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.

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