Giro dell’Etna

Its impossible to deny that Mount Etna is fascinating – the most active volcano in the world, its impact on the local landscape and history of Sicily cannot be ignored. Surrounding the volcano the landscape is covered in smaller vents, plateaus of lava and rock formations from centuries of eruptions.

It is however incredibly touristy.

At Etna South, the southerly main active crater, there is a cable car and chalets reminiscent of a ski centre. It is indeed a popular ski area in winter, but in summer you must be guided to the summit on foot or by vehicle.

As two mountaineers the prospect of being guided up a large dome of ash and lava didn’t appeal to us. Thankfully there are alternatives and hiring bikes turned out to be the perfect day out.

All around the Etna national park there are trails, both hiking and mountain biking which are well marked and available on the national park map. As it was, the company we hired the bikes – Etna bike tours – from gave us a pre-loaded GPS for the main trail – the Giro dell’Etna. Including the descent back to the rental place in Milo the total loop would be 55km.

The Trail starts just below Etna South, so we were dropped off with our bikes and GPS on a gloriously sunny day.

The start of the Pista Altomontana track

The first section of the route is a relatively easy contouring of the volcano on the western side as you follow the Pista Altomontana in and out of the woodland as it heads north past mountain huts. There’s some uphill and some downs but nothing too difficult.

The view inland was fantastic.

Despite the woodland, the landscape on the west of Etna is quite barren as the route crosses the 1843 lava fields, with little growing in them. We passed lava channels and caves until the trail turns eastwards as it heads around the north of Etna.

Here the lava fields from the 1614-24 eruptions are even more barren with not even a bit of grass growing in them and the trail becomes single track, rocky and a bit more technical. A few steps on razor sharp lava was enough to make me a bit worried, even with huge 29″ tyres.

From here the route starts to climb upwards as it heads up to Rifugio Santa Maria and it heads into the pine woodland – which, after the baking sunshine provided a welcome break from the heat. The trail through the pine woods eventually lead to a road at a cafe. We’d been advised that it was worth the uphill ride on the road to the second cafe before having a break. It definitely was.

The second Refugio better catered for bikers and had loads of outdoor seating in the woodland. It also had details of the local trail routes being developed by mountain bikers locally. The woods on the northern and eastern side of Etna definitely have potential for some great technical trails to be developed.

From here, now on the east, we had about 10km uphill on the road before we zipped downhill and eventually into the woods again – following trails.

The descent back to the town of Milo was some of the best downhill tracks I’ve done – not technically and while they weren’t swoopy narrow single tracks, they were definitely fast and endless. Great fun!

If you’re looking for an alternative to joining the hoard up to the summit crater then I’d highly recommend hiring bikes. I think we saw more of the volcano on our tour, learnt more about the different lava fields that we crossed (there’s lots of information signs) and had a much more fun adventure.

Hiking Monte Inici

Having managed to escape the UK for only a week this year and finding ourselves in Sicily for sport climbing and sunshine, I was surprised that there wasn’t more information on hiking in the mountains given that Sicily is quite mountainous. In fact the only map I could find was of the Etna region.

Spending a few days in Castellamare del Golfo we were making the most of the beaches and the sport climbing in nearby San Vito. Castellamare del Golfo is busy little fishing town which has a typical touristy beach and restaurants. Its is also overshadowed by Mont Inici.

Despite the dominance of the mountain on the town it seemed few people walked up there, with no maps available and very unloved footpaths and trails. There were however intermittent signposts at junctions making it possible to see that once it had been a popular area to hike.

So, armed with digital mapping (which turned out to be pretty accurate on all our walks in Sicily) we set off on the tracks from the view point above the town.

While Monte Inici stands at 1060m and looks like an imposing mountain, its actually covered in wide tracks which are suitable for mountain biking as well as hiking. This does mean that Sicilians also drive off-road vehicles to the summit to forage for fungi and other delights.

From Castellamare the track zigzags endlessly up the steep hillside and heads into the pine woodland.

From here the path splits and we headed East towards Pizzo Stagnone and round to the East side of the hill before more zig zags upwards. The view across the other side of the mountain was fantastic.

