A Cottian and Graian Alps amble - July 2018

Discussion in 'Trips Reports' started by tom, Dec 15, 2018.

  1. tom

    tom Thru Hiker

    Its taken me a while but here it is finally...

    I wanted to return to the Piemonte as soon as I finished my 40 day GTA hike in 2016. In August 2017, a cousin and I managed a week’s hike through the Gran Paradiso range which only added to my yearning for more. And finally, on 6th July I set out from Oulx, in the upper Susa valley near the French border, to join the GRV trail southbound.
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    I had thought of making Monte Viso my starting point but in the end, the easy train access to the Susa valley (on the Paris to Milan train line) combined with the prospect of looping through the Cottian Alps proved too tempting. My vague plan was to follow the GRV, a historic route that follows the “Glorioso Rimpatrio dei Valdesi” (the “glorious return of the Waldensians”) south from Oulx until Monte Viso, take a parallel northbound route from there on either side of the French-Italian border - possibly following a GRV section northwest) - into the Vanoise NP and from there somewhere cross back into Italy and the Gran Paradiso range and further if I had the time…'

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    Day 1 - Crossing the Assieta Ridge
    + 1100m - 700m
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    The GRV follows the route of small army of about 950 Waldensians who marched in 1689 from Lake Geneva to reclaim their high mountain valleys. Valleys from which they had been driven during the 1685-1686 atrocities (the Waldensians predated the Catholic Church and maintained their early Christian beliefs in spite of some 800 years of persecution, massacres and genocide that only ended in 1848). This little army of my ancesters managed to get through and past vastly superior French and Savoy military forces sent to stop them by crossing remote mountain passes, taking hostages and sheer luck.

    View down to Oulx from the Assieta ridge.
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    The first day, my trail traversed and crossed the Assieta ridge (which had been in the clouds on my GTA hike in 2016) but further west than the GTA route and it turned out a gorgeous day with great views.
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    The Piedmontese flowers oceans were just as stunning and psychedelic as they had been 2 years earlier.
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    Day 2 – Across Col de Pis to Balsiglia
    + 1070m - 1230m
    Its a beautiful trail heading up from the Chisone valley to Col de Pis (2610m) where the GRV crosses over into the Germanaska valley system.
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    From the col, I had a first direct comparison of snow levels. In 2016, I had left this high valley via Colle Albergian on the GTA. This year’s snow melt seemed about 4 weeks behind what I had seen in 2016. This didn’t bode well for some of the trails I had hoped to do but time would tell – snow levels can vary greatly from one location to another within the same local area.

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    The scenery heading down this long descent was just as stunning as I remembered it.
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    Clouds were building too but the weather held.
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    Balsiglia, the first Waldensian hamlet the GRV trail reaches, has a family connection for me and this time, I hoped to stay in the posto tappa above the museum in the famous former school.
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    I tried the 2 phone numbers given but just like 2 years earlier, nobody picked up. A friendly farmer stopped with his tractor and pointed me to a house. It turned out that the posto tappa is always open. Just go and make yourself at home I was told. Which I did. I was the only guest that night and found a well equipped kitchen, fresh milk and foods in the fridge, instruction how to turn on the heater for a hot shower, and even some wine and beer. As customary in Italy when locals stock a facility, there was cash box for donations. Such warm hospitality felt huge given the family story.
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    Day 3
    +870m -790m
    Today I was retracing my 2016 walk in reverse with meadows and forests again in full blossom.
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    But also some evidence of sadly familiar local trail politics. The welcoming little organic farm in Diderio (aka Salza di Pinerolo) was no longer the GTA posto tappa, someone else had muscled in and even re-routed the GTA and GRV so the trail would no longer lead past the organic farm and bakery. I shunned the new place and stopped for coffee and snack at old one instead. A little beach invites a refreshing dip
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    After several ridges, my destination for the next day comes into view - the snowy passes straight ahead:
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    Day 4
    + 1290m – 110m
    Today’s route departed GRV and main GTA trails but followed a GTA variant I had spotted in 2016 leading up to the high passes that marked the French border above. I had only vague plans beyond – much would depend on snow levels and what kind of terrain I would find. Deserted settlements are common in this reagion.
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    As are pretty tarns...
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    The high summery meadows turned harsher
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    and eventually into snowy alpine landscapes as I climbed higher and into the clouds.
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    There is a rifugio named after the ‘Lago Verde’ (2583m) next to the hut. But the little “green lake” was not green at all and mostly still buried under ice and snow.
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    Col de Valpreveyre (2737m) was somewhere above me in the clouds with, for the moment at least, minimal visibility. I went for a coffee and cake and to check out the hut which turned out a pleasant surprise, pretty new and run by a woman with her teenage son and daughter. I decided to sample the hospitality and call it a day. Hopefully, the weather would improve by morning.
    After 6pm, the clouds began to lift a little and I spotted 4 hikers in the drifting clouds on Col de Valpreveyre above.
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    Apparently they considered the decend to dangerous and turned back – God knows where to. I saw no trace of them on the other side when I crossed the col in the morning. A young Italian couple had arrived shortly after me and we remained the only guests apart from 3 teenage girls, friends of the guardian's daughter who played monopoly with a CD player on the table and singing along whenever they liked a track. I’m not a huge fan of huts generally but this was one as good as they get - a mellow evening with memorable food and pleasant company.

