Discipline: Alpine mountaineering
Area: Expedition Abroad: Gran Paradiso, Alps, Italy
Type: Mini expedition (2 days)
Distance: 10km & 2050m ascent
Duration: 3 hours > Refuge then 10-14 hours > Summit & down
Route: Normal route via Refugio Vitorrio Emauele II
Time of year: May-October, avoid peak Summer if possible - expect 100+ to summit per day in good weather
Guidebook recommendations: Summit Post
When my girlfriend Ella and her brother, Raef wanted to climb a 4000m Alpine peak, I was of course excited to be a part of their challenge and after some consideration, given Raef’s lack of experience, we decided Gran Paradiso would be the perfect testing ground.
The Gran Paradiso was an area I’d not yet explored, so despite not necessarily offering a huge physical or mental challenge, I was more than happy to visit a new part of the Alps and try to get another 4000er under my belt. Incidentally, Gran Paradiso is also the highest mountain entirely within Italian territory. The peak follows the conventional Alpine style of ascent, parking at Pont (1960m) then up to Refugio Vitorrio Emauele II sitting at 2732m. The route then gets onto and follows the glacier all the way until the final rocky scramble along the summit ridge and onto the highest point itself. Graded as PD+, this is certainly not a particularly technical route, and also avoids much of the crevassed terrain. However, the final summit push is awkward (especially when busy) and suitably exposed. Despite feeling comfortable in the task ahead, and willing and able to look after my comrades, we decided to use a guide on this occasion. This was at least partially (and understandably) to appease Ella’s parents, who were wary of mountaineerin newbie Raef on such a trip.
After a quick google, it was clear a guiding service could easily set you back one or two thousand euros for a big peak. Although I’m sure their service is top notch, it seemed a little excessive for our needs so I went on the search for a more cost effective solution. After a quick ring around, we managed to come to an arrangement for privately hire a guide for the summit day only, meeting us at the refuge the night before. Though using a guide would never sit naturally with me, at least we weren’t wasting much money on being guided over terrain I felt comfortable leading on. And besides, what’s so wrong with having an expert showing you the ropes anyway?
So first of all, let me be clear – I’m not saying you, or anyone for that matter shouldn’t get a guide for any or all trips. It is a completely personal decision for each individual and their own challenge ahead. I must admit though, that I personally don’t get the same “sense of adventure” that I do when I’m leading myself, or a team into new territory. So here I am, asking myself why I will never be content unless we’re going it alone? Is this irresponsible? This undoubtedly adds unnecessary risk, but perhaps the core of this self-assessment comes down to the very question so many endurance athletes ask themselves, why do we even do it at all?
THE WALK IN
So rewind to a couple of days ago, and the three of us are drinking a quick afternoon espresso at the road’s end Hotel, before beginning the hike up to our high altitude digs. We’ve made sure the team are suitably equipped, heading up the steep switchbacks into the forest. Regularly distracted by the impressive glacial water features, before too long we’re above the tree line and are making educated guesses to which snowy peak we’re expected to scale. Looking to acclimatize and keen to be fresh for our big day to follow, we arrive at the distinctive shiny barrel-shaped refuge after a few hours with plenty of time to spare before dinner. After a quick cool down in the ice cold lake and a few games of cards, we come across our guide Rocco, who’s meeting us for dinner.
With little knowledge of what our guide would be like, I was immediately pleased to meet Rocco, a slender man with a kind smile and a good level of English which would surely make life easier. This won’t be so bad I told myself, after all, I still have much to learn. And it wasn’t. Over dinner, we discuss the ins and outs of summit day, and Rocco appeared comforted by our preparedness and suitability of equipment. Ever in the perpetual search of sunrise, and aware we may be a slower group than some, I impress my keenness for an early start, we agree to meet for breakfast as soon it’s served at 4am. With a little more backpack faffing, we’re in bed for a good time and in mountaineering terms manage to get a pretty decent night’s sleep.
The morning temperature feels pleasantly mild, so I start with shorts knowing I run hot and we’ll need a pause to fit out crampons an hour into the ascent anyway. Greeted by a severely perplexed face, Rocco isn’t impressed by my attire and my morning demeanour isn’t quite as accommodating as it might be sometimes. Regardless, I nod my head and accept his request to wear my soft shells right although confused as to why he feels we shouldn’t bother with our helmets on this climb. Hoping to make the most of the day, I keep our differences to myself and we continue over the rocky start up towards the glacier. The route seems easy to follow, not least due to the number of people heading up the mountain. It’s worth noting, should you wish to have some solace in your summit moment, you’ll need to leave long before breakfast, between 2-3am perhaps.
