It’s not without good reason the highest massif in the Apennines is known as Gran Sasso – the Great Stone. Its height meant that it was the first range we visited. As everybody does, we tried to climb its highest peak, Corno Grande, first. It took us a few attempts, but we got there at the third time of asking.
We have since explored many massifs in Abruzzo and Lazio, the two regions that cut across the central part of the Italian peninsula: Maiella, Monti della Laga, Simbruini, Sirente-Velino, and Abruzzo National Park among them. Each has a character of its own, and I don’t know which is my favourite.
But there is no doubt that for climbers, and those hikers who like to challenge themselves with a bit of exposed scrambling, Gran Sasso is the place to go. Huge rock faces and narrow ridges abound, and many of its peaks cannot be climbed without a good head for heights.
On our first visit, in January 2015, we climbed a gentle 2000er, Monte San Franco, which looked easy from the contours on the map. It was a cloudy day and we didn’t know what to expect of the Apennines. It was a grassy ridge, nothing special, with patches of snow, but nothing that required the axes and crampons that we carried with us.
At the summit we were blessed with a brief clearing of the clouds, and three snow-crowned giants were visible nearby. They were Gran Sasso’s big three: Monte Corvo (2623m), Pizzo d’Intermesoli (2635m), and Corno Grande itself (2912m).
Over the next three days we learned a lot more about these three mountains, but our attention was focused on Corno Grande. Not only was it 300m higher than the others, but it was also the most impressive, a multi-summited cathedral of rock which, as we later discovered, was visible from every high point in Abruzzo.
Of the other two, we gave little attention for some time as we continued to explore the Apennines. Monte Corvo looked feasible, but from every angle we saw it, Pizzo d’Intermesoli looked a difficult mountain. It seemed obvious you couldn’t walk up, but we didn’t know whether it was a scramble or a technical rock climb.
We’ve had some amazing hill walks in the Apennines over the last year and a half, but a few weeks ago I sensed that Edita was yearning for something a bit more challenging, so I turned my attention back to Pizzo d’Intermesoli, and found this description on Summitpost:
Maybe for the closeness to these two great mountains, the more spectacular and high of the whole Apenninic chain, Pizzo d’Intermesoli receives less attention than it deserves: but Pizzo d’Intermesoli is a great mountain, high and severe, where you can still find corner of wilderness [sic].
Its wild bowls, lonely valleys, vertical rock walls, aerial ridges offer opportunities for hikers, rock climbers and skitourers … but don’t forget that Pizzo d’Intermesoli isn’t an “easy” mountain.
This was enough to convince me a visit to Pizzo d’Intermesoli was long overdue. While its eastern and western sides are steep and severe, I discovered there are two routes up, from north and south, that are suitable for hill walkers.
True to form, we failed to climb the mountain first time, but we were far from disappointed. It was down to a somewhat implausible reason – too much snow. In July. Corno Grande is the site of Europe’s most southerly glacier, but otherwise you expect these peaks to be free from snow at the hottest time of year.
We tried from the south side, starting from the car park at Campo Imperatore, a ski resort at 2100m at the top end of a vast, grassy plateau. Although Pizzo d’Intermesoli’s summit lay just 500m above us, the route to it was far from straightforward, along a narrow ridge that circled round a mountainous bowl. We christened this bowl the Gran Sasso Cwm – taking a leaf out of George Mallory’s book – though its real name is Campo Pericoli.
Something like fourteen 2000m peaks lie around the rim of this bowl if you count all of Corno Grande’s many summits. We had to go across two of them, Monte Portello and Pizzo Cefalone, just to reach Pizzo d’Intermesoli’s base.
Cefalone was a substantial peak that made our trip a grand day out, even without Intermesoli’s summit. We reached the snowline a hundred metres or so beneath the summit, and on the far side it was a committing scramble to get back down again, with some severe exposure.
