In the Footsteps of PioneersGear
Stories Behind the Gear: AKU
Written by John Summerton // Photography by Alessandro Beltrame & John Summerton
Footwear plays a uniquely important role in our connection to the mountain. In a very real way, it is our connection. But how can that connection bring us closer to nature and to each other?
Sunrise through the open window quickly wakes me. It’s a chilly start, below zero with a fresh breeze, but we are gifted with cloudless skies. Our arrival last night into Val Canali, deep within the St Martino di Castro region, had been shrouded in cloud, but now I can finally witness the magnificent amphitheatre surrounding us: a crown of vast pointed peaks towering above us in all directions.
After a quick breakfast it’s time to get moving. My boot of choice for the hike is the new Slope GTX, and they feel instantly comfortable out of the box. Produced as part of a collection to celebrate over 30 years of production of this model, this special edition V-Light series is animal-leather free, made from materials with restricted environmental impact. Other boots in the series include a more traditional leather model, and a rather surprising special edition canary-yellow version of the Conero boot to celebrate a long-term partnership with Vibram. I’ve been invited by AKU to learn more about the brand and test out the AKU Slope V-Light on their home terrain. And a section of the Alta Via 2, a famous high route through Italy’s Dolomites, is to be our testing ground.
A small group of us set off up the trail, and I soon fall into stride with Vittorio Forato, the marketing director for the brand. He tells me about the history of the area, including the shoe industry and development of AKU – specifically the connection of the local people and company to the mountains. ‘It’s all about approachability, connection, and community,’ he says. ‘Our culture is firmly rooted in a love of nature.’
We’re led further along the trail by a guide – quiet, unassuming, polite, and who only speaks to us in Italian. It’s only later that we learn this is Peter Moser, an AKU athlete and mountain guide who lives and breathes the mountains.
‘Peter knows every inch, every foothold, every route in this area,’ Vittorio explains. ‘In 2021 he successfully completed a route connecting up six of the pioneering climbs into one running, hiking, and climbing round. It was just short of a 22-hour mountain day involving extreme exposure and over 8,000m of ascent.’
Inspired by the pioneers of mountaineering, Peter made the solo crossing along the historic routes of the first climbers, relying only on his experience as a mountain guide. Following this feat, director Alessandro Beltrame created a film, Pionieri, which documents Peter linking together several of the range’s most iconic peaks – including Sass Maòr – in a single day, soloing the original lines taken by the early climbing pioneers.
We wind our way up the mountain trail, relishing in the seasonal change to spring and enjoying the sunshine as the frost clears. Today isn’t about pace or extremes – it is about learning, connecting, sharing stories and laughter. We stop at fast-flowing streams to refill our bottles, enjoy a glass of local red wine and cheeses from the region, and banter punctuates our steps along the trail.
In October 2018 one of the most devastating storms in Italian history struck this region. The storm, named ‘Vaia’, hit northern Italy with 200kph winds and relentless rain causing mass flooding, wiping out nearly 42,000 hectares of forest (about 18,000 trees). Five years on, the devastation is still staggeringly apparent. The Alpine ecosystem is in tatters.
We pass refugios boarded up between the seasons, talk about the wolves, bears, and golden eagles that populate the area, and finally settle down in the sunshine for lunch. Something about mountain silence is very special. The moment is textured by quiet munching of sandwiches and more local cheese, the occasional rockfall or tinkling of icicles as they finally surrender to the spring warmth, and the gentle whistle of the wind.
And this all-inclusive approach to the day reflects the ethos of the brand. There’s a passion behind the eyes of the people who work here. What drives them is not making shoes – although of course that’s the goal. It’s more about facilitating and encouraging people in the outdoors.
The following day I would speak to Giulio Piccin, head of product development. He will tell me more about the extensive product range – including the superb Rock DFS GTX approach shoes, which we’ve tested previously – and how the company is making huge waves of change in their business, especially concerning environmental sustainability. ‘We feel part of a single ecosystem, social and environmental. We feel responsible for its balance,’ Giulio explains. ‘We aim to produce high-performance footwear and are constantly searching for innovative design solutions to minimise environmental impact, whilst promoting responsible use and recyclability.’
Reinforcing this is the React Responsibly ethos behind the brand – a call to arms for the groups within the company to work as a single ecosystem. The common goal? To be responsible for AKU’s environmental impact on a micro and macro scale. This is extended to Reactive Responsibily, a philosophy that encourages care and connection with nature when active in the outdoors.
Back to the peace and tranquillity of the trail, I’m sitting on a rock, basking in the sunshine, improbable spires and pinnacles surrounding me. Just enjoying lunch on a mountain. No-one is talking. We have an unspoken understanding – a need to enjoy the silence and the gift of this day in the mountains.