The Finest Routes in the Alps Gran Paradiso (4061m) - North-West Face D, 55º, 500m All photos, drawings and text by Ben Tibbetts in association with
January in the Alps. Most of us are thinking of climbing valley based icefalls or hunting the next powder turns. It's the coldest time of year and there is an abundance of loose powder snow. The avalanche risk is often considerable or high. Can we still get out on the highest mountains?
Ally Swinton coiling the rope after passing the the Rimaye (a large crevasse separating the glacier from the permanent snow field above)
Misha Gopaul on the NW Face. The Gran Paradiso is situated in the Italian alps, near to the French border. It has an elevation of 4061m, making it the highest mountain entirely in Italy.
Usually by midwinter the steep north face ice and mixed routes have been stripped by the wind of their fragile névé and ice smears and the rock arêtes are buried in snow. What is there to do then in the highest mountains at this time of year? Of course a pair of skis (or snow-shoes) are essential to get anywhere with all this snow. It is a beautiful and savage time to be out in the mountains.
Nevertheless with a bit of imagination there are plenty of big adventures possible. The kind of routes that work best in midwinter can be deep gullies that have remained protected from the fierce winter winds, or mid angle face routes that may have developed deeper layers of névé in the autumn than the steepest faces, but are still too steep to accumulate much fresh snow. As well as all the other hazards we can encounter in summer conditions in midwinter there are more often unseen instabilities in the snowpack that can lead to avalanches.
In higher risk conditions it is best to stick to routes that have no risk from avalanche at all. These are routes that have no terrain either on or above the route that exceeds 30º. On a 4000m peak I can't think of many! If the snowpack does settle down however some moderate routes can pack rather more adventure than they would later in the year and you can almost guarantee you will have the mountain to yourself. The North West Face of Gran Paradiso is just such a route. It often has parties on it every fine day in spring and summer, but in winter can be in great condition and undertaken as a ski-mountaineering route.
A Gran Paradiso resident...
Gran Paradiso serves plenty of the ingredients that guarantee a great alpine outing - beautiful landscape, protected as a National Park, good access, comfortable refuges, a beautiful array of glacier, ice and ridge routes all provided with a relatively straightforward descent via the 'normal' route. It is justifiably popular for both summer alpinism and winter ski ascents.
The mountain lends its name to the Gran Paradiso National Park. This was founded in 1922 but was originally set up as the Royal Hunting Reserve by Vittorio Emanuel II in 1856 to protect the dwindling Ibex population from extinction. Indeed there are now more than 4000 in the Park. The protected area has now grown to over 70,000 hectares and is managed by over 50 rangers ensuring the tranquility of the abundant of wild fauna and the delicate ecosystems necessary for their survival. These include ibex, chamois, marmots, ermine, badger, fox, wolf and several species of raptors. The National Park has also managed to protect the landscape from ski installations and mechanical uplift, a rare though welcome feature in the Alps. The Gran Paradiso National Park meets the Vanoise National Park at the French border, and combined these form one of the largest protected areas in Europe.
The two principal refuges giving access to Gran Paradiso summit are the Chabod and Victor Emmanuel II. Both offer hearty food and comfortable accommodation when they are open in spring and summer. Outside these times they both have winter rooms. From the roadside the mountain presents a solid 2000m ascent from any direction that makes the summit well earned, without being unmanageable. Despite many of the highest peaks of Europe running along its borders with France and Switzerland, Gran Paradiso is the only 4000m mountain entirely in Italy.
Gran Paradiso can often provide alpinists the perfect solution to escape bad weather or mountain conditions elsewhere. Situated to the east of the Mont Blanc Massif, and to the south of the Swiss/Italian frontier mountains, the Eastern Graian Alps, of which the Gran Paradiso is the culminating point, are often protected from the prevailing westerly and northerly weather fronts.
Some may argue that the Gran Paradiso does not appear particularly striking. It rises above the broad slabby base to form a long north-south ridge of which at the southern end the Gran Paradiso is the highest point. However on closer acquaintance this ridge is itself both elegant and complicated, and the views afforded across to Mont Blanc and Savoie are excellent. The mountain primarily consists of layers of metamorphic rock with some sections of solid gneiss. These sections form much of the ridge-line as they have been most resistant to weathering. Most of the steeper sections of ridge are thus traversed on good solid rock, nevertheless on the lower flanks of the mountain much of the rock is loose and should be avoided.
Chabod Refuge (2750m) at sunset. Often used as a starting point for the Gran Paradiso, the Refuge offers hostel services and has a whopping 85 beds!