As we reached the col between Monte Inici and Pizzo Delle Niviere we entered dense deciduous woodland and we met a German hiker who warned us about large pigs.

Wondering about if he meant wild boar and how dangerous they might be, we continued on to the rather disappointing summit of Monte Inici – and its radio masts. Ok not the summit trig point we were hoping for but worth it for the view.

Since we were here we walked across to the slightly more impressive (definitely only slightly) of Pizzo Delle Niviere. At least this had a trig point of sorts.

Sicilian Trig pillars leave a lot to be desired!

After a bit of debate we decided to make the walk a circuit and descended westwards before contouring round to reach the path across Pizzo Crastone and then northwards to Pizzo del Dottore.

On the descent from the summit we met 2 vehicles of Sicilians collecting mushrooms who also warned us of wild pigs.

At this point the endless switchbacks became a bit tedious in the scorching sunshine and we were pleased to finally reach the descent path on the Northside down to the road.

This section was the only bit that was on narrow paths, and these were a bit overgrown and like wading through the undergrowth and fallen trees, but even then relatively easy to navigate.

We never did see the wild boars/pigs, but I did find porcupine spines and this praying mantis.

The whole circuit turned out to be 26km so a good hikes albeit on relatively easy tracks. A mountain bike would definitely have been the best way to descend!

Cogne: Cascades de Lilliaz

We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.

The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.

We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.

There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.

The ice was actually quite good although it did have gaping holes in some places where you could see straight through to the waterfall below.

We went continued up the river gorge to climb pitch 4.

Pitch 4 felt much easier and while there was a mid way belay point we did it in one pitch.

We had such great fun we headed back down to do the left side of pitch 3.

The following day we couldn’t bear to pay for ski hire so we headed back to climb the first two pitches. Having arrived a bit late we discovered the truth about the Cascade de Lilliaz, it is a very popular ice crag. Especially for groups and for instructors to take clients. As such it took us a while to be able to climb up the middle of the waterfall.

I found this line incredibly tricky as the centre of the waterfall was cauliflower ice formations and very snowy and soft on the top. I didn’t feel stable at all so there was some severe whinging from me.

From here we walked around the gorge to pitch 2 which was much more fun.

Cogne: Valnontey ice climbing

Standing on mushy snow with my axes hooked around a thin lip of ice, I got that horribly familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach when I really don’t like where I am stood. And I had to traverse off the mushy snow to get on to the ice.

Valmiana

Having had a fantastic time climbing on Il Sentiero dei Troll a couple of days earlier, we headed back to the Valnontey valley to climb the waterfall next to it, Valmiana another WI3. My initial reaction was that the first pitch looked massive and steep, but I tried not to let that put me off.

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As it was the first pitch was steep and felt quite hard for a WI3, but it was stepped out from previously climbers so didn’t feel that tricky.

The second pitch was a nice snow plod with an ice pitch in the middle, by which time we were already in the sunshine. The third pitch was also straight forward too.
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It was the fourth pitch, when we were already about 120m up the waterfall that I met my match, the mushy snow and horrible traverse.

Just as the hard, not stepped out ice ended the mushy snow began, with a traverse aiming for the gap in the rocks.

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I didn’t really enjoy trying to kick out warm wet snow to get across to solid ice, so when I emerged out of the top of the pitch I wasn’t very happy. Thankfully the final pitch was a long steep snow pitch, (in the shade so not mushy!) and a solid bit of ice, which was hard on the calves at least felt more secure.

Flash Estivo

After 3 days climbing we had got into the rhythm of climbing but I was also starting to ache all over. Despite the huge walk in to Flash Estivo, right at the end of the Valnontey valley we opted to try the WI3 route.

So on the first over cast day of the week we headed for an hour and a half walk down the valley to the bottom of Flash Estivo. The first issue was that it was starting to snow and we were heading up a 500m 45 degree snow slope to get to the bottom of the route. This wasn’t exactly the quickest route to get to.

As we walked down the valley you could see the aftermath of earlier avalanches.

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As we started the route the snow set in for the day.

