GTA 2016 part 2 - the Cottian Alps

Discussion in 'Trips Reports' started by tom, Mar 28, 2017.

  1. tom

    tom Section Hiker

    Part 1 can be found here

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    Day 8 Rifugio Gardetta – Chiappera (↑500m – ↓ 1220m)
    The storm died down over night and I set off again after a hearty breakfast (dinner had been great too and the night undisturbed). 20160626_080258.jpg

    I disturbed 2 herds of Chamois which seem to be of the shy and reserved kind in the Cottian Alps.

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    There's no major pass today, just a 500m climb and a pleasant meander through alpine meadows and forest.

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    The view backwards. Its Sunday but apart from some farmers preparing a summer pasture for their stock, I meet nobody.

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    After a long descend under tree cover, a view into Valle Maira opens up. On the way down, the path leads through a well located but crowded camp site “Sorgenti del Maria” which seemed incredibly noisy after all the tranquility. Glad I'm not staying here.

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    In early afternoon I arrive at Chiappera - said to be the prettiest hamlet on the GTA.

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    I had planned to carry on a bit further up Valle Maira but then I thought it was too much of a visual feast to just pass through. I asked at the only bar/eatery and they had a gorgeous split-level room in this converted barn nearby – I didn't hesitate and it was time to wash some clothes anyway.

    Day 9 Chiappera – Valle Varaita di Bellino (↑1180m – ↓ 1000m)
    Refugio Campo Base (with a pretty camp site the little shop was dire) is just 10 minutes into the valley which unfortunately is cold and damp. The bottom of steep and deep Alpine valleys often act like “cold-sinks” this one was no exception – cold and damp.

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    The hike up the lower valley is not steep but relentless and emerges from the lower gorges into the high summer pastures above 2000m.

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    The valley opens wide with millions of flowers and a few summer farm buildings dotting the landscape.

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    Marmots everywhere too. This was tuning into one of my favorite days on the GTA.
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    Eventually a side valley branches to the right towards Colle Bellino and the final climb.

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    Sadly, this is a little tarnished by cycle vandalism on the final steep leg up to the pass where the fragile high alpine environment is badly carved up by chunky downhill racing tires - sometimes straight through clusters of flowers. Nothing against cyclists – I am one myself – but some vandals seem to treat this like playground. Leave no trace indeed...

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    Colle Bellino (2804m)

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    Whereas early summer had clearly arrived in Valle Maira, Valle Varaita di Bellino feels distinctly more like early spring - quite a bit of still frozen snow, no flowers yet in the upper valley and not even tracks in the snow. I am apparently the first human on the trail here since the last snow fall.

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    And there is a first view of Monte Viso (3841m) - or Monviso in Italian, an iconic summit that dominates the region.

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    Near the bottom of the wide open high summer pasture, the path turns east down the valley and later traverses two steep gullies on frozen snow.

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    I'm glad I'm packing my little self-arrest tool when I look at the frozen snow chute and the gorge below....

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    Summer returns at about 2000m altitude.

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    The Vango Ti cleats come in handy and grip beautifully into the slippery and not too well fixated wood which made for a quick and safe crossing.

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    S. Anna, the first hamlet. All roofs old and new old are tiled with beautiful huge granite slabs. Sadly also plenty of abandoned farms in this valley.

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    Day 10 Valle Varaita di Bellino – Rifugio Bagnour (↑ 1270m – ↓ 860m)
    A crescendo of songbirds wakes me up at first light which is great as I wanted an early start to get to Pontechianale before the shops close for their long lunch break. A quick tea and breakfast and I break camp.

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    More pretty hamlets down the valley - this one, Chiazale, apparently has a nice Posto Tappa...

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    Just below the hamlet Pleyne (1600m), the GTA turns left and climbs up to Colletto delle Battagliola.

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    Colletto delle Battagliola (2248m) offers a grand view of Monviso - but first its down to Pontechianale (1614) to the left of Lago di Castello down below. Pontechianale has a small but well stocked grocery, a bakery and a pharmacy as well as a huge camp site. The GTA is routed along the road on the left side of the lake but there is a beautiful path on the other lake side away from traffic. From Castello, the path climbs up Monviso.

