(The Gear Loop) - Set to the south of the Mont Blanc massif is a national park that houses one of the most spectacular mountains in the area. Gran Paradiso towers 4,061 metres above sea level but arguably offers one of the best introduction to high summits and alpinism in general.
On top of this, it remains unspoilt by ski developments, funicular railways and cable cars. The national park status protects it from such infrastructure and in turn protects the many ibex, marmots and eagles that call this peaceful part of the Alps home.
There are 80-odd peaks in the Western Europe over 4,000m. Routes to their summits are graded in difficulty from F (facile - easy) to ED (extrêmement difficile - extremely difficult). When graduating from mountains in the UK to an Alpine 4000er, it is advised to choose an "easy" route due to the new challenges that alpinism brings with it.
For a start, these are big, high mountains. At 4,000 metres, oxygen is scarcer, only about 60 per cent of the amount at sea level, so proper acclimatisation is essential. Alpine routes are generally combined with a stay in a mountain refuge, in order to sleep high and summit early the next day. This need for morning ascents is due to the condition of the snow, which is more stable before the sun hits.
Which brings me to the main factor that separates alpinism from UK hillwalking: glaciers. These beautiful rivers of snow and ice have many dangers. Crevasses, huge canyons, which can be hidden under a thin crust, force alpinists to rope together as they are liable to collapse and swallow people whole.
Then there are seracs, towering walls of ice, like great waves above the glacier’s surface, that can collapse and trigger avalanches. These dangers are minimised during the stable morning conditions and also by equipping yourself with a few basic alpine skills.
There are two classic routes to the summit of Gran Paradiso, both starting in the Valsavarenche Valley. Both make for ideal introductions to high alpinism and many use them for acclimatisation before heading for Mont Blanc.
One ascends via the Rifugio Victor Emmanuele, named after the Italian king who was instrumental in the creation of the national park, and the other climbs via the Rifugio Chabod, named after local mountaineering hero Federico Chabod.
My friend Mirek and I opted for the Chabod route and picked a campsite in the valley (suitably named Gran Paradiso Camping) near the start of the trail. We also booked two nights in the refuge to ensure we had the maximum window of opportunity to summit.
At the campsite, in the heat of the Italian sun, we shoulder our packs and I wince at the weight. The pull up to the refuge is going to be hard work.
An alpine welcome
The mountains across the valley grow in stature as we ascend, huge by British standards, diminutive by Alpine standards. We break above the tree line into lush surroundings.
Then we crest a rise in the hillside and, as often happens in the mountains, we have one of those 'woah' moments. A shock of rock and ice. A 4000er rises from the verdant pastures, all gnarly ridges and perfect white snow in the sunshine. Glaciers crash down from between the bastions of granite. It is Gran Paradiso and its family of subordinate peaks. Thrilling to think that we are going to be up there tomorrow morning. Thrilling and daunting.
After just over two hours of ascent, we arrive at Rifugio Chabod, perched on the hillside in a glorious location with fantastic views of the range. Alpine hut etiquette dictates that we remove our boots before checking in at reception.
The refuge wardens are a great source of information for all things ascent related. As well as checking in, we ask about the weather and the conditions on the route ahead. Rain is forecast for the afternoon but the morning is clear. The route is well trodden and in good condition. All is well. Dinner is at seven and breakfast is at four.
After our ascent from the valley, it is tempting to sit, enjoy the sunshine and the views with a beer and the company of the other climbers. However, it is always a good idea to do a reccy of the route ahead, as the first hour tomorrow will be in total darkness.
We spend a few hours exploring the route ahead, turning back just after we’d reached the slushy afternoon snow of the glacier. Happy that we’d taken the time to figure things out for tomorrow’s summit bid, we return to the refuge.
Any time spent in an alpine refuge is just as big a part of the alpinism experience as the time spent on the mountain. Each refuge is unique with its own quirky character traits. Do not expect much of your sleeping quarters, however. Tonight, I’m on a bunk bed, sharing a room with perhaps twenty others.
It’s dinner time and arrabbiata pasta is for starters, with meat and mash for mains. We converse with some German women who were heading for the summit too, comparing notes. It would be interesting to see how we fared against the mountain tomorrow morning.
