April in the Apennines is a time of transition. In the winter there are metres of powder snow, and climbing a mountain is hard work as you try to break a trail through. Although we have experienced enough snow in July for crampons, that was a bit freakish. In summer there is usually no snow at all and the Apennine peaks become a feast for hill walkers.
But we were going to be there in April and that provided some uncertainty. By the end of May in the central Apennines, most of the snow would be gone, but we knew there would still be plenty of it on the mountaintops in April. The question was, how much?
Then there was the weather. When we lived in Rome, we could guarantee sunny days by adopting the UK hillwalking trick of having flexible plans, watching the weather forecast, and being prepared to go where the weather is good on any given weekend.
From Rome, the four jewels of Abruzzo (Gran Sasso, Maiella, Marsicani/La Meta and Sirente-Velino) were in easy reach, just two hours drive away. This time we had to adopt a different approach. It was the Easter bank holiday weekend. We had booked our flights from London. We were going anyway, come rain or shine. I was prepared for difficult conditions: deep snow, cloudy weather and wind – conditions which make a summit far from guaranteed.
Edita was working in Rome that week, so she went earlier, taking our boots, axes and crampons with her so that we were prepared for any conditions. I flew out to join her on the Friday and we drove out to Abruzzo early on Saturday morning for our first peaks of the weekend.
I have previously described the layout of the Gran Sasso massif as a capital letter ‘H’ lying on its side, with two parallel ridges running from east to west, and linked in the middle. Most of the action happens in the eastern half of this ‘H’, where Corno Grande (2,912m), the highest mountain in the Apennines, rises above the giant high-altitude plain of Campo Imperatore.
Today I had chosen the quieter western half. Here, the peaceful Chiarino Valley rises gently between the giant bulk of Monte Corvo (2,623m) on its north side, and a ridge of more rolling peaks to the south. Three years ago, Edita and I tried to climb Monte Corvo from the Chiarino Valley in March, but there was so much snow that we only reached the middle line of the ‘H’ before having to abandon our ascent. We managed to reach the summit of an obscure 2,000er called Cima Falasca (2,300m), so we were satisfied enough.
This time we decided to tackle the south-west ridge of rolling peaks. This would give us an opportunity to gaze across at Monte Corvo and look down into the Chiarino Valley from the south side. This ridge had also given me my first taste of the Apennines when we staggered up the most south-westerly outlier of the ridge, Monte San Franco (2,132m), on a cold January day in 2015. It was my first Apennine 2,000er.
The next two peaks on the ridge from west to east are Monte Ienca (2,208m) and Pizzo di Camarda (2,332m) and these were our objectives now. The idea of climbing these peaks came to me after browsing a guidebook to 120 routes in Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga which was recommended to me in a comment by a reader of my blog. I am very grateful to them, for it’s a decent guidebook that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
We left Rome by car at 7am on the Saturday, and our first indication of the snow conditions came as we drove past Montes Morrone (2,141m) and Velino (2,486m) rising above the main highway. These peaks are familiar to us. Not only have we climbed them both, but they are a regular landmark on almost every journey to Abruzzo. The sun was bright above them, but while Morrone appeared to be fairly bare of snow, Velino was a glistening white pyramid. The snow conditions on our peaks were likely to be somewhere in between.
We turned off the main highway at the town of Assergi and took a peaceful road west, up into the Valle del Vasto. We gazed at the ridge above us trying to gauge the snow conditions. Directly above us the pointed summit of Pizzo Cefalone (2,533m) was still caked in ice and looked formidable. But further to the west the snows receded. Our main target, Pizzo di Camarda, jutted above the ridge like a shark’s fin. There was snow and we would need our crampons for sure, but it might be a day for trekking poles rather than axes.
This was a peaceful corner of Gran Sasso. We saw very little traffic, and we couldn’t believe our luck as we pulled up in a lay-by beneath Monte Ienca. The air was still, the sun was shining brightly, a cuckoo was blasting away nearby, and it felt like a summer’s day. Conditions couldn’t have been better as we looked towards the soft green sides of Monte San Franco, an otherwise unremarkable hill that forever has a connection for me due to it being my first.
At the last minute, as we left the car at 9.30, I decided to strap our axes to the back of my pack. Although they seemed ridiculous in these summery conditions, I knew that what looks like a small patch of snow down below can often turn out to be a substantial snow field when you reach it.
We scrambled up a gully, then a juniper-clad hillside to reach a track. We looked above us and were astonished to see a black vehicle on its way up. Was somebody driving to the summit?
