Italy - Gran Paradiso

, 4061m - Info | Trip Report | VR Tour

Introduction :

Let's address the elephant in the room straight away. Italy's highest point is disputed. The Italians claim that the summit of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) lies on its border with France. The French maps and government disagree and claim that the border flows around the summit leaving it entirely in French territory.

I'm not taking sides, but let us look at some alternatives have been proposed. Like me, you might wish to climb one just for the love of it.

French cartographer would suggest that Italy's highest Point is a shoulder of Monte Bianco (Italian), Mont Blanc (French) located at 4760m.

The highest summit, Mont Blanc de Courmayeur (4748m), a subsidiary summit of Mont Blanc is also a popular contestant. It is connected to the main summit via the Col Major, and despite of its minimal prominence, it appears as the second-highest peak on the official list of Alpine four-thousanders UIAA. Alas ascent from Italian territory is very challenging.

This leaves us with Gran Paradiso at 4061m. It is the highest mountain, and the only 4000m peak wholly in undisputed Italian territory. Located in the Graian Alps, in the Aosta Valley region of north-west Italy, it is the centre piece of the Gran Paradiso National Park.

Approaching the summit of Gran Paradiso, highest mountain entirely in Italy.
Approaching the summit of Gran Paradiso, highest mountain entirely in Italy.

The summit was first reached on September 4th 1860 by J.J. Cowell, W. Dundas, J. Payot and J. Tairraz. Whilst not straight forward, it is climbable by any fit person with mountaineering skills (including snow, ice, glacier, and rope work). Though don't be surprised, particularly if climbing with an organised group, that you don't actually make it to the summit. Instead, most target the Madonna summit, named after a statue of the Madonna reportedly placed there by boy scouts in the 1900's.

Climbers gathered around the Madonna statue on the Madonna Summit of Gran Paradiso, Italy.. © Derek Stillingfleet.
Climbers gathered around the Madonna statue on the Madonna Summit of Gran Paradiso.

Routes :

There are two normal routes to the summit of Gran Paradiso, both requiring ice axe, crampons. Parties should be roped, particularly on the upper sections and glaciers. The season for tackling these normal routes extend from June to September. Typically August is very busy as it is then that much of Italy's industry shuts down for a month long holiday. Expect overcrowding at the huts.

Alpe Pravieux, starting point for hike up Gran Paradiso, highest mountain entirely in Italy. © Derek Stillingfleet.
Alpe Pravieux, starting point for hike up Gran Paradiso.

Both routes begin in the Valsavarenche, from which a zig-zag path, first through forest will take you to one of the two above mentioned mountain huts. Start at Alpe Pravieux (1871m) for Rif. F. Chabod, or Pont (1960m) for Rif. V. Emanuele II. Pre-dawn alpine starts are required to make the best use of the firm snow before it softens in the morning sun, and an overnight stay at a hut will allow for some acclimatisation.

Climbers on the exposed traverse to the Madonna Summit, Gran Paradiso, Italy. © Derek Stillingfleet Climbers on the exposed traverse to the Madonna Summit.
● West Face - This is the more popular, and easiest route. Begun from the Rif. V. Emanuele, this route first sees you crossing the boulder field northward to the moraines of the Gran Paradiso Glacier. It is easy to loose ones way here in the dark, so worth checking out the afternoon before. The moraines lead into a narrow valley, its floor running with melt water from the glacier. Follow the glacier up on the right hand side, often in well-worn tracks, being aware that there are hidden crevasses. Follow the snowy ridge in a curve beneath rocky towers to a rock ramp with an exposed section before summiting the Madonna. There's likely to be some congestion here during the busy season. Secure yourself a belay and be patient.

● North Face - A more technical route starting from Rif. F. Chabod that first crosses to the Laveciau Glacier and then heads up the steep snow slope of Gran Paradiso's North Face.

Accommodation :

● Camping - Wild camping is not permitted in the Gran Paradiso National Park, and it therefore restricted to commercial campsites in the Valsavarenche, of which there are many.

● Mountain Huts - There are two Rifugio, mountain huts, suitably placed for an ascent of Gran Paradiso. The main buildings are staffed during certain periods, both have limited areas open all year. When staffed, both huts provide hot meals (typically soup or pasta, meat dish, and desert), beds (blankets provided, but bring your own sheet sleeping bag), and hot showers. Both have a telephone that can be used by the public. It is best to book ahead, especially in July and August.

Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II is located at 2735m, on the more popular route. It has a capacity for 72 during the summer, and 44 during the winter.

Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II, Gran Paradiso, Italy.
Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II, Gran Paradiso. 2006

Rifugio F. Chabod is located at 2750m. It has capacity for 85 during the summer and 16 during the winter.

Rifugio F. Chabod, Gran Paradiso, Italy.
Rifugio F. Chabod, Gran Paradiso. 2006.

Maps and Books :

OpenStreetMaps shows the ascent routes.

IGC Map cover IGC map sample Italian cartographers at the Istitutio Geografico Centrale or IGC have produced an adequate, but not entirely clear or reliable 1:25,000 map of Gran Paradiso, number 101. The legend includes English, contours are at 25m intervals.
The Alpine 4000m Peaks Book Cover Richard Goedeke's The Alpine 4000m Peaks, by the classic routes covers the normal route to the summit. It was bublished by Bâton Wicks now Vertebrate Publishing, ISBN: 1-898573-56-5.