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Trip Report

Alpine Touring trip to Grand Paradiso national park in the Aosta Valley Italy

by David Walsh from Melbourne

My Background

Alpine Touring

Planning Trip

Equipment

Itinerary

Outline

First Day

Second Day

Third Day

Fourth Day

Review

High Adventure

Aosta Photogallery

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My Skiing Background 

I went on my first ski weekend in 1969, just a few months after receiving my first pay packet as a permanent employee. Permanent employment now that is a concept, which is fast becoming old fashioned. There was no snow on that weekend to the Youth Hostels hostel at Mt Baw Baw, but it was the start of thirty years of recreational skiing. Within weeks I had bought a second hand pair of skis and boots and was learning to downhill ski at Mt Buller and Falls Creek. I met my wife when we were the only guests at a club lodge at Mt Buller mid-week one year. I skied Snowy Mountain Resorts, New Zealand and even managed to ski at four US resorts when there in a business trip. By the early eighties we had started a family, and I was getting bored with yo-yoing up and down the same short runs. I decided to try cross-country skiing for variety and as an economical way to introduce a young family to skiing. I went on a one week Nordic training camp at Howmanís gap and fell totally in love with Nordic Touring. I joined the Birkebeiner Nordic Ski Club in Mount Beauty and later took up snow camping with Melbourne Bushwalking Club. Gradually I did more and more cross-country citizen races, Nordic touring and snow camping and less downhill skiing.  

Alpine Touring

I had heard about Alpine Touring and had read an article on the famous Haute Route from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. I knew that there was little Alpine Touring done in Australia as the lower altitude of our mountains made Nordic touring more practical and economical. However I was fascinated by the idea of combining my enjoyment of ski touring with my downhill skiing skills.

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Planning the trip

 When my dream of going on a skiing holiday to Europe finally looked like being realised I started to investigate the possibility of including some Alpine Touring in the trip. A lot of the tour operators that you locate on the Internet are U.S. based and so too expensive in Australian dollars. Chamonix Guides based in Chamonix France seem to be a reasonable offering, and there seemed other operators in Chamonix with similar costs. I located a British operator High Adventure run by David Hamilton. Their main fame is in mountain climbing expeditions in Pakistan. David runs a variety of other trips, often catering for mountain climbing clients. In 2001 he had scheduled four European ski trips. One downhill week, two alpine touring trips and a Nordic tour were planned. One of his Alpine Touring trips seemed an ideal choice. It was a chance to do something very different at a reasonable cost. This trip was in the Grand Paradiso national park in the Aosta Valley Italy, on the other side of Mont Blanc. When I read up about the Aosta Valley I decided that it was an ideal location for some touring. It was planned that we would travel relatively light, staying in a mixture of serviced wardened huts, unwardened huts and small valley hotels. The trip was scheduled in Spring in the third week of March, the beginning of the touring season in the European alps.

 Equipment

Concerned with embarking on a one-week tour as my first attempt at Alpine touring I sought advice as to preparation and equipment. Bogong Equipment in Melbourne is one of the few shops in Australia selling Alpine Touring Equipment. Talking with them gave me confidence in a rapid transition from my extensive downhill and Nordic skiing skills to Alpine Touring. I decided that I need some practice on the equipment before embarking on an extensive tour. I organised to schedule a week in The Three Valleys in France the week before to familiarise myself with the skis and bindings.

I needed a new set of skis for the trip, and on the suggestion of Bogong Equipment I decided to purchase a new set of all terrain downhill skis and fit them with the latest step-in alpine touring bindings, which are convenient for conventional downhill skiing, as well as touring. I would use my current Lange downhill ski boots. This would minimise the costs to try Alpine Touring but provide flexibility should I wish to pursue it further in the future. David Hamilton agreed with approach but advised that the skis would be heaver than pure mountaineering touring skis and therefore may make me slightly slower when climbing. Using downhill boots has the disadvantage that walking is more difficult than in mountaineering ski boots. It would require carrying a pair of walking boots or sneakers in case poor snow conditions necessitated walking down into villages for accommodation, where the snow petered out above the village altitude. 

I chose a set of Atomic Betta Ride 9.22 Hyper Carbon Super Light skis with Silvretta 555 step-in Easy Go bindings. The skis had excellent reviews as downhill skis and were one of the lightest downhill skis I could find. Three weeks downhill skiing with this equipment on black and red runs, on and off piste and I am totally satisfied with them purely as downhill equipment.

