Headdress Canyon, aka Geronimo’s Ravine, 3CII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
Our corner of the world had just been hit with several hard, consecutive winter storms. Laura and I were planning on getting out to take advantage. An abundance of water in the desert doesn’t happen often and doesn’t linger. At the last minute something came up for Laura so the adventure would also include solitude.
I parked not far from Tortilla Flat, the remnants of a stagecoach from the start of the 20th century when they were building a road for construction of Roosevelt Dam. Today, Tortilla Flat is a restaurant, saloon and gift shop, popular with out of town visitors. The sound of snows birds laughing and talking along the old porch of Tortilla Flat would be the last human sounds I would hear except for my own heavy breathing for the next several hours.
The adventure began with a steep climb out of the Tortilla Creek valley, requiring some navigating to pass through several layers of cliff bands. Every drainage and micro drainage across the terrain was flowing. Along the way I passed my first arch. Reaching a high point I could see LaBarge Canyon that even from this considerable distance away and height above was flowing with incredible ferocity. To my left was my point of destination, Geronimo’s Ravine, given the name Headdress Canyon, by those that made the recent first descent and shared the beta. This canyon had a more reasonable flow for negotiation. Once in the drainage I spotted my second arch of the day. Shortly after I reached the first rappel, a 30- foot drop into a pool. Utilizing the existing, inventive natural anchor I made my way down. This was followed by: a fun down climb, narrows, a third arch and the nicest of the day, an optional rappel I down climbed and then the final rappel, a beauty of a 65- footer down a fluted alcove. From below I took in that robust arch I had spotted just above, this time framed by the alcove walls. Below, more narrows before the canyon opened up. Now negotiating catclaw and other unpleasant vegetation I spotted the final and fourth arch of the day before reaching the road.
The canyon was extremely scenic and pleasant particularly in these flowing conditions. Though quite easy, when descending a canyon solo, particularly one you have not done before, even the easiest of canyons take on an aura of excitement with higher stakes. I returned to my car and voices with mid-west accents in under three hours from the time I left them. Perhaps the most challenging feat of the day was changing out of my wetsuit and into dry clothes in a sedan with all of those tourists around.
Illusions Canyon, 4BIIIR
The first and last time I descended Illusions Canyon, the intensity of my involvement in canyoneering was drastically scaling back as I was over four months pregnant. David was a nervous wreck as he watched me crawl, slide and wiggle through the dark chambers of Illusions. Two plus years later and I am entrenched in being the mother of an energetic toddler, so I don’t get out in the canyons all that often (our European canyoneering adventure, aside). These days, to get to share a descent with David takes some serious planning ahead. To make a trip through Illusions Canyon possible, David and I timed it for when my Dad (or Gramps as Wyatt calls him) was visiting over the summer. We rented a small cabin, for Wyatt, David and myself, and a private yurt for my father at the Flagstaff Nordic Center. For those that don’t know a yurt is a small portable tent like structure with a wooden frame. Their origins date back a thousand years to Central Asia.
We arrived at the Flagstaff Nordic Center the afternoon before our descent down Illusions. My father, Wyatt, David and I went for a peaceful walk through the ponderosa pines before cooking dinner over an open campfire. Waking long before sunrise David and I quickly got dressed and knocked on the front door of my father’s yurt waking him from his slumber. After he tiptoed into our cabin where Wyatt was still sleeping we drove to meet Eric, Brian and Cheryl at the trailhead for Illusions Canyon.
The day began with a great workout during the hike up to to the top of rim. The trail was steep but pleasant with good conversation that goes along with the excitement and anticipation of such a special canyon. The canyon was just as fun, magical and beautiful as I had remembered. Perhaps even more so this time around as the extremely wet monsoon season provided us with a light but steady flow of water through the entire canyon. The walls were glowing in electric green covered in mosses, ferns and other vegetation. The monsoon was present on this day too. Just minutes after our group of five completed the final rappel of the canyon and exited the narrows the skies darkened and opened in a torrential downpour. Flashes of white light and booming blasts just over head accompanied the sheets of rain. Our timing could not have been closer or more perfect depending on how you look at it. It was an intense storm that we would not have wanted to experience in Illusions’ long narrows, just behind us. In the lower, wide portion of the canyon the danger of being caught in a flash flood no longer posed a risk and we were able to enjoy this raw power of nature during the hike out.
