Abarth vs Alps - A match made in Hell
Wrong place, wrong time. This is the story of the scariest drive of my life...
I was scared. The fierce Alpine wind was shaking my diminutive Abarth and the temperature was four below zero - it was, shall we say, chilly. Having narrowly avoided sliding back down the mountain road towards drops shrouded in the vast, echoing void of the night, I now found myself parked up - safely - off the road in some sort of village. Calling out in the street, it appeared there were no signs of life. All the houses were boarded up, shut-up carefully for the winter, no doubt. In the street, posts with yellow tinted lights swayed and flickered in the strong breeze. The lights were on, but no-one was home..
A choice had to be made between one of two equally frightening scenarios. Sit it out at the top of this mountain, cover myself in my clothes and belongings and hope the Alps didn’t turn me into a snowman, or try and drive the little Abarth back down the mountain on roads covered in ice and snow. The latter was tainted with the knowledge that this time I’d be going with gravity, not fighting against it.
Almost unbelievably there was a strong phone signal on the mountain. Given the gravity of the situation, I made two telephone calls. One was to my best friend and fellow Smooth Traffic podcast presenter Rob King. He was sat at home in the UK, cosily enjoying a film and a beer in the warmth of his flat, and that meant he was near his computer. Excellent. ‘Kingy’ managed to trace my location after I transmitted it to him and was able to find out where I was. He helpfully told me the road I was on was closed for bad weather - until March 2018. No wonder nobody was around.
Perhaps the sat-nav had taken me the wrong way, perhaps the signs for the road closure had been buried or blown off-road in the weather, either way it didn’t really matter now. All that mattered was figuring how on Earth to get out of trouble. Telephone call two was to the local Carabinieri. These guys are the military police of Italy, and they’re always around to help out. I called them to inform them of my position and intention - I was heading back down the mountain.
Obviously no photos exist of my near-death experience... so here's the Abarth in happier, French Alps times.
The incredibly helpful guys at the local Carbinieri office told me if they hadn’t heard from me inside two hours, they’d send somebody to look for me. Now it was all down to me. Oh, and Kingy too. He’s a rather clever chap and had the idea of using Google street view to give me a heads-up on what was coming up down the mountain. Visibility was not great with the snow and the darkness, and knowing exactly what’s coming up next could be very useful indeed. ‘Knowledge is power’, and all that.
Reversing back onto the road from the icy bank I’d set the car against, the thought suddenly came to me. All I’d learnt in my driving life, from instruction to experiences, would come into play during this descent. Ahead lay multiple switchbacks covered in a surface of snow and ice flanked on one side by a empty chasm of darkness. “Don’t f*ck this up.” I muttered to myself.
The Abarth became an ice cube. Almost small enough to drop into a glass and pour whiskey over.
With Kingy on Bluetooth and the Italian Carabinieri waiting on a phone call, it was time to head off. The descent started well, finding grip on the outside of the first curve - sheet ice I couldn’t even stand up on - the little Abarth slid sideways towards the apex of the hairpin but no further. Around we went.
The next straight piece of road didn’t go so well, with the car suddenly turning briefly towards the edge of the road before I managed to coax it out of ‘doing a Lemming’ off into the darkness. This is where my memory goes a bit funny. We actually recorded the entire phone call for our podcast, but I’ve not listened to it yet. At one stage I remember using part of a snowbank to slow the car down before the next hairpin, and applying opposite lock around one of those corners to keep the car on the straight and (very) narrow.
Brief respite down the mountain came in the form of the tunnels, giving me a moment to catch breathe and prepare for the next stretch. It was in one of these tunnels I remember seeing icicles longer than my hand on the tunnel’s open side - the first time in my life I’d seen any in person.
The Abarth 695 doesn't exactly look at home here, does it...
Eventually, things started to feel safer. Grip started to become more discoverable, the ice seemed to retreat. I’m sure - no, certain - that this would have been a piece of cake in an all-wheel drive car with chains or winter tyres, but in a little Abarth 695 it was truly perilous. Easily the most dangerous driving experience of my life - and I’ve had some moments, that’s for sure.
After calling the Carabinieri who seemed just as pleased as I was to have made it down the mountain, I told the navigation to point me in the direction of the Mont Blanc tunnel via Milan. No mistakes with the nav this time, no more closed roads for me. First though, I needed a rest. Driving back through the darkness of Northern Italy, I noticed the temperature on my dashboard. 10 degrees above negative. It was 14 degrees colder on the mountain than it was at the bottom. No wonder it’s so dangerous up there, no wonder the icicles were forming. Later that night, I slept in a tunnel. The stress had exhausted me.
I called one of these tunnels home for the night.
After forking out £72 on the Italian motorway and the incredibly overpriced Mont Blanc tunnel, I rolled into Chamonix, France the next morning. It was 11am, and at last it was time to rest. That night, I picked up a pizza and the best beer I’ve ever tasted - Brasserie du Mont Blanc ‘Rouge’ if you’re curious - and thought about how lucky I’d been. A lesson learned, an experience never to be forgotten, and hopefully, a nice article for DriveTribe.