Introduction to the Apennines – Part 1: Gran Sasso

I was lucky to live and work for a year in Rome, where the highest peaks of the Apennines were accessible within a couple of hours. It was a hill walker’s paradise, with a feast of mountains of great variety, and reliable weather.

Had they been that close to London, those peaks would be crawling with walkers, but this 1,200km chain of mountains that forms the spine of Italy is undiscovered, despite being criss-crossed with hiking trails.

There isn’t much information available in English. We started our explorations with the excellent Cicerone guidebook Walking in Abruzzo, but good trekking maps are available (see below). Most trails are well marked with the red and white paint marks and signposts of the Italian Alpine Club (CAI). These things together mean that the peaks can be easily explored by experienced hikers.

In a series of posts I aim to provide a short introduction based on my own experience. It is inevitably focused on the Abruzzo and Lazio regions near Rome. The Apennines are amazing. I hope it will whet the appetite, and encourage some of you to explore this fantastic area.

I’m going to start off with the best-known area Gran Sasso, or the Great Stone.

  • Region: Abruzzo
  • Paper map: Edizioni il Lupo 1:25,000 Gran Sasso d’Italia
  • Principal peaks:
    • Corno Grande (2,912m)
    • Corno Piccolo (2,655m)
    • Pizzo d’Intermesoli (2,635m)
    • Monte Corvo (2,623m)
    • Monte Camicia (2,564m)
    • Monte Prena (2,561m)
    • Pizzo Cefalone (2,533m)
    • Monte Brancastello (2,385m)
  • Photo album: Gran Sasso

Without doubt the Gran Sasso massif is the crowning glory of the Apennines. It contains its highest and most dramatic peaks, limestone cathedrals, ruled over by 2,912m Corno Grande, the highest mountain in the Apennines. This striking tower of rock is several hundred metres higher than any of its surrounding peaks, and is an unmistakable feature on the skyline from every summit in Abruzzo.

While Corno Grande looks unscalable to all but the most able rock climbers, it’s standard route is actually a walk-up, albeit one that involves some easy scrambling up an eroded scree slope. Its height and ease of access means that it’s regularly climbed by novice hikers, and is one of the few peaks in the Apennines that you will find crawling with tourists in the summer.

Corno Grande is an intricate, sprawling mountain, with many summits, many routes up, and Europe’s most southerly glacier. It has four summits of its own, two of which are technical rock climbs. As impressive as Corno Grande is its outlying peak, Corno Piccolo (2,655m), a jagged spine of rock pinnacles which involves some airy scrambling to ascend by its easiest route. Both peaks contain a number of via ferrata sections.

Corno Grande is usually accessed from the ski resort of Campo Imperatore (2,135m) on the south side, from where it’s little more than three hours to hike to the summit. A more interesting, though much longer, approach is from the other main ski resort of Prati di Tivo (1,465m) on the north side.

In rough outline, the Gran Sasso massif takes the form of a capital letter ‘H’ lying on its side, with two parallel ridges running from east to west, linked in the middle. Corno Grande rises on the north side of this link that divides the broad Val Chiarino on the west side from the giant high altitude plain of Campo Imperatore in the east.

The western section is quieter and dominated by Corno Grande’s hulking sister peaks, Monte Corvo (2,623m) and Pizzo d’Intermesoli (2,635m). Both are non-technical, though at first sight Intermesoli looks severe.

On the eastern side, the Cresta Orientale is a 20km ridge that runs all the way from Corno Grande over a number of 2,000m summits, including Monte Brancastello (2,385m), Monte Prena (2,561m) and Monte Camicia (2,564m). On the north side this ridge drops nearly 2,000m to the lowlands, and includes the 1,200m north face of Monte Camicia, known as the Eiger of the Apennines. On the south side it drops a much shorter distance to the vast alpine meadow of Campo Imperatore, 27km by 8km in size, all of it more than 1,500m in altitude. It’s a spectacular setting, ringed by mountains.

In the winter the road to Campo Imperatore is snowbound, and can only be accessed by cable car from the resort village of Fonte Cerreto. Corno Grande is not so easy to climb in winter, as the slopes are often avalanche prone. Although there are some alpine climbs, the snow is often unstable.

In summer the Gran Sasso massif is a popular area for rock climbing, and there are some good scrambles for more adventurous hill walkers. Another one worth checking out is pyramidal Pizzo Cefalone (2,533m).

For the first timer

If you can cope with the hordes, Corno Grande is a must. For the shortest route, start from Campo Imperatore on the south side, If you don’t mind a good scramble, then once you get into the combe above Corno Grande’s southern walls, it’s worth taking the west ridge, rather than the via normale with the rest of the tourists.

