Steve & Judy Pardoe's Gran Paradiso Page

Version of 18. September 1998, with updated summit route info from Ab Zijp (Holland)


Gran Paradiso 4061m
(June 1995)
This is the highest mountain entirely within Italy, so the Gran Paradiso is very popular, and its principal hut, the superb Vittorio Emanuele II, should be booked in advance. The ascent involves 2,100 metres of climbing from the valley at Pont.
Gran Paradiso from Gran Collet

Disclaimer: this description is for information only, and is based on our experiences in 1995. You should make your own enquiries before climbing, and take your own responsibility in all matters of safety.

The ascent of the Gran Paradiso by the normal route can be one of the easiest of the Alpine 4000'ers. However, the mountain is quite exposed to the weather, and should not be attempted without adequate experience and fitness. The summit day of 1350m is one of the longer Ordinary Routes, and some degree of acclimatization is essential.

The route starts from Pont (1960m), a tiny hamlet at the end of Val Savarenche (one word on some maps) which runs south from the Aosta valley. The drive is very pretty, but tedious on account of the poor road surface and many bends. Pont has a large campsite, a small but comfortable hotel (Albergo Gran Paradiso, with a remarkably good restaurant), and a supermarket, but few other amenities.

We spent a full day exploring the Nivolet valley, via a path behind the hotel, ending up on the Gran Collet at nearly 3000m and having to force a very scary drop through the unbroken cornice to reach the long path down into the Vallone di Seiva. The upper few hundred metres were completely snowed over, and we were evidently the first to cross the col that year. However, this route gave us excellent views of the Gran Paradiso itself, which is invisible from the valley, and a final acclimatization top-up (we had already spent a few days in the foothills around Courmayeur).
Judy after our forced descent through the huge cornice on the Gran Collet

Guide books for the area are easy to find, but the best single volume in English for all the Alpine 4000'ers is probably the very compact one by Richard Goedeke (The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes, Diadem).

The best map we could find was the IGC 1:25.000 Sheet 101 "Gran Paradiso/La Grivola/Cogne", although the summit route turned out to be nowhere near the track shown on the 1988 edition.

Hut climb

The (new, or "nuovo") Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II is 750m above Pont, and can reached in 2 to 3 hours, by a good path. This crosses the river to the east from the car park, and heads south along the valley floor for 2 km or so before turning sharply left (east) and up the switchbacks to the ruined hamlet of la Chante. Later, a side turning which heads north towards the Chabod refuge should be ignored. For us, in late June, the upper reaches of the path had some snow and ice across them, but it wasn't difficult.

The refuge (CAI, Turin Section) is open from April to September, and a reservation is essential in high season: the telephone number in the guide books is +39(0)165 95 710, but I recently found +39(0)165 95 920 at the Italian Alpine Club Refuges website. The three-storey building has 120 places, and looks like a vast silver aircraft hangar.
Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II

In the Refuge

It is relatively spacious and comfortable, though when it is busy there is a shortage of lavatories (and take your own paper!). Visitors with a reservation can expect the usual warm Italian welcome and hospitality, and it always helps if you speak a little of the language: even the most abominable attempt is rewarded by delighted smiles. We arrived at lunch time, and started off with a huge cauldron of soup, full of vegetables and pasta, and then went to the dormitory for some rest. We were lucky enough to get a small room with four bunks all to ourselves, but a very noisy party of French schoolchildren (who were not planning to go any higher) made sleep impossible until long after supper.

See our Alpine refuges page for details of how to use the hut system (with proper regard for etiquette!) and for links to French and Swiss lists.

The weather had been unusually mild, with a lot of fresh snow, and it started falling again as we neared the refuge. It was still snowing at night-fall, so we were uncertain about the viability of the summit climb until very late in the evening, when the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. By our 4 am wake-up time, it was still very cold. We each gulped down the litre of coffee and hot milk that we had ordered for breakfast, together with a pathetic sliver of bread and a little jam, and joined the press of climbers all trying to get their gear together in the lobby. It is well worth hanging your ice gear in an easily recognizable place, as it all looks the same in the dark. Our intended start time (on the recommendation of the Guardian) was 05:00, and with a little pushing and shoving we were outside putting our 'sacs on by about then.

Summit Climb
The summit is some 1300m and 4 to 5 hours above the refuge. Conditions were almost perfect, and we followed a trail of climbers to the north, immediately behind the hut, and onto the glacier*. Head torches weren't needed after a few minutes of getting used to the pre-dawn gloom: the guidebooks talk of a difficult boulder field (one even recommends a daylight reconnaissance), but on our day the route was easy, and entirely on snow.

*Ab Zijp writes (from Holland, 17/9/98) that the route has now changed: "The normal route has been changed and takes the moraine past the river to the very top of the moraines. Then it goes over the left icefield, which is in some places very broken up (dangerous but beautiful)"

Early stages of the ascent, looking West
After a brief stop to fit crampons, we turned east and headed up the glacier and, as the slope steepened, the rising sun illuminated Mont Blanc, away over in the north-west, a breath-taking sight. It soon got fully light, and we were breaking the trail for a while on crisp nevé. The route (this season) followed a prominent ridge on the North side of the glacier.

It was wonderful to be making such good progress on our first 4000m mountain, but after a while we allowed ourselves to be overtaken until we were confident that we could see the higher parts of the route, snaking up the mountain in a huge arc, turning slightly southerly and then easterly again. As ever on a glacier climb, crevasses are present, and care was needed in a few places, but generally the climbing was technically very easy.

A Dutch pair ascending above the glacier, with Mont-Blanc away to the North-West

We carried a sachet of energy drink, and nibbled some muesli bars to keep us going. It was still cold, and the thin air made breathing hard work. Towards the summit, the route turns north again past some spectacular rock columns, and then very steeply up towards the final ridge. We never saw the expected bergschrund, so it must have been completely snowed over.
We topped the final snow ridge at 10:00, but encountered quite a traffic jam, and had to wait for a large guided party to negotiate the heavily iced summit blocks to reach the Madonna. The Guide was making such a meal of this that we decided not to wait, and descended without completing the last few metres.

In fact, the true summit is a little further North than the Madonna, and would probably have been too dangerous to get to, as no-one seemed to be trying it that morning (Goedeke warns against it in such conditions). The exposure on the eastern side is truly horrifying.

Judy beside the Madonna Summit

A very fat German-speaking client was being towed uphill, semi-conscious, in a full chest harness by his long-suffering Italian Guide. There was a nasty moment as he stumbled into Judy and got caught in our rope, and almost dragged her off the mountain. Some thoroughly Anglo-Saxon abuse got through to both Guide and client, and we were soon disentangled, but it reinforced our decision to abandon the exact top.

The views were fantastic, but the snow was softening in the brilliant sunshine, so we made a rapid descent (a little too rapid in one place!). A couple of small crevasses were now bared by the combination of traffic and heat, and had to be stepped across with care, but we were back at the refuge for a celebratory bowl of soup by 13:00.

We had booked for a second night to spare our knees the long descent to the valley all in one go, so we were able to spend the afternoon chatting to new-found friends, and dozing in our bunks, before a good supper and a very sound night's sleep. We left the following morning, well after the press of summit parties, and had an easy walk down to the car park at Pont for the drive via Aosta and the Great St Bernard to the Saas valley in Switzerland, where we were to climb the Allalinhorn.

Steve, starting the descent


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