Ice climbing and its history: Repentance 20 years on
Repentance was first climbed in Cogne, Valle d'Aosta in 1989 by François Damilano, Fulvio Conta and Giancarlo Grassi and soon became the symbol of a new ice climbing era in the Alps. Twenty years after the first ascent Damilano and Conta joined forces once again to repeat the route. Elio Bonfanti recounts the day out and uses this occasion to take a step back into climbing history and a step forward into its future.
After numerous attempts and numerous retreats, Repentance was first climbed in Cogne in 1989. Up until then the elusive icefall could have been compared to a beautiful woman... everybody wanted her yet no one was capable of wooing her. And although there were some capable of such a feat, in truth there weren't that many...
In fact, one day three foreigners (Valle d’Aosta has always been very conservative about this...) from France, Turin, and Ivrea met up and eliminated the problem. The local climbers didn’t really appreciate this and replied to the provocation with the first ascent of another jewel, "Di fronte al tradimento" (literally: "Facing betrayal", since the pillar is located in front of Repentance) showing the European climbing community that the time had come to push the vertical limit one step further still.
What is certain is that at the time the "race" contributed in speeding up the evolution of this sport and resulted in two genuinely important climbs. It has to be said that at the end of the '80's there were already numerous top-end climbs, such as Weeping Pillar in Canada or Hydenfossen in Noway but in Italy, apart from a few rare exceptions, climbs such as "Repentance" and "Di fronte al tradimento" represented a definitive step forward.
The driving force behind this evolution was Giancarlo Grassi who, in those years, carried out an incredible number of first ascents at breakneck speed and who for the occasion teamed up with Francois Damilano and Fulvio Conta. It took Fulvio a few hours of strenuous and risky climbing to get to grips with the first pitch, characterised by overhanging and unprotectable cauliflowers. The team then traversed right and belayed after having ascended just a few vertical meters. At this point Giancarlo took the lead and climbed the long sustained second pitch to belay behind the drip festooned with hanging icicles. In a moment of true class and inspiration twenty-nine year old Francois Damilano then led the way out of the first part of the icefall.
The upper section still had to be climbed but the trio retreated due to the lateness of the day and the difficulties they had encountered. They left behind two (for that era) modern 8mm ropes as fixed ropes to speed things up the next day. But the story goes that the two thin ropes froze overnight and made the jumaring back up problematic to say the least. Apparently Giancarlo slid down 10 meters and after a heated discussion Gerard Kosici, Damilano’s photographer, refused to climb up the ropes.
The trio reached their previous highpoint then climbed the short couloir which opens the way to the upper section. Giancarlo then climbed the steep headwall direct and, unable to find a decent piece of protection, he belayed with his axe firmly planted in the frozen earth.
In these last twenty years everything has changed, from the techniques to the ice screws and ice tools. Repentance itself has lived through this evolution, initially via rare repeats by super climbers who, once the ice was broken as the saying goes, launched themselves up this slender line. After this stage the route witnessed some solo ascents, led by the likes of Stefano Righetti (self belaying) and Ezio Marlier (without ropes). Like all noble women, Repentance changed form throughout the years, from its original slender and fragile appearance to a more chubby, compact nature which now means that its highly likely that 3 or 4 parties can be found on the route every Sunday.
The idea of repeating the route "twenty years later…" sprung to mind when, during an interview with Francois, he told me: "In the beginning Repentance was the reference route for high level winter climbs; year after year it has slowly transformed into the beautiful classic climb that every climber dreams of… and this year it's Repentance's twentieth anniversary…"
"Hi Fulvio, you know that twenty years have passed since etc etc?!". At the other end of the line an emotional "yes" made me positive for the next question: "You already know what I want to ask you, don’t you?"… "Yes". Then Fulvio anticipated things and asked: "What about Francois?". "You know he's very busy" I reply, " but he's given me three dates, and since the first is February the 21st, let’s go for that. What do you think?" With the team put together, we fixed the appointment for 6:30 am at Valnontey, something I can't remember doing even as a highly motivated ice climbing youngster.
Despite the abundant fresh snow a beaten track, a silent witness to the numerous teams who had preceeded us, led to the base of the route in an hour and a half. As he caught sight of the route Francois exclaimed excitedly: "this isn't an ice fall, it's a glacier!"
Just like 20 years ago Francois gave Fulvio the honour of leading the first pitch which turned out to be much more forgiving than before. While we gathered ourselves at the first belay to decide how to best organise some decent photos we suddently caught sight of at least three teams working their way up the couloir down in the valley below. "Let’s go" Francois said, stating sharply "let's continue before all those people reach us!" Belayed by Gianni Raguso I set off upwards, leaving behind my two friends and Giulio, Fulvio's eighteen year old son.
Every once in a while it just so happens that I sit back and reflect about things. Usually though this occurs during the strangest of moments and while climbing the pitch the following occurred to me... on our symbolic 20th anniversary Giancarlo certainly couldn't be here with us, he sadly passed away years ago. But we were accompanied by Giulio who in 1989 hadn't even been born. Motivated by the same passion as his father he bridges the gap between past and future and has witnessed a nice tale to be told to future generations.
Editor's note: Giancarlo Grassi was one of Italy's leading mountaineers during the late '80's. He died tragically in spring 1991 in the Apenines.