Well over 12- hours from the time we left my Dad and Wyatt, we were back at the Flagstaff Nordic Center and we found them hanging out between the yurt and cabin. My Dad had survived spending the day with his 18- month old grandson alone in the Northern Arizona woods. He looked just as exhausted and satisfied with his day as David and I were with ours.
For information about the Flagstaff Nordic Center click here.
Barney Spring Canyon, 4BIVR
Coconino National Forest
Fall is a special time. As a child it represents the start of a new year of challenges and experiences. Growing up in the northeastern United Sates, autumn would peak in an explosion of colors. As an adult that feeling of newness that comes around in September and October has faded somewhat and living in the midst of urban sprawl in the heart of the Sonoran Desert you don’t see much in the way of Autumnal colors.
Eric had been lobbying for a descent of Barney Spring Canyon for a while. It is a classic Mogollon Rim canyon that wasn’t yet part of his resume. I had descended the canyon with Laura shortly after I had begun canyoneering five summers ago. My recollection is that it was the first canyon descent during which time I was thinking this is really intense from both a physical and technical perspective. I also remember it being a long day, but despite my photographs its aesthetic qualities had left little impression on my memory.
Timing for a descent has finally lined up. Eric and I are driving along the washboard road deep into the forest in the late afternoon sun. The previous day we had descended Garden Creek in the Grand Canyon. Our legs are feeling that 4,000 feet of vertical. My belly is fully of wings and my head a little cloudy from beer after spending much of the day resting in a Flagstaff sports bar and watching football. As the road crosses a drainage and its numerous deciduous trees amongst the surrounding pines I am struck by the intense Fall colors.
As temperatures plummet after the sun goes down we huddle around the fire. We awake well before the return of the sun and begin hiking from our camp in the dark. A descent of Barney is normally completed by hiking down the West Fork of Oak Creek at its confluence with Barney followed by a long car shuttle. Our plan is to skip the car shuttle by hiking up the West Fork until we can find a place to escape the canyon and then navigate across the rim back to our vehicle. We know it is going to be a very long and exhausting day.
The sun is up but it is still brisk as we drop into the upper reaches of Barney. The foliage is magnificent. Reds, yellows and oranges are abundant. I say it is peak. Eric says maybe just past. The canyon narrows. We are surround by muted beige sandstone covered in a thin layer of vibrant green moss with a canopy of technicolor above us. It is spectacular.
The canyon is still challenging with its numerous awkward- start rappels but my experience in the last four plus years have dulled the edges of intensity I experienced the last time. Eric leads the way and we are down-climbing obstacles I would have never thought possible during the first descent. The monster keeper pothole that gave us so much trouble the last time is almost full and Eric beach whales out on his own out and then assists me to the lip. From our perch atop the final rappel we peer over a thick canopy of vibrant and saturated yellows. It is a visual experience that will leave a lasting impression.
A short brushy walk and we reach the confluence of the West Fork of Oak Creek. More colors. We spend the next six hours hiking, trudging, rock hopping, climbing up West Fork. We do the best we can to stay dry but some of the narrows do not cooperate. In the upper reaches of the West Fork the canyon branches into multiple arms. We take a branch whose terrain we are unfamiliar with but will put us closer to our vehicle. We hope to not be stopped in our tracks by a dryfall before we can escape the canyon bottom for the rim. A minor gamble but we are confident. We are faced with several spicy climbs including one over a deep keeper filled with icy cold water that if we both fell into would be a mouse trap of the most dire circumstances. As we climb further up this canyon arm the walls begin to recede and we make our break. Upon reaching the rim as we navigate through the Ponderosa Pines back to our vehicle I am completely exhausted, satisfied and connected to this autumnal experience.
