It would have been a pity to say goodbye to the Apennines without climbing their highest mountain, Corno Grande (2,912m) in the Gran Sasso range, by one of its more interesting routes.
From every summit in central Italy, Corno Grande rises on the horizon like a cathedral towering over a mediaeval city. From every angle, and every position, it’s easily the most eye-catching peak for miles around, a striking tower of rock, rising hundreds of metres above the gentler summits that surround it.
Despite its fearsome appearance, just like Snowdon and Ben Nevis, the highest mountains in Wales and Scotland respectively, Corno Grande has a standard route that dozens of tourists without much experience of hiking ascend every weekend in the summer season. It starts from the ski resort of Campo Imperatore at 2,100m. A strong and fit person can reach the top in less than three hours, up steep scree slopes that rarely need use of the hands.
Just like Snowdon, it’s a large, multi-summited mountain with a number of more interesting routes. We tried to climb it twice in winter, once from the north and again from the south before we made our first ascent from Campo Imperatore. On that occasion we started with the hordes, but avoided the dusty zigzags of via normale by scrambling up the west ridge.
For a while now, we’ve contemplated doing a traverse of the mountain from north to south, starting at the ski resort of Prati di Tivo, and returning there along the Valle Arno, a narrow valley dividing Corno Grande from Pizzo d’Intermesoli. Edita has also had her eye on Corno Grande’s sister peak, Corno Piccolo for even longer. 250m lower than Corno Grande, it’s a slightly trickier proposition, involving some airy scrambling. Corno Piccolo extends from a shoulder of Corno Grande like a scaly arm of jagged rock pinnacles. It’s a ridge of rock that doesn’t look feasible to non-climbers, but there is supposed to be a route that is accessible to hikers, with only a modest amount of scrambling.
With summer upon us and long hours of daylight, we decided to kill two birds with one stone by climbing both Corno Piccolo and Corno Grande from the north side, then traversing the mountain by descending to the south and returning down the Arno Valley. It would be an epic day, but if it’s possible then it must surely be the Apennines’ classic day walk, to rival the Snowdon Horseshoe and Ben Nevis’s CMD Arête. I’ve not seen this walk described anywhere else in English, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say here it is for the very first time. Of course, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
To avoid a repeat of the previous week, when we turned up to Maiella completely unprepared, hoping to climb 2,300m in a single day and failing abysmally, this time we did a bit more preparation. I looked up the route description on Summitpost and discovered that the via normale up Corno Piccolo (described as a ‘hiking’ route) doesn’t go along the crest of the ridge from Corno Grande, but a hundred metres or so below it on the south side. This meant that to climb it starting from the north side we’d have to cross the Sella dei Due Corni (Pass of the Two Horns) which, as its name implies, divides Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo, then descend the other side for a hundred metres before going back up again.
Perhaps more importantly, we decided to make an early start, getting up at 4am and then driving to Gran Sasso to start our walk in good time. This is not something we’ve been doing here in Rome, which is only two hours’ drive from Abruzzo and the highest peaks in the Apennines, but it’s something I always had to do in London if I wanted to enjoy a weekend in the hills.
This turned out to be a master stroke. Not only did we manage to leave Rome before 5am, but we were parked up at 1,460m on the north side of Gran Sasso, and leaving the tarmacked circle at Prati di Tivo at 7.20am.
The first stop on this northern route is the cable car station at La Madonnina (2,007m), looking out over Prati di Tivo from the foot of Corno Piccolo on a northern spur. We’ve never seen this cable car open, so fickle is the winter season here. On our previous two winter visits we had to take the long route by following a road to a low point on the spur and walking along it. It’s a bit longer that way, but the spur is a heavenly trail to walk along, with the twin summits of Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo towering majestically in front.
The cable car wasn’t open this time either, though we were a little early. But the absence of snow meant that we could take the direct route up to La Madonnina by ascending grassy slopes beneath it. We had walked for only ten minutes when we looked behind us and were astonished to see another group of hikers following us up the trail. What on earth were they doing leaving so early? They surely couldn’t be planning the same epic as we were. I initially thought they must be cable station staff on their way up for their morning stint. This was an encouraging thought. There would have been nothing more annoying than making an early start to beat the crowds, only to see some sod overtake us in a cable car. But in fact these people were walkers like us.
