The Giant’s Trek is a 7-stage round-trip itinerary through the Aosta Valley, around 4 of the highest mountains (giants) in Europe. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be done in one go, or even in seven stages (roughly 20 hours trekking per stage!).
With a few days to spare before attending a conference in Cogne, I was able to enjoy a slow hike, at first in the shadow of Monti Bianco (Mont Blanc). As I was carrying full hiking/camping gear, I had only a basic camera with me – so no pictures of the birds or marmots!
The trek follows the route of the Alta Via, a high-level trail around the Aosta Valley in northern Italy. Part of the trail runs through the Gran Paradiso National Park, another part along the southern edge of Monti Bianco (Mont Blanc). This trail, divided into Alta Via 1 (on the northern side) and Alta Via 2 (the southern half), is further divided into some 35 sections, often linked by other trails and roads so that you can walk shorter routes, allowing you time to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, without wearing yourself out.
On this occasion, I had stayed overnight with friends Skip and Jeannie at Villeneuve. From their place, it takes about an hour to drive along the valley to Courmayeur, where the main road continues to the tunnel through Monti Bianco.
Monti Bianco dominates the landscape from well down the valley, and just grows ever bigger in the scenery. In fact, the massif is some 50km from east to west, and the highest point is about 4,800m (nearly 16,000 feet). There is a cable car system that allows you to go over the top into France to Chamonix. One day, I would like to take that ride. Skip takes a road to the west, along the Val Veny on the south side of Monti Bianco. Cars are allowed to go only as far as Visaille, so we park at the end and have lunch in the car – bread, cheese, ham and wine, followed by a cappuccino at the nearby ristorante.
Thus refreshed, we begin the hike to the Miage glacial lake. It is uphill all the way. Skip’s long legs soon take him ahead, while Jeannie and I follow at a more sedate pace.
At first the road is paved as it wends its way up through larch woods. On the south side of the road is a deep fluvial valley, with trees and rocks washed down with the spring-summer torrents. Willow and coal tits inhabit the trees, and the few butterflies include red admiral and a fritillary. Behind us, a magnificent view of the east end of Mont Blanc – les Grandes Jorasses, and other mountains.
The road gives way to a rougher track, then a flat plain opens out ahead. Lake Miage is immediately above us, behind a huge moraine left by a glacier. We have to climb that moraine. It makes you appreciate the power of ice – to build a wall that high.
The lake itself is at the base of a glacier – the one which left the huge moraine as it retreated. Skip said they had previously seen small icebergs in the lake, which is milky with ice and rock particles. Bits of ice and rock drop into the water as we watch, and with the magnificent backdrop it is hard to stop taking pictures – I suspect I have taken quite a few exactly the same.
Jeannie and Skip head back to their car, while I continue westwards.
The sign says it is an hour to the Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini, which is visible at the far end of the valley. I expect it to take two hours. At first the road is flat and straight, though a boggy plain, then uphill to the Rifugio. The plain is glacial outwash gravel, now partially vegetated with even a few willows and birches growing in the drier parts. A marsh marigold is still showing its golden blooms, indicating how late the seasons are at this altitude. Marsh marigold flowers are gone by May/June in Wales. A fisherman plies his rod in one of the bigger pools.
The uphill part is hard work, and I take any rock of suitable height as an excuse to stop and admire the view behind. The sun sinks behind Monti Bianco, and the lengthening shadows gobble up the plain. By the time I reach the Rifugio, only a distant mountain glows orange in the evening light. I ask if this is Monte Rosa, the highest peak in the Alps, but am told that it is le Grand Combin.
Only about 25 people have booked into the Rifugio, so there is room for one more. The Rifugio Elisabetta has some small bunk rooms, but up in the loft are three long low bunks, each taking 6-12 people laying side by side. Sleeping like sardines in a can takes some getting used to, especially as there is no segregation even by sex. I am lucky – I have an end bed with space between myself and the two French lads at the other end.
Everybody has to put up with everybody else’s snoring, restlessness etc, though most people are too tired after a day’s hiking to care. One of the French lads makes a very loud fart, which has them both in hysterical giggles for the next few minutes. Then the peace returns.
