can the skier feel forced to remove his skis and tow them behind him....
In addition to mountaineering technique and physical training, one needs to have a thorough understanding of the mountain setting, of its generosity and changes in temperament, of its hidden dangers and enticements, of its seasonal periods of rest and re-awakening, so that all good circumstances can be taken advantage of and all bad ones avoided ...
Once accepted that the skier can rely solely on his own strengths and skills and once he has achieved this complete sense of security and ability, with the aid of ice axe, crampons and rope, he can make of the mountains his entire world.”