We reached La Madonnina by 8.30 and continued onwards up a broad couloir between the two peaks to Rifugio Franchetti at 2,433m. This couloir has some history for us. We first ascended it in January 2015 during our first Apennine reconnaissance. Edita was wearing microspikes for the first and last time, and we soon learned that microspikes are no substitute for crampons. On a high traverse to the hut I had to walk beneath her to catch her if she slipped.
On that winter’s day it was a great achievement to reach Rifugio Franchetti, and even though we were nowhere near the summit of Corno Grande, we were well satisfied with our reconnaissance. In March 2016 we tried again to climb Corno Grande from the north side, but on that occasion the snow looked so unstable that we didn’t climb much beyond La Madonnina.
In my post about Monte Sirente a few weeks ago, I talked about how different a mountain seems if you climb it in both summer and winter conditions. Here on Corno Grande we once again had an opportunity to see what the trail really looked like when it isn’t buried under metres of snow. We were amazed. On that first ascent we had climbed high on the right on a long snow traverse. Today this was an unthinkable boulder field you would only cross if you had an uncontrollable desire to break both legs. The true trail kept to the left, zigzagging up cliffs that looked far more exposed in winter.
It was still early and a little cloudy, and this meant we made very good time. On our first visit, Rifugio Franchetti marked our turnaround time. Today we reached it by 9.30 after ascending nearly 1,000m in two hours. We were flying. A week earlier we hadn’t even started our walk by that time.
We were by no means the only people there. Not only were there hikers behind us, but there were others who had stayed overnight and were just getting ready to leave. There was a comic interlude when we approached the tables outside to stop for a snack. The hut was guarded by two giant wolfhounds (they were probably something else, but I no my dog breeds like I know my soap characters). They barked ferociously as we arrived.
Edita is more or less fearless, far more than I am, but she has one weakness – giant dogs. As she hid behind me I barked ferociously back at them, scattering them down the hillside.
The warden was watching, and didn’t like this one bit. He started barking at me, in words that were too quick for me to understand. But as far as I was concerned, it was a fine welcome for hikers, and if they bark at me then I feel entitled to bark back.
“Lei non piace i cani grandi,” I said to him in my flawless Italian as I took a seat (she doesn’t like the big dogs).
The other hikers were laughing at us, and both the warden and dogs left us alone after that, although one of them did lurk nearby as we slipped down our cornetti and banane (a dog that is, not the warden).
It was a short twenty-minute traverse across scree to the col, Sella dei Due Corni. On the way we noted some of the other hikers turning off the main route on a precarious trail to Corno Grande’s east summit, Vetta Orientale, at 2,903m almost as high as the main summit and by all accounts another interesting scramble. Between the east summit and the main summit are two more summits, the Vetta Centrale (2,893m) and Torrione Cambi (2,875m), but these two needles can only be reached by rock climbers. Corno Piccolo also has a number of of needle-like summits along its ridge. Like Snowdon, this is a fascinating mountain that would need many visits to thoroughly explore.
Just below the col, the trail diverged. All the other hikers turned left to join the ridge to Corno Grande. We were the only ones to continue up and over the col to Corno Piccolo. The ridge to our right was severe. I’m glad I checked the route description the night before, or it would have scared the living daylights out of me. The first pinnacle on the ridge, Punta dei Due (2,608m), is also a technical rock climb.
We descended over the other side of the col for a hundred metres or more, until a balcony led up to the right. The signposts were confusing here. A red arrow painted on a rock was labelled ‘Via Normale’, and pointed further down the slope. It appeared to traverse across a scree slope and join up with the normal route on Corno Grande. The route up the balcony was signed with concentric circles, yellow in red like a target. The first one of these was labelled 3D, which matched the trail number in the Summitpost route description. It had to be the right way.
We ascended for 100m metres on broad ledges and short scree slopes. It was straightforward to begin with and it gave me confidence. But then I looked up and saw the paint marks disappearing up a steeper section of rocks. Above this, huge vertical slabs barred the way to the summit. How the hell are we going to get up that? It made me nervous and I voiced my concerns to Edita, but we had no choice – we had to go on, and hope that it was easier than it looked.
We scrambled upwards, and I was relieved when we got to the foot of the vertical section and found … a ladder.
I laughed. “I can manage ladders,” I said.