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As we set off up the second pitch it became apparent that the ice was either solid or totally unstable so after much effort in trying to find a good route up it we eventually bailed off.

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Whilst we were all a bit disappointed it was the right decision given how long it was taking to get up the route and the weather conditions.

Turning back on a route is never a bad decision. Others might have battled on, but given the remoteness of our route and the deteriorating weather it was the right decision. By the time we had abseiled back down and walked out it was dark and snowing heavily.

Ice Climbing in Cogne – Multipitches galore!

Having had an amazing time in Rjukan ice climbing last year I was very excited about our trip to Cogne this year, but very aware that it wasn’t going to be easy peasy climbing.

Rjukan is the ice equivalent of climbing at Stanage, something for every ability, lots of single pitch ice making it nice and short and 5 minutes from the car. Yes there’s multipitch routes and hard stuff to scare the pants off you, but there’s options for not doing these routes and still having a great time.

Cogne is the opposite in everyway.

In the heart of the Alps, Cogne has two main areas for climbing, the Valeille valley and the Valnontey valley – with climbs being on both sides of the valley from the sides of the mountains. The routes form in mountain gullies or from the edge of crags with terrifying chandeliers to huge walls of solid ice.  All of the routes are committing multi-pitch ice which require abseiling to get off.  This isn’t a place to come for your first ice climbing or multipitch climbing trip.

Route finding

There isn’t a great selection of guidebooks in English for this area either. The new Alpine Ice guide by Mario Sertori is the only one and while it does cover routes in Cogne its isn’t a complete guide and only provide highlights of the popular routes. There’s plenty of French and Italian guidebooks, if you can translate them!

The best sources of information in English are:

  •  free comprehensive route maps online – Iceclimbing Cogne has route maps of Lillaz and Valnontey valleys
  • Bar Licone – the climbers bar in town but also THE place for climbers to share route information online. Many of the routes have handy topos created by climbers, so worth a look to check distance between belays and where the difficult sections are on routes.

Despite the challenges of finding information on the routes, ice climbing in Cogne is a dream for those with experience. There’s nothing better than the delightful warmth in the midday sunshine, which is something that you definitely don’t get climbing in Norway!

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Il Sentiero dei Troll, Valnontey

We had opted for our first route to be a WI3 in the Valnontey valley called Il Sentiero dei Troll.

Il Sentiero dei Troll provided a good initiation to ice in Cogne and set the tone for the week. If you want to get out and climb ice you need to be out of bed early (out of the door before 8am) and be prepared to climb all day.

We did the route in 4 pitches of 60 metres with two of these being at bolted belays. The joy of Europe is that many of the routes are at least partially bolted, when you can find them under all the ice! That said make sure you know how to do Abalakov threads as you will still need to do these for some belays.

It was freezing when we left the car park at Valnontey for the walk in and on getting out of the car we quickly put on extra layers. Close to the end of the valley it wasn’t too far to walk in but did give us change to check out some of the other routes. With the warm temperature the week before we noticed some of the routes at the end of the valley weren’t quite formed.

While Cogne is committing ice climbing, it is still pretty accessible with most of the routes being fairly well sign posted at the bottom of the valley (though a guide book is needed to know which is which) and the walk in was on a clear track adjacent to cross country skiing runs.

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Ascending the steep snow slope to the bottom of the ice was the first task, reminding me that the best place to put on crampons and a helmet is long before you actually need them.
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The route was a mix of steep ice pitches and graded snow slopes and by pitch 2 we were climbing in the sunshine and had taken off quite a few layers of clothing.

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The climbing was fantastic and when we reached the top of pitch 4 we decided we’d enjoyed the best of the route and so abseiled back down.

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At which point I stopped to take this photo of Jared next to the ice on pitch 3, did I really climb that?!

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Disappointed by Fenilliaz

I have to start by saying Fenilliaz isn’t a rubbish route. Had I been in Scotland I’d have been super happy spending the day in a snow covered gully. Having flow to Cogne though to get my axes into some ice I was a bit disappointed by the lack of ice on this route.

