Summit Corno Grande Narrative, Grand Sasso, Italy

This is my Summit Corno Grande narrative, in the Grand Sasso range in Italy. It takes place over a three year period with five actual attempts.

(I&II Oct/Nov 2007- III Nov 2008 – IV&V May 2010)

Jump to Round II Jump to Round III Jump to Round IV Jump to Round V

Corno Grande Tried to Kill Me, Twice, and them some!

I made it! After three years, five visits, and countless false starts, I was finally at the top of Italy’s Apennines. But lets not put the cart before the horse. Let me start at the beginning.

Back in 2007, I was told that there was a large mountain just two hours east of Rome. At that moment I felt as though Zeus had been keeping secrets from me, then later when that mountain made me face death twice in two days I though that it would have been kinder if Zeus had kept that secret to himself.

The mishap started with a little research on the Internet to find background information on the mountain and summit options. On I found pretty much everything I needed and then threw some gear into a mid-grade 55L pack, jumped on some buses, a ferry to Ancona, some trains, and then a few more buses to finally reach the city of L’Aquila and then the pre-trailhead village of Funivia.

This dance with transportation took me the long way around from Ancona to Rome and then back east to the village of L’Aquila (850m), were I spent my first night shivering in a local bus station. In the morning I got on a local bus to the IFNO atomic lab’s abandoned surface buildings and then walked up to Forte Cerreto (Funivia – meaning Gondola in Italian) to start a 4 hour zigzag hike on trail that ran under a gondola that services Campo Imperatore (2135m), the summer trekking village and winter ski village. This is the location of the trailhead for the summit and ultimately where four Italian gondola workers saved my hands, toes and everything in between.

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I reached the top of the gondola run around noon and realized that everything was closed. Other than a few vehicles and workers, it was just a wind swept cold expanse of closed buildings and empty space. I wandered around and read the notices on the doors of the hotels to discover that they had all closed in mid-September. As a result my only sleep options were the emergency refuge near summit (see red hut in photos) or the three-star hotels back down at the base of the gondola. Although it was cloudy with poor visibility, I figured that I could make it to the refuge near the summit before sunset (the though of walking back down the trail for the night just so that I could spend another four hours walking up it again the next morning just didn’t seem that appealing).

At 1pm set out from the gondola (towards the left, passing in front of the observatory, and up the hill towards the Refigio Duca Abruzzi) with a target time of 4pm for reaching the emergency Refuge Biva Bafile, located below and to the east of the summit. It was remarkably cold and windy once I cleared the first ridge (following the No3 trail) and then within 30 minutes I ran into my first substantial amounts of snow around Sellia di Monte Aquila, 2335m (were I turned onto the No 4A trail). By the time I reached next trail split to the north (on No 4) the snow was a concern. The map showed that I was about half way to the summit yet I was behind schedule. I would need to pick up my pace if I planned to reach the emergency hut that was located much further to the east than the actual summit.

At this stage I ran into too much deep snow and the weight of my gear slowed me down as one in every two of my steps broke thru the surface layer of snow.  I would then have to kick new snow steps and try to regain the surface layer, plus empty the snow out of my very wet boots from time to time. As I continued to work my way towards the No 3A and No 4 trail split (the first leading to the summit the other to the refuge) I lost all signs of the trail. At this stage I had to rely on old footprints in the snow left by other trekkers and on instinct.

The sky had continued to grow darker through the afternoon and at this stage visibility was down to 50m at best. At no time throughout the day did I get a glimpse of the top of the mountain, which made my general sense of direction very weak. It became obvious at some stage that I had lost the trail, so I simply kept on pushing my way up the snow slopes and towards any elevated ground or rocks to try and stay out of the deep snow.

Around 4pm I reached a crest with still no sign of a trail or tracks. Visibility was still under 50m and a light snow was starting to fall. I climbed up to the crest and looked over. I found myself looking down a shear drop and wall of gray in all directions. I sat and pondered my situation for a while. I had no tent so going back down the mountain wasn’t that inviting. I would have to walk for most of the night to reach the lower gondola hotels or I could push a little longer and see if I could find the trail and reach the emergency refuge. I dropped my now heavy and wet pack, marked its location with my GPS and then started walking in larger and larger sweeps looking for trail markers or tracks. Within 100m to my west I found some old tracks in the snow. I doubled back to pickup my pack and then followed them to the west. Within 30 minutes I found the marker showing the No 3A and No 4 trail splits (2504m). At this stage I sat down on a boulder to consider my options again. I knew that a bad decision would be dangerous in these conditions. It was now 4:30pm and I estimated that it would take me at least 2 hours to reach the emergency refuge (2669m). The map showed that the trail wound along the east and west cliff walls of Sassone, then crossed a large open snow comb (bowl), and then climbed up the opposite cliff face to reach the refuge. The trail was marked as demanding and technical in summer conditions, so I wondered how much more difficult might it be now that it was wet, icy and snowy. The alternative was a very long return, in the dark, to Campo Imperatore and then an additional few hours of trail down to the hotels at Fonte Cerretto. Visibility was still decreasing, darkness would fall within an hour, and I was soaked. I opted for the closer, but more difficult option of the emergency refuge. Plus I wanted to reach the summit early the next day and returning to Fonte Cerretto would simply mean that I would have to repeat the entire exercise the next day and end up in this same place around the same time with the same options, and endless loop.