So this was how hikers reached the top of Corno Piccolo: via ferrata – a sequence of iron ladders with handrails. The Dolomites in northern Italy are famous for them, but this was the first time we had come across them in the Apennines. There had been no mention of them in the route description, and I was beginning to doubt its accuracy. But for the moment my mind was focussed on the task ahead.
I led up the ladder for about ten metres. It was almost vertical, and at the top there was an awkward transition onto the next ladder, which involved putting my left foot on a rusty piton banged into a rock. It worried me how on earth I was going to get back down again. There was a small alcove at the top of the second ladder, where I waited for Edita to follow me up. I watched her nervously. There was a 1,000m drop below her into the Arno Valley.
This wasn’t what I signed up to – it’s ridiculous to describe this as a ‘hiking’ route, I thought to myself.
Edita led up the next ladder. There were a couple more giant boulders to scramble over, but just above this our ‘hiking’ route became a technical rock climb. A red arrow pointed up to a hole between boulders about five metres above us. To reach it somebody had rigged up a sling over a rock, with a loop to put your foot in. Edita tried and failed to get up it. When I tried, I ended up swinging horizontally under an overhanging boulder. Luckily nobody but Edita was watching, or I would have felt a fool.
There was clearly a technique to climbing this section that I didn’t have. The rock was smooth, with few handholds. It required technical climbing moves. If we were carrying a rope then maybe we could loop it over a rock and haul ourselves up. But even if we made it up I was doubtful of fitting through the hole, which looked no wider than my shoulders. I could see myself squeezing halfway through then getting stuck. Then not only would I have felt foolish, but we would both have been in a bit of a pickle, especially if Edita went first. I’m not sure you can call the fire brigade out to this part of Italy.
By now I was totally demoralised. This was no hiking route, and to describe it as such was dangerous. Last year we were told that two people died on Corno Piccolo while we were climbing Pizzo d’Intermesoli across the valley. It doesn’t surprise me if people come up these via ferrati thinking that Corno Piccolo is a scramble.
Edita checked her altimeter. We were at 2,605m, just 50m below the summit, but we were defeated. I was shaking as I descended the ladders with no protection, nervously lowering myself rung by rung, and feeling around with my left foot for the piton to step onto, a 1,000m void gaping beneath me. But we survived to climb another day.
Back at the col we met two more hikers who told us that the via ferrata route on Corno Piccolo had been closed after one of the earthquakes caused some rockfall. It was still closed, and my immediate thought was that the tiny hole we looked up was the place where boulders had fallen across the trail.
“You made a good decision to turn around,” they said to us.
In some ways this made me feel better. Perhaps we had been climbing the wrong route after all, and despite the fact that it was closed by rockfall, we had almost reached the summit anyway. And we still had the consolation of Corno Grande to climb, which for most people would be the main event.
We followed a steep trail up a scree-lined ridge. It was a walk to begin with. A paint-marked trail diverged left to Vetta Centrale, but we turned right and traversed across to via normale on Corno Grande. There was some easy scrambling, and at one point we had to haul ourselves up on a steel cable to ascend a rock gully.
“Not another one,” I said with a strangled groan when I first saw it, but luckily it was only a few metres high.
Via normale weaves its way straight up Corno Grande’s north-west face. It must have been a scree slope once, but so many people have staggered up and down it over the years that the scree has eroded down to bare rock. We had crossed from the quiet to the busy side of the mountain, and snakes of people were on their way up. It was clear that many of these were not regular hikers. They travelled in big groups, progressing nervously and stopping often. On Everest, the cynics describe these lines of climbers as “conga lines”, but I’ve always thought they’d need to be wearing Hawaiian shirts and sombreros for that. We kept to the left, where the rock was rougher, but we had it to ourselves and could stride up quickly.
It didn’t take us long to ascend the two or three hundred metres to the top, where a horizontal ridge curved round to the right, and the summit was visible a short distance away. There was a viewpoint here across the Ghiacciaio del Calderone, reputedly Europe’s most southerly glacier, to the trio of crumpled rock towers, Vetta Orientale, Vetta Centrale and Torrione Cambi.
We reached the summit of Vetta Occidentale, the highest point in the Apennines, at 1.15. It was busy, with perhaps 50 people crouching among the rocks. But we managed to find a quiet ledge on the far side, looking east along the Cresta Orientale, the 20km ridge which is home to three more of Gran Sasso’s 2,000m peaks, Monte Brancastello, Monte Prena and Monte Camicia. 250m below us, a red bivouac shelter, Bivacco Bafile, perched on a narrow ledge looking out over Corno Grande’s sheer east face. Luxury accommodation for rock climbers, no doubt, but completely inaccessible to ordinary folk, and not a place to venture outside for a pee during the night.