People seem to be getting up while it is still dark, then I see faint daylight coming through a window. After a while it isn’t getting any lighter, so I get up too (I am not the last). I discover that I am in the darkest part of the loft, and the shutters have fooled me again. Outside it is bright sunlight. Most people have breakfasted and left by the time I get downstairs. A Swiss lady asks if am travelling alone. I try out my rusty German – how long is she in the mountains – only for the weekend, Monday is for working. She and her husband are carrying daypacks. The younger people with them have mountain boots and are equipped perhaps for glaciers and high routes.
There is no sign of other human life on the Alte Vie as I set out. I walk in the sun for a while, along another flat outwash plain. Then I am in the shadow for the uphill – 400m of it. It is hard work, with nothing but chough and marmot calls for company. In the distance I see a large group of hikers on the skyline, they seem to cluster around the cairn which marks the French border. They venture a little way into Italy, probably to find shelter. The air is so clear, that even at this distance I can see them getting out the coffee flasks. Then they return towards the cairn.
My progress up the mountainside is slow. I have all day, so there is no point in rushing. I stop frequently, looking out for other birds and animals. The path is frozen, and there are patches of ice and snow. There are weasel and mountain hare tracks on the snow. Staying in the shadow keeps me cool, and the path looks as though it could be slippery when it thaws out. I am surprised to see mountain bike tracks – but then I remember Jeannie saying that one year they met someone who they had earlier seen carrying a mountain bike over one of the glaciers on Mont Blanc. He was a city bus driver and this was his idea of getting away from it all and relaxing. Looking back towards the Mont Blanc glaciers, I see two tiny figures hiking across a high snowfield, heading towards a glacier.
About three-quarters of the way up I am in the sun, and find a flat grassy area looks ideal for a much-needed rest. My view is dominated by Mont Blanc and its glaciers, with almost every stone standing out in the clear air. The path ahead does not look so steep, but appears to cross a scree slope before reaching the pass – the Colle di Chavannes. A guy pushes a mountain bike past me, I will watch where he goes. Water pipits, goldfinches and redpolls fly past. There is a light but cold breeze coming off the mountains. The cyclist finds it hard work on the scree and resorts to carrying the bike as the path gets steep again. However, he has nothing else to carry. Now I see where the path goes. Someone looks over the ridge from the other direction. I have rested for an hour, and it’s about time I moved myself.
The cyclist went up the path like a mountain goat, my progress is more like an old woman’s. It is steep and narrow in places, and great care is needed. The pack makes me top heavy, and the monopod is useful as a hiking cane. Again most of the path is in shadow, and I find mountain hare tracks in a snow patch. The figure who appeared at the top earlier is having lunch when I get there, the cyclist is long gone. The view into the next valley contrasts sharply with the grey rocks and gleaming glaciers of Mont Blanc. Everything looks more green, the mountains are not so high, and apart from one huge vertical north-east-facing cliff, the slopes are more gentle.
A group of about 20-25 alpine choughs feed on the slopes, they are widely spaced but keep in contact through little high-pitched calls which sound as though they belong to smaller birds. Their ‘chough’ call is higher and thinner than the red-billed chough back home in Wales. There is also another un-chough-like sound, and it takes me a while to be sure that it really does come from the birds. A group of small birds fly over the pass after me, and land close enough that I can identify them as wheatears and black redstarts. The ubiquitous marmots call from the valley below.
My feet are screaming to be let out of the hiking boots, and sandals will be no problem on this track. I walk as slowly as I can, with lots of stops, even though it is all downhill. I want to camp on a mountainside tonight, not in the main Aosta valley. I noticed last night that my eyes were puffy and sore. Today they are badly affected by the bright sunlight, and my lips are also sunburnt.
A young golden eagle drifts up from the valley, and is mobbed by the choughs. A pair of kestrels hovering below, looking minute, are the only other raptors. Below 2,200m the variety of wildflowers increases, but most are beyond their best for photography. Fortunately, I have photographed many of them before. Grasshoppers are also abundant, including the banded grasshopper, whose distinctive call I remember from a previous trip. Painted lady butterflies bask in the sun, or whizz along the valley.
From mid-afternoon the path is in shadow from the huge rock face, and I walk faster to keep warm. Eventually I reach sunshine again. A small herd of diary cows hangs around a decrepit building, and there are more tumbledown buildings beyond. A new building, higher up the hillside, overlooks it all. It’s time to find a campsite, and after a while I come across a cleared patch – rocky but level in places, with black redstarts flitting around. There is now a strong cold breeze, which blows my hat off into the vegetation where I risk life and limb to rescue it – I will suffer if I am walking in the sun without it tomorrow. It is also difficult to put up the tent – the ground is too hard for tent pegs, so I tie the guys round lumps of rock instead. The last sounds of the evening are a green woodpecker calling, and cowbells from the huge herd in a pasture across the valley.