I set out along the cliff trail (No 4) to the right and immediately realized that it was going to be extremely difficult to follow this route. I lost the trail markers almost immediately, and then any sign of a trail. Soon I was waist deep in a steep snow bowl and struggling simply to make headway to the east. My progress was one or two careful steps and then I would break through the surface layer and plunge into waist deep wet snow. I would have to dig, roll, or muscle my way out and onto the surface snow while trying make upward progress. The rocks and slopes were now so steep that in many cases the angles were almost vertical. I found myself crawling on hands and knees almost straight up. After about an hour I cleared the snow bowls and found myself on a cliff trail, indicated by a single trail marker high up on the rock wall, and some old snow tracks. Around a bend I spotted three caves, one a perfect 1m high and deep. Its opening was almost completely enclosed by snow, but its inside was dry and tight. I stopped to record its GPS location and mentally noted it as an emergency shelter if all else failed. I continued on along the cliff as darkness feel around 5:30, at which time a wet snowstorm struck. I continued along the now technical cliff trail, using three sets of fixed cable ropes, one mounted ladder, and some wet icy rock climbing. Eventually made it to the northbound turns in the cliff and was buffeted by howling winds and snow. At this stage I was completely wet, shivering, and the last light was fading, as the opposing cliff face grew black. I strained my eyes to make out the location of the emergency hut and thought I could make out an unusually shaped object directly opposite. I had to make another hard choice. I finally pushed my way out around the ledge and down into the wide-open snow bowl. The descent to the bowl was almost vertical and I wondered if I could retrace my steps if I had to turn back. When I hit the slope things got worse. The snow was waist deep or deeper. I struggled for each meter of progress as night fell. I took out and mounted my headlamp and struggled in a bubble of light in a dark wet world. That lamp literally meant the difference between life and death on this zero visibility night. Twice I stopped on the 60-80 degree snow bowl and considered turning back, but each time the thought of retracing my steps seemed too much to bear. Finally on the third halt I realized I could no longer see the cliff wall and had no idea were I was. I was in a black, wet, cold world of howling winds, fat illuminated snowflakes, and steep slopes.  I was lost and began to despair. I began calling out for help in hopes that someone might be at the unmanned emergency refuge and that they might have ropes to help me out of the bowl, or at least come and claim my body in the morning. The only response was the echo of my frightened yells. Eventually I got tired of yelling for help and decided that I had no choice other than to retrace my last hour’s steps and try for the cave. Freezing to death here or on the way to the cave would result in the same result, but if I made it to the cave I would at least make it to morning and then possibly down to safely.

The return journey through the waist deep snow bowl was the start of a very long hell and at each stage I seriously doubted I could make it to the next phase. At the end of the bowl I had to climb vertically through snow using submerged boulders or packed snow ledges I created for my wet hands, elbows, and knees. It was exhausting physical effort to gain a few meters only to slip down and lose half the elevation gained. This cycle was repeated over and over until I finally reached the cliff trail 20 m above. Then I had to grip the overhanging wet rock face as I pulled myself up the icy track, hunched over and hanging over the cliff in places. I had no choice so pulled myself up the slope carefully. In time I reached the curve and the most demanding point. Cautiously I reached around the bend, clutched a jagged outcrop with my hand, and pulled myself around and over an open expanse as the wind howled and tore at me with a vengeance. I gave it all I had and pushed off and fell into the trail and rocks on the other side of the gap. I was safe! I was on now on the last, but long technical and roped section of cliff trail, but at least I was out of the snow. I felt much better and more confident. The next roped section was the cliff, which demanded strength and contained dangerous drops, but at least I was out of the snow and strong winds.

I started working my way along the fixed cables with renewed spirits but diminishing strength. I could tell that I was running on adrenaline and that my time was limited as I slid along the cables, swung across gaps, and crossed fixed points or cable crossovers. At no time did I let go of the cables. I was not going to make a tired mistake this late in the game and tumble to my death. I focused all my mental and physical strength on those cable runs and the ice in my path. Finally after an hour I reached the small cave. I didn’t hesitate. I had on other options. I carefully pulled off my pack (I was on a narrow snow covered ledge) and slid the pack into the opening. I then forced my way into the opening and slid into the dark, quite hollow. It was dry inside and I was safe for the night.

I lay on my back with the cave ceiling a few inches from my nose, out of the wind, cold and exhausted, but relieved. I switched off my headlamp and simply rested until my shivering became too uncontrollable to tolerate. I turn my lamp back on, turned onto my side and then spent some time pulling all my gear out of the pack and arranging it. I stripped off my wet socks and dried my toes then put on two pairs of dry socks with a great deal of difficulty. I was very worried about my toes. They were more than numb and cold. My feet were blocks of ice that didn’t have much feeling or control in them. I used my hands to flex them for a while and then proceeded to strip off my wet clothing. This was all exhausting work since I was lying on my side in a coffin shaped cave. I now felt like wet cold fish on a frozen mountain. I carefully worked my way into dry clothes and then crawled into my summer sleeping bag and then into a recently acquired Gortex outer shell. My boots were completely waterlogged, as was a complete layer of clothing, but I was warming up in a tight little cave as the storm whistled outside. I adjusted my pack as a windbreak and a few lose boulders near the opening. I could see that the cave ran deep, but I didn’t want to wedge myself too far into it. My biggest concern at this stage was the condition of my feet. My hands seemed in much better condition. I only had a half-liter Pepsi bottle of water so took a mouth full and then closed my eyes and fell asleep.