I purchased a new Snowgum 45 lt Condor pack for the trip, as I did not have a pack of this size. Although we were traveling light, we needed to carry full food for the three nights we would be staying in unwardened huts, lunch and snacks for all the days. We would also need ice axe, crampons, snow shovel, emergency shelter and a rope for crossing glaciers. The 45 lt ended up being fully used.

I purchased the skins over the internet from Telemark-Pyrenees in France a source suggested by High Adventure.

For clothing I successfully used the same clothing I use for a cross country skiing in Australia. I took a little less bulk but an extra layer than I would on an Australian snow camping trip to fit the smaller pack. I updated my over pants to a set of outer layer overalls to deal with the greater temperature change due to altitude change in the day, and for ease of getting on and off on the slopes in adverse conditions.

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 Area Map of Grand Paradiso National Park in Aosta Valley

The Itinerary 

The plan for the alpine tour was to meet at Aosta on  Saturday March 17, and head for LaSalle. We would start the tour on Sunday morning finishing on the following Saturday afternoon.  I would leave my Nordic skis, my travel pack and any clothing I did not need for the tour in the Aosta railway left baggage. The Aosta region consists of a main valley running East-West and major secondary valleys generally running North-South, with the usual variations and minor valleys every which way. The secondary valleys have all weather highways deep into the mountains to small tourist hotels, with the summer road access extending even further. Beyond the roads there is a network of what are called Refuge Huts, some serviced (wardened), others un-serviced. The standard of accommodation in the huts is substantially above what most Australians would expect of a refuge. It is more what an Australian would expect for hostel or backpacker accommodation. The National Park and the extensive adjoining forests seem blanketed with walking trails, climbing trails, mountain biking trails and skiing trails. There are a series of Grand Haute routes linking the refuges and the small hotels high in the valleys. We intended to start in the North-West corner of the area at Colle San Carlo, arriving at the border of the National Park on the Wednesday at G.F.Bevevolo hut by following mainly Grand Haute routes. And working our way to Cogne on the Saturday. The party was to be made up of David Hamilton, the leader, a Swiss friend of his Andre, who was an excellent skier, and who had worked on the north west shelf gas project in Western Australia, and myself.

The outline is as below:

START

Via

FINISH

DIST

Col St Carlo 1950m Comba Sorda 2800m Refuge A. Deffeyes 2494m unwardened 10 km
Refuge A. Deffeyes Rutor glacier & col del Rutor 3373m Hotel Perret at Bonne 10 km
Bonne 1810m pora di Valgrisenche Refuge Mario Bezzi 2279m unwardened 11 km
Refuge Mario Bezzi col Bassac Dere 3082m Refuge G. F. Benevolo 2287m wardened 8 km
Refuge G. F. Benevolo col de la Nivolettaz 3130m Hotel at Eaux Rousses at Valsavarenche 16 km
Valsavarenche 1666m col Lauson 3296m Refuge Vittorio Sella 2588m unwardened 9 km
Refuge Vittorio Sella Valnontey 1666m Cogne 1534m 4km

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The first day

We travelled by car from Aosta to Morgex  a small village just past La Salle on the other side of the river. The next morning we travelled by mini bus taxi to Colle San Carlo at 1970m to commence our tour carrying three days food for the huts that would not be serviced. We would have to climb through a pass at 2800m on our way to the A Deffeyes hut at 2500m for the night.  After putting on our harness in case someone went down a crevasse or had a fall, and testing our avalanche beepers we set off.  The itinerary for that day proved too much for my first day ever alpine touring. The track started out fairly gentle but somewhat uneven and difficult through the trees. It was hard to adapt my glide rhythm to skis with skins  in these circumstances. As the terrain got steeper and the snow deeper I had to adapt to the different traverse posture required and doing kick turns in such steep conditions. The kick turns proved the most difficult to master and slowed  me down considerably compared to the quick efficient turns executed by the experienced alpine tourers in the party. The climb of over 800 meters was going slower than hoped. We were still a few hundred meters short of the pass when the weather closed in at 4 pm, and we had to turn back to the hotel at Colle San Carlo. After a short planning meeting the taxi was ordered for the return trip to Morgex where we picked up Andre's car and drove to Remes Notre Dame skipping Valgrisenche valley on the trip. We stayed at Hotel Grande Rousse, an excellent small hotel at Remes Notre Dame instead of A Deffeyes hut as planned. After a tough days ski touring we were really hungry when we arrived late at Hotel Grande Rousse. We had a gigantic dinner, shared a pleasant room for three and an excellent breakfast, all for less than AUD 60 per head.

