2009 - Avalanched in Cogne

27 February 2009   Cogne, Italy

It was the last day of a fantastic week of ice climbing around Cogne, Italy.  We were a party of six climbers from the Bromsgrove and Redditch Mountaineering Club and had climbed some of the classic ice falls in the area. The weather had been ideal with blue skies during the day and freezing nights.

Over the previous 4 weeks, the Cogne area had received over a metre of snowfall and, at the start of the week, the avalanche risk was High (Level 4). The previous day, the avalanche risk had been downgraded to Moderate (Level 2).

Our personal observations were that the slopes were consolidating and we had not seen or heard any avalanches during the week.

On our final day of climbing, Andy Harpur, Matt Thomas and I decided to climb an ice fall called “Pattinaggio Artistico”. This Grade 3 climb was chosen because we believed it to be on the shady side of the valley and, even though the avalanche risk was only a Level 2, we felt that it would be safer to climb in the shade because of the warm weather.

Andy leading the second pitch

The day started well, blue skies with wispy clouds and a temperature of minus two degrees. We set off from the Residence Nigritelles in Lillaz at about 0915. There is a fairly steep approach to the climb. When we had ascended about 200 metres and were traversing a snowy slope, Andy stepped into a deep hole, plunging in up to his hip. While trying to pull himself out, the valve from his drinking bladder came off and water started to pour out down his side. As he removed his rucksack, he dropped his camera, which (naturally) bounced down the slope to the bottom of the valley. Andy had to go down to get it, while Matt and I carried on to the start of the route to wait for him. I guess that this delayed the start of our climb by about 30 minutes.

Eventually, at about 1115, we had established ourselves on the belay at the top of “Pattinaggio Artistico Direct” (a 50m high vertical ice fall which we skirted around). The ice that we were climbing is in a gully which has steep cliffs on the left (looking up) and is both beautiful and atmospheric. The gully varies in width from 10 metres for the first pitch to about 30 metres at the top. 

Matt, on his first ice climbing trip, led the first pitch which is an easy grade 2/3 and set up a belay above us. Andy and I climbed together to save time. After rearranging the ropes, Andy led the next pitch which had a steep 80 degree, 15 m section. As he was climbing another two climbers arrived at the bottom of the first pitch. Matt and I climbed the second pitch separately.

Climbing as a group of three meant that we were climbing slowly; the logistics of sorting out ropes at each belay and climbing separately is time consuming. By the time that Matt had arrived at the second belay it was after 1330 and the sun was shining on the route. Matt led the third pitch, but he couldn’t find the bolted belay. Instead, he set up a belay with 3 ice screws about 10 metres above the bolted belay. Andy and I climbed together up to the “Ice Screw Belay”, sorted out the ropes and I then started to lead the fourth pitch as two Italians abseiled down the route past us to establish themselves on the “Bolted Belay”.

The ice on the fourth pitch was fantastic; it was softening up in the sunshine and had a plastic consistency making placing crampon points and ice axes easy and secure. I was climbing in brilliant sunshine. Some of the sections of ice were starting to run with water. When I was part way up the pitch, a small slough of snow dislodged from the top of the cliffs to the left of the gully and fell onto the Italians on the bolted belay, this was very small and no problem.

At the top of the fourth pitch, there was a 45 degree, 10 meter snow slope up to the ice of the fifth and final pitch. I climbed up and clipped into an in-situ “Abalakov Thread”. This was starting to melt out, but appeared to be two threads combined. I decided that it was strong, but backed it up with an ice screw and clipped in.

Leading the fourth pitch

I had a look around. To my left there were a few small bushes then a cliff, above me was the fifth pitch consisting of easy looking ice leading to the skyline and what I assumed to be the top of the climb. To my right was a snow-filled gully, then a ridge, and below me was the bulge of ice that was the fourth pitch, which I had climbed. I could see that the snow-filled gully curved down to where Andy and Matt were standing at the Ice Screw Belay.

I started to sort out my ropes when I heard a deep rumble. I looked up to my right and saw a snow avalanche pouring down from the top right hand side of the gully.

I shouted “AVALANCHE!!!” and dived down to the ground with my head covered. Snow swept around and over me, but soon stopped.

 I shouted down to Andy and Matt who replied that they were both OK. I looked around. It seemed that I had only been hit by the edge of the avalanche; the majority of the snow had gone down the right hand snow filled gully into Andy and Matt. We decided that we’d been lucky and that we should continue to climb to the top of the route where we could walk off.

 I called down to Matt to climb. After about 2 or 3 minutes, while Matt was still climbing, there was a very loud rumbling which turned out to be a very large avalanche somewhere else in the valley. I looked up at the skyline. The small avalanche had come around a small gully on the right hand side of the skyline. If we had another small avalanche then it would probably do the same and the pitch that we were climbing would miss most of it. However, the avalanche that I had heard had been very large; would a big avalanche come over the whole of the skyline and wipe us out? I didn’t know what the terrain was like above the skyline.

I became very nervous and thought that we should abseil off the route. I called down to Matt and Andy, and said that I thought we should get off. Andy and Matt agreed and I lowered Matt down to the Bolted Belay. Once he had clipped in, I started to set the ropes up on the Abalakov Thread so that I could abseil down to Andy at the Ice Screw Belay. While I was doing this, Andy called up asking if I could lower him down to the Bolted Belay. I thought that it would take too long, so I replied “No” and started to abseil down.

I only got about 8 meters down the snow slope when I heard (or was it felt?) the sound of another avalanche. I looked up and saw a much larger avalanche roaring down from the right hand corner.

I shouted “AVALANCHE!!!” ran to my left and dived under a small bush praying that the Abalakov Thread above me would hold. Snow swept around and over me.