I woke a short time later shivering so I flexed my feet some more and did some sleeping bag crunches to get my blood pumping. I then ate my dinner (a Mars chocolate bar) and remembered that my mobile phone had chirped at me earlier in the evening when I was in the open bowl. I had heard it but was in no condition to dig it out of my pocket and possibly loose it, so now I dug it up and read the text message. Someone had sent me an innocuous message about dinner and arriving home. I saw that I had one bar of reception if I held it towards the cave opening. I didn’t recognize the number, but replied with an SMS that I was below the summit of Corno Grande, and taking shelter from a storm in a cave on a cliff for the night. Also who was it that I was communicating with? It turned out to be an old Swiss friend whose father had been an alpine climber in his youth. She said she would talk to him and that I should text her if I needed help. I agreed that I would text my coordinates the following day if I needed her to call mountain rescue, but that I was safe at least for the night.

I slept fitfully that night, shivering myself awake constantly, which was helpful for my toe crunching exercises. My toes were not responding well. Finally around 6:30 am the cave opening began to become distinguishable. It was growing light out, but it was clear that it was still gray out and snowing.

After a while I got ready to leave the cave and make for safety. I redressed in all my dry clothing and then put plastic bags around feet before putting on my cold wet boots. Once out of the cave I could see that the track was going to be even more difficult than I had estimated. It had snowed all night and with the weight of the wet pack I broke thru on each step. I was wet within a few minutes and regretted leaving the cave, yet couldn’t return now that my last set of clothing were soaked. I simply rolled my way across the snow bowls or crawled on cold wet hands and knees. Visibility was still 20m or less and storm continued to rage. I knew that I needed to make it to the trail split on the ridge, just below summit but simply couldn’t find my way back. There were no signs of the trail and the tracks from the previous afternoon had disappeared in the new snowfall. I tried stay close to the ridge or on rocks (the going in the snow impossible now). Within an hour I was so cold and tired that I began to despair. I simply focused on a rock outcrop a few meters away and worked with all my energy to reach them. Then I would rest and repeat the process, one small gain at a time.

After few more hours I realized I was completely lost and my brain was too cold to figure out my GPS readings. I looked around and knew I couldn’t go on so I simply gave up and let myself slide and tumbled down cliff towards lower elevation. I tried to keep control as I slid, tumbled, and fell but my pace picked up or boulders sent me careening out of control. A few times I tumbled over a ledge and became buried deep in the snow. I had to dig my way out and twice had to dig down to find my lost boots that had come off in the struggle to the surface. My feet were soaked and cold, but without boots I wouldn’t last much longer. The slope was too extreme to walk and the snow too deep so I simply let go and fell repeatedly. As the speedy decent continued I crashed into more rocks, bounced over more ledges and then started to tumble (cartwheel style) down the mountain at a high velocity. Desperately I tried to stop by digging my heals or arms into the snow, but that just made the tumbling worse. At that speed an impact would be fatal. After a few hard kidney hits, on small boulders, I dropped into a deep snow hole. I was wedged deep. I tried not to panic as I dug my way out carefully. Cold and desperate I managed to make my way to surface.

I was almost down on the rolling valley level, but completely lost. There was no visibility at this stage and had difficulty holding the GPS still to read it. The snowstorm seemed worse as the wind tore at me. No longer wishing to tumble, I started to walk and look for a trail. In time I found some footprints that were almost buried. They had to lead somewhere so I followed them to the left, even though this made me cross more snow bowls. After a short time I reached a grassy area of rolling small hills. I was down, but too cold to go on.  The wind was too strong, visibility was 20m, and I was shivering uncontrollably.

I took shelter behind a boulder to get some relief from the wind and then set about getting a GPS reading and typing a ‘HELP’ text message on my mobile phone. I had given up and wanted the friend to call mountain rescue. She texted me back that the coordinates were wrong and mountain rescue had a helicopter ready and was trying to call me. (I found out later that the coordinates were correct, but that she had told them I was in the Dolomites). They tried to work out where I actually was as I continued to stumble about and prepared to die.

My brain was too numb to make a second call attempt. I was too cold to answer the calls or care. I gave up hope and began to shake (well beyond shivering). With my wet body, numb fingers, and frozen feet I simply couldn’t go on, yet I was too cold to sit and die. I thought dieing of cold was supposed to be easy. I got up and began walking simply to keep moving. Dieing behind the rock or in the open was the same to my helpless mind. I walked zigzag and aimlessly for at time. I had strange conversations in my head and despaired. I could tell that my mind was not working properly but was helpless to control my direction or pace. My cell phone kept chirping with messages, but I was too tired and cold to take it out of my pocket to read it. I simply had to keep moving or I would freeze to death.

