Valmiana (WI3), Cogne

Our initial plan had been to climb a WI3+ called Thoule but we found ourselves behind a group of six on the trail who were all intent on climbing the same route. We quickly aborted plans and headed further up the Valnontey valley with no real back-up objective. The prominent icefall on the first pitch of Valmiana soon caught our eye though.

The route
We broke the trail to the base of a route for the third time this trip. The deep snow was no less unconsolidated and we progressed at a rate of about half mile/hour. Every foot was hard work. Anna admirably insisted on breaking the trail for for the first part despite the depth of soft snow being half her height at times. Midway between the valley path and the route was a prominent step, above which the snow underfoot suddenly became firm with the exception of the top foot of powder. It became apparent that we were standing on top of a huge avalanche field, which extended all the way to the base of the climb. Presumably it had slid from much higher up the hillside during the previous week when it was particularly warm spell. With firm snow underfoot we doubled our pace.

Swimming uphill
By the time we had reached the climb it was already 10.45am - over two hours since leaving Valnontey. The skies were blue and sun flooded the initial icefall making it quickly wet. The pitch was hard for the grade with short, steep steps broken up by soft snowy ice that needed to be stripped to find better placements. My climbing at Dover had prepared my patience for finding good holds and fortunately this time my belayer was out of the firing line of raining debris. Often the best placements were in the gaps between chandeliers on the steep steps. Easy snow presented above the icefall and so after a short climb and cleared some snow and made an ice screwed belay.

First (crux) pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Anna led next pitch up a short step that was thin on ice. She managed to kick a football sized hole through its surface, behind which was water running like a tap.

The second pitch
Hollow ice
More easy ground led to another step, this time bigger but still thin. Maybe two inches thick. By this point on the trip I was used to climbing façades of thin ice to the sound of running water. Another easy snow slope led to a bigger icefall. 'Safe'... 'On belay'... A deer casually passed me by whilst Anna swung her axes out-of-sight.
Third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
It was our fourth day's consecutive climbing and Anna was looking exhausted. She was still keen to lead the next pitch in spite of it being harder than anything she had led previously. She hit mental overload at half-height and rested with her head on the ice in silence. She didn't look to be enjoying herself. Maybe the last climb of the trip I thought. We could do tourist stuff for the remainder of our time. Slowly she progressed higher, lacing the ice with screws as she went. By the time I joined her at the belay above she was smiling ear-to-ear and raving about how much she had enjoyed the pitch!

Fourth pitch
An easy but aesthetic final pitch put the icing on the cake of an excellent route, albeit in thin condition. The guidebook had stated the climb to be 110m but in reality it was more like 250m.

Final (fifth) pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Top of the final pitch
We abseiled back down the top pitch before veering to the right of the ice to continue to descent off fixed anchors in the trees. We bounded easily back down the deep snow and back at the cross-country piste stripped ourselves of climbing gear. Our crampons were so frozen-up that we couldn't loosen the hitches on our straps. Eventually I needed Anna's help to remove one of mine. It was another walk back after dusk but we managed it in the fraction of the time compared to reverse.

The descent (down the fourth pitch)

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