Solihull Mountaineering Club’s chairman, Ian Wyatt and fellow member Dave Rickerby invited me to join them on a week long trip to Cogne in northern Italy to sample the icy delights of the Gran Paradiso national park.
None of us had been before, and although we were all experienced winter climbers it was all new. A typical winter climbing start had us all gathered at 2am at Ian’s on Saturday morning, car loaded and ready to go. 15 hours later, driving via the Dover to Dunkirk ferry and we arrived at our apartment for the week, just above St Nicholas, about an hour’s drive north of Cogne (accommodation in the ski resort of Cogne was £££ for a late booking). The apartment was 3 bedrooms, 6 bed so we had plenty of space to dry stuff out as is the inevitable need in winter.
We had a relaxed start on our first day, Sunday, leaving midmorning for the drive to Lillaz, the parking spot for the Cogne routes. An hour on the road then a civilised ten minute and we were at our first route. Although the first pitch wasn’t in condition we quickly despatched the other five, Ian getting a particularly spectacular pitch leading up above a yet unfrozen waterfall and pool.
Back at the car in daylight was a novelty for winter and a theme that carried on all week. On the way back the roads were covered in a mixture of slush and hard packed snow, which was carefully navigated however there came a point that the car had other ideas and started waltzing at strange angles left and right. Ian decided best not crash with the snow chains still in the boot, so on they went.
Monday was our longest walk in, around 2 hours after a look at one route which was very busy then off through the woods in waist deep snow to Lillaz Gully. On the way Dave spotted one of the region’s iconic inhabitants, an Ibex. The route itself was another 200m cracker, everyone getting a decent lead with some snow swimming in between pitches. It started snowing during the afternoon but there was no wind so conditions were benign. After the 2 hour approach the 10 minute bum slide back to the path was a relief. The low wind did allow for a rapid build up of snow as we found out when we got back to the car which had to be dug out.
It snowed all night and in the morning there was around 40cm surrounding the apartment, so once we had escaped the apartment yet more car digging. With this in mind for the approaches we returned to the Cogne valley and found a group of ice climbs literally next to the road at Moline. This did require us to dig out our own parking space out of the buried car park, but at least it was fresh snow so easily moved. This venue was surprisingly pretty being next to the river with various ice and dry tooling lines climbing back up to the road about 30m above. Ian took on the most obvious line which provided a bit of single pitch fun and a few interesting mixed moves at the top on turf and soil more reminiscent of the UK. On the way home we went to the next valley along, Valsavaranche, to check out a route called Antares. This looked in excellent condition, 80m of wide steep icefall but with avalanche debris all around it, and deep snow at the base and above it.
The next day, Wednesday, we decided to give Antares another day to settle and returned to Cogne to the classic El Tutto Relativo. A half hour walk in put us at the base of this classic grade 4. I was handed the rather thin and steep second pitch, which I gladly accepted. but it was well hooked out after many ascents and so provided excellent sport.
On Thursday Dave persuaded us to go get on Tuborg, his target for the week, a 4+/5 graded route with a slightly longer walk in. The difference in temperature this morning was noticeable, the car read -12c, and you really felt it on the walk in. The air burnt in your lungs, you felt like you had nothing on instead of the base layer – mid layer fleece – soft shell and hard shell, and my usually drippy nose produced icicles instead! The approach took us about 25 minutes on the flat with a 5 minute walk up the hill where we emerged from the trees into glorious sunshine. Now it felt like +12c. Tuborg was a 3* route and it had a queue to match with 4 teams waiting to start the route, and many more en route, so we had a leisurely kit up, enjoying the blue skies and sunshine, so much sunshine that Ian needed some eye protection from the glare. Alas he did not have his sunglasses so donned his ski goggles instead (should be in everyone’s bag who goes out in winter) which left him resembling the Tango man!
The route itself kicked off with a steep 40m pitch of 85-95 degree angled ice above a cone, and snow filled gully. This tempered my approach to the protection, deciding that good ice screws at the base of the steep section would keep me off the deck, and the snow filled gully was not a bad place to land if they didn’t, then keep going until it eased off a bit. I udged out and placed a couple of screws then retreated to a rest point. Then drawing a deep breath, I swung out and set off up the up the slightly overhanging fall, I did think about putting in another screw half way, then felt the pump in my arms, and decided keeping going was the best option. With 10m of rope out since my last protection I reached easier angled ice with relief and quickly put in another screw. The pitch carried on for another 10m on ice so but was easier, if a little rotten towards the top, then 10m of turf and snow. Phew. A relaxed belay in the sun knowing the difficult pitch was done followed as Ian and Dave cruised up on second.
Ian then did a great job of leading the very pretty second pitch, to then be besieged by French climbers determined to abseil over and around him whilst he belayed. Dave took the last short steep intimidating column. There was a final pitch several hundred meters up the hill though the snow, but this was deemed optional and as it was 4pm we abseiled back down the route – with multiple other teams around us and below us, ropes, ice and snow flying in all directions – Euro climbing!
Our final day and another foot of snow had us looking in at Antares again – still a no go, so after 2 hours to get to Lillaz we opted for a coffee and cake (one of the benefits of Euro climbing) before returning to do the now in condition first pitch of Lillaz Cascade, the route we did on our first day. This now resembled a 40m high fairy tale ice castle of cauliflowers, columns, cones, icicles and tumbling water, and a fitting way to end the climbing.
2 hours of driving along unploughed roads in the dark, covered in 30cm of snow was an arduous task, the snow chains clawing their way up the steep inclines, eyes peering desperately trying to figure out where the road was. I was glad to get back to the apartment and out from behind the wheel. We mopped up the remaining food and drink, enjoying the last of the Italian wine, the bottle of scotch, toasting an excellent trip. The next morning was an early kick off for our return trip, good job as it rained or snowed all the way back to Birmingham – a good day to go home.