Deep sleep is often hard to come by during first night at altitude, what with the noise and fuss from other climbers and the excitement and apprehension of tomorrow’s adventure. Just as I’d settled, it is three thirty and the alarm goes off.
Few words are exchanged at this time of the morning, though there are plenty of people milling about the refuge, preparing to head up the mountain. Hydration is key at altitude, so we make full use of the juices on offer with a simple breakfast of cornflakes. We step out into the dark, turn our head torches on and off we go.
The first hour is basically on autopilot due to yesterday’s reccy. We are at the front of the procession from the refuge and we continue to pull away, probably due to our prior knowledge of the correct route.
The dry glacier ends and then we are onto the snow slope. What was yesterday all slush in the afternoon sun, is now a frozen crust and our crampons have much more purchase. We fall into a steady rhythm in the pre-dawn silence.
Gradually, the distant ranges at our back begin to glow golden with the first rays of the morning sun. Fittingly, it is Mont Blanc that stands out - a golden crown for the king of the Alps. The colours are stunning.
As we ascend, we pass enormous crevasses with horrifyingly beautiful interiors comprised of weird and wonderful ice sculptures and towers that drop into the abyss. We do not get too close.
Our path zig-zags its way upwards, finding a route that avoids the dangers. As well as the magnificent rock scenery of Gran Paradiso’s north face, towering seracs dwarf us and the other climbers.
Aiming for the summit
We reach the shoulder where our route meets the route from the other refuge. Views open out to the south, a part of the Alps I know little about. Forming the vista are countless mountainous valleys filling with fluffy clouds below a vivid blue sky.
We turn and take a moment to consider the summit, now in view. Crowning it is a life size statue of The Madonna, adorning a long rocky tor. From here, she has the look of a pale spectre standing guard.
The final pull is the steepest and I become aware of how cold it is. Though blessedly I’m not feeling the effects of the altitude. We crest the rise before the final rocky scramble and a magnificent vista is unfurled.
"That's undoubtedly the Matterhorn," I announce to Mirek. The Pennine Alps stretch into the distance, whilst the brilliantly white glaciers of Gran Paradiso’s east face plunge downwards, punctuated by razor sharp ridges. Beyond this is a sea of cloud with the occasional cumulonimbus tower stretching up towards the heavens.
Up until now, Gran Paradiso had earned its status as a straightforward but spectacular Alpine 4000er, ideal for a first timer. However, there is a sting in the tail. A vertigo inducing grade two scramble once on the summit rocks will test the nerve of those with any sort of discomfort around heights.
The Madonna is gained by climbing a set of metal rungs fixed to the final rock step. This is a new addition to the mountain, designed to enable a one-way system so that climbers do not have to pass each other on the airy section yet to come.
Ahead is a narrow ridge of huge boulders as big as trucks. With crampons scratching against naked rock and shouldering still heavy packs, we gingerly begin the traverse. After a short down-climb to the left, the most exposed section is crossed.
It is only short, but it is more hair-raising than anything on Crib Goch. To the right, the side of one of one of the giant boulders hems us in but to the left, is a horrible drop to the glacier hundreds of feet below.
The only stable platform is a ledge about a foot wide. I lean heavily into the safety of the boulder to my right as I step across, the void gaping hungrily to my left. Gratefully, I make the final step onto the next, much wider, platform. After this, it is simple scrambling back to the snow slopes.
Pleased with our successful summit bid, we descend speedily past the parties trudging up summit slopes. We make great pace, bounding down as the sky turns to brilliant blue and the morning deepens. Just before 11am, seven hours after we had set off, we are greeted by the Italian staff at the refuge.
With the realisation we can back at our campsite by 1pm, sipping an espresso in the sun, we set off once more. By the time we are on the zig-zags towards the bottom of the trail, our legs are heavy and weary. Gaining flat ground is luxurious, as is the heat down in the valley. The air is thicker, richer and warmer.
At the campsite, we throw our packs down by our tents and head for that very well-earned coffee. For an hour and half, I sit basking in the sunlight and the glory of an ascent of my first alpine 4000er. Then I pull out my guidebook and start eyeing up the other eighty-odd 4000ers. What next?