I had given up hope for a second time in two days. If mountain rescue even found me it would be in many hours or days and I simply wasn’t going to live for much longer. At this low stage I spotted the outline of a trail running directly across my path. It was faint, but I was sure it was a trail as it disappeared in and out of the snowdrifts and low areas. I stopped to think about this for a long time and to pick a direction. The trail would lead to somewhere and the going should be easier, but I had to pick the correct direction and then simply put my head down and force each painful frozen step. In a daze I turned right and walked until I came to a trail marker that I recognized. I was back on my trail from the previous day. I was only 1 or 2 hours from Campo Imperatore and if I reach the workers in the gondola that I noticed the previous day, I might survive. I was safe! I texted the friend ‘Safe’ and then continued on my way. She called mountain rescue that had just figured out that my coordinates were correct and were preparing to dispatch the rescue helicopter.  They stepped down and waited for the drama to run its course.

It was all downhill and shallow snow from here, even though I was now walking into the wind. I had to reach that gondola with the last of my reserves. I had nothing left beyond this one push.

Around 1pm I reached the gondola area as the wind picked. I simply forced myself to move towards the building, walking frozen like a Frankenstein monster. The lights were on in the building. I banged on the door and fell into it when it was opened. I couldn’t talk or stop shaking. At this stage I focused on sending a final SMS message ‘Safe’ and then went into a haze. I don’t remember much beyond flashes of memory and pain. It appears the men dragged me into the warm bathroom, undressed me, and forced me into a steaming shower as I screamed in pain. The scalding water was burning my entire body, but especially my hands and frozen feet. I think at some point I must have passed out or simply lost mental functions. I awoke in a bed wrapped in blankets.

None of the men spoke English, but indicated that I should get out of bed to eat. They gave me work clothes and sat me down to a large hot meal. They were all very concerned but I assured them I was feeling better. My fingertips and feet were still numb, but I was alive and starting to think again. After eating they put me back in bed.

Around 4pm they woke me again and explained that they were returning to town and that the station would be closed for four days due to a national holiday. I couldn’t believe my luck. If I had arrived later that day, or the next, I would have died of exposure. Campo Imperatore was many hours from the nearest village and help. The gondola had been pure luck.

The men gave me cloths that I could keep and had dried my boots and jacket while I slept. They then drove me down to the ski resort so that I could catch a bus back to civilization.

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Photos I


I stayed in Rome for a night and then decided to abandon my plans to summit Aneto in the Spanish Pyrenees. Instead I returned to Croatia to recover from numb feet, fever, shore muscles, and internal pains.

Jump to Round I Jump to Round III Jump to Round IV Jump to Round V

Round II   November 4 2007

After three days of rest I caught a ferry back to Ancona, rented a car, drove to Campo Imperatore and tried to summit Corno Grande again. This time the skies were clear, but the snow conditions had changed again. Now it was very cold and the shear snow walls below the summit were hard packed ice/snow. I needed crampons and an ice axe to clear these steep snow chimneys. Even without the gear I worked at it relentlessly, kicking each step into the hard snow and climbing almost vertically. I had a few close calls as the snow broke away and I started to slip down the face with my heart racing. Around 4:30 I was near the summit with one very vertical climb to go. I looked over my shoulder at the shear drop below me, and the sun that was approaching the horizon. I made a quick decision to live for another day and return. I could reach the summit as darkness fell, but I had no outdoor gear and it would be pitch black and cold on the summit. I certainly wouldn’t survive the night or live through a blind decent without proper gear.

The going down to the boulder ridgeline was just as difficult as the climb as I kicked my way down, rather than up, this time. I reached the ridgeline as the sun set. I picked up my pace and headed for the rolling hills and then back to the car park as darkness fell like a blanket across my path.

It had been another exhausting day. I realized that I was not fully recovered and that I may have stained a few weak places in my aching body. The mountain had beaten me again and yet I was alive to try it again in the future, maybe.

My feet were still numb from the previous attempt and I was still feverish. I realized that my health was actually deteriorating and that some of my internal parts must be bruised or have been knocked about too much. I had originally though that some of the symptoms were due to dehydration, but after four days my liquids were still not right. I considered my medical options and the advantage of free Canadian healthcare system.

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Photos II

Interlude in Canada

On my way back to Croatia after the second attempt, via Ancona, I dropped into a local pharmacy and begged the proprietor for a fix. My bladder was killing me and any attempts to relieve it were very painful and insignificant. In his broken English he kept asking me for details and if I was allergic to penicillin. After a protracted round of painful facial expressions and hand gestures of a man peeing in pain he finally relented and gave me a powered concoction (pun intended). It may have helped a little, but the ferry to Croatia that night was a very long and painful night.