We had spent our previous visit to Corno Grande’s summit in the clouds, so I was very happy to return here and get a better understanding of the mountain’s complex topography. The satisfaction of arriving here with no great difficulty allowed me to exorcise the terrors of Corno Piccolo. We didn’t relish returning by the via normale, which was a bit boring. We agreed to descend by the west ridge, which had been our route of ascent last time.
We left the summit behind a big group of nervous hikers, but we only had to follow them for about fifty metres before our trails diverged. The west ridge is a route for more experienced folk, and there were only a handful of us descending that way. It’s not quite as steep a descent as via normale, but while the latter descends down a face, the former is a narrow ridge with exposure on both sides. It’s a scramble for almost its entire length, and there is little or no margin for error, but there are plenty of handholds. I had been nervous on Corno Piccolo, but the west ridge presented no difficulty, and I was able to enjoy the descent as we watched the hikers on via normale pass beneath us.
The west ridge eventually merges with via normale at the base of a half-combe, with a view across to the southern side of Corno Piccolo. We were able to see quite clearly there were two routes going up to the summit, and we had taken the wrong one, directly up to the foot of the steep slabs that guarded the summit. It was clearly going to be a tricky proposition getting up there.
Had we continued a little further down the scree slopes beneath Sella dei Due Corni, we would have seen another trail slanting up to the ridge on the far side of Corno Piccolo’s summit. Once there, it was clearly much easier to turn right along the ridge to the summit, thus avoiding the slabs which had challenged my sphincters.
So, alas, Corno Piccolo is unfinished business, and we will have to go back sometime.
There was a sequel to this when we returned home and Edita googled Corno Piccolo. The route we had taken is called Via Danesi, also known as the via ferrata route (obviously). It’s not clear whether the route is currently closed because of rockfall blocking the trail, or simply as a precaution while earthquake aftershocks continue (there was one that night, so we were told by other guests at our hotel, but we were either too tired or too drunk to feel it).
The hole that I considered too narrow for my broad shoulders, appears to have been a regular feature, both before and after the earthquakes. It’s known as Il Buco, which means – you guessed it – The Hole. Edita found photos of a small child as well as a grown man passing through it. We didn’t know what was on the other side, perhaps another hideous precipice, but had we continued through then perhaps we were nearly there.
But anyway, that was in the future. We still had a few hours of descent ahead of us. We descended down a scree trail into the emerald haven of Val Maone, a wonderland of rolling grassy hills, surrounded by a horseshoe of mountain walls. Here we stopped for second lunch leaning against the wall of Rifugio Garibaldi, a tiny mountain hut facing across the basin to the perfect pyramid of Pizzo Cefalone, a peak which provided us with an interesting scramble down its north ridge last year.
We still had 800m of descent and a long walk back around the mountain to Prati di Tivo. The first part featured some ‘off-roading’ down a grassy hillside, which was boulder strewn in its lower reaches. The trail down to the Arno Valley which was marked on our map, and shortcut three sides of a square, turned out to be missing. Possibly it had disappeared beneath a landslide from the west shoulder of Corno Grande. We found our own way down instead, and we weren’t the only ones to try. Somebody had built cairns towards the bottom in an attempt to create a new trail.
The final part of the day took us down the Valle Arno, a broad, verdant valley, walled in by the towering cliffs of Pizzo d’Intermesoli on the eastern side, rising as much as 800m above, and the two Cornos on the other. There was one more forested ridge to cross when we reached the north side of Corno Piccolo. I was dead on my feet when we reached the ski resort of Prati di Tivo at 6.30pm, after 11 hours of walking, and around 1,800m of ascent and descent.
There was no disappointment that we hadn’t reached the summit of Corno Piccolo. We realised by now that we had taken the wrong way, and given it a damn good shot up a route that was supposed to be closed. We are leaving Italy, and it may be a long time before we come back, but I hope we do some day.
The Corno Piccolo and Corno Grande traverse is a classic day hike and scramble that is not for novices. It requires a good level of fitness and an early start, but it’s a must for any experienced hill walker who comes to the Apennines.