Climbing Gran Paradiso 4061m – Graian Alps Italy

Gran ParadisoAt 13,323 ft (4,061 m) in height, Gran Paradiso is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful but also one of the “easiest” 4000ers of the Alps. The peak lies within the beautiful National Park of Gran Paradiso. It was first climbed in September of 1860 by an Englishman named John Cowell. The mountain is regarded as the highest mountain wholly within Italy and it had been on my personal radar for several years.

I’d first heard about the mountain through others while hiking in the Austrian Alps a few years earlier. At the time I had pretensions to go and climb Mont Blanc but I’d been gradually persuaded through conversations to try this less busy yet equally beautiful mountain a few miles across the French border near the Aosta Valley in Italy. So here I was a few years later ready to give it my best try.

Aosta ValleyThe main route up the mountain is graded F+, so if you’re looking for a big peak that is technically and relatively straightforward then Gran Paradiso ticks all the boxes and that was exactly what I was looking for.

There are two main routes to the summit for the average Joe: you either ascend via the Rifugio Vitttorio Emmanuel from the north east side or the Rifugio Chabod from the north west. We had chosen to attempt a full traverse ascending via Vittorio and then descending via Chabod to see the most of what this beautiful mountain had to offer. At least that was the original plan!

Both routes are glacial treks that end in a 20-minute technical scramble. By UK standards the final ridge is around a Grade 2 scramble, but it’s all also protected with pigtails to safely rope yourself into.

The Gran Paradiso National Park has very limited accommodation due to its safely guarded building restraints so my adventure began in Argentiere, at the wonderfully named Yeti Lodge, a traditional Alpine chalet just up the valley from Chamonix. I’d be based here before transferring through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy in the morning. That night I met my fellow mountaineers and IFMGA guide followed by a lovely 3-course chalet meal.

Aosta ValleyUp and awake early we left for Italy. After about a two hour drive we arrived at the commune of Valsavarenche in the Aosta Valley, our starting point. From here we started to hike up to the Rifugio Vittorio Emmanuel Hut.

A beautiful 2-3 hour walk through alpine forests and over some moorland saw us make it to the Rifugio at (2775m). With 120 beds in total, the facilities are basic, but the location is simply perfect. We spent the afternoon with our guide Stefano practising technical skills with crampons, ropes and harnesses etc before retiring early to bed in preparation for the day ahead.

Rifugio Vittorio Emmanuel HutA true alpine start awaited us the following morning as we left well before daybreak to embark on our climb. The weather was already looking pretty grim from the moment we awoke and steadily deteriorated yet further as the morning progressed. Two big problems were occurring. Waves of fresh wet snow were falling on the top of layers of unhardened snowpack underneath. We were getting unseasonal snowfall for this late in June. Coupled with a relatively high and humid accompanying temperature the snow was not freezing to any real hardness creating a foot of fresh soft snow to break trail in atop unconsolidated cruddy old snow underneath.

The writing was already on the wall and after several hours of laboured ascent our guide stopped us dead in our tracks. The weather had closed in and we were now in a white-out. The snow was falling, we were behind schedule and the conditions worsening. We might have made the summit but the views would have been non-existent and the climb would have been a real sufferfest. Stefano pulled the plug and nobody felt like arguing!

We dejectedly tracked back down passing first a French Team and then an Albanian Team both still blindly (and possibly foolishly) forging a path heads down straight for the summit. But we had the advantage of a day in hand with an option of using our second day from the Chabod Hut side still to play, so all was not lost.

Our Plan B appeared to be a tactical retreat all the way back to the valley, a quick nip along the foot of the valley to the Chabod trailhead and then a second plod back up the hill to the Refugio Chabod situated at the foot of the north-west face at 2710m . We were a weary band that eventually shuffled into the mountain hut at around 2.30pm that afternoon.

Refugio ChabodWe ate as much pasta as we could stomach then hit the dormitory bunks and slept solidly until 7pm that evening. We were spent forces mentally and physically and needed to recuperate to try again for the peak.

I slept like a new born baby that night but with one failure behind us we were leaving nothing to chance this time around. The weather forecast was looking much better with a clear moonlit night ahead meaning dropping temperatures and no chance of precipitation forecast for the morning, which all hopefully meant good snow conditions under foot.

We were up at 3.30am and the first team to leave the hut that morning. We tip-toed out across the moraine fields in the darkness our way lit only by the head-torches on our helmets, eventually we made it up onto the Glacier de Laveciau.

