Alpine nirvana

Scaling Italy’s largest valley glacier, Wonderful Dining columnist Aleesia Forni finds herself crossing the divide between being her parents’ child and being their protector.

It’s unlikely that you’ve ever heard its name, but there’s a glacier situated within the Italian Alps called the Ghiacciaio dei Forni. This Forni Glacier is the largest valley glacier in Italy and is the focal point of the Ortles-Cevedale Group, a mountain range in the Central Alps. The Forni Glacier is in Stelvio National Park, the largest national park in Italy and one that is part of more than 1,500 square miles of protected environment across the Italian-Switzerland border.

The glacier also shares a name with me. My family first stumbled upon it a few years ago, when my aunt happened to notice it on a world map. When my parents, aunts and I decided to set off on a whirlwind European vacation, we knew the Forni Glacier would have to be one of our stops.

In English, the Italian word “forni” translates to “oven.” We’re told the round, cavernous glacier was given this name because of its resemblance to the kitchen appliance and not, to our disappointment, because it has anything to do with our ancestors.

Just a few miles from the glacier is Rifugio Forni, a quaint mountain hut that sits above the ski-resort town of Bormio. To reach Rifugio Forni, you must undertake a, frankly, terrifying drive up a curving one-lane road that runs along the side of the mountain.

We arrive at Rifugio Forni late one evening, exhausted both from a long day of traveling and from the venture up the mountain. (Did I mention there are no guardrails?)

Our host at the Rifugio speaks limited English but enough to scold us for being late for the evening meal. We realize at once that it’s a no-nonsense establishment. From then on, either we arrive on time for dinner or we go to bed hungry.

The Rifugio is filled with backpackers, many of whom are trekking their way across the Alps, this just one of many stops along their journey.

We, on the other hand, are not experienced mountain climbers. And while I had considered myself a good-enough hiker, trekking up an Alpine rock scramble is a bit different than climbing to the peak of Anthony’s Nose near Peekskill.

To reach the Forni Glacier, you must hike or drive up a rocky terrain to another mountain hut, Rifugio Branca. From there, you hike down to a stunning pool of water that reflects the peaks of the glacial mountains, creating a dual image that it’s impossible not to capture with your phone.

Then the climb begins — up a flat rock surface with no handholds to assist you, up  against a trickling downstream current, where the path and waterway are one and the same.

My parents are behind me on this journey, and there are more than a few sections of our hike I’m sure they won’t be able to navigate. 

It’s funny how there’s a point in time in your life where you seem to cease feeling like your parents’ child and more like their protector. I feel like I’m in the dead center of that transformation. I worry about my parents driving late at night. I get nervous about their health, yet I still call my dad when I have a flat tire, and my mom is my consistent go-to for advice on everything from recipes to relationships.

Despite that, I find myself in an almost constant state of worry for them during our hike. “Are you sure you can make this?” and “Are you all right?” seem to be my two most overused phrases during the four-hour journey.

But as they have done so many times before, my parents surprise me. They take their time, they stick together, but they always make it. They dig their hiking sticks into the ground, keep moving forward, and I’m left proud and awestruck.

Reaching the glacier fills me with a sense of triumph, not only because this is a place we’ve dreamed of visiting for so long, but also because we made this journey together. We each bend down to touch its icy surface, taking photos of where our faces are plastered with sheer joy.

During the rest of our stay, we make other hikes around the nearby Alps, giving ourselves different views of the stunning peaks. We hike through cow fields, over rickety bridges and across mountainous landscapes. When our stay comes to an end, none of us is ready to go — both because we have so enjoyed our stay, but also because we have no desire to make the drive back down the one-lane roadway.

The experience of visiting this landmark with my parents and aunts is something that will be etched into my mind for the rest of my life, particularly as there’s another story about the Forni Glacier, one documented in the photos that sit along the walls of the entrance to Rifugio Forni. In the last few decades, the glacier has receded at an alarming pace, more than 2.5 kilometers from its maximum position, leaving experts unsure what the future holds for the stunning landmark.

Still, I hope one day to bring my own children to the glacier, where we can share similar experiences and make our own memories.

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