Tuesday, February 25, 2014


from the last belay on "stella"
The large jet-black raven sat on the thin post just being. The tiny finch fluttered in the dwarf pine with its needles glistening with snow melt in the warm winter sun. "Look at my little friend!", my relaxed and happy wife said. She had found the perfect spot in the sun for a break to rest, read and have a snack while I did another lap on the Untersberg.

Skiing powder through the trees must approximate what a bird feels as they swoop and cut through the air picking their line between the tall evergreens.  What about the startling, "Swoosh" as a bird zooms by your hanging belay in a mist enshrouded rock wall?

Of course birds, and particularly ravens, can be quite mischievous. Like any lively character, they can be rascals but they never mean any harm.  But they know what's inside that Powerbar wrapper.

The French say that the black birds circling the peaks represent the souls of all the mountaineers, skiers, climbers, etc., that have not returned. This could be. I like to think of the birds differently.

"Hey, Dad! What do you want for your birthday?" us kids would ask. "I want a bird I can walk on a leash", he'd always reply. His joke meant that he was telling us he didn't really need or want anything. He had his wife and his healthy kids. What more do you really need anyway?

My Dad has now moved on and is not with us. It's been a few years now.  When I am in the mountains and see a bird, I seem to always think of him.

The one female starling I watched feeding her young from the last belay of "Stella Artice" in Cogne. A perfect climb, in perfect weather, in the perfect location. The bird that flew overhead as I made the approach to solo something on Mont Blanc du Tacul. A good omen. The little bird that is entertaining the love of my life as she sits contently in the sun. The bird dancing on the thermals, darting in and out of the swirling mist as my partner and I hope the weather holds for the next three pitches above. It will.

I think of birds as embodying the spirit of my father, He is smiling down, watching out for me and saying, " I don't need a leash now!".

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cogne Ice Trip, Days 5 & 6

Our fifth day in Cogne was a pre-planned rest day. The weather forecast was for heavy snow and we didn't want to be standing under an ice climb as the build up of new snow would eventually come pouring down as the inevitable avalanche would release.
Snowy main street in Cogne
We slept in on our fifth day, took our time at breakfast and did equipment maintenance. Crampons and tools were brought back to a useable state and optimal performance. I did a extended movement & mobility workout: knees, lower back, hips, and other problem areas needed attention after an extensive amount of skiing in the previous months and the past few days of ice climbing and carrying a heavy pack.
crux pitch of "tutto relativo" WI4/5 (nice free-standing column on the right),180m
On Day six we went into the Lillaz valley looking for a steep line that wasn't threatened by avalanches. I described the conditions in a previous post. Simply, the snow had settled quite quickly and the avalanche danger was surprising low.

After walking around looking for a steep line that was free, we ended up snow hiking for around two hours being frustrated that our first, second and third choices were already full of climbers. The hanging ice on steeper lines was warm and relatively soft - easy to climb but also dangerous to stand/climb under.

We settled on the climb "Tutto Relativo" and climbed the 3-4 pitches without event, just enjoying our last climb for this trip.

We ate our "farewell" dinner at the fantastic French bistro in the center of the village. After dinner we got back to the pension and shared what was left of the whiskey and reminisced about the climbing and our trip to a part of Europe that was actually in Winter conditions with plenty of snow and solid ice conditions.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cogne Ice Trip, Days 3 & 4

Day 3 in Cogne saw us making the longer approach in the Valnontey to the "Patri" sector ice falls. These climbs are well frequented and deservedly so. The bottom of the climb has a 45 meter bulge at around WI3+ before moving up a long snow coulior with an ice step. This brings you to the upper snow bowl which has two steep ice branches of two pitches each at WI4 and WI4+.
upper part, "patri de gauche" wi4/250m & "patri de droite" wi4+/220m
We had heard that over the previous weekend there were 40(!) climbers in the area. We were there on a Tuesday and there were around 5-6 rope teams. On the left hand side at the start of the main flow, an impressive 30 meter pillar had formed at around WI4+/5.
first pitch of "patri" on the right
After making the 90 minute and 300+ meters of elevation gain in the Valnontey, we waited our turn behind a French couple to start up the main fall. The weather was clear and cold after she following day's storm. The ice was somewhat brittle and crusty. It took a bit of care to insure good placements.
on one of the upper branches of "patri"
There were some bottle-necks and rope-crossing/standing under falling ice from other climbers, etc., that comes when inexperienced people are climbing a mid-grade waterfall. I tried to pick the steepest, most well-shelters line possible and time my climbing not to be under any other climbers and reach the belays when the team above was just ready to set off.

