Sir Pierra Menta

This article was featured in Kiss The Snow magazine (spanish)

Sitting around a stove fed with yak droppings, Mireia and I looked at each other in surprise. In a lodge at 5000 metres above sea level, the young camera that accompanied us had just told us that she had learned Catalan by watching interviews with us, as she had entered the world of competitive mountain skiing because of us. I asked if he knew Perrier, the French terminator who had won all the tests in the same world, the answer was no, Guido Giacomelli? l’enfant terrible del skimo italiano that raised as much admiration as envy. Nor did he. Well, you must have heard of Monsieur Pierra Menta. Well, I didn’t know who Fabio Meraldi was either. Did you? We fell out of our chairs.

The last time I had met Fabio was the previous summer at Monte Rosa Skymarathon, where he held the record since 1994! After the race we met Marino Giacometti, who started with the Skyrunning and another of the great ski alpinists of the beginning of the millennium, Omar Oprandi. Fabio, always smiling and easy to talk to, explains one of his thousand and one anecdotes: “we were there climbing in a sports school, to prepare ourselves for the mountain guide tests, it was at the end of the winter and we hadn’t climbed much yet. So Adriano began to climb a route that he thought was beautiful to warm up and when he arrived at ¾ he shouted to me – Fabio, what grade is this route? – And I answered that I had the guide in the car, are you all right? I asked him, and he answered that yes, although the last metal plate was a few meters below, I got discouraged, went to the car and took the guide, and on returning I looked and shouted: “Well, it’s not that easy, it’s a 7b! Fabio and Adriano Greco won the mythical Pierra Menta five times in the early nineties. Then Meraldi continued to win, with Enrico Pedrini (4) and Thierry Bochet (1), 5 more editions.

No doubt it was another era. Fabio won his first Pierra in 1989, far away from the bottlenecks and waiting’s that racers experience today, since only about thirty teams formed mostly by alpinists, dared to participate in the 4 stages in the Beaufortain mountains. Back then, people still rode in trousers and jackets, climbing backpacks and lightweight boots weighing over a kilo, just like the skis. In fact, it was Meraldi and Greco themselves who ran the first Pierra with a ski suit. They called their friend, also from the Valtellinesse clan, Valeria Colturi, who had made a career in cross-country skiing and saw that the material worn by the mountain people could be improved a lot. She started to design some monkeys like the cross-country ones, adding pockets to keep the seal skins, and that’s how the fluorescent colours of the Crazy Idea suits reached the first podiums of the Pierra Menta.

The last Pierra to win was in 2000, in front of a Pierre Gignoux who was starting to make his own boots, inventing a zipper with a rear cam that today all brands have copied, and starting to use carbon to make harder and lighter rods. In that edition there were already more than 150 teams that passed through the Grand Mont, all with lightweight suits, special skis for competition, cycling helmets and specific training for the sport. Following the trail of Meraldi, with Pedrini then, followed the mentioned Gignoux, Francis Bibollet, Stephane Brosse or Boscacci and Murada (fathers) among others. A decade later, sport was another, with thousands of spectators at the top of the Grand Mont, with an industry that was growing exponentially and athletes who were increasingly specialists in the sport. But what hadn’t changed was seeing the same name at the top of the rankings.

1991 Pierra Menta film

Fabio was born in 1965 in the Italian Alps, on the road between the Piemonte and the Dolomites in the Valtellina Valley. A valley quite unknown by tourists in general but a paradise for any outdoor sport. Cyclists will appreciate the links of the Stelvio or the slopes of the Gavia i Mortirolo. Climbers will appreciate the walls of Val Masino and mountaineers the faces of Bernina, Monte Disgrazia or Gran Zebru. Among the alpinists skiers this region is also famous for the champions who have left their villages, from Meraldi to Antonioli passing by Giacomelli, Pedranzini or the Boscacci and Murada (parents and children) among many others. In those valleys, the beast that would dominate mountain sports during the last decade of the last century was formed and learned in the best of terrains to walk in the mountains.

Meraldi is not (only) a great skier who won 10 Pierra Mints, 6 Sellaronda and up to 4 European titles (when there were not yet world championships, we can say that it is the equivalent). Fabio is a mountain man, who participated in the first edition of the Sportroccia in 1985, the first modern rock climbing competition, where figures like Patrick Edlinger, Stefan Glowacz, Catherine Destivelle or Lynn Hill among many others gathered in Bardonnechia to designate the best climbers in the world.

Fabio, like so many other competitors at that time, was a very fast climber, but a climber first and foremost. Most of them, like himself, were high mountain guides and excelled at any activity that took place above the valleys. Greco, his inseparable companion during Pierras’ first hand, climbed the Supercanaleta in the Fitz Roy with Simone Moro in just 27 hours, one year after his last vicuña, in Arêches.

