The arrival of winter is being very stubborn, with no significant snowfall and relatively warm temperatures, it was going to be a challenge for Matthias Scherer, Tanja Schmitt and Heike Schmitt with the Cogne Ice Opening Festival.
Getting to Cogne
At just over an hour drive from Chamonix, Sophie and I headed over on the morning of day 1, setting off at 6am, which felt much like an alpine start – the stars were out, the air crisp, and we were both very excited for what was in store for us.
We had been following the weather reports as well as conditions in the Aosta valley and knew that the beautiful, roadside ice falls that Cogne is famous might not be there in all their glory. We had, however, received an excited and super-psyched email from Matthias the day before giving us an update on the plans for the weekend.
Matthias, Tanja, and Heike are all Cogne locals and know the valley very well. If anyone was going to find good stuff to climb and show us a great time it would be them!
As we pulled up to Cogne, we could see a number of people gearing up at their cars. A few early morning greetings were exchanged while we did the same and then we headed over to the registration.
The event is sponsored by Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Arc’teryx, and Suunto. All of them had a stand there with plenty of gear to borrow for the day. After saying hi to Tanja by the registration, we headed over to the brand tents to get kitted out for the day. Trying out the Arc’teryx Alpha Comp, Black Diamond Fusion ice axes, and the BD Stinger crampons, I was set and ready to go.
Roadside ice cragging
Once everyone was registered, we were grouped up into teams of 6, each with a guide and pro team member from one of the brands. Sophie and I joined a team of four from the UK who had all met mountaineering in Iran and had struck up a great friendship. We were assigned to Patrick, a Chamonix mountain guide who, it turns out, lives about 300m up the road from us in the valley.
Our area for climbing was a few minutes drive up the road and so, carefully driving in my big B3 mountain boots, we set off in convoy. Pulling up a into a lay by, we all peered over the road barrier and saw that we had a 30m wide stretch of ice that had formed below us, down to a river. Awesome!
Though there was ice, it was pretty thin and so leading on it would be unnecessarily dangerous. We set up 3 top ropes and walked down and around to the base of the climbs to get started.
You really can’t get anymore roadside than this.
Climbing thin ice
I’ve never really had any formal instruction for climbing ice, having just watched climbing partners and given my technique some thought, and so it was great to have Patrick there who was very keen to help us all improve. As I made my way up our first route, a thin, and fragile ice pillar, it became obvious that the skills I had in my arsenal were not going to cut it here.
Patrick called up a few tips and I did my best to implement what I could just about here. With a little bit of brute force, and a bit of technique, I managed to scrape my way up to the top, not before knocking off a small block of ice that kindly split my lip quite gloriously.
Once back on solid ground, Patrick demonstrated the techniques he had been trying to convey while I was half way up the ice fall. The main trick being about subtle techniques you can use on fragile or brittle ice whereby you make the minimal impact and damage on the ice but still have bomb-proof placements.
Sophie and I carried on climbing on the other routes and both of us quickly realised the power of the new techniques Patrick had shown us – both of us cruised up the thin ice, making a much smaller impact on the route than our first attempt as well as conserving much more energy and finding the whole experience much easier.
After all of us had climbed the routes available, some people headed up the river bed a little further for some dry tooling. I was keen to try and stay on the ice a little longer and so Sophie and I repeated a few of the routes, practicing our technique on now even thinner ice.
Wrapping it up and hanging out
Ice climbing is pretty tiring and I’ve not built up my winter fitness for the long routes I hope are to come and so, come 3pm, we were all pretty knackered. We packed up and headed back to HQ to see how everyone else got on.
Back at the tents, we returned all our gear and also got to see some of the new items Black Diamond are going to be bringing out – a new version of the Viper ice axe that looks pretty awesome, and a new semi-technical crampon – both were checking out when they are released next year.
We met and chatted again with Matthias, Tanja, and Heike, who were glad to hear we had had such a productive time with Patrick. We also chatted to a few of the other BD athletes and attendees of the festival before the tiredness kicked in and it was time to head home.
The festival was two days but we were just there for one as we had to be back in Chamonix that evening for a mega chilli dinner party that we couldn’t miss but I was certainly envious of everyone staying the night as there was a wonderful sense of community and some great plans for the evening.
Thank you, Cogne Ice Opening
We had such a wonderful time there and I would highly recommend everyone checking it out – from complete beginner to expert, you will most definitely learn something new, meet great people, and awesome time.
Thank you Matthias, Tanja, and Heike for inviting us down, we can’t wait for more Cogne ice action this winter now!