Crampon PointWe roped up. The glacier is an intricate maze of crevasses which we now carefully wound our way through, all the time ascending slowly. The moon shone down on the cold ice which glistened under the crunch of our crampons. As daybreak finally arrived we had made it to the windy col the Schiena d’Asinoand (Donkey’s Back) finally at last the summit was insight!

Gearing up on the colMountains around the Gran ParadisoThe final 100 metres of climbing were indeed an exciting and exposed scramble and eventually after a few tricky moves with crampons scratching across rock we found that we had arrived at the exposed tiny summit, we had it all to ourselves (learning later that we had been the first team from the north-west side to reach the the top that day). The views were sublime particularly of the Mont Blanc Massif and the Matterhorn far away in the distance. Just visible Verona flickered in the morning sun many miles away.

On the summit of Gran ParadisoAlas, and all too soon we had to start our descent. Happily I was allowed to lead the team back down as I’d been last on the rope during our ascent. Now in glorious sunshine we yomped back down the glacier following our own footsteps that we had left on the way up only a few hours earlier.

Descending the glaciers on the north west side of the mountainSatisfied and fulfilled I finally flopped down outside the Chabod Hut back at a staggeringly early time of 10.30am. Collapsed on a wooden bench drenched in the morning sunshine and looking back up the glacier to the picture perfect summit of Gran Paradiso I promptly ordered myself a beer each and some yummy cake with whipped cream on for good measure.

Now I know it is bad form to have a drink before the sun is even over the yard arm but to hell with tradition I’d thoroughly earned that pint and it was a fitting way to sign off on what had been a terrific little adventure!

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums

Download GPX data from the route taken at:
http://www.shareyouradventure.com/map/81414/jamehand/The-Gran-Paradiso-4061m-Graian-Alps-Italy

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Stok Kangri Expedition – Leh

To climb a 6000m peak you need to acclimatise and to do this you need to spend a substantial amount of time at high altitude so another acclimatisation day was required to firstly get used to already being at 3,524m above sea-level and secondly to prepare us for the much harder task ahead. Today it had been scheduled that we were going to take a walking tour around the ancient city of Leh in which we were staying to help with this ongoing process.

Leh is the main town in the North West Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and sits at a high altitude along the Indus Valley. In years gone by it had been the old capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh and we were here for the next three days.

Today we would start our acclimation process by walking up to the famous Shanti Stupa which sits upon a prominent hilltop in Chanspa overlooking Leh. At first glance the structure appears to be ancient but upon further inspection in fact it was built quite recently in 1991 and by a Japanese Buddhist named BhikshuGyomyo Nakamura as part of a peace mission to the country.

Rumour has it that the stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base! An intriguing thought, but our primary reason for visiting was far less cultural. We wanted to climb the 500 steep steps ascending the Stupa and gain the altitude of 3,609m at the top. We all huffed and puffed our way up the broken and rocky steps which were definitely not your standard western riser and tread dimensions.

Having eventually laboured our way to the top we were finally greeted by the milk-white structure of the stupa. Buddhist stupas serve as a marker for a sacred space and represent the great Buddha’s burial mound. At this moment I felt like I could have been buried alongside the Buddha’s himself totally exhausted from my exertions to reach the plateaux.

Having gained some composure we wandered around the structure with our guide for the day a local known only as ‘LT’ and enjoyed the painted walls around the stupa with their colourful reliefs that depict the milestones in the life of the Buddha – his birth, his fight against various devils, his victories over injustice and his eventual death etc, etc.

Below us the whole of Ladakh appeared to be sprawled out as far as the eye could see and it would have been great to have lingered for longer, but there was no time to rest and relax because we were now deeply into our acclimatisation routine and we needed to trek over to our next destination, the Tisserru Stupa.

Tisserru Stupa - LehThe Tisserru Stupa is a strange structure to visit! Ladakh’s largest stupa is unique in the region – a giant, mud brick structure that looks like a half-built ziggurat. This 15th-century monument could be one of Leh’s largest attractions but for the fact that you can’t actually get into it, so other than walking around its perimeter and snapping of the obligatory photos there’s not a lot to do and see once you get there.

Disappointed with the underwhelming mud brick stupa we instead began to climb up to Tsemo Fort which sits in a commanding position above the town. The fort had once served as the royal residence of the Namgyal dynasty (Royal Family). There’s little to see inside apart from a tiny Buddhist shrine. Today it is basically a ruin but the views from the wooden machicolations were sublime.