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    I heard about Rifugio Bagnour (2017m) which is about 30 minutes of the trail but came highly recommended and justly so. There were a few day hikers lounging by the pretty lake but they soon disappeared as the afternoon went by. I had just enough sun for a dip. The refugio is run by young father and his 6 year old daughter. The kid was clearly into this - she rang a huge cow bell later to signal that it was time for an aperitive - served in style on the wooden deck by her father along with some savories. An Italian couple had also arrived but that would be the entire population for the night. He served an amazingly tasty dinner - for a mountain hut - little was I to know about culinary superlatives awaiting me further down he trail.

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    Day 11 Rifugio Bagnour – Pian del Re (↑ 1170m – ↓ 860m)
    After 30 minutes descend, I pick up the GTA trail again and head up towards Passo San Chiaffredo

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    Its still early but the clouds are already building quickly.

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    Its a bit of a novelty to meet other hikers on the GTA trail but Monviso is obviously popular. A bit further is a little orange tincan mountain shelter - Bivacco Bertaglio at 2700m - a bit difficult to spot even with good visibility.

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    Cairn building seems fashionable up here.

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    Passo San Chiaffredo (2764m) - still plenty of sun in between clouds but that's about to change as I begin to traverse the Monviso range.

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    These memorial plaques are commonly found along Italian Alpine trails.

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    Sadly, I didn't get a single view of the summit (to the left) all day.

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    Somewhere up there is a summit - only another 1200m to go...

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    Even a few moments of sun coming through

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    Rifugio Quintino Sella (2640m) appearing in the mist. My idea had been to dump my pack there and summit one of the lower peaks (the main summit requires full climbing equipment) but there seems little point in the fog. I stop for a coffee in the friendly hut and head on.

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    Colle del Viso (2650m)

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    The northern side of Monviso is still deep in snow but apart from some postholing, the route is easy to follow.

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    Pian del Re (2020m) - "the king's ground" and the source of mighty river Po appears in the fog.

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    I take a look at Refugio Pian del Re - "bygone times" comes to mind and "quaint and quirky" but such warm and friendly hospitality. Well worth a visit.

    I probably hadn't read the books properly but it dawns on me that the GTA is in large parts a route that takes you from one valley system into the the next while crossing a pass or two or a high ridge in the process. Which is a little problem if you – like I do - prefer to do big climbs in the morning but also staying high overnight. I'm not much into mountain huts and usually prefer a wild camp. But I'm not much into stealth camping either (or camp sites for that matter except "aire naturelle" style ones). My thing is hiking and where I sleep is secondary - a means to an end I'm quite pragmatic about.

    But I'm learning how the high valleys on the GTA are quite a different kettle of fish than what I'm used to. In the Alps, valleys are usually populated by summer houses and tourist accommodation and local communities sustained at least in part from the tourist economy. But the GTA rarely ever fits this image and particularly not the central section through the Cottian, Graian and the Pennine Alps were only hikers find their way into these isolated high valleys. This is of course a summer economy too but without the tourism. What you get instead is a quaint and sometimes quirky but usually charming parallel universe, incredible hospitality which will often be very basic but almost always serving great food. And this is getting more so by the day as the GTA heads deeper into the Piemonte.



    Day 12 Pian del Re – Rifugio Willi Jervis (↑ 1160m – ↓ 1460m)
    The rain stops sometime during the night and its a bright and crispy morning.

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    A warning: the GTA markings and signposts got rerouted - probably some local vested interests -via a hamlet "Pian Melze" (1750m) in the valley below and then leads up another steep valley to Colle dela Gianna were it rejoins the old route. However, the old route via Sellaccia is still there and is actually a particular nice trail with great views of Monviso - highly recommended!

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    Stepping carefully - there are too many of theses about to count

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    A final view of Monviso from Colle dela Gianna (2525m). Its not even 9am yet but the clouds are building quickly.

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    This section is a bit precipitous in places and I'm glad I'm not doing this in a whiteout.

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    A group of hikers coming up just before the first squall hits.