Garden Creek Canyon, 4CIV
Grand Canyon National Park
It is a beautiful, crisp autumn day. The kind that is just perfect for hiking. We are only four of what could be close to a thousand people on the Bright Angel Trail, snaking down 4380 feet from Grand Canyon Village on top of the south rim to the Colorado River. Not far above the river and right off the trail, Garden Creek plunges into the Vishnu Schist layer, forming a magnificent technical canyon. “Garden Creek Canyon is a hidden gem located in close proximity to the most popular trail in the Grand Canyon National Park,” says Todd Martin, who included it in his guidebook, Grand Canyoneering. “It’s surprising that more people haven’t discovered it.”
As we munch on some snacks, throw on a few extra layers, pull up our harnesses and strap on our helmets before delving into this ‘hidden gem’ we are passed by maybe a dozen hikers on their way down to the river. For the next several hours our paths will deviate. The canyon begins with several fun down climbs. The flow is not overwhelming but enough to disrupt verbal communication which immediately adds an extra level of excitement. The big drops follow, including a two stage rappel down a sloping 400- foot waterfall into an open section before dropping into a narrow slot again. Several more rappels and spicy down climbs follow in the temperate water that never pools. The canyon ends the same way it started; right off the Bright Angel Trail, de-harnessing, snacking and hydrating as dozens of hikers pass by. Now all that is left is to join the parade for a seven mile plus, 4,000 foot plus climb back to the rim.
Robber’s Roost Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
With family in town for Thanksgiving, (free babysitting) Laura and I sneak away for the better part of a day for an adventure hike with some canyoneering in the Superstition Mountains. We begin the hike early in the morning on the Carney Springs Trail. During the ascent we pass by one of the largest multi-armed Saguaro Cactus I have ever seen. James Madison could have been President of the United States when this Saguaro sprouted from the ground as some of the majestic cacti can be as old as 200 years. Ascending on we reach the ridgeline and head off the Carney Springs Trail into the lunar landscape of hoodoos and other bizarre rock formations. Our goal is to find the Robber’s Roost, a sort of slot canyon between a series of rock formations. The cavity between these hoodoos actually drains water into a larger drainage below. I don’t know exactly where the Robber’s Roost is, only the larger drainage that it feeds into. Laura and I take a round about way getting over to this drainage as the terrain is other wordly and difficult to navigate. Upon reaching the drainage proper we get our harnesses and helmets on thinking we are about to enter the Robber’s Roost and its few rappels. A short while after heading down, something just doesn’t feel right. The canyon begins to get wider and brushier and we are leaving the rock formations behind. After a while I turn, survey the rocks above and recognize the final pour off from the Robber’s Roost formation well above us from photographs I had previously seen. We have completely missed it. There is no chance Laura and I are going to trudge back up through the thick brush to get into the Roost proper. It will have to be saved for the next trip. We know we still have a 250- foot rappel down the bottom part of this drainage. After more bushwhacking we reach the rappel. The vertical drop cuts right through the cliff in a scenic alcove. Following the rappel Laura and I have to fight through a fortress of catclaw to get back to the Carney Springs Trail. Back on the trail as our hot feet trudge on the rocky terrain, I already am planning on returning to descend into the Robber’s Roost proper. My mind being what it is and all.
