Hiking in the Gran Paradiso 19 – 27 July
Special because you never quite know what to expect, what you will see, who you will meet, what will happen or even what will be on the menu! Every day will have something different and gradually over the holiday the party will mould into a very special group of people.
The mountain refuges we stayed in were invariably in spectacular locations. The Rifugio Sella is just visible below, at the mouth of the hanging valley, left of the river just before it tumbles down steeply into the main valley below.
Each refuge is different and has a character and a history of its own – worth the effort to read up on. Some were large and well equipped like the Rifugio Sella; others were very simple – the Refuge du Truc (Tour du Mont Blanc), for example, had dining tables and chairs made from sections sawn through tree trunks – thankfully the beds were normal! With few exceptions, the refuge showers, washing facilities, and toilets were all good.
There were some colourful characters amongst the wardens and staff of the refuges. At the Berliner Hütte (Zillertal) they rang a bell and announced the morrow’s weather forecast like a town crier! They were always helpful and willing to give advice, and the majority spoke at least some English.
After the exertions of the day, food and drink on arrival at the refuges was always very welcome. Every refuge had a well stocked bar – tea, hot chocolate, cordial, beer (the spirits can come later) – and snacks to die for.
There was delicious peach flan, homemade to a local Valdostan recipe in the Refugio Berdze. Apfel Strudel in the Austrian huts and fresh bilberry tarts on the Tour du Mont Blanc. The Refuge Sella even had its own separate bar (above right).
Dinner was always an occasion and served at table. Sometimes we would be sitting next to another group and could exchange mountain experiences. The wholesome food was well cooked, well presented and plentiful – no mean achievement in a small kitchen when supplies have to be brought up to 2,000m above sea level!
I was spotted cleaning every last scrap of tiramisu off my plate by one of the waitresses in the Refugio Sella and was offered a second helping – how could I refuse! At the Col du Bon Homme (Tour du Mont Blanc) they baked their own bread fresh each day. A power cut there made for dinner by candlelight – what an atmosphere!
Some Huts had a wide choice for breakfast, at others it was very simple but it still sets you up for the day ahead.
The wildlife high in the mountains often seemed unfazed by humans. Marmots were playing and grazing unconcernedly on the hillside whilst 400m away, people were walking around the Rifugio Sella from one building to another, or tending to their washing.
As we walked on the footpath from the Refugio Sella to the Col Lauson, this herd of ibex completely ignored us. At the Col du Bon Homme an ibex walked past the windows as we all sat at dinner.
Undisturbed by humans there were spectacular displays of flowers making the most of the short summer season.
From the elevated position of the huts it was possible to reach high cols that would not be accessible in a day from the valleys. Leaving rucksacks at the col we could scramble to adjacent summits. The greater demand of the walking brought its rewards in the superb panoramas that unfolded, which the camera never can truly capture.
Sometimes we stayed at a hut (refuge) for more than one night. This gave us opportunities to tackle a more difficult route or summit with the advantage of a lighter rucksack, to do an easier walk from the hut, to do some serious photography, wildlife observing or geology, or to sample the culinary treats on offer at the hut and generally have a complete rest! The choice is yours!
On one such day we walked the Casolari dell’ Herbetet traverse which has handrails, steel steps set into the rock, and a short ramp because it is narrow and exposed. We scarcely needed them, but in wet and difficult weather they would have been a welcome reassurance. We extended the route to scramble over boulder fields to the Bivouac Leonessa (2910m) and were rewarded with superb views over the surrounding glaciers.
What really makes these holidays special is the close bonds forged between the members of the group. You do everything together. You share the elation when you have reached a particularly hard or high summit or completed an especially long day.
You share the difficulties when circumstances or the weather are against you and as a team you pull together so that everyone completes the day and reaches the refuge. Friendships formed on these holidays can last a lifetime!