Cogne Ice Opening report

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We head to Cogne, Italy, for an event that celebrates the start of the ice climbing season in the Alps…

Climbing an icefall above Lillaz

For the last five years, the Cogne Ice Opening has unofficially marked the start of the ice climbing season in the Alps. Ice climbers from far and wide, both seasoned and beginners, gather to celebrate the colder temperatures and the icefalls that come along with them.

The event was the brainchild of athletes Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt, who are based in Cogne. “We wanted the community to meet and to exchange views and experience. Ice climbing attracts many interesting and extreme characters who have unique stories to tell, and we wanted those characters to meet and talk together. Over the years, the idea changed and we saw a huge interest for the activity of ice climbing also from the beginners’ side. That’s how the idea of doing clinics was born,” Schmitt tells us.

She also explains what makes the area so special for ice climbing: “Cogne lies at 1,534m. It has two main valleys, the Valeille and the Valnontey, which contain over 100 icefalls! The valleys have a special micro climate; once the cold is in, it works like a freezer and normally we always have ice in winter, even when other valleys have none.”

There was an impressive turn-out of female climbers

With Cogne only a 90-minute drive from our base in Chamonix, team Trek & Mountain decided to tag along for this winter’s event, held in December, and join in on a couple of the clinics. Arriving on Friday evening, we headed to a cosy little pub, Bar Anais, in Lillaz where the 60 or so participants were to meet, and this relaxed atmosphere would continue throughout the weekend. “We really want to keep it small and familiar,” said Tanja. “People really should feel welcome. They should experience that ice climbing is something special and the characters doing it unique.”

Gearing up on the first day, with help from the sponsors

In the morning, after grabbing some fresh coffee, we again met in Lillaz. On hand were the sponsors – Arc’teryx, Petzl, Black Diamond and La Sportiva – offering advice, and letting participants test out some kit (they would also give away some handy raffle prizes during the movie night). We met up with our instructor for the day, French alpinist Jeff Mercier, a Mountain Guide and member of the Chamonix mountain rescue team – and also one of the best ice, mixed and dry toolers out there! A short walk brought us to the bolted dry tooling crag, one which Mercier and Scherer had bolted themselves several years previously. The Guides had set up several ropes – some on easy sloped rock to allow beginners to get used to using crampons on rock, some more difficult routes, and for those looking for a real challenge, there was even some overhanging rock. Our group, and one led by Cecile Thomas, had pretty much combined into one and were free to move around and try the various routes, with the Guides on hand to offer tips and advice.

At the dry tooling crag

The evening brought about an evening of film and entertainment. Chamonix legend François Damilano, plus Mathieu Maynadier, Rudolf Hauser, and Matthias Scherer himself all hit the stage to present their climbing films, answer questions, and give some insight into the world of hardcore ice climbing. Of course, participants were excited for the raffle as well, in which the sponsors had donated some great prizes.

The next day we finally headed off to find some ice! Some of our climbing pals in Chamonix had complained at the lack of ice, but it seemed the ice had formed just in time for the event, and the folks at the Cogne Ice Opening knew just where to go. With the unpredictability of the weather in recent years, choosing dates for the Opening can be a challenge, as Tanja explains: “For us, as organisers, it is really difficult to fix the dates. On one hand we really want to be an ‘Ice Opening Event’ and celebrate the beginning of the season before Christmas, and on the other hand it has become clear that the season is tending to get started much later in the year than it used to be. Many ice falls tend to form late now, some not before January. This is a new development, something that seems to become a new reality. Though we always had at least some ice freshly formed on our event, we always were nervous about having ice at all on time. So far we have been lucky. But it’s kind of nerve wrecking.”

Finding ice was not a problem today, however. With British Mountain Guide Jon Bracey leading the way, we headed up to one of the main ice falls above Lillaz and enjoyed some great climbing. With expert advice always at hand, our group showed great progress during the day and everyone left wanting to return the following season to renew friendships and get reaquainted with the ice.

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