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    Not far from Refugio Barbara Lowrie (1753m) a solo hiker is coming my way. It turns out he is the first GTA hiker I meet and on a throu-hike too. He says the weather is grim in the next valley across but the trail is easy to navigate in low visibility. For the moment its dry again but that won't last. And sure enough half an hour later its foggy and raining - pretty much all the way up to Colle del Baracun. But the route is indeed easy to find and the zpacks poncho keeps me dry and well ventilated during the 600m climb.

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    Colle del Baracun (2373m). Up here miraculously the rain stops and even the clouds break up briefly - time for a brew. Apparently there is many botanical treasures up here but today, it all hidden by clouds and squalls. Then its downhill towards Refugio Willi Jervis (1732m).

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    The refugio defies any expectations one might have of mountain huts - "not to be missed!" - hospitality and food are divine...

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    And the sky is clearing up too. Its been a long, wet and big mile day but a good one!

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    Day 13 Rifugio Willi Jervis - Ghigo di Prali (↑ 1210m – ↓ 1510m)
    On the way down the gorge towards Villanova, the path crosses “Piano dei Morti”, the “ground of the dead” where 32 Waldenses fleeing a massacre in 1655 perished in an avalanche. The next two days will be a trip down DNA memory lane for me and a crash course in family history. Researching the GTA I realized that this is where some of my family hails from. The Cottian Alps are home to the Waldensians, a pre-Catholic early Christianity people (from about 400 A.D. onward) who suffered some 800 year of massacres, genocide and persecution that only came to an end in the year 1848.

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    Villanova (1225m) the "high street"...

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    Sleeping bags airing in the sun – there is a GTA posto tappa in Villanova

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    From Villanova, the path climbs relentlessly for about a 1000m where it then follows a ridge towards Bergerie Giulian.

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    A look back at Villanova below and the gorge coming down from Willi Jerves behind.

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    Up near the ridge, two of these huge gorgeous sheep dogs are quite worked up about my presence. I hear the sheep across the crest but don't even see them. One soon scampers off but the other one seems really mad at me. Luckily I don't have to try get around the flock as my path turns to the right. These dogs are raised among their sheep from a young age and fiercely protective of "their" flock with whom they left to roam the mountain pastures.

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    Above Bergerie Giulian (2097m), marked as ruins on maps but being under reconstruction when I passed, the final climb to Colle Guilian starts.

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    Colle Guilian (2457m). There is an alternative track north to Bric Rond (2440m) with the top station of the Ghigo di Prali cable car for the 1000m descend but I much prefer to walk and hike straight down the Vallone Clapou.

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    The steep scree path soon turns into gentle flowery hill sides

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    The entire Germanesca valley area and tribute valleys seem incredibly lush, rich in colors and with an abundance of water.

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    A Waldensian barn build in 1695…

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    Ghigo di Prali (1455m) is sleepy miniature "town" - a little modern but still featuring granite roofs. This is the only “town” in the entire Germanasca valley system, a few tourist facilities but still somehow in the parallel Piemonte universe. One small supermarket and a pharmacy (open for 1 hour per day!!!), one auberge that also serves as the posto tappa and said cable car serving a few basic ski slopes. And not to forget – a Waldensian museum! Every tiny hamlet of 15 houses has one I learn – usually looked up with directions to get a key – but this one is open daily and worth a visit.

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    Day 14 Ghigo di Prali – Val Germanasca (↑ 790m – ↓ 870m)
    A day traversing the Germanasca valley system. It's not quite a valley walk but the highest altitude today is just 1700m. And its green and colorful.

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    From Colle Serrevecchio (1707), the path leads down to Roderetto, a pretty village that stands large in Waldensian history.

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    The Waldensian temple in Roderetto (1432m).

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    The route up Colletto Galmont (1651m) passes a few more farms and hamlets. This part of the GTA seems more popular than south of Monviso or in the Maritime Alps but its still rare to meet a hiker on the trail. But there are plenty friendly villagers and farmers about. Occasionally some signs of former talc-mining days which brought prosperity into these remote valleys.

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    Didiero (1245m) - another big name in Waldensian history. The Agriturismo La Miando (an organic working farm which also operates the posto tappa) serve a excellent lunch and bake great bread!