Fenilliaz in the Valeille Valley starts by ascending another long snow slope (a recurring theme in Cogne). We started the actual climb from a good belay spot under a huge boulder.

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From here the route takes a long steep snow slope to a short ice pitch, before another snow slope.

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Unfortunately that was where the fun ended and the route seemed to pitter out. Disappointed, and with not enough time left for another route we opted for a short day and a chance to check out the popular Cascade de Lillaz.

Dolomites – Piz da Lech via ferrata

Knowing that Saturday was going to be wet we planned a great Friday for our final day in the Dolomites, heading to Corvara, a town recently expanded around the ski industry with shiny new ski lifts and outdoor shops and cafes catering for the Apre skier. It’s certainly a contrast to Cortina with its alpine war history, 1950s Winter Olympic legacy and 1960’s James Bond style ski lifts in Cortina. (See the Marino Bianchi route for an example!)

Having decided the Piz da Lech route in Corvara looked suitable challenging in the rockfax guide we headed up the two ski lifts to the bottom of the crag. (In particular the photo of the traverse across the rock face taken from the view of the cable looked impressive and had me simultaneously excited and crapping it!)

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The route is graded 3b so I knew it was going to be challenging in places and while the guidebook suggested 2 hours or so for the route it only took about an hour to the top of the crag. For much of the route it was not much harder than others we’d been on that week, with plenty of scrambly bits in between bits of climbing and walking.

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After the airy traverse, which wasn’t as scary as it looked, the most difficult bit was the two ladders nearer the top of the route, which didn’t even look that hard from the bottom.

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As I got to the top of the second ladder not having found this route that hard, my confidence disappeared. It wasn’t actually that difficult to step off the ladder, around the boulder over the airy drop below. However, my via ferrata lanyard was the elasticated type and was therefore just a little bit too short to get it over the cable bracket to allow me to continue up. So stepping out over the abyss below was more tricky with a shorter lanyard!

From there the route was scrambly and easier until we reached the top.

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The top of the via ferrata however isn’t the end of the route, as the path continues upwards to reach the top of the peak. Worth the slog up to reach the summit, over 3000m high – amazing views as the clouds parted revealing a canyon with an immense drop below. Breathtaking and not just because of the altitude!

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The route down is a path clearly marked and while it is straight forward there is one ladder to descend (though easy to do without a harness) and one section of cable, but again this is more because the scree path isn’t nice to descend rather than it being tricky.

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Here you can see the route drop off the top of the mountain down the right-side and swing left below the crag.

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Climbing amidst history on the Cinque Torri

Heading up the ski lift to the Cinque Torri, the group of more than 5 towers that lies on the south slopes of Falzarego Pass above Cortina, we were finally having a day of proper climbing and not via ferratas. A day without the safety of the cable on the rock.

Having me in toe (or is that tow?) we headed to Torre Terza to do an easy multi pitch up the route ‘via normale’ followed by one of the ‘school of rock’ sport routes. Whilst the multi pitch trad route had a great abseil off it was really a scramble route and not climbing, but as a group of three it did give us chance to watch and listen to the other climbers in this small arena, all shouting and swearing at one another as they climbed through the mist up the rock spires.

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Thankfully I didn’t get photos of myself dangling from rope (though there’s some of me out there somewhere from friends!). This is where I confess it was the first time I trusted a prussik knot as my safety to descend an abseil – it seems counter intuitive that a tiny bit of rope will really take my weight and act as a suitable brake. Yes, I was praying a little under my breath!

Even if you’re not a climber, Cinque Torri is worth visiting for the history of the First World War at the front line between Austrian and Italian armies which is now preserved as an open air museum.  Trenches still exist along the mountainside, from where at this high altitude you can see across the valley to the front line Italian hospital we saw the day before. The area is brought alive with information boards detailing the brutality and attrition of the period, both from the battles and also the exposure during the long cold winters in isolated remote areas. They also detail the generosity of the people of Cortina to both armies.

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Dolomites- Stepping up a grade on the Col dei Bos

Having survived my first Via Ferrata a couple of days previous but all of us keen to avoid having the mega long walk in we’d had on the Sorapiss, we decided to pick a route which had a short walk in for our next route.

