Monday, 31 January 2011

Hot Ice in der Schweiz


A destination found in our Alpine Ice book, with a cluster of moderate routes in a pretty amphitheatre. The aspect was north, the altitude was high enough - so there were good prospects for it being in fat condition.

We were not disappointed with the thickness of the ice!
Being the weekend, there were a number of other climbers there too - all Swiss, and once again being Australian marked us out as something a little different. That we were also free camping in the (paid) parking lot - hey, it had a loo and was at the end of the valley, in no-one's way - perhaps also raised some eyebrows. But after we returned expensive gear to a group of new climbers - who had dropped it, then the next day left more behind on a belay - we're pretty sure our free parking was ignored.

These sunny days and very cold temperatures have not been the best for the ice, however. Much of it was brittle to climb on, or extremely wet. On the third day, we climbed the couloir on the right. After getting soaked on the first pitch, we were astounded to find such hard and cracked ice on the following two pitches. How can an icefall be dripping when it's always in the shade and it's -16 overnight?! And then why are the next two pitches so cold and hard?!

Jen leading ...
... and smiling, bad ice or no!

However, there was one particular highlight - Saule, the steepest line there, on the left hand side. Two sustained, steep pitches. The second pitch was lots of fun, as the easiest way to climb it was to step completely inside the goove, being careful how you swung your axes of course but having steps for the feet front, right and even behind. At once stage, you could even take seat against the ice behind you. Stepping back out onto the face was a little tricky, and made even more intimidating for Mark on lead as a crack in the ice became visible (don't worry, we know now it's solid enough) - but all good fun, of course and a pretty impressive lead for Mark.

Mark leading the first pitch ...
... and heading off up the second, just out of the groove.

Having exhausted the lines we wanted to climb, we didn't spend more than three days here. And then it was back to asking hard questions - where to next, eh?

(On a side note, did you know there was a World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this weekend? We didn't either ... but worked it out when we were stopped by the police for an "identity check" just outside the valley, before being stopped in queues of traffic ...)

Friday, 28 January 2011

Heading North

We started near Lake Como, with a typically delicious coffee. Perhaps we were the only tourists in town?

Winding roads up the Maloja Pass ...

... but with great views.

And then we were in Switzerland! Pretty, pristine and pricey.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Australia Day (Italian Style)

We started the day early, hoping to jump on this line - Cold Couloir. Every day we've seen it in the valley, it's been busy ... but it looks spectacular. 600m long, if you go all the way to the top, but most people only climb the first (and best) 7 pitches of WI4+. Not for us today, however! Two parties had woken before us and we didn't feel like waiting around behind them, catching all the ice they drop.

So Plan B: Chandelle Levure (WI4+, 180m).

Not as spectacular in the photo, perhaps - but it turned out to be a fantastic climb and we had a really great day out. A few steeper sections, broken up by easy ground; and although we weren't alone on the route (this is Cogne in high season, after all!), we were first and could keep ahead of the friendly Belgiums and French guys behind us.

Mark enjoying the third pitch ...
... and the fourth!

But the best part of the climb was saved until last ... "magnifique gros free-standing au centre d'un amphitheatre rocheux" - or a magnificent, big free-standing pillar in the center of a rocky amphitheatre. 

It was beautiful to look at and fun to climb. Steep and sustained with all variety of ice shapes. OK, one section was a bit wet - so we were climbing through a shower that froze when it hit you - and some of the ice was a bit thin and patchy, requiring lots of attention to climb.

All up, though - we got to the tree in the sun at the top and congratulated ourselves on a really great day out.

(On a side note ... we found out just as we'd rappelled off that someone had fallen on this last pitch, injuring their ankle. We re-climbed the first pitch of the route, to rig a rappel line for them, and met him and his friends as they came down. More shaken up than seriously hurt, but with a limp and obviously in a lot of pain. We hope he's doing OK and is back on the ice soon!)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A little Lillaz luxury ...

We'd been free-camping in Fred for a while, or parking at Cogne's official van parking space, and to be honest ... we needed a shower and to wash some clothes, and to regain some of our civilisation. Thinking we'd stay just one night somewhere, research revealed a good deal: four nights in a studio apartment in Lillaz for a very fair price.

The apartment - all 30 metres squared of it - has an abundance of space. We don't quite know what to do with it all.

It also has an oven. This means roast potatoes.

After a day out in the snow, is it possible for anything to taste better?!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


So we're in Cogne, Italy and the forecast is for cold but clear weather on the way - perfect, as there are more than enough climbs to keep us happy here for quite some time!

Day one didn't quite go as expected, however. We picked a great route in lovely condition, there was perfect weather and although there were a few parties ahead of us, they were friendly.
E Tutto Relativo

But ... first of all, we realised we were an ice screw down. We don't know where it wandered off to, but it's gone. Gear goes missing when you're using it all the time - it gets caught in one of the many layers of clothing, or isn't clipped properly to the harness, and it makes a bid for freedom. Annoying, as ice screws aren't cheap, but it happens - and we've found our fair share of gear here and there in the past, so the cycle continues.

