Cogne Ice Climbing Trip - Part 1

Cogne Ice Climbing

By Ramon Marin

Cogne Dobbiaco part 1, exploring Italy's Dolomites in search of adventure.

This week I was called the “epitome of dedication”. I think they might be right. Kris and I have been training for a specific goal this winter, our first proper M11. I’ve climbed M11 just last week, but that was drytooling in North Wales, it doesn’t really count as proper mixed climbing. So Kris suggested the benchmark route for the grade, Mission Impossible, a classic testpiece put up by Bubu Bole and famously repeated by Stevie Haston wearing only underpants. To add to the spice, it’s protected only by old pegs.

So we made our trek to Valsavarenche, in the Italian Alps, Kris from his native Denmark and I from London. After an epic journey of missing connecting flights, closed car-rental offices and a missing photographer due to frostbite, we finally made it to our base in Aosta. The morning after we raced to our project deep in the Gran Paradiso valley, only to find it very lean in ice conditions. We walked right underneath it and what we feared most was confirmed, the route was not climbable. Disappointment took over. But life is too short to be sorry for yourself, so we made the walk across the valley to the world-famous Haston Cave’s, just to find it really uninspiring. So the comp boots stayed warm in our packs and we decided to go and scope out the multi-pitch mixed test pieces in Cogne. What we had in mind was X-files M10, Empire Strikes back M9 and Jedi Master M10+.

In the Lillaz Valley things looked a lot more frozen than in Valsaverenche, and as soon as we approach Lillaz village I could see a beautiful line of ice dripping down two free-hanging pillars over a roof. God, I wet my pants. We walked over and yes indeed it was X-files and it was looking gorgeous. Not to jump the gun, we kept walking to check Empire and Jedi, which also looked good. The only one concern we had was that the rock looked atrocious and it was protected by pegs and trad gear, a really bad combination. Kris, being a geologist, pointed out that the roofs where the routes are, existed because of a crushed vein of eroded rock, hence the drainage of the water (i.e. ice) and it would be very loose rock. Me being the born optimist, I said we should go up and have a go at it anyways. But not that day as it was getting late. So we ran up a two pitch Wi4+ called Cold Couloir, which was a sweet intro to swinging axes for the first time this season.

Ice climber high up on a hard ice climb
Ramon on the first pitch of X-files.

Next day, bright and early we headed up to X-files, armed with cams, pegs and high hopes. I led the first pitch which turned out to be a lot tastier than I expected. Once the belay set up under the threatening daggers, I started to have a look around for the mixed lines up the roof. Things weren’t looking good. Rotten gear on rotten rock, ummmm. I brought Kris up to the belay to see if his geology knowledge would inspire me more confidence. The look on his face at the sight above was not reassuring. We decided to try a line furthest to the right where we could see some bolts, we imagined that it was a route called “Twin Towers” and given M9. So I put on my comp boots and went to have a look. Everything I was pulling on was loose or detached in some sort of way. I got up to the first bolt and when I was torquing behind a detached flake and saw I had to launch for a broken wedged block and then stein-pull up to yet-another loose flake. I thought sod this, it’s not worth it, and for me to say this… So we bailed off what is the biggest pile of choss south of Brighton.

The thing with these routes is that you don’t even know if they have been repeated. When Haston put them up, there were a few repeats straight after by Scott Muir I think. But that was yonks ago, and god knows what happen to the gear or what holds have come off. This mixed-climbing game is so obscure that finding the right current beta is like gold-dust.

Anyways, we left with the tails between our legs and decided to do the hardest ice route in the area instead, Repentance Super, Wi6. I knew it had been done this season and that the top pillar was formed so it was 200mts and 5 pitches long. We went and did a recce walk in that same day so we would know exactly where we were going the morning after. I’m glad we did because we got the wrong way 3 times, and that was in bright daylight, imagine at 6am in the dark!