Back in Croatia I tried to stay warm and bundled while I searched for the next flight back to Canada. I found a flight out of Munich in two days and booked it. The next day I got on the daily bus to Munich and tried to sleep thru the cold and snowy ride. I got off the bus at 2am at the Munich Bus Park , which is not near the town center naturally. I found the un-advertised winter warm room that is set up in a heated trailer in the parking garage, and settled down to wait for the first S train that departed at 4:10am . I made it to the airport without incident and then boarded my flight to Canada feeling like a thirsty water balloon. I was extremely thirsty but felt that adding more liquid to my stopped up system would not be a brilliant move. At some point the seal would have to burst or I was going to look like a puffer fish. Many hours later I exited the plane in Toronto, caught the bus to the metro, then the metro to the Go Train to Hamilton. In Hamilton I took a local bus to my parent’s house, dumped my stuff, borrowed the car (do kids ever stop borrowing their parent’s car?) and drove to the local hospital where I tried to answer the admitting questions in a logical manner. So when did the problem start? “When I was frozen in a cave on the side of an Italian mountain.” What did you do to relieve the pain? “I left the cave in the morning and then fell off the mountain.” Oh, well when was that? “I don’t remember exactly? Perhaps 4-5 days ago.” Obviously things were a little confusing, especially when I was supposed to fill up the little bottle for a lab sample. After much effort I did manage to provide a bit of a sample. However, after an hour of waiting I was informed that I needed to provide more sample. Didn’t they get it? Providing the sample was the primary problem. I hadn’t even mentioned my frozen and numb feet, bruises, or scrapes. I figured the first priority was to get the plumbing system working. After more effort and an appropriate wait I was informed that I had a serious urinary infection. Brilliant! They prescribed monster antibiotics and said that I should see my family doctor for follow up. I did as instructed, but that only opened up Pandora’s Box even further. The next day I visited my newly acquired family doctor who insisted on a full examination (since it had been over 20 yrs since I had visited my now retired family doctor). Naturally the dreaded examination had to include the “bend over and try not to enjoy this large finger” test. This exam was one of the reasons I had avoided doctors in the past. When the test was over I felt violated and my doctor didn’t look to happy. He informed me that he had concerns and that I needed to begin a battery of tests. To make a long story short, let me just say the tests were not good, so I was referred to various experts who forced me to endure painful testing, x-rays, magnetic fields, radiation, drinking of nuclear wastes, and protracted appointment dates. After two months it was determined that things were not at all as they should be and the dreaded “C” word was thrown around. I kept trying to explain that my system was simply temporarily out of order due to a bit of freezing, a bit of bumping, and a bit of falling. They ignored my witticisms and continued testing until finally we arrived at a cross-road that required over twenty internal biopsies (via the violated rear orifice naturally). Reluctantly I agreed to this final test and then booked my return ticket to Nepal . I was leaving as soon as I got the results (regardless of the results actually). After an extremely painful and drawn out procedure I counted off the days until I finally got a phone call from the very nice and helpful doctor’s assistant. She told me that the tests were negative. Somehow I was clear and free to leave after a final visit with the specialist. I swung by their office the next day and the doctor told me that the results were absolutely negative and that perhaps my bad test results were irregular due to freezing in a cave! Ha-ha. He was making a joke. I got it. He finally understood that the test results hadn’t fit into the norm because the owner of the results didn’t fit into the norm either.

I caught the pre-booked fight out of Canada and vowed to return to that Italian trouble- making mountain within the year.

Jump to Round I Jump to Round II Jump to Round IV Jump to Round V

Round III (Score: Mtn 3, Livio 0)  November 12-17, 2008

Nov 12 – 17, 2008 – A Year Later

Almost a year later, on November 13th to be exact, I set out from Croatia again. The objective was the same, to summit an obstinate mountain in the Apennines . Naturally I didn’t check the weather before leaving.

I took the ferry to Ancona , but this time decided to take the train directly to L’Aquila rather than the round-about route via Rome . I reached Ancona on the following morning, L’Aquila by 1pm and then walked to the bus station to catch a 45 minute ride on the local bus to Funivia (meaning Ropeway or gondola to the rest of us). Naturally it had started to rain as soon as I reached L’Aquila and visibility was steadily decreasing as the bus approached Funivia, at the 1,090m, around 3pm .

Funivia was deserted but one of the hotels did have a man out front smoking a cigar. I asked him if he knew where I could by a map. He took me inside and sold me a 10 euro Grand Sasso D’Italia map that was quite detailed, but in Italian. I asked about the smaller English version map that I had purchased last year for 4 euro. He knew nothing about such a map. I purchased his map, filled a water bottle from a convenient tap located to the left of the entrance and then set off up the walk towards the gondola as it began to drizzle again. At this stage I knew that it would be impossible for me to reach Campo Imeratore by dark, so was simply hoping to get high enough to find a secluded and sheltered place to set up my tent for the night.

I walked for over an hour when I spotted a person walking down the trail towards me. I stopped and waited for the stranger to reach me. He introduced himself as Alex, from Germany , who had been attending a conference at the nuclear research facility INFN over the past week. He had finished the conference (on GERDA – Germanium Detector Array to unravel the nature of the neutrino) and had hoped to spend two days trekking in the upper mountains but had turned around at Campo Imperatore because of a persistent snow storm (which was manifested as rain at our current altitude). We talked about the options and I indicated that I would set up my tent near the abandoned building that I had spotted last year below the second gondola support structure. Or even better, that I would simply use the abandoned building if it was unlocked. He indicated that he didn’t have a place to spend the night and would have to return to L’Aquila and pay the very expensive rates as a result. I suggested he join me in examining the building and he agreed readily.

We continued up to the building, located at 1,629m, and found the front door unlocked. It was already dark out as we reached the building. Given the damp and cold breezy evening, we heartily agreed that it was ideal accommodation, even though some of the windows were broken, the interior was a mess, and the roof leaked in many places.