The range lies between the long and scantily populated valleys of Valsavaranche And Val di Cogne. Most ascents are made from head of the Valsavaranche valley. Despite its popularity the development of tourist facilities remains modest and the area has retained that savage charm common to much the Aosta region. Most houses are constructed with large masonry, and roofs are typically tiled with beautiful large slabs of overlapping granite. Losing a roof tile to the wind seems unlikely here!
The normal route on the Gran Paradiso is one of the easiest ways up a 4000m peak. Apart from the rocky summit step, the normal routes from the Victor Emmanuel II or Chabod huts cross glacial terrain up to 35°. The route from the Chabod when free of snow however can provide a complicated maze through the abundant crevasses. These routes are often used as training and acclimatisation for guided groups aiming to climb Mont Blanc. Though the Gran Paradiso is the only peak in the massif that reaches 4000m it far from the only one worth visiting. The Grivola (3969m) lies just to the north and presents several challenging routes to an aesthetic summit. The region is especially popular in winter and spring as it offers a wealth of wild and beautiful ski tours accessible in a single day, or with linked multi day hut to hut tours.
A Young Ibex near Chabod Refuge. In the early 19th century, Ibex were nearly hunted to extinction, with only 60 remaining in 1856. There are now around 40,000 under protection.
From Valsavarenche hike and skin up to the luxuriously equipped Chabod winter refuge. Pass the evening with a roaring fire - no need to even carry pots and stove as there are four gas hobs and all the utensils provided. The following morning ski into the base of a route, climb carrying skis up the face to the summit. Boot down to below the summit rocks and with skis back on take the moderate angled West Flank route past the Vittorio Emanuele II hut and down to the road head at Pont. If you are lucky the driver can hitch back along the road to pick up the car! Don't forget to pay for your night's fee when back down in the village.
These routes are two excellent introductions to the exhilaration of climbing north facing ice slopes. At 500m high and maximum 55º they require a basic mastery of front pointing and two axe techniques, but are not so long or steep as to weigh heavily on the mind. For most of the year the sun catches the slope in the afternoon and an early start is recommended. Though the glacier and rimaye can sometimes be a little trying there are few other objective dangers to negotiate so long as the serac of the Little North Face is given wide berth. The rounded serac high on the NW face rarely appears to be active, but should nevertheless be inspected as this can change.
The stunning Alpine vista from the Gran Paradiso with Mont Blanc poking through the clouds in the distance on the left.
The lower face serves as a good warm up. Methodical punch, kick, kick, punch as one moves up 'daggering' the axe picks into the snow and feet rest just on the front few points of the crampons. I often set off too quickly
bashing up a ladder of steps for a few minutes only to be overtaken by a rush of lactic acid burning in my calves. With my enthusiasm tempered I tend to kick out a quick step and use it as an excuse to get some photos of my friends. The more methodical climber will beat out a sustainable rhythm for as long as it takes.
Soloing or pitched climbing allows the climber to follow their own pace and rhythm. However leading a second up a steep snow slope in 'tractor' mode with a short rope and no intermediary protection is quite a different matter as ones four points of contact with the snow are potentially protecting two bodies from their slippery demise. It is necessary to keep control with a taut rope but this means one either gently drags the second up or that both climb steadily at the same pace. Either option is fairly trying on the mind and body.
When training for the Alpine guides exam I was given the lead on this route by Paul Farmer, my supervising guide, to take him and his hyper-energetic client, Steve, up in a short rope of three. It was late June and the snow was good. Nevertheless moving steadily and keeping the six metres of rope tight down to the last man required extensive verbal coercion and leg work to feel secure. At 2/3 height the first hint of ice under the snowy facade provided a good excuse for a belay. The day was fine and there wasn't any need to hurry. I lead
out a rope length and with protection between us I had suggested they start moving just before the rope went tight. Stopped just short of the sunshine I tugged impatiently at my harness. Some expletives floated up to me and I soon learned that Paul had dropped one of my new ice screws down the face.
In retrospect I got away lightly, as on the subsequent trip with a client, Masha, in late autumn we were caught in an ugly maelstrom on reaching the ridge. To stash an axe quickly and get to grips with the surprisingly deep snow on the ridge I strapped my second axe onto her pack. I only found out back on the glacier that it had somewhere worked its way loose and tumbled down the face. The greatest hazards on this climb may well be ice or other object knocked down by climbers!
Ally Swinton topping out of the NW Face, 1340m from the Chabod Refuge. This superb snow-ice face features 50-55 degree ice for 500m.