We passed some fell runners on their way up. One of them had fallen on rocks and knocked out three teeth. His face was covered in blood, but he insisted he was OK. He was lucky. There are any number of places on that ridge that if you fell it could very easily be your last action.
As we descended this section we were conscious that Pizzo d’Intermesoli looked just as severe and had a lot more snow. It hadn’t occurred to us to bring ice axes and crampons this time of year, so we knew that if the trail became too steep and exposed it would be extremely risky to proceed.
On its lower flanks we passed two hikers coming down. Both wore microspikes on their boots, and expressed concern that we were ill-equipped. They said we could probably get up, but it was very dangerous coming down again without spikes or crampons.
“Proviamo salire, ma se troppo pericoloso, fermiamo,” I replied very slowly, which translates somewhat loosely and ungrammatically as we’ll try going up, but if it’s too dangerous we’ll come back down again.
This produced a forthright response that my rudimentary Italian wasn’t good enough to translate directly, but left me in no doubt that to press on would be “molto stupido”.
In the course of this conversation, however, Edita – whose Italian is much better than mine – discovered that the route up Pizzo d’Intermesoli from the north side wasn’t as steep, and could probably be walked up, even in these conditions.
Satisfied with our exhilarating climb of Pizzo Cefalone, we turned around and headed back to Campo Imperatore, vowing to return to Pizzo d’Intermesoli from the north side at the next available opportunity.
Our chance came just two weeks later, on the last weekend in July, by which time all the unseasonal snow that prevented our first attempt had melted again.
Pizzo d’Intermesoli may be technically easier from the north side, but it’s much more strenuous. While the south side route begins from Campo Imperatore at 2100m, the shortest route from the north starts in Pietracamela, a picturesque and ancient village perched on the top of a cliff above forest. It feels much higher up than Campo Imperatore on the edge of its high-altitude plateau (or altiplano), but it’s actually 1000m lower, at only 1050m.
The ascent of Pizzo d’Intermesoli from the north involves 1600m of vertical ascent, with a much longer walk in to boot. We knew it was going to be a long day.
Our trail started up the Arno valley. This deep gorge rises in the Gran Sasso Cwm that we looked into two weeks earlier, and cuts straight between Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Grande on its journey to Pietracamela. Before we ascended too far up it, we turned right, crossed the river and climbed up into a beautiful high-altitude meadow surrounded by forest.
Here we were in for a surprise. We knew its remoteness meant the north side was quieter than the Campo Imperatore side, and we expected to have the mountain to ourselves for much of the day. It was a beautiful, peaceful setting. Three summits of Pizzo d’Intermesoli towered above us like a rocky trident, challenging us forwards to breach its defences, and Corno Piccolo’s jagged outline rose across the valley like a sleeping stegosaurus.
It would be an amazing place for a wild camp, but until that moment we believed wild camping to be forbidden in most of Italy’s national parks, including Gran Sasso. But here in this picturesque setting there were dozens of tents, and one or two giant wigwams – not belonging to hikers, but to hippies. Guitar chords echoed across the clearing and washing lines dangled between trees. There was some sort of festival going on!
We paused for a moment to survey the trail ahead, and one of the campers approached us to introduce himself. He was Italian, but spoke good English. Seeing that we looked unsure of ourselves he thought we’d come to join them. We explained that we were merely looking for the trail up the giant mountain rising above camp. He didn’t sound surprised and pointed the route out to us. He explained that most of them had been there a month, but today was their last day, and he invited us to a party in Pietracamela later that evening.
Later that day, on our way back down again, many more of these people made the same assumption about us. They were just as friendly, greeting us in Italian, then reverting to impeccable English. They looked disappointed when we explained we were just hikers, but they were all so outrageously polite and nice it felt embarrassing to admit it.