    Day 5
    + 680m – 1120m
    The day started with clear skies and some sun
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    and I headed up a faint trail with some steep semi-frozen snow to cross for which the Loca Rotura mini-crampons felt perfectly adequate (I would have hated to do this in micro-spikes or cleats).
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    The trail, contouring the mountain flank on the left, much improved on the other side of Col de Valpreveyre (2737m),
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    descending into France before climbing up to Col Bucie (2626m) and back into Italy with some with fine views of Monte Viso.
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    But it was back into the clouds by the time I reached Col Bucie, where I walked right into a large heard of Camoscio (Chamois).
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    They don’t see well in the fog if you walk slowly and I spend about 20 minutes wandering amongst them without causing any disturbence.
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    The descent into Italy turned out extremely steep on another faint trail that was buried and hidden beneath snow for countless occasions. Luckily, the neve was neither too soft nor fully frozen but I nonetheless wore my mini crampons for greater speed and safety.
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    And then, after about a hour of this, I fell… I had long stopped testing the snow before stepping on it since there was so much of it and I was heading downhill. With hindsight I recognise my stupidity. In the fog, the cold sinks.... So its not really surprising to find hard ice lower down.
    On my third step, some ice broke away beneath my mini crampon and down I went. It was steep but not too far down except for the a nasty boulder field waiting below me. My self arrest tool was on the back of my pack and I couldn’t stop my slide with my poles much as I tried. Luckily I landed with both feet first on a big rock. A quick checkup revealed no worse damage than scrapes and bruises, shock, a wet bum and a tear in my wind jacket.
    A bit shaken, I scrambled across boulders and ice to find and re-join the trail. Lessons learnt. But I was in for another shock. Half hour later, about dozen rocks came down right in front of me, without any warning hurtling from nowhere out of the fog. Barely a sound until they hit the trail in front of me and bounced on. The largest rock was as big as a small pram. This was definitely not my day.
    I took a breather on Colle delle Boine (2412m)
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    but there was lots more ice and melting snow bridges to navigate until I got to about 2000m in what seemed like hours. And it wasn’t over yet. Just before the Bergerie at Fontana del Mul (1650m), my chosen trail branched off southbound, crossing some rapids swollen by snow melt, climbing up into the clouds again to about 2100m, and traversing an unnamed ridge before descending into the next valley where my trail would intersect the GR58B. But first I hit my third surprise for the day…
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    No obvious way around this obstacle and the ice bridges looked too fragile. In the end, I scrambled up on the ice where it was solid and then managed to squeeze myself into a 10 foot deep crevasse that had opened between ice and mountainside which eventually took me down to the streams below the ice. An easier scramble back up onto the ice and finally an easy step across and I was back on to my trail.
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    That was it, I’d had it for the day. But spots to pitch were not in abundance up there and I first had to
    join the GR 58B which heads up this valley across Col d’Urine into France.
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    And finally, a meadow to pitch...
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    Day 6
    +570 -1020m
    The day started bright enough as I headed downstream and towards Monte Viso.
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    I felt still a bit shaken by the previous day’ adventures and the clouds started building quickly.
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    By 9am, the Italian side of mountains was back in a whiteout. My chances to get anywhere high on Monte Viso seemed quite slim given the snow situation. And I could feel my legs. Over a quick coffee at refugio Willi Jarvis, I decided to head west into France on a trail ascending Colle de la Groce (2299m)
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    which was snow free as well as my first trail with other hikers on this trip. I could see also blue skies on the French side, I wanted some sun and a zero day and Abries seemed just the place to get both.

