Corno Grande – The Highest Point in the Apennines

We wanted to beat the heat for a few days, so we headed to the Italian highlands.  We knew we wanted to do a little hiking in the Abruzzo region, but we did not have a set plan.  After consulting with the owner of our hotel, he suggested we climb Gran Sasso, the highest point of the Italian mainland outside of the Alps.  Intrigued, we did a little internet research and found out that Gran Sasso, located about 30 miles northeast of L’Aquila, Italy, is actually made up of three peaks – Corno Grande, Corno Piccolo, and Pizzo Intermesoli.  We found a hike called the “Via Normale,” or normal route, which snakes around the backside of Corno Grande and then ramps up to the summit.  One website described the hike as the following:

You don’t need to be a mountaineer to climb to the top of the mountain. There is a path up to the top that a moderately fit walker can take, and because you start at quite a high altitude, it is quite possible to do the ascent and back in a day.

We figured we fell into the category of “moderately fit walkers,” and asked ourselves – why not?  Scrapping our plans for a relaxing hike, we decided we would climb Corno Grande, the highest peak in the Apennines, rising to a height of 2,912 meters (about 9554 feet)! To reach Corno Grande, we winded our way through the Italian altopiano, or highlands, towards the mountain. During our drive, we fell in love with the stunning valley, filled with wildflowers, flocks of sheep, and exposed rock formations.  We caught ourselves remarking, “this is like Scotland, only with much better weather.”  Shortly before we arrived at the Campo Imperatore ski area, the starting point for the hike, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain.  It was massive.

View of Corno Grande from the valley below

I saw my first ever shepherd!

Following the innkeeper’s advice, we stuck to the “Via Normale,” route.  We set out at a pretty fast pace, armed with water, extra clothes, sunscreen, lots of delicious local desserts (a must!), and our handy hiking shoes (thanks REI – one of the best buys we’ve made in the last few years!).  Earlier I had asked Bobby if he was going to wear his running shoes for this “moderately difficult” hike and I’m really glad he didn’t.  We both opted for the hiking shoes and that really helped us with the loose gravel we encountered all day.  In fact, we saw several sets of day hikers who had to turn back because they weren’t wearing the right footwear! The first part of the hike was rather easy.  We walked up and around one of the smaller peaks, traversed a beautiful valley below the Gran Sasso, and then started the slow ascent up and around Corno Grande.

View of Corno Grande; we’re about to get to the top of the first small mountain

Wonderful view from the beginning of the trail

View of the trail heading into the valley below Corno Grande

About an hour and 45 minutes in (the out and back hike was suppose to take 5-7 hours), the hike started to get a little more interesting.  The path split into two.  One trail branched off up and to the right, following a narrow ridge that led to the peak.  We saw a group of hikers that seemed suspended on a small spine with several hundred foot drop-offs on both sides.  Being our first time in the region and not having any particular training, we opted to follow what seemed like a gradual ascent to the top.  Things were proceeding smoothly until we ran into an Australian couple that told us to “do ourselves a favor” and shuffle up a rock chute as it was “easier” than the steep flat area covered in sharp rock bits.  From that point, we were literally scrambling on all fours.  Bobby and I aren’t rock climbers, and although it wasn’t quite to the level of needing extra equipment, it definitely got a little nerve-wracking.  Bobby later admitted to asking himself repeatedly, “how are we going to get down from this?”

The beginning of our rocky ascent; yes, those are clouds BELOW us

Finally to a flat(er) landing with Corno Piccolo behind us

The next phase got even steeper and rockier.  We were very careful to get good foot and hand holds for each step and I truly felt like a monkey.  Luckily, we had been working out a lot, so my upper body strength came in handy.  The last 50-75 meters, we literally pulled ourselves up.

We made it to the top! Over our shoulder is the highest point!

We made it to the HIGHEST point on the TALLEST mountain in the Apennines!   We literally had our heads in the clouds and it was a pretty satisfying feeling from the top.

I  was pretty proud.

Another from the top

View from the top

The refuges in the next photo are used for rock climbers and are all over the Italian mountains.  Sometimes, like the ones below, they are literally hanging off the side of the mountain.  In fact, while we were enjoying our view at the top, two climbers wearing climbing shoes and carrying ropes popped over the edge of the summit.  Looking down in the hole where the came from, we were dumbfounded that two humans managed to escape from what looked like to us to be guaranteed death.  Turns out, they stayed at one of the refuges.

The two refuges hanging off the mountain

What goes up, must come down, right?  I think I read that in a Physics book a time or two.  After weighing our options and talking to some fellow Italian hikers, we decided to take the ridge back down the mountain.  We were scared of it on the way up, but I definitely didn’t want to go down the same way we came.  So, we headed for the ridge.  Before we got there, we ran into another group of Italian hikers that had just finished coming up the ridge.  We asked them how it was and one of them asked us “Are you afraid of emptiness?” Bobby said no, and the Italian replied that we could certainly make it then. However, it wasn’t for the faint of heart.  We immediately understood why he asked us that somewhat strange question.  The route followed a vertigo inducing spine with pretty-nasty (to say the least) falls off both sides.  If you miss-stepped, it surely would be a disaster.  The route was marked with spray painted white and red circles.  Often there was a rock face that seemed like it fell off into oblivion with a cirlce telling us to head towards it.  Bobby kept saying, “every part of my body is telling me not to go this way.”  However, once we poked our heads over what seemed like a cliff, we found a path on the other side.  The illusion was powerful and kept our adrenaline up the entire time.  At the end of the hike, Bobby and I both agreed it was the wildest/hardest “hike” we’d ever done.  If we did it again, we’d probably bring along some safety gear. :)

This is the spine we followed down. Note the speck, which is a person on the ridge.

Pouting because we have to go back down

Rocky ridge; sliding on my bum as not to slide in the gravel