At 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 from the French border near the Aosta Valley in Italy.
So here I was a few years later ready to give it my best shot.
The 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 level 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 in France at the wonderfully named Yeti Lodge. The lodge was 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.
Up 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.
A 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 also getting unseasonal snowfall for this late in June.
All this coupled with a relatively high and humid accompanying temperature and 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!
Dejectedly we tracked back down passing first a French Team and then an Albanian Team both still blindly (and possibly foolishly) forging a path with 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 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.
We ate as much pasta as we could stomach then hit the dormitory bunks and slept solidly until dinner at 7pm that evening. We were spent forces mentally and physically and needed to recuperate to try again for the peak.
I slept like a newborn 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. Gingerly 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.
We 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’d made it to the windy col the Schiena d’Asinoand (Donkey’s Back) finally at last the summit was insight!
The 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’d arrived at the exposed tiny summit, we had it all to ourselves (learning later that we were 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 with the Matterhorn far away in the distance. Just visible Verona flickered in the morning sun many miles away.
Alas, 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.
Satisfied 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 and some yummy cake with whipped cream on top 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!