Can't remember the color of the sun, I think it was green.
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 light. The depth record from before WWII shatters. But now that the week is classfree we're bound to flee their 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 and blue.
This momentous evening sees us disappear into the black of the tunnel that crawls under Monte Bianco. Through the deep burrow we try to escape the clouds’ malapert regime. Successfully! Because after a while suddenly the open night sky greets us. Thick snow shows as we enter the lands of the Dora Baltea, running down the white mountain flanks. So soon we follow the flow's valley downstream through dense forests. After one a half hour I turn the wheel all the way, off the valley road, to rev up a series of 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 man-made statue. The bronze shows a big-horned climbing creature. Yes, around the industrial evolution these valleys became Ibex' last escape from man and now we enter the home of the once near-extinct wild goats. When I look through the windows and out on the road, I imagine they're bringing us welcome 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.
Apocalypse snow! -15°C. Our morning starts early because we have a long way to navigate deep into the forest valley that's buried under meters of the glitteriest flocks. 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 warming morning sun hits several icefalls on the rive gauche. We march further up into the so-called Valnontey valley until finally our team diverts from the path eventually to gaze up 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, followed by four pitches. Soon I find myself in its cold embrace while I make my way up, 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 trail we came from disappeared in 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 black chough after black chough, each from their own direction, lands in a big overhang on the highest rock we see. “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. [...]
The sun comes up. On our left a stubborn unfrozen flow of water steadfastly takes us in, as if wanting to skip some line somewhere. The morning sun and the stream join forces for a hypnotizing show while the snake of water goes its way into the densest of larch forests. We follow the right river bank downstream. At once it levels with the flow. Then all of a sudden the bank rises high above the stream so we crawl up edgy traces in the snow and are led to a spruce tree that laboriously tries to keep its balance while leaning over the murmur of the river. The high path is one foot broad at a moment, so much that Annelien once slips and almost falls, nearly getting a freezing ride from the stream.
At the other bank icefalls bundle together into a 2m-high wall that continues for a while. The forest above carefully leans over this immaculate white gleaming drop. We continue on our own bank and scramble up rocks and then we trail hips-deep through powdery snow. Tons of icicles hang above our heads. 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. I see a tall wall of ice, higher than any indoor climbing hall. [...]
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 Monte Bianco 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 highway vanishes in heavy snowfall. Right in front of our minibus a car slams the brakes going from 120km/h to 40km/h in a matter of seconds. [...]
The next days we see more sun than we did in the whole of December and January combined. We brought the weather!
Thanks to certified Eiskletterführer Denis, to famiglia Malvezzi for their cosy wooden house sticking up in the valley village and thanks to Guido from KULeuven for his effort and trust to hand me over the KULeuven van for a prolonged period. Finally we also owe quite a deal to Everyday Food, we hope they want to become our sponsor.