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.

Tour du Mont Blanc – 2012 – Les Contamines to Chamonix

Our final two days walking on the Tour du Mont Blanc was some of the hardest with steep ascents in hot temperatures.

Day 9 – Les Contamines to Les Houches – 8 hours 45

Total distance 19.5km ascent 1225m descent 1505m

Today felt like a brutal walk, a bloody steep ascent in scorching weather. Being stung by a horsefly and then zapped by an electric fence; my knees ached and I hadn’t eaten enough chocolate the day before. It was hell. And then someone said that we were on a harder variant path…

It was a steep walk through woodland from our campsite at Les Contamines to Auberge du Truc, but there was an amazing view once there.

354 D11 Les Contamines 355 D11 Chalet du TrucFrom there we had to descend down to the Chalet du Miages and then we were faced with a very steep ascent up to the Col du Tricot. Despite it being a relentlessly boring slog of dusty zigzags up to the col, it was worth it. I know, it doesn’t look that steep, but zoom into the photo and see the smaller ants near the summit, they’re people!

359 D11 path from hell to Col du Tricot 363 D11 looking back down route

Whilst it would have been easy to moan about why we had taken the harder variant path, and not stuck to the main TMB which followed the side of the hill around through Bionnassay village, this route enabled us to have a fantastic view of the Bionnassay glacier and cross a rope bridge to reach the Col de Voza.

365 D11 Glacier du Bionnassay 369 D11 bridge 378 D11 looking back from Col de Voza 380 D11 tram stop at Col de VozaUnfortunately, from here we had a very dull slog down the ski trails and tracks to reach the road, which we followed into Les Houches.

 

Day 10 – Les Houches to Plan Praz (over Le Brevent) 6 hours 30

Total distance – 9.5km ascent 1515m descent 465m

I set off a bit giddy that this was our final day and I had a day of lying in my tent a bit later than normal, eating ice cream and riding the cable car up to the Aiguelle di Midi to look forward to.

The giddiness soon wore off when the long slog through the woodland began. Today was a day of climbing a mountain, Le Brevent, and there would be no relenting in the uphill slog to the top. I didn’t stop to take photos until the refuge Bellachat. Sections up to the refuge were narrow with cable rails for the rocks sections.

383 D12 view 387 D12 view

The refuge had taken us 3 hours to reach, and though it was less than 400m in altitude and 2km from the summit, a rest was needed.

Though the path onto Le Brevent summit was more rocky it wasn’t as steep and had amazing views across the valley. I have to admit to being elated to have reached Le Brevent and know it was all downhill to the end, but also bitterly disappointed it was so busy with tourists who had cheated and caught the cable car up. Its like slogging up Snowdon to be confronted with a load of people who’ve caught the train up. 388 D12 route to Le Brevent 390 D12 route to Le Brevent 394 D12 looking back down route 396 D12 view to chamonix

The route back down to Plan Praz, were we had started our adventure, didn’t take long, especially since much of the route was still covered in snow and it was easier to slide down than walk.

397 D12 route to Plan Praz 400 D12 over the abyss

We arrived at Plan Praz and caught the cable car down for ice cream in Chamonix. Mmmm

409 D12 celebration ice cream

The following day I splurged and went both paragliding and up the cable car to the Aguille di Midi. Expensive but worth every penny to see real mountaineers having adventures on Mont Blanc. Maybe next time.

424 D13 on Aigulle du Midi 422 D13 on Aigulle du Midi 438 D13 on Aigulle du Midi 434 D13 on Aigulle du Midi

 

 

 

Tour du Mont Blanc- 2012 – Courmayeur to Les Contamines

Over the next two days we would leave the Italian side of Mont Blanc and return to France. Goodbye gelato, hello pastries.

Day 7 – Val Veni to Les Chapieux 6 hours 50

Total distance 20.5km ascent 945m descent 640m

Those of you studying the Cicerone guide as you read this, you will spot that we didn’t walk from Courmayeur, where we had previously finished. With limited time to complete the route, and having chosen to camp in the valleys and not stay at the refuges we had no choice to but skip part of today’s walk. Catching the bus as far as it would go, up the Val Veni. This still left us with a long walk, but at least cut out a steep ascent.

It did mean that we weren’t on the TMB main route until we reached refugio Elizabetta, so we followed route 12 and then 13 to reach it. This by the way is a gorgeous valley to walk up and whilst I usually go high wherever possible, I don’t think I would have traded these views.

277 D8 path up Val Veni  283 lac du combal 285 D8 path up Val Veni 288 D8 path up to Refuge Elizabetta 290 D8 refuge elizabetta 292 D8 routeBeyond the refuge the path continues at a gentle ascent until you get close to the Col de la Seigne. Thankfully we were taking our time enjoying the scenery, otherwise we might have missed this chap!

293 D8 route to Col de seigne 299 D8 Marmots

The route up to the Col de la Seigne still had a significant amount of snow and ice, so even though it wasn’t particularly steep it was slower walking. Once at the Col the view back down into Italy is stunning; although the view onwards to France is a bit limited by the broad col summit.

304 D8 view up col de la seigne 305 D8 view up col de la seigne308 D8 view back down valley 313 D8 view at col de la seigne

The route downhill to France and the refugio de Mottets was a nice walk, but then followed by another road walk to our rough camp in the village of Les Chapieux.

