Ski touring Gran Paradiso April 2012
I (John) have just come back from an excellent ski tour with Mountain Tracks to the Gran Paradiso National Park in northern Italy. It was a really well-balanced itinerary with a good mix of uphill exercise, downhill powder (and crud), challenging navigation between times, and a worthwhile final ascent to round it all off. (I did cheat and have a week’s training beforehand with my friends in Grimentz, so that made it easier).
Day 1: April 7th 2012 The group met in Chamonix, and it was quickly apparent that we were a fairly homogeneous bunch, which always makes things go along more smoothly. Weather for the week was expected to be mixed, with deteriorating conditions in the middle of the week, and a possible weather window for the ascent of Gran Paradiso itself on the Friday.
Day 2: April 8th 2012: Valgrisenche – Bezzi Hut
After a comfortable night in Chamonix, we took a minibus ride through the Mont Blanc tunnel to the Val Grisenche where a few km walk was followed by a routine 500m skin up to the Bezzi Hut. Being Easter Sunday, it was fairly busy, but we had plenty of space in the 6-bed bunk rooms, and we spread ourselves out in one of the two dining areas. It was a real delight to be spending time in Italian huts where the food is excellent, and the extras affordable (2.50 Euros for water rather than 10 which I’ve paid in some Swiss huts). Decent wine too! As we were 11 clients, there were 2 guides (Olly and Ales) but we were lucky to have an aspirant guide (Paul) with us as well who added to the already high level of information and encouragement.
Day 3: April 9th 2012: Bezzi Hut – Col Bassac Dere – Benevolo Hut
We left the hut at a civilised hour and skinned up a steady angled slope towards the Col Bassac Dere, 800m above the hut. Couteaux (harscheisen) were needed some of the way, with patches of windblown steeper crust, but good progress was made. The sun hit us as we were coming up to the col, making for lovely conditions. Snow on the descent was a little crusty, but lower down there was a lovely pitch of spring snow above Lago di Goletta. Another short skin up, and we were contemplating the descent to Rifugio Benevolo underneath some very impressive cliffs. We made it for a late lunch (minestrone soup for 5 Euros for me), and settled down to enjoy the scenery (and refresh ourselves on avalanche transceiver procedure). I had heard of Benevolo as being an excellent place for a ski touring base (in fact Mountain Tracks have a tour which does that) and you can see why with the amphitheatre of snow surrounding the hut.
I had pared down the kit I was carrying, so did the entire trip in one Merino 1 baselayer from Patagonia (possibly a little light for most people who don’t run as hot as I do), a pair of Icebreaker Ultralight Boxers, and a pair of Smartwool Medium weight ski socks. On my legs, I had a pair of Mountain Equipment G2 Mountain Pants (older style in Windstopper which I find very comfortable and no need for waterproof leggings), and on top a Marmot Driclimewhen required to keep out the wind, and a Patagonia NanoPuff for emergency warmth.
Day 4: April 10th 2012: Benevolo Hut – Basei – Chivasso Hut
After another civilised departure from Benevolo Hut, we had another steady 900m skin up to the col Basei, where a peek over the edge showed us that the weather was coming in very quickly. Most of the peaks were still clear so we had excellent views of Gran Paradiso sitting over a sea of cloud. There was time to skin across to a subsidiary peak of Punta Basei, but things were changing quickly.
En route, I also made the unpleasant discovery that I need fatter skis as I was collapsing though the track at every step while all around me were skinning serenely.
Olly and four of us made a quick departure from the peak and headed down through the crust and into the fog. Here I was particularly glad to have the services of an expert guide as choosing the correct couloir to descend was not easy.
Even getting to the refuge in very limited visibility with a GPS was not simple, and we were glad to hear a siren leading us to the exact location. An extremely warm welcome from Alessandro, the guardian of the Chivasso hut for 26 years, soon banished any discomfort and we settled in as the only guests. A very atmospheric hut with great food and a lovely place to hang out (with some daredevil games of Jenga).
Day 5: April 11th 2012: Chivasso Hut – Pont
It was still snowing and blowing the following morning, so our hoped-for route to the head of Val Savarenche was abandoned and we had a slow descent through the fog straight down the valley towards Pont. At the cross overlooking the valley we packed our skis and walked down the winding track to the hotel, spotting groups of chamois and ibex as we went down. It had been good to get out the Arc’teryx Active Shell and use the severe weather gear I had brought for such occasions.
We were down in Pont for lunch, and luxuriated in the hot shower and twin rooms that were on offer. After the hard day previously, a few beers in the afternoon was much appreciated.
Evening meals tend to be a starter of soup or pasta, a main course which always seemed to end up being a local cooked meat specialty with polenta, and a variety of desserts. This may even tempt Nancy back into hut to hut skiing… and maybe even Nikki B! (though this picture is actually the hotel in Pont)
We started the penultimate day with a short flat skin to the bottom of the ascent, from where we hiked up through the forest (with good views of chamois) towards the Victor Emmanuel hut, which we reached around lunchtime after another short skin.
The afternoon was a choice between crevasse rescue training and another ascent, and I chose to go up but unfortunately had an episode of atrial fibrillation so didn’t make it right up to the col (this was soon corrected at the hut with a dose of Flecainide). There was a great atmosphere in the Vittorio Emanuele Hut on our return with groups who has made the ascent that day, a small number who would be going up with us, and quite a few people who had escaped from the awful weather up in the Bernese Oberland.
Day 7: April 13th 2012
SUMMIT DAY Vittorio Emanuele Hut – Gran Paradiso:
Breakfast at 5.30 sharp meant that we were the first on the mountain, and this was a very good choice. With 1300m to ascend to the top of Gran Paradiso, and deteriorating weather, it was going to be a bit of a race. With harnesses on, we skinned steadily up onto the glacier through a mix of soft and windblown snow. The head/chest infection I had been fighting with for the past weeks seemed to kick in and I found it increasingly hard to get enough breath. Fortunately with the 3 guides the group could split up, so I found myself in the middle group going slowly but resolutely up to the col at around 4000m. The final section over the bergschrund felt particularly tiring, but after around 5 hours Paul and four of us made it to the summit ridge. Here it was skis off, and crampons and axes on, and we were short-roped for the summit ridge. It was a great final challenge moving up the final steps with a few runners put in for security, and we made it to the summit with enough time to enjoy a view over the sea of clouds.
All but one of the group made it to the summit, and all enjoyed some great skiing back down to the hut. The snow was starting to get a little heavy as we approached the hut, but the pasta and beer lured us on! After a well-earned break, we skied and walked down to Pont where a minibus was waiting to take us back to Chamonix for a final night in a hotel, a fun group meal and a second hot shower of the week. Many thanks to Mountain Tracks and the other clients for a thoroughly enjoyable week.
If anyone wants to discuss this tour, ski touring or kit they need, please contact me through the shop and I’ll be happy to chat, advise and respond. Nancy and I have been touring for seven years now, so still have tons to learn, but also have plenty of lessons learnt to pass on.
All photographs in this blog were taken by Aleš Cesen IFMGA Mountain Guide. To see the full album go to: http://www.cesen.com/agk/gallery.php?id=13042012