UKC

Cogne – Icefall climbing in the Italian Alps

© Steve Broadbent

The small resort of Cogne sits at 1500 metres above sea level, on the edge of the Gran Paradiso National Park in northwest Italy. As well as being the cross-country skiing capital of Aosta, with over 70 kilometres of ski trails, Cogne is one of the world's great ice-climbing centres, attracting climbers from across the globe. Along the steep valley walls an array of frozen waterfalls provide some of the very best and most accessible ice climbs in Europe, from single-pitch ice crags to famous multi-pitch cascades and massive alpine adventures.

Groups enjoying the easily accessible ice cragging on the Lillaz Cascata.  © Steve Broadbent
Groups enjoying the easily accessible ice cragging on the Lillaz Cascata.
© Steve Broadbent

This quiet corner of Italy, characterised by its high, steep-sided valleys and aesthetic pyramidal summits, was once the private hunting reserve of the Italian royal family, declared in 1856 in order to protect the rare Alpine ibex. The land was donated to the nation in 1920, and Italy's first national park was designated here in 1922. Its crowning peak, Gran Paradiso, is the only 4000m peak lying wholly within Italy, and was first climbed in 1860 by the British mountaineers John Jermyn Cowell and W.Dundas, accompanied by the Chamonix guides Michel Payot and Jean Tairraz.

Gran Paradiso was the main draw for visiting mountaineers for the next century, but in the 1970s climbers began to realise Cogne's huge potential for another type of alpinism: icefall climbing. The region's high valleys, carved into U-shaped trenches by glaciers flowing north towards the Aosta Valley, give rise to spectacular frozen waterfalls that form more reliably than those in many parts of the Alps. This fact, combined with the presence of well-constructed footpaths reaching high into the mountains – a legacy of the royal hunting days – encouraged a frenzy of exploration here throughout the 1980s, much of it at the hands of the influential Gian Carlo Grassi.

Before his untimely death in 1991, Grassi scoured the Cogne, Valeille and Valnontey valleys for new climbs, making an impressive list of first ascents and leaving Cogne with dozens of classic routes, including Cold Couloir, Lillaz Gully, and the incredible Repentance Super, alongside many others. The world's best ice climbers were quick to catch on, and by the 1990s Cogne was established as one of the most important ice-climbing destinations in Europe, boasting some of the biggest, best, and most accessible icefalls in the range.

Repentance Super (WI6), in the centre of the photo, is one of Cogne’s most famous icefalls.  © Steve Broadbent
Repentance Super (WI6), in the centre of the photo, is one of Cogne’s most famous icefalls.
© Steve Broadbent

Layout

When climbers talk about 'Cogne', they are usually referring to the collection of valleys that branch off the main Cogne Valley. These include the main ice-climbing centres of Lillaz, Valeille Rive Droite, Valeille Rive Gauche Valnontey Rive Droite, Valnontey Rive Gauche and Valsavarenche, as well as a handful of smaller vallons that see much less traffic.

The Climbing

Reliable ice conditions and easy access have both been instrumental in ensuring Cogne's success as an ice-climbing destination, but perhaps even more significant has been the tremendous variety of routes and grades on offer, from low-commitment ice cragging right on the edge of the village, to long multi-pitch outings with a distinctly alpine feel to them. Walk-ins vary from 10 minutes to about 2 hours, but thankfully many of the best routes are reached in under an hour from the road.

Ice Cragging

Without a doubt, the most popular ice-cragging spot is the Lillaz Cascata, reached in 10 to 20 minutes from the centre of Lillaz. These famous waterfalls – a major tourist attraction in summer – feature four separate 'tiers' with easy access between each. The lower tier provides at least eight separate lines between WI2 and WI4, including the very popular Main Cascade (WI3+) as well as numerous desperate mixed and dry-tooling routes.