Once on the track, it was easy walking at a gentle gradient as the road angled up towards the crest of the ridge. We were high above the valley now, looking south to the Sirente-Velino massif. This regional park on the western fringes of Abruzzo is really two ranges rolled into one and separated by a high plateau. From our viewpoint, Monte Sirente was a jagged ridge of fluted cliffs, while Monte Velino remained the white pyramid that we had seen from the main highway.
Half an hour later the black vehicle passed us on its way down again. I wondered if it belonged to a park ranger, but we were surprised to see the word Carabinieri emblazoned on the side. It was the military police, but what on earth were they doing right up here? There was a marvellous view of the peaks and valleys of Abruzzo, but it could hardly be a crime hotspot up here, 700 metres above the road.
In this quiet corner of Gran Sasso we had wondered if we would have today’s mountains to ourselves, but as we continued up the track we could see two or three black figures on the snow close to the summit of Pizzo di Camarda.
The track eventually reached the snow too, and we could see some wheel marks where the carabinieri had turned around. We continued to a broad col, the Piano di Camarda, where a little grey pool provided a fine viewpoint down to a much larger lake, Lago di Campotosto, and the white tops of Monti della Laga to the north. It was too steep to see down into the Chiarino Valley, but as we sat by the pool and ate a snack, the long ridge of Monte Corvo crowned the horizon on the other side.
It took less than an hour to reach the summit of Pizzo di Camarda from the col. We followed grassy slopes for as long as we could. Two figures passed us on their way down, and I looked at their feet to see what footwear they were wearing. One had big mountaineering boots, but the other was in approach shoes. We were somewhere in between with our big leather walking boots.
Behind us the more gentle Monte Ienca rose up on the other side of the col. On its north side, a smaller peak jutted out into the Chiarino Valley in the same way that the peak of Steeple juts out into Ennerdale in the Lake District.
‘What’s that other peak?’ said Edita. ‘Should we climb up that one too?’
‘No idea,’ I replied. ‘I don’t know if it even has a name. It’s certainly not a 2,000er.’
When we reached the snow, it wasn’t thick and the slope was still gentle, so we continued without crampons. We put them on when we saw the terrain steepen beneath the summit. Three figures were on their way down, and they were taking it gingerly. They were all wearing crampons but perhaps this was a rare occurrence for them. With crampons on our feet there was no danger at all, and a few minutes later we were standing on the narrow summit of Pizzo di Camarda.
The view was immense, and I would need a book to describe it all. To the south and west the horizon was full of peaks and ranges we had climbed, from Maiella in the east to Sirente-Velino and Simbruini to the west.
But it was the view to the north and east that commanded our attention closer at hand. Gran Sasso’s two most dramatic mountains, Corno Grande and Pizzo d’Intermesoli, peered above the middle rung of the letter ‘H’, two glistening bishop’s mitres clad in white. Across the valley to the north, Monte Corvo stretched before us in a long ridge, towering over our position on the summit. To its west, the Chiarino Valley opened out to reveal the vivid blue of Lago di Campotosto and its namesake range of Monti della Laga standing sentinel over it.
There wasn’t a breath of wind, so we decided to have our lunch up there. We could not have had a better welcome on our return to the Apennines, almost two years after I last trekked here.
We now had the peaks to ourselves. We raced down to the col then trudged more slowly up the other side. Monte Ienca was a very different mountain, more rounded than the smaller summit of Pizzo di Camarda. Monte Ienca’s summit was bare of snow.
It felt like we were standing at the end of the ridge, with the more isolated Monte San Franco further along. The view from Monte Ienca felt very similar to the one I remembered from Monte San Franco on that first day in the Apennines. It was cloudier then, and we had to wait for the wind to blow a gap, providing occasional glimpses of the mountains. We were unable to identify which peak was which, but now we knew better. The three giants of Monte Corvo, Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Grande were unmistakeable under the clear blue sky. Pizzo di Camarda, on the other hand, had been unknown to us until today.
I reminisced about our ascent of Monte San Franco, when we saw intermittent flashes of a brocken spectre over Lago di Campotosto, that strange phenomenon when you see a giant version of your shadow fringed by a rainbow in the valley far beneath you. We had a second lunch on the summit of Monte Ienca amid pleasant memories.
It took us little more than an hour to descend. The going was steep initially, then easy walking once we were back on the broad track. It was blissful, peaceful and warm. As we descended, the two axes on my pack clanked together with a loud ring, reminding me that we hadn’t needed them. We were back at the car at 4pm after a pleasant day out.
It was a near-perfect return to the Apennines, and we still had another day here to climb more peaks. The only blemish was when I pulled up the Summitpost web page about the Apennine 2,000ers and discovered that the little Steeple-like peak jutting into the Chiarino Valley was in fact Il Morrone (2,067m). What are the chances of us ever coming back here and knocking it off? Oh, well.