Bivvied outside the small stone hut of Casolari Herbetet at 2,345 meters, a thin rime of frost has already formed on my sleeping bag. The stars winking into existence through the twilight are cold bright diamonds above me, leaving the blue-white glaciers clinging to the cirque at the head of the valley ghostly in the day’s last sky-glow. I’ve encountered only two people all day here in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park; a pair of day hikers making the trek up to treeline for a panorama of mid-October’s golden forests, gilding this corner of the Graian Alps in a display of color so intense it seems reality itself has been photoshopped.
Now, though, I’m all alone. Gran Paradiso, the jewel of Italy’s autonomous Aosta Valley region, is breathtaking at any time, but never moreso than at its autumn peak: the huts all closed and the slopes aflame with color, without another soul to diminish the sublime mountain wilderness.
The emblem of Gran Paradiso is the majestic Alpine ibex (Capra ibex). The story of this place, Italy’s first national park, began with a royal fondness for them in 1856. Vittorio Emanuele II, soon to be king of Italy, created an exclusive hunting preserve here, in the process protecting the last few hundred of the world’s remaining ibexes from poaching.
Under the king’s protection the ibex’s numbers eventually bounced back, and an estimated 2,800 now roam the steep rocky slopes around the snowline. With their long, scimitar-like horns, they’re as beautiful as they are iconic, but as I climb the switchbacks from the tiny hamlet of Valnontey early that morning, keenly hoping for a sighting, there are none to be seen. Golden light pushes through the golden branches of conifers as I climb through forests and alpine meadows where hook-horned chamois – the ibex’s smaller and more numerous cousins – feed on the last tender autumn grasses.
I eat lunch in the sunshine at the shuttered Rifugio Vittorio Sella, choughs circling eagerly in hope of crumbs, then head off across the boulder fields and onto the exposed Herbetet traverse. Sketchy enough to be interesting but not truly dangerous, the foot-wide trail clings to a steep, grassy slope looking down to the river valley far below. I clamber over sections of landslide and hop my way across small torrents until the hut of Casolari Herbetet appears a few hours later, perched before the grand, glaciated peaks of the cirque.
I lay out my mat and bag, then eat a cold supper as the night sky opens glittering above me. Daydreaming in the twilight, I sense movement on a ledge above me and glance upward. There, peering at me with a calm curiosity from beneath his tremendous horns, is an ibex. I start to scramble for my camera, but quickly halt myself. In this light nothing is going to turn out, and I’d rather just be in the moment. He stands there a long time – perhaps ten minutes—regarding me as I stare back. Just as the last light is dying in the sky, he sniffs the air and voices a shrill, whistlelike call – once, twice. Then like an apparition, a visitation from the spirit of the mountains themselves, he turns and is gone into the night.
DO IT start at Valnontey Village and head up into the mountains behind Paradisia Alpine Garden. Allow 8 hours for the whole hike, or 5 if you turn around at Vittorio Sella. Season July to September Info Walking and Trekking in Gran Paradiso by Cicerone Guides for trip-planning info and detailed hike descriptions.