Since two and a half months they reign. Took the sky overnight, them clouds. What can we do? Never since the first scientific observations, during both December and January, Belgium has been so grimly blocked from the sun and stars. The depth record from before WWII shatters. Classfree week, we flee this tyranny.
We approach the Alps. Not even they, dark sky nazis, would reach over
les Grandes Jorasses and l'Envers des Aiguilles, there, awaiting us. Around every corner looms a mountain way higher than the former. You’re imagining it now and it’s not going to be high enough. We make another bend. Suddenly, high in front of us, a lone top burns in flaming colours way up in the sky where I could have only expected the moon. Aiguille Verte. All else is already dark or blue.
Saturday evening. We reach the dark tunnel that crawls under Monte Bianco. Through this shaft we escape the clouds’ malapert regime. Successfully. Open sky. Thick snow. We enter the land where the Dora Baltea runs from the mountain flanks. We join her through her valley forests and steer for 1,5h 'till we turn off up hairpin bends.
This road is the sole access to the many valleys near Cogne. It doesn’t seem like we’re driving to some kind of habited world. I will notice a statue depicting an Ibex. During industrial (r)evolution these valleys became their last escape from man. I drive into the only home of the once near-extinct wild goats. When I look through the windows and out on the road, they're bringing me presents and saying hello.
We’re going ice climbing. Wikipedia says it’s a most dangerous sport but there's some wrong with that. None of us aspires to be a Red Bull gladiator. Yet, before heading to the Italian Alps and Cogne, some of us had to convince someone*. ”Google Pictures to the rescue.. oh..” Oh well, luckily we have an experienced guide who knows a little something of the mountains. Denis arrives in the night, bringing stories from Freissinières, Southern Ecrins. Now we’re seven badasses, climbing ice, putting potato chips on bread.
-15°C. Early in the morning we start walking. Eau de Cristaux skips this year. Stella Artice and several others appear. Put your helmet on, commencing countdown, engines on.
Sun is out. Burning on our waterfall. A stream spurts behind the ice. Here and there we hear water. In this dark corner Denis starts with several runouts, drytooling to the icy end. Breaking miniholds could not stop Denis. But a self-destructive microreglette does in a delicate crux. As for most of the stage Denis installs topropes. I need several go's and combine a very low held upperhand with a high underhand with the axe grinsing agressively towards myself (Stein pull).
We make relais, go for a few abalakovs and develop our own technique. I try (not too vertical) ice axeless. It’s not the bad idea it sounds. There I am. I cling to a side pull, trying to rip my hard-frozen fleece gloves from the sticky ice. Then I balance on a straight wall. With my crampons holding it together. My hands melt the ice in my gloves.
We’ll get home safe where I discover a pink rescue helicopter with feet. And a ceramic cup with a cow sticking out from the middle of the bottom.
The morning sun strikes icefalls on the rive gauche. We discover the Valnontey valley. Make our way through the forests. We will come across L'Acheronte on the rive droite, the mythological river of woe where a ferryman leads you to the underworld (*). If you love the vague Alpine Grading.. it's AD+.. but that won't tell much. It starts with one pitch, then a freerun on an easy ice slope for 150m, then come four pitches. I climb Acheronte, led by Denis. Under me go pieces of mist in a grill chimney.
Again we find ourselves latenight in our warm cocoon, not sure how it got so late so soon.
Next day. I kick my boots in the slope to stop the sliding. I look down. The way we come from disappeared. Snow and fog. I remember crawling up a frozen wall of dirt. Houses high. Chopped up trees sticking out. With up on the hill a vast stroke of forest missing. And a steep slope leading to mountains we cannot see. I remember the last tree. And I remember the river upstream vanishing.
We're trying our way up 30° snow. For long we can't see the waterfall of last night's dreams, but then a cirque will end the climb. Artax's quality ice shows. Denis undertakes Rutschblock tests. Semi-breaking. Quasi-sliding. Meanwhile official avalanche risk today is low, 2/5. The gov signals no problems for westfaced soft slopes above 2400m. Nonetheless we're informed of vast 30-45° slopes (the mad range) among the steep rocks above the waterfall. We don't take risks and commence our journey back home.
