As we get older and longer in the tooth, we either start to slow down or start to think that our time on this incredible planet is perhaps drawing to an end and yet there is still so much to do, to climb, to cycle, to kayak, or whatever is your passion. There are also those beautiful places on this planet to immerse yourself in whilst pursuing your sport.
Arriving home from having had Christmas with my youngest daughter and her family in Perth WA and having stopped off on route for a week of hiking and climbing in The Grampians in Victoria state, I returned to Manchester airport the following day for a flight to Geneva, where I met up with Neil Stutchbury for a planned week of ice climbing in Northern Italy. We met with our guide, Andy Owen and made arrangements to drive to the Cogne area in Italy the following morning. Unlike for Mount Aspiring, the weather forecast for that area looked encouraging.
Neil and I had met in Nepal in 2015 and had since had a couple of Scottish climbing trips together. Over recent years I have become hooked on ice climbing and Neil is as keen as I am, so there was a recipe for an excellent week ahead.
Andy has worked for a company called Jagged Globe for many years and is an expert on the topography of the area. He is also a highly qualified guide, who among other big climbs has climbed El Cap in Yosemite, (a climb we certainly didn’t attempt when we were there last year).
The weather in the Valle di Cogne had been much colder the week before we arrived, down to minus 10 to 15, however it had warmed up to around minus 5 and although many of the water falls were still active behind the ice, the ice was well formed and good for climbing. It is one of the wonders of ice climbing to be able to look through the ice and to see water running behind where you are placing your axes and if you can’t see it, to listen to it.
So with a great guide, (who can match Tim Vine with one liner jokes), excellent company and near perfect weather, we were ready to climb.
Our first day (31st Jan) saw us on L’Anfiteatro. We started the climb at the third of this four pitch climb, leading up from a frozen pond that in summer would be swum in underneath two cascading waterfalls. We climbed the left side twice using different lines and then climbed the four pitch, L’uscita di Destra, descending by an abseil and hike down to the first pitch. La Partenza di Destra. Arriving at the base of the second pitch we considered it too thin. A good days climbing, graded between 3 and 4.
Day two was the five pitch climb of Cascata di Valmiana, a 200m height gain with an overall grading of 3+. Having completed the full climb we returned to the start by an abseil and climbed the first pitch more to the right, this time to claim the grade 4 pitch.
Our third day saw us climbing the steep approach to the start of the classic Lillaz Gully, another 200m height gain. This route has four pitches and finished amongst trees having offered a varied and interesting climb.
We climbed Patri on our fourth day. This five pitch classic climb was thoroughly enjoyable with Neil leading one of the upper pitches.
Our last day climbing followed a night of snow. Having parked in Lillaz village, we walked up the valley renowned for its summer waterfalls and now offering a varied and numerous number of ice climbing routes. Crossing the river to the right-hand bank we reached our chosen route, Chandelle Levure, a stunning grade 4 climb. We hiked up to the base of the first pitch, noting that a team of two had already left their gear and were now climbing. We aimed to climb four pitches with a long stretch of moderately rising ground between two of the pitches. With the sun on our backs and relatively easy initial pitches, the climbing was enjoyed to the full.
Neil led the second pitch, Tim having taken the first. The third pitch started on easy ground before rising more steeply. To minimise anticipated rope drag, Tim hadn’t placed protection leaving the belay. A fall was unlikely to cause Neil any difficulties on the belay. A screw was placed as the ice rose to 70 degrees, with a second being placed and a sling used to minimise rope drag as the angle increased further. About 40 metres of rope was now out. Climbing to the right of the beginning of the next pitch, a shelf presented itself with a small recessed stance partly enclosed by a vertical curtain of ice. Andy had climbed to this belay point and was waiting for Tim. On arriving at the shelf and before moving right into the ‘cave’, it was necessary to place a further screw so that Neil would be able to gain the shelf at the same spot, avoiding a swing and direct forces on the belay should he slip. The pitch had used every meter of the 50m rope and perhaps a little more, as Neil had had to move up from his belay.
The final pitch of the day and of our week, was up with the best of the week. Yes, the sun was doing it’s work, water was running over the ice as if it were being poured down from above. The external ice was brittle and was kicked freely away beneath our crampon, but the axe placements felt and sounded good. Pure enjoyment!
On finishing the pitch there was a sense that none of us wanted this climbing to end.
Abseiling back down the upper pitches, we walked down the steep lower slopes, where an Ibex stood and watched us. We ate our late lunch in silent thought of how great the past few days had been.
My thanks both to Andy and Neil (let’s hope Neil that our trip to Scotland in a few week’s time will be as enjoyable).