    Day 7
    Zero day at Abries (1550m)
    I had found myself a small wintersport appartment at a 40 Euro off-season rate with a large sun deck to lounge and recuperate. I was a little sorry to miss out on Monte Viso but I could see from my deck that anything at higher altitude stayed in the clouds all day.

    Day 8
    +1150m -600m
    I had looked at my route options from here and decided to head north and cross back into Italy via Col Mayt (2706m) - somewhere straight ahead...
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    There was only little snow and the blossoming high summer meadows on the French side made a pleasant change. Abries is at the bottom of the "V" in the centre.
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    The landscape turned wilder and harsher on the Italian side of the pass with barely any trail but the wide open landscape was easy enough to navigate and snow-melt swollen river crossings presented the only challenge of the day.
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    It is quite amazing how strong the ice is - as long as nobody steps on it that is....
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    Day 9
    +450m –600m
    The valley leading to Sestieres is pretty and wild if also a little more accessible to tourists.
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    A few wild car campers at first and further down some day trippers spilling up from Sestieres which attracts some summer tourism with its Winter Olympics history. Beautiful old farm buildings too...
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    Then its across another unnamed little pass and a short road walk. A quick shopping trip for bread and fresh food and I couldn’t get out of town fast enough. There is no shortage of trails ascending the Assieta Ridge from Sestieres given the infrastructure of the “winter sport” entertainment industry. But the lift landscape is not as horrendously ugly as some. Soon, I was back on the Assieta Ridge but even further west than on the earlier occasions and, surprise, surprise, back in the mist.

    Day 10
    + 1100m - 300m
    After a pleasant if misty night in a psychedelic flower meadow, I rejoind the GRV which crosses the Susa valley at Salbertrand. A mellow trail leads eastbound up and along the flanks of the Susa valley. On the map, I had spotted a promising looking alternative that would take me to Col Clapier and into the Vanoise via a high traverse in-between two passes which seemed much more interesting than the standard GRV (which I would re-join at Col Clapier). The Assieta Ridge was still in the mist.
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    Meanwhile the clouds were coming down to meet me once again...
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    and visibility was minimal by the time I reached my junction at Grange della Valle. Heading north now for a bit, I started to rain. I decided to go for a coffee at Refigio Levi Molinari (1850m) which was only 10 minutes off-trail. The rain turned into downpour by the time a reached the hut - passing countless wood-carved sculptures as I neared the hut.
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    The hut was warm and welcoming. It turned out it was run by a woman’s collective who, along with more woman from the valley, were also the wood carvers. The coffee became a tasty omelette as well and, one thing leading to another, I ended up with a little two bedded chamber all to myself while the skies opened up in earnest outside. It dried up again in the late afternoon and I took the opportunity to explore the upper valley, a magical cirque in drifting low cloud
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    – and even a lone wolf (apparently a common sight there) retreating uphill from me and too quick for a photo as dusk approached but the colouring matched the wolf pictures displayed in the hut.

