Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Valmiana (WI3), Cogne

Our initial plan had been to climb a WI3+ called Thoule but we found ourselves behind a group of six on the trail who were all intent on climbing the same route. We quickly aborted plans and headed further up the Valnontey valley with no real back-up objective. The prominent icefall on the first pitch of Valmiana soon caught our eye though.

The route
We broke the trail to the base of a route for the third time this trip. The deep snow was no less unconsolidated and we progressed at a rate of about half mile/hour. Every foot was hard work. Anna admirably insisted on breaking the trail for for the first part despite the depth of soft snow being half her height at times. Midway between the valley path and the route was a prominent step, above which the snow underfoot suddenly became firm with the exception of the top foot of powder. It became apparent that we were standing on top of a huge avalanche field, which extended all the way to the base of the climb. Presumably it had slid from much higher up the hillside during the previous week when it was particularly warm spell. With firm snow underfoot we doubled our pace.

Swimming uphill
By the time we had reached the climb it was already 10.45am - over two hours since leaving Valnontey. The skies were blue and sun flooded the initial icefall making it quickly wet. The pitch was hard for the grade with short, steep steps broken up by soft snowy ice that needed to be stripped to find better placements. My climbing at Dover had prepared my patience for finding good holds and fortunately this time my belayer was out of the firing line of raining debris. Often the best placements were in the gaps between chandeliers on the steep steps. Easy snow presented above the icefall and so after a short climb and cleared some snow and made an ice screwed belay.

First (crux) pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Anna led next pitch up a short step that was thin on ice. She managed to kick a football sized hole through its surface, behind which was water running like a tap.

The second pitch
Hollow ice
More easy ground led to another step, this time bigger but still thin. Maybe two inches thick. By this point on the trip I was used to climbing façades of thin ice to the sound of running water. Another easy snow slope led to a bigger icefall. 'Safe'... 'On belay'... A deer casually passed me by whilst Anna swung her axes out-of-sight.
Third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
It was our fourth day's consecutive climbing and Anna was looking exhausted. She was still keen to lead the next pitch in spite of it being harder than anything she had led previously. She hit mental overload at half-height and rested with her head on the ice in silence. She didn't look to be enjoying herself. Maybe the last climb of the trip I thought. We could do tourist stuff for the remainder of our time. Slowly she progressed higher, lacing the ice with screws as she went. By the time I joined her at the belay above she was smiling ear-to-ear and raving about how much she had enjoyed the pitch!

Fourth pitch
An easy but aesthetic final pitch put the icing on the cake of an excellent route, albeit in thin condition. The guidebook had stated the climb to be 110m but in reality it was more like 250m.

Final (fifth) pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Top of the final pitch
We abseiled back down the top pitch before veering to the right of the ice to continue to descent off fixed anchors in the trees. We bounded easily back down the deep snow and back at the cross-country piste stripped ourselves of climbing gear. Our crampons were so frozen-up that we couldn't loosen the hitches on our straps. Eventually I needed Anna's help to remove one of mine. It was another walk back after dusk but we managed it in the fraction of the time compared to reverse.

The descent (down the fourth pitch)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Cascades de Lillaz (WI3), Cogne

We were feeling a little tired after yesterday's long approach and late finish so opted for Cascades de Lillaz today. We were first on the route - something we were keen to achieve after seeing five pairs of climbers in the vicinity of the initial pitch two days ago. As with yesterday there were sections of thin ice and sections with running water below but overall the ice consistency was much improved. Maybe due to the route having been better swept clean of the fresh dump of snow, unlike routes further afield.

We split the first pitch into two halves. Water was pouring down the centre-middle-left of the icefall so we opted to climb the right side, which involved a steep curtain of ice to a bolted belay to right of the main cascade.

First pitch
The right-hand side of the upper part of the icefall consisted of transparent chandelier ice. It looked as though it would fracture easily so I traversed slightly left towards the centre where tiny snow ledges were visible and the ice looked more dense. Unsurprisingly the ice was a little hooked and stepped, however the recent freeze-thaw temperatures had limited this. Water ran beneath the ice but I could confidently trust my axe placements and generally the ice was thick enough for screws.

Traversing left from the belay
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
A short walk up the gorge brought us to the second pitch, beneath which a large pool of water had formed. Water poured down the base of the pitch where a metre and a half of bare rock had been exposed. Fortunately it was just possible to skirt the pool on its right then gain the easy angled ice with a couple of high hooks.

The second pitch
The remainder of the pitches offered pleasant, easy climbing with similar ice conditions to previous. The strolls up the gorge between the sections of waterfall heightened the enjoyable experience, and it was as though we were slowly climbing up a giant wedding cake. We third icefall was busy due to the presence of a climbing school but we were able to climb ice on the left. The fourth pitch was often too thin for ice screws but the climbing was easy. We reached the top of the route before 1pm, which left plenty of time to relax and drink coffee, and contemplate Anna's first leading on ice (maybe tomorrow). 

Top of the third pitch
Top of the fourth pitch

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Gran Val, Valnontey (WI3), Cogne

It had been a hard slog through deep powder snow and over boulders to the bottom of the route but Gran Val in the Valnontey Valley looked an excellent objective for Anna's first day of water ice. The second and third pitches looked particularly enticing with the latter's ice couloir looking characteristically 'Scottish'.

Deep snow
The route
The first pitch was very easy apart from more deep snow wading to reach an ice screw belay on the right. There was probably a bolt belay somewhere but it was lost beneath the snow.