"Stella Artice" WI5 was on the program for day 4. This is the much-loved harder classic route in the Lillaz valley.
first two pitches of "stella article"
It was one of those absolutely perfect days on the ice: blue skies, high-pressure, cold temps. The ice was perfect and there were only 3 climbing teams dispersed throughout the 180 meter climb.
french climber ahead of us seconding the column on the crux pitch
The second pitch is the crux of the climb. A column forms for the first part of the pitch. There is a belay possibility just above the column after the ice eases back to the left on a tree with in-siutu cord and slings. You can also continue to the fixed stance further up, using almost all of a 60-meter rope, to get to the piton and sling belay/rappel on the left in the rock. Regardless, the first 12 meters of the pitch are 90 degrees with little overhanging curtains and steps. Very pumpy and demanding of the skill to read the ice line and use the structure of the ice to your advantage.
wolfgang coming up the first pitch 
There is a snow gully that leads to the last two ice pitches at the top of the climb. We got to enjoy a rarity while ice climbing - climbing in warm sun shine!
beginning of the third ice pitch, moving into the sun!
The rocks to the left and above the ice were glistening with droplets of water. The new snow from yesterday that had clung to the rocks was periodically sliding off. I watched a bird continually go into a crack between rocks feeding its newly born young. Only the second week of February and already winter was transforming into spring. At the final anchor, belaying Wolfgang up, I thought of what a perfect climb it had been and how fortunate I was to have been able to do it.
last rappel, capochinos?
We rappelled off, packed up, and leisurely walked out to the parking lot. It had been Wolfgang's first WI5 route. He had climbed the crux pitch well and led the third ice pitch. Clearly a bit of an ice milestone for him. Another thing to add to the experience of a great climbing day.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cogne Connditions Update

All the photos are from some of the harder lines in the Lillaz valley in Cogne on February 14, 2014. There were a lot of climbers on the hard routes despite the 20-40 cm of snow the day before. The avalanche danger was much lower that expected because of the influence of a föhn weather system. Thursday, 13th February ended with an in-between brief high pressure system with strong winds at around 22:00. The winds moved and deposited the snow in the small bowls, ravines and slopes in and under the ice falls. It beneficially cleaned the snow off of the rock faces and ice. On the negative side, the warm, damp air noticeably thined out the hanging ice, curtains and columns. Water was running on all the difficult climbs. The ice was relatively soft, even first thing in the morning.
"gelati", M8, 70m

ice on left upper part "inachevee conception" WI5+/M6, middle & right, "empire strikes back" &  "jedi master", M10-11

french climber seconding "hard ice direct", WI6
left "pattinaggio artistico" (upper part WI3/180m) direct mixed line to get to the easy ice is M7+, right  full view of "hard ice in the rock" WI4/300m with the direct column below

lower part of "pattinaggio artistic direct" in M7+ conditions
By far the biggest attraction at the moment in Cogne is the direct column of "Hard Ice in the Rock". I have a feeling that all the French ice climbers in Chamonix have gotten word that it has formed and are coming over to get their WI6 route ticked-off.

There were 4-5 French rope teams on "Hard Ice" which made it impossible for me to safely get on. It was a similar story with "Inachevee Conception". With so much hanging ice in these types of routes the danger of falling ice is just too great.

Other, less popular routes that have formed, and are very attractive because there are fewer climbers vying for the ascent. There was one rope team working out the moves on "Gelati". Further in the vally, past "Stella Artice" and the roofs of "Inacevee Conception", the routes "A la memoire du bouquet in" WI5+/100m is in top condition (no one on it on Friday) and  so is "Tchao Felix" WI5+, A1, X/300m. Because of the massiveness of the lower hanging ice, I think the climb  is doable without the A1 move. There was a British couple working out the climb.

