Hopefully just a short report (although it does cover 6 days), as nothing particularly eventful occurred, but I thought that others in the club might be interested if they were planning something similar...
When you mention winter climbing to most people, images and memories of spending hours driving to Scotland, and then slogging up to the cliffs in drizzle for 2 hours only to find that they're not in condition usually spring to mind. But there is an alternative - icefall climbing in Europe.
UK climbers usually go to one of 4 locations - Norway, Switzerland, France or Italy. After the mayhem of Covid, we decided it was Italy's turn for a visit this year and for a week, myself and a friend from the Harrogate climbing club (but we won't talk about that), went to Cogne in the north west region of Italy, near the border with France. It's quite cheap and straightforward to get there - EasyJet from Manchester to Milan and then a 2 hour drive in a hire car.
Cogne has a wide range of grades from sweeping WI3 waterfalls to WI6 test pieces, and as there's a large number of climbs, you can usually find something that doesn't involve climbing behind another team. As an added bonus, some of the climbs are only a 10 minute walk from the hotel.
Day 1 - La Crime Per Carla (WI3)
It was two years since we had both last climbed on ice so we wanted to start out on an easier climb for our first outing. La Crime Per Carla is a 150m, 3 pitch climb just down the valley from Cogne. From the car park it's about a 20 minute walk in to the base of the climb which follows the right hand icefall in the picture below.
We opted to swing leads with me getting the first pitch. Overnight temperatures had dropped to about -5°C but we were now climbing in a nice, balmy +5°C and the change in temperature had made the ice a little brittle. However, it still took ice screws quite easily and pick and crampon placements felt secure on the first strike.
A good introduction to the start of the week and with no epic's we were back in the village for a well deserved cappuccino early in the afternoon.
Day 2 - Valmiana (WI3+/4)
Feeling a bit bolder we decided to up the difficulty a little for the second day and climb one of the 3 star classics in the Valnontey valley which is only a 20 minute walk from the car park. The lack of snow or rain in the previous weeks had meant that the ice was getting a bit thin but there was enough to take some good screws. The route is described as:
P1: A very nice wall of about 25m at 80°, reaching 85° at the exit.
P2: A Linking pitch with short bulges, 55m.
P3: A wall at 75° followed by a slope at 60°, 55m.
P4: A wall at 75°/80°, narrowing to a runnel at the top, 55m.
P5: Ice runnel at 70° max. Great pitch.
It was Keirnan's turn turn to get the first pitch and as we had 70m ropes, we somehow managed to combine P1 and P2, and then swung leads up to the start of P5.
Pitch 5 was interesting to say the least. Although it's described as a runnel, it's usually formed from good ice that will take screws all the way to the top. However, that wasn't quite what we found when we arrived there, but as it was my turn to lead this last one, off I went.
After 4 rappels back to the rucsacs it was off to Cogne to reward ourselves with some hot chocolate ... as only the Italians can make.
Day 3 - E Tutto Relativo (WI4)
While temperatures were consistently dropping to -5°C or lower overnight, daytime temperatures were starting to rise and tomorrow was set to be a balmy 10°C. With that in mind we decided to push our grades a bit further again and spend the day on another 3 star classic, this time a 15 minute walk from the hotel.
The climb is described as:
P1: 70° ramp. belay on the right, or a little higher on the left.
P2: Belay in a cave behind the main ice fall.
P3: Free standing “cigar” with an average angle of 85°and a short section of 90°.
P4: About 60m of 65-70° through to the exit.
The dry conditions meant the 90° section was certainly not short and seemed to go on for the full length of the pitch.
Once at the top it was a short walk down the hill back to town for some well deserved Italian coffee, pastries and beer.
Day 4 - An Alpine Triple
Temperatures were set to be high today so we decided to attempt something a bit different - ice, rock and skiing/snowboarding all in the same day. Our target ice climb was the Cascade de Lillaz fall - a whole 10 minutes walk from the hotel door.
