Mountain hiking in Valle d'Aosta
Climbing the Piramide Vincent, Balmenhorn and Gran Paradiso
Climbing 3 mountains over 4000 meters high in Valle d'Aosta: over glaciers and slippery rocks to the Piramide Vincent and the nearby Balmenhorn. On the way back it becomes clear how narrow the trail over the rocky ridge is. The climbing of Gran Paradiso starts in a green landscape, but ends in a severe trek on cloud-covered glaciers with deep fissures. The weather can - even in August - turn a light climb into a tough trek against an arctic backdrop.
Travelogue & photos: Jo De Smedt
After a long drive via Martigny in Switzerland Chris, Ora and I arrive at the Col du Grand St Bernard. We visit the beautiful chapel of the 11th century monastery and the treasury of the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard.
In the old days, travelers in the mountains between Switzerland and Italy found refuge here from the severe weather, but also from thieves and robbers.
Via the Grand St Bernard pass we descend into Italy. In Aosta we take a moment to wander through the shopping streets, but then leave the world of comfort for the mountains.
On camping site Margaritha in Gressoney-Saint-Jean we are treated to a torrential rain shower, which will last until the next afternoon. Not very promising. We tell ourselves that if all this water comes down now, it will be depleted when we hike to the Mont Blanc.
Because we are here not only to climb to the peaks of the high mountains of Valle d'Aosta, but also to become acclimatized and to get used to the altitude before we climb Mont Blanc using the Normal Route via the Goûterhut.
I climbed this highest Alps peak for the first time in 1978 and returned many time via different trails. Ora, my Swiss White Shepherd, has climbed many mountains in forteen countries, both rocks and snow and ice in the high mountains. Chris is a 60+ novice in alpinism.
Piramide Vincent and Balmenhorn
"Did we walk here?!"
Eventually, the next afternoon, the rain stops and we decide last-minute to leave and take the cable lift from Val di Gressoney to the Vigevano Hut. We miss the last one that goes all the way but can still ride half-way to 2355 m.
From there we go on foot via Passo dei Salati (2936 m) to the Vigevano hut (2871 m). On the pass is only a sign pointing to the Gugliermina Hut. But the two huts are only 200 meters apart.
The next morning the weather still isn't good. It snows for a while and the fog lasts all day. We wait. The huttenwirt ("hut landlord") looks up the weather forecast on the internet: it will be better in the afternoon and the next couple of days will be good.
At 10:45 AM we risk it and leave for the Mantova Hut, a new one, owned by the Gressoney guides. On the way we see parts of Punta Giordani and the Piramide Vincent. But in general it's a grey day.
Our route follows a rock ridge. At the Passo dei Salati we have to watch out for the right trail, which meanders upward through a field of rocks to a path on the rock ridge. We follow it to the Station Punta Indren (3260 m) which can also be reached by cable lift from Alagna. Here and there our path is secured by steel cables. Chris discovers quickly that this is not just for show.
After Punta Indren we arrive at the Indren Glacier. In the mean time we have entered the clouds. The thick fog allows for only 40 meters of visibility. The weather is unpleasant, but at least obscures the views of the deep chasms in the glacier.
After an hour the trail forks. I suppose the path to the right leads to the Gnifetti Hut and the one to the left to the Mantova Hut. But we can't see a lot. We go left and it turns out that was the right decision: after 5 minutes we see rocks emerging from the fog.
It's the ridge that runs down from the Piramide Vincent. We find a security cable which leads us to the pass. The pass allows to cross to the other side of the rock ridge. I am very relieved: we are almost there and we found the right route to the last meters of climbing to the hut.
Chris has an anxiety attack. We have to climb about ten meters up over wet and slippery rocks. After a long, exhausting hike on unknown territory, it looks horrible and makes her unhappy and scared. Climbing on rock edges just half a feet long in the fog, with no visibility to speak of, is not what she is used to. The blurred view of the chasms on the glacier makes the clearer abyss next to the rocks look even deeper.
Chris perseveres and pulls herself through. After we have passed the hardest part, we pause and eat something. A little farther we suddenly see the hut. A hundred meters more to climb.
Because of Ora we get a seperate winter hut. We have it all to ourselves, without the overwhelming bustle of a packed dormitory.
Today the weather is great. We keep our fingers crossed for Chris' first 4000 m climb, the Piramide Vincent (4215 m). After breakfast we leave on the late side, 8 AM. We prepare before we leave: we buckle our belts and check them and then secure our ropes. Everything goes well.
Outside it's very cold at this altitude. There is a strong wind, but the sun shines too.
I walk at a constant, slow pace, as you should in the high mountains. Chris doesn't object. There are some clear tracks that we can follow. We can see the Gniefetti Hut clearly now.
The glacier slopes are mellow, with every now and then steeper stretches. At the foot of the Balmenhorn we turn right, toward Colle Vincent.
Just before we reach the pass, we turn right again onto the steep slope to the Piramide Vincent. As is to be expected on a pass and higher on the north ridge, the wind is strong. And it gets cold. We arrive at the top of the Piramide Vincent (4215 m) at noon. The view is great.
The wind is strong enough that we have to brace ourselves not to fall. We quickly take pictures. Someone else arrives at the top and is prepared to take a picture of our little group. We don't stay long, because it's cold and windy.