So alarms set at 5.30am, breakfast was had in the car driving up the valley and a smooth walk-in (except my screaming legs!) We were the first team up in the route, and then the whole thing turned into a sunday market. But we ignored the people who decided to put the safety in the line of falling ice of a badly formed Wi6. We dispatched the route with no problems and it was a true joy to top out in the Money Plateau with the sun beaming in your face. I was enjoying myself so much that whilst on lead on the top pillar I took the camera out and took a few snaps of myself. We had a great day and I was happy, worth all the hassle and pennies.

But! We still have 5 days to go, and no M11’s around. So what do we do?......

Looking down an icefall from a belay while Ice climbing
Looking way down from the top pillar of Repentance

5 days to go, and no M11’s around… So what do we do? Change clothes, get the espresso maker going in the car park and start driving to the Dolomites in search of some hard mixed climbing. I only managed to do about 4hrs drive, and I thought it was good going after having woken up at 5.30am, climbed 200mts of Wi6 and walk in and out for about 2hrs, all in the same day! We found a roadside hotel in Verona and called it a day.

Our destination was an obscure little mixed crag in Dobbiaco, South Tyrol, Italy. Apparently it packed a few quality routes put up by local legend Kurt Astner, and telling by the photo-topo, it did look promising indeed. We drove from Verona into the Dolomites and I had a jolly old time as I remembered my weekends spend in these mountains 10 years ago when I lived here. The irony is that I was still driving a Fiat Panda now like in the old days, haven’t I moved on in my career to afford something better? Apparently not. So we took the turn off and drove down the Val de Landro and there she was, a beautiful cave with ice daggers and curtains hanging all over it, bingo! We walked up it and readily got geared up and ran up an M9 called “Silent Memories”. Feeling tired from the drive and “Repentance”, we called it a active rest day and drove back to Dobbiaco to find the youth hostel.

Topping out Fly in the wind, M10+

We were using as a reference an article written by Scott Muir, who paid a visit to the crag in 2005 to try and repeat the hard lines. In that article he rated “Fly in the wind” M10+, “Mix Isch Fix, another M10+, and “La via e bella” M11. But rather than grades, we choose the line that was most inspiring to start getting psyched, and that was “Fly in the wind”. Starts on a ice pillar, up some ice slabs and then straight for a horizontal roof to join the hanging curtain, pure awesomeness. So I went up first, working out the moves all the way to the top. Then Kris had a go, also working the moves. On my next go I thought I might as well give it everything, so after a lot of embarrassing power-screaming I managed to swing on the ice-curtain and bagged the route. Kris took another couple of attempts but also successfully topped out.

The goal for this trip was to climb our proper first M11 after all, so we decided that next we ought to have a go at “La via e bella”. We studied the topo and we couldn’t tell where exactly the route went. I went up to have a look and I couldn’t figure out exactly what line of bolts it was, but one thing was for sure whatever option it was, it didn’t touch ice. We didn’t come here for drytooling! It made us think that the more hard mixed climbing we do, the more apparent it is that above a certain grade, there’s no ice involved, as ice is considered the “rest”. So therefore can’t be any harder than a certain grade, and that seems to be around M10+.

Having seen local legend Kurt Astner the previous day cruising up “Mix isch fix”, we decided that was the best-looking line left to do. Scott Muir also said in his article that it was a “hard” M10+ since some holds broke since the first ascents. Once I started working the route, it became apparent that it was a total sandbag and nails for an M10+. Nonetheless, I was really psyched for the line, and so I started putting the hard work into figuring out the moves. The route starts on rock, then on to icy cracks and then onto a free-hanging ice dagger, where you can rest. From here it is all systems go, but a lot of the holds are iced-up cracks, but on a horizontal roof and figure-of-4 fest all the way. Over two days, I had 5 attempts, the most I’ve spent on a mixed or drytooling route recently; it definitely felt harder than M10+. Even if feeling a bit deflated that I wasn’t gonna be able to claim the M11 grade, I still gave it all and sent the route.

With this ascent, I realised that sport mixed climbing is such an obscure discipline that there are not enough people repeating the routes to arrive at a consensus on grades. So, despite coming home without the trophy, it’s been a great trip fully packed with challenge and adventure.

Enjoying the steep ground.

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