After a couple of kilometres, we’re onto snow and fitting our crampons ready for the terrain to steepen, though the route is relatively well-walked making the compact snow not too challenging. The zig zagging route reaches around a 30-35 degree gradient at it’s steepest working your ankle ligaments under foot but not presenting anything too tough just yet. By this time, the morning light is shining over the peaks behind us, though we’re not going to get any direct sunlight for a while yet due the west-facing aspect. We stop for our first decent break, and we’re gasping for a drink, having climbed around 700 of the 1350m ascent. It’s at this point I first realise the limitations of being short roped by a guide who is yet to tailor his style to our requirements. The importance of being well-hydrated during exertion at altitude is well-documented, and Rocco’s resistance to take any short breaks is proving unpleasant for the squad. We are a young and pretty fit group making healthy progress up the mountain, so we’re a little disgruntled to not be able to get enough water in.
After another good grind, the summit is within our sights. And though Ella is clearly physically exhausted, I’m not worried as I’ve seen her like this on our previous expeditions and know she has it in her. Despite attempts to pause and asking for a short break, she’s being dragged up on the rope and not allowed to catch her breath. Anyone’s who’s climbed at altitude knows sometimes you need to take a second and being pushed too hard can quickly become unpleasant, if not dangerous. Despite the discomfort, Ella remains strong (if a little irritated) and we reach the queue for the scramble over the rocks to the summit.
This section is the crux of the peak, with the rocky ridge traverse relatively exposed on both sides culminating in a 3-4m ledge crossing before reaching the bright white statue of the Virgin Mary. This section is well protected with three or four bolts should you need, however, on busy days this causes congestion on the summit. I’d recommend layering in this area as you may well be waiting for 30 minutes or longer. With a few summit snaps under our belt, and a sketchy drone take off and landing, Raef was happy but very keen to get the “hell of this rock” (not lost love for heights for him).
Despite only being mid-morning, Rocco attempts a blistering speed back down pulling hard on Ella and the rest of the rope team. With stable weather and our goal achieved, I’m not sure why we needed to pace it down quite as quickly but we do our best to keep up despite the awkward short roping. It’s worth me mentioning, that a majority of Alpine accidents happen on the descent and none of our team other than myself have used their ice axe to this point, instead managing with trekking poles. Furthermore, Rocco hasn’t reached for his axe once, not leaving me with much confidence our team would be able to proficiently self-arrest, if Raef or I did have a slip as the much heavier climbers. I understand short roping is largely to avoid a slip turning into a fall, however, you’d expect a guide would take some responsibility to have an ice axe ready in the event of an fall.
Thankfully avoiding any misdemeanours on the way down, we’re able to take our crampons off, giving our feet great relief and allowing us to have some more relaxed fun on the way down with some more freedom off the rope. Back at the refuge at lunch time, we ditch layers, grab a beer and unwind a little. Taking our time to pack up, we set off back down to Pont in a relaxed fashion, where the car is parked. Some fantastic shit chat keeps us distracted and we’re bundling our stuff in the car around 12 hours after our first morning alarm with another 4000er under my belt and a challenging but enjoyable Alpine experience for Ella and Raef.
WHAT A GUIDE MEANT FOR ME?
Though I was pleased to avoid too much responsibility in leading this one, I was disappointed that one of my only guided experiences hadn’t taught me, or any of the team much at all. We were chaperoned from refuge to summit under close supervision, but despite asking, did not receive any real instruction or development of our Alpine skills. Furthermore, undertaking the expedition not on our own terms meant for a slightly less enjoyable experience than it could have been. Having said all of this, Rocco was a pleasant man, whom we were generally comfortable spending time with on the mountain, and no doubt, in the event of an incident, we may well have been extremely grateful for his cool head and experience on the mountain.
On a personal level, although it was great to experience high Alpine peaks with my girlfriend and her brother, I certainly didn’t get that sense of adventure I would expect. There is a satisfaction in the self-reliance that comes without a guide, and in it’s more extreme form climbing solo. Why do I climb? Probably for the physical and mental challenge of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into the unknown, remove that and is mountaineering much of an adventure at all?
Gran Paradiso does still have a 1300m ascent summit day and as PD+ presents some exposure so don’t expect a walk in the park. Though it does remain a great choice for those who haven’t done many Alpine peaks before, but be warned – it’s very busy!
Perhaps manage expectations if you book a guide that you’re unfortunately not booking an Alpine course, but instead someone who’s goal is only to keep you safe and not develop your skills.
For any aspiring Alpinists, this probably does not require a guide. The terrain is simple until the last hundred metres, where a few quick draws or carabiners plus a rope would suffice.