Share this with me. Within sight of Mont Blanc,anything is crystal-beauty.
The park is named for one of the mountains within its confine,the highest on Italian soil. And the name is fitting for the park is a paradise of unspoilt alpine wilderness filled with an incredible variety of plants,flowers and animals.
Armed with serious hiking boots,reasonable fitness and yodelling- pitch to match the beauty of the edelweiss,violets,anemones and wildflowers,we set off with the hope of seeing changes,ibex and the elusive marmots.
You drive two and a half hours from either Milan or Geneva and a little less from Turin and you find yourself either in France,Switzerland or Italy. My femme decided the Italian frontier. We started at the village of Lillaz and headed towards the wide,U-shaped glacial valley of Urtier.
My personal pet hate is the high- tension- line that runs the full length,marring the alpine valley but brings essential electricity. Our guide was an inexhaustible source of information,a lot shared, as we climbed past a natural outcrop showered by a powerful little waterfall,that shot out of a rocky gorge. he pointed out a juniper sabine, the small carnivorous plants that digest insects to compensate for the lack of nitrogen in the soil. With a quick pointing of his arm,he pointed to a rocky cliff where the park's biggest nocturnal predator,the le duc owl,had its nest.
Leaving the open,grassy valley we climbed to higher ground. our path took us first through a wooded area. Evergreens and larches dominate. We started at an altitude of about 5000 ft. By 11.00 o'clock we were at 7500 ft reaching the top of a grassy,rocky shoulder. Suddenly our guide shooshed us and called us over to the edge in a hushed voice. On the steep slope below was a herd of about 60 chamois with their characteristic small black curved horns. Quickly aware of our presence they began running away with such speed,that they climbed a much higher mountainside opposite. In a few minutes,we could see them crossing a snow field several hundred meters above us.
By sheer serendipity, about half an hour later we encountered a group of male ibex,the heavy big horns of the oldest was half a meter long. Awesome, to the max.
For those with more stamina one of the more rigourous outings is roughly two and a half hour hike,3000 ft up an old mule trail to the mountain refuge of Vittorio sella. the refuge,formally a royal hunting lodge,offers dormitory accommodation and hot meals in the summer and unattended shelter for the rest of the year,very much like the kosziosko huts back home in Australia,in the skiing season,many years ago when i used to cross-country.
This walk affords one of the best chances of seeing ibex and chamois, the trails are not usually well marked,but orientation is not difficult. You will be at 6,000 ft and it is usually obvious in which direction the deep valley floor lies. This makes the Gran Paradiso summit a very popular destination for the casual alpinist. Doesn't it have a great ring to it...'alpinist'? Its a long walk presenting no particular difficulties,but it is strenuous and needing crampons,ice-pick and a rope,because a good part of the day is along glaciers.
Three years ago we made a 3-day trip in the park,spending two nights in one of the unattended huts,small but with enough space for 6 people. On the return leg we had an unforgettable experience. After crossing a difficult pass in intermittent fog,we saw before us ,a wide,boulder strewn and desolate mountain plateau. But instead of the slow,painful going that we expected,we discovered a largely intact royal hunting road that made our advance an absolute pleasure. it was built of rock and earth and raised a meter off the growth to negotiate the rough terrain in an almost straight line.
We imagined with awe,the thousands of of man-hours that had been spent during the 19th century,building such roads at these desolate altitudes,so that king Vittorio Emanuele II could more easily pursue his favourite pastime.
Treading a royal road,spotting ibex,chamois and owls plus the wonderland around us for company,i look into my femme's eyes at twilight,and sigh deeply.
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