Ice Climbing in Cogne, Italy
Nick’s turn to pick the route. Standing at the bottom I’m moaning; “I’m totally not happy about doing this route again” “Quit your bi*€&hing b*&€h”, says my partner who has never done it and is totally psyched. He’s from Belgium and is finally getting the sarcasm. Once I’m on it, its way different, again! I am climbing Lizzaz Gulley for the third time and I’m totally loving it!
My last trip started and ended with the Noro Virus. Nick and I had just returned to Chamonix from another trip to Cogne, we had been beaten back on a harder climb as conditions were getting a bit warm and the ice fall was starting to look like it was located in Durban rather than in Cogne. We chose to go back to Chamonix and ski. New years day, great powder and then later in my campervan, scenes from poltergeist and no longer very clean public loos. Nick was heading home so he’s okay, I’m staying and Steve is flying in this evening. When Steve arrives he’s a pillar of health and like a two year old on red bull, raging for a climb. We head back into Cogne.
Its morning now and I’ve been to the loo maybe 6 times that night, “Steve bro, I’m not great”. “Shut up you big girl, come belay, I’ll drag you up something”. So we set off walking in sluggishly. Steve succeeds in dragging me up Candelabro del Coyote, another climb I have done before but this time I’m totally over it and am always keeping an eye out for my next toilet location. The next day, I’m finally starting to feel better. For Steve, the table starts veering to the right. We’re off to have another go at Stella Artice, and as I turned back last time with Nick, I’ve reserved the lead on pitch two.
Steve leads the first pitch and starts to show some signs of not being his usual strong self. There is another team below us so I swap straight over and set off on pitch two before I get time to ponder about the thickness of the pillar. Pitch three and the table has totally done its u-turn and is firmly heading the other way. Steve is finally ‘dying’ but only realises this once he’s 60m up, we had decided to link the next easier pitches so the poor guy leads 90m totally fighting back the urge to set his breakfast free.
Forget the campervan, Steve’s is straight into the public toilets where he spends about 45 minutes and then the first hotel, to crash for the night and no doubt infect the other hotel guests. Me, being the sympathetic mate, am having a ball of it as he too did with me. Remember that scene from the movie Snatch when the diamond dealer shoots the hard dude by mistake? Plane, Visa Stamp, “Anything to declare?” “Yeah, don’t go to England” except this time it was more of a Plane, Visa Stamp, “Anything to declare?” “Yeah, don’t visit the public toilets in Cogne”. Steve’s home in quarantine and I’m doing the long drive back to London.
Cogne is in the Italian Alps in the Gran Paradiso National Park. It is one of the most consistent ice climbing venues in the Alps and is considered by many as Italy’s premium ice climbing venue. There are a huge variety of ice and mixed routes from beginner grades right up to experts. It’s a great place for meeting ice climbers from all over and its always a surprise somewhere up high, “You’re from South Africa? I didn’t know there were any South African ice climbers!”
“Do you have ice in South Africa? “Yes, but there’s too many Lions so we don’t go there”.
The town is focused around ski touring and ice climbing and there are bars full of keen ice climbers telling the days stories. It’s Italy so the food is magic. But we’re here for the climbing. There are two major valleys in Cogne, the Valeille and Valnontey Valleys.
In the Valeille Valley, don’t miss the Cascade de Lizzaz, total classic with about 10 minutes walk in. It’s generally swamped but get there really early and you’ll have a great climb. It’s a good WI3 with 6 pitches and some snow plods in between. The snow plods are not without interest though as you skirt around frozen pools along a river bed. There are some different exit options. The walk back is safe and easy and makes a great intro.
Lizzaz Gulley (WI4 and M4+), another of the mega classics is a stiffer 45 minute to 1 hour walk up. The route is very consistent as it never sees sun. I have climbed it three times and each time has had totally different character, sometimes with really fun mixed stuff providing the cruxes (carry wires or some small cams). The when the route is a bit thicker, the 2nd from the top pitch provides the goods with a pleasant groove with a thin vein of ice in the corner and some rock chimneying. Its good to combine this route with Stalattite di Cristallo, WI4+/5 (first).
The longest route in the Cogne valleys is Cold Couloir, 600m. The crux is concentrated in the first three pitches, WI4+; it is a long day but be sure of the avalanche conditions as it has a large catchment area that funnels into the gulley. This is probably the best WI4+ I have ever done. Very steep and exposed at times, the ice route changes character as you go higher up from a wide open shoot to a narrow steep gulley and then backing down for the big climbing to the top.
Stella Artice is a classic harder route in the valley. The 1st pitch is not without its fun but the 2nd pitch is the business, an immaculate thin pillar with the belay behind it (WI5/5+ condition dependant). Stepping out and onto the initial overhanging pillar provides some “just go don’t think too much” moments and then it just shoots skywards. The pitch backs off after the pillar so you can savor afterthoughts whilst enjoying the fun stuff above.
Candelabro del Coyote & Tuborg make a great days combo, two WI5’s both on the opposite side of the valley and a easy walk in can mean crowds so hit it early.
