When we headed to Chamonix for my second Alpine season, I knew I wanted to try and reach the summit of a 4000m peak this year. It was a small goal I had in my mind, that I felt confident in knowing I could achieve after spending 3 days on the Jonathan Conville Alpine Mountaineering Course. Our course tutor, Richard, mentioned how beautiful Gran Paradiso was. A 4000m peak in Italy (my favourite country), set in the middle of a stunning National Park with no lifts available to access it sounded like exactly what I was looking for in my first 4000m summit.
The climbing was technically easy, at F+, but it would be the long journey, altitude, early morning and exposure that would make the climb difficult. It sounded like an ideal challenge for my time in the Alps — something that would push me mentally and physically, while being within my technical comfort zone. So, plans were made and one afternoon, after completing the Marbrees Traverse up the Helbronner lift, we drove through the tunnel to Italy and into the wild and wonderful Parco Nazionale di Gran Paradiso.
Check out the video I made from the climb here!
After spending the night in the van further down in the valley, we drove up to the carpark, loaded our bags with everything needed for two days and a summit, and headed onto the trail. We had around 2 hours of hiking ahead of us, through beautiful pine forest on switch-back tracks until we reached the top of the tree-line and views became more sparse, barren and mountainous. We couldn’t quite figure out which mountain was Gran Paradiso, but that would actually be because it wasn’t in sight on the hike up. When we reached the refuge, we treated ourselves to a polenta dish as it was traditional of the area, and what better place than a mountain refuge to try it!
After a short break outside in the glorious sunshine, we decided to go and walk the first half an hour of the trail so we were acquainted with it when we headed out in the dark the next morning. It seemed relatively straight forward, with wide tracks for us to follow. We decided to set off without crampons and set a point to put on our crampons and rope up just before we headed onto steeper ground. We headed back to the refuge, cooked up some spaghetti, pesto, tuna, sweetcorn and were in bed by 8pm.
Our alarms chimed silently from inside the dorm room at 3am. By 4am — after a breakfast of overnight oats, nuts and dried fruit — we were enroute, and one of the first groups on the trail. The beginning of the climb was straightforward, along gently inclining snow slopes on a clearly-marked trail. As the trail steepened, we put on our crampons and gear and tackled our first 30 degree slope as the first beams of light lit up the surrounding peaks. What an incredible sight at 5am.
We continued up switch-back tracks, deeper and deeper into the heart of the Italian alps. Keeping a good distanced between us as we tramped along the glacier, and staying closer together when the ground considerably steepened. At around 3,800m — when the summit was in sight — we both started to feel the effects of altitude. Feeling breathless, a little dizzy, and just plain exhausted, we battled upwards slowly to the final scramble to the summit. We didn’t stick around long, and started our descent before being swept up by the masses of other groups heading onto the route.
And then, down down down we went for 1000m to reach the refuge again. It was getting hotter and hotter as the morning went on, and from wearing four layers of insulation and merino we stripped down to t-shirts for the final descent. When back at the refuge, we had some sandwiches for lunch before the final hike down to the van. We were both suitably exhausted and treated ourselves to pasta alla bolognese from a traditional Italian trattoria before crossing the tunnel back to France.
I learned a lot on my first Alpine 4000m. I learned the importance of waking up early — really early — to make for a nicer ascent without masses of other climbers surrounding you. I learned that no matter the grade of the route, there will always be difficult aspects, whether they be mental or physical. I learned the need to eat before I get hungry, and to drink as much as possible the night before the climb. I learned to wear suncream, a lot of it, and how to layer correctly for freezing morning temperatures to warm midday sun. And I learned that experience is essential, and I’m so eager to get more of it. I’ll be working on getting fit, strong, and healthy before my next trip to the Alps, as well as getting loads more experience from some Welsh and Scottish ridges and climbs.
There’s so much to be learned from Alpine climbing, and even more so from mountainous environment. My next blogpost from the Alps will be about connecting with nature and using that connection and understanding to conquer but respect my fears. Look out for that blogpost in the coming weeks!
Let’s Talk About Gear
I was gifted a couple of pieces of gear for this trip that I ended up using for almost every Alpine ascent! So I wanted to give them a short review on this post, before giving them both a full review later on the blog.
Icebreaker’s recent ‘tees for change’ campaign is encouraging people to be kinder to the environment by washing their clothes less. They challenged me to wear this Merino t-shirt for 7 days without washing it, so I decided to take it to the Alps where I ended up using it for almost every Alpine outing. Being in the van meant we didn’t have access to a washing machine, so I wore this t-shirt for bouldering, climbing, hiking and even slept in it at the refuge, not washing it for at least 7 days (I lost count eventually!).
Airing the t-shirt out every night meant it felt fresh and clean to put on in the morning, with the Merino wool feeling lovely and soft against my skin. I found it to be a good regulating base-layer, offering warmth in the early morning temperatures while being breathable when wearing as a main layer for hiking in the sun with a heavy pack. I’ll choose to wear this t-shirt for any outdoor hike, and start thinking more about how much I wash my clothes.
Haglof’s L.I.M. Mtn Proof Anorak is designed to be as lightweight as possible, while protecting you from the elements. It’s the perfect Alpine piece due to the small size, light-weight, and anorak style meaning it fits comfortably under a harness. I first managed to test the anorak in torrential downpour while climbing, when we were caught in a storm climbing the Via Corda Alpina. The anorak held up incredibly well against the elements, leaving me dry and warm to my core.
A few of the key features I love are the hood, that fits over a helmet and can also be used to pack the anorak into; the top chest pocket that I use to store my phone or gloves if I’m taking them on and off while climbing; the simple and fitted design that makes it super comfortable for climbing; and the adjustable cuffs that fit over or under thick gloves.
It’s also worth noting that the anorak is made from recycled material and uses a fluorocarbon free DWR (water repellent finish). Most importantly, it’s designed to last and held up incredibly well against crampons and ice axe, rock, snow, rain and everything else! I’ll be using the L.I.M. Anorak as my main Alpine coat for years to come.