Marino Giacometti, another Valtellinese, was to blame for this! He was a few years older than Fabio who, during the 70s, started climbing and in the 80s became one of the most prominent climbers in the transalpine country, with openings and winter chains in the Palú-Bernina massifs or in the Dolomites, with his ascents of Nanga Parbat in 1981 and Cho Oyu a few years later. At the end of the decade, in addition to its technical qualities, physical strength was also used to climb peaks such as the Pumori, over 7000 metres, or the Monte Rosa in record time. It was then when he began to think about what would be his legacy. “We were younger, it was a game in which we came out from underneath, in some cases from the very centre of the city, going up and down. It was in 1989, during an expedition to Everest. At base camp I met what was then the head of the Italian sports brand Fila, a mountain lover. We spent a lot of time talking and sharing visions of sport and the mountains. He told me that on my return home I should visit him to see if we could work together“.

Shortly after, he began to organize mountain races, and the first one of all was not small, because he called his friends, among them Fabio, and looked for an emblematic mountain. “In 1991 we organized the first skyrunning race, the first event in altitude, which consisted of starting from Courmayeur and ascending Mont Blanc. That day we ran only 5 people, the victory was for the couple formed by Fabio Meraldi and Adriano Greco. That experience, the first ascent with a bib in history, was something that marked all of us in a very special way“. And from there came the mythical skyrunning team, which organized and ran competitions in the most mythical mountains of each mountain range around the world. A dream team, with Bruno Brunod, Fabio Meraldi, Danelle Balengee, Matt Carpenter, Ricardo Mejía, Marino Giacometti or Ettore Champretavi who during the 90’s made races from Mount Kenya in Africa to Mt Elbert in America and broke records in the most famous summits Bruno on the Matterhorn, Ettore the Great Paradise, Fabio, Bruno and Jean (Pellisser) the Aconcagua.

Ranking Courmayeur – Mont Blanc 1991 (Marino Giacometti)

Fabio’s talent also led him to beat records on Mount Rosa, Mount Blanc from Courmayeur or Shisha Pangma, together with Pep Ollé, after running a marathon at 5200 metres in Tibet in less than 4 hours! Many of these records are still valid, even though they did not have the equipment available then, but used materials from other sports such as tights and cycling shirts specially designed for winter cycling or cross-country running shoes, exchanging concepts with lightweight mountain ski boots or road running shoes.

Giacometti’s idea became more and more popular and in Italy races began to appear along mountain paths, those whose technicality lies on the border between hiking and mountaineering. Races like the Kima Trophy, the Sentiero 4 of Luglio, the Dolomites Skyrace, all of them won by Meraldi on numerous occasions.

When I was telling these stories to the young uneducated man, we met, as I have explained to you in a lodge at the foot of Everest, and I tell you that Fabio Meraldi was in that same lodge about 15 years before. Together with his wife, Manuela di Centa, who at the same time Fabio was winning Pierra’s, was accumulating medals in cross-country skiing, becoming twice Olympic champion in Lillehammer 1994, they were going to try to climb Everest. Fabio calculated to go out 3 days later, to coincide with the summit day, because he wanted to establish a fast ascent. But after being very cold to reach the south hill where he had his boots and high clothes his energy was at the limit and he decided to wait there in the tent for Manuela to descend from the summit.

From then on, Fabio stopped competing, but his enthusiasm, and also his hyperactivity, did not keep him away from the mountains, where he continued practicing for pleasure and working as a guide, or from the competition, whether it was organizing races, drawing up circuits like the Limone Skyrace, fighting with the CONI to bring mountain skiing closer to the Olympic Games or equipping the routes for climbing competitions.

I remember that day in Alagna, when the runners coming from all over the world were leaving to run that race he ran 25 years ago, Fabio was telling us a thousand anecdotes, with the humility of someone who has nothing to prove and I realized that I had in front of me a man who had been a pioneer in the competitions of 3 sports that today are mainstream. Nowadays, rock climbing is opened in all big cities, and in Tokyo this summer there will be a climber who will hang a medal in the Olympics. Mountain running is now covered by the mainstream media, teams and races are multiplying and bibs are being sold by the thousands in major competitions. This year too, in Lausanne, the youngest mountain skiers will compete under the Olympic framework. Fabio was at the competitive beginning of all of them: in Bardoneccia, when climbing was still in rock. In ski mountaineering competitions when it was still skiing and mountaineering. And in the mountain races when the Mountain could be written with a capital letter.

In short, Meraldi was a wonder of nature, with a unique physique and an impressive versatility Fabio, with time I discovered, is a simple man, humble and easy to laugh that prefers to help than be flattered. He is a mountain man, a fast alpinist.