The Col dei Bos route is east out of Cortina on the Falzarego pass and has only a 20 minute walk in from the road. It is grade 3b making it trickier than the previous route we’d done. Before we reached the rock face however, we arrived at the old Italian military hospital, our first indication on our trip that this whole area was on the front line of the Italian and Austrian battles in the First World War. The whole area is an impressive memorial to its history and its amazing how much is still standing.

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I have to be honest I did struggle to get up the first section of the via ferrata, let’s face it I’m not good at climbing and while I was struggling to pull myself up the crack on the rock, the via ferrata lanyard I had felt just a bit too short when clipped to the wire which was behind me. So as I climbed upwards the lanyard was pulling me back away from the rock; it was very unnerving.

Beyond this initial section, the route was more straightforward, and while there were sections of climbing there were enough breaks in between to make it manageable. Even for me! It’s a great route with enough tricky bits to be entertaining and fantastic views.

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You can take a man out of Yorkshire ….

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The via ferrata takes you to the col, the top of the mountain pass, where if the weather was clear we would have had an amazing view of the mountain range. As it was, it was cloudy, so we had a bite to eat and headed back down the horribly long scree slope next to the crag.

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Bivvying on the Sorapiss Circuit

Parking at Tre Croci just outside of Cortina, we set out with the intention of doing the Sorapiss circuit over two days, completing the three via ferratas en route and bivvying at one of the remote bivouacs half way.  This did however require us to carry all our own water as the last available water source was Rifugio Vandelli 2 hours walk in from the road.

Despite leaving before 9am it was already scorching hot as we walking through the scrub and woodland on the way to the Rifugio. The route (and heat) reminded me of walking on the final few days of the GR20 and there was more than a bit of relief from us all when we arrived at the Rifugio and were able to top up our water bottles for the rest of the hike – being pleasantly surprised to find this was also free.

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Lake Sorapiss is a popular beauty spot with day walkers most of whom have no intention of heading off to attempt the via ferratas.

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But as we headed up the endless scree slope in the midday sun it became clear we were unlikely to make it either. Now, I happen to be good at putting my head down and just getting on with it despite the misery, but I wasn’t confident about a grade 3 Via Ferrata with depleted energy. So with a suggestion of finding somewhere to bivvy for the night below the crags I happily went along with my friends – who frankly are much better climbers than me, so if they didn’t want to continue then I was just going to go along with them.

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While we had a long afternoon of admiring the view – it was certainly worth it to bivvy out in such a beautiful location,  although the sound of rock and ice falling from the glacier above was a bit un-nerving in the middle of the night, as was the full moon passing overhead. And while it wasn’t the comfiest bivvy spot for three people to share, it was worth it for the sunrise.

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Via Ferratas in the Dolomites

I’ve said before that I’m not a good climber, but always keen to have a go at something new and not one to turn down a holiday, I jumped on the chance to have a go at via ferratas in the Dolomites when invited to Italy with friends.

So having arrived in Cortina and pitched my tent, we headed off to do an easy introduction to via ferratas on the Marino Bianchi route just east of Cortina. Graded a 2b, means it is easy and also close to civilisation – the route is very easy to access from the top of the ski lifts and the Refugio Lorenzi. For route description check out this link.

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Being Sunday it was quite busy on the route, including families with children who were doing a good job at making me look rubbish! The route is a traverse of the ridgeline to reach the top of Cima di Messo.

This photo I took later in the day looking back at the route – it makes it look impressive! All along the route there are fantastic views – there’s some sections of exposure but nothing too difficult making it a good route to learn how to use the via ferrata lanyards without too much effort climbing.

Just look at these views – I was in heaven!

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Once at the top of Cima di Messo the route doubles back to the refugio, although for a section diverts away from the way we came, to avoid the difficulty of two way traffic on the trickiest bit.

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Once back at the Refugio we continued briefly on to the Ivano Dibona route to check out the bridge which was in the film ‘Cliffhanger’. The route is also impressive to be able to see the first world war tunnels and old iron work still on the mountain. From here its then only a short walk to the 30m bridge.

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