There we were again…Thursday evening in Geneva discussing the weekend's sortie in the Alps. We had a good group that included my colleagues Roland and Jean-Marc. This time, we would make a pilgrimage to Gran Paradiso, Italy’s Heaven on Earth. The word ‘paradiso’ translates literally into paradise, but perhaps heaven is more appropriate in this context because of the various experiences one may have from its ascension. The approach from Italy’s Valsavarenche is absolutely stunning, especially in the fall when larch trees turn a golden hue. From Gran Pardiso’s summit on a clear day you are blessed with a view of countless peaks: Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, Matterhorn, Monte Viso and more. While most parties opt for the normal route that ascends the west flank via the Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II, our route would include a night at the Rifugio Federico Chabod followed by an ascent of the Ghiacciao del Laveciau and then a descent of the west flank.
On Saturday morning, we gathered at the usual spot and caravanned our way from Geneva south to our trailhead at Praviou (1840m), roughly 2km before the end of the road in Italy’s Valsavarenche. It was cool and cloudy from the start, making the approach quite pleasant. Crossing the Torrent Savara, we made our way up the trail through a delightful pine forest to the chalets at Lavassey (2190m). We continued up the trail, heading east under the face of the Cote Savatere until we reached the Chabod Hut at 2650m. The hut, perched high on a promontory under the northwest face of the mountain, truly gave a heavenly impression of the surroundings. Reflecting on our exodus of the day, one could not help but think it sure beat 40 years of wandering in the desert. We slept well that night, thanks to the comfortable accommodations and thoughts of ascension the following day.
It began with a bountiful breakfast at the hut where some of us ate with gluttonous appetites. After an hour of following the climber’s trail over rocky ground to the Laveciau Glacier at around 3100m, we stopped to rope up and strap on the crampons. It was also about this time when Roland realized his crampons were back at the hut! Under such circumstances, some would call it a day and chalk it up to divine intervention, but not Roland! He took it in stride, jogged back to the hut and met up with us later at the plateau where the Chabod route joins up with the voie normale at around 3800m. Miraculous!
Ascension Day on the Laveciau Glacier
As we continued our ascent of the Laveciau Glacier, we began to witness a sunrise that evoked the kind of glory, glory, hallelujah exclamations from true believers. The Laveciau is a scenic and somewhat challenging ascent, given its crevasse fields and proximity to the massive serac band below the north face, but it was in good condition today. The rising sun on the opposite side of the mountain made the summit ridge appear as if was on fire. Was this an ominous sign of our judgment to come or just a result of the sun’s angle relative to the curvature of the earth at that moment in space-time? We were damned to find out!
Great Balls of Fire!
From the plateau at 3800m, our path to salvation merged with the normal route where a steady flow of pilgrims came into view. Standing here with the rays of golden sunshine at our backs, we noticed that some of us were casting remarkably long shadows. Was this another ominous sign of our judgment to come or just another result of the sun’s angle relative to the curvature of the earth at that moment in space-time? We pondered this briefly and resolved to discover the Truth.
Pilgrims on the path…
Old sins cast long shadows…
Heaven on Earth!
The terrain eased at this point and within an hour we took our place in line at the pearly gates, just before the traverse of angels and the Madonna summit where Mother Mary patiently waited.
Line at the gates…
From this point, we would for the first time bear witness to the miraculous views that existed on the east side, down to the Tribolazione Glacier and across to worlds beyond.
To Tribolazione and beyond!
Given the long line of pilgrims before us at the gates, Roland opted to make a quick ascension of his own. Was he hoping to cleanse his soul or just satisfy his earthly desires to climb any pinnacle in sight?
Say your prayers!
Finally, our names were called, indicating it was our turn to be tested on the traverse of angels. Fortunately for those of us with long shadows, there was a fixed pin half-way across to provide some additional protection from the possibility of an infinitely long fall from grace to the Tribolazione Glacier hundreds of meters below. Having passed the test, we were all blessed with a visit with Saint Mary, sitting gracefully atop the Madonna summit at 4059m. Staring in wonder at her shiny alabaster skin, one could not help but be touched by her presence.
Touched for the very first time?
After all that we had gone through, our moment in heaven had finally arrived. We reveled in the beauty of the surroundings. Immaculate thoughts were conceived about the millions of miracles taking place before our eyes. The panorama was breathtaking, literally for those that had not been acclimatized to this death zone above 4000m. Alas, we knew it wasn’t meant to last and eventually turned our backs on Mother Mary and began our descent. This would be our return to the land of the living.
Heaven can wait!
Minutes later, after we had all reversed the traverse of angels, we came upon another miraculous sight: the Gates of Hell, completely frozen over! This was truly a day to remember.
Hell frozen over…
We subsequently slogged our way down the normal route, an ascent considered by some to be mind-numbing, but a descent filled with grand views of the surrounding lakes, mountains and valleys.
Reflecting on our experience…
After a brief pause at the Vittorio Emanuele II Hut, we arrived back to the trail leading us down the Valsavarenche. Sights along this path of wonder included golden groves of larch trees and tumbling cascades of whitewater. Back at the village of Pont, we washed away our sins in the river and quenched our hellacious thirsts with cold beverages. We were humbled by our ascension of the day and celebrated the chance of being born again.
Truth be told, I am not a theologian. But this doesn’t restrain me from making the statement that climbing Gran Paradiso can be a heavenly experience. As the crowning point of the Graians Alps and the only 4000m peak completely within Italy’s borders, it really is a special place. It was set aside as a royal hunting reserve by a progressive thinking king in 1856 and millions of people have since discovered something special in its surroundings. This is something we can all pray remains unchanged for generations to come (or at least until a new heaven and earth replace what we have today).