Jen lead the first two pitches of easy and fun ice, and we sat under some the large pine trees with a cup of tea watching the Germans and then the British parties set off up the steep, free-standing ice pillar that is the third pitch. Mark lead this without a hitch, and we thought the day was going fabulously.

Self portrait to check my handiwork

Shortly after setting off, Jen drove her right axe too far into the ice. So she worked her way up to it, got balanced and tried to wriggle it up and down to get it free. It popped out unexpectly early, and flew back ... to hit Jen in the lip. Annoyingly it wasn't the hammer - it was the adze, so the force was a thin edge that sliced her lip open.

Blood and pain: Jen wasn't a happy camper!

She didn't fall off and continued up the pillar, feeling a little shaken up but convinced it wasn't too bad. Mark's face on seeing her lip made her think otherwise! However we did finish the route, with Mark leading the remaining ice pitch, and walked off around the back.

We thought that a bit of ice to numb the area (well, it was in abundance!), a butterfly clip and a medicinal hot chocolate would be enough - however, our fabulous expedition doctor (Dr Steph!) explained as the cut was through the edge of the lip, it would most likely need a stitch and we should get it checked out.

Thankfully, the Cogne doctors' surgery is open late one night of the week - Tuesdays! - and one stitch was quickly put in. Whilst the local doctor was very sweet and sympathetic, no anaesthetic meant this really hurt - more than the original injury, Jen's sure - and Jen felt pretty sheepish, sore and sorry for herself by the end of the day.

Perhaps its time for her to upgrade to ice tools without an adze or hammer - is this the excuse she's been looking for?!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

L'Ice 2011

Despite warm weather, we stuck around the Ecrins for the ice climbing festival from 13 - 16 January.

Here's their preview of what it would be like ...

Trailer Ice Climbing Ecrins 2011 qui au 14 16 janvier 2011
Caricato da tlcprod. - Guarda altri video di sport estremi.

... and it certainly lived up to it!

We got to try out some different gear from Petzl, met loads of new people, tried dry tooling (Mark apparently is a natural, Jen was just confused) and did some great ice climbing too. Sure, the crags were packed and there were many queues for routes, but the atmosphere was super friendly. The fact we're Australian certainly made us unique!

On the Saturday night, there was a "big air" ski and snowboard jumping competition, as well as a free-style dry tooling competition which was really inspirational. Figure-4's (hanging off a ice tool, and looping your leg over that arm to reach higher with the other arm) were made to look easy - so easy, they could be done whilst dancing or in a costume. Showing off, perhaps!? But great fun to watch.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Limo Nero ... some photographs

We set off up the valley in the sunshine. There'd been fresh snow, so it was slow going.
On the way we passed by many old, some abandoned, farmhouses made from the local stone: a fabulous location.
And ahead of us was Limo Nero - a long, darkly coloured icefall.
Up close, the fall was silver, rather than blue. Apparently it is a mineral in these mountains that gives the ice this colour, but which one we don't know.
Mark lead the way. Recent snow and then a freeze meant the fall had some crusty patches, for all its interesting colour.
After two very long pitches, it started to snow and the wind picked up. We were not far from the top but decided to head down - naturally, once this decision was made, the weather improved!

Monday, 10 January 2011


Climbed all the moderate routes that are in condition? Weather report showing temps into the early teens? Time to leave town and cross the border ... to Italy!

Ah, Italy - where the air is colder and the hot chocolate unbelievable.

Our destination was Val Varaita, home of the first icefall climbed in Italy - as well as many others, of course. We first parked up in Chianale, an extremely picturesque little town at the top of the valley, covered in snow. Even for a weekend, the place was very quiet, and although we saw other parties on both Saturday and Sunday, the ice was never crowded.

Both days we headed towards a nearby canyon to a small amphitheatre of icefalls called Martinet. There's one short section of ice to be climbed to get there, and once in the amphitheatre, there are at least five lines to choose from. These range from an easy II/2 on the far left, to the scary looking chandeliers of the (not yet properly formed) left branch of a II/4+. As we are most happy on 3+ and 4 terrain, it was perfect for us!

Looking back down into the amphitheatre ...

Mark leading ...

First up was the sustained right hand side of "Gola del Martinet - Original Route". Although it's been stepped out by many previous parties, its continuous, 50 metre-long arc of ice is stunning to look at and, with parts of the ice feeling a little hollow and the roaring water directly to your left, it feels like a challenge for the grade. (There's a further top pitch which was mostly water, and although it was climbed by parties on the days we were there, we decided it wasn't for us.)

... Jen rapping off

And then the next day, it was the first pitch of Bianca Sirena. Sadly the top got a little too thin, even on the right side, but that left us enough time for ...