316 D8 view down to La Chapieux 321 D8 view down to La Chapieux

Day 8 – Les Chapieux to Les Contamines – 6 hour 50

Total distance 16.5km ascent 930m descent 1315m

It was raining heavily as we set out from our campsite in the village, heading through farms for the Refuge du Bonhomme. The weather was so horrendous I didn’t take any pictures until I reached the refuge and the top of the pass, it was a morning of having my head down and trudging through the wind and rain. Despite the mist the refuge was easy to find. It doesn’t mark the top of the pass though, so we had to trudge on and as the rain finally relented so the camera came out.

326 D9 view down from Col bonhomme 328 D9 view down from Col bonhomme

Eventually, as we headed downwards, out of the cloud, and through the high alpine valley, we reached the refuge de la Balme where we could thaw out with coffees. 331 D9 view down from Col bonhomme 330 D9 view down from Col bonhomme332 D9 view down from Col bonhomme 334 D9 down to refuge la BalmeFrom here the route was a gentle downhill following the river through woodland and a gorge to the campsite at Les Contamines. Les Contamines is a short bus ride to St Gervais which it is definitely worth a visit if you require pastries!

338 D10 cakes 351 D10 crepes

Tour du Mont Blanc 2012 – Chamonix to Champex

At 105 miles the Tour du Mont Blanc is not the longest long distance route I’ve completed, but it was the first one overseas and the first completed in one go and not broken up over weekends like the Pennine Way.

Suggested by two friends who had completed the trail years ago, the thought of crossing through 3 countries, tackling Alpine passes and walking through sun, snow and probably rain, the TMB sounded just like my kind of trek.

Choosing to walk clockwise meant that we would be passing other walkers rather than catching them up, which for most of the route would enable us to have relative peace. Or as much as you can ever get in the Alps.

With my bags packed, the Cicerone TMB guide studied and a whole lot of enthusiasm and naivety; I headed out to the Alps giddy with excitement.

Having spent the first night at the campsite at Les Bossons, just outside Chamonix we had a fantastic view of Mont Blanc which we were to spend the next 10 days walking around.19 Mont blanc from Les Marmottes campsite

Day 1 – Plan Praz to Frasserands 6 hours 30

Distance 13.6km and 400m ascent and 2030m descent

Starting at Plan Praz felt a little like cheating as we had caught the cable car up to the first station. But our last day would be covering the tremendous hike from the floor of the valley to Le Brevent mountain top, so what idiot would do half of the height twice? Not us.

It also gave us a relaxing start to the trek, which in the 32 degree heat was appreciated. The path is really easy to navigate and a good track all of the way. We stopped briefly at Le Flegere refuge for a drink and to soak up the view and check out the ibex who wasn’t at all bothered we were there.

23 D1 Plan Praz 29 D1 view to Chalet de la Flegere  46 D1 Mer de Glace 44 D1 Ibex

As it was still early in the season we took the Balcon sud route as there was still a significant amount of snow on Les Blancs. This is one of the special joys about the TMB is that whatever season you undertake this in, there are a lot of variant paths than mean you can still do the route.

48 D1 route across Grand Balcon 58 D1 routeFrom the Col de Montetes we had a knee crushing descent of endless switchbacks to reach the road at Tres le Champ, where we then plodded down a path by the road into Fresserands and our campsite for the night, where we could see tomorrows ascent to the Col de Balme.

76 D1 Frasserands village

Day 2 – Frasserands to Le Puety 6 hrs 45

Distance 10.7km approx with 1115m ascent and 1070m descent

Being able to look back over the our first day’s walk made the ascent out of Frasserands bearable; its certainly a steep ascent through the woodland. Initially the path felt like an assault course through the fallen trees and though we made good time it was hard going. Steep never-ending zigzags would become a theme of the trek. These pictures are looking back along the route.

80 D2 view back across to Day 1 descent 88 D2 looking back along route

There was an annoying section of downhill before we ascended the paths of the ski area around the Col de Balme to reach the top of the pass, saying goodbye to France and hello to Switzerland.

The descent down included crossing some steep banks of snow – can you see the little people at the top of this one looking back up the route?

94 D2 looking back along route down across snow

Reaching the Treint valley was exactly like reaching the Sound of Music country, with endless fields of wildflowers and the sounds of cow bells, which would be less than romantic late at night but for now was just what I wanted.97 D2 La Peuty 100 D2 Glacier de Trient

Our campsite was the rough ground at La Peuty where the was a toilet block and cold running water and an area to sit and cook. So it was a pretty good spot – quiet except for the damn cows and their bells.

103 D2 rough camp at La Peuty

Day 3 – La Peuty to Champex 7 hours

Total distance 13.9km and 910m ascent and 680m descent

Despite the day starting with a climb the path to the Col de Forclaz was steep busy relatively easy, following an old track through the woodland. The cafe at the road was open so we stopped for a strong coffee.

The ascent from here up to the refuge at the Col de Bovine seemed to go on and on, but breaking out of the woodland eventually to see the Bovine refuge was amazing and worth the effort. Even if it was clear why it got its name!

112 D3 view from Bovine route 113 D3 view from Bovine route 115 D3 cows at Bovine

After another coffee at the refuge Bovine we continued on heading downhill to Plan de L’Au, a steep and winding path which eventually flattened and headed through woodland.

We eventually arrived in Champex where we walked around the Lake to the campsite.  122 D3 route through champex 126 D4 Lac de Champex