The trail continued steeply through forest for about 400m. At the treeline we lost the paint marks indicating the trail, and ended up traversing a rough, grassy hillside that angled steeply downwards. It was treacherous and tiring, but we regained the trail eventually. We crossed a boulder field into a high cwm at 2000m, hemmed in by the three summits of Pizzo d’Intermesoli. One of them, Picco Pio XI, was a good deal lower than the other two and on a separate ridge. We had no intention of climbing that one today, but the north and main summits lay on the same ridge, and it would be easy to traverse across both.
We circled round to the right and climbed up to the north summit. The trail was rough in places, up grassy banks to begin with, and then through rocks as the vegetation thinned. We expected there to be scrambling, but there was just one easy move that required hands; otherwise it was a walk.
We reached the north summit shortly after 2pm, hemmed in by Corno Grande and Monte Corvo on either side. The main summit lay a short distance away, up a broad ridge of scree. We reached it at 3pm. It was the barest, most featureless summit of all the ones we’ve been up in the Apennines. Apart from the summit cairn, with its wooden staff and small brass statue of the Madonna, there was hardly a rock bigger than a clenched fist. We were on a small platform like a pebble-dashed beach.
Clouds were circling above us, but not enough to obscure our view into the cwm we had studied from the other side two weeks earlier. Pizzo Cefalone looked unfeasible, but somehow we’d got down it. By comparison our ascent of Pizzo d’Intermesoli had been a straightforward, if tiring walk.
We returned to the col between the two summits, where Edita was alert enough to spot a lone camoscio (chamois) making its way up to the ridge. To the left we could see a large herd of fifty more waiting below. It seemed incredible. We were at 2500m, with not a scrap of vegetation around; what on earth were they doing all the way up here? I know they are shy animals who try to avoid humans, but this was taking it to extremes. (The following day, as we looked across to Intermesoli from Monte Corvo’s summit, their position seemed even more unlikely, with hundreds of metres of precipitous cliff face stretching below them.)
At the col we made a small error of judgement. As we sat on the summit eating our sandwiches, Edita spotted a blue dotted line on the map. We thought it might indicate a shortcut down to the cwm which bypassed the north summit. As we looked over the edge of the col, as the camoscio had done, there did indeed appear to be a scree trail heading downwards which could save us a good deal of time if the scree proved of good quality.
We descended at a run for a few hundred metres, until the scree became steeper and our pace slowed dramatically. We were descending a mass of small stones, none of them stable. The chances of starting a rock avalanche seemed extremely high. At one point I watched a ten-metre by ten-metre section of stones slide beneath me with every step. I started to tiptoe, and cursed our decision to take this shortcut, which was such a poor one it made Brexit seem like a good idea.
Below us in the cwm more camosci appeared. They whistled at each other. It was a strange call, like the coo of a bird of prey, and I would never have believed the sound came from a large mammal had I not seen them down there. They were very close, but they must have known we had no chance of racing down to catch them.
Somehow we made it down to the cwm without bringing half the mountain with us, but I was breathing deeply and in need of a rest. I collapsed in the grass without bothering to take my backpack off my shoulders. Gazing back up the slope it looked suicidal, and it was astonishing we had managed to come down it. How had we been deceived by the dotted blue line on the map? I looked at the key, and it said winter ski run.
For me, the next hour was laboured as we re-crossed the boulder field, and Edita had to keep stopping to wait for me. I wondered how long it would take to get back to Pietracamela, but I had my second wind when we reached the forest and the trail became easy again. We raced through the trees, and this time Edita had to run to keep up with me.
At the bottom of the forest we paused in the meadow and looked back up at the mountains. All the clouds had dispersed during our descent, and Gran Sasso’s big three stood proudly above a sea of green. It would be an amazing setting to spend a month, and the travellers who invited us to their party in Pietracamela that night must have been rueing their return to the real world.
We reached the village at 7.30pm, after nearly ten hours of walking. It had been a hard slog at times, but a very satisfying one. In another setting Pizzo d’Intermesoli would be a jewel among mountains, but standing alongside Corno Grande it gets forgotten about. Above the hippy field we had seen only one other hiker all day. You won’t get that on Corno Grande.