A few weeks later…
Venturing back out alone I park at the Peralta Trailhead well before first light. My plan is to hike over to and up the Carney Springs Trail, find the Roost, do a complete descent of it into that other drainage, ascend that drainage and then navigate across Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. This will allow me to leave my 320- foot rope at home avoiding that 250- foot rappel and all of that horrible catclaw at the bottom of that rappel. The sunrise lights up the hoodoos above the Carney Springs Trail in a glow of fire red. After a little searching I find the Robber’s Roost. I am not really sure what the history of the Robber’s Roost is. Despite some research in books and on the web I found nothing. The entire area is steeped in legends of treasure hunters. Carney Springs is named after Peter and Thomas Carney who mined the area for copper in the early twentieth century. With these riches it is not hard to imagine thieves to follow. Dropping into the “slot” between the hoodoos I can see how this would make a great hideout. Though in its current conditions it is bone dry evidence suggest that water runs through after a little rain. Graffiti carved in the walls dates back 75- years. It makes me wonder how long does it take for graffiti to stop being vandalism and become history. I down climb the first two drops and rappel the 80- foot pour off that I had spotted from below on the previous trip. The entire descent takes 15- minutes. I then hike up that drainage and navigate quickly through the hoodoos along the Dacite Mesa to Fremont Saddle and down the Peralta Trail. I am back home before lunch.
Bailey Canyon, 3AIII
Angeles National Forest – San Gabriel Mountains
Like many Arizonians, every year Laura and I make an annual summer trip to San Diego. It is not only a chance to escape the heat and soak in the beautiful southern California coast, but an opportunity to spend quality time with one of my closest childhood friends, Tanner, who has made San Diego home. Tanner has made a number of trips to Arizona, during which time I have introduced him to canyoneering and we have shared in several descents. During this San Diego vacay I thought it would be fun to take a day off from the beach and drive up to the San Gabriel Mountains for some southern California canyoneering.
We leave early to beat the LA rush and arrive in the front rage of the San Gabriels entirely shrouded in fog. As we climb up into the mountains and the sun rises higher into the sky, the fog burns off making for some dramatic views. By the time we reach the start of the canyon, the fog is long gone, the sun is out in full force and we are excited to escape into the shadows of the canyon walls and begin the descent.
The canyon is bone dry and chock full of vegetation. Fortunately we are wearing long pants and these southern California plants are far more friendly than those in Arizona. Despite the canyon’s mellow attitude, it features a number of down climbs and up to a dozen rappels, including a long 110- foot drop, giving Tanner lots of opportunity to practice his canyoneering skills.
The day is light and fun with lots of humor, the kind of laughter you can only share with someone that you grew up with. The only tense moments come from a swarm of bees hanging out at the bottom of a drop searching for water and a rattlesnake soaking in the sun on a ledge part way down a rappel. Fortunately for us, the bees and the rattlesnake mean us no harm and allow us safe passage. We finish the adventure and return to our car early in the day allowing us to once again avoid rush hour. Arriving back in San Diego I Immediately walk out to the beach to join Laura and Wyatt already playing in the sand and ocean. You can’t do that after a day of canyoneering in Arizona.
Val Lodrino intermedio & inferiore, V5A5IV
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland
Two days earlier…
After descending Val d’Iragna, Eric and I stop by it’s next door neighbor to check out the level of water flow at the bottom of Val Lodrino. Lodrino is a big drainage and does not have a hydroelectric dam controlling its flow. It exists in its natural state. Before we could see the water we could hear its power. Those sounds create an immediate emotional response of anxiety and wonder. When we see the final waterfall we compare it to the photographs in our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola. They are in fact high, very high. The recent rain has not yet run its course through Lodrino. Eric and I have serious doubts if descending this canyon and all of its technical challenges is in the cards for us at these levels. Back at the parking lot we run into nearly a dozen canyoneers who are sleeping on the black top under the bright sun. They look like they are right out of a Red Bull commercial. We speak with the one guy who is awake, filming his friends snoozing with a GoPro camera. They are Brits who reside in Switzerland. They have just come down Lodrino. We ask about the flows. “Flows are good,” says the man with a sizable scar across his face. He then qualifies, “It could get dicey if you don’t jump everything.” Referring to the dangers of rappelling and hydraulics in big flow. With only a few days left before returning to the States a descent of Lodrino now seems unlikely.