After the fort I decided to go AWOL from the group as I wanted to investigate Leh Palace. The palace resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. It is nine storeys high and I’m sure I climbed up every single step and then down again through every single floor to push my lungs in the thin air.

The roof of this 16th century structure provides panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding area, including  Stok Kangri itself, so I just had to get up as high as I could to glimpse the peak one last time before we would be leaving the city.

All in all a pretty tiring day by the end of it but this was all good preparation that we badly needed to prep us for our climb which was now edging nearer and nearer.

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Stok Kangri Expedition – Alchi Monastery

We drove for hours across a dusty and barren landscape which makes up the Indus Valley. Our mini bus was headed for Alchi Monastery a few hours up river and deeper into the Ladakh countryside. The Monastery consists of a small collection of monastic temples dating from between A.D.958 and 1055.

According to local tradition the complex was founded by the revered guru Rinchen Zangpo famous for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. It is therefore both a very old and a very important monastery and we were headed there as part of our acclimatisation and cultural discovery programme in Ladakh.

Guru Rinchen Zangpo Pictorial StoryAccording to ancient texts the tree outside the monastery is of a species not native to the land thereabouts and folklore dictates that it grew as a result of Rinchen Zangpo having an epiphany that he’d found the right spot to build a monastery and so he proceeded to plant his walking stick firmly and permanently in the ground to mark the spot from which the tree we see today grew.

Great story, highly improbable but I’d buy into it in all probability had I been aroundO in the 11th century.

Rinchen Zangpo's Walking StickThe monastery today has three major shrines: the Dukhang (Assembly hall), the Sumtsek and the Temple of Manjushri, all dating from between the early 12th and early 13th centuries. Several small Chortens litter the complex but all appear to have seen much better days. 

For us the visit was an opportunity to get away from the confines of our hotel in Leh which was becoming way too claustrophobic and a chance to get out and see some of the surrounding countryside.

The monastery although interesting was unfortunately easily seen within an hour, so the subsequent thought of a two and a half hour return road trip along the potholed and dusty roads of Ladakh was not too appealing.

Alchi Monastery - LadakhLuckily though lunch had been arranged for us by the monastery and so we ate in the tranquil monastery gardens relaxing for a couple of hours before embarking on our weary journey back to Leh.

At the end of the day although tired from the long journey we were a day further into our acclimatisation process and a day nearer to the big climb itself so all was going to plan.

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Stok Kangri Expedition – Arrival in Ladakh

We flew into Leh on the first day of our adventure aboard a very early morning flight out of Delhi. The approach to Leh airport is what could be termed interesting. 360 degrees of surrounding mountain ranges, a narrow valley and a dusty ex military airstrip to try to land on. It was a sick bags out and hold onto the seat of your pants kind of a landing!

Prayer Flags - LehAfter eventually clearing the never ending bureaucracy of the airport (which is in more or less lock-down mode due to volatile political tensions in the region) we finally emerged to grab lifts in a convoy of small taxi vans waiting outside which whisked us at speed through the labyrinth of dusty and bumpy roads to our local hotel.

View from my room - LehAfter a nail biting cab ride that only third world countries can deliver we arrived at our hotel/hostel where we were cordially greeted with traditional prayer scarves by the genial hotel staff.

Meet and GreetFollowing on from being fed and watered the rest of the day was spent just sleeping and gaining some much needed R&R. Later after awaking from barely enough sleep I had a quick walk into town.

Very dusty and muddy with potholes everywhere is the best way to describe the streets of Leh. The town is a strange fusion of Indian and Tibetan influenced cultures. Many Tibetan refugees have made the town their new home and Buddhist influence abounds through prayer flags, stupas and the Tibetan markets.

Ladakh House - LehI ended up wandering around one of the many Tibetan Bazaars that litter the town and made a timely investment in some prayer flags, (always good to have as much spiritual support as can be mustered when attempting to climb a 6000m peak).

Street Stalls - LehNothing else of much note happened for the rest of the day as this was just one of what would come to be all too familiar acclimatisation days.

Day two of the trip though would hold the hope of some much needed physical exertion by means of a trip to the very old and famous Alchi Monastery some distance away up the Indus Valley. Catch the next post to read all about our trip to the monastery.

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.