The second pitch provided some enjoyable climbing up the impressive icefall but the ice quality was inconsistent. What's more the temperatures felt above freezing and there was water running beneath the ice in multiple locations. Many of my axe placements were soft and sometimes unreliable. Often a top layer of rotten ice needed to be stripped from beneath the snow coverage to find more reliable placements. My mono-points felt equally insecure but most of the time I was able to kick in shallow steps. I one occasion my foot placement ripped but it was a minor event. I trended left towards the centre at half height but needed to back off due to the ice being unjustifiably thin with running water below. I swept in at a higher point where the ice was thicker. Another ice screw belay with the sound of running water in close proximity.

Second pitch
(Photo credit: Anna Kennedy)
The third pitch ice formations reminded me of the main pitch of Creag Meagaidh's The Wand. It was a steady angled 70 degree attractive ice gully hemmed in by rock walls. Again the ice was inconsistent and occasionally thin, which made the climbing feel harder than it would have been otherwise. Rotten blocks of ice rained down on Anna but it was the inevitability of finding reliable placements. Then throw in into the mix some hot aches at half height that took a woozy five minutes to pass.

Third pitch
(Photo credit: Anna Kennedy)
We didn't bother with the final pitch, which looked very easy and was buried in deep soft snow. We rapped off the single bolt at the top of the pitch, which looked an infinitely better option than trusting an abalakov thread. Anna threw the ropes back down the pitch. One landed in a drain of water but she managed better clearance on second attempt. We abseiled off bolts down the second pitch, followed by an abalakov thread abseil down the first pitch. It was 16.40 and snowing by the time we reached our bags, and largely dark by the time we reached the car. We had earned our cheap bottle of fizzy red wine once back at the apartment. 

Anna Ab'ing down the second pitch

Sunday, 8 December 2013

White Goods

With an ice climbing trip to Cogne a matter of weeks away Anna and I drove to White Goods for the weekend in order to get some mileage with the sharp bits. My closest experience to dry tooling until now has been the chalk routes at Saltdean and the indoor routes at Swiss Cottage. The style of chalk is not strictly the same as conventional dry tooling venues so I was unsure what grade I was capable of climbing. I wanted to gently ease into the grades for this reason and also offer a pleasant introduction for Anna, for whom this was her first time climbing anything harder than Scottish II. A massive step-up for her.

We warmed up on Cenopath Corner (M4), which was most memorable for the amount of mud at half height. Then Adams (M5), which was far more pleasant and maybe slightly easier due to it being a cleaner route.

Cenopath Corner (M4)
Things got more interesting with Left Wall (M5+), which involved some steep, exhilarating moves through overhung roofs near the base of the climb. I needed to pause momentarily to rest my tired arms above them and refocus for the final wall. It was a lot less steep but I had a lot less gas by this point. I climbed up and right towards the final bolt. I hooked my left axe on a shallow ledge and reached across to clip the bolt at full stretch. Nervously I drew two metres of rope slack and clipped the quickdraw with one eye half on my left axe. Gripped! Then with seemingly all the hard moves completed my axes popped and I fell a short distance onto the last bolt. Ahhhhhhh!! I was devastated given all the hard work put in. My second attempt on top-rope was smooth all the way to the top. With the sequence through the overhangs now clear I think I would lead this clean and efficiently next time without problem.

Left Wall (M5+)
I was keen to push the grade a little more and so finished the day by top-roping Apple (M7), which was excellent. Thin crack placements off the ground gave way to horizontal breaks and a steep final wall on small but positive crack placements. It felt surprisingly steady.

Watching Anna lead Adams in the afternoon was arguably the highlight of the day though. On first attempt her axe dislodged a short distance above the first bolt and she finished up a foot from the ground on a taught rope. Without a word she started the route again unperturbed. This time she found a better axe placement slightly higher to the previous. With patience she hooked her way to the lower-off. From Scottish II to M5 is a mighty leap!

Anna on Adams (M5)
After comfortably climbing M7 on top-rope on Saturday, I was feeling full of confidence to try some harder stuff on lead. Plus there was every incentive to do so, given the safe bolting arrangement. Agent Orange (M6+) looked a suitable challenge although the top half looked thin. I hooked and torqued my way up the initial crack only for my axes to be spat from the ledge at mid-height. Luckily a scrapping desperate hook stuck and I was able to re-established myself. The upper half of the route appeared to offer little in the way of features. After much searching around I eventually latched on to a small hidden hook at full reach and then found another higher up close to the lower-off.

Agent Orange (M6+)
The next route Monoculture (M5+/6) was arguably the finest route of the weekend. It followed a gradual rising left traverse up a wall, around an arête, and above a roof with lots of exposure. I had foolishly believed that the fourth bolt marked the top of the route but this was only halfway in reality. Some neighbouring climbers were on hand to direct me to the next bolt beyond the arête and then to the lower-off, which was hidden until at close quarters.

Starting up Monoculture (M5+/6)
Anna on Monoculture (M5+/6)
With time for one more route I was keen to try an M7 on lead. 'And Pears', to the right of Apple, looked the ideal candidate as the styles looked similar. The former had an apparently ridiculous start beneath a roof. With axes at full reach I hooked onto the roof, progressed my feet higher onto a shelf and then moved my axes up into a crack. Then the physical tussle began. Little was on offer for the feet a good but my axes were bomber. A good stiff pull-up over the roof was what was required. Then higher axe placements in the crack... second bolt clipped... and relax. The top of the route was comparatively easy. My first M7 onsight and a fitting way to round off a great weekend. And maybe still with headroom for the next visit? These were mild achievements compared to Ramon's The Upsetter of course.

Above the roof