Climbing in the wild valleys of Ticino, Switzerland’s little Italy
Embedded between wild valleys, waterfalls and gorges, the rocks of Ticino offers a wide selection of climbing routes in granite and gneiss all year round.
As I peeled down the thermal shades from the car window, I could see the rays of the sun shining through the forest, upon the gushing riverbed. It smelt like morning, and contagious fresh mountainous air that woke me up faster than a cup of coffee.
I rushed out of my sleeping bag, cautious not to wake hubby up, still recovering from the fatigue of the 12 hour drive the night before. The sun now on my face. I stretched. What a wonderful feeling to be out and about again.
A few hours later, we stood under Cevio. It looked mighty and tall. While we were deciding on which route we wanted to do, the mozzies suddenly appeared in gangs. 3 on the right ear 5 on each calf. It was difficult to concentrate.
It didn’t take us long to put on everything we had to cover our skins. Mosquito repellents didn’t help, it seemed to attract them more.
Granite with a mix of quartzite gives an amazing mixture of friction It also shaves off the first layer of your skin in minutes. Side pulls ledges, slopers and feet technique – none of which I am too good in holding on to.
The mozzies finally left us alone after an hour. We worked our way up, gradually increasing the grades as later the day went and finished off in a testpiece – “Super crack, 7a+” Not quite our style but always something to learn from. Later, hubby managed to tick off “Hang Loose” 7c in a second go, further to the right.
The season for sun-loving tent campers were late. None of the campgrounds in Valle Maggia could offer a good portion of sun after mid-October, the reason why they all close. The morning sun appeared at 11:30 am, and stayed just till a little after lunch before disappearing again behind the tall mountains. The only comfort we found was to hit the sun-trapped crags as early as possible. I froze almost day and night to death, due to the chilly winds and the dampness from the riverbed. Luckily, it wasn’t time to die yet.
Just before we arrived in the Ticino region, we had heard the news of storms, floods and destruction. Luckily, the valley wasn’t hit badly, however, most of the sectors showed long black strips of water gushing down the glittering stone walls. We didn’t have much luck at some of the promising newer sectors of Someo which we wanted to see. The Panorama sector resembled a waterfall that flooded the walkways, the walls and the bottom of the crag making it impossible to access. It was disheartening, after a 45 minute bush-walk through the thorns. We returned to the smaller sector Red Island which at first didn’t look like we would stay long, but found some fun routes with “Ishala”, “Andringintra”, “Master of Porn”. I loved the friction of the rock, and to climb without any pressure. What looked impossible, became simple. Your footholds stay where you want it to. The day ended when we were just about getting warm. We felt like a tortoise. Slow, slow slow. But happy tortoises in neat routes.
The following days, we returned to the classic Ranch sector, only to get some bashing on routes we thought came easy. The grades there are so stiff, the grips and holds were half as grippy like the days before, with many very technical passages and micro crimps – we felt like it was our first time climbing. The “Runde Versuchung” 7b had to stay undone … after checking out the moves and coming back a few days later, it was constantly occupied. There were no opportunities to even say, can we try too?
We last visited Prato in the summer and wondered if this was suitable for the colder autumn days, only to find it dripping wet. Luckily, the sector is visible from the street, so we saved ourselves some energy for an alternative. I remember Prato to be really scary from our last visit here. But that was quite some time back.
So we ended up in Brontallo, a beautiful alpine village perched high at 716 m in Val Lavizzara. The access to the crags led us through the village. At every corner, there was something to see or read or admire. After a few serpentines, and fixed ropes later, we stood before the massive and were shocked to find every single route occupied. Sector El Cat has 20 routes, ranging in the mid-grades. Everyone seem to have had the same idea to come here that day. We decided to return with our helmets. The terrifying incident when we climbed together with the crowd without our climbing helmets was still fresh in my mind. 8 stitches and a small concussion later, we decided that a helmet could be a good investment.
The routes were beautiful. They were extremely long, endurant with technical cruxes in between (a vertical 40m! The second pitch, can be climbed in one with a 80m rope), it was perfectly bolted too. Our highlight there was when hubby sent “Alpha-Centauro”, and when I flashed off “Poro Rat”, “The Snake” and “Oktoberfest”. The traffic in El Cat was extreme, probably it was because of the local school holidays that week. We decided to look for other sectors that had less traffic, but were not really ready to sacrifice our days in the shade because of the cold.
Heading back towards Locarno, a few newer sectors and rebolted routes were laid in the sector Torbeccio in Avegno. This is actually a good summer crag as it gets shade in the afternoon. On colder days, the sunny hours are short. Finding a free parking lot could be a challenge on the weekends. “Test da Sogno” in Ziafiasco was a good technical route with the crux right in the beginning, and probably one that didn’t quite make it in time into the guide books.
We explored Valle Onsernone, that lays parallel to Valle Maggia on a rest day. It has gained its popularity from the authors that settled here to write their books or from artists in search of inspiration for their work. The valley was full of little gorges, waterfalls, and traditional alpine stone houses and splüiis. I also realised how much more the sun shone on this side of the valley, and it would’ve definitely been the better location for a campground? No? The valley had too few parking lots and a whole stretch of narrow, winding roads. Driving here on a weekend was a terrifying idea. We went to check out Russo. And were soon greeted by pure granite. This sector has routes (71) from 5 to 8b. The sector that impressed me most was the Macao sector with it’s overhanging style. The sector is protected from the north winds, and even though there are trees that give some shade, the sunny southern side of the crag is better protected from the winds than some of those in the Maggia valley.
Some of the hardest Boulders of Ticino, like “La Rustica”, “off the Wagon” or “Sbedo” lay in the midst of Valle Bavona. At the same time, you won’t fail to see the gushing waterfalls of Foriglia as you drive into the valley. We didn’t climb here, but we didn’t want to miss visiting this valley either to spot the splüii and traditional stone houses. Between many boulders, you might spot a few hard core trad and crack climbers. If you’re up to it, take a try at the famous “Fissura del Foriglia” a handsome crack from the bottom till the top.
Finally, after running around with a whole file of collected paper topos the last 15 years, I was able to put most of them aside and use the fresh new guidebook. Many routes and sectors have been newly bolted, extended and rebolted. Valle Maggia has the highest density in sport climbing routes, with Ponte Brolla being the most international and favorite of many. Ticino enjoys often the north föhn making this a sunny climbing spot when the northern side of the Alp is bathing in bad weather. However, the best times are really in spring or autumn (unless you have an accomodation with heating) which is also the high season.