MarmotWith one eye on the weather forecasts, we got up at the crack of dawn and set off to climb Monte Bregagno. The mountain is famous for its stupendous views and notorious for its almost constant cloud cover. Our hope was that for once we would enjoy the views. Alas, it was only half to be. We gazed out over the lake far below and away towards the Valchiavenna and the Valtelina and the Swiss Alps beyond. But gathering clouds hid the view down towards Como and Lecco and away towards Lugano. Still, we did it. On our way up we gorged ourselves on a profusion of myrtles, were sobered up by an encounter with the bleached white bones of a dead cow, and were entertained by a group of summer-fat marmots. On our way down we learned more about these fascinating creatures, members of the ground squirrel family (and considered to be the largest of the squirrels). Those layers of fat are not an optional extra but a vital defence against the winter. From October onwards the marmots seal themselves into their underground burrows, nestle up against one another and begin their winter hibernation. They bring their heart beats down to about five per minute, their breathing down to between one and three per minute, and their body temperature down to the air temperature around them. If that gets near to freezing point their heart rates increase again. The fat they have stored keeps them going but it is not uncommon for younger marmots to run out and to die of starvation. It was once thought that when rubbed on the skin marmot fat was good against rheumatism. As a result, the animal was hunted almost to extinction in many places.