    Day 11
    +1350m - 550m
    Blue skies had returned by morning which added greatly to the splendor of a relentlessly steep but enjoyable climb to Passo Clopacca (2744m).
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    At first sight, the flanks of Punta Ferrand (3347m) appeared like plateau, an “alta piano”,
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    but looks can decieve and it turned out a complex landscape to navigate - not made easier by snow fields in various stages of melting. Looking back towards Passo Clopacca...
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    and ahead... The map says I should turn left somewhere...
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    Unsurprisingly, it took longer than I expected. Apparently this section had only become safe enough to cross 7 days earlier and I was one of the first to do so I learned at the next hut. The sights on the eastern flanks of Punta Ferrand just blew me away and I made an instant decision to not rush on into France but spend the rest of the day and the night in this splendour - too vast a scenery to capture in a single picture. Delightful contrasts of first blossoms in a wintery landscape. Colle dell’Agnello (3090m) is the lowest point visible on the sky line.
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    Col Clapier, the French border, lies below (the lake is already on the French side).
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    There is a tiny hut, Rifugio Vaccarone (2747m), basically a one room affair with a sleeping loft above and a single loo outside and a tin-can bivacco nearby for winter use and hut overflow. I had a quick coffee and left most of my kit in the hut to embark on a trek up a high pass above, Colle dell’Agnello, since the Punta Ferrand summit itself was out of bounds with heavy snow load.

    Colle dell’Agnello (3090m) from up close. By the time I reached the pass, the clouds came down again.
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    Sadly, glacier Ferrand is no more, another victim of global warming.
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    And Punta Ferrand (3347m) in the evening light
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    To me, some of the magic hiking these remote trails is the people I meet, fellow hikers but also the people who’s love for the mountains gets them to work up here. The woman’s collective the previous night for example but also the Guardian of Rif Vaccarone, a young woman from Calabria (southern Italy) who run this hut alone with a teenage nephew. Her 6 year old daugher was with her husband in Calabria but they would join her for the summer holiday. She had been the guardian for the last 7 years she told me.

    Day 12
    + 300 - 1240m
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    A last view of the tiny hut in shadow of Punta Ferrand.
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    I rejoined the GRV where the short climb up to Colle Clapier (2482m) starts. This pass is also a possible route for Hannibal’s famous invasion of Rome in 218 B.C.
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    Some miles down the valley, the GRV trail leaves the river to cross an unnamed ridge (2350m) with a nice view back to Colle Clapier...
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    .... and a couple of pretty tarns ...
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    ... before descending Lac du Mont Cenis (1980m), crossing the final pass of the day, Col du Mont Cenis (2099m), and the long descend to Val Cenis. It never ceases to amaze me how profoundly alpine landscapes can change in character within half a mile by just crossing a pass.
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    Day 13
    +500m – 150m
    The GRV follows the valley which is a pretty one, often right on the river banks, and well away from roads. The GR 5 takes a parallel route but both join for the ascent of Col d’Iseran. Its a valley walk, but a pretty one and surrounded by glaciers and summits...
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    ... tausends of butterflies ...
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    ... and prehistoric evidence of 5000 years human occupation.
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    Day 14
    +1000m – 1000m
    An early start for Col d’Iseran (2770m) on yet another pretty trail.
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    The trail crosses the road a few times but keeps otherwise well away from noise and visual pollution.
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    And almost snow free
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    Looking back from th pass....
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    And ahead towards Arguille de la grande Sassiere (3747).
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    The ski entertainment infrastructure on the other side presents the only offensive sacrilege of the day’s hike. A bit lower down its fortunately back to flowery meadows and forrests. But there was worse to come. While the villages of Val Cenis and Val d’Iseran I saw manage new developments without loosing their character and charm, Col d’Iseran and Tignes towns present as tacky trashy horror shows (including piped musak on the streets), the likes I fortunately never encountered in Italy (or elsewhere in France). It looked like a Truman Show set. Val d’Iseran still has one “normal” little supermarket near the campsite for resupplies, the others are all dressed up as “delicatessen” (with the same ordinary chain-store products but at double or triple prices).

