The Corno Grande Saga, Part 2

This is a short sequel to a post I wrote last month about a reconnaissance trip to the Gran Sasso massif in Central Italy. On that occasion we made an abortive attempt on 2912m Corno Grande, the highest mountain in the Apennines, by its less frequented northern side. We weren’t disappointed by our failure, for what is failure when you enjoy the experience? Gran Sasso was amazing, and we spent so long photographing its peaks during the drive in that we set off too late in the morning to make a serious attempt on the mountain. We reached a peaceful hut high up on Corno Grande’s flanks, and learned a lot from the experience. We discovered microspikes are not suitable equipment for winter hill walking, and found a feast of mountains well within our capabilities.

Traversing the ridge above Campo Imperatore with Corno Grande up ahead
Traversing the ridge above Campo Imperatore with Corno Grande up ahead

In any case, we knew we would return to Corno Grande, though I didn’t expect it to be so soon. Last Saturday the forecast was fine, so properly equipped with axe and crampons we set off from Edita’s flat in Rome at 6am, and were in the heart of the Apennines barely two hours later. This time we chose to climb Corno Grande from the south along the tourist route all the guide books and websites seem to agree is a walk up.

But not in winter. It was obvious pretty soon after leaving Rome there was a lot more snow than a month ago. Then the snow line started at about 1000m, and we didn’t see it until we were driving up Gran Sasso on winding roads. This time all the foothills along the main Abruzzo highway were clad in a carpet of white, and the road to Campo Imperatore at the start of the tourist route was impassable long before we reached our destination.

Campo Imperatore is a ski resort perched on a hillside at 2170m. In the summer months it’s possible to drive all the way up there, but in the winter it’s only accessible by cable car. Luckily we turned up at just the right time. It was 7.55, and we guessed by the brightly attired people assembling at the car park in Fonte Cerreto it was just about to open. As we crowded in with all the skiers we stood out like a brace of haddock in an ice cream parlour. We were far too soberly dressed, and were clearly the only hikers among the hundreds of skiers.

A few minutes later we were 1000m higher, and looked across the plateau of Campo Imperatore to a mushroom of rock in clouds ahead of us which we assumed to be Corno Grande. The receptionist at the big red hotel looked distressed when we asked the time of the last car back and told him our plans. He said Corno Grande was far too dangerous this time of year, and laden with avalanche danger. He gave us his phone number, and insisted we give him a call if we got into trouble. We thanked him and set off in the direction of a modest hut, the Duke of Abruzzi Refuge, on a hillside above the resort. At the top we found ourselves straddling a magnificent ridge which led in the direction of Corno Grande. We were surprised to see two figures making their way along it, the first hikers we had seen in the few days we have spent in the Apennines. It was only later we discovered they were an Australian tourist with her Italian guide.

A layer of unconsolidated snow is enough to persuade us Corno Grande isn't going to go today
A layer of unconsolidated snow is enough to persuade us Corno Grande isn’t going to go today

As we followed them along the ridge Corno Grande’s summit hung in cloud, but all around us the skies were a magnificent blue and our route became obvious. The southern side of Corno Grande was a wall of jagged rock, and it was clear there was no way straight up except for squirrels and rock climbers. The tourist route had to be round one of its sides, and our map revealed it was to the left, up a steep bank of snow leading up to Corno Grande’s west ridge. There were no footprints going up the slope, and if we were going to climb it we were going to have to break trail.

Our ridge descended to a col, the Sella Monte Aquila, and up the other side we saw the two figures turn to the right. Either they were hardcore climbers heading for one of Corno Grande’s more technical routes, or they had decided the summit wasn’t for them. We turned left, and as we descended to the foot of the west ridge we found ourselves wading through knee-deep snow. Up ahead of us the tourist route looked impractical. It was a smooth wall of snow that appeared to be sheer. I knew these slopes were deceptive until you reached them, but what concerned me more was the avalanche debris above the slope our map indicated as being the main trail. If this wasn’t enough, at the point it joined the ridge was something that looked suspiciously like an overhanging cornice.

It was only 11.30, and I didn’t want to give up so easily. I kept descending, wading through deep snow as I went, but behind me Edita was having doubts.

“What are you doing? We can’t go up there,” she shouted as she followed me.

We stopped and discussed our options. The official route didn’t look safe, but according to our map the rest of the ridge, also buried in snow, was a wall of crags. If it wasn’t too steep to climb it was probably an avalanche risk as well. I’m far from being an expert in these matters, but I know a few basics.

We have the consolation of ascending 2494m Monte Aquila, where I get in the mood for the rugby by standing next to a Cross of St George
We have the consolation of ascending 2494m Monte Aquila, where I get in the mood for the rugby by standing next to a Cross of St George

“There’s an easy way to tell if this snow’s going to slide,” I said.

I drew a 2m square in the snow with my ice axe. I dug about a metre down at the edges, shallow as snow pits go, but it was enough to give us an idea.

“If a slab comes off the top then the snow’s probably not consolidated yet,” I said, lifting up a layer as easily as George Michael lifts his shirt.

“Er … maybe we should find something else to do this afternoon?” I said.

Edita laughed. “We could find a bar in L’Aquila. Is that what you want?”

It was only when we were wading back through the snow up to the col that I remembered England were playing Italy in the Six Nations that afternoon. Cynics will probably say I engineered the whole thing just so that I could watch the rugby, but I promise you I genuinely wanted to climb Corno Grande that day.

Back at the col we met up with the other two hikers on their way back to Campo Imperatore.

“Never mind. There’s a lovely view from the top of Monte Aquila,” said the Australian lady. “You can even follow the ridge all the way down the other side.”

“But I’ve persuaded Edita to watch the rugby now,” I replied. “Please don’t give her other ideas.”

The guide shook his head when we pointed up the tourist route. He clearly had no intention of going up there himself and must have been relieved to see us come back.

Descending from Monte Aquila with Campo Imperatore below
Descending from Monte Aquila with Campo Imperatore below

There were still nearly four hours till kick off, and we had plenty of time to get up 2494m Monte Aquila, which is really just a projecting shoulder of Corno Grande, though there was a nice view up there, looking out over the plateau of Campo Imperatore, and east to the Adriatic Sea. Alas, Corno Grande was now in cloud. There was a big red cross on the summit, and Edita posted a photo of me to Facebook as we stood there enjoying the view. For those of you who keep seeing these photos of me standing next to crosses I promise you I’m not becoming a born-again Christian. Rugby fans will know that a big red cross set against a background of snow bears a passing resemblance to the Cross of St George, England’s national flag.

Our second attempt on Corno Grande, Gran Sasso’s famous walk up summit, was about as successful as a FIFA report on integrity, but we’ll get up this thing eventually if we keep trying. The snow conditions suggest the north side is more suitable for winter conditions, while the presence of a road to 2170m makes the south side easier in summer. Having tried and failed twice we plan to come back later in the year when there is no snow at all.

It didn’t matter that we didn’t get to the top. The scenery was amazing, and it was a good day out. The rugby was a bonus, not because England won 47-17, but because of the commentary in Italian. The highlight was undoubtedly Italy’s second try. Those guys make Brazilian football commentators sound like accountants playing Scrabble.

Splendido! You can see the rest of my photos from the hike in p.1 of my 2015 Italy photo album.

To receive my weekly blog post about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.

5 thoughts on “The Corno Grande Saga, Part 2

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lively discussion is welcome, but if you think your comment might offend please read the commenting guidelines before posting.