I unpacked my gear in a small room with an intact window and a steel bed frame. Alex took over the old kitchen area. We shared some food and quickly retired for the night as the drizzle turned into a steady and persistent downpour.

The following day (Day 2) showed no sign of improvement. It continued to rain and the entire area around seemed submerged in a thick mist (or more precisely clouds). I sent a text message to Cristina (who was now comfortable ensconced in NW Italy) and asked her to check the weather forecast. She replied that it was going to rain for the next two days and perhaps more. I decided to put off any attempt at reaching higher altitude since it was very likely that the rain I was experiencing was actually heavy snow at Campo Imperatore (Campo).

I packed away my gear and hid my pack in a ceiling opening that had caved in due to a large whole in the roof. I then accompanied Alex down to the INFN labs and caught the shuttle bus back to L’Aquila for supplies.

In L’Aquila I took the half-kilometer tunnel from the bus station up to the old town center. Upon exiting the tunnel I continued straight (west) for two blocks and found a book store on my left. It turned out that they carried the small 4 euro map (in English and various other languages) that I had been searching for. I then continued on another two blocks to the Strada supermarket on the right. I stocked up on basic food supplies, visited some of the farmer’s market stalls in the center and then decided to return to my mountain shelter for the balance of the day.

By 4pm I was back in the abandoned building (my base camp) as the rains continued to fall and the temperature drop (it was already down to 6 degrees Celsius). I check the weather with Cristina and found that it was going to continue raining thru the night and into the following day. I felt very frustrated. Experience had already taught me that the weather in the Italian mountains had nothing in common with the weather on the Croatian coastline. Why hadn’t I check the weather before I left Croatia ?

I un-packed my gear in the small room, crawled into my sleeping bag, ate potato chips, drank Pepsi and settled down to read Marla Morgan’s Mutant Message Down Under by headlamp. I turned in by 9pm to the sounds of wind and rain pummeling the windows.

I got up at 6:30 on Day 3 to survey the weather. It was socked in so went back to sleep. By 8:30 I was up, packed, and out the door. Even though visibility was limited, it had stopped raining. I was determined to try and reach Campo before it started to rain again. If I could get to the higher altitude dry then I should be able to proceed, even with limited visibility since at that altitude any rain would manifest itself as snow. The goal was to stay dry. I couldn’t proceed into the Snow Belt if my clothes were soaked.

Within a short time the fog gave way to rain again and I was completely soaked. I took shelter in a large cave that is half way between the 2nd and 3rd gondola supports. I sat for a while and waited for the rain to stop. When it did I made a dash for the next half hour at which time I reached the 3rd support. This support sits on an outcrop at the turn of the trail and is exposed to the full force of the Campo down drafts. I was almost swept off my feet at this stage as the frigid and wet air blasted down the slopes. I gave up and returned to the cave shivering. While sitting there however, the fog cleared and the rain let up once again. The gods were toying with me.

Again I dashed out and re-traced my steps. At the 3rd support I continued on and up to get out of the direct down-draft. In time I cleared the side sheltered trail and emerged on the exposed large slope directly under Campo. I zippered myself up tight, put my head down and continued to push my way up the slope until I reached Campo around noon.

Unfortunately I found absolutely no shelter at that stage. The rain had turned to snow and the wind had grown stronger and it simply cut through my wet clothing. I tried to hide behind some of the buildings to no avail. Somehow I would have to return to the abandoned building and dry my clothing.

At this stage I saw a jeep crest the rise from the back road that leads to Campo and a strong young man got out to check the doors on one of the closed hotels. I approached him and asked him for a ride back down to Funivia. He couldn’t believe I had walked up the mountain in the inclement weather. Before we left however, he drove around to the back of one of the largest hotels and checked a sliding basement door. It slid open and he went inside. I had already checked practically every door in the area (and a few windows) in the hopes of finding a sheltered spot but had not come around to the backside of this particular building. It turned out that this door is kept open for emergency purposes. It could make the difference between life and death in the harsh winter conditions and I wondered why it wasn’t advertised as such. Perhaps it was obvious to Italian’s but it didn’t appear that way to me. In any event I made a mental note to check it out on my next visit to the area as the driver returned to the jeep, put it into gear and skidded off in a winding downhill 20 km drive back to Funivia.

At Funivia I visited one of the now open restaurants for a hot tea and cake while my clothing dried by the fire. Once dry I waved goodbye to the friendly staff (and not so friendly manager) and started my up-hill trek back to the abandoned building for the night. The issue of my wet clothing had been resolved for the price of tea and cake.

Back in the abandoned building I check the weather forecast again. I was informed that it was going to rain the entire next day and then possibly a few more days. I went to sleep annoyed and restless.

I woke early the next morning (Day 4) to fog and steady rain. I gave up. I could not spend a week in a cold, windy, wet, abandoned building waiting for sunshine that might not arrive for weeks. I packed my gear and walked back down the mountain to catch the shuttle bus back to make my way back to Croatia . While waiting for the bus I got a text message informing me that there were no ferries to Croatia on Sunday nights. Frustrated (and already on the bus) I decided to visit L’Aquila for more potato chips and Pepsi and that I would have to return to the old building for another night (or pay the expensive local hotel rates).