We go back along the north ridge and via Colle Vincent we now hike toward the Balmenhorn. We traverse a steep snowy slope which fortunately has a well-trodden trail. The slope gets steeper towards the foot of the peak. There are iron steps in the rocks as a kind of ladder to the top and there also is a rope for safety.
Chris makes her second 4000 meters today, the Balmenhorn (4176 m). From the top there is a secured rope to descend to a lodge. Piramide Vincent, which we just climbed, is nearby. We have a good view of our last couple of hundred meters of climbing.
We quickly descend back to the foot of the top, ten meters lower, where we have cookies and chocolat sheltered from the wind and in the warm sunshine. At this altitude we have a stunning view.
Chris tells me about the new world she finds herself in. She has never experienced anything like this before and she had no idea what it would be like. A world of snow and ice, narrow trails on rocks with deep chasms, life in huts which only offer the absolute minimum in comfort.
We are having such a good time that we forget the time. One and a half hours later we decide to continue our descent to the Mantova Hut. Once inside, Chris all of a sudden has a reaction to the altitude. She shivers because of the cold, the altitude, but also because of the exertion of today, something that won't pass unnoticed at these altitudes.
After an hour of sleep it's time for dinner. She has a hard time eating, but she wants to: she needs to replenish her strength. The next morning she is in good shape again.
We are only here to get acclimatized and to get used to the altitude, so today we sleep in and have a slow breakfast. By noon we leave to return to the Vigevano Hut.
We have a better view now of the narrow path we walked on the rock edge than we had on the way here. Chris is a little frightened: "Did we walk here?!" We arrive safely at the hut where the wild goats are waiting for us.
The next morning we have another wonderful view of yesterday's route and of the Piramide Vincent and Punta Giordani. We take it easy again and leave just before noon. Our goal of acclimatization has been reached for 50 per cent. Our hut is visited by women in authentic regional garb.
We enjoy the beautiful weather and finally arrive at the same camping site we were before, in Gressoney-Saint-Jean.
A camera disappears in leaps and bolts into the deep
We reorganize our backpacks completely and pack new stuff. This way, our backpacks will be ready when we take our trip to the Gran Paradiso.
We will meet Ludwig and Loe, who will be climbing with us, at the nice Pont camping site in the valley of Valsavarenche.
The next morning we leave for the Chabod Hut at 11 AM. It takes a little over three hours to get there. The route has incredible views. Half-way, at 2190 m, we pass an old, dilapidated cabin. It's interesting to see how people used to live in the mountains.
Because of Ora we are assigned the beautiful new hut a hundred meters from the old one. And that's a good thing: lots of people are crammed in the old one.
The next morning we have to get up early. We have breakfast at 4 AM in the old hut. We leave at 5 AM for the Gran Paradiso (4061 m).
First we take a moraine path to the Laveciau glacier. This one has lots of spalten (fissures). We cross all of them safely. Walking between and over these numerous glacier fissures is a sobering experience. If you have never visited a glacier, it can be frightening.
After a while the trail goes around a sérac (ice tower) and to reach the higher lying plateau we need to climb a somewhat steeper slope which also has ice instead of snow. Mountaineers know this: the snow is gone and there is only rock-hard ice. The clear tracks in the snow now become scratches left by crampons. It makes us feel awkward.
Suddenly Ora slips. She is right behind me and is immediately stopped in her slide by the rope on her belt. Because there no longer is a clear trail, and because the slope is steep, she counts on the support of the rope. Loe is scared, but Ora remains calm. She remembers this situation. Together we have experienced this already a few times.
Ludwig drops his camera, which disappears in leaps and bolts in the deep. It is lost. Too bad. It's unfortunate that we get this slope at the beginning of our series of treks. It's obvious that everyone is frightened. If we would have had to climb it a few days later, there might not have been any problems.
Now it's clear from the first morning that mountains can be dangerous and that some guts and commitment are required from mountaineers. Experience is an important factor. That's why we are doing these preliminary climbs. Gran Paradiso is marked an L-climb (light climb). It is a good test and prepares for what is to come when we climb Mont Blanc.
A few less steep slopes with many fissures follow. From the moment our trail merges with the Vittorio Emanuele II trail, we enter a fog that stays with us to the top. The weather is stable today, but we are high in the mountains, between the clouds. A second disappointment on our first trek together.
The situation is getting arctic. The rocks on the top are covered with snow and are more difficult to climb than usually. This is not a light trek in comfy sunshine. The trail stops between the lower peak of Gran Paradiso, with a Madonna, and the real peak, 15 meters farther up.
Everyone is beginning to consider this climb as a risky enterprise and I decide to go back. This is the law of alpinism. Depending on the weather, easy mountains can still offer dangerous situations and hard ones can be easy to conquer.
Some of us are exhausted and our descent takes a long time. We still have to practise the techniques of descending. One step after another, we descend and that of course takes time, especially when you're tired.
That evening, in the hut, Loe says he won't come with us if Ora will join us. Ludwig will have to give up in that case, too, because he's riding with Loe. The next day during our descent, Ludwig has an idea: would I be prepared to climb Mont Blanc twice: once with Chris and Ora and once with Loe and Ludwig.
I accept, because I feel bad for Ludwig: this trip is his plan
We descend to Pont camping site. After this exertion we are happy to have a cozy common meal.
The next day is a well-earned day of rest. We explore Courmayeur for a short while and have a view of the south side of Mont Blanc. Then we drive to Chamonix in France via a tunnel through Mont Blanc.