Pascal, who took us down Val Bodengo II and III just across the border in Italy, told us that above all else do not miss an opportunity to descend Lodrino. Luca and Anna Nizzola describe it this way, “This is the most beautiful and majestic canyon in Ticino, listed as the one of the most famous routes in Europe.”
One day earlier…
Not wanting to give up on the possibility of a descent, we return to the checkpoint of Lodrino. Water levels are perhaps slightly lower but still high. The following day would be our last chance. After some discussion we green light it.
We are not alone at the staging area at a cemetery on the outskirts of the small village of Lodrino. A half dozen other groups are getting ready. Some appear to be guided. Others are canyoneering teams wearing matching clothes. Group by group they slam the sliding doors of their vans adorned with what appears to be sponsorship signage as they are shuttled to near the top of the route. No matching jump suits or car shuttles for us. We attack the mountainside on an easy to follow trail through a dark forest. When we stop to catch our breath we get magnificent views through the trees of the Riviera valley below illuminated in the morning sun. We can see the side canyons of Cresciano Boggera and Osogna Nala across the Riviera that we descended earlier in the week.
At the start of Val Lodrino intermedio we suit up. I am both nervous and excited. We say goodbye to Laura who decides to sit this one out. The first obstacle is a fairly straightforward jump over a powerful hydraulic. Eric jumps first without his pack. I toss his bag from above but not far enough to get past the hydraulic. It gets sucked in. After I jump down to join Eric with my bag on, I realize the potential seriousness of my mistake. Eric dives into the hydraulic, fishes out his bag and then has to swim like hell to get out. I breathe a sigh of relief when he and his bag come through. It would not be the last of our hiccups of the day. Moving on we encounter a few more jumps and slides before reaching a powerful 160-foot waterfall rappel. At the bottom I can see Laura waving from atop a bridge that spans the canyon hundreds of feet above. She is very small. From here the canyon gets hauntingly deep and dark. We encounter a half dozen obstacles before a surprising long section of river walking. The canyon then narrows again into the famous Val Lodrino inferiore.
The power of the water has seemed to eliminate all hard angles in the rock. The deep saturated bluish-green of the water throws a cool cast on the tubular space that exists between the silver, polished rock. The obstacles are continuous and challenging. We are feeling a deep connectivity to this rock, water and space and the moves required to fluidly achieve the obstacles. Eric and I alternate leading. The intensity of the flow requires total concentration. I am existing in a deeply spiritual place.
We reach a 20- foot drop that requires either a traverse along a ledge before jumping in the pool below or a rappel in a very tight channel where all of the water is funneled. We opt to rappel. I watch Eric as he makes his way down while being pounded by the current. Half way down his upper body disappears into the white water. I can still see his legs below him but he has stopped descending. He appears to be struggling. I am unsure of what to do. He is not signaling for me to lower him but I wonder if he is unable to to locate his whistle as the waterfall is blowing him up. My mind is racing. After what seems like minutes, but was probably no more than 30 seconds I see Eric’s red backpack come flying out of the current and disappear into the canyon below. I then watch Eric make his way down the remainder of the rappel. Not wanting to follow in his footsteps I pull up the rope, bag it, make the traverse along the ledge and jump into the pool below. I swim down canyon between narrow walls to Eric standing over a 150- foot waterfall with a concerned look on his face. When I stand right next to him (which is required to verbally communicate in the deafening roar of the water) he tells me that his bag got swept over the 150- foot waterfall after he had to remove it off his back after becoming pinned by the current on the previous rappel. We now have a potential problem as one of our two ropes is in Eric’s bag somewhere down canyon. With my rope we can rappel down the 150- foot drop, but without the second rope we will not be able to pull and recover our rope after the rappel. If Eric’s bag got swept down a second drop where a rope will be necessary than we will be lampooned in the canyon. Eric seems confident that it is relatively flat at the bottom of the drop and with a little luck that red bag will be waiting for us in the pool below. With my nerves getting the better of me I am not so sure.
