Next one from the archives folks.The first proper club trip I went on was to Gran Paradiso. A stunningly beautiful area of the Italian Alps,smack up against the French and Swiss borders right at the top of the country.The massive Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa all share summit borders sloping into Italy but only Gran Paradiso sits entirely within Italy itself making it the highest peak in the country at 4061 metres.
The Aosta Valley,reached in our case by a hired coach through the deep burrowing Mont Blanc tunnel sits in a grand position surrounded by these giants of the Alps.
Paradiso is the oldest national park in Italy.A royal hunting reserve since 1856 and one of the last strongholds of the Alpine Ibex,a heavy set powerful antelope that could really do you a mischief with its massive horns.Luckily its fairly indifferent towards humans but you wouldn't want to annoy them when you see the way the males crash into each other in the mating season.
Gran Paradiso together with the neighbouring (French) Vanoise National Park form one of the largest protected areas in Western Europe.Fifty seven separate glaciers sit within the Italian Park boundaries alone.Mixed woodland covers the lower slopes,alpine meadows hold an abundance of flowers in spring and summer and ermine,weasel,badger,chamois and even the very rare wolf and lynx are rumoured to hide in its more remote corners.In short its a cornucopia of natural wonders.
This is a family of chamois.They used to hunt these for their hides,the wonderfully supple shammy leather.beloved of housewives cleaning windows.,
It's a very popular holiday destination with Italians themselves and with their close neighbours.When we were there over 20 years ago now,few locals spoke English but both French and Italian are used everywhere.In the peak summer months its just like any other mountain honeypot with occasional traffic problems,hordes of tourist cars and buses on the narrow dead end road to Cogne and big business trying to nibble away at the edges with proposed ski and hotel developments, not all of which are turned down.The Vanoise has the popular winter Three Valleys network plus Val Thorens and Val D`Isere ,names familiar to any downhill skier so its under even more pressure to new development.
Our destination was the campsite at Epinel,a small village with a bar, restaurant and a couple of shops one a mini market.It wasn't as large as Cogne a few miles further down at the road end but the club had read the right books and did its homework well in the still word of mouth days before instant internet pictures of everywhere and detailed coverage and reviews of far off places.There was still a lot of mystery then and you never knew for sure what it would be like til you got there.
We were a mixed group of walkers and easy grade climbers,some older with young families in tow,a small as yet unmarried younger crowd and assorted mountaineers in between.Epinel was more peaceful than mountain tourist and rock climber driven Cogne so the children with us could explore the quieter campsite and leafy streams without getting lost in a crowd.It also had a network of easy to reach paths and balcony trails snaking up through the woods to the summits beyond.Both rock towers and higher snow and ice peaks surrounded the village and the local men came out at night to play "boules" in the cool of the evening on a patch of flattened ground nearby.It felt like the real Italy though of course this region has a strong French influence as well having been attached to that country in the distant past before boundaries changed.Hence the dual language still spoken by most locals.
Being around the same age,fitness level and ability with no children to worry about four of us teamed up to bag the surrounding peaks once the tents were up.Myself, old friend John,Brian and Fiona.We had all walked together in Scotland before so we already knew we got on OK. Incidentally,Alex normally didn't go on any trips abroad then with the various clubs we moved through over the years.He`s always had his periods of high activity then low activity ,just like now I suppose :o) I was out with him at the weekend in Glencoe, of which more later.
Relatively easy mountains surrounded the tents,a few jagged rock peaks similar to the Cobbler in grade only 10,000 feet in height were the ones we fancied first.Above this 12,000 foot (3500metre) snow peaks appeared.Then the two "biggies", Gran Parasido (4061 metres) and La Grivola ( 3969 metres).In my opinion and having been there its a brilliant area for first timers to the alps that are mainly hill walkers in the UK as a range of varied rock, snow and easy glacier peaks can be bagged without much technical skill involved.
Even Paradiso itself is one of the easiest 4000 metre peaks in the alps,though any hill that size in bad weather can turn deadly serious.
The only hill we didn't plan to have a shot at was this one here...La Grivola,protected by its ring of fractured glaciers and steep loose walls.It was severe grade mixed rock and snow/ice climbing to
reach the summit and the guide book warned of parties finding said loose rock and a few going off route halfway up.Bit too hard for us just yet.
With so many other 10,000 foot rock towers around, 12,000 foot snow peaks,Paradiso itself and only 2 weeks to cram it all in we had more than enough on our plate anyway.
Punta Pousset fell to our eager feet then Punta Del Trajo.
At the head of the valley above Cogne Punta Fenilla caught the eye with its long soaring ridge of slabs at an unroped (we hoped) looking angle. This ridge in the background is the one we climbed.This is a part of it.Several thousand feet of it later we reached the slightly steeper head wall of the summit.A fantastic route, very unusual to find such long easy but superb scrambling without a hidden sting in the tail.Think of the Dubhs ridge on Skye.Only at 10,000 feet.A stunningly vivid day. and after all these years have passed I`ve still never climbed anything quite like it again.
Gran Paradiso itself came next.The four of us sharing a very sardine like tent halfway up,camped on a grassy meadow just below the snow line.There was a large hut nearby but we preferred to camp and cook for ourselves,both to save money but also for the freedom involved.Most huts are crowded,chaotic places,good in bad weather but I`ve rarely had much sleep in them.Hot airless rooms with at least one bad snorer in the same dorm.No thanks.
This is us at the summit,an alpine mountain guide casually sitting on a sloping rock over the abyss,admiring the view.With Italy still being a deeply religious country,many Italians make a special pilgrimage to climb Gran Paradiso,often hiring guides as they are not mountaineers themselves.Bit like folk doing Ben Nevis or West Highland Way for charity, some may not do anything else outdoors after that. This person looks as if they are praying to the Madonna,erected for just this purpose.I think the new one has chimes!
Although this side of Paradiso is an easy if long snow plod the other side of the mountain drops away in spectacular fashion.I don't think I`ve ever had a more beautiful high mountain view,made even better by stormy over night rain which flattened our tent,leaving four damp bumps cursing under a puddle heavy canvas pancake.No matter...In the alps the sun normally appears and by early morning everything dries rapidly in 80 degree heat..In Bonnie Scotland sadly, most days if you get wet ...you stay wet!
After seeing an Italian guy doing it I was determined to scramble up the vertical rock tower seen in the summit picture two above.I don't climb many pinnacles normally ( I climb like an enthusiastic sea lion truth be told) but this was a once in a lifetime experience.And what a pinnacle!Half of Italy below your trembling toes.(you can see the summit tower shot and others if you go to this blogs "the greater ranges" back posting from April last year.2010.
We even had a Sightseeing rest day in Turin,Like all Italy,s larger towns and cities,jam packed with history and sculpture on the grandest scale.
Mind you for a rest day we must have walked about ten miles but at least it was flat.We calculated in two weeks we,d ascended the equivalent of Mount Everest at least twice. That's almost 60,000 feet.
I could never manage a third of that now.It would kill me.
Like normal folk might go on annual holidays to the Spanish Costas or rest happily on Turkish beaches or even visit Florida for us then, if we saved up and went abroad once each year, it was always only about one thing....big peaks,bigger packs and two weeks of sun, sweat,blood,guts,stumbles,curses and tears.Would I change any of it.....What do you think?