An Alpine Ascent for Hillwalkers?
I guess it all started in August, seven years ago, before all of my Wainwright stomping, all of my North Wales scrambling and all of my Munro bagging. The Olympic Games has just taken place in London. Two friends and I have trekked half of the Tour Du Mont Blanc and I find myself standing on one of the metallic viewing platforms in the rarefied air of the Aiguille Du Midi. One of Mont Blanc’s many impossibly sharp aiguilles (needles), the Aiguille Du Midi is the improbable site of a 3777m high cable car station. Built in 1955, it is an impossibly impressive feat of engineering, connecting the mountain peak to the bustling hive of Chamonix almost 3000m below. It is the sort of place that would not look out of place in a James Bond movie as a villain’s headquarters.
The vast majority of folk wandering the bizarre mixture of souvenir shops, museum exhibits and panoramic platforms are tourists taking in the sublime views of Mont Blanc and its satellites. As one of the massed tourists, I take pleasure in matching the names of the surrounding mountains to the topography diagrams at the edge of the platform. Aiguille Verte, Grandes Jorasses, Grand Combin, Cervin, Monte Rosa, Grivola: the names of the distant summits sound wonderfully exotic and full of adventure. The name of a snow-clad mountain to the south stands out. Gran Paradiso! It does not take a native of Rome to work out the name’s meaning.
But not all who take the cable cars up to the Aiguille Du Midi are tourists. Men and women ladened with ropes and metallic jangly bits are fiddling with metal axes and spikes that attach to their huge fluorescent boots. Some of them are traversing the vast sea of ice that lies between the granite walls of the Mont Blanc massif, just tiny black specs against an overwhelmingly huge landscape of white. Some are heading towards the magisterial dome of Mont Blanc itself. For me, this moment, this vista of rock and ice, this vision of proper adventure has just kindled something in me. Within weeks of returning to the UK, I had started bagging Wainwrights, starting with Helvellyn via Striding Edge. I have not stopped since.
In truth, the ambition to climb an alpine mountain seemed a fanciful one. At the time it seemed as unrealistic as suddenly wanting to play football in the Premiership. I would never have the skill. It was not something someone like me did. But in the same way that I could have a kick about with mates on a five-a-side pitch, I could hike up the more modest mountains in my native Cumbria. So I did. As I slowly discovered the sheer wealth of mountain adventure accessible in the UK, this become my passion: first the Wainwrights, then Munros with visits to Snowdonia in between. The idea of Alpine adventure was on the back burner. I grew a great passion for winter in the mountains and acquired the tools I needed. First hill walker, then winter walker and summer scrambler. And then, upon returning to Striding Edge in full winter knick, I reckoned I was finally a mountaineer. By this point I had joined my local mountaineering club, making good friends and learning plenty of new skills. At the monthly socials, members would present and share their adventures of far flung ranges around the World. At one such social event, I suggested to my friend Mirek that we should do Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia. He laughed and said: “Why don’t we do an alpine 4000er?” Suddenly, it was on. The Alps were no longer on the back burner.
There are 80-odd peaks in the Alps over 4000m and some mountaineers even tick them off like Munros! Like scrambles, each mountain route is graded. They range in difficulty from F (facile - easy) to ED (extrêmement difficile - extremely difficult). Mirek had some alpine experience gleaned from ascents of the Allalinhorn and Mont Blanc several years earlier. Grade wise these were both towards the easier end of the scale. When graduating from mountains in the UK to an Alpine 4000er, it is advised to choose a an “easy” route due to the new challenges that Alpinism brings with it.
After all, challenges is the operative word here! For a start, these are big, high mountains. At 4000m oxygen is more scarce, only about 60% of the amount at sea level, so acclimatising properly 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. The reason for the need for a morning ascent is due to the condition of the snow, which is more stable in the cool of the morning 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 of ice and snow 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 plenty of videos and UK courses out there to educate yourself in techniques for glacier travel. But there really is no substitute for getting out there with someone who can teach you, be that an experienced friend or by paying an Alpine guide. I was lucky enough to have Mirek to - literally - show me the ropes, and a week before flying out we met in a London park to practise roping up and rescuing ourselves from a glacier using slings and prusiks. We also had to pick our mountain carefully. It had to be over 4000m high, but it also had to be graded F for easy. One name stuck out on the list for me, the highest mountain completely within Italy: Gran Paradiso.
