The ice climbing season is launched: in the Aosta Valley, the Cogne Ice Opening festival has lived up its promise with meetings, renowned mountaineers, complete workshops for all levels, manufacturers who lend ice axes and boots, and ice that is already abundant. And then, as soon as the Mont-Blanc tunnel is crossed, it’s the holidays, with the ice axes itching!
These meetings are rare, and precious. At the beginning of the season, the ski or ice gatherings as here in Cogne, are a gamble – that of the conditions – and a promise: that of bathing for three days in the culture of ice climbing, in one of its most beautiful Alpine locations: in Cogne in the Aosta region.
Do we need to introduce Cogne? Take beautiful villages – Cogne, Lillaz – still preserved, with traditions, local wine and cheese (Fontine) in abundance, the proximity of the Gran Paradiso National Park, and of course, icefalls galore, Cogne being situated at an altitude of over 1500 meters. Add to this the warm welcome of the locals, and you have one of the most beautiful European spots for this slice of winter mountaineering that is ice climbing.
It is in Lillaz, a hamlet above Cogne, that Matthias Scherer lives all year round. He organises the Cogne Ice Opening, a three-day festival and workshops dedicated to ice climbing. This Thursday, December 15th, was the start of three days of meetings, and of ice, as the cold snap of early December has begun to take its toll.
As Benjamin Ribeyre, one of the guides who supervised the festival’s workshops, tells us: “There is a certain heterogeneity in the groups and in the end it is a very good thing. Why is this a good thing? Because the more experienced people give advice and tips to the beginners, an exchange that offers so many ways to remember good practices.” This is the whole point of the early season events, explains Benjamin, who is also president of the Oisans-Ecrins guide company at La Grave.
“Like the Premières Neiges event last Saturday in Villar d’Arène, dedicated to the discovery of ski touring and snow prevention, the Cogne Ice Opening workshops are an opportunity to get back into the swing of things at the beginning of the season: technique, safety, on all terrains, for everyone – and even for the guides! In the Amphitheatro sector we were able to offer both pure ice lines and dry tooling routes.“
The day before, it’s a tool sharpening session with Petzl. In the evening, after one (or two) beers at the Bar Cascate, it’s an opportunity to discuss the different ways of dealing with ice: the debate rages on between the supporters of the “North American” ethic, according to which no rope party can go behind a rope party that has already started a stunt, and the more … lax (or French) climbers, for whom, despite the obvious risks of falling icicles, it remains possible. Fortunately, in the classics like Lau Bij (two pitches), the few aspiring climbers wait their turn.
For three days, the participants of the Cogne Ice Opening were able to test the latest Scarpa boots, the ice axes and crampons provided by Petzl, Camp and Grivel, and even test the Samaya bags, before heading for the workshops: in Molines, a section of waterfalls has been created by watering, and is a superb spot of about twenty metres high and one hundred metres wide, enough to put a bunch of reels on! Another ideal sector: the Amphitheatre of Lillaz, just above the eponymous waterfall, which reserves pillars of ice and dry tooling lines, all supervised by the guides of Cogne and Aosta Valley, the guide Heike Schmitt, as well as two French guides, B. Ribeyre and Aurélien Vaissière.
For three days, the participants of the Cogne Ice Opening were immersed in the culture of ice and mountaineering, including high-flying, with the Saturday evening event in the Cogne cinema. Three films were presented. The first was by Matteo Della Bordella and David Bacci who told the story of their first ascent of Cerro Torre (with Mr De Zaiacomo). Brothers In Arms was the conclusion of a long quest, started by the British climbers, and completed by the Italians – Matteo Della Bordella’s Ragni di Lecco rope party, a great achievement overshadowed by the death of Korra Pesce, killed by blocks of ice while opening another route parallel to the Italians’.
The evening continued with an ice-cinema session with the Ultra Glace, the integral of the Grave or the 5 big stunts linked by Léo Billon and Benjamin Ribeyre in 2021, 2500 meters of ice in one day! The evening concluded with the beautiful story of Jérôme Sullivan and Christophe Ogier about their epic adventure, the first of the Pumari Chish East in the Karakoram (with V. Saucède). Images of very committed mountaineering filled the head, enough to be inspired before a very early morning and very cool (minus sixteen degrees!) for the most motivated, left to climb the classics such as Patri.
With Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt, we went in search of a nice line in the Valeille valley: but the coveted one, Coyote, was not at all in condition: this is the game in ice, the game of uncertainty, a game that allows you to be alone and to enjoy when it works. On the way back, Matthias had an idea, passing the high sword of Hard Ice: “the first pitch is beautiful, with huge jellyfish, like in Norway!” The ice was beautiful, affordable but tricky and technical with those big formations, typical of the big flows in Norway where Matthias and Tanja take up residence every winter. See you in Scandinavia next February for the Arctic Ice Festival, organised by the couple of enthusiasts with guide Heike Schmitt,… for ice enthusiasts.