- Will Appleyard
Gran Paradiso : your first 4000er
So you’re a hill walker, a hiker, a trail enthusiast - whatever the label, at heart you’re a budding mountaineer, yearning to take your outdoor adventures to the next level. Perhaps you’ve cracked all the popular hills in the Lake District and nabbed most of the peaks and grade one scrambles in north Wales, but now you have (slightly) bigger objectives in mind? But where to start, and how or where does one realise this dream of standing on a snowcapped alpine summit? Perhaps you’re looking for that next challenge, but one that doesn’t require oodles of rock climbing or mountaineering experience alongside bundles of technical know-how?
Gran Paradiso in the Italian Graian Alps was “built” for those wishing to dip their toe into the world of mountaineering and in relative safety. On summiting this alpine intro peak, you’d be able to brag that you’ve climbed the highest freestanding mountain in Italy (Mont Blanc is of course the tallest, but is also glued to the French side). Not only that, you would also be qualified to boast that you have climbed a 4000 metre peak, well, 4061 metres actually!
If you are seriously considering attempting this epic rock as your first ascent of an alpine peak, then for sure it needs to be attempted with a guide. Not only will the guide lead you up and down the mountain in the right direction, but they will teach you how to move roped together on the glacial and snow covered areas, as well as instructing his or her clients on the use of crampons and an ice axe – essential where you find snow and ice under foot
Unlike many alpine ascents, which often use a cable car to reach the initial trail, the favoured route up Gran Paradiso begins at the valley floor – albeit it at 1800 metres. This for me feels like you’re climbing the whole mountain, rather than just the exciting bits. From the Pravieux side, within the beautiful Italian Aosta valley, two hours of steady hiking is required via a well-marked path up through and beyond the tree line towards gnarlier terrain. Once this section is complete, the path continues and the trees make way for a lush bolder strewn plateau, where the real excitement begins to seep in. From here, budding mountaineers will be treated to views of the glacial moraine and above this, the towering peaks of the Gran Paradiso national park – the big boys playground!
A night’s stay in the Chabod refuge hut will be required, which is perched at the foot of the Laveciau glacier, where the following day’s summit bid will begin. The Chabod hut, usually booked in advance by your guide is the launch pad for your assault on the peak and a welcoming place to be after the two-hour plus jaunt up the valley. The hut is revered as a friendly refuge among its regular visitors. After checking in and with your dormitory now allocated, it’s hut etiquette to remove boots and any hardware from your rucksack (that’s your harness, crampons and ice axe) and store these items in a designated clobber room downstairs. Complimentary slippers are supplied for your stay and it’s then your job to bag yourself a bunk bed for the night. Don’t expect anything luxurious when staying in a refuge hut however, the bathroom facilities are always basic, and definitely don’t ask where the showers are! I always enjoy dining in a refuge hut, mingling with like-minded adventurers at dinnertime and carb loading on delicious, but basic hearty alpine cuisine. Its usually possible to grab a beer too, however, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t get too carried away as breakfast will be served at around 4am the following morning.
If you’re a super light sleeper, pack some earplugs for sure – there will be a chorus of snoring throughout the night and it’s commonplace to share a dorm with 30 plus people during high season. There’s often a battle for the window during the night too – some like it open, others like it closed.
I usually wake up naturally just before 4am on trips like this, my built in alarm clock works pretty well, but if you haven’t woken in time, the guide will often find you to give you a shake. For me, this is where the real adventure starts – mountaineers silently gathering their equipment together in the kit room, looking for boots and faffing about with harnesses, rope and walking poles. Once you’ve grouped together outside in the darkness at 4:45am, it’s time to switch on those head torches and head for the foot of the Laveciau glacier where your summit bid begins at around the 3000 metre mark. A narrow path leads to glacier proper and in single-file; there can be 50 or more people heading in the one direction with the same objective in mind - depending on the time of year. There are several routes up the hill and quite quickly the groups spread out – some being slower than others and some taking longer to rope their parties together once on the glacier. The rope is put in place between you to protect parties should anyone fall into a crevasse, which are not always immediately obvious being covered with snow (known as “snow bridges). That said, the ascent via the regular route is a well-trodden snowy trail, meaning most of the tricky spots are pretty obvious. You will quickly start to feel the effects of the altitude after an hour of so of walking, as the air gets thinner and a steady pace soon turns in trudge as the terrain becomes ever steeper. It is important to keep moving, however strong the urge is to stop, as stopping too regularly actually becomes counter productive and will tire you out eventually. You’re an alpinist now! Moving “fast” and light is their motto on the hill.
