Stella Alpina Rally
In my previous article, I related how the Sommeiller pass came to be named. This time I'm going to describe a character who is inextricably linked with the Stella Alpina; although in truth he has no intrinsic connection with the motorcycle scene itself.
Without Mario Artusio there would never have been a Stella Alpina rally, but without Edoardo 'Edo' Allemand the rally would never have reached the top of the Sommeiller.
In 1966 Mario organised the first gathering at the Stelvio Pass. The pass is located in the Ortler Alps between Stilfs in South Tyrol and Bormio in the province of Sondrio, quite close to the Swiss border.
The mountains of the Stelvio
For the second meeting the next year, Mario moved the rally to a totally different region: the 'Colle del Sommeiller', located in Piemonte, in the Alpi Cozie between the Italian and French border.
Edoardo 'Edo' Allemand (1926-2010)
He was neither a motorcyclist, nor one of Mario's entourage; simply a ski instructor passionate about his sport and in love with the mountains of the Susa Valley where he was born.
Native to the region, in the 1950s he became one of the 'guardians' of the Rochemolles dam in the Sommeiller Valley. During his service as dam keeper, he had plenty of opportunities to visit the Colle del Sommeiller to admire the glacier.
One spring during the changing of the dam guards, he and two friends were swept away by an avalanche on the way down to the village of Rochemolles. One of them did not make it. Only Edoardo and one of his friends survived.
In 1958, he became a ski instructor. Skiing, like motorcycling, is sport fraught with danger. Unfortunately, he severely fractured his leg in 1966 and this unfortunate incident totally changed his life.
During his long period of convalescence, stuck indoors, a crazy and implausible idea came to mind. He dreamed of building a summer ski centre on the Sommeiller glacier where he could offer ski enthusiasts the opportunity to practise the discipline, even in the summer months when the snow was absent form lower levels.
The only thing that stands between dreams and reality is persistence.
- Abhijit Naskar
Bear in mind that at that time there was no road to the Sommeiller. The only existing road only went from Bardonecchia to the village of Rochemolles, so access was going to be his first problem and most certainly not the last or the greatest.
Before 1963, there was no road to access the Sommeiller from the village of Rochemolles. The summit was inaccessible to vehicles
Once he was fit and on his feet again, he set to work with the help of his wife Nilde, and his best friend Piero Bosticco, to endeavour to realise his ambition.
As with any project, funding is key and that was their first problem; although what they lacked in funds, they more than made up for in ideas and enthusiasm. Their first move was to involve their fellow instructors from the Bardonecchia ski school, together with its clients and students.
Bardonecchia's team of ski instructors
Next, they sought businesses and individuals willing to invest. With the help of private financing from the many tourists, supporters and fans of the Susa Valley, as well as Bardonecchia locals, they were able to raise 40 million lira, a substantial figure at the time.
He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.
- Muhammad Ali
However, the biggest initial challenge was to actually build the road to the 'Colle del Sommeiller'. Until that time, similar schemes had only been achieved by the military who of course had far superior resources. More especially, the military had an inexhaustible workforce, plus the experience of already building mountain roads throughout the area.
These Stella participants, like many of other fellow rallyists, are unaware of the fact that they owe the pleasure of being able to ride to the top of the Sommeiller to a ski instructor crazy enough to realise his vision
They began by mapping out a path with a total length of 19.5 km and an incline over the distance of 1600m, taking them from the village of Rochemolles to the Colle del Sommeiller.
The task of defining the route was initially given to a surveyor who miscalculated the way on three occasions so Edo Allemand had no choice but to fire him and do the job himself.
As one can imagine, the task was completely daunting and potentially quite dangerous. There were obvious hazards such as the use of explosives to clear away mountain rock plus the operation of heavy machinery on narrow mountain ledges in close proximity to inexperienced workers. Bear in mind that most of those labouring on the project were fellow ski instructors, not mountain road builders, so the potential for accidents was far greater.
Despite all the precautions taken on a project such as this, where blasting takes place, the risks of working with explosives were enormous
However despite the obvious risks, this team of courageous volunteers were all united in the desire to realise their collective dream and seemingly feared nothing, sacrificing much along the way.
Such was their passion for the project that to avoid wasting precious work time, they slept on site in bunk beds in a giant military tent.
Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.
- Andrew Carnegie
This efficient work team made up of mainly of ski instructors, directed by Edo, began work on the morning of 7 May 1962.
By the end of the following month, the road had already reached the dam, and on July 25 of that same year, the Scarfiotti refuge.
Finally, at the end of October, on the threshold of winter, the road was almost finished with less than 100m to go.
The route was finally completed by the end of spring 1963.
A masterpiece of civil engineer achieved by amateurs
What these passionate ski enthusiasts accomplished, by dint of will, courage and stubbornness, with the help of a single mechanical digger, was a total triumph.