Our plan… I will rappel down, search for Eric’s bag, after hopefully finding the bag, attach the rope bag to our rappel rope, signal four whistle blasts letting Eric know he can haul the rope bag up. I make my way down the rappel scanning below from the bird’s eye view for anything red against all of the grays and blues. Suddenly, with 30-feet to go it dawns on me that I better stop and check to make sure that there is enough rope below. When I stop there is only three feet of rope below my right hand. Yikes, kind of a close call. I whistle signal to Eric to lower me the rest of the way. Upon touch down I aggressively begin searching. I make a quick look left and right of the tennis court sized pool and see nothing. I then venture downstream 50 meters and realize there is no chance that the bag got swept down a second drop. This is a relief and it is just a matter of sniffing her out. Not finding the bag I return to the pool for a more thorough examination. I swim along the entire shoreline, in some places fighting against the current, systematically searching every nook and cranny. In the final corner I find the bag amongst driftwood hidden in a crevice. I am elated. I swim back to the rappel rope, attach the rope bag and then signal four whistle blasts between heavy breaths. Eric spends the next 20 minutes hauling the saturated 220- foot rope back back up against the current of the powerful 150- foot waterfall. A few more rappels including one that drops through a massive granite arch concludes the canyon. We are exhausted and all smiles as we reunite with Laura waiting for us at the bottom.
In the morning we will fly out of Milan’s Malpensa International Airport but we don’t want this adventure to end. Before the two hour drive to Milan, we stop in downtown Bellinzona to attend the Grape Harvest Festival. The town square is filled with several thousand people eating regional cuisine, drinking the local Merlot and reveling in the festivities. The centerpiece is a stage set up along the steps of the church with traditional music, dance and costume. A row of five, 6- foot long wooden horns known as Alphorns herald the celebration. It starts to get dark and we realize it is our time to say goodbye. These nearly two weeks were over in a blink of an eye. It was an adventure that tantalized all of our senses. We left full with experiences and memories, leaving nothing behind and feeling very fortunate.
Val d’Iragna intermedio & inferiore, V4A4IV
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland
The accumulation of physical activity is starting to be felt. Laura wants a day off from canyoneering. The weather looks good and Eric and I want to take advantage to descend Val d’Iragna intermedio and inferiore. Laura is happy for some alone time. Starting from the Curzútt Hostel she begins a walk up into the Alpine. Eric and I head down the hill from the Curzútt and then drive past vineyard lined streets to the quaint town of Iragna. We park along the Iragna River that cuts through the middle of the town as we get our gear together. Directions to the start of the canyon are vague. On the edge of the town a local tending to his yard outside his stone home asks us “canyoning?” in a heavy accent and with a friendly smile. We nod yes. He points us in the right way and we climb. We drop down into the canyon and suit up. Meanwhile for Laura…
Solitude is a gift that I no longer take for granted. Alone with my thoughts. Stopping to sit in the forest. Visiting an ancient church. Eating my lunch on a bench carved from a large pine tree. One step in front of another I follow red and white blazes along a meandering and steep path above the Valle di Sementina leading me closer to the tree line. I walk up the mountain through small villages, past wandering cows and under hang gliders drifting silently above me. I see few people. I fill my Nalgene from a spigot tapped into mountainside. I continue my walk. At the treeline I can see down the sharp valley to villages that populate the hillsides above the urban center of Bellinzona. I circle back to the Curzútt as it starts to sprinkle.
Back in Val d’Iragna, clean water, jumps, toboggans, small and big rappels. The canyon is tight and challenging. Anchors are tough to get to. Water flows are lighter than they could be making these obstacles more manageable. The canyon ends at a swimming hole in the middle of town.