The climb is a WI3 and is actually a series of short linked climbs as you wander along the bed of the river that makes up the cascade.
As we progressed up the falls, some of the ice had disappeared completely. Luckily for us some trees had either fallen or been placed conveniently in the line of the climb. It turns out that the trees took axes and crampons better than ice! Things took an even stranger turn when after getting over the logs, we found a pool of water with a football floating in it!
Not wearing any jumpers, we had to make do with ice screws for goal posts and had a bit of a kick-about.
The ice was starting to get a bit thin now so after a short detour through some trees and undergrowth, we reached the Lillaz slabs. These are bolted for sport climbing so it was an ideal opportunity for a bit of practice, climbing alpine style in big boots. After a couple of pitches of that it was off to the ski slopes to finish off the day.
Day 5 - Grand Val and a Lesson in Temperature Fluctuations
With two more days to go we were looking forward to getting another couple of climbs under our belts, and today's target was yet another 3 star classic (the valley is full of them) called Grand Val. Temperatures had been high the previous day but had dropped to -10°C overnight. With such a wild swing in temperatures, we were a bit wary because ice normally likes a fairly constant temperature or only minor variations. Large changes will cause stress patterns in the ice.
A 30 minute walk from the car park found us roped up and ready to start at the bottom of the climb. I had the lead so off I set up the centre of the fall. The ice looked nice and plasticky, ideal for first time placements, so in went the first pick. What you want to hear (and feel) when a pick goes is a nice solid thud - not too high a pitch and not too low either. What I didn't want to hear was a loud crack and a shudder as two massive pieces if ice separated from each other at exactly the point my axe went in! There was a stress fracture all the way across the ice!
Thinking this might be a one-off, I backed off and tried going up the left-hand side and was greeted with the same results.
Not wanting to experience the same thing halfway up a pitch - where the only option might be to untie and solo it to stop your protection dragging you off the climb as the icefall crumbles, we called it a day went for some more of that hot chocolate.
Day 6 - Oceano Polare (WI4) - Taking the Ropes for a Walk
This was a Saturday and our last day. Just like back home things get a bit busier at the weekend so we opted for a 20 minute drive higher up the valley and a 90 minute walk to the climb in the hope that we would have it to ourselves.
When ice climbing you ideally don't want to be behind anyone as ice invariably gets dislodged and falls on to those below. 1 litre of ice will weigh 1kg and you don't want that hitting you at at 30+ mph. That's a helicopter trip to the hospital (if you are lucky)!
Unfortunately, today three other teams had the same idea and we found ourselves behind four Spaniards and two Italians. While that's not ideal, people are usually careful and will warn others of any falling ice so we roped up and went to the first belay.
The climb is described as:
P1: 60m - Climb more or less straight in the right part of the waterfall. Belay on the right (left bank) under an overhang.
P2: 60m - Continue to climb to the right until a less vertical part where you cross to the left to the second belay (right bank)
As we moved up, it was clear that the Spanish teams had no idea what they were doing, sometimes taking 20 swings of an axe to get a good placement! The Italians were doing much better but were trying to negotiate their way through an almost continual avalanche of blocks of ice.
One look at each other and experience told us that this was one of those days when it was better to walk away in one piece with no broken bones rather than attempt anything. The climb will still be there next year, so off we trekked back to the car.
We had 4 great days out of 6 and even the last 2 were under blue skies with no wind, so quite pleasant even though we didn't climb. Costs for one person were £80 flights and £400 for the hotel (4 nights half board 3 nights B&B). Cheaper youth hostel type accommodation is available. Shared costs for fuel and tolls (£100) and care hire (from £120 per week) also need to be considered - there's no meaningful public transport in the region. It's the cheapest option out of all of the European destinations.
If anyone is thinking of planning a trip, I've several guide books I can loan out.
For me, next years trip will hopefully be in the North Ossetia region of the Russian Caucuses.