A new day. We pass by Cold Couloir. 900m of narrow gulley disappears in clouds, even on this sunny day. By the time sun's riding high, we dare our way up an east faced wall. We’re seeking out the steep walls' cold embrace, away from the sun. Some snowtea later we get going.
We find falls from Valeille's Gran Val where we'll get to test our free testcentre samples of the Cassin "Wiouw, sooo aggressive, such a perfect day" X-Dream. By the evening I have to forcibly take the axes away from one of the guys and drive them back to the village.
Chunks of ice trickle down and thunder past. On harsh impact Daan would have said "oh, put some ice on" but he is up as meanwhile, on a monsterfall, Denis teaches him and Loïc to multipitch and rappel. The next minutes one black bird (a chough) after the other enters a big overhang on the highest rock we see, each from their own direction. The topic of their gathering remains mystery. “Hmmmm… hypothermal climbers…”.
Cogne lights up in the valley. From the unpredictable mountain river, a steep staircase building towers up. Straight into town. Lanterns burn the church as icy wind shrieks around street corners. A fox scares away with a bleeding cadaver.
In the morning it snows. I follow Denis in Patri, i.e. Disneyland Patri, as it is very crowded. Makes me think of the train station on many a Friday eve, when students leaving home form waiting lines after two ticket machines, up to the corridor's opposite wall, obstructing the passageway, creating a tight bottleneck for the stream of rush hour's rushers.
None gets the idea to line up by the wall, or simpler, to take a little detour upstairs where 5 machines and 4 counters are idle. Here there's more falls but people are after us. We manage.
I meet a Chamonix woman. And a Californian guy who just e-mails me a photo with me climbing. Today Yashin leads (my earlier) L'Acheronte further upstream.
Suuuun. Here it comes. I feel that ice is slowly melting. Behind a curtain of icicles I belay Denis. Two lengths later I'm going up the ice of a tight goulotte, just broad enough for me. The sixth pitch ends the multipitch.
A full rope abseil takes to a shoulder. From here we undertake a walk out. The valley helps us back home through forests where we spotted chamois in the morning. The headlights stay off. Lights highlight three marooned climbers who are high up and slowly descending.
Last day with Denis. At our left a modest flow of water steadfastly takes us in. The unfrozen snake takes into the forest. The edgy traces on the right bank are once high above the stream, then all of a sudden the river bank is right at the flow's surface. Boom, we have to be way up some rocks with a sketchily balancing spruce tree. The slippery path is one foot broad at a moment. On the other side little icefalls bundle together along a sudden drop. The ice wall has the forest above gently leaning over.
We scramble up rocks and trail hips-deep through snow. Above us hang rocks and tons of icicles.
A more open spot reveals. Purlingly water plunges over a rectangular rock. I jump to a hanging ice isle. A trout shoots underneath. My glance is catched way up, higher than our familiar climbing hall. Ice..
After Yashin at Gran Val, now I get to go for my first equip and lead. In ice climber Will Gadd's notes I read about the classic thumb rule saying one should first have finished 50-150 topropes. Glad I don't listen to all of his very useful tips. Eisbär'n müssen nie weinen. Leading, you see a whole different fall. One that does not allow ignorance. Will I look down in anguish and see death ready to catch me up?
We all learned a lot. Yet one of the guys finds crampons: “The front spikes are turned down?!” (holding them backwards).
In Hotel La Barme − ice climber hotspot − we talk climb. “Did you do that route that starts in Freyr and ends in Berdorf?”. We proove where in the hierarchy everyone fits, from the bottom as a competitionjanet (machine men with machine minds and machine hearts), up to indoorjanet, boulderer, sportsclimbjanet, rockclimber, up to ice climber, up to ice boulderer.
We find La Barme’s ice climbing journal. It’s not hard to figure we shouldn’t let Daan write on his drytooling adventures. In the evening Denis says his goodbyes as he has to go to the Dolomites. Standing outside: “What are the stars, what is Orion doing there?”.. We may already miss Denis.
On the last day I take my map. Our plan? Topless running to the first top we see in sunny Gimillan. Through deep snow we scale several of the strangest small-scale dam structures up a bright gully getting steeper. Swirling higher and higher, the ravine leads out a forest. We gain hundreds of meters. The increasing slope suddenly gives out to a comfortable shoulder with a Maria statue.
