I really don’t like getting up at 3.45am, and try to avoid it whenever possible. I do however make exceptions where staying in mountain huts is concerned, as that is what you are there for. The very early start in most mountain huts is dictated by one thing, which is how long it will take to summit and get back down allowing for ‘usual’ conditions on the glacier.
In the summer months the snow conditions on ‘wet’ (i.e snow covered) glaciers tend to be frozen until about mid-morning (depending upon what time the glacier gets the sun and what direction it is facing). What you need when walking up them, is for the snow not to be soft, as your crampons don’t get good purchase and you can sink into the snow, which at best just saps the energy. It’s hard enough as it is without that!
So anyway, this morning I find myself waking up in the Chabon hut near Gran Paradiso at exactly the above time. Breakfast, a hurried affair of dry (and that’s an understatement) bread and some cornflakes with luke warm milk, is just not very appetising, but it goes down, and within about 20 minutes or so everyone is outside getting into harnesses and getting crampons and helmets and the like sorted. There are 80 people in the hut altogether, and everyone is there for one thing – to summit what is effectively Italy’s highest mountain, Gran Paradiso.
It is about 4.45 in the end by the time we set off, due to a number of people faffing with their kit, including me. It’s made harder by the fact that it is still very dark, and headtorches are the order of the day. When we set off we follow a string of other headtorch-bedecked individuals who are already snaking their way towards the glacier.
The hut is at 2,700m (just shy of 9,000 feet , and our objective is at 4,061m, or 13,400 feet. The walk is steady at first, over rocky moraine mainly, but pitches up quite steeply in places, which very much gets the heart going.
By probably 6am or so, it is light, and there are magnificent views already over the French and Italian Alps. There is not a single cloud to be seen in the morning sky. We reach ‘crampon point’, a figurative spot where travel is much easier with them in place, and we get ready. We also rope up, with the team set in a group of 3 and 4 with a guide leading each group. I am roped up with Marco, our Italian guide, and grouped with Katya and Jonas. Neil, the main group guide, has Rich, Stuart, Mick and Colin.
It is cold, much colder than I had anticipated, and as we meander up the glacier, which is steep, the wind picks up, and before long I am grateful that I packed my rucksack well. I am now wearing two pairs of gloves, a buff, a woolly hat, and three layers, including a fleece and a light down jacket. I wonder for a while if I even have enough with me.
By the time we reach the top of the glacier, at probably around 8am, it is freezing cold. And I mean cold so you can’t hardly feel your fingers cold. I make a mental note to buy some better gloves for when I go to Russia in a month or so’s time. At this point we turn an abrupt left onto a much steeper incline towards the summit, which now becomes visible for the first time.
Thankfully at this point the sun came up and it warmed things up immeasurably. The last quarter mile or so to the summit is fairly hard work, as a.) you are now at 4,000m, and b.) it is probably the steepest part of the whole mountain. But like most mountains you ever get close to the top of, the adrenaline (or summit fever!) kicks in, and you just push on.
Getting up to the summit ridge itself proved fine until the very last 5 or 6 metres.
The problem was twofold – firstly the summit ridge is a narrow band of rock, which is basically one person wide at best, and the summit held about three people at best, so it was “one on one off” when you got there. Secondly it was, as our guide put it “very airy”, aka it had precipitous drops on two sides, so your heart was in your mouth to actually get the final few steps.
After a few moments when I doubted whether I wanted to go the last few steps at all (the bottleneck took about 20 minutes or so to wait for people to get off the summit), the last piece was somewhat nervously executed via ferrata style on a ledge no wider than one boot width, and a 1,000m drop below you. It is not for the vertigo suffers amongst us, that’s all I’m saying!
Thankfully the summit moment itself was glorious, and here I am clinging on to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top:
The views from the top were fabulous, and with such clear skies there was a view of mountains in every direction, spanning Switzerland, France and Italy too. Mont Blanc stood sublime in the distance, taunting us and tempting us at the same time. It would only be two days now until we would be at her base to begin the big climb!
The descent following another frustrating wait to get back over the via ferrata bit to safety (there was now about 30 people waiting to get onto the summit behind us) was a really warm one. Now in bright sunshine all the way (it was about 9.30am by the time we left the summit ridge) the snow was beginning to get soft, and so crampon placement was all important. Here are some pictures on the way down:
After we got back to the Chabon hut, it was about 1pm, and everyone was exhausted but happy. There was time for a quick celebration photograph with our little group:
The return trip to the summit had taken just under 9 hours altogether, of which the moving time was about half of that:
Everyone was so beat that a well earned lie down ensued for all, and then time to pack everything up again for the trek down the mountain the next day, as we’d stay another night in the Chabon hut.
After we’d all had dinner, the news that we didn’t have to get up until 6.45 the next morning came as a huge relief. An extremely pleasant couple of glasses of wine then followed to round off a really memorable day.
The guides told us after dinner that the weather forecast for the weekend was looking a bit dodgy, but that they’d know more when we got back to France the next day. They quite rightly pointed out that Mont Blanc wasn’t a mountain to take chances on, but that no decisions would be taken until we got a better picture.
For now we looked forward to a bit of bouldering which would follow on the way down the mountain the next morning. We had conquered Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain – time to be very happy for now 🙂