Further down the valley are many more great routes with quite moderate walk ins along descent tracks. If the snow is deep and fresh, definitely worth skiing in or snowshoeing, you can hire kit in Cogne.
This is just a sample of the stuff this great venue has from WI2 to WI7 and mixed up to M12 and some super hard mixed on trad.
Valnontey Valley – The walk ins here are generally longer but along an amazingly beautiful valley and quite flat until the final uphills. Be very aware of the avalanche potential here as different sides of the valley get snow loaded or affected by the sun, we have had two scary incidents.
Steve and Rob looking up watching a far away avalanche coming down the opposite side of the narrow valley. “Hmm, it’s taking out the ice fall on the opposite side”, “wow, that’s pretty cool”, “yep”… “Um, it’s kind of getting closer”,“Okay, I’m running”, “me too”.
Later that day… slogging up the deep 45 degree snow slope, no path, 300m higher: “UMFFFF”, “CRRAAAACK”, about a meter in front of us, a huge fracture has gone across the slope. Both of us now totally frozen still on the slope. “Time to go to the pub?” “Yes” and a very, very soft and careful down climb ensued.
Patri always has a path, it is also a very consistent icefall and we have climbed it with nothing else in the valley being in condition, there are many options for difficulty so it proves popular, there is a WI4, a WI4+/5 and WI5+ versions. The icefall has 5 or 6 main pitches with some snow ramps depending on the finish you choose. They are all super classic finishes and its very worthwhile doing at least two finishes in one day, there are easy abseils down to a big platform.
Further along are two very impressive and famous routes (the legs start getting tired on the walk ins now). Repentance Super (WI6) is probably the most famous WI6 in the region and features on many famous ice climbers list as one of the best in the world. The lesser of the famous and easy version is Monday Money, WI4/4+. Both top out onto the plateau.
Onto the other side of the valley and with nice short walk ins are bunch of good ice falls in the WI3 to WI4+ range that are in the sun, so a nice early start and good cold conditions, will ensure a safer and very enjoyable day.
Getting there: From the UK it is easy to fly. Many cheap airlines fly to Torino (Turin) in Italy. Hire a car and drive via Aosta to the Gran Paradiso National Park. If you get an early flight, you can get one of the close climbs in on the same day.
From Chamonix, enter Italy via the Mont Blanc Tunnel (€65 for a return 2013) and take the Aosta Ovest / Cogne turnoff (1.5Hrs drive.)
In winter camping in Cogne would not be fun. We’ve been there with night-time temps at -22º C. In Cogne, there are many good options; Chateau Royal in Cogne is decently priced, has a sauna and hot tub (bit strange sitting in a small hot tub with a bunch of guys though). Lizzaz has some nice spots. We have stayed at two that have a Black Diamond and Grivel test centers with new kit you can take out climbing for the day. Hotel Ondezana is literally on the walk in track to the Valeille Valley and has the best hot chocolate ever. Staying in a campervan is really easy in Cogne too. In the middle of Cogne, there is a parking lot specifically for campers.
Safety: It’s worth registering your intentions with the concierge or housekeeper at your hotel. Check Avalanche risk with any of the local guides or ski instructors. The talk in the bars will be full of worthwhile info.
Gear: Two half ropes, 60m work best. Most people focus on ice when in Cogne so bring 8 to 14 ice screws depending on the route choice. A set of wires will be helpful on gullies or in thin conditions.
WI1 – Easy, ice angle typically 40º – 50º (not may of these about)
WI2 – Slightly more challenging than the last but typically 50º to 70º and maybe with some very short steps at 80º
WI3 – Moderate climbing, starts to feel like real climbing angles. Longer sustained sections at 70º to 75º with some short sections at 90º
WI4 – Difficult climbing, long sustained pitches at 80º with sections of vertical 10 to 15 meters.
WI5 – Hard climbing, long sustained pitches of 85º or vertical sections up to 30 meters. The ice could be complex with cauliflower or other complexities.
WI6 – Very hard climbing with pitches of 50m of vertical. Ice could be less vertical in places but more complex or thin.
WI7 – Traditionally the same as WI6 but really don’t fall on this one. The element of fragility in the ice might require a very delicate approach. Certain pillars are in fact overhanging.
Guidebooks and local knowledge will be able to tell you if something is harder when conditions are lean or fat and this depends very much on numerous factors but also the time into the season. In late season (not too late – i.e. before the melt starts) some routes can be easier because they could form less steep or be ‘hacked’ creating steps and many opportunities for hooking.
Lastly, thanks to Columbia UK for the jackets, check out the new Omniheat Synthetic Down Jackets and Omni tech shells. Columbia UK
About the author: Rob Powell is a Cape Town climber based in London, he has climbed extensively in Europe, Asia, Australasia, South America, North America including climbing in the Himalaya, Karakorum, Andes, Alps, South Alps and the Rockies.
Related article: Alard Hufner, Douard Le Roux and Robert Powell summit Trango