The impressive Candelone di Patri (WI5) provides an aesthetic alternative to the upper pitches of Valnontey’s classic Pat  © Steve Broadbent
The impressive Candelone di Patri (WI5) provides an aesthetic alternative to the upper pitches of Valnontey's classic Patri Gauche (WI4)
Higher up, the third tier is home to the 'Amphitheatre' – a broad wall of steep ice with at least ten routes from WI2 to WI4+, all with bolted anchors and plenty of scope for top-roping. With a very straightforward approach along the tourist trail, it's hardly surprisingly that both sectors get very busy at weekends.

For climbers staying in Cogne itself, the Moline Ice Wall is perhaps the closest ice crag to town. This artificially created feature, on the banks of the Urtier River, is literally yards from the road and is popular with groups, particularly when the higher icefalls are inaccessible after heavy snowfall.

The Lower Grades

Although Cogne's most famous icefalls tend to be in the mid to upper grades, there's a good collection of long and relatively easy routes that will suit less experienced teams, or those looking for low-grade adventures. They're also great for brushing off the cobwebs at the start of the winter season.

The complete ascent of the Lillaz Cascata (WI3), taking in pitches on all four tiers, is reputedly the most frequently climbed icefall in Italy and is one of the valley's 'must-do' routes. An early start is advisable to avoid the crowds and to savour the eight pitches of tremendously varied climbing. Bolted belays and easy escapes from each tier mean that commitment is low, and the route tops out conveniently on a good track leading back to the village.

For beginners, and those looking for their first multi-pitch ice lead, you could do a lot worse than the very benign Cascata di Buthier (WI2), which is reached via a gentle 10-minute walk from the centre of Cogne. In good conditions (ie when it's not going to avalanche), this super icefall gives 240 metres of low-angled, escapable ice with a convenient descent path down the side. The Cascata di Grand Clapey (WI2), in nearby Valsavarenche, is another good option at this grade, and is worth seeking out for a change of scenery.

For more experienced teams, the excellent Il Sentiero dei Troll (WI3) provides a good introduction to the longer and more serious climbs typical of the Valeille and Valnontey valleys. This 350-metre gully lies in the heart of one of Cogne's most famous climbing areas and gives a splendid climb, complete with bolted belays and the possibility of a long, adventurous continuation above the main pitches.

photo
Top-roping one of the steep pillars in the Amphitheatre, Lillaz Cascata.
© Steve Broadbent

photo
The first pitch of Candelabro del Coyote (WI4+) in Valeille.
© Steve Broadbent

Mid-grade Adventures

There are so many world-class ice climbs in the middle grades that it's hard to know where to start. Many of Cogne's famous icefalls are long and often serious for the grade when compared with similar routes in Norway's Rjukan region, but there are some real classics here that shouldn't be missed. In Valeille, the likes of E Tutto Relativo (WI4), Equilibri Solari (WI4), Azavatta (WI4), Vertigine Porcellana (WI4), Chandelle Levure (WI4) and Il Candelabro del Coyote (WI4+) provide easily accessible introductions to the bigger Cogne icefalls. Similar lines exist in neighbouring Valnontey, where the world-class Patri Gauche (WI4) steals the limelight, though other routes such as L' Acheronte (WI3), Monday Money (WI4), Gran Val (WI3+), Valmiana (WI3+) and Thoule (WI3+) also give incredible outings at these grades.

All of these popular routes are long, multi-pitch ice climbs, though bolted anchors do reduce the level of commitment and mean that it's often possible to climb the first few pitches before escaping to the bar. For more adventurous undertakings, don't miss Lillaz Gully (WI4) – a 7-pitch Scottish-style gully right above Lillaz village – and of course the epic Cold Couloir (WI4), which at 600m is the longest icefall in the area. Like so many big Cogne routes, it was first climbed by Grassi in the 1980s, and has maintained its reputation as one of the most coveted icefalls in the Alps ever since.

The Upper Grades

Icefalls on the hillside above Lillaz, at the top of the Cogne Valley.  © Steve Broadbent
Icefalls on the hillside above Lillaz, at the top of the Cogne Valley.
© Steve Broadbent
When conditions are right, it's no wonder that people flock to Cogne for some of the most incredible big icefalls in Italy. The aptly named Hard Ice In The Rock (WI4) is one of the more prominent lines visible above the village of Lillaz, but most people will continue further up the valley to tackle the classic Eknaton (WI5), which is almost always in good condition.

