Ice Climbing in La Grave/Arolla
Also posted on Summitpost here
La Grave climbing
(More pictures to come for the climbing on day 1 and day 5, hopefully!).
Dan P. and I scheduled to climb in Cogne, Italy for a week, but a sudden vicious snowfall put things out of condition, even making it impossible to drive to our hotel. So we stayed in La Grave where the snowfall was less severe. I don’t have all the pictures yet, they are in Dan’s camera. And at other times, my own camera basically froze up and I couldn’t get any pictures. So some icefalls have none as of yet!
We had a great time, and improved our abilities in safe conditions. Every day was blue sky, but not too warm.
La Colere du ciel. II. WI3+. 300 meters. (no pictures yet)
P1 - WI2, then easy snow slopes for 70 meters. Dan. P2 - WI3+, runout. Michael P3 - WI4-, Bad ice, vertical. Dan Reled P2, further left. WI3. Michael. Reled P3, further right. WI3+. Dan.
A guide told us that there were moderate mixed gullies to climb on the south rocky face of La Rateau. We took one rope and a mix of gear including pitons. We took skis, and skinned up above the lift until a steep, icy glacier required us to front point for a while to reach a high pass. We descended a moderately steep gully for 300 meters to reach a bench that provided access to the south face of La Rateau.
Reclimbing a couloir on La Rateau.
We chose the likely looking narrow gully and started up. Well, after only a moment I was stymied by a difficult move and delaminating ice. I also was worried about the time. Dan went up and styled the pitch with good tool hooks high on the right. But in two hours it would be dark already! We had at least 6 pitches to climb on unknown, possibly very difficult terrain. So we bailed, and made the exhausting reclimb of the access gully in hip deep snow. Finally regaining our skis, we descended to La Grave, reaching down about an hour after full dark. What an exhausting day for only 1/2 a pitch of technical climbing!
The beautiful La Meije above La Grave.
Dan went skiing and I stayed in the hotel, resting, writing and recording a short song I titled “La Meije.” This was not climbing, but it was great fun all the same! If you like kind of silly “Satriani”-influenced guitar playing check out the MP3 here.
At dinner we got good advice for the next two days ice climbing.
Dan on Pitch 2.
We took a lift up into a ski area to climb Symphonie d’Automne, a three pitch WI4 climb, that is usually in great condition. Indeed it looked great. I led a nice 40 meter WI3 pitch to a fixed belay on rock. Dan led a similar, though somewhat steeper pitch that set us up for the crux. The last pitch climbed three taxing vertical steps of WI4. I was determined to protect the pitch well instead of running it out too much, as I had a tendency to do because I hated the energy expenditure required to place screws. I got very pumped placing two screws on the first vertical pillar. But Dan encouraged me to keep it together. After that, I felt pretty strong, and kept going, eventually topping out to a rock anchor. My excitement about the challenging pitch kept me warm the whole time Dan climbed. He really enjoyed it too.
Dan rappelling pitch 3. Our line was a bit right of the rope in the picture.
We got down with two rappels on Dan’s 70 meter ropes, then just had time for a short version of the nearby climb Ice Bille. Normally WI4, we just did the first 35 meters which was a moderate WI3. Then we ran to catch the last lift down to town. A great, mind-expanding day.
On the easy and fun Ice Bille.
We hiked into the Vallon du Diable above St. Christoph for more than an hour until reaching an extensive north facing cliff band. Some friends at the hotel had been in the day before, climbing Les Hemos a Godo, a 4/5-pitch WI3-4 line in a narrow gully system. Dan and I decided to climb it too, despite a somewhat rotten appearance from a distance. The thing was, it looked like a worthy adventure though, so we were there!
With the 70 meter rope I was able to combine the first two pitches for a single, wonderful WI3+ pitch. What I liked about it was the moderate angle combined with the narrow couloir walls on each side. The ice was very solid too. I belayed from ice screws at the base of a pillar.
Dan climbed about 40 meters up a short vertical ice section with a spicy exit on seemingly vertical snow beside a rock wall. At least he could kick a step in the snow and have one tool in good ice on the left. Pretty exciting pitch!
Next I followed WI3 gullies for a 50 meter pitch. Maybe WI3+ at some 80+ degree columns to be surmounted. Traversing left to reach an anchor, I foolishly bashed myself in the cheek with my ice tool. It was Christmas Day, so I guess that’s my present!
Dan led a final pitch up 10 meters of WI3, then encountered easier terrain to an anchor about 60 meters up.