    Day 15
    + 200m -1050m
    From afar, I had harboured hopes to find a high level route along the border - in spite of a complete lack of any indications that such a route is possible. This year’s snow conditions in July didn’t invite going off-trail at 3000m and above. Just to add to my misfortune, the good weather spell had come to an end and the forecast for day 15 was grim. I decided to stay in the valley and follow the GRV/GR5 towards Seez. The weather turned out not half as bad as forecast but the thundery rumbles accompanied me all day.
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    Day 16
    +1340m - 850m
    At Seez, it was time to leave the GRV and head back into Italy. From the road bridge on the other side of Seez, an ancient mulatiere trail would take me to Col du Petit Saint-Bernard (2188) and later intersect with the AV2 at La Thuile.
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    There is a road across the pass as well as the trail but they only meet on the pass itself.
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    The Petit Saint-Bernard Hospice that welcomes pilgrims and hikers.
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    Back in Italy...
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    A forecast afternoon thunderstorm held on until I was under cover.
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    My cousin and I had followed the AV2 for a week from the other end across the Gran Paradiso range the previous summer but run out of time. Now I had time to explore the parts we had missed out on. The next 2 day forecast was stable which was just as well as I’d be setting out through some high alpine terrain.

    Day 17
    +1460m - 850m
    From La Thuile (1450m), the trail follows Torrente Ruitor until a landmark waterfall and then climbs steeply with nice views of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc). Not surprisingly, its fairly busy with day hikers.
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    to Rifugio Deffeyes (2500) with grand views of the Ruitor glacier.
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    I stopped for lunch at the hut and then headed on to Passo Alto (2860m). From here on, I'm on my own and in blissful tranquility again...
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    There was quite bit of snow still but no real challenges through the Ruta Locura mini crampons came in useful when it turned into a scramble.
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    A steep descent on the other side proved more tricky, particularly some (thankfully few) snow patches.
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    I also had a view of next day’s route to cross Col De La Crosatie which looked liked it might a bit of a challenge. Hopefully, the excellent weather conditions would hold.
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    The guidebooks show a bivacco hut near a little summer farm (Bergerie Promoud, 2040m) and just where the trail starts heading up again. I had thought I might camp near the bivacco if it was nice enough and use any facilities. Alas – no bivacco, it was destroyed by an avalanche the bergerie farmer told me. He thought my best chance to find a decent place to pitch was near the tree line further up on the AV2 trail. It was good advise (but a long bushwhack scramble to get water). A day to remember...
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    Day 18
    +1120m - 1300m
    The faint trail and scramble was every bit as brutally steep as the view from the previous pass had suggested. But it made for exhilarating views all the way to the Mont Blanc summit peaking through the clouds...
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    ... a close-up of yesterdays descent which looked a bit intimidating from this side...
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    And close-up taken from Passo Alto of the final scramble to Col De La Crosatie (2826m) which is partly secured with steel cables. Not necessary in calm and dry weather but but possibly a life saver if caught out by a wet and low visability descent.
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    And I was almost right above last nights camp site
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    And finally the pass
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    I only stopped briefly for some food and more breathtaking views of the Ruitor glaciers as I still had a long way to go.
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    The trail on other side was a bit more mellow and an easy decent with a hiker couple coming up
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    But then ... and the trail leads straight down to that tarn... but snow free at least
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    From the tarn, the trail turns into an alpine meadow stroll for a while before another steep descent into the Valgisenche valley where my cousin and I had departed Gran Paradiso the previous summer.
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    Contrasts - all in a single day...
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    Day 19
    + 1140m - 1220m
    The previous year, we arrived in the Valgisenche via the “Haute Route de Glacier” and Col Bassac Dere (3083m). This time, I was going to depart the Valgisenche on AV2 and cross Col Rosset to Val de Remis.
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    An early start helped to gain height quickly and I stopped for a coffee at Chalet de l’Epėe (2380), a friendly mountain hut. The guardian warned me of snow the other side of the pass and to be extremely careful. At least he didn’t advise me not to go I thought. Couldn’t be that bad – could it?. It was gorgeous day and I thoroughly enjoyed the climb up to Col Finestra (2840m).
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    But my heart sank when I looked down the near vertical ravine I would have to descent on the other side. Some way down was the snow the guardian warned me of.
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    Luckily the snow turned out to be of near ideal consistency and people had hacked some basic steps into the 70 or 80 meter snow ramp I had to descent (with a 300m drop ice shute below). The mini crampons helped with traction and I belayed myself with the Suluk46 ice tool. Slow but steady progress got me back onto terra firma and to the safety cables that were buried under snow for the section I just had descended.
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    A little hanging vally with flower meadows welcomed me below. Time for a break. I reached the little hamlet Rhemes-Notre-Dame with 20 minutes to spare before the skies opened to a major thunderstorm. Luckily, a room was to be had there. A hot shower and a great meal had never felt that good….