There was also one rope team on the climb, "Riacamo" WI5+/100m which is between "Gelati" and "Hard Ice". "Riacamo" is thin but looks climbable and stable, but difficult to protect.
smeary, thin, delicate ice of "riacamo", looks harder than WI5+
Many of these routes were not formed when I was in Cogne in the 2013 season around the same time. Saturday, 15th February was overcast with a somewhat damp air mass but colder temps of -1 at 10:00 in the morning. Friday night was clear, but relatively warm. Because of the warm air mass and a bit of sun on Friday, the new snow has rapidly settled and is well bonded. The heavy föhn of Friday has thankfully lessened too. The ice on the harder climbs could use a bit of a growth/building phase, but all-in-all is in good shape.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cogne Ice Trip, Day 2

wolfgang coming over the bulge just before the first belay on "cascata de lillaz"
Sunday came to a close with clear skies. When we walked home after dinner, the moon was out and there were a few stars in the heavens. On Monday morning, we awoke to steady snow fall with 10-15 cm already on the ground around our pension at 1650 meters. It was forecast to snow throughout the day.

Our plan for the day was to climbed the popular classic route, "Stella Artice", WI5/180m. We were happy to see on the approach that there was only one rope team just starting the first pitch. There would be enough room for us to follow, timing it so that there wouldn't be any problem with falling ice from the two above us.

As we were gearing up sheltered by a small rock outcrop, a small spin drift avalanche came down. No big deal, due to the lay of the ice fall I felt we would be okay even with the continuing snow. I was soon proven wrong. A large avalanche released above and came down with a characteristic roar. The air-blown cloud of snow dust preceding the main flow spread out and filled all the crevasses of our clothing and material. The rope team on the first pitch was okay and made a fast retreat and were soon standing next to us. It was an Austrian and German and the Austrian guy was a friend of mine from the Gastein Valley. There is no ice there, so why not come to Cogne?

We both spoke of how we wrongly thought the climb would be protected from avalanches. Another slide released. This would probably continue through out the day as the new snow loaded the slopes that rose 1000 meters above the base of the fall.

Plan "B" was to climb further right a bit deeper in the valley. That plan was cancelled with the second big slide. Our next idea was to head out of the valley to the climb "Tutto Relativo", WI4/200m. We backed out of the valley and walked up the 100 meter slope to the base of the climb. There were 2 or 3 parties already underway. We put our climbing gear on and were just about ready to start when a group of four snow-covered French climbers came down and explained that a rather large avalanche had come down over the fall. Well, time for another alternative? or should we just head to the cafe for a capochino?

We left our crampons on and harnesses on and went to the valley entrance to climb "Cascata de Lillaz", direct WI4/250m. There would only be the danger of too many inexperienced climbers crowding the easily accessible climb.
second to last pitch, "cascara de lillaz"
We got in line to start the climb and passed everyone as we moved simultaneously with the rope through the walking sections of the climb. We tried to keep the climb interesting by looking for the steepest ice steps possible. We were one of the few rope teams to climb the full length of the fall that day to complete a long day of trying to find something that wasn't too risky to climb.
topping out after 250 meters of "cascara de lillaz"

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cogne (Aosta Valley) Conditions

snow, snow and more snow in cogne
 There’s a lot of snow in Cogne, a whole lot of snow. 1.5-2 meters when we arrived on Saturday, 08. February. It snowed on Monday and it is now snowing again, today, Thursday, 13. February. By tomorrow morning there will be an additional 20-40 cm. That will bring the total snow to well over 2 meters.

Tuesday and Wednesday, 11. & 12. February were cold and sunny. Yesterday, got pretty warm in the sun, but the high temperature was still only -5.

There was an avalanche cycle that started on the the west-facing ice falls with the accumulation of new snow on monday. There were very large, and multiple, fresh snow slides over the climbs in the “Cold Couloir” - “Stella Artice” - “Tutto Relativo” sectors. The avalanche cycle continued on the east-facing climbs on Tuesday. The sun warmed up the upper snow slopes above “Lauson” - “Thoule” - “Sogno di Patagonia” - “Erfaulet”, in the Valnontey and there were numerous avalanches that we saw from across the valley as we were climbing in the “Patri” sector. There were no parties climbing across the valley, most likely because the ice conditions in most of the climbs on the east side of Valnontey are not well formed and in optimal shape.

