The Big Stone

"One cannot climb at all unless he has sufficient urge to do so. Danger must be met (indeed it must be used) to an extent beyond that incurred to normal life. That is one reason men climb; for only in response to challenge does one man becomes his best."    — Ax Nelson.

This page is the original of a paper published in Vertical Mag n°118, May 1999.

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150 km away from Rome, in the heartland of Abruzzo, lays a huge limestone block where extreme skiing is practiced next to 600m aid climbs and where runout vie ferrate cross path with pocket-holed slabs as in Verdon. Gran Sasso concentrates in a couple km² all the mountain activities.

The broken down Arrapietra refuge, facing the Paretone and the Corno Piccolo.

Just like Mt Blanc, Gran Sasso has its 11 km tunnel. On its exit you feel a shock: you have to stop on the emergency lane to examine the Paretone, a mile high face right above. And immediately you feel like going there for a climb. The three main summits of this small 24 km long range are Corno Grande, Corno Piccolo and, separated by the deep Val Maone: Pizzo Intermésoli. All 3 fit in less than 2.5km. There you can ice climb, go down canyons, hike, paraglide, mountain climb but the two main activities are rock climbing and mountain skiing. The origin of the name "Gran Sasso" is obvious (if you speak Italian) from Prati di Tivo, village at the foot of Corno Piccolo. From there it shows as a huge compact limestone block, 300m high, barely crossed by a few gullies filled with snow till summer.

Right: The broken down Arrapietra refuge, facing the Paretone and the Corno Piccolo.

Jenny on Meridionalizziamoci, north face of Corno Piccolo

Left: Jenny on Meridionalizziamoci, north face of Corno Piccolo Image available as a free wallpaper

We are in the heartland of Abruzzo, and it's here that the Duke met with the mountain before going to K2 early last century. The birth of Italian mountain climbing may be here when in 1573 the 69 year old captain Francesco De Marchi reaches the top of Corno Grande, highest peak of the range and summit of Apennine with its 2912m, after an epic he relates at length in the archives of the nearby town of L'Aquila. The second ascent will wait till 1794 when a scientist inspired by De Saussure reaches the top with barometers, thermometers, gear and all.

But the Apennines are not as attractive as the Alps and it will be one more century before real climbers come and try the local routes. Among the first ones, the Englishman Douglas Freshfield and his Chamonix guide François Devouassoud. Local climbers (esp from L'Aquila) and Romans begin to get interested too and a spirit of competition settles: first winter ascent to the climbers from the Alps; first summer and winter ascents of Corno Piccolo and central summit of Corno Grande to the locals... The presence of the Calderone glacier, the southernmost (some say the smallest) of Europe, gives an alpine style to the place.

In 1927 arrives Aldo Bonacossa from Milan with a pair of skis and performs multiple first descents. That's no surprise: snow abounds in winter. But beware: most of the descents are hard, none below 35° and snow conditions change fast. Temperature can reach 30°C after several days of snowing: avalanches meet sunburns ! More generally weather changes really fast because of the closeness of the seas: 45km from the Adriatic and 120km from the Tyrrenian sea. The tragedy of Cambi and Cicchetti who died of exposure less than a km from Pietracamela after the 1st winter traverse of Corno piccolo in 1927 is a proof to that. The wind is the dominant element and clouds always show up in summer afternoons. Always take a rain jacket and start early, especially since italians are rather late starters ! On the other hand, in winter if you don't want to break trail, you may have to wait till noon !

In the 30's tens of grade IV and V routes are opened, but some slab areas like the shoulders of Corno Piccolo or the Monolito will wait 40 more years for their 1st ascents. The greatest climbers sometimes show up, like Gervasutti who opens the first grade VI of the range. A friction slab with big shoes, wheeeh...

First ascent of Filo en Fondo, East face of Corno Piccolo.

Right: First ascent of Filo en Fondo, East face of Corno Piccolo.