 ... Cascata di sinistra! Mark lead this in one long pitch, using all the length in the rope (plus its capacity to stretch!) and with Jen almost having to start climbing. The top section was deceptively steep, and although a little damp on the abseil down, it was another fun climb.

But that's not all Chianale has to offer. With our gear soaked through, we decided to hang it out in the van and crank Fred's heating - then, still wearing our wet clothes and gloves, head to a bar to dry ourselves off. We found this place: Le Montagnard.

We walked through several doors into the warm and cozy cellar, and soon had our clothes spread out in front of the fire, a glass of red in front of us - and a basket of fresh bread, a large platter of local meats and four slabs of only handmade but homemade cheese. With the assistance of one of the other guests to translate (our Italian is marginal!), the owner explained that he had made all four of the cheeses himself. One was a rich and creamy "three milks" (cows, sheep and goats), and the other three were harder and crumblier, one with chilli, one with garlic and the other with juniper berries. Delicious. And amazingly enough, considering the massive portions, we finished it all ...

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A problem with gas

A standard VW California (like Fred) has the stove in the middle of the vehicle, behind the driver. This connects to a gas pipe that runs down the side of the van, to the bottle at the back.

As a consequence, you need to open the back door every time you stop for the night or drive off to turn the gas on or off from the bottle - unless you want a live channel of gas running down the side of the vehicle, which probably wouldn't be great in the event of an accident. Not that we have accidents. But this isn't exactly handy - and with the rather heavy Fiamma box on the back, it's even more unhandy.

Secondly, when it's cold, the gas bottle has a tendency to freeze up because it's tucked away, far from the heat of the cabin. This usually happens half way through cooking dinner. The bottle gets colder and colder, and the stream of gas gets thinner and thinner ... and your pasta won't boil anymore. We've tried insulating it, but in the Alps in winter, that only delays the problem. The only cure is to open the heavy back door, get the bottle out and warm it in front of the heater, then put it back in its box. Again, pretty unhandy.

Is it possible to connect the bottle straight to the stove, so the bottle is in the cabin of the van, where it's always quite warm? NO! Some bright spark at Westfalia has put different types of connections on each the end of the pipe in the van. Nice work, buddy.

Stove to pipe: press valve connection. Pipe to bottle: screw connection.

Is it possible to just get a connector from one to the other? A simple adapter? NO! Well, not in France. In France they have a different system of gas connections than they do in Germany, or the Netherlands. You thought Europe was one big happy union, didn't you?

We spent today visiting almost every single handware store in the greater Grenoble area. Each time a very helpful assistant would explain they didn't have the part - it being a German part - but perhaps this other place would. And off we'd drive.

Eventually we ended up at a camping / caravanning store (the name of which, ironically, we had had all along). Again, he couldn't help us ... but he gave us the name and address of his mechanic, who might be able to import a VW part into France for us. The mechanic also couldn't help us, but asked us to follow his young apprentice down the road, to yet another place that might perhaps have the appropriate bits.

By this stage, we had been driving between hardware stores for 5 hours. Yes really.

The apprentice took us to a building supplies shop, and walked in as if he owned the place. Before any business was discussed, he greeted and shook the hands of every staff member there. We felt quite informal, nodding and smiling and pretending we spoke French.

The issue was explained, again in French, and we were told that it would be really no problem. Easy, in fact. Particularly as he had one of the two connectors, the screw connection, in stock - success at last! We just had to cut the pipe from the stove, removing the press valve, and replacing it with a screw connection. Then it could go straight to the bottle, which we could put under the stove in the warmth of the cabin - hurrah!

But that would mean we could never again connect the stove to the pipe in the van ... Which one day, in summer, we might want to do. So, the man took the discarded press valve and its short section of hose, and added another screw connection onto it. Too easy. Well, when you have the right bits!

So we now have a short section of hose, with the press valve on one end and the screw connection on the other. An adapter at last - double hurrah!

... and the cost? Free. Nada, nothing, happy to be of service. Smiles and thanks all round. Brilliant. :)

Monday, 3 January 2011

2011: A New Year

Happy New Year!

For us, it has started slowly ... we are onto our third rest day, using time to sort photos, do laundry, eat and drink, watch a movie or two, and so on. A bit of a hangover on the 1st didn't help, after an incredible night out at the local party. We didn't have high hopes for the event, as it was organised by the tourist information centre, but there was hot wine and fireworks to start, then great food, cheap booze and a dancefloor filled with locals of all ages. Before midnight, the party hats, peashooters and whistles were handed out, and the countdown to midnight in French made it a New Year's Eve to remember.

But tomorrow ... tomorrow we'll shake off our 2011 lassitude, grab the ice tools from the drying room and hit those falls again. The fall nearby, which over Christmas was water, is now looking solid ... it's great to see the ice keep getting better and better!