Second Day

On the Monday morning we set off from the cross country ski resort of Remes Notre Dame leaving Andre's car in the free underground car park above the snow line. We started the route on an easy prepared cross country track, which allowed me to get my rhythm on the skins. At the point where the summer road ends and the site of a summer cafe, we came across our first avalanche. It came right up to the edge of the track, and if anyone had been skiing just a few meters off the track at the time that it came down they would have been badly injured. By the morning of the second day I was adapting my skills to Alpine Touring much better, although my kick turns were still slow and inefficient. However we made much better pace than the first day and by lunch time we had reached G.F.Bevevolo hut at 2,285 meters. On the way up the mountain an Ibex followed us for part of the way spying on us from the cliff tops above us. We were also treated to a spectacular show as small avalanches fell down the cliff faces above us like waterfalls. Some of these avalanches were started by the Ibex as it approached the very edge of the cliffs to look down on us from various points as we made our progress up the valley.

This had been our destination for Wednesday our fourth day, so we now had some flexibility to complete the rest of the tour at an easier pace as I picked up my skills and speed. That afternoon David Hamilton and Andre went off on a short tour to explore the area, while I spent the afternoon practicing my kick turns on steeper and steeper slopes, until the weather closed in at 3 pm, an hour earlier than on Sunday. We enjoyed a cappuccino for afternoon tea in true Italian style and a fantastic evening meal served by the staff even though we were in a refuge hut at almost 2,300 meters. 

The hut was popular, warm and convivial despite having a very cold bathroom and toilet. The three of us shared our own room despite there being a good crowd in the hut. Certainly beats snow camping which is the only touring choice in Australia. An audit of the skis lined up outside the hut revealed the the most popular ski was the Atomic Betta Ride 9.22, although most were fitted with Fritchi Diamir bindings rather than Silvretta. Not all the skiers in the hut were intending to ski hut to hut as we were. Quite a few of them had skied up to the hut from Remes Notre Dame and were using the hut as a base for a few day tours out from the hut.

Third Day

Under the revised itinerary Tuesday was a test for me. We would ski up to Col de Tsanteleina which was the direction we would have come from towards G.F.Bevevolo under the original plan. It was a route a bit further north from the hut and would have taken us to the border with France. If I could reach the col height of 3,200 meters and return to the hut then we knew that I had picked up enough skills continue the tour from hut to hut. We were served a great early breakfast by the hut staff and set off conscious of a forecast of deteriorating weather. My performance climbing improved again compared to the previous day. My kick turns although far from perfect showed the benefits of my afternoons practice the previous day. However the higher we climbed the harder I found to keep up. For an Australian where you rarely go above 2,000 meters, no amount of training back in Australia can properly prepare you for skiing up through the 3,000 mark and above. It will just take time to acclimatise.

By eleven thirty the weather closed in again and because there were avalanches occurring in the area we had to turn back as it was not safe to continue to climb without visibility to see the avalanche risk. We skied down and were back at the hut for lunch. Although we had to turn back before we reached the col we had less than 100 meters still to climb and had already attained a height above that required to get over the pass the following day. So subject to more favorable weather than forecast we were ready to continue on a valley to valley, hut to hut route  running a day ahead of schedule. Considering the possibility of bad weather having a day up our sleeve was probably very desirable. While we waited to see what the weather for Wednesday brought we enjoyed another enjoyable afternoon, dinner and evening at G.F.Bevevolo hut. There were a mixture of nationalities in the hut, many swapping information to plan their tours.

Day Four

We were up for an early breakfast again on the Wednesday morning hoping that the weather would be better than forecast so we could continue our tour. Unfortunately the weather was completely closed in making it too dangerous to ski up the valley with the avalanche risk. Since it looked like the weather would stay like this for some days it seemed pointless to remain in  G.F.Bevevolo hut.  We skied back to the car at Remes Notre Dame, taking care to follow a track away from the avalanche risks that we had observed on the way up. It was a quick and enjoyable ski down with some nice powder on the higher sections. I took a few spills as I got used to powder skiing with a full heavy day pack, but I was getting better at it every day. 

