June 13, 2016

The Italian Job – Lake O'Hara Style

I was up hiking at Lake O'Hara yesterday, for the first time this season, and it brought me back to a very interesting pilgrimage we undertook in Italy this spring.
We visited Falmenta, the ancestral home of Lawrence Grassi, perhaps Lake O'Hara's most famous trail builder.  If you are a Lake O'Hara fan, you've probably admired his trails.  His handiwork is the original “Italian Job,” long before Michael Caine and the boys pulled off their movie heist.

Lawrence Grassi climbing on Castle Mountain
Lawrence came to Canada in 1912 as a young man, and quietly climbed his way into our Rocky Mountain history books in the 20s, 30s and 40s.  He was a skilled mountaineer and guide, but in his spare time he built trails, including good chunks of O'Hara's trail system in the late 1950s.  His stone staircases and stepping stones are still in good shape, 60 years later, and our trip to Falmenta slowly revealed why.

Lawrence working on the trails of Lake O'Hara in the 50s.
Amanda, Lawrence's great niece, with a
photo of her grandmother, Lawrence's sister

Falmenta is perched on a steep hillside about an hour's drive from Lake Maggiore, and when we arrived unannounced, we really didn't have much of a plan.  In the town's small piazza, we asked around a bit, and were soon introduced to Amanda Grassi, Lawrence's great niece!  She took us on a tour to see the house that Lawrence grew up in, and pretty soon we picked up a small entourage of locals.  In the local cafe, we learned more about the town, and about their lives, and once we said our goodbyes, we headed into the hills to see what we could see.
Nadine, Amanda and Emilio, in front of Lawrence's home

One of thousands of stone walls around Falmenta
It wasn't long before we started to understand where Lawrence got his inspiration.  The hillsides around Falmenta are all terraced with dry stone walls, and the old and abandoned farmhouses are dry stone as well.  The forest is reclaiming what were once terraced farm plots and pastures, but the ghosts of a centuries-old stoneworking culture is everywhere on display.  Lawrence must have been steeped in this tradition from the cradle, and we're lucky he wanted to showcase his heritage in the Rockies.
An abandoned two story house, made with
 dry stone construction

And we'll be the benefactors again next summer.  There will be a new generation of stone-building here, when Amanda's brother-in-law Emilio (married to Lawrence's other great niece) comes out to Canmore in June, 2017. He plans to teach locals dry stone techniques, and together they will restore the trail to Grassi Lakes.

It will be “The Italian Job,” take two.