The North West Face is ideally climbed with a squeaky layer of neve snow, but it can be found in all kinds of conditions all of which are usually climbable but may be slower and more testing. In the times that I have climbed this face I have rarely found perfect neve from bottom to top. Nevertheless a little challenging ice usually adds a bit of variety to the
outing. If from a distance it looks like there is some grey hard ice one should suspect that there is much more of the same lurking not too far beneath a decorative icing. The lower angle of the bottom and top sections usually hold good snow but this often wears thin in the steeper middle section. More extensive patches of hard glacial ice are common in the
height of summer. Neve, aerated ice and crusty snow are prevalent for much of the rest of the year. Due to its steady 50-55º angle it rarely holds deep fresh snow and can thus be ascended in almost any condition. Under easy conditions, that are most often encountered in autumn, spring and early summer, parties may ascend the face simul climbing placing screws. Guides often lead clients in 'tractor' mode with a short rope whilst others may solo the route once the crevasses and rimaye have been passed. The Chabod hut website has a live webcam that can give a good indication of conditions.
Under easy conditions, that are most often encountered in autumn, spring and early summer, parties may ascend the face simul climbing placing screws. Guides often lead clients in 'tractor' mode with a short rope whilst others may solo the route once the crevasses and rimaye have been passed. The Chabod hut website has a live webcam that can give a good indication of conditions.
As this will probably be undertaken in the dark it is well worth scoping it out the evening before. From the Chabod Refuge head east up a path for 400m. Follow this S across two streams. Head up a moraine SE for 100m before turning S again. Traverse rising gently to meet another moraine which is followed SE to a point just above the Glacier Laveciau. This is in rapid retreat and the route is changing each year. Follow the left hand fork of glacier (right branch in direction of flow) up into the cirque formed between the Gran and Piccolo Paradiso.
An artist as well as a photographer and Mountain Guide, Ben has done a series of sketches and drawings to accompany his series.
Climb the face directly or slightly to the left hand side. Belays, if necessary, can be made on the rocks to the left, but more commonly good screws can be placed throughout with a little digging below the surface. Exit onto the N ridge of Gran Paradiso and follow this S towards the summit. The highest point is usually a snow bump just after a short steep step is encountered. The statue of the Virgin is situated on a rock buttress two metres lower to the SE. To reach this and the descent route continue E and down climb or rappel a 5m rock step on the N side. Traverse under the Virgin on the SW side to meet the rocky crest which can be followed to the snowy saddle and descent line.
Little North Face variation
This route is of a lower angle (AD, 45º, 500m) and can be climbed if the NW face is found to be icier than expected. It can also be highly recommended as an independent objective. The steep sections are shorter as the face is broken by a wide shelf level with the top of the serac. Unlike the NW Face the route joins the ridge at the Colle del Piccolo Paradiso. To reach the summit ridge an interesting rock buttress must be negotiated.
From the foot of the NW Face traverse left and climb the broad gulley formed between the imposing serac and the toe of rock. If the side of the serac appears active the rocks or slope to the right can be climbed to reach the same point. On reaching the wide glacial shelf (crevassed) either continue straight up just left of the rock spur, or traverse left to a shorter slope leading to the col. At the ridge head right (south) to the toe of a rock buttress. Follow this at first on the crest and then on the right side to reach the snow ridge beyond and meet the end of the NW face route.
Misha Gopaul climbing directly to the Virgin's summit.
From the snowy saddle SE of the summit towers descend a short steep slope and rimaye onto the glacier. Follow this S for 400m to a steepening then head W to a col/plateau. Follow a blunt ridge running NW between the Gran Paradiso and Laveciau glaciers. To head back to Chabod navigate the crevasses to the E to enter the Laveciau basin and then descend NNE meandering back and forth through heavily crevassed zones to the moraine and starting point. To head to Vittorio Emanuele II drop down the glacial slopes W and follow the drainage round left to find the refuge.
Ben Tibbetts is an adventure photographer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, France. He is working on a book of the finest routes in the Alps, available in 2017
Ben will be guiding, climbing and photographing the remaining routes for his book on the 4000m peaks over the next year.
Routes on his list vary from PD snow climbs through classic alpine ridges to harder gullies and face routes. If you are interested in being guided on some of these adventures, (with the possibility of appearing in the book!) then get in touch with Ben to discuss availability (though he is away until late April working in Greenland!) - firstname.lastname@example.org or see his guiding website www.bentibbettsguiding.com for more information.