Set to the south of the Mont Blanc Massif in a national park that shares its name, Gran Paradiso is a beautiful mountain reaching a noble 4061m. 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 area of the Alps home. There are two classic routes to the summit, both starting in the Valsavarenche Valley. 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. After a bit of research, we decided to opt for Chabod and picked a campsite in the valley (suitably named Gran Paradiso Camping) near the start of the route. We also booked two nights in the refuge to ensure we had the maximum window of opportunity to summit.
Wednesday morning. In the heat of the Italian sun, we lay out our clothing and kit in front of our tents. The need for ropes and carabiners, axes and crampons mean that our load is to be heavier than in the UK. We shoulder our packs and I wince. The pull up to the refuge is going to be hard work. As is often the case in the Alps, the trail is very well signposted. A gigantic roadside sign informs us that we are at the bottom of the trail to the refuge 900 metres above. Up we go, through a charming forest providing blessed shade from the beating sun. 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 alpine hillside. Grasshoppers bounce around all over the place, armies of ants periodically cross the path and the air is alive with the buzz of insects and the rush of a nearby stream. The place is full of life. All is green.
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 green, 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 Gran Paradiso 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. No problem. 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. It is three o clock so we set off and set a turn-around time of half past four in order to get back in plenty of time for food. Twenty minutes up and the terrain changes from lush green to lifeless grey. We have entered the domain of the mountain proper. Two rocky ridges are ascended, with some boulder hopping in between. Cairns mark the way, though at one point we come to a junction where there are two sets leading off in different directions. First we follow the upper course before realising that it is heading over an unstable boulder field and away from where we need to be. We turn back and retrace our steps to other set of cairns. With the importance of a reccy underlined, we descend to the glacier.
To begin with, we are on a dry glacier. A thin layer of crunchy ice and the occasional patch of snow coat the gravelly moraine. I get my first encounters with crevasses, easily visible on this kind of terrain. They are not wide but they are surprisingly deep, some with little streams cascading into them. The sound of running water is a constant. Ahead, where the dry glacier meets snow, we can see the route ahead in the form of ascending footprints. Upon reaching this point, we decide it is time to don crampons, ready axes and practice our rope techniques.
A wet glacier is a glacier covered in snow. Here there is the possibility of crevasses hiding beneath a thin layer of the white stuff, waiting to snare the unwary. This is why being tied together on a rope is recommended for glacier travel, so that if one of us falls in, the other can arrest the fall using their ice axe before attempting rescue. We have a 50-metre rope, so we have to coil it around our torsos about fourteen times each to get a suitably short amount between us. We then practise moving up the slope whilst roped together. The snow underfoot is slushy in the afternoon heat and our crampons struggle to make much of a difference. It will be a different story in the morning I figure. Before long, it is time to head back and we descend back to the refuge. The reccy was time well spent.
The time spent in an alpine refuge is just as big a part of the alpinism experience as the time spent in the mountains. Each refuge is unique with its own quirky character traits. Do not expect much of your sleeping quarters however. We are on a bunk bed, sharing a room with perhaps twenty others. Ear plugs are recommended. Leaving our boots and axes in the boot room, we sort our kit for the morning to ensure a quick getaway before making our way to the dining room for dinner. Arrabbiata pasta is for starters, with meat and mash for mains. We converse with some older German women about the route. “It’s very steep, you will need to rope up,” they say, having done it before. Part of the excitement of a climb is hearing different people describe what is to come, as everyone has their own thresholds of what is comfortable, what is difficult, what is scary. Measuring yourself against this is all part of the fun, the allure. When back in the valley we had told a Dutch man, who had climbed it twice before, that we were not using a guide, he replied: “Ah you are tough guys!” It would be interesting to see how we fared against the mountain tomorrow morning.
After dinner we do some final checks and admire the sunset behind the ridge across the valley. A fitful sleep follows. The first night at altitude, the noise and fuss from other climbers and the excitement and apprehension of tomorrow’s climb mean that deep sleep is hard to come by. Before you know it, it is three thirty and the alarm is going off. Few words are exchanged at this kind of time, 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 at four, turn our head-torches on off we go. The first hour is basically head down, get going, 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. Once back at the glacier, we strap our crampons on as planned. We decide not to rope up yet. We are efficient.