By 4pm I was back up the mountain with supplies and curled up in my sleeping bag. I was tired of sitting around cold and wet and determined that I would leave the following day.

I woke at 5:30 on day 5 and was surprised to observed clear skies, stars, and no wind outside my window. I couldn’t believe it so went outside to see if the skies over Campo were also clear. To my surprise I could see that the gondola and area hotels were clear and surrounded in fresh snow. I hurried back inside, dressed, packed away my gear and headed out the door by 6:30am . By 7am I reached the 3rd gondola support and stopped to film a clear shot of the Campo when I heard my name being called. I turned around and spotted a stranger coming up the trail quickly. He approached closer and I recognized him as one of the four Italian gondola workers that had saved my life the previous year. We talked briefly in broken English and then he pointed to the gondola and indicated that he needed to get to work.

We shook hands and then he departed at a fast pace as I filmed. I then followed him up the trail without incident. At Campo I went to the emergency door and found that it was indeed open (after a bit of steady pressure). I went inside to warm up, use the bathroom, get a drink of water, and to gear up. I put on my crampons, down jacket, good gloves, gaiters, and water resistant outer shell pants.

By 8:45am I left the shelter of the emergency room and began the walk up the western slope, past the observatory, and to the first trail split (near the radar deflector). Here I turned to the north to follow the ridge line. Unfortunately the snow was so deep that the trail was non-existent. Further, the snow had hardened into an icy down hill slope that I had to traverse. This was extremely painful on the ankles as the crampons kept griping and turning to match the slope. After about 30 minutes of this painful traverse I gave up and decided to go strait up the slope to the crest. I felt it would be easier to walk along the crest than along the slope. I then spent a lot of time pitched so far forward that I was practically on all fours. This was tiring, but much easier on my ankles. I ended up in a few dead-end gullies, or on a few shear drops, but in time I managed to find a way to the crest where I was met by extremely strong winds. I then followed the crest NE, while leaning forward to fight the wind.

When I reached the northern terminus of the high crest I was met with winds, clouds and zero visibility. I took shelter in a hollow and waited for the wind to blow the clouds past. Eventually the sky did open up and I got a fleeting view of the surrounding bowl and the wall of Corno Grande in the distance. I quickly took a bearing and headed to the east to follow the cliff ledge for a short distance. Unfortunately visibility kept diminishing again until finally I couldn’t see my feet in front of me. I continued to walk slowly and possibly in circles for some time. Eventually I realized that I must have gone too far to the east. I took a compass reading and a GPS mark and turned to the north.

I continued to walk blind, stumbling occasionally as the ground dropped or rose before me. I was in a white-out situation. I couldn’t distinguish between the ground and the air around me. I strained my eyes and at some stage finally spotted some dark objects. I used my hand-held compass to steer me towards the occasional dark boulders that stood out temporarily.  I was steadily climbing and eventually got a short glimpse of a wall of rock ahead of me. I worked my way towards it and discovered that I had made it to a strange fist-like boulder that I recognized from the prior year. It was the boulder that marked the final ridge-line that led to the snow chute up to the summit (and also to the tail split diverging to the emergency hut and cave that I had spent the night in the previous year).

I rested and then carefully worked my way to the ridgeline, remembering that it was a sheer drop that I had almost stumbled into last year. I made my way along the ridge until I reached the emergency hut trail split. The area (and markers) were completely burred in hard packed snow and looked nothing like they had the previous year.

I rested briefly and then began the vertical assent up the chimney. Due to the excessive snow it was difficult to tell where the correct chimney route started or ended. Using the crampons and ice axe I began a very long, tiring, and arduous vertical assent. I tried to stay in the snow, rather on the rocks, since the crampons and ice axe worked better in the icy snow than on rocks. As a result my route twisted to follow the snow hollows around large rock outcrops and forced me weave up chutes.

The vertical ascent was tiring and forced me to stop and rest at short intervals. Plus the constant clouds blowing though the area made visibility spotty and haphazard. As I continued to gain altitude the visibility decreased exponentially. Around 2pm I ran out of vertical and found myself looking over a lip of snow and down over a cliff . To my left were broken boulders and to my right was a large outcrop. I backed down a ways and circled the outcrop and found myself on another snowy crest looking down over a cliff. I couldn’t see anything else to my left or right given the constant clouds. I backed down a way and secured myself into a crevice to wait for an opening, to review my map and to orient myself.

As I sat there it began to snow. I couldn’t believe my luck. I took a GPS reading and found that I was 150m below the stated summit altitude so knew that I was close but had no idea in which direction to go. Perhaps I needed to go down and to the west until I found another snow chute? I began to work my way down in hopes of finding the correct route up, but it soon became evident that the anticipated snow storm had arrived. Large flakes were falling and visibility was now down to less than a meter. I tried a few more directions and then stopped to ponder my options. After a few minutes I realized that I didn’t really have any options. I needed to return to Campo now and that perhaps it was already too late given the strength of the wind and the falling snow.

Reluctantly I began the long and slippery decent back down to the bottom of the chute. From there I used the compass as I walked blindly to the south. Periodically I would stop and check the GPS to determine my distance from the next ridgeline (cliff).