    Day 20
    + 1420m -???
    There are 3 passes on the map accross to Piani di Rosset, a 2500m high plateau, of which I choose Col Rosset. After an initial steep climb, the trail mellows for a while.
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    As for most of this trip, I had the pretty trail all to myself until the start of the scamble to the col when my trail was joined by another coming from Rifugio Benevolo. The scramble looked a bit wild but wasn't bad actually - just steep...
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    But at the top, the views from Col Rosset (3023m) turned out a 360 degree grande finale.
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    The big glacier my cousin and I had been to on last year’s trip.
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    On the other sise, Gran Paradiso summit but hidden in the cloud...
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    A short descent to Piani di Rosset, the 2500m high plataeu with tarns and two big lakes and yet more spectacular views across the lakes and of the glaciers towering above.
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    A short climb past Rifugio Citta do Chivas to the final pass, Col del Nivolet (2612m) which is also crossed by a summer road, and the start of the long descent to Ceresole Reale (1560m) and the GTA trail which seemed good place to end my walk. I didn't end up hiking all the way down as got picked up by two electric pilon builders somewhere on the way down (hence no figure for the descent that day)

    Ceresole Reale has 3 daily buses to Rivarolo Canavese train station with frequent services to Torino (Turin). I will post a little map in the next few days and maybe a kit list too.

    And I'll definitely be back in the Piemonte in 2019...!

    I hope you enjoyed reading.

    Kit list is here
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2018
    ClimbingUke, Jmws, Shewie and 10 others like this.
  2. Arne L.

    Arne L. Section Hiker

    Lovely.
    tom likes this.
  3. tom

    tom Thru Hiker

    Map added...
    Arne L. likes this.
  4. WilliamC

    WilliamC Thru Hiker

    Wow. Thanks for taking the effort - I just wish you'd posted it a day earlier so it could have relieved the tedium of an 8-hour journey home :). As is it is, I've just had a quick run through the photos and will have to set some time aside this evening to give it the attention it deserves.
    tom likes this.
  5. Stu Sibley

    Stu Sibley Summit Camper

    Beautiful, great read too. Sounds like some challenging sections!
    tom likes this.
  6. gixer

    gixer Thru Hiker

    Amazing report, really enjoyed that

    Braver man than me after the fall and boulder day i think i'd have retired to a hotel for a week
    tom likes this.
  7. edh

    edh Thru Hiker

    Excellent account.

    Someone else who falls over :)
    tom likes this.
  8. tom

    tom Thru Hiker

    Lets not make a habit of it... :rolleyes: ... falling over I mean :)
  9. SafetyThird

    SafetyThird Section Hiker

    Looks like a fabulous trip. Thanks for putting all that together, it's an area I've not seen before.
    tom likes this.
  10. tom

    tom Thru Hiker

  11. Shewie

    Shewie Administrator Staff Member

    Great report Tom, lovely pics
    tom likes this.
  12. WilliamC

    WilliamC Thru Hiker

    I'm taking this a day at a time. Day 18, :thumbsup: :jawdrop:
    tom likes this.
  13. babby

    babby Trekker

    wonderful writeup;thanks for your effort
    tom likes this.

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