Monday, 13 June 2011

Gran Paradiso.Cogne.The Italian Alps.

Bob here.
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 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.
In the valleys far, far below ,due to the overnight storm,blankets of fluffy white clouds swirled about  sank and lifted in a slow delicate ballet.It would be a grey,damp misery of a day down there.And  here we were above it  all  basking in wonderful sunshineStill the most memorable mountain event of my life.The great Paradise indeed.These old faded photographs don't really do it  any justice.Like looking down from the roof of heaven itself.

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.

A fabulous trip.
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?


Anonymous said...

Lovely to see another trip from years ago. Back in my young days I did a walking trip to the Vanoise National Park and was delighted to see chamois several times.

We stayed in the mountain huts and you're right, they are not conducive to a good night's sleep. As well as the snorers, you forgot to mention the guys arguing (in different languages) about whether to have the window open or closed, they folks with very smelly feet or BO and the VERY early risers who would get up at 2am and not bother about who they woke. Ah, joy!

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Sheila.
You have obviously lived the dream of tranquil alpine hut life.I had a sleeping bag(my only one that trip and fairly small once packed away)moved elsewhere by someone in a crowded Vanoise hut.As a result I left without it thinking it was already in my rucksack.Imagine my delight when I reached my waiting tent in the valley below without it and then had a reascent of 3000 feet back up to get it again.And I had to pay£20 a night for the experience.
A Shorter Vanoise post will appear here sometime.I,m sticking them all up in the order they were done with Scottish posts inbetween.

The Glebe Blog said...

Bob's archives,excellent.
I love the picture with the alpine mountain guide nonchalantly looking out over the ether.It's scary.

If you don't already do so,you need to back up these posts for posterity Bob, which reminds me I haven't recently.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Jim.
I was amazed at that myself.As you can see that slab doesn,t look all that safe.He,s probably used it dozens of times though.
Backing up is a good idea.
Takes me all my time to write these post though.Over five hours for this one as I had to pour over old Italian maps and guide books first to remember it all.

Anonymous said...

Very lovely indeed; I'm left feeling deeply nostqalgic for a trip that i wasn't even on... Those lovely pics only serve to make the whole nostalgic feeling more intense. Sigh. I love your 'ones from the archive', Bob, keep 'em coming. On a different note, what's your surname please, Bob? (nothing to worry about!)

blueskyscotland said...

Your right Pete.There is nothing to worry about cos I aint telling! You,ll be asking for my bank account numbers next :0)
Besides Alex is wanted in five countries for climbing up state
buildings and I,ve still got a warrant out for fondling Dolphins off the black isle.

Anonymous said...

Dolphin fondling!?! I see your point, Bob. If you could just give me your branch sort code, a/c number etc....

Neil said...

Brings back memories Bob. Gran Paradiso is the only big alpine peak that I have done, back when I was young! Everything else out there scared the s..t out of me. It is a magnificent peak.

blueskyscotland said...

Still the best view I,ve had from any mountain Neil.

Guy said...

Great blog post. I've been trying to research easy climbing/scrambling routes around Cogne and Aosta, and this was really helpful (I can't seem to find a handy guidebook). How did you find out about Punta Fenilla, and is the route finding easy? Would I be able to ask you about your trip by email?

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Guy.
If you are looking for easy scrambling this is the place for you.I had a guide but as its over 20 years ago now its lost and I cant remember what it was.Might have been a Robin G Collomb series as he does the Vanoise.It was in english but only gave you a breif description of routes and grades.Above Epinel, Punta Pousset was very easy scrambling but good.Also Punta del Trajo Easy.Punta Rosa(snow peak) also a straightforward snow plod but very fine views.Thats 3 great days out.
You could then move camp to cogne as its got more life in it for Punta Fenilla(monzeuc ridge route) then return tourist ridge.Unless its changed there are a number of open shacks and bivi huts all over this region.As long as there is no mess or damage, if empty the locals did not seem to mind you using these. Paradiso is an easy snow plod.La tresenta and Ciarforon a bit harder.Other easy 4000 metre peak in alps is the Breithorn I believe.
Maps used were Piemonte Valle d,Aosta(touring club Italiano)1:200 000.Which gives you entire area of Italy down to the coast and is great for a complete over view of the Italian Alps.
Large Scale map was Gran Paradiso-Valle d, Aosta(86)1:50000.Kompass carta turistica for summits in area.Punta Fenilla was climbed on a whim near the end of our trip.Didnt have a clue about the grade It just looked nice.Easy but spectacluar scrambling.Many other 10,000 foot rock peaks in area.One word of warning about Punta fenilla.Its the only name I didnt put down on the back of the few photographs I have left of it so I,m going just from memory alone.Looking at map 90 pecent sure thats the right name:0)
Also Gran Paradiso was climbed from Pont(another valley from Cogne) as thats the easy side.
Thats all the info I have.Best of luck.Best time to go July-aug maybe first 2 week sep to avoid snow low down.

blueskyscotland said...

To guy.
Gillian Price.Walking in Italy,s Gran Paradiso.(out of print but try e bay or
Gillian price. Alta via 2 and day walks(all paradiso area.)
Still in print by Cicerone.£12.95.
Sure there are others on goggle too.
I,ve had some of her other books on italy they are pretty good as she stays there.Loads of info.

Guy Dennis said...

Big thanks. I've got the Price book, and Pousset looks great. Though the guidebook seems more walking than scrambling.
Monte Emilius, above nearby Aosta, also looks v attractive... but again, can't see a guidebook. Still, will keep hunting!
Huge thanks for your reply - really appreciate it.

blueskyscotland said...

To Guy.
Hope you get good weather if you go. Its normally sheltered by the Higher ring of mountains along the Italian border so for a mountain region its sunny more often than not.Monte Emilius we looked across at from Punta Pousset.Looked a straightforeward ascent onto a wide ridge but an excellent view point as its in the middle of everything.

Aimee Durnell said...

Thank you wonderful descriptions and photos. I was intrigued to read about your trip as you mentioned walkers with young did they do? We're about to go to Cogne with 2 young children. Any thoughts that might help us. Thank you Aimee Durnell

blueskyscotland said...

Hello Aimee Durnell.
I would take a good selection of games,books,toys etc with you as Cogne and the surrounding areas are pretty but unless you are into walking it does not have a lot of other attractions.Many fine easy low level walks though from Cogne and roman ruins at Aosta.The Aosta valley if you have transport has a range of sightseeing options,castles,high alpine passes,Turin etc.
If all else fails an inflatable beach ball may amuse children for hours and is easy to carry once flat.Best of Luck on your trip.