“The peak, the 7th highest mountain in the Graian Alps, with an elevation of 4,061 m, is close to Mont Blanc on the nearby border with France. In the SOIUSA (International Standardized Mountain Subdivision of the Alps) the mountain belongs to an alpine subsection called “North-Eastern Graian Alps”(It:Alpi del Gran Paradiso; Fr:Alpes du Grand-Paradis) and also gives the name to the gruppo del Gran Paradiso.
While the Mont Blanc massif straddles the border between France and Italy, the Gran Paradiso is the only mountain whose summit reaches over 4,000 metres that is entirely within Italian territory, so that it could be considered the highest peak in Italy.”
– Wikipedia –
We woke up early and I was really excited like a labrador smells a steak, I just could not wait to start the hike. We walked with our gears to the meeting point at the Chamex office, in front of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station around 9am. The day before, our guide Raphael had checked my pack and gears, and he shed of half of my junk-gears. In US, we carried plenty gears that most of the time we won’t use, “just in case” gears. But here in French, I guessed they were really minimalist, and everything about speed, and I do like it. Also the main reason that we could be minimalist was, we would stay one night in the hut that had bunk beds and foods.
Our team was made of 4 people. Raphael the Guide, Gino the British Kid, Dan, and me. It was amazing that Raphael’s small cars could afford us and our gears, and still had power to climb those hilly roads. We stopped couple times around Courmayeur, and the view along the road was just stunning. I might had been drooling over the window, looking at the majestic view of the Alps.
The drive from Chamonix (France) to Pont Breuil (Italy) was probably about 2 hours.
Day 1 – Warming Up Hike
After a quick break at the Pont Breuil’s cafeteria, we started our trek. The first part was an easy walked along the river. And when we got into a house that looked like a cottage, we followed the trail on the right side, and it started to get a little tiny incline. Raphael such a fast hiker, and I was really up for his challenge, I could use it as my training for my upcoming TDS race in the following week. Luckily I was using my Asics Fuji Racer, one of my favorite trail running shoes, so I could move more shift and light, better than using those heavy tall hiking boots that I rented. We pushed it pretty hard that we catched up with the other group from Chamex.We took a quick break together with these group, at the stone house ruins, maybe it used to be a hut. They were a group of 6 hikers with 2 guides. One guide was an American who lived in Courmayeur, Pete, and the other guide was a French man that I could not spell his name, Jean something (sorry). For the hikers, there were 2 guys from Brazil, Denis and Alex. And the others were from Hong-Kong, Keith, Jina, Carl and Charlotte.
They continued the hike before us while we refueled ourselves. We were lucky that we had a perfect day that morning, it was a bright day with a cool breeze. It could be a bit chilly, when we stopped for a moment, so we continued our trek a few minutes later. Raphael even pushed the hike harder than before. We took some steep short cut, passing more hikers, and somehow out of nowhere we got in front of those group again. He was a real mountain goat.
When we got into the hut, Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II, we started with our gears training. First the guides and I were testing the emergency shelter that could fit 4 people, it could protect us from harsh weather and wind.
Then we started to learn how to put on our crampons. It seemed easy, but it took me a while since we needed to put them on while we were standing.
When we were done, we headed to the hut to drop our gears in the hut, got lunch and took a quick nap before our diner. Live was good.
Day 2 – Summit Day
We woke up pretty early, probably sometime before 4 am we had our breakfast already, and started our last push to the summit. When I got out from the hut, there was a light rain. Somehow I had an idea that I would use my poncho instead of my raincoat/gore-tex jacket. I had been using in poncho a million times on my hikes in Indonesia, and I thought it should be ok. It was a heavy-duty and army grade poncho, so it warmed me up and also would covered my pack from rain and snow.
The 12 of us started the hike with a lot of rock traversing, and getting steeper the further we went. At one point, it was more like jumping from one rock to another. This was where my poncho became a problem. It was flapping around and I could not see my ground. So many times I was that close slip and would break my legs. I ended up holding my poncho, like a girl holding her dancing gown crossing a river. I believe, if anyone taped this scenery, it would be definitely looked ridiculous. I think the Manitou Revenge race gave me a benefit after all, I had a good sense and reflex on the rocks, and avoided plenty bad falls. Then the hike not even getting better. The snow storm came and slapping my face like thousand of paintball shooting at me. It sounds funny that at the moment I was happy that I experienced so many snow storm in NY this winter, that I felt it was not bad at all and I could continue to push forward. Also running in the snowy and storm winter helped me big time, I could be more efficient on my stepping, not too stress much about losing/slipping my footing a little, and I could stay calm instead of scratching the snow like cat. It saved me from over-use my energy.
When we stopped, the snow came harder with stronger wind, I barely could see more than 100m meters. I stored my poncho on my pack strapped and started to use my gore-tex jacket, then we started to attached our crampons, took the axe out and one of my walking poles.
Then we were separated into 2 groups, one guide led 4 hikers, and we attached by a rope one to another for safety. Here we learned how to traverse a steep snow hill, how to place our feet safely, how to secure our axe for rescue, etc.
After we got a hang of it, then 6 of us continued our trek to get onto the summit. The real hike started from here. For moment, when we were training the alpine hike 101, the weather was getting better. But after an hour of hiking, it was getting worse again. The snow storm started to hit us again, and also the fog was limiting our vision worse than before. We kept pushing our effort after another hour or so, but after we passed a few hills, it seems it would be a futile effort. We might get to the top, but it would be dangerous since the top was more like a single trail edge that we would be easily get pushed by the strong wind, plus we could miss-place our footstep that would lead into a disaster. So about 300 meter (vertical) away from the summit we decided to head back for safety reason. On the hike, I was the last person on the rope. So when we turned around, I became the first person on the rope. I could see that we started to lose the trail, the snow storm started to cover them up. I could only follow the walking poles and axes’ holes, those holes were deep enough to survive these mother nature snow layering art project. Seriously it was really beautiful up there. It just like Narnia in high-definition 3D glasses with cold winds as a bonus.
When we got into the rocky area, we took off our crampons. It was such a relief. I had not gotten use to with these crampons yet, it was really uncomfortable. I wished I knew where to go, I was itchy to run down this trail. It was pretty technical rocky downhill trail. Or maybe I could not call it trail, since it just a carpet of rocks. I had no idea how was the guide find the direction, other than a few paint marks and some interesting land mark. Then I saw the hut from far away, so I started to kicked my butt and did a small jogging down into the hut. It was a small treat for me that morning.
Run Monkey Run
We stopped for a few hours at the hut to take a quick rest, collect our gears that we left at the hut, and re group with the other hikers from our group. I was starving but I only ate a piece of cake at the hut, since I was thin on Euro. I had no chance to take out money or got into money changer. Then after refill my tailwind and water, change my socks and shoes into my running shoes, and also re-apply my trail toes balm on my foot, I was ready to do the final decent. At first I followed Raphael lead, then he told me I could go ahead if I wanted too, since the trail was pretty straight forward. And somehow, magically, my legs just started to move by themselves. I was running down the trail all the way down. I had to slow down plenty time since I did not want to injured myself, specially with a heavy back pack on my back.
Even though I did not get to the summit that day, my heart was content. And the most important, I came back alive in one piece.