Elusive and reserved, coy and modest, almost surly: this is how we often imagine mountaineers of yesteryear to be. Diego Margiotta is all this and more.
Short, sharp, almost lapidary replies to my questions hint at an independent and perhaps reticent soul, with a penchant for austere, severe, remote and isolated ranges.
Mountaineers are all, to a certain extent, selfish, doing all they can to follow their dreams, foregoing all social rules to accomplish their goals. After all, it could not be any other way.
I will not list the mountains Diego has climbed, nor the peaks he attained, and neither the slopes he skied down from, as most are unknown. I will not try and impress you with astounding names, exceptional routes, nor give you a series of dry numbers or records. Diego goes to the mountains for his own sake and, although he truly enjoys sharing his adventures with others, he does not seem to be fazed by trends, and leads life his own way. And so, intrigued by the affection and admiration conveyed by my friends when talking about him, I was eager to find out more about this captivating figure.
In this rare, Desert Island Discs style interview, I have tried to capture the essence of somebody who, by choice, decided that a methodical approach to mountaineering was all he needed to be content.
You are a sculptor, primarily of wood, as well as being a mountaineer. Where does your main interest lie?
Well, I am a wood carver by profession, so I earn my living from that. It is indeed my passion, but going to the mountains is definitely my main interest.
You seem to favour all the valleys leading to Monte Rosa. Why is that?
I grew up looking over Monte Rosa, along the Lys Valley, so I guess I became acquainted with this massif from an early age and have strong memories associated with it. If I were to choose one side, I would say I prefer the Macugnaga and Valsesia ones.
Many people say that you can encounter Himalaya-like conditions in this massif. Would you agree?
Yes, I think it’s true especially as far as the Piedmontese sides are concerned. The conditions in Macugnaga, for instance, can be pretty harsh and severe. There, the gradient of the Monte Rosa face is one of the highest in Europe. There are enormous objective risks to be run, and that’s the reason why it’s not so frequented and its routes are hardly repeated.
You have been defined as the last advocate of the so-called “exploratory” mountaineering. Why do you think that is?
Well, perhaps because I like exploring the valleys I am fond of, with a certain method, systematically. When I choose a region, I focus on climbing all the peaks in that region. And I mean ALL of them. Perhaps you can call this attitude “exploration”, although it has to be said that I have never travelled abroad and have always focused on Western Alps.
So when did you decide that going up all the mountains in the area around Monte Rosa was your, so-to-speak, goal?
I cannot recall any specific moment, but clearly having grown up in the Gressoney valley [his aunt stems from Fontainemore], I had decided I would go and explore all the mountains in that specific valley. And so I did. My parents accompanied me at the beginning and then I became a proper alpinist later on.
You grew up in Asti (Piedmont), but seem to spend more time in the Aosta Valley or other mountainous areas. Where is home?
I don’t really like Asti, it is a rather alien city to me. I have my house, I grow my garden, I do my job there, but other than that, the Aosta Valley is where I feel I belong.
Who are your rope partners?
My favourite rope partner was Felice Bescion, from Hone, who is much older than me and no longer goes to the mountains due to his health. I spent a decade hiking with him and learnt most of what I know from him. Although not a mountain guide, he was a very talented mountaineer. I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to him.
Yes I can grasp that from the tone of your voice. And how did you get to know the locals Jacopo Alberti, mountain guide Rudy Perronet and the lot?
I met Rudy whilst skiing in Cervinia. I had gone there to ski the Porta Nera and was with some mutual friends. Rudy and I got talking about the north face of the Becca Torché which we were both keen to climb. It all started there. Jacopo is a good friend of Rudy and so we got to know each other and have climbed several peaks together.
You then shared many adventures with them, for instance their project Ayas 360º
Yes. That was a noble undertaking, rediscovering ancient cols and forgotten arêtes of the Val d’Ayas. I spent the first couple of days with Rudy and Jacopo, bivvying on that same Becca Torché we had talked about. It was fun.
You also took part in the project Dal Bianco al Blu: la Grande Discesa. Can you tell me about it?
That was an idea of mountain guide Matteo Calcamuggi. Maurizio Martesini was also with us, although he had to abandon the project around the Nivolet Col. It took place in 2006 and our aim was that of skiing from Mont Blanc to Ventimiglia. Rudy also accompanied us for the last leg of the journey.
It sounds like a nifty project. I’ve seen that several talks took place after you accomplished the project. Did you forego your usual demure attitude, for once?
Well, not really! Matteo took charge of all that. I am by nature reserved and do not look for publicity, nor ways of conveying my feats. I do not even own a pc, while Matteo, on the other hand, was capable of finding sponsors for this adventure and then worked hard to promote it.
Why do you never take pictures when you are in the mountains?
I did at the beginning, then I broke my camera and never bought a new one. It’s as simple as that.
What about the memories linked to a specific picture?
I do not need a picture to remind myself of one adventure or the other. My memory works well as it is.
And any notebook, perhaps with sketches?
Yes, a few, especially if I’ve opened a new line. But I use them as a way of jotting down what I have done, nothing more than that.
And yet, there are areas where your presence, in terms of routes opened, is strongly documented. For instance around Mount Emilius, where you opened around eighteen routes, as clearly stated in the Italian Touring Club’s book.
Yes, well, the fact that you find all those mentions in the book is by pure chance. I always marked the routes I opened in the book kept on top of the mountain; the person compiling the guidebook to the area saw my name on this book and got in touch with me to obtain some information. That is the only reason why you have some data on them. I have to point out, in any case, that I did not leave the routes equipped and only opened them for my own sake, not that of others.