Impressive looking icy seracs perch perilously on one side of the glacier during the ascent, although these are far enough away not to cause any immediate issues. The rising sun eventually becomes a welcome sight and covers the surrounding peaks with a hue of glowing red. The summit of Gran Paradiso is in view for much of the trail and always appears closer than it actually is. There will of course be places to rest en route and a chance to load up on those much needed energy giving snacks and water. You will notice that most will carry water in a rigid bottle rather than a bladder style hydration system. Bottles are favored over these as they’re less likely to freeze or become punctured by crampons or anything else spikey while stored away in your pack. You will have been clutching an ice axe in your up hill hand on the steeper sections, this tool is used to steady and “self arrest” a fall should you slip on the snow, although by now you will have become accustomed to walking in crampons, which of course offer immense grip under foot. Walking poles are common on the milder terrain too. The energy giving sunlight will be in full swing by the time you reach the three-hour mark and with only one or two hours of ascent left (depending on your pace), the summit ridge will be in sight. Upon reaching the final traverse you will have navigated past the last of the crevasses and it’s at this point that the wind can really start to howl. Fatigue soon gives way to determination however, with your summit goal now becoming ever within your grasp. Happy climbers with their summit already achieved may be already passing your as they descend, unless you’re quick enough to be the first ones to the top of course. Upon reaching the only “technical” part of the route - the rocky summit ridge, it’s possible to be held up in a bottle neck as returning climbers navigate their way back over a hump of narrow rock, before you can move on past them. It’s a cold wait and reminded me of stories I’d read of climbers stuck on Everest’s “Hillary step”. One can always dream! Once you have found a gap in the oncoming traffic and gone for the summit, a short section of exposure adds yet more excitement to the climb. Tackling this part with crampons on is interesting, but all part of the alpinism experience. As with many Alpine summits, a white statue of the Madonna marks the top and once you’ve exchanged a few high fives and selfies by her, it’s time to descend. It’s important to remember the old saying - “once you’re on the summit you’re only half way”, as the descent from a 4000 metre peak can be grueling! I find climbing such mountains not only a physical game, but a mental one too. Giving your self mini objectives to tick off en route often helps, such as only thinking about getting to the next rest break, or concentrating on knocking off the next hour, rather than thinking about when you will be at the valley floor again. Baby steps will get you through the tough times. You’re using different muscles on descent of course and it doesn’t take long for those upper leg muscles to start burning. Despite operating in a snowy environment at altitude, when the sun is blazing and reflecting back at you off the snow, it can be hot work. Layers are the key to maintaining the right temperature here. On a hot day, by the time you reach the Chabod hut again around lunchtime, you’ll be looking forward to your shorts and a well-deserved rest, not to mention another round of high fives. My advice at this point, unless you feel like you have two to three more hours of descent left in you, is to while away the afternoon at the hut and finish descent back down through the tree-line in the morning. This makes for a far more pleasurable experience and perhaps you can invest in that extra beer in the evening too? If you do decide to make the final descent on the same summit day, consider that eventually you will have been on the go for over 12 hours – which, by the time you reach your car, wont be pretty!
I believe that accomplishing an ascent of Gran Paradiso is most definitely the first rung on any budding alpine mountaineer’s ladder. It’s often used as an acclimatisation peak before attempting Mont Blanc and I’m certain this mountain will at least feed your appetite for more of the same. A quick google search will lead you to some very reputable guiding companies, many of which will place you with the English guides they have on their books. It’s over to you…