The Last of Fall at Gran Paradiso

Daddy Oct 19, 2018 · 13-min read
The Last of Fall at Gran Paradiso

I woke up cold in an empty campsite, beside a trailer with its blinds down. The off-season provided little approbation of how to use this big empty space, but I followed the park mandate of sleeping in designated areas for at least one night. The nearby hotel lawns and fields along the river faced the same emptiness.

There was still a day’s walk between where I’d slept and where the path into the park began, but I’d gone as close as the winter bus routes allowed. Fortunately after some time, a woman likely enjoying her retirement years stopped to give me a ride. What would have taken the better part of a day walking, she drove in fifteen minutes. As we stopped near her rented cabin, she told me the weather would get bad in a couple of days and also tried to explain that there was a… she didn’t know the English word, and the Italian wasn’t a cognate. I said the word for path in French, and she gave a circular smile of equal proportions of top and bottom teeth and gums. “Yes, chemin,” she nodded.


The trail was almost entirely uphill separated from the road which uncoiled itself as it reached the top. The first day with a backpack weighing at least fifty pounds was a sharp contrast to how it was in the Dolomites the year before. Yet, the warmth was enough to offset the wind blowing over the peaks behind me, and I took two naps on the way up in the sunshine like I was some kind of reptile.

Some of what made my pack so much heavier was the food I’d brought inspired by Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, which is also set in northern Italy. In the book, white cheese, sausage, bread, and apples are primarily mentioned as what they ate, and it only felt appropriate to take along the same.


The path not so much disappeared as veered off back toward the main road I’d left, and so I made my own path over the top of the ridge. The shady side of the mountain had kept snow in hiding between rocks. It was some time before navigating down was without the slippage that had made leaving the trail difficult. I know what they say about red skies at night and hoped the same held for corals and pinks and lavenders.


The refuge hut I planned to stay at was still far off, but it was already dark, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take. Never finding myself on the paper map, I resorted to using an app, which showed a shelter not a half mile down by the river. I hated to lose the altitude, but it was the only option not involving walking until midnight by headlamp.

I crossed the river and my phone showed I was standing on top of the shelter, but beneath me was only grass and there weren’t any lights around. Around an outcrop of boulders were the silhouettes of stone cabins whose roofs had collapsed in an assortment of ways. The ones still with pitched roofs had wads of toilet paper inside, and in one a cartoonish turd greeted you as you walked in the doorway. Cow pies encircled all the rest. There was however a narrow gap between two walls each half above and below the ground where I slept next to a clump of black fur, but it was flat and shaded from the ultra-bright full moon.



Day 2

Though the sky rids itself of night at around eight, I didn’t feel direct sunlight until after eleven once I’d climbed out of the shadow of the range. Seeing a small town below I realized why I’d not been able find myself on the map. The road I’d followed running along the west side of the river was very similar to the one there before me; the only difference was that mine was outside the app's downloaded area.


As I was reading a posted map in a town along the way, a woman assuming I was French told me about how great her hike was and that the weather was supposed to get bad tomorrow. I followed the road out of the town along a valley, and the scene was one of the best examples of fall one could ask for. On either side were jagged peaks running the length of one’s view with blends of orange and green and the occasional yellow. As if afraid of the fields between them, alpine cottages cluster together, and in them, whatever was not of the region’s dark grey stone was black or white and were similar.

The night before, and from many nights before that, I was aware of the limitations of my minimalism in traveling. The bivvy around my sleeping bag let dew and condensation leech out the warmth from within, and if I found a store, the only thing I’d need was a tarp to string over me. I passed a group of roofers probably working the last of their year in the valley and saw a sheet of discarded plastic. An older man came around a corner and whose ears were so full of black hair that I though he was wearing earplugs. We both used languages the other couldn’t comprehend, until I resorted to just picking up the plastic sheet and a more universal language: “OK?”.

The straight road sloping downward slightly was as easy as it gets, and I marveled as I advanced square upon square of my map’s grid. I found a small shop to buy some string. The man showed me a package of white shoelaces but after I declined, he did something which I think is typical of men of that age. He pulled from his cluttered shop a damaged spool of twine and just gave it to me with the expression of having too much stuff and this would be more or less a favor.


My plan had been to cut across a mountain pass and travel something a bit more rugged than those paths meant for couples in their golden years which I’d be on. But for the third time, I heard that the weather would get bad the next day and had to reassess my bravado. The next best thing was to take a trail of a lower altitude winding within the tree line.

Route 14, hard to find at night, started silently next to the mouth of a tunnel; the glowing eyes of a fox disappeared before my headlamp could get to the rest of it. It was late, and I made camp on a small section of the trail because it was the only flat spot around. It had been cold at night before, but now with the tarp it was almost too hot.


