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Gran Paradiso, Italy, April 6-7, 2008

There was no escaping the fact that the weather on the high, exposed part of the Haute Route was turning to crap over the next two days. Christian really did not want to be stuck for a couple of days at the Valsorey or Chanrion huts, and came up with an alternative - drive an hour or so south into Italy to a mountain called Gran Paradiso.

Gran Paradiso turned out to be a very popular destination for climbers and skiers, kind of the Mt. Rainier of northern Italy. Its summit tops out at an even 4,000 meters, and given decent weather surface conditions, is a fairly mellow climb. We loaded up on excellent bread, salami and cheese in a little town a few kilometers from the trailhead, and enjoyed some superior panini and cappucini in the sun at a little cafe. Sweet.

There were tons of cars already at the parking area, and maybe 20 other skiers gearing up in the lot as we exited the cars. It was a pretty international scene, with plenty of French speakers and some German and Italian flying as well, so a few dudes speaking English with a Seattle accent didn't cause any commotion.

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We hiked for about 45 minutes in our ski boots, following an exquisite trail made of flaked golden shale. The path wound through sparse trees until we reached an abandoned shelter, after which we soon found skinable snow. Finding the existing skin track too icy to get good grip, several of our group set their own track in the soft-frozen corn and we soon found ourselves at our stop for the night, the Rifugio Chabod.

The Chabod hut is classic, with bathrooms and gear rooms in the basement, a large dining area and bar on the main floor, and a couple of floors of rooms with three-high bunk beds above. You are expected to leave your boots, ice axes and any pointy hardware in the basement and take your pack upstairs with your clothes, sleeping bag liner, etc. We sunned ourselves a bit in the sheltered sunny end of the hut before going inside to clean up (no showers, though) for dinner.

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Dinner was fabulous; bread and salad, pasta with red sauce, and pork in a red pepper sauce with mashed potatoes. They really understand how no amount of carbohydrates is too much for a group of backcountry skiers in Italy. A couple of bottles of local red wine, grappa if you so desire, and you're set.

We woke fairly early the next day, after hearing the forecast for increasing winds throughout the day, and headed out after the usual breakfast of bread, cereal, jam and butter. The Chabod also had BLOOD ORANGE juice, pretty common in Italy, up for grabs. It was delicious. It was already cold and windy, so we forged our own trail in a sheltered valley rather than going up the ridge with the Swiss groups ahead of us, which helped some. As we neared the upper mountain, however, we joined the main skin track through the crevasses and caught several large groups of friendly skiers.

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As we gained the col, the wind was really blasting - probably in the 60-70 mph range, with gusts that nearly knocked us over every once in a while. The plan had been to make a push for the summit, so some of us who were willing donned crampons and headed up the ridge to about 3,600 meters. The final face, however, turned out to have a hard, glazed ice surface, and the three of us who were on it were somewhat under-equipped with only one ice axe between us and two ice screws . . . about this time, we discovered that all of us were also getting frostbite on our faces on noses and cheeks. We heard or saw Christian gesturing for us to bail, and decided it was the right call.

Descending quickly, we got into the skis and headed off in a different direction from our ascent, through terrain with markedly less snow and no glaciers. At 2,732 meters we ran into the Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele, which from a distance looks like a structure from a desolate planet out of Star Wars. As we got closer, though, it revealed itself to be simply an old, well-used wooden building that happened to have a curved metallic roof. We ate our bread, cheese and salami, had some well-deserved cappucini, and tried to thaw out our faces.

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Wandering off the marked descent, we found a nice line through the rocks that would have been skiable even a week or two before, but ended in some cliffs that could have proven painful. Christian set up a belay station in a moat and lowered us past the crux, from which point we unclipped and skied around. The final few kilometers of the ski out were a bit scratchy, but since I was on rental skis . . . We did a hitch and shuttle deal to fetch the cars, and headed north, where Christian found us rooms in "the cheapest hotel in Courmayeur." We also found out that the tour we had just done was going to be done as a randonnée race by many of the world cup racers the next week, with a mandatory summit included. Hard core.

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