Frozen on the Inside

24/02/18 – 01/02/18

We enjoyed our time in Livigno skiing, it’s a resort that is mostly wide red runs which suits us down to the ground as we don’t like anything too challenging, age has instilled caution where previously I would have aimed to descend the steepest bumpiest slopes. The resort has had some money pumped into it and the lifts, facilities and ski-bus service are all excellent. I wont give you a blow by blow account of each day as each day was very similar. Get up, have a leisurely breakfast in Bertie, head off to the slopes (either on foot, or using the very efficient bus service), ski, lunch at a restaurant on the slopes, ski some more, aperitivo, dinner in Bertie, sleep, start again. It was odd but comforting to be in a routine.

We stayed at Camping Pemont, probably the closest campsite to the slopes. It was good value if, like us, you went for the pitches with 3amp electricity (you could pay more for 10 amps but we don’t have enough electric gadgets to need it), €21 a night, plus €1 for 4 minutes of warm shower. The bathroom was underground and well heated although it did sometimes have that musty smell that happens when a moist environment is not aired enough.

It was no surprise that the bathrooms weren’t well aired though, because for three nights on the trot we had temperatures down below minus 20 centigrade. We barely opened Bertie’s windows in this time and I don’t blame the campsite owners for letting as little cold air into the bathroom as possible.

Being in such cold temperatures was an experience. The first night was quite mild so we stuck to our usual cold weather routine of turning the van heating on in the evening and then leaving our little electric oil filled radiator on overnight. Whoever gets up first in the morning is tasked with switching the heating on again and then jumping back into bed until Bertie is up to a reasonable temperature (about 10 degrees is enough to venture out and get dressed).

The second night we could feel the warmth being leeched out of the air as the temperature plummeted. So we had to leave the heating on all night. Now our heating is powered by gas (some people are lucky enough to have heating that can be switched between electricity and gas) and the warm air is distributed by a fan. When the thermostat detects that the temperature has dropped the fan will kick in to push warm air around the van, when it’s hit the desired temperature the fan speed will drop. The following morning Paul had bags under the bags under his eyes. He described a night of heating paranoia where he had initially listened to ensure that the fan turned off, then had laid awake waiting to ensure that the fan turned back on again, then worried in case the fan didn’t turn off, and so on. The positive was that the van was toasty, the negative was that Paul was as likely to become a nervous wreck if we had another night like it. On top of that the van was too warm overnight for both of us – it’s about 16 degrees at it’s minimum setting – and we got through half a bottle of gas in one night.

The other thing about heating in winter is that we need to ensure that the water, which is held in a fresh water tank, a boiler and a waste water tank, plus all the pipes in between, doesn’t freeze. Freezing would be bad news with the possibility of pipework and boiler being buggered (technical term) by the expansion of freezing water. Keeping the water liquid is accomplished through a combination of having the boiler on at all times, plus using the blown air heating in the underfloor area where the pipes run and the water tanks live.

So we had a problem, which would take precedence? Paul’s mental health (and my ensuing happiness) or Bertie’s pipes? The answer was obvious, we had to have a solution that resolved both. One option was to leave, but we weren’t keen to schlep all the way back over the mountain with so little skiing done.

In the end we decided to drain down Bertie so that we didn’t need to keep the heating on all night. We were nearly empty anyway, so draining down the fresh water, grey water and boiler didn’t produce too much liquid (each bucketfull needed to be walked to the service area to be disposed of). That night we followed our ‘normal’ routine. Gas heating on all evening until bed time, oil fired radiator on overnight. We got into bed and waited to see whether we would freeze overnight.

As we are still here with no blackened extremities the frostbite can’t have been serious. As we lay in bed the first night we could hear Bertie creaking and groaning as the cold took hold, shrinking some materials faster than others and creating ghostly noises in the process. We had started the evening at 16 degrees and were interested to see how cold we got overnight.

In our bedroom we were toasty, once we drew the curtain our little space acted like a four-poster or box-bed. We were warm in the fug of our own body heat, under two duvets and wearing pyjamas. In fact we needed to crack open the roof vent to let the moisture laden air escape and avoid condensation. The rest of Bertie was not so warm; the water in our kettle was frozen in the morning and we had an iceberg floating in our water carrier. The toilet took some coaxing to open. We couldn’t tell what the temperature was because the cold killed the LCD display on our thermometer, but we must have been a long way below zero.

Somehow it was my job to jump out of bed in the morning to put the heating on. This warmed Bertie up and after a couple of hours we were able to venture out to don some clothing which had been warming above the oil filled radiator (this seemed to have a sphere of influence roughly a meter in diameter, enough to warm clothes but not enough to warm the van). The first night was deemed a success, we had both slept reasonably well and Bertie hadn’t fallen apart with the cold. During the sunny day Bertie warmed up sufficiently to make it pleasantly warm on our return from skiing and we jealously conserved this heat by closing the blinds before it could escape.

