Words by Tanja Schmitt. Photos by Matthias Scherer.
The ‘Tour del Gran Paradiso’ is a classic ski traverse like the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, but this one sees significantly less traffic due to higher technical and physical demands.
Breathtaking beauty and wild scenery are the rewards that drive our motivation to commit to this long tour. Each year ski-mountaineers from all over the world embark on this great journey.
Normally it takes five days to complete the Tour, but for years we had been looking to do the traverse in a day. It has been done in one day in the past, but without the inclusion of Gran Paradiso Peak. That means an additional 1000 vertical meters, so 5350 vertical instead of 4350 vertical and, of course, adding more km’s to the trip.
Matthias and I have been living in the tiny village of Lillaz for 11 years. Every spring we skin up the Valeille to the Col de Teleccio several times to enjoy its marvelous slopes, which makes for a great descent. Every now and again we reach the summit of Gran Paradiso in a one-way push from the Valsavaranche, or via its icy North-west face with our crampons and ice axes, for a training session. We’ve skied the summit of Gran Serz countless times, often going for ‘PB’s (Personal Bests). Matthias and I love to take our skis out after a long ice climbing season with no other goal than spending a great day outside enjoy the mountain scenery on our way to another Col or summit. It doesn’t matter if the sun is out, the winds are cold, the snow is crusty or the powder is deep – being out in the mountains is all that counts and we embrace it all.
We have come to know the mountains and all of their varying conditions, so linking up some of the most stunning summits and cols seemed natural. The ‘Tour del Gran Paradiso’ covers it all so my twin sister Heike, Matthias and I would take up the challenge and assemble at 3 o´clock in the morning of the 9th of April. Our Goal: The ‘Tour del Gran Paradiso’ in a single day!
The first steps of such a long endeavor are not easy. It takes a certain amount of time to find a stable rhythm and saving energy is crucial. Our little team is nervous: I’ve raced up this winding path often with a heart rate of 170 beats per minute and it is hard to control myself to a stable course, but a heart rate under 140BPM is mandatory today. Matthias sets the pace and we follow, each one of us is deeply buried into our own thoughts at this sensitive hour of the day. The darkness and the cold surround us and I cannot help but feel slightly anxious about the whole endeavor: I can clearly feel that my body is still not regenerated from our last endurance session (five days before I skinned the 1870 verticals to Gran Serz with Matthias in a full storm in 2h40min) and I´m worried. If I can’t not keep up with the team today, I will consider the option to quit after the Gran Serz or the Gran Paradiso. We talked it through the other day, that this may be an option for anyone not feeling it, as long as two can continue. The forecast for the day looked stable for a window of time that suited us all. “Let the day unfold and see how it works out,” I told myself, eager to relax my mind!
After 3h15 of ascent I saw the rocky features of the Gran Sertz. My hands had become incredibly cold and I had to take a break to change gloves. With our skis on our packs, we walk along the ridge to the summit as the sun comes up lighting up the dark sky. Watching the day arising from the blackness is always a touching moment and our spirits heighten. The first stage of the Tour is done.
We down climb the Col de la Gran Serz into the basin of the Glacier de Timorion and pull the skins from our skis. The snow is still hard and makes skiing an icy business. After a short downhill passage we put our skins back on our skis and ascend the Glacier du Grand Neyron to the Biv Sberna. We cross the glacier de Montandayné and from here we can clearly see our next target. We are no longer alone, the ascent towards the Gran Paradiso (4061m) is already well traveled. We pass a few ascending teams and reach the summit at exactly 11 o´clock – 8 hours and 3200 vertical after our departure. On the way down we encounter more crusty, hard snow – not fun, but fast! With the first signs of soreness we enter the Refugio Vittorio Emanuele Hut for some Coffee and a Coke, while we enjoy the warmth of the midday sun. After our break, the real suffering starts as we are on our way towards the ‘Col del Gran Paradiso’. We reached the 10th hour of our mission walking under a merciless sun, but the temps stay cool keeping the snowpack stable.
Silently we all walk through a blinding bright light towards the Col. The distance between us becomes a cloak of isolation. It´s a crucial point. On the ragged Col we assemble once again. My mood is low, my blisters have become so big and painful I can barely walk. I mix myself a Clifbar recovery shake and put some more suncream on my already burnt face. I can clearly see the signs of suffering in Matthias´s and Heike´s faces too. We´re at the last turning point now; if we decide to go on from here, we have to gain the Col de Teleccio towards Lillaz via the Col di Becchi. I blink against the dazzling, gleaming sun and take some more sips of my beverage. Are we ready for another 10 hours of suffering? But giving in would not make it any better – two thirds of the mission are behind us – we are already full into it. From all my experience, I know that the exhaustion I am feeling is just a turning point, just another level I am on the brink of putting myself in. It is time to fully commit!
The first turns down the Col feel great, here we are, going for it. The first meters of re-ascending the Col dei Becchi are feeling O.K.. But then the legs turn to lead again and the breaths becomes short. A stoic attitude helps to go on. From here there is no way out. Trying not to think. Counting figures. Concentrate on something else other than blisters. Ignore the pain. count numbers, ignore the pain, count numbers, go on…endless steps. Skins down and taking turns. By now the snow is softer. We arrive at the Col di Becchi and have a short break with some snacks. We´re looking forward for the sun to disappear. We take some more turns down before we have to check the map for our options: our plan to safe verticals and go straight for the Biv. Carpano does not work out and so we ski all the way down to the ‘Muanda di Telccio’. The Refugio di Pontese is clearly visible from here. One last ascent to the Col di Teleccio and we are done here! Matthias tracks the way. He´s surpassed his point of tiredness and we’re thankful for him to track meter after meter up the soft snow. This last ascent becomes an effort containing moments of painful awareness with frequencies of dreamlike drifting apart. Our water reserves were expelled by the time and the last 1150 verticals to the col we hydrate only with snow, salt tablets and our last Clif Shots.
A cooling wind rolls down the mountains and the foreshadows of the night are turning in. By now we’re just plainly tired and our movements have become significantly slower. But we gain meter after meter and at 20.30 the hardest part seems to be done! In the beautiful light of the setting sun we reach the Col Teleccio the last obstacle of the Tour. Breathing in the magic of the moment we hug each other in silence seeing the effort mirrored in our faces…By now the wind has taken on swiftness and we put all our warm clothes on to stay warm. The headlamps are bright as we take the first turns down the valley. Normally, this is a joyful run I´m always looking forward to, but today the skiing becomes a challenge with icy slopes and flabby legs. On a sharp turn I loose my right ski and watch it emerging into the dark night. Despite all our effort to find it in the dark it remains lost. I cannot believe it. We are at 2700m and 10 k’s from Lillaz (1600m) afar…
Here the valley I know so good unfolds itself before me and I know exactly what effort lies in front of me to reach it´s bottom. But as much as I wish to make things undone and dream for my ski to reappear, as much as I wish for my complaining and rage to change a thing, I know the only way to deal with all this is to swallow and gulp it up stoically. My teammates have to do the same, and no matter how much I try to persuade them to leave me behind and safe themselves some 2.5 extra- hours, they would not listen. We stay together as a team. Finally we reach the Arolla bridge and we walk the last hour silently together on the snow free path. By now I´m so tired from my snow breaking endeavors I´m just in automatic mode. I can watch Heike moving similar. We reach our home in Lillaz at.0.47o´clock. It has taken us 21h47min to complete the tour, all little happenings inclusive. But we do not realize that or anything else until some glasses of Crodinis and a decent amount of chips….and some stone like hours of dreamless sleep shortly after.