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    Day 15 Val Germanasca – Laux (↑ 1330m – ↓ 1380m)
    A perfect morning blue skies greet me. Valle Germanasca di Masselia is said to be a long climb through a riot of wildflowers.

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    But first the hamlet Balsiglia (1370), the final habitation outpost and a hugely symbolic name for Waldensian resistance. There is no bar or eatery here and I'm not sure if the posto tappa is open.

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    Balsiglia is towered by Bric Autin where in 1690, 370 Waldensians battled 4000 French troops and held out for several month. When the French brought artillery the Waldensians escaped by forming a human chain to scale a cliff hidden by fog.

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    Further up the valley, a tiny abandoned village.

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    One of those magic days that should never end...

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    The character of the valley keep changing and opens up more and more the higher I get. The flowers get smaller but not less in variety or numbers.

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    And still it goes up...

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    A tranquil and peaceful summer's day but in the year 1400, 80 Waldensian children hereabouts froze to death while fleeing some atrocity.

    Colle dell' Albergian (2713m) was a bit of an anticlimax and certainly not crowning the hike up.

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    But it soon gets pretty again on the way down Vallone dell' Albergian. Time for lunch with a view and a brew.

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    Looking back up to the colle.

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    Picture postcard alpine sceneries - one of those days - it'll probably rain tomorrow...

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    I hadn't planned how far I was gonna go so when I passed this little auberge (1345m), I decided spontaneously to check if they had room - and they did - the only one and with my own terrace. The price was reasonable and the food delicious.

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    Day 16 Laux – Rifugio D. Arlaud (↑ 1250m – ↓ 800m)
    The clouds are back - there's a surprise. I skipped the auberge breakfast for an early start. After crossing the Chisone valley I walk through Usseaux, a pretty village where most houses have murals and there's a posto tappa too. Then the path leads up towards Colle dell'Assieta where the high crest walk starts.

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    The clouds come lower as I get higher.

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    Colle dell'Assieta (2472m) - well there was sign that said so - not could have told the difference...

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    Testa dell'Assieta (2566m). This is a memorial for a major battle - at 2500m altitude (!!!) - in 1747 when an army of 8000 Piemotese, Waldensian and Austrian troops defeated 20000 French soldiers. The clouds just lift a little for a few minutes, then its whiteout again. Which is a shame as the panoramic views from the crest are said to be amazing. But not today.

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    Eventually the clouds lift - not around but at least above. Bit like an island surrounded by a landscape of clouds.

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    Then its time to head down again but first a brew, who knows - I might get a view after all. Glimpses of few white topped summits but who is complaining.

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    I saw one lone hiker somewhere up on the crest in the mist - I've got this little paradise all to myself....

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    The tiny hamlet Montagne Seu appears. Two of the old ruins have been converted into a rustic refugio. I hadn't made any plans but when I get there - I like it a lot.

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    Rifugio D. Arlaud (1771m) and I am the only guest - who is complaining?

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    Day 17 Rifugio D. Arlaud - Susa (↑ 100m – ↓ 860m)
    In the morning, I finally get that view - worth the wait. Dinner was an amazing affair - no others words will do. Amidst a sea of candles (there was something wrong with the solar light in the dining room), I was served 4 different starters, 2 main courses and a scrumptious desert - in a mountain hut!!!! Only in the Piemonte.

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    Breakfast was another memorable affair...

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    Quite a bit of restoration going on in Montagne Seu.

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    but also plenty ruins that look well beyond repair.

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    The cows must be happy here...

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    Salbertrand (1032m). There are trains every hour to Meana di Susa - one of those Italian train tracks that gain height by doing spirals in tunnels. There is a hiking path down to Susa but the Susa valley also has a noisy motorway.

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    In Meana di Susa (595m), I buy some fresh food for lunch and stock on meth in the pharmacy. I still need to find a good spot to cache all the "dangerous" goods I'm carrying until my return 11 days later (flying cabin luggage only). The dry wall on the left by the tree makes a perfect spot. A few stones lifted to create a cavity and I carry on to Susa (501m). I am a day early having scheduled for a zero day that just didn't happen. And then I thought - why not do my zero day in Milan, a city I'd never been to?