We continued this approach for the rest of the holiday. It may seem like hardship, but the worst part was having to get up to turn the heating on in the morning. The rest of the time we were perfectly comfortable – honestly – but in future we’ll be trying to avoid temperatures quite that low.  


Preparing for the Foscagno Pass

22/02/18 – 23/02/18

As we got closer to our chosen ski resort of Livigno we were watching the weather closely. Two reasons, firstly we needed to choose a route that was appropriate to the conditions, and secondly the ‘Beast from the East’ that was threatening the UK was also expected to deliver extremely cold weather to most of Europe.

The weather forecasts for Livigno were now showing overnight lows of -26°C, a level of cold we had never experienced in Bertie. In fact the only time I had been in such cold conditions was in Canada, and Paul had never experienced anything that cold. People on the excellent Motorhome and Ski facebook forum told us that it was not abnormally cold, and that we should be ok, but we needed to make sure we were prepared. On the way to our next stop we took on board enough winter Diesel to get us to Livigno (the tax free status of the area would provide us with very cheap fuel and we wanted to be as empty as possible to take advantage of it). We topped up our screen wash with undiluted cold weather screen wash and lastly, having been prompted by a facebook post, we checked our coolant. It was only good to -7°C, so a quick detour to a Norauto (think Halfords crossed with Kwik Fit)  got us sorted with some serious antifreeze. We thought Bertie’s engine was as well prepared as it could be for the weather, we must have done something right because we had no problems starting up again when we left Livigno after the cold weather.

Our tyres are Mud and Snow (M+S) rated, which is a bit of a compromise between snow tyres with their Three Peak Mountain Snowflake symbol and normal tyres. Better on snow than a regular tyre but without losing their braking distance effectiveness as quickly as 3PMSF tyres in warm weather, they were our considered choice for touring all year. But being a compromise we didn’t want to venture into conditions that would test their limits. We also have snow chains of course, but we were wary of conditions where snow was settling or ice was forming but not yet thick enough for chains. For this reason we were keeping a close eye on our route into Livigno.

Livigno is in Italy, but surrounded on most sides by Switzerland. It’s in a high mountain valley with a few options for access via mountain passes or tunnels. In winter the approach is limited to either the Foscagno Pass, taking you to 2291 meters, or the Munt La Schera tunnel which takes you in via Switzerland. Most people coming from the UK would probably opt for the latter option also using the Vereina Tunnel to avoid high altitudes. But we were in Northern Italy already so it was a much shorter, and cheaper, route across the Foscagno Pass, so long as the weather conditions were right. As we headed towards Sondrio – our overnight stop before the final leg of the journey – we kept an eye on the weather forecast and it promised that the current mild weather would continue until after we arrived in Livigno. The drive to Sondrio, along a low valley with snow capped mountains looming high on each side, was slightly daunting, but the webcam views of the Foscagno pass still looked good so we kept going.

Sondrio treated us with a municipal sosta that was both free and supplied electricity – happy days. We had a brief chat with the Italian couple in the other van parked with us. Like the petrol pump attendant we had talked to earlier they were very enthusiastic about Livigno. Sondrio also had a self service launderette near to the sosta, so we managed to wash our laundry before heading off. There is always something satisfying in having an empty laundry bag.

The following morning we set off to tackle the pass. A final look at the webcam (and then a few more peeks as we drove) told us that all was still fine. It is a long way uphill from Sondrio to the top of the Foscagno Pass. Despite the surrounding mountains Sondrio is still pretty low altitude at only 360m. When we reached the outskirts of Bormio we had made it to 1225m and could see the smaller ski areas that surround the town, but we still had a long way up to go.  

In the end the pass was pretty easy to navigate. Sunny and mild weather meant the road was clear of snow, slush and ice. Buses and freight vehicles regularly use the road so it is wide enough for two large vehicles to pass each other except at a couple of points through villages. As mountain roads go it is not particularly challenging, with limited numbers of hairpins and few steep drop offs. We stopped a couple of times to enjoy the views of the stark white landscape but the journey was still over far too quickly.

Of course the high altitude means the road has the potential to change character completely in less than optimal conditions. On the way back we had to wait for a good weather window as conditions had been extremely cold followed by snow. We left Livigno in good weather, but the fresh snow from the previous day was piled at the side of the roads, making it feel more narrow. At one point the snowplough coming towards us looked as though it was going to sweep us from the road, but it’s sides folded in as it went past which impressed us no end. Snow started to fall as we were on our way across the pass, but didn’t settle and we were soon across the highest section and on our way downhill to Bormio. It was still a reasonably painless journey but we wouldn’t want to be traversing the pass in a motorhome in anything worse.