We arrived at the car, drove to Aosta and I got my gear out of the luggage storage and changed my clothes all before lunch. David Hamilton was on a cheap ticket out of Turin to the UK on Sunday so had to wait around until then. Andre decided to wait for a couple of days in case the weather cleared and they could go to the summit of Grand Paradiso at 4,000 meters. This is the highest mountain completely within the borders of Italy.  Since I had only limited time in Europe and I was unlikely to be able to stay with them to that altitude I decided to move on. I rebooked my overnight sleeper to Innsbruck from Saturday night to Wednesday  night. This would give me a couple of days in Innsbruck which I had wanted to do but had not been able to fit in my original schedule. We had a superb lunch of the local specialty cheese fondue at a small restaurant and a look around the beautiful city of Aosta before we parted. Aosta has a cable car which leaves right from the center of town. The town and the whole valley are beautiful, and I plan to return some day to ski up to another hut, as well as do some cross country skiing and downhill skiing. As it turned out the weather deteriorated and Andre returned to Switzerland the following evening.

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Review

Despite the fact that we competed almost none of the original itinerary I was happy with the trip. I did some substantial and difficult alpine touring. I was taught the additional skills I need to take it further on my own. I saw some spectacular scenery in the Grand Paradiso national park and got a reasonable appreciation of the whole Aosta valley as well as a good look at the fabulous town of Aosta. And most importantly I spent some nights in a wardened alpine hut which had been a dream of mine for some time and stayed in a small local hotel above the snow line. These are things that I cannot do in Australia. A week and a half later I ascended my first 4,000 meter peak on alpine touring skis, when I skied to the summit of the Brite Horn at 4,164 meters. A group of young German alpine tourers were staying at the Bahnoff Hotel in Zermat in the same dormitory as me and their first stop on a one week tour was the summit of the Brite Horn. I accompanied them as far as that first summit. We took the first cable car of the day to the Klein Matterhorn, which took us to 3,820 metres, and then skied down into the saddle and up to the Britehorn. The lungs were working hard as I skied up the last 50 meters but I made it to my first 4,000 peak for a fantastic view.

I intend to use my alpine touring equipment and new skills to ski off-piste areas out from Falls Creek in Victoria. I have spent a lot of time skiing these areas on the Bogong High Plains on cross country skis, now I am going to have some great fun skiing the virgin snow of the steeper slopes using  parallel technique on the downhill skis. I had planned to start this in 2001 but the poor snow for that season meant that my only chance to put the skins on, was after a good snow fall when the high winds closed the lifts. I was able to climb up the mountain on the skins and ski protected slopes in the Falls Creek bowls.

I intend to refine my skills and come back to Europe to do the the famous Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.

The total cost of the trip for the four days, land content Aosta to Aosta was about A$650.00. The pre trip estimate by High Adventure for the original seven day itinerary was A$1,400.00

High Adventure

Was I happy with my choice of High Adventure as a trip operator. Obviously the original planned first day was too much for someone who was alpine touring for the first time. If I was doing it again I would make sure that the vertical assent on the first day was no more than 400 meters. To be fair David Hamilton had questioned me on my ability to complete the tour, as David had no knowledge of skiing conditions in Australia. I in turn had sought what advice I could in Australia. I was advised that with my skiing ability and level of fitness I would adapt quickly. This turned out to be true. But not fast enough to climb 800 meters on the first day.

David Hamilton was flexible in altering the itinerary when the problem was identified and he attacked the problem with instructions and advice on where I was wasting energy in my alpine touring technique. It was certainly an advantage to have a native English speaking guide in these circumstances. 

I liked David Hamilton's style he was flexible, lead by encouragement but does not nursemaid or push people. A few weeks later I did a Nordic ski touring  trip with High Adventure to Jotunheimen national park. This was a great success and we completed the tour exactly as planned. A report on that tour is on this site.  I got the impression that David runs High Adventure as much as a life style as a business. He finds a trip he wants to do personally, organises it, and then looks for people who want to pay a moderate fee to do it with him. This makes the trips fun and interesting, you do not risk having a bored guide doing the same trip over and over because that is what sells easily. 

However his trips are not for the faint hearted. The trips are like a well run club trip where everyone is expected to pull their weight and can be independent. This man is a mountaineer and most of his clients are mountaineers, he leads expeditions to places like the summit of Mt Everest. Be warned about their mindset, this crowd goes to the summit to touch it and head straight down again. Whether there will be an opportunity to savor the view is not high on their priority list. If you are an ordinary human like me and think that the view is the point of the exercise then you will need to give the rest of the group a reality check every so often.

I would love to have the opportunity to do another tour in the future with David Hamilton as leader.

High Adventure Website

Aosta Photogallery

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