Almost 60 years on, the Sommeiller mountain route built by these amateur road builders is still navigable by mountain bike, motorcycle, sidecar, 4WD vehicle and of course on foot.
Almost 60 years after, the road leading to the summit is still passable, whether on two, three, or four wheels
Not a hairpin bend or a bridge has succumbed to the elements, most surprisingly not even in the sections most exposed to landslides. It's an engineering masterpiece and a classic among 'amateur-built' European high mountain roads. Every year, in the spring, the only maintenance required was to clear the heavy snowfalls of winter.
In a narrow corridor with high snow walls, rallyists on their machines begin the final ascent to the top of the pass where they can collect their well-deserved Stella Alpina badges.
The bar/hotel/refuge Ambin
With the completion of the road, the next phase of this ambitious project was the construction of the bar/hotel/refuge Ambin; its title derived from the massif of the same name. In this phase two was the construction of the first two ski lifts, operated by a lorry diesel engine.
The hazards of winter were not to be underestimated. The winter snows were merciless and each year, at the beginning of the ski season it was necessary to dig out many metres of snow simply to uncover the ski lift's departure and arrival stations. This enormous task was further complicated at the end of the season since it was then also essential to dismantle the lifts and protect the engines.
A view of the line of parked motorcycles not far from the bar/hotel/refuge Ambin at the 1974 rally
For the construction of the bar/hotel/refuge, the foundation was brick-built with reinforced concrete walls, using prefabricated steel shelters purchased from an Italian company to roof the building.
The refuge consisted of two buildings connected by a protected tunnel. The first was a two-storey building, ground floor with a shop, look-out rooms and toilet together with a boiler and a cellar.
The second floor comprised a kitchen, washing area, restaurant with 80 seats and a bar, and outside a panoramic terrace with a south-east view.
Skiers and tourists enjoying a moment of relaxation on the terrace
The second building comprised 20 bedrooms with 50 beds and was subsequently extended by another 4 rooms to accommodate a further 12 people. Electricity was provided by means of a diesel generator which was turned off in the evening.
The water supply was piped from a reservoir, but later a hydraulic pump was employed to pump fresh water from a nearby glacial lake.
A view of the restaurant
The company subsequently bought some vehicles to guarantee the shuttle service for tourists and staff and each ski instructor was provided with a minibus to travel to the glacier with his ski school.
From Bardonecchia skiers could now climb to the top and ski the French side of the glacier. There were three ski lifts at their disposal. The Sommeiller, which took them from 2,850m to 3,200m; the Nible, which carried them from 3000m to 3150m and the Ambin, which provided the link between 2800m and 2950m.
Like a giant's hand sweeping everything away
Mother Nature is a law unto herself and she doesn't have to worry about people who for the most part don't care about her anyway. She is not here to appreciate and applaud the works of men.
In the winter of 1968/69,the weather was particularly bad in the Piemont. Persistent rains had lashed the deep snow, which at altitude was extremely fragile and sudden changes in temperature had precipitated constant avalanches throughout the region.
Early in 1969, the pilot of a small plane, who was very familiar with the area, flew over the Sommeiller Pass and immediately noticed that something had changed.
The two roofs of the Ambin buildings were no longer visible! Instead, protruding from the snow there were simply twisted metal sheets. Something terrible had happened!
An avalanche had crashed down the slopes of the 'Rognosa di Etiache' and like a giant hand, it had swept away everything in its path.
It took more than an avalanche to discourage 'Edo' and his team though. The team immediately got to work reopening the road to get to the pass, trying to recover as much as possible from the wreckage as well as clearing the immediate area.
Unexpected help though came from Bardonecchia and consisted of a platoon of Alpine troops.
Civilians and soldiers united in their efforts to rebuild everything.
Also, in a spirit of solidarity, everyone, even tourists in love with the place lent a hand in the immediate building reconstruction.
Everything was done to speed the reconstruction and put the ski lifts back into operation. By the summer of 1969, everything was operational again in preparation for skiing once again on the slopes of the Sommeiller glacier.
Only the motorcycle rally survived
Everything worked well for many seasons for those passionate skiers.
But nature, always unpredictable, made its mark once again, and little by little the glacier began to retreat until it almost disappeared.
Of the three ski lifts, only the two located in the highest part were still in use until their final closure in 1984.
The Ambin refuge was finally demolished in 2004.
My dear friend Gilles Gaudechoux, a member of the CM Raboliots, at the improvised campsite in the Sommeiller mountain, during the 2013 Stella. Global warming is very evident and the snow that in past summers covered the mountainsides is no longer there
Only the motorcycle rally, organised every year at Sommeiller since 1967, has survived.
Unfortunately, ongoing and accelerating climate change means skiers have completely disappeared.
- Jean-Francois Helias