My tent gets the first rays of sun this morning – desperately welcome after a cold night at 1900m. The wind also dropped during the night. A nearby marmot screams at the strange intrusion into its view. After breakfast I look around for marmots, and find one basking at the entrance to its burrow – it looks like a doormat soaking up the sun. Scanning further around I find a red fox hunting voles. He pounces on one, misses, but gets it on the second attempt. He works his way up the slope, away from me, and soon disappears over the ridge.
Up on the ridge is a thrush of some kind, perched on a stone and singing. Frustratingly, it is too far away to be identified, and I don’t recognise the song. A handful of black redstarts chase each other from boulder to boulder, recognisable even at that distance by their grey bodies and orange rumps. Later one sings its strange little ditty from the roof of a derelict building. There are also wheatears, whinchats, grey wagtails, coal tits, crossbills and rock bunting.
It is hard to work up the enthusiasm to leave such a place. On the southeast horizon is a huge glacier which partially blocks the Col di Planaval. Unfortunately, you need ice equipment and some experience, to negotiate this col, which is on the Alta Vie, and so I will be going by road from now on. (NB – this glacier has now retreated to the point where the footpath is accessible)
It is 10:30 by the time I have packed up. More birds greet me as I go downhill – jay, wren, willow tit, crow, chiff-chaff, chaffinch willow warbler, more whinchats, even a blackbird. Alpine chough call from way up the slope. Then a female goshawk flats past, low over the pasture and swooping up to land on a rock. A while later she moves to perch on top of a larch. Four buzzards circle and call overhead.
I stop where the mountain road joins the main road over the Colle di Piccolo San Bernardo. A constant sound of traffic comes from the few vehicles making their way up the switchbacks. I sit here for an hour, enjoying the sounds of the birds, grasshoppers and crickets. A crag martin hawks along and above the river channel, a sparrowhawk struggles to find a thermal over the trees. The grasshoppers include one that tries to eat me, and a very large green bush-cricket which makes ridiculously tiny chirps with its wing cases. There are an amazing variety of stridulation rhythms. Among the butterflies are an Apollo, clouded yellows, some very faded fritillaries and Damon blues.
Val d’Aosta – a brief history
The Colle de Piccolo San Bernardo is the westernmost end of the Aosta valley, which is described as the smallest and least populated Italian region, a mountain territory lying in the heart of the Alps. The history and economy of the valley have always been influenced by the role of the Piccolo and Grande San Bernado Passes, which have been controlled by the town of Aosta itself, some 70km down the valley. Habitation here goes back to ancient times, with the Ligurian and Celtic people in 3,000 BC, and the local ‘Salassi’ tribe in the 2nd century BC. The Romans gained control of it as a strategic route into Gaul and Germany in the 1st century AD. Then the Burgundians, Goths, and Byzantines struggled for possession, but the Franks eventually won in the sixth century AD. After more feudal authorities gained control over the next few centuries, the Savoy Family claimed rights in the 11th century, and the French influence remains til this day. The area now has some legislative, economic and administrative autonomy, and the local language is a patois of French and Italian – hence the path is known as both the Alta Via, and the Alte Vie.
Val d’Aosta resources
Between them, these websites have most of the information that most tourists need:
Val d’Aosta official tourist website
General information for travellers to Italy
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A traditional object from Valle d’Aosta, the Friendship Cup (Coppa dell’Amicizia), is a wide shallow bowl made of wood with a lid and several spouts from which to drink “à la ronde” (passing it round a group of friends). It was traditionally used for drinking “Valdostan coffee” with family or friends on important occasions to show a strong feeling of group belonging.
Drinking from it is a true ritual, following strict rules. Each person takes a sip then passes it to the friend sitting at his or her side who takes a “coupe”, this continues in a clockwise direction until the cup is empty. Once the “ronde” has begun, the cup should not be put down until all the contents are finished, otherwise it will bring bad luck.
Caffè alla Valdostana (Valdostan coffee), drunk in the Friendship Cup, is made according to an ancient recipe combining grappa, sugar and coffee, plus a dash of orange, juniper, cloves and cinnamon. And it tasted wonderful.