Day 3

As was prophesied, the weather the next day was sunless and drizzly though not snowy like I’d imagined. High in the mountains, snow began to collect, but here on the trail, at least, whatever was falling wasn’t even worth considering rain.


In this day and age of side-curtain airbags and helmeted horse riding, it was amazing how much access to danger the park allowed. The path was easy and rarely changed its altitude as it hugged to the contours of the slopes, but one’s distance from death was at times little more than a misstep. Still above the trees, where it went could be seen in the distance by a faint irregularity in the steep pitch of dry grass, and any higher would have been in the white of snow.

It was still not winter here. Though snow at times populated the air, it only fell symbolically without any traces on the ground as if it the two were separate domains where existence in one had no connection with the other. Soon enough however white clumps began to congregate in the grass. As I mounted a sharp ledge I heard something like a chirp and a thump then the pattering of hooves. Just below only one ibex remained whose button nose made it look as if it’d been crossbred with a teddy bear. We both stood there with locked eyes for a length of time too socially awkward to be done with humans, even a lover. She set out another chirp in the air and thumped her foot instinctively either to warn or locate her unseen kids, Bryson and Tyler. As we stood there in the stillness, clumps began to fall thickly at a rate that means there's not going to be school tomorrow.

In less than an hour, the mountain’s hues had been switched to grayscale, and the trail was now a stream of chalky white.


It seemed the snow was unsure about its place in the world and didn’t know what to do here. It would cling to bottom of your shoes leaving a perfectly foot-shaped hole in grass as if one’s footsteps could bring the summer back. As a clouded sky made for an early darkness, I came to a junction where the snow was now deep and consistent. Just north was an encampment with a bivouac icon from the map. If there wasn’t anywhere to sleep, I would hike down back into the warmer tree line.

The trail upwards was all but masked by snow, but I approached the black shapes of the long lodges only slightly darker than the night covered mountain which was their backdrop. I encircled a vacated ranger cabin and felt relief that there was at least shelter from the snow under the overhang of its roof or on a landing atop a set of stairs. Under breezeways and recesses were also possibilities revealed by my headlamp. Though I’d really be putting my gear and clothing, not to mention self, to their furthest intended limit, I was fine with sleeping outside but tried a half dozen or so doors not knowing if they kept one open for unseasonal travelers. The handles would all turn but would never push open (maybe I should have tried pulling). Without any success, I returned to the ranger cabin to look for tarps in case things got too dire, and was relived to see a big one covering the wood I could borrow for the night.

There was a set of stairs on the back side of the cabin, and I went up to the landing to see if it was long enough to sleep on. There was a funny little door at the top with a sign that said "do not to litter" in four languages. I wondered if it was a storage shed. The door handle, like all the rest, rotated but nothing else, and the landing wasn’t really long enough but would work. I looked above the door again at the sign about not littering and to its left, another about the number for mountain rescue services. There was something strange about these signs being here, especially the one about not littering, and the shape of the little door. I watched in disbelief as a gap formed between the door and its frame as I tried it a second time, and the outline of six small beds formed in my headlamp. The room directly beneath the roof wasn't much warmer than outside but was dry and windless.


Cabin at Gran Paradiso


Day 4

Laying in bed the next morning, I considered conditions that would have to be met for going up into the mountain instead of taking a lower route. My map showed one last path that shot up in the mountains and back down to the opposite valley and could be considered as an “advanced” or “hardcore” achievement. Opening the little shutters of the shelter’s only window dismissed the possibility of a clear and sunny day and with it the chance of taking the mountain pass. Snow still fell heavily, and much of the topography in front of me had been erased by paper-white billows. There were several other reasons that going up would have been stupid, and I couldn’t reason away all of them though I tried. Nevertheless, being there at the base of the tallest part of this range was enough of an experience in its own right and certifiably one of the best outhouse views in the world.


I exited towards the valley and the air warmed as I descended. A sharp contrast formed between the white ground and the bright orange-yellow needles of an unusual deciduous conifer, shielded from the snow. Soon the snow was only at a distance, and the route met with several abandoned cabins whose roofs had collapsed or doors kicked in. I’d gone nearly 48 hours without seeing another person and there was little preventing the illusion that this was my own little world.

I arrived in the town of Cogne in the night’s rain, and ended my trip there. The weather would only get worse and the discovery that my boots had lost their waterproofness had been constantly reminded to me for the past two days. Nothing evaporates in such clammy air. Continuing like this would only benefit the ego, and besides, as things turned out, I'd already experienced the last of day of fall at Gran Paradiso. 



And now, it's time for a celebratory gif dance!

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Technophobe gracing tech companies in the Global 500, Fortune 500, a Kickstarter unicorn, and several little dinky places. Bike touring is my sanity factory.