The return journey to Campo took almost two hours and was uneventful, even though I walked it blind. By the time I reached Campo the wind was at gale force and I was literally blown down the final slope and across the area. If I hadn’t been wearing crampons I would certainly have been blown off the slope.

At Campo I returned to the emergency room thaw out, drink some water, and rest. While there I heard people approaching as the door slide open. It was the Italian from the gondola that I had met that morning. He saw me returning to Campo from his office and had come to find out if I had reached summit. He was soon joined by other workers as well as another of the four men from the prior year. We all talked excitedly in broken English as I explained that I had not made it and that I would need to return again next year.  I laughed at their amazement, rejected their offer of a ride down to Funivia, and explained that I was sleeping out in the elements for one more night.

They all grinned, shook my hand and watched me suit up and walk back out into the raging wind. I still remember their grins and shaking heads as they watched the crazy Canadian walk as a phantom towards the crest and disappear into the whirling snow.

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Photos III


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Round IV (Score: Mtn 4, Livio 0) May 4-8, 2010

On May 4, 2010, I returned with high hopes and a short window. The first thing I noticed when I reached L’Aquila was that the logistics had changed. Late last year the area suffered a major earthquake and the evident of Zeus’ strength was evident, as was man’s inability to get organized and recover. The center of L’Aquila was a ghost town of construction workers, military police, and abandoned buildings. Pretty much everyone and everything had been relocated to the outskirts of the old city. Plus the bus system, which was originally illogical, got even more confusing. See Summary post for details. At length I did manage to purchase supplies, reach Funivia by bus, and then hike up to the old abandoned building that I will call Base Camp1.


I spent the next 3 days, 4 nights, shivering at Base Camp 1 while fresh snow fell each evening and winds made sights above Campo Imperatore a rare sight. Yet doggedly I marched up the trail each day to reach Campo to get a first hand sense of the weather and visibility. On Saturday morning, May 8th, I packed it in, left the mountainside, and returned to Rome. The weather simply was not cooperating.

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Photos IV


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Round V – Here we go Again!

On May 20th, 2010, I returned to the old house (Base Camp1) to try my luck again. I played the waiting game for the next three days as the skies slowly began to clear.

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Photos May 20, 2010

On the 24th the skies cleared so I set out from the Rifugio Duca Degli Abruzzi, where I had spent the previous night (Base Camp 2). I had been fore-warned that the skies would be clear that day and haddecided to increase my chances of a summit by moving up to the emergency bunk room attached to the Duca Rifugio the night before. I set out at 6:30 am along the ridge trail. By 8 am I was at the base of Corno Grande itself (at the split along the cliff face that takes you to the cave where I spent the night in 2007). The snow was icy hard and I immediately regretted not bringing crampons on this year’s expedition. I had opted to use regular hiking boots and strap-on Yak-Trax since they are lighter and I felt that the snows would have melted by this late date. Naturally I under estimated the will of Zeus. I spent the next three hours laboriously kicking snow steps into the ever-steeper slope as I made my slow and precarious way up the chimney. By 11 am my toes were in absolute agony, I was at an elevation of 2780m (130m shy of the summit), and the clouds began to quickly close in around me. I wedged myself onto an outcrop and thought about my options. There really were none. The final stretch was almost vertical and I did not have crampons so the going would be impossible. The snow was iced and my toes could not take any more abuse. Finally the clouds were closing in too quickly. Reluctantly I decided to retreat once again.

Using the GPS (due to the loss of visibility) I made it back to Campo by noon. I was frustrated to say the least and decided that I would pack it in and leave the following day.

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Photos May 24, 2010

May 26, 2010

Persistence is my middle name. I had packed up all my gear and left the mountain the previous day as planned. However, while on the bus to the train station I told of an outdoor supply store that was a short walk (ok a long walk) to the south. I decided on the spot that I would return to the mountain if I could purchase a good set of crampons and gaiter. Plus the fact that the sun was shining and the prediction of three clear days helped push me in that direction. So at 6am on the morning of May 26, with new equipment, a clear sunrise, and determination, I set out from Rifugio Duca once again. By 7:30 I was at the base of the mountain. By 10 am I was on its summit at long last. I was at 2913 m per my GPS. The sun was shining and I was in high spirits. It had taken three years and countless attempts, but it was finally over. Corno Grande may not be the highest mountain that I’d ever summitted, but it certainly gained my highest respects.

Round V – At Long Last!

May 26, 2010

Persistence is my middle name. I had packed up all my gear and left the mountain the previous day as planned. However, while on the bus to the train station I told of an outdoor supply store that was a short walk (ok a long walk) to the south. I decided on the spot that I would return to the mountain if I could purchase a good set of crampons and gaiter. Plus the fact that the sun was shining and the prediction of three clear days helped push me in that direction. So at 6am on the morning of May 26, with new equipment, a clear sunrise, and determination, I set out from Rifugio Duca once again. By 7:30 I was at the base of the mountain. By 10 am I was on its summit at long last. I was at 2913 m per my GPS. The sun was shining and I was in high spirits. It had taken three years and countless attempts, but it was finally over. Corno Grande may not be the highest mountain that I’d ever summitted, but it certainly gained my highest respects.


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Photos May 26, 2010

Corno Grande, Peak Occidentale, 2912m

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