Northern Mountain Sport / Blog / Ski Touring around the Grand Saint Bernard Pass and Gran Paradiso

Ski Touring around the Grand Saint Bernard Pass and Gran Paradiso

Finally, in terms of temperatures at least, Spring has arrived in the Alps. Normally at this time of year I would expect to be skiing on fully transformed 'Spring snow' but the reality has been very different, certainly at altitude. A big snow year and low temperatures has meant that when the rise came it had a dramatic effect and the avalanche hazard went wild for a while.

Caroline, Dom, Anna and Issy joined me for 3 days of ski touring around the Grand Saint Bernard pass. This area gets a lot of snow but is accessible from the Swiss side via a skin up the road then the 'combe des Morts' and is a popular 'first tour'. Another reason for its popularity is the Grand Saint Bernard Hospice situated at the top of the pass and open all winter to 'travellers'. Staffed by a dwindling, though friendly set (don't know the collective noun for them) of monks it really is a 'must visit' place and I've always enjoyed the special atmosphere here.

We set forth into a scudding sky and questionable snow turning left at Le Tronchet (a small emergency refuge at the base of the Combe des Morts) and into the combe de Barasson. At the head of this we ascended to the col Ouest de Barasson 2635m to look into a gloomy Italy. A sort of ski back to Le Tronchet via some impressive crust sorted us all out and had us ready for our complimentary tea at the hospice. Everyone enjoyed the chapel that evening and also a great bit of archived footage (with gruesome cadavers in the morgue) shown to all residents.

The nest day dawned clear with a little fresh snow lying. We headed up to the classic peak of the area, Mont Fourchon 2902m. After a pole and a push around the lake you arrive in Italy and then whizz through a semi snow filled tunnel. Anna certainly whizzed but ran out of snow and quite impressively came to an edge sparking, base ruining skid on the tarmac which was only slowed as she braked with her helmet. Anna's a tough nut thankfully and pressed on up the pleasant skinning track until we summited amongst a throng of Euro skiers. Happily they all soon disapeared and we had some great lines and powder to ourselves all the way to the valley bottom. That evening we (the girls and I anyway) went for evening service and saw the 'other' film they show. I star in this for about 15 seconds and we all cheered as I made my cameo appearance.

Our last day again dawned clear though temperatures were staring to climb. We decided on the fantastic traverse of the Fenetre d'en Haut, col de l'Arpalle and col du Neve de la Rousse before the classic descent of the Combe de l'A. Suffice to say we had it to ourselves and enjoyed the great vistas throughout (looking over towards the Val Ferret and Mont Blanc Massif). Dropping in to the lower reaches of the combe I think we were glad we had stashed a vehicle at Vicheres rather than try and descend all the way to Drance though I still detected rumblings from the group as our '20 minute' skin to the resort morphed in to a tiring 40! A really satisfying and enjoyable 3 day ski tour though.

Finally, I've been in to Italy for the high level Gran Paradiso ski tour. I've completed this before and had fond memories of steep, technical skiing, interesting routefinding but most of all, idyllic refuges all outdoing each other in gastronomic offerings. I wasn't to be disapointed this year on any of those counts. We started in the Valgrisenche where we decided to mostly drink coffee and eat pannini until we deemed the sun might have left the steeper slopes of the valley (there had been some huge spontaneous wet slides the day before). All seemed to go OK until we started to come across fresh debris on West facing aspects (it had been mainly East the day before) and it became obvious that a hazard very much still existed. Spreading out seemed wise so we did but it wasn't an enjoyable approch for me hearing the mountains unleash a season's worth of snow into an icreasingly tight valley is not something I wish to repeat. The Bezzi refuge was reached however and the normal gastronomic experience went a little way to lift my spirts; it is a really well run, friendly hut with restaurant level food.

The next day we breakfasted at 06:30 and set off for the pass of the col Bassac Dere. We skied this on delightful spring snow but I knew that we had to motor as the slopes above the Benevolo and Fond refuges were steep and of the same aspect. Spring snow is tricky to get right and this day we were too late on the lower slopes (I don't think there had been a very good refreeze, in fact the guardian of the Fond thought anything later than 10am was too late that day). We reached the refuge but again witnessed some big slides and for the second day in a row I lay down in my bunk relieved rather than satisfied. We stayed in the Fond which is just above the Benevolo and for me it was a first time. I loved it. Genuinely rural with a real atmosphere I definitely intend to get back when I can.

After the previous day I breakfasted ay 05:30 but immediately you could tell that the snow was better stuck together and the hazard was on its way down. More and more in the mountains you notice 'big days' which send alarm bells out and you should adjust your behaviour accordingly. I felt we had got through two of them and it was 'back to normal' now. We crossed the col Basei in good time so carried on to the summit to soak up the views around (into the Vanoise and the rest of the Graian alps) before a steep ski into the Chivasso Rifugio. This hut has been guarded by Alessandrio for a whopping 27 years and he has made it his own. It includes a multi lingual library amongst other things and his speciality is 'slow food'.

The final section of the traverse is the crossing of the col Foura. I had been ill up to this point so quite enjoyed this day as I felt my body finally fight back against the 'guide flu' which had attacked me. Sadly for poor old Emily I had passed it on to her and she started to feel a bit crook (but was way more stoic than I had been!). After the col there are some steep coulouirs but I opted for the more normal traverse out right where you sometimes have to cross cliff bands by abseil. I had thought this season's snow might be enough to dispense with the rope and so it turned out but they were still the crux of the day being steep and sun affected. An icy ski down the glacier then an ankle snapping, snow collapsing ski of the Valsavarenche followed before arriving at he hotel Gran Paradiso.

The final icing on the cake is Italy's highest peak, the Gran Paradiso. This really is a worthwhile ski objective in its own right but sits nicely on the back of this tour. Sadly for us it was not to be and we had run out of weather. We got to the hut (Vittorio Emmanuelle) but no further as storms raged outside and kept us in bed. We finally went into the breech and set forth into what became quite an adventurous descent - I certainly didn't expect to be skiing powder in the trees in late April! We must have looked a funny sight though as we led, in a pied piper style some 30 or so 'followers' into the car park at the road head. I felt we had earned our hot chocolate. Well done Emily and John!


Grand Saint Bernard Ski Tour

Thanks again for a fantastic few days in the mountains.

The ache in my legs is reminding me of it every time I move about the office and it feels like we have been away for a month - perfect.

I hope your next trip goes well; we will start planning our jaunts for next year in the pub on Friday night!



Gran Paradiso Ski Tour

Thanks again for a great tour we really enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot about snow behaviour.

Look forward to hearing from you and enjoy your few days off...I'm back to the office in the morning...groan.

Best regards

John and Emily

Gran Paradiso Ski Tour

Thanks for another great tour! Finished the surfing book - Aussie surfers sure live a little closer to the edge than those in Cornwall!


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