Leaving the car under the pitch black cover of a pre-dawn, 6:00 am start, we donned our headlamps and headphones for the 2 hour hike into Repentence Super. Roughly 1:30 hours into the approach, the trail turned sharply upwards, where in times of less snow, you would most definitely require crampons. Halfway up the slope, our hearts sank as we spotted a party of two ahead of us. We had been skunked. Welcome to Cogne.
Just over an hours drive from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, Cogne rests in the heart of the Val D’Aosta region of Italy. Each winter, ice climbers flock to this picturesque village to play on the hundreds of frozen waterfalls. Consistent conditions coupled with the sheer amount of available routes make Cogne arguably one of the best ice climbing areas in Europe. It’s Disneyland for ice climbers — almost like Ouray for us but everything here is wild ice.
The climbs are spread along two parallel valleys than run around 5 kilometers deep — the Valnontey and the Lillaz. Wild and stunning in their beauty, these valleys are home to over 150 routes, most with relatively easy access and best of all, the approach routes are signed. It’s tough to get lost or end up on the wrong climb.
Because Cogne is such a popular ice climbing destination, it is rare you will have a climb all to yourself. If you don’t want to climb under another party, get up early. I mean real early. Apart from Repentence, we were always the first party to a climb and regularly rappelled off over 4-5 other parties. I would much rather suffer through getting up stupid early than climbing underneath other parties — it’s just a more enjoyable (and safe!) experience. Besides, that’s what coffee is for.
Over three days we climbed Patri Right, Mondey Money, and Tuborg. While most people stop after a couple of pitches of both Mondey Money and Tuborg, we climbed every single possible pitch. It makes for a much more fun adventure, and once you are committed to a climb, you might as well see it all the way through.
I can’t wait to go back — this time with hopefully more mileage under my belt for the season, as I have a date with Repentence.
The North Face Alpine 50: Part of the Summit Series collection, this purpose-built alpine workhorse will see you through a variety of mountain adventures. You will find well thought out design features such as the one handed pull opening and closure system of the main compartment that enables you to get at your gear quickly, and the downward angle of the top zippered pocket so that all your stuff doesn’t fall out when you open it. A must for me on ice climbing packs is a reinforced ice pick stow sleeve — otherwise when you throw your pack in the back of the car it could snag or cut other gear, and when you are riding a crowded gondola the last thing you want to do is stab someone.
The 50 liter capacity offers more than enough room to hold all my gear for the day, part of the rack, and even stuff in one rope. Made from Cordura with minimal seams, this pack holds up well to endless abuse from both terrain and gear. And the understated gray and black color just looks cool. Both the hipbelt and frame sheet are removable in case you want to use this as a summit pack or even multi-pitch climbing pack.
My only nitpick is with the hook style lid/rope holder — it’s really fiddly to get open, especially with gloves. The bungee closures that hold your ice tool handles in place also comes undone a little too easily. This is not a huge deal but if you lost a tool on an approach without knowing it, you would be mad.
I am 5’9″ and the S/M frame size fits me just fine.
Petzl Nomics: I used to be a Black Diamond Cobra girl, and still like those tools, but for the past couple of years have been climbing with the Nomics and really love them. They are much more aggressive than the Cobras, so make getting solid sticks in steep ice a bit easier. My favorite features are the grip which fits universally well for all different hand sizes and different thickness of gloves. It’s easy to not over grip with this set. I’ve yet to bash my knuckles on odd mushroom ice with these.
OR Alibi II Gloves: For steep climbs, I like the use the thinnest gloves possible to help delay the arrival of the dreaded pump. Made from a four-way stretch woven softshell fabric with a nice snug fit, these gloves give you great dexterity for fiddly tasks such as clipping quickdraws, removing and placing ice screws, and untying knots. The super grippy Pittard Oiltac leather palms sticks to your tools so you don’t ever feel like you need to overgrip. Just be sure to charge out to your thicker, warmer gloves (my fav are the First Ascent Guide Gloves) for belaying and rappelling so your hands don’t get cold and you don’t ruin your Alibis. You can still find these gloves from online retailers even if Outdoor Research doesn’t make them anymore. So stock up now.
Nite Ize Radiant 250 Rechargeable Headlamp: As we started our approach each day before dawn, a headlamp was a must. The 250 lumen beam will light up the trail 100 meters in front of you when needed and with a 90-degree tilt angle, you can ensure you don’t blind your climbing partner. You can choose between five mode: high and low spot, high and low flood, and red flood. The headlamp is rechargeable, so there is no worry about bringing extra batteries when you travel. Even on full strength, you get 4 hours of run time.
Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hoody: For the stop and go nature of ice climbing, you need a warm yet breathable insulating layer. The Nano-Air Light gives you 40 grams of stretch insulation with a lightweight, DWR-treated ripstop nylon face fabric that will shed light snow and water. It’s perfect to wear as an outer layer for the approach and then throw on a shell when you are ready to climb.
Big Agnes Hole in the Wall Jacket: Stuffed with 700 fill power Downtek and a water repellent shell, you don’t have to worry about your belay jacket getting wet. The low profile means it packs down super small into your climbing pack. And the interior chest pocket doubles as a stuff sack if you want to clip this to your harness during a quick multi-pitch session.
Pakems: There is no better feeling than getting back to the car, taking off your climbing boots, and slipping into a pair of warm, fuzzy boots. Pakems only weigh about 15 ounces and pack down to a 2-inch profile so super easy to throw in your luggage. They remind me of the old school Moon Boots – they are that comfortable. Rubber soles give you plenty of traction for walking around on snow for après time.
If You Go
Where to stay: We rented a little Airbnb apartment but many climbers stay at Hotel La Barme just outside of Cogne and at the start of the approach to all the climbs in the Valnontey Valley. This family run hotel has a drying room for all your gear and serves an early breakfast, complete with hot tea making facilities.
Where to eat/drink: You will find all the climbers regaling each other with tales of their adventures over happy hour at Bar Licone, then sticking around for the oh-so-deliciously-Italian wood fired pizza. It’s a fun and lively atmosphere. For more traditional mountain fare, head across the street to La Brasserie du Bon Bec. Be sure to try the tartiflette. When climbing in Lillaz, pop into Bar Anais for a hot chocolate so thick you can stand your spoon in it and a panini before heading back into Cogne.
Guides: If you ever need a climbing or skiing guide in the Alps, be sure to call Caroline and Adam George of Into the Mountains. I have known both for some time and absolutely love climbing with them. You will too!
Guidebook: The best guidebook by far is Alpine Ice by Mario Sertori, but good luck finding an english version. Bar Licone has a house copy in their climber library so go grab an aperitivo and plan your climbs for the next day.