In general the ice conditions on the west-facing aspects are in very good conditions. There are many short reports in the climbing book and Lacone’s bar, and on their webpage: http://www.iceclimbingcogne.com. Most of the entries are from “Cascata Lillaz”, “Tuborg” and “Candelabro del Coyote”, the popular, standard climbs. The easy to mid-level climbs at WI3 to WI4+ have all been repeatably climbed and have steps and hooks throughout. Both in the Lillaz valley and in Valnontey. There is also a lot of snow between the steeper ice sections. The easy couloir-type climbs are more or less snow climbs. 
"cold couloir", 600 meter wall full of snow
There are a number of hard to extremely demanding lines that are in good to very good shape. In Lillaz valley “Lau Bij” WI5-WI5+/6 has formed with three free-standing columns. “Pattinaggio Artistico Direct” WI5+ has not formed, and I do not think it will this season, but the mixed variation from Stevie Haston, “X Files” M10 has two nice ice blobs and looks quite nice - there were some climbers hanging on it yesterday. Right next to “X Files” is “Hard Ice in the Rock”, the direct variation, “Hard Ice Direct” WI6 is well formed. It was also climbed yesterday and I would love to be able to get on it. 
first two pitches of "stella article"
Further along in the valley, another one of Haston’s climbs, “Gelati” M8/WI 5+/6 looks great. “Stella Artice” WI5 is well formed and has been climbed often. “Inachevee Conception” WI5+/M5+/6 is all ice this season and the transition to the ice in the second rope length id to a well bounded column and not a hanging dagger. The signature hard mixed routes of the valley, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Jedi Master” have a lot of ice in them, but at M10-M11 are something that I will not be getting on just yet.

In Valnontey, the classic hard ice route of Cogne, “Repentance Super” WI5+/6 is very well formed and has had a number of repeats. At the head of the Valnontey, also west-facing, “Doccia Fredda” and “Sentinel Ice”, both at WI5, have formed. Across the valley the ice looks a bit rotten in the harder climbs lining the first two-thirds of the valley. “Erfaulet” WI5 is completely full of snow. “Di Fronte al Tradimento” WI5 and the “Colonnato Centrale” are standing and look okay, maybe a bit harder because of the ice conditions. However, the snow slopes above are problematic and potentially dangerous.

Of course, I haven’t seen or climbed everything here in the past week. I think that the conditions will remain good to very good. With luck the weather will be sunny during the day with high pressure that will convert all the snow into a water source to feed the ice and bring clear skies with cold night-time temperatures. If this pattern plays out than the climbing will be good well into March.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cogne Ice Trip, Day 1

one guy on top rope, one shaky leader, one guy out of the picture rappelling down - busy, busy, busy!
Our first climbing day in Cogne coincided with a sunny Sunday with agreeable temperatures of -2 to -4 for the highs. Needless to say, we weren't alone. As there are many places in Europe, particularly north of the Alps, that are "ice starved", Cogne is one of the few places where there is enough ice.

On Saturday Wolfgang and I made the long drive from Salzburg over the Brenner pass, into South Tyrol, took a right turn north of Verona, went past Milan and finally entered the Aosta valley. Turning left 60 kilometres before Courmayeur with climbed to 1600 meters and reached the village of Cogne after more than eight hours on the road.

We got into our friends simple pension and were immediately impressed with the amount of snow. Giorgio said he's shovelled, "seven tons of snow so far this winter, it just keeps snowing". We settled in and then walked into the village under light snow and frosty temps. Before a dinner of pizza, we checked out the weather, snow and avalanche bulletins posted at the guide's office - avi level 3-4,  1.5 meters of snow, 10cm of fresh snow expected, a short in-between high-pressure system with gusting winds and cold temperatures.

Sunday dawned and we went to the end of the valley, heading right into the vally at the village of Lillaz. We stayed on the valley's right side and went in search of a moderate climb with the opportunity to get an impression of the ice and snow conditions.  We walked past some of the popular classic climbs and saw that there were a lot of ice climbers underway. It seemed as if there were 3-4 rope teams at all the falls.

We ended up choosing a climb that didn't seem too crowded and went at it. The other rope teams were either with French guides or were really inexperienced. A young Swiss couple laboriously made their way up snow-covered WI3 terrain below us while a British pair nervously got on the WI4 pillar that was climbed out with steps and hooks and placed a screw every 1.5 meters in between telling the belayer, "watch me here". Not the most relaxing atmosphere for a warm up climb.

We finished and rapped-off after passing all the parties and not allowing ourselves to get literately and fugitively tangled up with them on the descent.

Before going into the village for afternoon coffees, we walked a bit around to check out climbs over the next days. There are some good conditions and some hard routes have formed that were not formed last season.