Gran Paradiso and Gran Combin were the two next 4000m peaks on my to-do-list this summer, thus I headed for the St.Bernard pass on the border between Switzerland and Italy. I found a very nice campsite in the village of Bourg St. Pierre, a few kilometres below the pass, which was going to be my “basecamp” for some few days. Gran Paradiso in Italy is a 2100m ascent from the valley floor, and normally climbed in two days (F+). But I wanted to do this climb in one long day, mainly to avoid the overcrowded Emanuele hut, secondly to test my endurance in high altitude.
It was a 2 hours drive from the St.Bernard pass, through the Aosta valley in Italy and to the Paradiso trailhead at Pont (1945m). I arrived the huge parking lot in the evening, did some shopping (food) and sightseeing in the area. There was a huge message board at the entrance of the Paradiso national park, including a long list of restrictions and policies. Outdoor camping was one of the restrictions. Making reservation in the Emanuale hut was mandatory, because the police would not accept more people in the hut than the capacity (143 beds). Not surprisingly I heard that the hut was fully booked for several days ahead, thus I was glad that my plans did not include any overnight stay up there.
There was a military jeep and 2 armed soldiers at the entrance of the park, and they seemed to be watching the entrance 24 hours a day. The noisy jeep had its engine running during the whole day and night, and I wondered how much the black diesel smoke contributed to the pollution in the area. But I was more anxious that the armed forces would refuse me from entering the park in the middle of the night.
I decided to get some few hours sleep in the car before I ventured into the park. I woke up at 2 AM and some few minutes later I headed for the park entrance in complete darkness. The jeep was still present and it lighted up the entrance. I was really worried that the soldiers would step out of the jeep, and stop me. But luckily nothing happened, and that actually convinced me they had fell asleep in the jeep. I was very thankful that no one was going to mess up my plans, and I walked undisturbed into the park.
Hiking in darkness
I felt utterly alone in the dark forest, and I must confess that I was slightly frightened in the darkness. I heard many suspicious sounds, and sometimes I could see a pair of eyes, reflecting the light from my headlamp. I tried to convince myself that bears, wolfs and ghosts are absent in the Alps. One and a half hour later I finally reached the Rif. Vittorio Emanuele hut (2735m), and it was a good feeling to be back in civilization. Most of the people had not ended the breakfast yet, and I decided to wait for someone to start, because I had some problems to figure out the direction of the continuing route. 15-20 minutes later a team of 3 climbers ventured into the darkness, and I decided to follow 50 metres behind them. They were moving terrible slow, and since the route finding was easier than first expected, I decided to circumvent them and walk in the front. 10 minutes later I was far ahead of them. When I reached the glacier I could see a team of 6 climbers in front of me. I soon got in touch with them and they told me they had left the hut at 3 AM, which was approx one hour earlier than me.
I enjoyed the beautiful sunrise with stunning views of all the beautiful peaks in Aosta. I followed the well trodden trail on the glacier, and I could not see any dangers (crevasses) at all. The summit of Gran Paradiso was mainly hidden in clouds, and it was a very shifting weather pattern. I was moving gradually slower the last 100-200 metres to the summit. I had gained a lot of altitude (>2000m) during the night, and that had certainly an impact on my performance. The last step to the Madonengipfel was rather exposed but still easy (I+). First I believed that this was the true summit of Gran Paradiso, but then I could see an equal high or probably slightly higher point to the north. I decided to climb that one as well, just to be sure. 5-10 minutes later I reached the true summit (4061m), after an easy traverse of the ridge (II).
A foolish act
I had left my crampons on the Madonengipfel, so I had to return to this point. But instead of walking around to the easier south side, I climbed the 10 meter pinnacle directly from north. That was a stupid thing to do without rope and belays. I struggled to find a safe handhold on the overhanging rock, but I managed to get up. This was indeed very exposed free solo climbing (IV-) and a drop of several hundred meters beneath my feet. Some Italian guys shouted at my and told me what a foolish act it was. But I had no desire to start a discussion with those guys, so I turned around and started the descent immediately.
I met more than 100 people on my way down, but actually I did not find that surprising at all. Gran Paradiso is the highest peak within Italy, and it’s probably one of the most frequently climbed summits in Italy. People aiming for silence should probably seek elsewhere, but I think the beauty of the peak and the surroundings (Aosta) justifies a trip to this mountain. I might even return some day, to climb more peaks in the splendid Aosta valley.
When I returned to my campsite in Bourg St. Pierre later on the same day, I started to prepare for my Gran Combin climb (AD-). Unfortunately the weather changed, and the rain poured down for the next couple of days. My time was running out, hence I decided to leave Bourg St. Pierre and start the long drive home to Norway. But I’ll be back another year…