Tourism starts with the building of the Garibaldi refuge at the base of the south face in 1886, the Franchetti refuge in 1959 better located between Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo and some more. In 1934 the building of the cable car going directly to Campo Imperatore, this 20km long high plateau at the south of the range, allows the true beginning of climbing. This cable car had a nasty ending (no american plane involved this time) when a 10m block fell into the intermediate station in 85, while it was in operation ! A new one was built afterwards. In the 70's some people with delirious equipment projects (hotels, roads and lifts everywhere) received a violent opposition that lead to the site being classified as a national park in 1991, and only a couple ski lifts in the lower parts are here to trouble the peace. No rangers to tax tourists, no tourist center either. But on sunday hikers and climbers flow in a noisy mess, particularly at the bars below. I even saw a wedding at the Madonnina (2015m).

For rock climbing, the best rock and the shortest approach are on Corno Piccolo, which access is through Prati di Tivo. If the chairlift works (rare !) the access time is reduced to 15 minutes for the north face of Corno Piccolo. At worst it takes 3 hours to get to Paretone. By the way, it's a shame to admit that the only bolts in the range are on climbs less than 15 minutes away from the lift. Are sport climbers lazier than others ? Strange, they don't have to carry the rack of friends, stoppers and hooks necessary to complete the few pitons already in place on the other routes. A friend from Paris could not believe finding such an unbolted place less than 2 hours from Rome. Here Adventure holds on two pitons hammered together in a pocket hole as a belay.

The Gran Sasso range seen from Campotosto lake.

Left: The Gran Sasso range seen from Campotosto lake.

In some areas (le Spalle, il Monolito), the extraordinary quality of the rock is good for soloing, introduced by the alien Pierluigi Bini between 75 and 79. He opens, solos and opens while soloing many routes. Free climbing and its ethics start with him, but he refuses the use of bolts, although very useful on those slick slabs, trust me ! Some of his runout routes will wait 10 years for a second ascent (Placche del Totem, via del Vecchiaccio, Placche Manitù...). He also opened the Mephisto crack up on Paretone, 600m of VIb in a remote and wild face. His saga remains legendary, like the day he bagged 150 routes at Morra, totaling 4500m of climbing, or the winter day he soloed four grade VI long routes on the slabs of Le Spalle, 3 of those being first ascents ! Other major climb of the 70's, the Di Federico-De Luca (TD, V+) on the appropriately named slabs of the Monolito; a route that can be reached by first climbing the unpronounceable but 'interesting' offwidth of Ura mawashi tobi geri jodan (TD+, VIb).

In the 80's are opened 140 new routes and 50 variations. In addition to the old serious routes of Corno Grande and the runout slabs of Corno Piccolo, climbers discover the pillars of Intermésoli (Di Federico-De Luca), in Val Maone. Lets name Zarathustra and Icosaedro on the first shoulder (Spalla) of Corno Piccolo, kingdom of monofinger slabs; on the east face the hard Star Trek and Cavalcare la tigre whose runout friction traverse above huge overhangs has seen more than its fair share of climbers turning back. But the major climb of the range is Il Nagual e la Farfalla, a 600m EX VIII- A3 of hard and remote access in the very serious Paretone face. Its first climber liked it so much that he also did the first 4 repeats.

The final ridge of Filo en Fondo, 2nd ascent.

Right: The final ridge of Filo en Fondo, 2nd ascent.

One of my strange memories is one early morning in autumn, arriving in an empty Prati di Tivo on my way to some solo. The barely parked car was surrounded by 30 of those huge shepherd dogs they have in Abruzzo, fiercely impressive (they were used as wolf killers). Took me some balls to get out and head off to the mountains, accompanied by those placid dogs. Completely different is my memory of coming out solo of the austere south face of Corno Grande under the sight of a hundred hikers with sandwiches, cameras and running commentaries... It was just like being on the Arab routes in Verdon, right where the buses vomit their share of fat sightseers. If you are more lucky maybe you'll see a wolf, a royal eagle or a brown bear; those awesome animals having always survived in the remote places of Apennine.