    Day 18 Milano - Zero (↑ 0m – ↓ 0m)
    Bit of shock to the system after 17 days among the clouds and surrounded my towering mountains. I also feel a little under dressed in my dirty red Brooks, hiking pants and t-shirt but hey - I like the contrast....

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    And who would have thought central Milan was such a nice mellow local place? More assumptions out the window. Never paid more than 1 Euro for any coffee in the center, nice inexpensive restaurant in a residential neighborhood not far from the station and I can recommend the Galleria d'Arte Moderna - the museum for modern art. Sadly no time for more.

    End of part II

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: May 3, 2017
    Clare, Mox, fluffkitten and 15 others like this.
  2. edh

    edh Thru Hiker

    That looks fantastic; a part of the Alps I have yet to visit - more keen to go now!
    tom likes this.
  3. Max

    Max Ultralighter

    Great TR Tom. You bring it alive, gonna add this route to my 2018 list.
    Clare and tom like this.
  4. Lady Grey

    Lady Grey Thru Hiker

    Absolutely gorgeous pics and terrain.
    SO green too.
    Not an area I have been to yet.
    tom likes this.
  5. WilliamC

    WilliamC Thru Hiker

    Beautiful stuff and well worth waiting for. Thanks for taking the time to share this.
    tom likes this.
  6. tallest of pauls

    tallest of pauls Ultralighter

    how many more parts are there? :)
    tom likes this.
  7. tom

    tom Section Hiker

    Good question - my GTA was 40 days. I hadn`t planned to post quite as much as have so far but writing it brings the trail back alive and I got tons of pictures. And I think Carol Quinn said something about wanting to live on the PCT which is similiar to how I felt on some GTA days.
    Anyway I was hoping to write it all up before my next adventures - probably more economically considering the number of days. But do let me know if it gets boring and I shut up...:whistling:
  8. stormin'

    stormin' Ultralighter

    Keep it coming Tom, addictive reading
  9. WilliamC

    WilliamC Thru Hiker

    keep it coming in full gets my vote.
  10. oreocereus

    oreocereus Ultralighter

    Tom this looks amazing. I'm in Italy at the moment, I only have time for a 3-4 day hike - I know it's a tough question, but is there anything accessible (Im using public transport) that you'd recommend as a section hike? I've been looking at the dolomites but after being in cities here avoiding places mentioned in tourist brochures will be a nice escape from the chaos:)
  11. tom

    tom Section Hiker

    Thanks @oreocereus. I've just been to the lower Dolomites (Trentino and Veneto) myself over Easter to see family and hike and while snow levels are quite low this year (at least in lower altitudes) on the south facing slopes, its still too early to hike anything around and above 2000m without hitting some north facing sections that are unsafe without ropes. You could try the Apennine Mountains which are further south and said to be beautiful (not been myself yet). In the Piemonte, you also can't go very far without crossing a pass well above 2000m... Good luck!
    Last edited: May 2, 2017
  12. Saffron4

    Saffron4 Backpacker

    Thank you for posting.
    I am finding your write really very interesting and my interest has been captured. Would you say you need to speak Italian or did you find you were you able to get by with English and a smile?
    tom likes this.
  13. tom

    tom Section Hiker

    Thanks for feedback and no - you don't need Italian to get by. A few basic words like "mezza pensione" if you stay in a hut or albergo and it always helps to greet people in the local language - a "salve" or "buongiorno" or "bon giornata" will be well received. Along the GTA route, there's also a couple of ancient languages or dialects spoken. And quite a few people speak at least some basic English.
    Last edited: May 3, 2017
  14. fluffkitten

    fluffkitten Thru Hiker

    Oh dear lord that is so beautiful.
  15. Mox

    Mox Backpacker

    What a lovely write up. Thank you so much!
    tom likes this.
  16. no-banjo

    no-banjo Trekker

    I'm glad this thread has come back.
    I had been hoping for more from Tom about his meanderings here but time went on and I forgot about this lovely write up, iirc he said he had quite a bit more to add to this TR. Any chance of the next instalment please Tom? I for one would be most grateful.
    tom, Clare and WilliamC like this.

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