Monday, October 18, 2010

Parc Nationale Gran Paradisio

Last week (now two weeks ago, sorry it has taken me so long to get this out, its a long one and I have been busy) I was in Milan for a conference, 10th International Symposium on Neurovirology. It was a good conference, stimulating science (really excellent talk on rabies virus, another on SIV escape mutants and some great interactions about dopamine in the brains of late-stage HIV infected individuals), excellent food (we were in Italy ... on successive nights I had unbelievable lamb followed by almost as unbelievable duck) and generally a good time. Except for the fact that our 4-star hotel did not provide irons (or a number of other standard amenities ... I DO NOT recommend the Hotel Dei Cavalieri) it was a very good meeting.

But the best part of the conference was that Cheo and I flew out 4 days before it started and went hiking in the Parc Nationale Gran Paradisio in northwestern Italy. The park adjoins another park in France on the other side of the border, forming a huge Ibex preserve in the Graian Alps. It is a beautiful place, full of valleys, waterfalls and 3,000 meter plus mountains ... and we got to spend 4 days hiking there. We were based in Cogne (pronounced cone-yeh), a quaint little town/ski resort/commune in the Valle D' Aosta on the north side of the park, essentially in the shadow of Mont Blanc across the nearby border with France.

It is kind of amazing that things worked out as well as they did, being that the only planning Cheo and I did was reserving a car ... a lovely Fiat panda I christened Fernando. We figured out that we were going to the north side of the park, not the south side, while on the plane, sorted out directions while we were in the car, and found our incredibly cheap (45 Euro/night for both of us) hotel - in an 800 year old monastery named the Chateau Royal - after we arrived in town. But looking back, these details seem minor and irrelevant when compared with the spectacular, and completely surprising hikes that we took over the next 3 days (they were surprising, at least to me, because

The day we arrived, after getting a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches at the only open restaurant in town (there were about 15 restaurants but only one was open ... more about this later) and settling into the Chateau Royal, we couldn't wait to get into the mountains. The Cogne valley has a massive network of trails, all well labeled and described, in detail, in the wonderful map available only in the town. So we picked trail 17, and headed up. And up. And up. And up ...

It turns out the trail we picked was a beautiful nature trail, when it leveled out at 2000 meters. But from 1550 up until 2000 it turned out to be quite steep, as it was a ski trail. So after about 2 miles and 450 meters up, we found the top of the gondola, a gorgeous meadow and an incredible view of the valley and the surrounding mountains as the fog passed by. I think one of the most spectacular views we had all week was the first view we had of autumn in the alps, as the pines were all deep orange, gold and red ... I've never seen evergreens change with the seasons.

Dinner was not great, we learned that you should never order pasta at a pizza place. But dinner was filling, and it was definitely necessary for our hike the next day, along the Torrente de Valnontey up to the Alpe de Money, for a fantastic view of the glaciers at the end of the valley. We drove up the road to the tiny town of Valnontey (permanent population 10), picked up some panini and started in along a wide dirt track. We passed a bizarre house, inexplicably named David, built into a boulder, and stopped in our tracks at the river to gawk and take pictures of the glaciers far in the distance. Okay, really only I stopped for pictures. Cheo stopped to humor me. But it was definitely worth it .. check out the glaciers in the picture below.

We continued for another mile or so until we reached the turnoff from trail 22, which we one, to trail 22C. The map we had illustrated that 22C was up hill, but it did not make it clear how up hill, as we ascended about 400 meters in the next mile or so, hiking up a series of brutal switch backs up the side of the ravine. As we rose, the view got better and better, allowing us to take in the waterfalls on the opposite wall. A one point the edge was quite sheer, and we needed to use rope handholds. When we finally stopped going up, it was not at the top, but rather at the top of a smaller ridge, which then led us past a series of small streams and waterfalls. As we walked it got foggier and foggier, obscuring the glaciers as we approached them. We finally reached the Alpe de Money, a large alpine meadow with a small refugio at which we ate lunch, waiting for the fog to clear so we could see the glaciers at the end of the valley. After lunch we moved on, walking another couple of miles across a series of deconstructed bridges and light-running streams, and eventually we got to the fairly steep downhill, which Cheo is standing on the edge of here. Still, even after we got back to the base of the valley and within a mile or two of the glaciers, they never appeared to us because the fog got thicker and thicker, until by the late afternoon we could not see waterfalls that were 50 feet up the hill. Still, the hike was pretty spectacular, as you can see in this view along the valley that we had hiked up.

Below on the right you can see us at the highest point we made it up to on the way to the glaciers. We were chasing a waterfall we had seen coming down another ridge, but by the time we got to this bridge it was completely obscured. The bouldering was a lot of fun, but at around 4 in the afternoon we began to worry that the fog would settle in and make it impossible to see on our way out, so when we reached this bridgeEventually we stopped going up and turned around. Despite walking out for about 5 hours, the return was much faster, taking only an hour and a half ... the best part about this is that we got to walk past many of the waterfalls, including this beauty (down left) we had seen from the opposite ridge earlier in the day.

