FATMAP difficulty grade
It’s 6am on New Year’s Day and the gendarme at the Mont Blanc Tunnel, the border of France and Italy, is flagging me down.
I wind down the window and grin innocently up at him - he looks down at me sternly and asks where I am going.
“To ski Gran Paradiso..” I reply.
He pauses a moment then his face cracks into a big smile, “bon ski, monsieur.” His long night looking for drunk Italians returning after partying in Chamonix broken by my passing of his checkpoint. This is not how I normally spend my New Year’s - tucked in bed by 9pm, bags packed and alarm set for 5am.
In fact, I have seen 5am for more NYE’s than I care to remember but mostly from the other side..
But this one, I wanted to start a little differently; on my own, up high, in the mountains. By the time I arrive at Le Pont, the end of the valley at the base of Gran Paradiso, the sun is up but still hiding behind the mountains.
Several Italians are clipping into cross-country skis to tour around the valley floor but otherwise, the parking is empty.
I head into the cafe to get a coffee - I have certain rules when in Italy; the first is, at least one real coffee per day.
The second is at least one gelato per day but that is more apt in summer, sadly.
The barista asks what I am planning and when I tell him Gran Paradiso he nods and moves on. I have climbed and skied Gran Paradiso several times and, though this is a high mountain glacier itinerary, it is one that I personally feel comfortable on alone - I do not recommend this as there certainly are crevasses, but it is a decision and risk I decided to make and am comfortable with. Clipping into my skis, I set off into the forest, on a well made track - I am certainly not the only person to have the idea of New Year’s on Gran Paradiso.
Totally alone apart from the odd curious ibex, I settled into a rhythm and let my heart rate build up.
There is a peace and calm to solo ski adventures, moving at your own pace, in your own world, stopping to take it in, and just simply ‘being’. It doesn’t take long to reach the Rifugio Vittorio Emmanuelle II and I take the time to stop for a proper break, eat and drink.
I poke my head into the winter refuge and see a few sleeping bags and stoves.
Clearly people are ahead of me having spent New Year’s Eve up here. Right.
I had climbed 900m to the hut at just over 2700m but still had 1300m to go. From here the route opens up, the views get bigger and the slopes broader.
As I come onto the glacier I start to see people who must have been at the hut the night before.
Gran Paradiso is quite an isolated mountain and, as such, exposed to the elements.
It is not uncommon for there to be huge sastrugi formed from the battering winds leading to very icy conditions.
Dreams of skiing powder soon evaporated as, catching up with a swedish couple, we all took our ski off to boot pack up a short steep section. Progress ticked away and I continued up under perfect blue skies and not a breath of wind and it is here I got a better view of the summit.
Still 600m vertical from me, the ground under foot (or I should say ski..) was getting super ice and slippy. Saving every gram I could, I had decided to leave ski crampons in the car.
I was starting to regret that decision..
As I made it to 3600m, I had one last plateau then the final slopes before the summit rock step.
The snow was rock hard, wind-affected snow and, without any signs of it improving, I decided to leave skis there.
As little fun as it would have been to continue skinning up, I also knew it would be even less fun to ski down.
Might as well just walk! Lack of acclimatisation, and the fact I had been moving for four hours non-stop made the last climb a long one but reaching the summit rock step, I caught up with the first party just in time to have the summit to myself.
Is there anything finer? Looking out across the whole of the Alps, it was a perfect moment and a perfect way to start 2020 and taking a moment to myself, I also thought about how far I have come; being out here, happy on my own, moving in the mountains in this way. Food was eaten, water was drunk, and then it was time to head down.
It didn’t take long to get back to my skis and then from there, with a little bushwhacking through the forest, I was back at Le Pont in time for lunch 6 hours after I left. As I went back into the cafe the barista looked up.
A look of surprise crossed his face then a satisfied smile and nod.