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. I once looked towards the likes of Great Gable and the Scafells with the same awe and feelings of thrilling possibility. Now, rather than the Lake District’s, I am eyeing up Western Europe’s highest summits. An exciting thought.
However, until Gran Paradiso is summited, I can not count myself as an alpinist, so I pull myself back to the present. As we ascend, we pass enormous crevasses with beautiful interiors of weird and wonderful ice sculptures, spikes and towers that plunge into the abyss. We do not get too close. With the well-trodden trail and the favourable conditions, we continue onwards without roping up. Our path zig zags, finding a route that avoids the dangers. As well as the magnificent rock scenery of Gran Paradiso’s north face, towering seracs dwarf both ourselves and those following behind. Step. Step. Drive the spike of the ice axe into the snow. Step. Step. Spike. Upwards we ascend. Step. Step. Spike.
We reach the shoulder where our path 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. On the horizon, the prominent Monviso looks like an enticing pyramidal peak, whilst closer at hand the Ecrins region looks an attractive proposition. We stop to eat some flavoured bread and improbably, a blackbird lands on the snow in front of us. I sing the Beatles to it whilst giving it a good feed with a handful of scraps. 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, it looks like a pale spectre standing guard. It is almost time to meet her.
The final pull is the steepest and I am aware of how cold it is getting. Though it is a relief that seems as though I am not feeling the effects of the altitude. We crest the rise before the final rocky scramble and a vista so magnificent it almost slaps me in the face is unfurled. “That’s undoubtedly the Matterhorn,” I announce to Mirek as he joins me on the snowy platform. The Pennine Alps in all their glory 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 earnt 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 scrambling up to a set of metal rungs fixed to the final rock step and climbing these to the summit platform. 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. Mirek and I take the obligatory summit selfies with the Madonna and take in the views for a score of moments. There are more climbers coming up behind, so we do not linger. We turn forward to face the crux of the whole route.
Ahead is a fairly narrow ridge across cube shaped boulders as big as rooms. With crampons now useless against naked rock and shouldering still heavy packs, we gingerly begin the traverse. There are metal hoops affixed to aid climbers using ropes but we carry on without. 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 a Crib Goch or an Aonach Eagach. To the right, the side of one of one of the giant boulders bounds us in. But to the left is a horrible drop to the glacier hundreds of feet below. All there is to tread across is a ledge about a foot wide. I lean heavily into the safety of the boulder wall to my right as I step across, the void gaping hungrily. 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 speedily descend past the parties trudging up the final pull. We take a breather back at the col where the two routes meet and once more admire the views over to the Mont Blanc massif. Then we speed off down the now sunlit snow, already noticeably slushier than when we had ascended. We make great pace, bounding down as the sky turns to brilliant blue and the morning deepens. Back at the dry glacier we remove our crampons, stash our axes, knowing it is less than an hour now back to Chabod. Just before 11am, seven hours after we had set off, we are greeted by the Italian staff at the refuge. We are delighted that the warden is impressed by our speed. It as if we had just won something for Britain.
We tell the staff we won’t be staying another night and 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 a very well-earned espresso. For an hour and half, I sit basking in the sunlight and the glory of an ascent of my first alpine 4000er, the culmination of seven years of ambition. Then I pull out my guide book and start eyeing up the other 80 4000ers. Right... What next?
B2 Climbing boots
First Aid Kit
Phone with GPS apps
Power bank and USB cable
Hat and gloves
Usual clothing layers for UK winter
Unlike in the UK, mountain rescue is not voluntary but a profession. It is vital to have adventurous activities insurance. There are good deals through the BMC and also with the Austrian Alpine Club.
The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes by Richard Goedeke
Other Introductory 4000ers
Across from the majestic Matterhorn, this grand mountain is a much easier than its illustrious neighbour. The Klein Matterhorn cable car gets you to almost 4000m, meaning it is a mere 350m ascent and descent to claim the summit.
The Mittelallalin railway does most of the work for you here. From there it is a mere 580m of well trodden snow to the summit. Many people who only ever climb one 4000er will have made it the Allalinhorn.