So do you ever leave anything in place when you open a route?
No, I only open routes for myself and try not to leave any trace behind.
Do you often go mountaineering on your own?
I sometimes do, especially if it is a matter of climbing some remote peaks, where nobody wants to go! I do not make it a priority, though, as some others may do.
Remote peaks such as climbing all the peaks in the Valsesia?
Yes, precisely. It took me two seasons to climb them, I attained 188 peaks in one season, so I moved quite fast.
Are you the only one who has attained such a feat?
I don’t know. I may well be, but I am not so sure. There may be someone who has done all the peaks in one of these valleys, but the chances of someone having climbed all the ones in the Anzasca, Lys, Ayas valleys and so on, such as I have done, are pretty remote.
Have you really climbed all the peaks in all these valleys?
I am missing one peak in the Orco Valley, then one in the Lanzo Valley, one in the Cogne Valley, otherwise I have done all the ones in the Valsavarenche, Valtournenche, Champorcher ones… I don’t think I achieved anything special with this compiling of peaks, though.
Are you sure about that? It clearly shows commitment and strong dedication.
Perhaps, but I think other mountaineers have compiled more compelling and challenging routes than I have done.
And yet, you have been defined as a “visionary”mountaineer and have been called “Er magico”.
Have I? Really? Uhm, I don’t know why that is. I don’t consider myself as any special mountaineer.
Be as it may, among the things you have done, you have opened ephemeral waterfalls, such as Rock Maudit in Alagna, with Adriano Trombetta (III – 4°+R/X e 5° – 150m)
Yes, that was probably one of the most beautiful and dangerous ice formations in the area. It only lasted, in fact, for a day or so. There had been several attempts beforehand, none being successful.
You also feature in many of the ice formations in Matteo Giglio’s guidebook Effimeri Barbagli
Well, probably for the Gressoney area, but certainly not for the entire Aosta Valley! I opened a few waterfalls with Davide Frachey in 2013, who kept a diary retracing our steps during that year.
You skied down the north face of the Becca di Gay (Gran Paradiso) together with Matteo Tagliabue, Davide Terraneo and Andrea Bormida in May 2013. First skied by Stefano de Benedetti in 1984, this face is rarely in good enough conditions. Matteo tragically perished in Peru last June. What are your recollections of him?
I’m afraid I did not really know Matteo. We had skied together only that one time, and he seemed to me to be really skilled, a proper mountaineer, not only an extreme skier. Dying so young is always a tragedy, that’s for sure.
Have you lost many companions, over the years?
A few, but that did not stop me from going to the mountains. It is a risk you have to accept. The mountains set their rules and we just have to play by them.
How do you see the future of mountaineering?
I’d say hard, bolted routes, at least here in the Alps, while you must probably direct your attention towards far away lands, if you want to seek adventure.
I will certainly carry on going to the mountains, and I’d like to point out that I started as a hiker and I would like to end as such. There will come a day when I don’t want to run any more risks, but I will always try and keep in close contact with the mountains.
Of the many first ski descents, there is one called Il sibilo del Cobra (550 m, S4/S5), on the Creton du Midi, which you skied with Andrea and Davide Bastrenta, Andrea Bormida, Alfonso Ortalda and Rocco Perrone in April 2008. Was that fun?
Yes, that is a good line, but I have skied down many, many more. Last winter, for instance, in the Valsesia, I opened various routes, some of them on my own.
Are they recorded anywhere?
No, not really.
Don’t you think they should be somehow noted?
Well, I usually let the locals know about my plans, so they are aware of what I do.
Fair enough. And what about Mont Blanc? Any area you favour?
The Italian side, which is more treacherous and difficult. I’d like to climb the Integrale de Peuterey, which missing from my list. I have the Integrale de Brouillard and Innominata under my belt, but not that one. I also still need to climb the Tronchey Arête on the Grandes Jorasses
Can you say a few words for young people who first start going to the mountains?
I think I am too different from most of the others to be able to give any advice! I also go to the mountains because I love them, and do not see mountaineering as a sport at all. Many young people consider it this way, and strive to be like their climbing heroes. I do not share these ideas, at all.
And yet there are young people who like what you and admire you.
Yes, maybe that’s just because they are still very young…
I doubt it. They have probably understood what your values are and share these ideals with you.
Perhaps. Be as it may, I still think I differ greatly from most of the others.
Can you recall any particular ascent or ski descent, the ones which are still vivid in your memory?
I enjoyed the Signal, which I undertook in almost winter conditions, despite being the end of winter. Then the first repetition of a route opened by Martino Moretti on the Parrot, a mountain guide from Alagna. A superb line which filled me with pleasure. Also, the first route I climbed on the East face of Monte Rosa.
A ski descent I recall with pleasure is the Gabbio – Cavanna on the Parrot, on the Valsesia side of Monte Rosa. It is not as coveted as the Marinelli or the north face of the Lyskamm, but it has a beauty of its own. I also undertook it on my own, and I guess that’s why I have such fond memories.
Perhaps also because you shared these adventures with relevant rope partners.
Yes. And I have to say that there are few rope partners I feel really at ease with. I think Rudy is one of them, although we haven’t done that much together, sadly.
Are you not interested in going outside Europe?
No, not really. I have been to the Briançon and Lecco areas, but I much prefer it here.
What have the mountains taught you?
Everything. To discover myself, to live with the others and also my faith in God.