Snowbirds: a term for the many Canadians who escape winter by flying to warmer destinations.
I however seem to have lost that part of my heritage and do a reverse migration. When it is cold enough to freeze waterfalls I go celebrate the ice season, and I am not alone.
Each year I am drawn to northern Italy for the Cogne Ice Opening event in Aosta. 80-120 people gather in the mountain hamlet of Lillaz with its welcoming locals and ice features within walking distance. Organised by pro Climbers Tanja Schmitt & Matthias Scherer and Mountain Guide Heike Schmitt the event is an informal mix of clinics, films & presentations, and technical gear. In its 5th year it has a good following. Seeing familiar faces, mixing skill levels, and coaching from the variety of guides, helps me forget how cold I am.
Trail Shorts vs 'Puffy' Jacket?
This year my temperature shift was even more extreme, going from a tropical 35 Celsius to Alps sub zero. Just days before Cogne I was in the Caribbean working on a Team Globetrailers tour bringing a group of runners / hikers on trails in Martinique and Dominica. Volcanic islands lush and green surrounded by turquoise water, give rise to technical terrain through rivers, tree roots, and mangroves.
It is no surprise that Dominica was the film location for Pirates of the Caribbean! With few sandy beaches, no fancy resorts, or direct international flights, it's been spared mass tourism and was my preferred island. Its smaller size, unspoiled nature, friendliness of the people, and independent status gives a different feeling than Martinique which has 5x the population and still part of France.
Dominica: the 'nature island' is located between Guadeloupe and Martinique. With mountainous rainforests it is the home of rare plants and animals. Heavy rainfall inland feeds the rivers (365 of them) and many waterfalls on the island's 750 sq km. There is actually a Facebook page called Dominica Waterfalls! It also has the world's 2nd largest hot spring, the volcanically heated Boiling Lake. Although not boiling when we went, swimming was prohibited - just in case... Apparently it has taken a break in the past but nobody can predict when.
Waitukubuli National Trail: the Caribbean’s first long distance hiking trail - 185km South to North. It takes you through National Parks, farm lands, forest reserves, coastal areas, communities, and the Morne Trois Pitons National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fresh fruit could be found on the ground for natural snacks, but we still provide our group a support vehicle (thanks Anne Guillon, Team Globetrailer boss). My alpinist friends may not consider these real mountains but the combined vertical we cover in the heat with the rooted terrain breaks more than a sweat! It was always nice to come back to a hammock at our guest house the Petit Paradis in Wotton Waven (with only cold water showers). As I spent time around the natural springs, bubbling mud baths, and cascading waterfalls, it was hard to imagine the world of frozen water I would go to next.
Winter Travel Without a Car: not as easy as hitching in the back of a rastas truck.
Nothing like the enthusiasm of Isabelle Santoire 'Isa' to ignite the winter spark. This dynamo High Level Mountain Guide mother of two (and married to a guide) always has a project on the go. I join her French-Anglo co-voiturage /carpool along with friend and accomplished alpinist Heather Geluk (who I first met at the 2013 event) and new acquaintance Veronique. We meet up in Chamonix and arrive in Cogne in time for aperitifs. There I find Heike and Tanja Scmitt with their caffeine twin- fueled laughter. Apparently, they have a plan for me! Uh-oh!!
(If you have not read my blog Cogne Ice Opening 2015 - Heike has an evil laugh (a nice sort of evil), at least you know you will use muscles when out with her).
In the mix of French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Norwegians and English, there is a surprising number of Canadians - Heather, Isa, myself, good friend Steve, and we meet more! We must have gotten lost in the trade winds, or being from the true north felt some affiliation to the ice, but what's great about this event is that it is open to everyone - from people who have never worn crampons to those with specific objectives and very technical gear.
This year there was a shortage of ice spots for the number of people but the team do a great job of offering challenging alternatives. I made it easy for the organisation when I let it slip during aperitifs (I wasn't even drinking!) that I was interested in dry tooling. Having positive memories of trying it at the 2015 event I didn't realise how hard a full day of it would be.
Dry Tooling: involves climbing rock with ice axes and crampons or rock shoes. It has its origins in mixed climbing, ice climbing, and more recently sport climbing. Dry tooling is controversial among many climbers. Some favour it as a new and exciting kind of climbing, while others dislike it for its nontraditional methods and the permanent damage it can cause to certain, generally softer, rock formations (definition by wikipedia).
Our Guide Cecile Thomas set up a station where we did a bouldering style warm up traversing with crampons. Once I got on the rope she shouted 'suggestions' on technique and I remember those bad habits in my climbing form, e.g. not keeping hips close to the wall and not using legs enough, then with ice climbing there is always "keep your heals down". I watch yoga teacher Sophie Bernaille move on the rock wall like a true yogi, flexible and strong while giving out a positive happy energy throughout the day.
Dusting off his climbing gear is good friend of mine "Big Steve". He doubles the weight of most of the female climbers in our group so he is the lucky guy to have 2 women (for his belay), soon the "Big" nickname provides us with humour and keeps our minds off the cold while we wait to climb. It seems he has a funny need to be yelled at by French guides so we join in "Allez Steve!".
I can see how dry tooling has its place in the climbing world but trying to get single toe points to hold in a tiny rock dimple (not even a crack) is hard. I longed for comfy running shoes and warmer weather!
Climbing Culture Evening
The evening program of films & presentations by the athletes this year included: François Damilano, Mathieu Maynadier, Rudolf Hauser. It was interesting to see across these climbers how the sport has evolved between the generations and the influence of media.
French Francois Damilano referenced an 'golden age' of ice climbing, while himself showing interest in the newer generation climbers like Matthias Scherer who presented Anathema his own film project with Heike and Tanja in Norway.
Austrian Rudolf Hauser talked through his solo project in the Hochkogel region, climbing two lines (1000m & 1400m) linked with a 20 km run in just over 11 hours .
"4-year adventure around the world to unexplored regions of the planet only accessible by sea".
The project is literally captained by Erwan Le Lann 'mountain guide, sailor, and explorer' and will sail to both polar regions to explore Greenland, Baffin Island, Alaska and Antartica - for ice climbing, mountaineering, and freeriding.
Back on Ice
Day2 of the event and motivated by the previous night, I went to a new spot I had not yet tried in the other Cogne events. Guides Isabelle, Heike, Cecile, and Maciek Ciesielski set up this 2nd station below Cascata di Loie so we could go between the two ice spots, if anything keeping warm by clamoring up and downhill. This one had its own challenges, 2/3 of the route was a mixed climb leading up to a brittle ice finish. But to feel like the weekend was complete I had to get in my annual go on the Loie ice, which was quick as all the ropes were being taken down. Nothing like the pressure of a group of mountain guides waiting for you to finish so they can go home!
Thank you!! An overall thanks to the organisers and sponsors who make this event happen. Supported by La Sportiva, Arc’teryx, Petzl, Black Diamond, Sterling Rope, Suunto and Glorify.
I was touched when the woman at Bar de Cascate remembered me from a year ago (and that I avoid eating hot food in plastic) and with friendly glance she came out with my own special bowl of soup! There is also Andrea from Hotel Ondezana who is so eager to please he breaks a sweat going around his hotel.
A waterfall, whether cascading in the jungle surrounded by bright green foliage or frozen in its tracks in a winter alpine environment, often grabs our attention. There is something about the flow of water over a mountain that brings us back to nature. Sometimes we get to appreciate this on our own and other times share with friends.