Mountains In Motion: Hit Hard By Earthquakes, the Mountain Towns of Central Italy Show Their Resilience

Tempered by centuries of earthquakes, the mountain communities of central Italy persist through adversity and tragedy

Loreno Alesi harvesting spring powder in front of the highest peak in the Apennines, Corno Grande standing 2,912 metres in the Gran Sasso National Park.

words  & photography :: Vince Shuley

I dig my boots into the firm snow on the ridgeline of Monte Vettore, pausing briefly to drink in the panorama of the Sibillini Mountains, an offshoot of central Italy’s Apennine Range. While it’s a beautiful arena, the evidence of chaotic—yet natural—upheaval is hard to miss. Strings of snow-capped peaks tower above the Piano Grande (Great Plain) with the village of Castelluccio—at 1,492 metres, the highest settlement in all the Apennines—perched on an ancient rock formation at its northern edge. From this vantage, I spot the partially-collapsed buildings and piles of rubble that still cover most of Castelluccio, the unfortunate and lingering aftermath of a massive earthquake that struck the nearby town of Norcia three years ago. 

“We’re in the middle of the Apennine mountains, right over the fault line,” explains Lorenzo Alesi, a native to the nearby city of Ascoli Piceno who grew up skiing these mountains. “The road to Castelluccio was closed for more than a year. The town of L’Aquila has had to rebuild almost 20 times over the last millennium. It’s a part of life here.”

Alice Linari and Lorenzo Alesi ascend the ridge of Cima del Redentore, a peak adjacent to Monte Vettore in Sibillini National Park.

The seismic sequence that struck central Italy between August 2016 and January 2017 consisted of three large shocks, each greater than magnitude 6.0, along with thousands of aftershocks. Stone buildings crumbled like sandcastles. Generations-old family homes and businesses were lost. Two hundred and ninety-nine people—men, women, elderly and children—died. I’m conflicted about my desire to ski these mountains in the thick of so much tragedy, but the communities here depend on tourism. And skiing has traditionally been a main driver of tourism during the winter months.

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“We had eight ski areas operating in central Italy ten years ago. Now we have three,” says Lorenzo as we transition for our descent on Vettore’s south face. “Our largest ski resort, Ussita Frontignano, had a new chairlift installed in 2009 but since the 2016 quake it just sits there, rusting. These resorts need millions of euros invested before they can operate again, but this is not a priority for the government. First, they need to rebuild peoples’ homes.”

We traverse the ridge, Lorenzo hurrying us across a snow bridge over a gaping chasm left from the same seismic activity three years ago. The afternoon sun has softened the spring snow and we’re able to descend back to the car in one steep shot from the ridge. I barely notice the two-metre-tall fault scarps left by Vettore’s shifting tectonics as I arc long radius turns through the spring corn in Lorenzo’s wake.

With road access now repaired and open, Castelluccio is a bustling scene despite mounds of debris that cover most of the town. Cafe owners continue their traditional commerce in temporary trailers serving delicious local meats and cheeses. I devour another wild boar prosciutto panini while knocking back local beer brewed with lentils (a speciality of local farmers) as Lorenzo gently asks the owner of the establishment a few of my prepared interview questions in Italian.

“Our larget ski resort, Ussita Frontignano, had a new chairlift installed in 2009, but since the 2016 quake it just sits there, rusting.”

“The people here are frustrated,” Lorenzo says of the Castelluccio residents as we drive back across Piano Grande. “They have been waiting for three years to start rebuilding their homes and their lives. But they can’t build new structures until the old, ruined ones are torn down and cleared. It has been a painfully slow process, and they are worried these temporary solutions will become permanent.”

The physical removal of rubble in order to rebuild may sound simple enough, but bureaucratic red tape across all levels of government and throughout revolving commissary committees stifles much of the progress. Accountability is scarce and many of the people affected by the earthquakes are left with unanswered questions. Despite this, they rise each morning and go about their daily routines, dine with their families and celebrate their seasonal festivals.  

