Endurance athlete Tiffany Saibil recently swapped running shoes for ice gear to try ice climbing in Italy at the Cogne Ice Opening 2013. Read her report of the event and how she was particularly inspired by being in an all-women group.
Having heard about the dangers of ice climbing and being somebody who gets cold easily, it must have been the magic of frozen waterfalls that enticed me to click 'going' on the Facebook page for the Cogne Ice Opening 2013, 13-15 December.
This second annual event: including workshops, demo gear, and presentations, was organised by Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt, professional ice climbers based in Cogne, Aosta Italy, an area ranked top for ice with Canada and Norway.
People grouped online for carpooling, BMC member Paul Mckensie said I was not on his way but “wouldn’t leave a fellow climber stuck”, and a local offered places to stay in his house. It gave me hope for what was ahead. While I do climb rock, my Cogne experience has been through trail running. But thoughts of running shoes and shorts are dropped in excitement of this winter playground.
Our base was the hamlet of Lillaz (1,615m), on its doorstep are mountains to explore, a valley of waterfalls, and even Nordic ski trails. Our hotel (Odenzana) was full with people for the event and from the French Alpine Club so quite a buzz, plus more luxury than a hut.
The event kicked off with an informal “Apero” Friday night, then check-in 8am Saturday morning in an equally relaxed atmosphere. The benefit of Cogne is that the spots are so accessible, it takes off the pressure of a long approach. Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, La Sportiva, Sterling Rope, and Suunto offered demo gear, which is great when you don’t own sport specific technical axes/crampons.
I joined the 'girl’s workshop' and as we gathered together, Isabelle Santoire “Isa”, our Mountain Guide, told us there was an hour hike with some deep snow sections so snowshoes could be useful but not being a fan of them I opted to go in boots. This turns out to be common ground for discussion on the approach, half of us wish we had them and half wish we didn’t, but what’s great with a group of women is there is lots of laughter.
Day 1: Lucia Prosino and Tiffany Saibil on the hike in. Photo: Bella Engen.
Hiking to Cascata di Loie we are encouraged to move around in the line and get to know each other. I discover how diverse the group is: Scandinavians, French, Italians, Canadians, and Brits. We set up our base but the space for a safe zone (lower risk for ice fall) on a hill is limited and not much room to move for warmth. Isa demos some creative Pilates moves to warm up and offers tea and biscuits, we joke about what the men would think. You don’t feel ego here and I soon see that I am in the company of some very experienced climbers, yet the set-up has something for all levels. We jump in when somebody needs a belay, encouragements are shouted, and we learn from each other.
I quickly learn the importance of keeping your crampons horizontal or "heel down" so that the front points don't come out of the ice, my calves were burning at first but as I began to trust the system and relax more into the position, I could focus again on my axe placements. The swing took more time to improve. I am told to imagine it's like hammering a nail and to make a good solid swing without throwing my arm too far back. Indeed you feel when the placement is good; the axe goes in more smoothly, producing a solid hold rather than the one that wobbles. When you get it right you can hear it go into the ice differently, not chipping away at it.
Aspirant guide Heike Schmitt setting the route, Cascata di Loie 9
Saturday night’s films and presentations inspired us for day two. Jeff Mercier showed the video on his new route in the Dolomites. Klemen Premrl presented Wolverine, Helmcken Falls (with Tim Emmett, Will Gadd and Raphael Slawinsk). Matthias Scherer and Tanja Schmitt shared their movie on Kjerrskredkvelven, Norway. Matteo della Bordella and Luca Schiera talked about their new route on Torre Egger (with Matteo Bernasconi), and Ezio Marlier discussed Repentance, Cogne’s iconic ice fall.
A colourful line-up for the all-women workshop. Photo: Bella Engen.
Workshop options continued on Sunday. The girls' group the same and the positive energy even greater. Our site for day two was the Cascata di Lillaz, a 20 minute hike away. But before heading off there was a surge of paparazzi like photo snapping from the guys, understandable as this unique group full of colour and character included 10 women, a female mountain guide and twin sisters/climbers (Tanja and Heike Schmitt).
Having three such experienced leaders, we made the most of this opportunity. Two vertical ropes were set up, a third to secure some ice “bouldering”, plus stations to practice specific skills such as challenges using only one axe and contests on the least number of swings per pitch. This worked our technique but also kept us warm until the sun arrived at 2pm, sadly our time to head back.
Day 2: At the base of the climb.
Overall what made this event great is how accessible the climbs are, the atmosphere for learning, and the great mix of people. Over the course of the weekend I went from "I prefer rock” to “when can I get back on ice?". A great way to kick off the winter season.