For the beginner

Start from Campo Imperatore, and take the eastern end of the Cresta Orientale up to Monte Brancastello. It’s an easy walk along a ridge, with some great views on all sides for the entire route.

For the adventurous

The Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo traverse starting from Prati di Tivo on the north side, is a spectacular long day in the heart of the range. You can climb both peaks by their standard routes, and descend Corno Grande by its west ridge, before descending to the north and taking the Val Maone back to Prati di Tivo, a deep valley between Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Piccolo.

A full circuit of Monte Camicia with a diversion to the top of Monte Prena is also one of the most memorable walks in Gran Sasso, with a true alpine feel.

Photos

Corno Grande (2,912m) from Campo Imperatore: hard to believe, but it's a walk up
Corno Grande (2,912m) from Campo Imperatore: hard to believe, but it’s a walk up
Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo from the north side, as striking a pair of mountains as any peak in Italy. Pizzo d'Intermesoli is on the far right.
Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo from the north side, as striking a pair of mountains as any peak in Italy. Pizzo d’Intermesoli is on the far right.
Approaching the summit of Corno Piccolo (2,655m), with the main summit of Corno Grande on the horizon to the right
Approaching the summit of Corno Piccolo (2,655m), with the main summit of Corno Grande on the horizon to the right
The main summit of Pizzo d’Intermesoli from just below the north peak
The main summit of Pizzo d’Intermesoli from just below the north peak
On Monte Corvo's summit, with rocky peaks, emerald green basins and horseshoe ridges to the east. Corno Grande is the peak on the horizon to the left, with Pizzo d'Intermesoli just in front of it. Pizzo Cefalone is the prominent peak on the right (Photo: Edita Nichols)
On Monte Corvo’s summit, with rocky peaks, emerald green basins and horseshoe ridges to the east. Corno Grande is the peak on the horizon to the left, with Pizzo d’Intermesoli just in front of it. Pizzo Cefalone is the prominent peak on the right (Photo: Edita Nichols)
Approaching the summit of Monte Camicia, with Monte Prena along the ridge in the foreground, and Corno Grande in cloud behind
Approaching the summit of Monte Camicia, with Monte Prena along the ridge in the foreground, and Corno Grande in cloud behind
The approach to the summit of Monte Brancastello, with snow patches barring the way
The approach to the summit of Monte Brancastello, with snow patches barring the way

You can see a few hundred more photos of the Gran Sasso massif in my Gran Sasso Flickr album.

Blog posts

I’ve written several blog posts about our adventures in the Apennines. These will give you a bit more detail and a few more ideas on places to explore.

  • A Gran Sasso reconnaissance. The highlight of this, our very first visit to the Apennines, was a winter attempt on Corno Grande from the north side. In deep snow and howling wind, we were pleased to get as far as Rifugio Franchetti (2,433m), where we sneaked into the porch for our lunch.
  • The Corno Grande Saga, Part 2. Our second crack at Corno Grande was another winter attempt, this time from the south. But it’s a different proposition in winter, and we abandoned our ascent quickly when we realised the slopes of the normal route posed a severe avalanche hazard.
  • The Corno Grande aperitivo: highest mountain in the Apennines. We finally made it up Corno Grande at the third attempt. Much easier in summer, we reached the top via the west ridge in only 2½ hours.
  • Pizzo d’Intermesoli, Gran Sasso’s forgotten sister. We failed in our first attempt to climb Pizzo d’Intermesoli from the south side by the unusual circumstance of finding too much snow in July. We climbed it two weeks later via a long walk in from Pietracamela on the south side.
  • Monte Corvo: Crow Mountain. Monte Corvo is the easiest of the big peaks in Gran Sasso range. From the north side it’s a walk though the forest and a trudge up grassy slopes. Watch out for those cyclists at Prato Selva though.
  • Keeping one’s shirt on up Monte Camicia. This was actually our favourite climb of all the many fantastic days we had in the Apennines, a 10-hour traverse of Monte Prena and Monte Camicia in the last of the winter snow.
  • The Lithuanian conquest of the Apennines. We decided to give Edita’s family a taste of the Apennines with a walk along the Cresta Orientale ridge to the summit of Monte Brancastello.
  • The Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo traverse. We had been wanting to do a full circuit of Corno Grande from north to south for almost all our time together in Italy. We finally had the chance a few weeks before we left, but a navigational error took us up a hair-raising via ferrata route on Corno Piccolo.
  • Unfinished business on Corno Piccolo. We would have been disappointed to leave Rome without having climbed one of the Apennines’ most dramatic peaks. A few days before we left we returned there and took the correct route. By heck, it was worth it.

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