Many things could be said about the winter ascents of the early 1900's, back in fashion in the 50's by a dissident group of the Italian Alpine Club, the SUCAI, and then more commonly practiced in the 80's by Domenico Alessandri, Giampiero Di Federico, Tiziano Cantalamessa (local guide), Paolo Caruso... It even became the main activity of Massimo Marchegianni. In Apennine winter ascents usually consist in steep grassy slopes covered with snow. Hairy and dirty. But on Gran Sasso there are some real snow or mixed gullies, although ice is rare. The slabs are too steep to be covered with snow, if you are interested in friction climbing with plastic boots and gloves ! Most routes have been repeated in winter, nice example of human masochism (*).

And if all of this is not enough, you can still try to repeat the 1987 ski descent of Paretone by Toni Valeruz: 1400m very sustained with some 60°. A face he also base-jumped off some time later ! Grade 8 has barely been seen in the range, but truly, if that's what you're after, better go to... Grotti !

(*) But also good training: Caruso did the first winter ascent of Cerro Torre and Marcheggiani/Cantalamessa climbed Fitz Roy in a day !

Tonino Palermi near the summit of Macera de Morte.

Right: Tonino Palermi near the summit of Macera de Morte.

Practical Informations


From Rome using highway A24 (Roma-L'Aquila-Teramo). For the south side, exit in Assergi then follow signs up to Campo Imperatore (road closed in winter, take the cable car in Fonte Cerreto) on road 17bis-c (1h15 from Rome). For the north side, take the first exit after the big tunnel in San Gabriele, follow the SP 491 to Montório, then SS 80, go through Pietracamela and then Prati di Tivo (1h45).


Late December to early Mai for skiing, late May to early November for climbing with big variations depending on the years (I've skied in June once). In summer it gets real hot on south facing walls and thundershowers strike in the afternoon. In other words: K-way and suncream. Off-season it can be real cold on north facing routes, remember that the rocks are all above 2000m. For snow conditions, call MeteoMont (39) 06 85 55 618.


Climbs of all levels, but specifically around grade VI. Many hikers in summer
Access from Prati di Tivo: take the chairlift (rarely open) or follow the only road to its end (Piana del Laghetto) and take the ridge trail that brings you to the end of the chairlift (la Madonnina, 2015m). From there follow either the trail that goes to the north face of Corno Piccolo, the Prima Spalla and Seconda Spalla; or the trail to the east face, the Franchetti refuge and the pass between Corno Piccolo and Corno Grande (Sella dei due Corni).

Access for Paretone is more complex: from the Franchetti refuge take the ferrata Ricci and, a bit before the summit, go down the Jannetta couloir as best as possible (IV, a couple cairns).
For the south face of Corno Grande, access is from Campo Imperatore where you follow the geological trail towards the Direttissima, then follow an ex-ferrata to the Bafile shelter (signs).

Myself leading the aid-climbing pitch of Viaggiatore Incantato.

Left: Myself leading the aid-climbing pitch of Viaggiatore Incantato.


When in Prati di Tivo, the 'Seggiovia' hotel is unbeatable for climbing bums: just unroll your sleeping bag under the roof of the chairlift ! Many expensive hotels (~100 000 lire/night) and an abandoned camping ground. The Franchetti refuge is perfect for access to the Paretone or if you plan to spend some time on the east face of Corno Piccolo (ph: +39 0861 959634), open every WE and in summer.
In Campo Imperatore there's the hotel were Mussolini was held prisoner in 1943 before being liberated by a commando, the refuge CAI Duca degli Abruzzi (Ph: +39 0330 550194), the old (1886) Garibaldi refuge at the foot of the south face and the tiny Bafile shelter in the south face. In winter it's possible to unroll the sleeping bag in the cable car building (it's even heated, with table and restrooms !).


The restaurant of hungry climbers in Fano Adriano (Le 7 Effe), near Prati di Tivo. Several bars and lousy restaurants in Prati di Tivo. Supermarkets in L'Aquila and Montório. Climbing gear in L'Aquila and Teramo.


Coleggio Regionale Guide Alpine (39) 871 69338.