Cogne: Gran Sertz (Grand Serre)

Posted by Sam Harrison on August 27, 2014 at 18:15.

 Mountaineering and climbing

alpine mountaineering alps aosta cogne gran sertz italy scrambling sunrise

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The forecast was looking pretty good for our second full day in the Cogne valley, and as there was a fair amount of uncertainty as to whether it would remain good for the remainder of the week, we decided that instead of spending a few days acclimatising - that is, doing some lower-level walks in the valley - we would head straight up to the Refugio Vittorio Sella for the normal route up Gran Sertz (Grand Serre, en français). Our decision was encouraged by the fact that five other members of the Alpine Club were planning the same thing.

Gran Sertz, standing at 3552m, sits to the west of the Cogne valley and is perfectly placed to offer panoramic views of the Gran Paradiso range and northwards towards La Grivola and beyond. It is probably one of (if not the) most frequented routes from the valley. The combination of an uncrevassed glacial approach, an exposed but easy scramble on good quality rock and a lack of objective danger is likely the reason behind its relative popularity, and despite its guidebook grade of F (Facile, the easiest of the Alpine grades) it feels like a good value Alpine route. Full details of the route can be found here on Camp to Camp (incidentally, the English description was written by yours truly). Regarding the grade, it is generally felt that the route is undergraded at F and owing to a steep (~40º) snowy transition and UIAA grade II climbing on the summit rocks at least PD- is warranted. I personally feel PD- is an apt grade in the conditions we did the route in.

A good, and indeed popular, path leads the way all the way from Valnontey to the refuge. We left in the afternoon, when mercifully clouds had rolled over to make it cooler than earlier in the day‚Äč, and it took us just under 3 hours to climb the 920m. Bivvying isn't permitted in the national park and so we were left with no other choice than to stay at the refuge, though the rate of €11 a night without food
(with AC membership) was probably worth it to not have to carry bivvy gear with us. An evening meal plus breakfast the following morning would have cost us €41 each, which was quite simply unaffordable, especially factoring in multiple refuge visits during the holiday.

Rifugio Sella
Arriving at the Rifugio Sella.

Unfortunately, the decision to not eat food at refuges is quite often met with disdain from refuge staff, and we were greeted with a familiarly frosty reception when we booked in for the night. Self-catering facilities vary dramatically from refuge to refuge; some provide little kitchens (see last year's fabulous Refuge de la Vallette), whilst others provide nothing at all. The Rifugio Sella was definitely at the worse end of the spectrum; we were told we must cook outside (not normally an issue, but rain was imminent) and then retire to the bar, which was in a separate building to the restaurant and accommodation. Unfortunately the bar was packed to the rafters (ironically with people waiting to eat in the restaurant) and when we tried to sit in the restaurant until the evening meal was served, we were told that we weren't allowed to. Typical!

The following morning, we opted for an earlier start than most, mainly to ensure we got a good view of the sun rising whilst we were on the ascent. Lorna lead the way through the morraines and up to the glacier, following good cairns most of the way. We donned harnesses and crampons, but refrained from roping up for the moment. I got suddenly very cold whilst standing around at the foot of the glacier, and so I dug my Primaloft jacket and Primaloft gloves out of my bag, hoping the following ascent on the glacier would warm me up. Fortunately, it did, and I soon felt toasty and warm on the steep snow slope to the upper glacier.

Sunrise on the Glacier du Lauson
Sunrise on the Glacier du Lauson.

We topped out onto this glacier into bright sunshine, and the stark constrast in temperatures meant I was soon down to my baselayer and still too hot. After a tiring traverse of the upper glacier, we arrived at the summit rocks, just a few hundred vertical metres away from the summit. The crampons were ditched and scrambling over loose rocks brought us to the base of the technicalities, which consisted of 20m or so of exposed climbing to reach an equally as exposed and impressively perched summit block (referring to the Camp to Camp description, we chose the left-hand chimney route). Clouds were steadily rolling in and this coupled with the exposure gave the summit a fantastic atmosphere. We'd remained unroped up until this point (the climbing probably warranted the UK climbing grade of Mod), but decided to rope up for the descent. There was plenty of ab tat around but none of it looked too trustworthy, and so Darren belayed Imogen and myself down from the summit, and I placed a few slings to protect Darren's descent (a technique known as down-leading). Lorna had already decided the rope wasn't warranted and soloed the descent!

Traversing the Glacier du Grand Val
Traversing the Glacier du Grand Val

Nice lighting on the Glacier du Grand Val
Nice lighting on the Glacier du Grand Val.

Final rocks to the summit
Final rocks to the summit.
Exposed summit block
Lorna on the summit (I said it was exposed!)
Final few moves onto the summit
Final few moves onto the summit.

We met Kate and Keith at the bottom of the summit rocks, who had just arrived having set off half an hour or so after us. It transpired the others had turned back, seeing the weather taking a turn for the worse. Instead of a descent straight down to Valnontey, we extended the day by taking the traverse path to Cretaz, taking an improbable line carved out of steep grass and cliffs, high above the Cogne valley, leaving us with a killer 1000m+ descent to Cretaz that seemed to never end. We arrived back at the campsite at 5pm, after catching the free bus back up to Valnontey from Cogne, thoroughly worn out but equally as satisfied.

Traverse path to Cretaz
Traverse path to Cretaz.

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