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Gran Paradiso

Sharing Rides - Cultural mix on Wheels and Skis

· Ski Tour,Ski Mountaineering

In these years of ‘immigration crisis’ it’s no surprise we were stopped at the border. Our mini convoy of a NL (Netherlands) van with 2 Japanese in front (my 'Brexit' self in back), followed by a Swedish truck driven by Icelandic passport holder Diego (Spanish name) with a Finnish passenger, was bound to raise the curiosity of the relaxed looking immigration guard (seated smoking a pipe) at the Mont-Blanc tunnel. Our trip was pure pleasure and cannot be compared to those fleeing their country. For those who live the privileged life in Chamonix, April consists of checking weather to decide if ski up/down, climb, run, fly, or work (rainy option).

This Italian-French border is a common crossing for skiers trying to pick the best of either side but the first question was still ‘does anybody speak French?’ I reply confidently while thinking: 1) those years of school French are still paying off and 2) my language skills were my added value to the group for this trip. It is not uncommon in Chamonix to find five people who don’t speak French let alone Italian. My Italian formed through years of skiing in risky terrain with a Courmayeur crew, if you didn't pick up the lingo fast you risked a very wrong turn. Now being in the 1st van I tried to explain we were on a ski mountaineering trip, a little suspect as we had no gear in the car. Luckily we were followed by the most organized ski/climbing van I know, owned by trip mastermind Alex (officially Jonas Alexander Erlendsson Diego).

An actual Pilot (not just a pet name), Alex had a work window free for ski touring and was motivated. At least 3 different 'Haute Routes’ (multi-day high level mountain crossings) Italy, Switzerland, and Austria were on the table. In the end our 'compromise' to fit everyone was an overnight tour to Gran Paradiso, Aosta, location of the only 4,000 meter summit solely in Italy.

Serious planning meeting - lots of tea, maps, computers, phones...

The Crew:

Alexander Diego: our kind Pilot. He is definitely the planner but very inclusive about it and is up for anything ski, climb, run, bike. His professional background is evident in all that he does.

Yasuko Kikuchi: 1st Japanese female Mountain Guide going for the international qualification (UIAGM /IFMGA). Woman of few words, even smaller appetite (leftovers benefiting the boys), she's a solid skier & climber. Her talent for finding hidden powder impressed us all. I learned about how much the Alps and guiding culture there influenced her.

Ryoko Amano: Japanese friend I met years ago in Chamonix through AirBnB and a freeride ski camp. Ex-London banker, she works for Explore-Share developing the Japanese market to show there is more to discover beyond 'Japanuary' powder +growing the platform for international guides 

Jaakko: Finnish guy doing the season in Chamonix, the Ski Station hostel is his home. I learn about the cliché of Finns, their lack of emotional expression (only repeating what I was told) but I occasionally catch him crack a smile. Chilled and simply content with a good ski and a beer. There is something nice about being with somebody who is not constantly wanting more.

Jakko looking excited - can you tell ?
Yasuko en route to Gran Paradiso summit

Life Without a Car is about adventures through sharing rides - in this case we were offered a whole car! The Swedish van only fits one passenger, so friend Bill Zimmerman (who has blogged Hike & Fly) offers a solution. Recovering from paragliding injury our mission rules him out but he kindly offers his van. This is a complete change from my experience in North America where most people (or at least 2 adults per household) cannot manage without two cars and often perplexed that I would chose to go even a few days without one. Finances are a factor but the sharing economy is also about community, and now our sharing of rides is also for a shared mountain passion.

We head up the Valsavarenche valley to Gran Paradiso National Park. The parking lot in the hamlet of Pont is full of ski tourers mixed with lycra clad x-country skiers (xcountry in Chamonix closed a month before). We thank the municipality who provide facilities (toilets and water at the base), so appreciated.

The skin up around 700m to the hut was icy and ski crampons get put to use early on, until both of mine broke. There was talk of 50-60cm the days before! Where did all the powder go? We also wonder why our bags are so heavy. Crevasse kit, crampons, food, water, all adds up and we ranged from 9.9-12 kilos (organiser Alex had a travel scale in the van!).

We arrive at the Vittorio Emmanuelle hut (2,700m), full of people taking in the sun. There is something special about sitting on the terrace of a mountain hut drinking a quality coffee for 1.50eu (or beer) and hearing the mix of Italian, Swiss-German, French, and English. A large dish of pasta is 6eu and even 3 choices of sauce! Welcome to Italy (good food, less expensive). 

The main refuge looks nice although we get put in the outside dormitory. Afternoon is spent doing the usual hut routine, drying /organizing gear, resting, talking routes and gear. Wearing Arc’teryx from head to toe it’s not surprising I get asked feedback on their ski touring boots and jackets.

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Day2: once on skis we were in efficiency mode, no faffing, and a steady pace by Ryoko got us up in 4 hours and feeling pretty good. The 'real' summit (height & point of which is still being debated by my friends a year later) is along a mountaineering ridge. These guys are all peak baggers and I gave in to the crowd mentality. 1st 10 steps looked easy but I was less confident about what followed and this gave Yasuko the opportunity to practice her short roping. Only the two of us roped up but once among the chaos on the exposed ridge, with people clamoring above and below, some on ropes, some not, one guide put a fixed rope for his clients other tangled in it… so sure enough Alex, Ryoko, and Jaakko also roped up to come down. This ridge was crowded!

Whether it was the summit or not, we all groped the Madonna at 4,000m (+/- a few meters).

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Summit Gran Paradiso

Due to our faster than predicted ascent time the snow on the way back was still crust and challenged me to keep up. One can see why Yasuko is a guide, she was the first to sniff out the untracked powder. After a nice brief stop at the hut, we opted for the extended route back with an added skin up to get a better descent to the valley bottom. Now in a sun bowl with all layers in the pack making us heavy the legs were tested. There is one large traverse exposed to big slopes, most of which had already slid. At this point my legs are so fried I would have no chance of out-skiing an avalanche and so I nervously watch above me as I move along to meet the group. It is a valley exposed to avalanche prone slopes on both sides so I would not recommend this route in higher risk conditions.

Day2 'stats': 2hrs sleep, 1700m skin, 4000m summit, 2400m descent, 1L water, 1 pizza to finish

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We are part of part of a privileged population of people whose movements are based on snow and weather conditions for reason of enjoyment, whether professional or amateur. It is our common love of the outdoors and mountain experiences that connects us and kindness of the few to share the ride together.

Alex putting his mechanic skills to use as we depart