In Valnontey, the big prize is Repentance Super (WI6), which was a ground-breaking climb at the time of its first ascent by Grassi in 1989. Although it's still a very demanding route with over 100m of strenuous, vertical ice, it now sees frequent ascents and is well equipped with fixed gear. On the opposite side of the valley, the equally impressive Di Fronte al Tradimento (WI5+) is another big, serious climb up a staggering free-hanging icicle.

Finally, don't miss Trip in the Night (WI5) in the nearby valley of Valsavarenche. Away from the crowds of Valeille and Valnontey, this 200m icefall gives some steep and athletic climbing, accessed in less than 30 minutes from the main road, and is one of the region's real gems.

Dry Tooling and Mixed

Although slightly beyond the scope of this article, it would be amiss not to mention Cogne's position as one of the most important mixed-climbing venues in Europe. As well as providing numerous single-pitch mixed crags, with grades ranging from M6 to D12, Cogne has been home to ground-breaking mixed climbs ever since Steve Haston's Welcome to the Machine (M9) was established as the first of its grade in Europe. World standards were pushed in Cogne once more in 2001, with Haston's The Empire Strikes Back (M11) which still ranks as one of the very hardest alpine ice routes in the world.


Logistics

When to Go

The winter climbing season in Cogne generally kicks off with the 'Cogne Ice Opening' festival, usually held around the middle of December (visit cogneiceopening.net for more details). This is a great time to enjoy some of the higher icefalls, which often become inaccessible due to heavy snow later in the season. On the lower icefalls, particularly those around Lillaz and Cogne, conditions can be rather thin, so it might be better to wait for colder weather from mid-January through February.

How to Get There

Frequent budget ski flights to Turin mean that Cogne is easily accessible from most European countries. From Turin airport, most people will hire a car for the drive to Cogne, which takes about 1hr 40mins, though it is also possible to travel by bus via Aosta. For the more environmentally conscious, it is possible to get to Cogne exclusively via public transport: first to Turin (via train) then to Aosta (via bus).

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Climbers usually stay in one of four main villages: Cogne, Lillaz, Valnontey, or Epinel. Of these, Lillaz and Valnontey are closest to the climbing, but a little further away from the amenities of Cogne. Hotels tend to be towards the top end of most climbers' budgets, though Hotel La Barme in Valnontey is worth a look and is the valley's main climbers' hotel. Alternatively, reasonably priced self-catering options can be found online.

Skiing

Cogne itself is a major resort cross-country skiing resort, with some 70km of prepared trails. For downhill, the resort offers a couple of lifts but is hardly a major destination – thankfully there is plenty of world-class skiing available further north if you don't mind a bit of a drive (it's about 1hr 30mins to the superb resort of Cervinia).

Guidebook

Cogne, Selected Ice Climbs (ISBN 978-1-913167-00-4, published by the OAC) describes more than 400 routes throughout the valleys of Gogne, Grauson, Urtier, Lillaz, Valeille, Valnontey, Valsavarenche, and Valle di Rhemes. It is available online here.

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UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Steve Broadbent



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20 Dec, 2019

A really interesting article that has piqued my curiosity. However, currently the 'how to get there' section is a direct repeat of the 'when to go' section. Can you amend please, or advise in the comments here? Thanks

20 Dec, 2019

More articles like this please.

20 Dec, 2019

Thanks for pointing this out. It should be sorted now.

Nick

20 Dec, 2019

I’ve written a reasonably extensive guide to Val Pettorina in the Dolomites for ice climbing too at http://wildpettorina.com - there is an article on here about the serrai di sottoguda and another about mixed and ice climbing in the dolomites - the link I’ve provided is for a single (quite large) area.

21 Dec, 2019

Thanks for the link, added to our list.


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