On the way back to the Curzutt we stop for groceries and drink beer in the parking lot. No brown bags here. It begins to rain. Clutching our groceries we hike back up the hill to the Curzútt in a downpour. Laura is in the room reading a book under her sleeping bag. I realize I have forgotten the linguini in the car. I hike back down to retrieve it. What goes down down must come up in this scenario. It is still raining and I am drenched with linguini in hand. No worries with a hot shower waiting for me. Eric makes dinner in the windowsill of our quarters as we drink local Merlot.
Just another day.
Osogna Nala inferiore, V4A4II
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland
After sleeping in we check out of the Curzútt having spent three comfortable nights there. We hike down the hill. This time I realize I have forgotten the key in my pocket. Urgh! I jog back up to return it. What goes up must come down this time. A little extra work out before a descent of Osogna Nala inferiore. We drive up the Riviera to the village of Osogna and park alongside a cemetery on the edge of town. The hike begins as we switchback around the ivory white Santa Maria del Castello church. Climbing up the hillside blasts of dynamite in the granite mine on the other side of the Riviera vibrate the entire valley. Again directions are vague. We get entirely off route. As we try to right ourselves we must also pay attention to not lose our footing on the steep hillsides covered in slippery vegetation that can quickly turn into a vertical face. On this terrain it would not take much to begin a death slide into the canyon below. The ink from my Xerox copied beta from our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, has smeared and bled from the drips of my profuse sweat. After much searching and backtracking we find our way into the canyon bottom. The canyon cloaks the sounds and vibrations from the mining blasts across the valley. The gorge is dark, beautiful and narrow. The rock walls are polished and colorful. The water is emerald green. The rappels are intense and challenging. By now we are entirely comfortable with our whistle systems for communication and contingency anchors for these challenging water rappels. The canyon ends with a jump into a deep pool. On the edges of the swimming hole locals sun themselves on large, flat rocks. We feel good as I imagine they do too.
Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore, V4A3III
Valle di Blenio, Ticino, Switzerland
We are staying at the Curzútt, a hostel in the middle of a hamlet that dates back over 800- years. Buildings hundreds of years old still stand today. The hostel has been restored consistently with this architectural history as layers of stone have been chiseled and perfectly placed with a minimal use of mortar. The settlement is over 1300 feet above the valley floor. The final quarter mile and 500- feet of vertical must be covered either by foot or cable car. Our day begins with this walk down the steep switchback path to our car.
We drive up into the Blenio Valley for today’s adventure, a technical descent of Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore. Where the road crosses the bottom of the drainage we peek into the canyon to check the water levels. It looks like big flows. We hike up through a chestnut tree forest. We leave the woods behind and descend into the canyon bottom down a steep and exposed slope. A fixed hand line assists in one particularly spicy section.
We suit up having to shout to be heard over the deafening noise of the cascading water. Below the first rappel, the canyon narrows into a dark abyss. It is a big waterfall. From our guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, we know it is 140- feet. The anchor off to one side of the canyon wall keeps us just outside the reach of the main flow, but close enough for us to feel its raw power. Eric perfectly describes it as the “dragon’s breath”. Having experienced well over a 1000 rappels this one is memorable. From here the beauty of the canyon takes off, narrow polished silver walls and emerald green water. Thanks to its skinniness, the technical obstacles keep pace with its stunning aesthetics. This canyon is far narrower than any of our previous European descents. It’s tightness more closely resembles the canyons of Zion National Park or the Mogollon Rim of Arizona. Throw into the mix what could have been 50 CFS of water. It is a recipe for powerful hydraulics at the bottom of the numerous drops we encounter. These hydraulics require that rope lengths are set short or that jumping replaces rappelling to ensure we are not sucked into these whirlpools. A fixed traverse line assists in getting us to a safer launching zone for a jump. Another drop is negotiated by down climbing and crossing underneath the water flow that shoots out horizontally in a jet stream. More jumps and rappels require the utmost attention to detail on rope work. After a final 50- yard swim through a narrow hallway of churning water the canyon ends under two bridges. We are buzzing from this truly special descent.
