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Gran Paradiso

David Thompson describes his grueling three day ski touring trip to Gran Paradiso

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One of the beauties of living in the Alps is the range of activities literally on your doorstep, or if not literally then within a few minutes drive away.

Since we moved to the Alps 12 years ago I have taken for granted the ease with which I can jump in the car and be skiing within minutes, or hop on my bike and tackle a col or two before lunch. Sometimes, however, it is easy to forget that outside one’s everyday boundaries there is an endless world of adventure in the Alps that is there for the taking.

With this in mind I jumped at the opportunity of a three day ski touring trip with a couple of friends and our guide, Christophe. The destination was one of the highest mountains in Italy, the Gran Paradiso and on the way we would spend a day and a night acclimatising above the Chamonix Valley.

We met Christophe on route and it was not long before we were strapping crampons on at the top of the vertiginous Aiguilles de Midi lift station. Gaining 2700m in 20 minutes on the two cable cars is enough to leave one breathless and immediately I felt the need to do things slowly and carefully, reminding myself that in two days time, at 4061m, I would be glad of the time spent here in preparation.

We climbed down the ridge and off came the crampons, on went the touring skis. Christophe then led us on a steady hike up to the enticingly named Col Freshfield. Before we knew it we had descended from the col, not wanting to hang around at the top in an icy wind, and made our way up to the Cosmique Refuge. I was hoping for a solid night’s sleep after an excellent feed but at 3600m a good night’s sleep is not always straightforward as the heart and the head throb.

The next day we descended the famous Vallée Blanche, admiring the stunning glacial features, before climbing up to the Montenvers train on a series of hairy ladders and traverses.

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Lunch was taken in the car on the journey through the Mont Blanc tunnel and up the pristine Valsavarenche Valley where we were to start our ascent of the Grand Paradiso. The torrential rain that had caused flooding back home in St Jean d’Aulps had washed away much of the snow on the lower slopes so we started the afternoon’s climb of 900m in trainers, boots and skis waiting impatiently on our back packs.

It was a pleasant hike up to the Chabod refuge, passing chamois at regular intervals along the way, and the atmosphere there was much more relaxed than the previous night. As one would expect in Italy we were fed splendidly and I was particularly impressed by our hosts readiness to provide gluten free alternatives to one member of our party. As we curled up in our dormitory we rested well in the knowledge that we had crammed a lot of activity into the day.

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The sun shone on the third and final day of our trip and we were up and out on our skis by 6.30. We had 1400m to climb at altitude so Christophe set a gentle pace for us. It was now that we started to appreciate our time acclimatising in Chamonix. With stunning scenery all around time and distance slipped by easily. We weren’t confronted with anything too technical though our couteaux or ski crampons proved invaluable on a couple of the steeper, icier sections.

We approached the top at around midday. To reach the summit safely we roped up and clambered over and around the remaining rocks. I am unable to report to you the consequences of falling off this last section of the ascent as I couldn’t bring myself to look down. I found it most disconcerting when I was clinging on to the side of the mountain in such a way that I was unable to see where my feet were going. At the top my friend, whose religious streak had hitherto never been exposed, could be seen clinging desperately to the statue of Lady Madonna!

We skiied the top sections feeling euphoric and the cinema snow only added to this. We were made to work our turns on the lower slopes in conditions which I had never previously experienced – metre deep slush, presumably caused by the previous weeks rain but not even that dampened our spirits. Sore feet were relieved as ski boots came off for trainers and as we wandered past a lonely bouquetin thoughts turned to the river at the car park – it was a hot day and we had gone three strenuous days without a wash.

Sitting in the ice cold water seemed like the perfect end to our trip as the cold water refreshed tired limbs and smelly edifices. Home in time for tea, it’s amazing what can be squeeze into three days when it’s on your doorstep.

 

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