Dec 21, 2013

"Keeping it Real" - Ice Climbing in Cogne, Italy

Every once in a while I have to remind myself to ‘keep it real’. Life is short, it can be tough. There are moments when reaching for a hand-brake to slow things down a notch or two would certainly help provide the life-balance when it flips out of kilter. In the absence of a ‘hand-brake’ I have found the perfect alternative – the great outdoors. For me, there’s something incredibly therapeutic about being outside and ‘feeling’ – feeling cold, hot, happy, scared, tired, hungry in a pure, unadulterated state…. engaging the mind by trying something new and drawing energy from the passion of people you meet along the way. 

I was just coming off of a hectic few weeks at work and was feeling the need to ‘keep it real’. When my climbing guide and friend Isabelle Santoire suggested that I join her for a weekend of at the Ice Climbing Opening in Cogne, Italy I jumped at the opportunity. Having spent an exceptionally cold but fun day learning the basics with Isabelle in Cogne last winter I realized that this was fantastic way to get back into the ‘groove’. What better way to feel alive than to embrace the biting cold in the shade of an icy rock face at the end of a belay or to climb up a frozen waterfall, arms pumped, trying hard not to think about the sheer lunacy of hanging off of a frozen waterfall on ice only a few centimeters thick by only a few sharp metal points. On the flip side, what better way to feel alive than drink hot chocolate so thick you can chew it and laugh so hard with people you’ve just met that it makes your belly ache.

The annual Cogne Ice Festival is organized by hugely talented, hardcore ice climbers, Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt. The festival is a quirky, fun, non-pretentious gathering place which presented an opportunity to learn, to have fun, to meet new people and share experiences. It was sponsored by Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Suunto, Sterling Rope, Glorify, and Chimpanzee who were all on-hand to answer kit questions, sharpen tools and ensure that even if you showed up without anything you could be fully kitted out and walking to a frozen headwall in about 5 minutes.  I tried out a new set of Black Diamond Stinger crampons and a new BD  Speed-range climbing pack – both of which exceeded expectations.

It was an absolutely brilliant weekend. A number of clinics were on offer ranging from navigation through to the more hard-core ice-climbing clinics. For both the Saturday and Sunday I joined a women’s clinic with 7 other women of mixed abilities but all sharing common goals – to have fun, to laugh, to learn. And that we did. In spades. We proved that the outdoors can bring together a mix of cultures – in my group alone we were a feisty mix of Brits, Swedes, Italians, Canadians, Norwegians, Germans, French. With a shared passion for the outdoors we proved that this shared passion can transcend language barriers and spent the two days on routes which offered different levels of challenge and opportunity. And learned, amongst other things, one key message – “Don’t let go”. A message which was confirmed during Saturday evening’s programme.

On Saturday evening, we were treated to several presentations from the athletes including Jeff Mercier showed a video on his new route in the Dolomites. Klemen Premrl presented Wolverine, a short clip about his achievements with Tim Emmett, Will Gadd and Raphael Slawinski, on Wolverine, one of the wildest, steepest and most difficult ice climbing in the world located in Helmcken Falls, Canada.  Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt showed their movie on Kjerrskredkvelven, the giant ice line in Norway. Finally, Matteo della Bordella and Luca Schiera talked about their new route on Torre Egger, and Ezio Marlier talked about Repentance, one of the most iconic ice falls in Cogne.

I sometimes find it tedious watching accounts of adventures which focus purely on ‘The Epic’ - the records broken, the near-death experiences, the summits achieved, the testosterone-driven ‘gnarliness’ of it all… especially when the ‘gnarly’ isn’t appropriately balanced with the reality of why these amazing athletes push themselves to these extremes of challenge and discomfort. It’s certainly not about the money or the fame (we’re talking about climbing here!). It’s the buzz. It’s about keeping it real. It's about the thrill of the challenge and the fun. This came through in the videos - especially Tim Emmett's account of how he and his team mates approached Wolverine (I encourage you to boil the kettle, make yourself a brew, and take a few moments out of your life to enjoy it). I absolutely loved it not only for the aesthetic elements but also for the passion and enthusiasm for the project before, during and after the climb. This passion was something that we could relate to as we’d experienced it first-hand on a smaller scale during our own ‘epic’ experiences on routes significantly less gnarly. 

There are few things in life as vicariously satisfying as self-indulgence after a big day outside. On Sunday afternoon we found ourselves back in the pub with rosy cheeks with steaming cups of hot chocolate and mulled wine… and sorting out our next adventures as we flipped through our reams of photos documenting our ‘hero shots’. We agreed to meet again for more shared fun in Norway on 21 Feb for the Rjukan Ice Festival‏..! 


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