There we see another top. We run to that one! (After convincing the whole group. Our fellowship agrees to a return hour, just not to get lost on steep dark snow slopes.) Approaching, still from afar, I perceive movement on the top. High in the sky, three tiniest of points line up closely. We feel watched. I discern for every point two white vertical lines. Ibex.
We reach subtop Punta di Arpisson. Then we won't disturb the sky's horned climbers. We have to head back. Skiing on D-boots, or a shovel, running down, landing hard enough to not slide off the slope, we fly. Hit the snow. I stumble, collapse mid-air. Land. Veer up. Tumble down. Jump and slide. Everyone wins in their own discipline. We find a way into the trees.
...and our way back down into Gimillan's mountain village. I dodge two tricycle Piaggio's stuttering up past the church. My boots are full of snow, ice and water. In a bar spoons stay upright in hot chocolate. Definitely Italy.
The next morning I steer back home. Music, no stiff back, nothing like working for a day at the desk. Bring it on. But what - is - this? After several tunnels, right before Courmayeur, the lower piece of Aiguille Noir fills the high sky. I lean over the wheel and straight up I see the feet of the Mont Blanc massif fade into dense steam.
Once on the French side, snow hits the window like a Star Wars intro. Underway everyone’s French is tested on a scale of 0 to “the landlord who asks you something and five minutes later asks Loïc the exact same thing” (dixit Loïc). “Ow.. guess you’re that douche that buys avalanche beepers that only send?” (dixit Daan)
By the evening a sultry woman’s voice on the radio goes ”Classique vingt et un.. Back. Hooome.”. Belgium! The road vanishes in heavy snowfall. The car in front of me slams the brakes to 40km/h. Everyone gets home right in time for the new semester. The next day it's icy cool. The sky is clear. In a few days we see more sun than we did in the whole of December and January combined. We brought the weather!
Special thanks goes to Alpenverein’s licensed highly recommended Eiskletterführer and Jugendleiter Denis. Lots of thanks to famiglia Malvezzi for their cosy wooden house sticking up in the valley village. Thanks to Guido from KULeuven for his effort and trust to hand me over the KULeuven Van for a prolonged period. Also thanks to my colleague Liselotte taking things over and handling two consultation mornings alone. Finally we also have quite a deal to thank to Everyday Food and we hope they want to become our sponsor.
Writing this, just having been to Freyr, I want to write something on the strong-climbing and ever-guiding "wazige Vinçent" who sometimes pops up in Freyr although he went to live in Germany with his wife and five kids, from where he brings seasoned/yeasted/brewed/fresh/... mysterious food from the garden, as he tells about how he distracts Facebook algorithms with his fake profile, posting Chinese articles, or as he talks on the healing suck of stones, and sometimes he teaches climbing to convicted kid criminals he sporadically brings, but I'm already writing around the edge of my paper.
*: "No backward flips from mountain top edges wearing your harness backwards, promise?"
Yet this note on Acheronte:
*: On the other hand strange enough the Byzantine encyclopedia Suda calls it the river of healing. Dante's Inferno on its turn describes the Acheront river’s position at an outer circle of l’Inferno. From this point, circle after circle, villains appear. Then very deep there is this one, trapped in ice, pleased to meet you, hoping you guessed his name and call him Lucifer. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! (..the book of Isaiah says of the fallen angel, fed up with Homo Sapiens)
(Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1898)
And this addendum on the intro:
*: English wiki says it's extreme, Dutch wiki writes it's a dangerous risk-taker’s sport. Ah, Wikipedia, media… Wasn’t it the public broadcast exclaiming nature was lost, because trees blossomed in December? They didn’t guess there could be something like a well-known December-loving variety of cherry. Wasn’t it renowned Knack Magazine writing some silly news on the most marketed eight-thousander, showing it with a picture of Ama Dablam’s north face?
A paper at RWTH Aachen wrote the dangers of ice climbing weren’t disproportionally high, wohooww.. unless you have a profession demanding a university degree (1.54x avg), or are a student (1.38x avg) or a policemen/soldiers/firefighter (1.25x avg). The pseudo-statistics are gruesome. The subsequent extrapolation to a conclusion is an apparent science-philosophical disaster. Not one that at least temporarily makes sense in your mind, like the ones the Quantum-Zeno Paradox adresses.