Dec 31, 2014

Looking for Love on Ice: "Tinder" and Ice Climbing in Cogne, Italy

If you compared ice-climbing in Cogne to the popular ‘Tinder’ dating-app, you could be picky and ‘swipe left’ for hours before finding the ‘perfect match’. A ‘perfect match’ would reflect preferences in ice conditions, level of gnarly-ness, number of pitches etc.  By ‘swiping right’, you would be given the option to explore the route further and check out photographs to decide whether the route is worth pursuing and whether or not to add to a growing list of ‘potentials’. Unfortunately, with no significant snowfall to date (no pun intended) and a season marked by relatively warm temperatures, this year Cogne was having a ‘dry-spell’ (literally) and it was going to be a logistical challenge to celebrate the Cogne Ice Opening festival in traditional style… In short, there would be a minimal amount of ‘swiping right’.

Based out of Cogne, Aosta Italy, professional ice climbers Matthias Scherer, Tanja Schmitt and Heike Schmitt, organisers of the third annual Cogne Ice Opening Festival met the challenge with a passion. Leveraging their creativity, energy and a contagious passion for the many disciplines of climbing we soon forgot that there was a shortage of ice and took the opportunity to embrace and refine new skills including mixed climbing, dry-tooling, and ski-touring… and learn one of the fundamental lessons of alpinism… you can’t do anything about the weather.

I attended the Cogne Ice Opening Festival last year when, through perfect weather conditions leading up to the event, we were spoiled for choice with short approaches and a plethora of routes suited to all levels of ability. The festival, one of the first key social events of the winter in Cogne, is an opportunity to learn, have fun, meet new people and share experiences. The event is sponsored by Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Suunto, Sterling Rope, Gloryfy and Chimpanzee who are all on-hand to answer questions, sharpen tools and ensure that even if you were to show up in a pair of Bermuda shorts you could be fully kitted out, cramponed up and walking to a frozen waterfall in about 5 minutes.

Despite the lack of ice this year, the first sip of hot mulled-wine (Italian style) in the bar at the ‘Apero’ on Friday night indicated that the festival had well and truly begun – ice or no ice, the atmosphere was buzzing and a growing group of participants were chatting about the new options available. I signed up for mixed- climbing which means climbing on a mix of rock and ice – something I had only done previously in Nepal so very excited about the weekend ahead..!

The next morning we broke out into our groups under a blue sky and temperatures hovering just above zero.  Led by IFMGA guide Patrick, our group headed off to do some roadside crag-climbing to take advantage of the mixed conditions. After scrambling down into a small ravine, we stumbled up on a rock face dotted with patches of ice, rock and frozen clumps of grass where Patrick set up three routes– a one pitch ice climb route over some fragile ice waterfall sections, a one pitch mixed route offering a challenging mix of rock and ice, and a one pitch route of very thin and fragile ice over a rapidly flowing waterfall. We took turns climbing and belaying between the routes and the day passed quickly. As much as I enjoy ice climbing, I find mixed-climbing tremendously satisfying and enjoy the different ways that the earths’ natural ‘ingredients’ provides the ballast to support a body inching its way up a steep face.

We had an absolutely brilliant day out - I learned plenty of new techniques and certainly gave my arms a workout. It was fantastic to share the day with friends, both old and new. By around 3pm the ice on the waterfall had begun to melt and the mud began to thaw so we all piled back into our cars and headed back to the bar for some liquid refreshments and the opportunity to share stories with other groups coming back from their own adventures.

In the evening we headed to the Sala Grivola in Cogne for an ‘All about the Ice’ movie night. With rosy cheeks, pumped-arms still throbbing and bellies full of Italy’s finest pizza, we all sat back in the theatre to be inspired… and we certainly were not disappointed. With presentations from athletes in word and film including extreme climber Rudi Hauser (Austria), Klemen Premrl (Slovenia), Mael Baguet (France) as well as the inspirational Tanja Schmitt and Matthias Scherer (Cogne) we quickly realised the tremendous dedication, passion and commitment required in climbing – or any sport for that matter. You can find some highlights from the clips shown here: Reborn - the quest for early season ice and  Climbing icebergs in Greenland.  

Sunday presented us with equally stunning blue-sky and crisp clear conditions. There was a rumour of forming ice further down the valley so our group, led by guides Heike, Isabelle and Patrick, we piled into our vehicles and sped off down the road to find out if the rumour was fact or merely a case of wishful thinking. After a 40-minute walk in, we looked up to see two pitches of beautifully forming... and virtually untouched ice..! RESULT! The next 3 hours were spent reviewing the basics in ice-climbing, swinging our ice-tools, screwing in ice screws, kicking in our front-points and pushing our personal limits on the icy-face. Whilst the ice conditions weren’t as ‘gnarly’ as previous years and we weren’t spoiled for choice, the day proved to be a tremendous success simply because we, a group of passionate climbers, adventurers and friends, had gathered outside around the ice and were cheering each other on, exchanging stories and planning future adventures. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a brilliant day.

Huge thanks to Matthias, Tanja, and Heike for organising the event, for your creativity and for sharing your passion with us..! Thanks also to the event sponsors Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Suunto, Sterling Rope, Glorify and Chimpanzee for supporting the festival and helping to spread the ‘love’ for ice... Despite the lack of snow and ice, we certainly were given plenty of opportunity to 'swipe right'..!