The Top of Italy

On Tuesday, August 20, at approximately 0915 hrs Shelley and I stood on the top of Italy, on top of Gran Paradiso at 13,323 feet.  This was Shelley’s first summit since hurting her knee in March of 2012.  She really earned this summit with all her training and preparations since her surgery.

summit gran paradiso kissing

We left Chamonix by car on Monday morning, August 19, and drove to the trail head and camp site below the mountain.  We had a short lunch at the cafe there and then climbed up to the Refuge Victor Emmanuel II hut at approximately 8,900 feet.  The amenities of the place were quite unexpected.  It had flush toilets, running water (no hot unless you wanted to pay extra for a shower), telephone, mail, electricity and pretty decent food.  The hut is completely off the grid so all the power is supplied by solar or generator and propane.  All the supplies are flown in by helicopter.  The hut is run and maintained by three families that live there during the season.  They maintain the hut and do all the cooking.  They are called “Guardians.”

From information our guide provided, the hut was built by the Italian Alpine Club and they receive 50% of the room fees and the guardians receive all the money from the food they sell and the balance of the room fees.  With that income, they have to pay for the supplies, food, fuel and the helicopter they call in to resupply them.  They keep what’s left over.  They run a pretty tight ship.  All poles, axes and boots stay downstairs.  They provide free hut sandals.  This helps keep things clean.  The hut is 4 stories tall.  The ground floor has the offices, living quarters for the guardians, kitchen and dining room.  Then the second floor has 6-person rooms (two 3-person bunk beds each) and a bath room.  The third floor (where we stayed) has 4-person rooms (two 2-person bunk beds each) and a bath room.  The fourth floor is an open loft with no walls.  The whole place sleeps well over 150, but I never got an exact number.  There’s also a newer overflow building next door not connected to the main hut.

With that said, you’d think it was pretty expensive.  But it really isn’t.  A bed is Euro 50 a night.  I don’t know how much the meals were as breakfast (bread, jam and tea) and dinner was included in our climbing fee.  The food and drink was cheaper up there then it is down in Chamonix.  A shot of espresso was only Euro 1.  A 1 liter bottle of beer and a glass of wine was Euro 7.80.  Not that bad.

The hike up took just about 2 hours.  Here is Jon Bracey (our guide) and Shelley approaching the hut.

shelley and jon approaching the hut

Here’s another picture of the hut.


Here’s Shelley inside the front door.

shelley at the front door

Here’s the “bar” inside the dining area.  It’s not a bar like you’d find downtown.  It’s more like a counter where you can buy snacks and drinks.  The hallway on the left goes back to the kitchen.  That’s Shelley on the right in the green jacket.


The dinning room.  When it gets crowded at the hut, they have two servings for dinner.  Dinner starts at 1900 hrs sharp.  And the place is packed.  The second round of dinner would usually start around 2015 hrs.

dining hall

Our 4-person bunk room.

bunk room

After dropping off our gear and a short break for lunch in the dinning room, we organized our gear for the next day’s climb.  Since we were going to stay at the hut two nights, we didn’t have to take everything with us up the mountain the next morning.  Each room has a keyed lock on it for privacy and security.  Wake up the next morning was 3:45 am with breakfast at 4:00 am.  By 4:40 am we were roped up and heading up the mountain.

The climb starts out through a draw with some boulder and scree climbing.  We roped up and put on crampons about 90 minutes into the climb.  From that point on it’s a pretty non-technical glacier climb.  Some steep parts, but over all pretty gradual and pleasant.  Since we are climbing from the west side, we were in the shade of the sun rise all morning.  It was a little cold but hardly any wind and pretty comfortable.  At the top, when we finally got some direct sun on us, it became real nice.

Here we are about 15 minutes below the summit rocks.  If you look at that “U” shaped cut out in the rock’s ridge, and then look at the top right of the “U”, that’s the summit.  You should be able to make out the statute of the Madonna in the photo.

07 just below the summit

There were a lot of climbers on this narrow rock ridge.  You can see them in the photo above.  This led to a big traffic jam getting onto the summit.  One just has to have patience in getting up there as only a few people can actually stand on the summit at the same time.  The exposure is pretty high with drops all around and the summit itself is only about the size of an average breakfast table.  There just isn’t a lot of room to move around.  In order for Jon to take our picture, he had to step off the summit and shoot the picture looking up at us.  It’s very tiny.  We were up there with another group of climbers (people just can’t wait) and our ropes were getting tangled around each other.  There was a lot of ducking under and stepping over each other.  It didn’t seem very safe really.  But everyone moved pretty slowly and deliberately as everyone was pretty aware of the danger around us all.

17 the ledge

The photo above was taken from the summit looking down at the rock ridge and a section I call “The Ledge.”  In the middle of the photo are three climbers wearing orange, blue and red.  They are all on this ledge area that causes the biggest traffic jam of climbers.  It’s a one lane crossing here (unless you are part mountain goat and can hop and jump across, which we saw some climbers do) so if you are going up, you have to wait for climbers to come down to make room for you on the other side before trying to cross.  Some people just get real impatient here.  Jon had to calm one climber down who thought it was taking too long.

This ledge is about as wide as your climbing boot, 8 feet long and about 1,500 feet straight down.  There are three bolts in the face of the wall that you clip into and out of as you cross.  Coming back down I was able to take a picture of Shelley just coming off the ledge.  The three of us were roped pretty close together so I had a hard time getting the camera out to take any pictures in this area.  Not some place you want to be screwing around with a camera.

19 shelley coming down

We took a short break at the bottom of this rock ridge and enjoyed the views.  Below you see a view that includes the Matterhorn (the pyramid shaped mountain in the middle of the photo) and below that is Mont Blanc.

22 matterhorn

23 mont blanc

The decent was uneventful and we got back down to the hut in about 3 hours.  All in all it was about an 8 hour round trip for us.  Here’s Shelley just above the hut as we come out of the rock and scree draw we started up that morning.

28 shelley nearing hut

By staying at the hut two nights, we were able to relax the rest of the afternoon at the hut.  Upon our return we had some minestrone soup, salad, wine and beer in the dinning room.

29 us at dinner

We hung out on the deck and enjoyed the sun shine too.  We slept in the next morning and had a later breakfast around 7:00 am before heading down the mountain and back to our car at the trail head.  We were back in Chamonix by 5:00  pm.  We had a very short turn around in Chamonix.  We had time to enjoy our success on Gran Paradiso that evening with a nice Indian dinner, but then it was time to arrange our gear and go to bed for an early start the next morning with our move up Mont Blanc to the Gouter hut.


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