It was still early in the morning and the sun was about to rise over Punta Feuillaz in the East. A thin layer of snow was covering the ground which was not unusual in September at 2500m above sea level and despite a double layer of warm clothes, Vittorio Emanuele was still cold. He was asking himself if it really was a royal privilege to hunt one of the rarest animals on the planet in such an inhospitable environment.
Riding and then walking up the well maintained mountain pass from Cogne together with his hunting party the previous day, he had spent the night in the simple hunting lodge in the Ciamosseretto Valley, which was more suitable for a goat herder than for the King of Italy. At least the food that had been brought up from the valley and the Piedmontese wine had been excellent and Guiseppe, the leader of the fifty gamekeepers he kept employed in the royal hunting reserve had assured him that his chances of getting another fine trophy were excellent this season.
The game in question was the elusive “Capricorno”, the Alpine Ibex, which had nearly been hunted to extinction by 1856, but by now – 14 years later – the initial stock of just over 50 animals had recovered well and his hunting party might be able to finish the day with more than ten kills, leaving the finest specimen – of course – to their royal patron.
And as the sun was starting to meld the snow, he knew that it would be a fine day after all……
It was still dark at 5.30 when I left the hotel in the center of Aosta to cover the short journey to Cogne more than 150 years later for a long overdue visit to Italy’s first and so famous National Park. Surrounded by some of Europe’s highest mountains and wedged into the far Northwest corner of the country with both France and Switzerland just a short distance away, Gran Paradiso is offering not only great hiking and climbing opportunities, but also some of the least disturbed alpine flora and fauna.
Walking in the foot steps of Vittorio Emanuele, who was “only” the King of Sardinia-Piedmont when establishing the royal hunting reserve and by this saving the ibex, I started my trip in the small mountain village of Valmontey and benefiting from the also today well maintained path, I was able to cover the over 1000 altitude meters to the hunting lodge in less than 2 hours.
The early start had been a wise move, as the East facing track was at all times in the shade of the mountain range on the other side of the valley.
The hunting lodge serves now as a mountain refuge and as the breakfast for the overnight guests had just finished, the only food to be had was the customary cappuccino and a slice of homemade blueberry cake. To avoid having to ask for another coffee later, I ordered two cappuccini right away with the result that I also received two slices of cake…..
There was no point in arguing and as I still had a lot of hiking ahead of me, I was pretty certain that I would burn off the calories anyway.
It was still early in the day and as the weather was perfect and as I hadn’t spotted an ibex so far, I decided to press on in the same direction to the Col du Lauson
and to the Punta del Tuf at nearly 3400m, allowing a stunning view of Gran Paradiso itself at 4026m and of most of the National Park.
Retracing my steps back to the refuge, I was finally rewarded with a view of a whole herd of young ibexes crossing the path not far away from me.
Heading then South, the trail led around the Bec du Vallon before descending steeply into the glacier valley below.
With hindsight I was happy that no dogs were allowed in the park, as the path was at times very exposed with some sheer drops allowing no room for errors.
The views of the remaining glacier tongues which once must have fed into a giant glacier filling the whole valley were truly breathtaking and reminded me of sections of the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.
Also walking eventually along the Torrent Valmontey, which is purely fed by the melting water of the glaciers felt somewhat like walking through the Rocky Mountains, just with less of a chance of bumping into a bear…..
When I arrived back in the village, I had covered over 30 km on hiking tracks and just under 2000m of ascend and descend, I had seen some great wildlife and probably one of Europe’s most stunning views and I was grateful for the hunting passion of a monarch nearly two centuries ago.