The ice season traditionally opens with the first real drop in temperature, but also with an event that is well known to ice-climbing enthusiasts: the well-named Cogne Ice Opening. For this tenth edition, the organisers, Matthias Scherer, Heike and Tanja Schmitt, were able to mobilise ice enthusiasts or beginners after a blank year in 2020. The result: the clinics were fully booked, the sponsors were back with the loaned equipment and most of the ice falls were in good conditions. The perfect opportunity to discover Valeille and Valnontey, the valleys with 200 ice falls.
We love these ice climbing gatherings. The atmosphere is always intimate, just like this niche practice within the niche that is already mountaineering in the general sense of the term. Here, there are no big podiums, no speaker, no bibs, no superfluous. Ice climbing is a discipline that does not suffer from artifice. Not really in the air of time. And that’s just as well.
And for good reason: you have to dare to venture out very early in the morning into the winter cold, to equip yourself warmly, to take along some rather peaky equipment (crampons and ice axes) to then go down into valleys which never see the winter sun.
And why? To finally touch the fascinating element of ice and climb ephemeral structures whose shapes, appearance and colours are unique in the mountains.
So yes, ice climbing is a demanding practice but it offers a unique experience in a universe that lasts two months, three in good years. Even more than snow, ice takes you far, very far. In the literal sense of the word, of course, since it is sometimes necessary to walk a long way to reach an objective, as in the long Valnontey valley, where the approach hike often take up to two hours, sometimes in untracked snow, which often requires a night start to ensure that the ice is cold.
But more symbolically, climbing a waterfall is a unique experience in the sense that it mobilises more than any other alpine discipline, all the skills, attention and understanding of the environment.
This is why an event like the Cogne Ice Opening offers courses supervised by mountain guides, in small groups, which is ideal for discovering the basics of ice climbing. Gestures, technique, reading of possible lines, analysis of structures, basics of the formation of an ice fall, understanding of temperature conditions etc.. The parameters are numerous but accessible to those who take the time.
Once the shoes lent by Scarpa had been adjusted and the ice axes and crampons provided by Grivel, Cassin and Petzl had been fitted, the forty or so participants were able to set off to discover the ice on the top-ropes of the Amphithéatre de Lillaz, just above the eponymous ice fall, which is very popular in summer. This year, despite the difficulties in travelling due to the restrictions linked to the pandemic, many climbers came from far away: United Kingdom (a great achievement), Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and France of course. A performance in itself!
For their part, the mountain guides from Cogne and Courmayeur (and even a guide from the Dolomites!) ensured the safety of all these people. Higher up, some of them were perfecting their moves and strength on the dry-tooling spot where Tanja and Matthias were giving a demonstration in “Jeff Mercier’M6!” Matthias said.
After a good cappuccino at the Ondezana, the climbers’ den, the meeting continued at the cinema in Cogne with lectures and screenings of mountain films. Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt presented a history of the practice, with the highlight being the reference stunt in the sector, Repentance Super, a magnificent grade 6 ice fall climbed 51 times by the couple, both in the city and on the mountain.
Angelika Rainer, three times world champion ice climber, also presented her vision of performance and her high level practice. And at last, Matteo De Zaiacomo, a member of the famous Italian mountain club Ragni di Lecco, spoke about his ascent of Baghirati IV.
This is a great way to travel and learn about the many facets of the discipline before, why not, prolonging the experience in the multi-pitch ice falls of Cogne, or even in February in Norway with the Arctic Ice Festival organised by the same trio and promising even more icy climbs. We’ll tell you all about it very soon…