When we finally back, first to Valnontey and then to Cogne, we showered and waited, because it turned out that the many restaurants in Cogne were open, but only from 730 - 10 at night. This night, after skyping our wives, we ate in a small cafe, a much better meal than the previous evening. We crashed hard, woke early and generally repeated the whole thing, except this time we headed up trail 15, along the torrente de bardoney starting from Lillaz. We had hoped to see a number of glaciers at the end of the valley, but the fog this day was far worse than the previous day. At the start of the day, we could see maybe 100 or 200 feet, but later on, by the time we stopped for lunch, visibility was down around 30 feet (in the picture below Cheo is about 40 feet away across the start of a boulder field).

And everything was cold and wet. But the hike was really amazing into its own way, like hiking in an ethereal, fairy world. It started on a wide, easy path next to the river, but after this enormous boulder about 2 miles in, the trail narrowed and quickly moved up the hill and eventually took us across several huge boulder fields. This scrambling was really challenging because everything was went and slick, but it was a lot of fun. The whole day we hiked along the river valley, although there were several points where we could barely see the water. We passed about a dozen small and medium sized waterfalls, around huge boulders and along a gorgeous blue/white river of glacial run-off. We turned back early, just after lunch, as it was too cold and too cloudy to see anything anyway. But instead of returning to the hotel, we spent a couple of hours walking around the magnificent Cascate de Lillaz, an incredible multi-tiered waterfall just a short walk from the town. The entire waterfall was probably 150 to 200 meters, but it was divided into several sections (me in front of the bottom above, the center section and Cheo & I in front of the top section below), each different in shape. It was a truly marvelous waterfall, and the mist that had plagued us all day lightened up a bit, and combined with the overcast conditions I actually had perfect weather for shooting the falls.

Dinner back in Cogne was marvelous, as we were starving and cold from hiking all day so we devoured an amazing pot of risotto de Cogne, which was essentially a giant bowl of rice with pepper and several cheeses. It was amazing, although I think it was a bit too much cheese as neither of us sleep all that well. In addition, it had been so foggy that we were thinking of trying to leave early, with the idea that it would not be worth hiking the final day because of the lack of visibility. But after calling around and looking for a way to get back to Milan, we realized that it was way too expensive ... and lucky we did, because the last hike we took was the best of all of them.

For our last hike we again started from Lillaz, hiking up trail 13, past the Cascate de Lillaz we spent so much time photographing the previous evening. The hike started on a long, slow up hill with only a few switchbacks, rising from 1600 to 1850 meters along the gorge made by the torrente Urtier, then down into a beautiful valley along the torrente. We crossed the river at a man made waterfall next to a small cottage, then headed back up-hill. Our path uphill wound through a wide valley, and then through a beautiful pine forest that was turning red and orange with autumn, and lit up like fire in the mid-morning sun.

At the top of the forest we caught up with another river, the torrente des Eaux-Rousses. We passed another set of waterfalls, a huge thin river running at least 300 meters down a hillside in the distance, and another single plunge fall right along the trail. It was gorgeous, and again we stopped for photos ... I of the upcoming valley and cheo of the lip and plunge of the falls. About a mile later, after Cheo was nearly trampled by a herd of angry bulls, we crested a small rise and stared out onto the gorgeous Alpe de Bardoney (on the left).

We walked a bit farther, and stopped for lunch at the refugio in the Alpe de Bardoney, at around 2200 meters (as I am pointing out here on the left). It was cold, and windy, but after a good lunch we kept going up the valley until the trail split off at the northern end of the valley underneath several glaciers. As we walked up the valley it got much colder as the wind got stronger, to the point that the water on the trail was frozen on the trail. At the point when we turned around, I think it must have been a bit below freezing with the wind chill, and walking up to the glaciers had been really tough (I can't remember the last time I hiked in heavy pants and three shirts and a jacket and was still cold) ...

... but as soon as we stopped to take some pictures things seemed to warm up. Still, after getting our glacier glamour shots (above), we quickly turned around and walked back down the valley. We passed back by the refugio and the herd of bulls and then headed up trail 12 towards the Lago de Loie.

Getting up over the pass leading to the lake was a lot tougher than we thought, but the view we got cresting the rise, Mont Blanc in the distance looming over the Cogne valley, was (as you can see above) the best of the trip. We walked about half a mile with Mont Blanc looming in the distance, passed the Lago de Loie and we treated to a spectacular view of the glaciers we had not been able to see the previous day (see the image at the end of the blog). Finally, after a number of incredible views, we walked down about 800 meters over the last mile or two ... essentially straight down through another amber colored pine forest (on the left here) and past the Cascate de Lillaz in the distance. This was an amazing hike, my favorite of the trip.

For dinner, we ended up wandering around town for about 45 minutes looking for a restaurant (because apparently everything closes on Mondays) before we finally found the only open place and had another excellent meal. Finally, good pasta :)

The next day we got up at 0530 and hustled Fernando back to the airport in Milan, meeting the rest of the lab and riding into the city to start the conference.

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