We made several rappels to the ground. I had dropped a carabiner at the start of the climb, then lost a bet with Dan that we could find it on slopes below the climb afterwards. It was nowhere to be found :-(.
This climb had a great combination of adventure, moderate grade and sense of commitment in the narrow gullies. It probably helped that we had all the cliffs to ourselves.
We hiked out in the dark. The next day was extremely cold and windy. It was time to leave for another area. Cogne was still too snowy, so we drove north, settling on Arolla because of a web page extolling it’s virtues.
Cascade des Ignes
Dan skinning up the (wrong) valley wall.
A website raved about this climb despite a long (2 hour) approach, so we skied in to it. The mountains looked beautiful, perhaps contributing to us taking a wrong turn and climbing the sunny valley wall opposite the icefall. We thought maybe there would be a graceful way back down and around the valley. It didn’t work out, but we found our way down anyway, with some “survival skiing” on my part, then we had to climb back up the valley a ways. Ultimately, it was a 3 hour approach for us!
To save weight, we only took 1 70 meter thin rope, which we doubled to allow 35 meter pitches.
Dan led 40 meters of solid WI3+ to a fixed belay on a ledge. He placed a lot of screws on this pitch, which I ribbed him about. In turn, he ribbed me for my earlier kamikaze leads on Cascade du Ceil where I placed almost no screws. Over the week we’d figured out a variety of ways to cope with the cold and stress of ice climbing in the shade all the time…mostly they involved merciless ribbing of each other, lots of profanity, and a set of invented characters including a wily life-loving Frenchman, and an elegant if seedy Swiss “Grand Dame,” inspired by our time at the imposing and austere Hotel du Mont Collon in Arolla. That and a Thermos of hot tea made the long, cold belays tolerable! But suffice to say, the climbing around Arolla was extremely cold.
I led a similar WI3+ pitch to an ice screw belay in a shallow corner. A very satisfying pitch. We realized we’d have to get down from this point and on up with Ablakov anchors, so we went ahead and made two at this belay point. Dan then headed up for a long pitch of WI3 that required me to simul-climb about 20 meters while he scrabbled in rocks under snow to reach a belay point. Not trusting that upper anchor much, we created another Ablakov anchor in the ice to get down. Several rappels got us to the ground.
This was a remote and adventurous icefall, we really liked it. The ski out was kind of scrappy along a narrow snow-shoe trail. But the area seemed to have many ski tours. Some other folks skied up to a hut below the Aiguilles Rouges.
The Cascade du Tunnel
On our last day of the trip, we drove about a mile down from Arolla to a tunnel with a reliable 3 pitch icefall above, called the Cascade du Tunnel. We hoped to climb a harder (WI4) pillar on the right but it wasn’t in. In fact, the Tunnel route looked fairly thin over rock in the middle section.
I led a 35 meter pitch above our belay which started out in straightforward ice, then entered a zone of thin ice over rock where security could only be found on short vertical columns in between. This interesting pitch had a little bit of everything…delicate hooking around narrow columns, vertical ice, “snice.” Above, Dan led a similarly challenging pitch that required me to get hit with a lot of ice. I did everything I could to hide under my helmet, which mostly worked except for a really rude slap on my belay hand. “OW!” I said. It always freaked Dan out when I’d get hit by ice and make some noise. I tried to control the reflexive cry, but if the ice chunk that hit me was big enough I couldn’t help but exclaim. Maybe I’m a big wimp!
But on the last pitch Dan would be sorely tested at the belay. I climbed a vertical column right above him, then entered a truly scary zone of sugar snow overlayed by a scrim of frozen water that broke off in large chunks if you looked at it wrong. After sending two chunks down on him (luckily, the biggest pieces sailed over his head), I knew I couldn’t try to cross that zone, and looked to a very steep pillar as my exit to the final slopes. Not trusting the ice much around here, I placed two screws in the base of a pillar after chopping away a bad surface layer. “Here goes!” I thought, fully on my tools to commit to the vertical pillar. Mountain goats were watching me from a patch of sun on the side of the icefall. I concentrated on the task at hand, and after a few wildly exposed moves I reached rocks above the icefall, getting good tool sticks in frozen grass and climbing to a tree.
And thus our long week of ice climbing was over. Oh, Dan touched the scrim of ice over snow a bit more deeply. It fractured, sending down a 10 foot wide chunk of plate-glass on the lower pitches of the climb. Two guys below were eyeing the climb, and they disappeared after that!
We decided to hike down instead of building anchors on the strange ice. Soon we were making the long drive home to Munich, ready for work the next day.
The scenery on Cascade du Tunnel.