The village of Castelluccio is open for business but, without safe housing, few locals are able to live there. Many residents commute daily from Norcia, a 45-minute drive away.

The drive back to Lorenzo’s home takes us through a handful of abandoned communities that resemble bombarded French villages from World War II films. On the outskirts of the town, ‘temporary’ housing units—each a handful of square metres in size—illustrate just one source of frustration expressed by the displaced residents. Skiing is probably the furthest thing from their minds, but they welcome Gore-Tex clad visitors into their guesthouses and cafes nonetheless.

One of the enduring ski resorts in the region is Prati di Tivo—gateway to the highest peak in the Apennines, Corno Grande (Great Horn, 2,912 metres). Our mountain guide, Gino Perrino, stares at the clouds enveloping the peak for a few minutes before he calls off our gondola-assisted summit mission, assuring me that we’ll find plenty of good skiing if we bypass the lifts and ascend the adjoining Maone Valley. 

It’s a solemn conversation as I learn about one of the hardest-hit communities in the region, but these stories of hardship and loss seem to have inspired many of the Apennine people to live their fullest lives.

On the way up, Gino points out routes on the striated walls he climbed many years ago in his youth. The rock here in Gran Sasso National Park is the same geological formation found in the Dolomites, partly why the nearby town of Pietracamela is home to one of the oldest climbing clubs in Italy. In the last few decades, ski touring has become increasingly popular in the Gran Sasso with most of the visible couloirs skied many times by mountaineers from across the continent.

At the terminus of the Maone Valley, our group breaks for lunch and the sun decides to make an afternoon appearance. Skiable lines surround us in every direction and we spot a few groups making their way down the bowls. We discover some descents of our own and kick up a surprising amount of spring powder over our ski tips and I nab a shot of Lorenzo slashing the best turns of the day in front of Corno Grande.

The town of Amatrice (known globally for its signature dish, pasta amatriciana) was close to the epicentre of the 2016 earthquake. Little of this once-bustling town remains.

Our jubilant crew returns to Prati di Tivo for a round of Sardinian craft beers and prosciutto-topped pasta appetizers. While the earth is seismically shaken in the Apennines, spirits are not.  

I retire to the nearby town of Pietracamela which means “stone camel,” named for the large rock outcropping from which the town seems to sprout. The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake didn’t completely destroy the centuries-old buildings here–though many are cracked and structurally unsound, and as a result, almost half of the population had to move away. The damage took its toll on tourism as well, since there is little left in the way of suitable accommodation.

One of the buildings left standing was the Hotel Residence Gran Sasso (built in 1896), where the owner and my host Luigi Montauti continues to work well into his late seventies, the third generation of his family to serve travelling skiers and alpinists. Room bookings are hard to come by since the damage to the town (especially in winter), but the restaurant and cafe are frequented by local residents, passing tourists and officers of the Carabinieri (Italian military police) popping in for an espresso and chat. Having endured two world wars and a fascist state, Luigi is cautiously optimistic that life will return to normal eventually.

Lorenzo Alesi harvests the spring corn in Monti dell Laga National Park with Gran Sasso towering in the distance.

To round out my week-long tour of the Apennines, I join Lorenzo for a ski tour at Monti della Laga, a national park adjoining Gran Sasso above a large dammed reservoir known as Lago di Campotosto. On the skin up, Lorenzo points to the north, explaining that ten kilometres away lies the town of Amatrice, the birthplace of the staple Italian restaurant dish, pasta Amatriciana. It was also the closest town to one of the 2016 earthquake epicentres. A handful of buildings remain, and most are awaiting demolition.

It’s a solemn conversation as I learn about one of the hardest-hit communities in the region, but these stories of hardship and loss seem to have inspired many of the Apennine people to live their fullest lives. For Lorenzo, that’s skiing. Skiing and sharing his fondest mountain moments with friends and loved ones.

As I chase Lorenzo’s arcing turns down the slushy slope in front of us—Gran Sasso towering in the distance—I realize Apennine culture will endure through any earth-shaking tragedy. And if people can find this much joy in these mountains, there’s hope that life will carry on as it always has. —ML

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