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 stars and sun. The depth record from before WWII shatters. Dear week that's classfree, 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 here 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 different valleys near Cogne. It doesn't seem like a road to the habited world. Yet some time later I'll notice a statue. A bronze creature stands tall. A horned climber. Yes, during industrial (r)evolution these valleys became Ibex' 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, I imagine they're bringing me presents and saying hello.
We’re going ice climbing. Wikipedia says it’s a risk seekers' extreme sport but that doesn't seem right. 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. "No backward flips from mountain top edges wearing your harness backwards, promise?" (*)
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 morning we start walking. Eau de Cristaux skips this year. Stella Artice and several others appear together with the sun.
Put your helmet on, commencing countdown, engines on.
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. The sun makes place for the stars. Under me go pieces of mist in a grill chimney.
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.
We pass by Cold Couloir. 900m of narrow gulley disappears in clouds which the high sun can't expel. Chunks of ice trickle down and thunder past. Aw. Daan would tell us to put some ice on the bump, but now he is up on a monsterfall as Denis teaches him and Loïc to multipitch and rappel. While doing so one black bird (a chough) after the other enters a big overhang on the highest rock we see, each from their own direction. “Hmmmm… hypothermal climbers…”.
It's dark. Then Cogne lights up in the valley. From the unpredictable mountain river, a steep staircase building towers up. Straight into town. Lanterns burn in the centre around the church where icy wind shrieks around street corners. A fox scares away with a bleeding cadaver.
At our left a stubborn flow of water steadfastly takes us in. Sunrays and water make hypnotizing shows. Like a snake, the river leads a way into the forest. The river bank is right at the flow's surface, to be at once high above the stream. We crawl up the right bank on edgy traces to a balancing spruce tree. The high slippery path is one foot broad at a moment.
At the other side little icefalls bundle together along a farstretching 2-meter-drop. The forest above gently leans over the ice wall. We scramble up rocks and trail hips-deep through snow. Tons of icicles aim straight down at us. A more open spot reveals. Purlingly water plunges over a rectangular rock. I jump to a floating ice isle. A trout shoots underneath. Then my glance shoots up. Higher than the familiar climbing hall, I see ice.
We 're on a subtop of Punta di Arpisson, sweaty and shirtless, full in the sun. It might get dark soon. We have to head back. Skiing on D-boots, or a shovel, or running down landing hard enough to not slide off the slope, we fly, hit the snow, stumble, and after ninja movements mid-air we land and veer up to tumble down. Everyone wins in their own downhill discipline.
I find myself steering back home. 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.
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 two morning meetings. Finally we also have quite a deal to thank to Everyday Food and we hope they want to become our sponsor.