With plenty of day left we drive back down the Riviera, past Bellinzona and Locarno to the small town of Brissago on the shore of the massive Lake Maggiore, where we take the next ferry to Brissago Island. The six acre island in the middle of Lake Maggiore surrounded by the Italian and Swiss Alps is home to a stunning open air botanical garden. Ticino’s warm sunny climate allows sub-tropical plants to thrive on the island. The garden houses 1700 plant species from around the world including, lotus blossoms, giant sequoias, bald cypresses, perennial banana plants, bamboo and eucalyptus trees. We spend the afternoon wandering between every corner and pocket of the island exploring the diverse vegetation and rocky beaches to the backdrop of this massive lake and towering mountains beyond. A ferry back to the mainland, beer and pizza for dinner and the hike back up to the Curzútt Hostel close out the day.
The border between Italy and Switzerland has no checkpoint, guard gate or manned security. It is however teaming with activity as tourists mill about taking in the beauty of the alpine landscape at Splügen Pass. After stopping to take in the scenery ourselves we cross into Switzerland and make our way down a dozen or so switchbacks. That afternoon we arrive at our campsite along the banks of the Maggia River, one of the major valleys that makes up the geography of the canton (county) of Ticino. The technical slots we will descend over the course of the next week are side canyons of the Maggia and the other major valleys of the area. For the foreseeable future any kind of technical descent will have to be put on hold as the weather forecast calls for a major low pressure system settling over much of Europe. As the clouds move in, Laura and I go for a walk at dusk along the Maggia River, passing by the largest and most elaborate cairn structures I have ever witnessed.
The following day as the intensity of the rain increases we explore the ancient city of Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino and it’s three castles. The city has been considered a key strategic point connecting Italy with the rest of the continent to the north because of its close proximity to several alpine passes. While the city has been occupied since the early Neolithic Age, possibly up to 7000 years ago, Bellinzona was first fortified in the first century BC on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the city. One of the three castles, Castlegrande, sits at this very site. The other two castles, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro, date back to the 1300s and 1400s, respectively. All three castles were renovated and expanded throughout the middle ages. Much of the construction of the castles that stand today were built by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century who were trying to defend attacks from the Swiss and the French. In 1499, Louis XII of France captured Bellinzona. Several months later, an armed revolt of local citizens drove the French troops out of the city and seeking protection from the French joined the Swiss Confederation. Bellinzona and the surrounding countryside would remain part of Switzerland through today, but its people would continue to speak Italian and their food, identity and culture would be heavily influenced from their Italian history.
We explore the courtyards, towers and hallways of the castles under an increasingly steady rain. From atop a tower of the Sasso Corbaro, the geographic highest of the three castles we are treated to magnificent vistas of Bellinzona and the surrounding countryside as low lying clouds move in and out of the valley. From atop this vantage point we can see how integrated the castles and other medieval fortified structures are into downtown Bellinzona. Despite this amazing historic and cultural tour I would be lying if I did not admit that the inclement weather was getting me down.
Val di Gei inferiore, V4A4III
Maggia Valley, Ticino, Switzerland
Awake at 3am from the sounds of pitter patter on our tent. It is not a happy noise to hear for a trio of canyoneers who have come a long way. I awake cranky from inside my damp sleeping bag. I peer out my tent and though the weather looks far from bright and sunny, it is vastly improved, with even a few patches of blue sky. We decide to check the water flows of the nearby technical descent of Val di Gei inferiore. In our possession we have the guidebook, “Eldorado Ticino” by Luca and Anna Nizzola, a guide to the best technical descents of Ticino written in English. One of the most helpful aspects of the guidebook are photographs that serve as a checkpoint for what are safe conditions based on the amount of water flow. Too much water flow in these canyons can range from extremely challenging to potentially deadly. These side by side photos of a point at the bottom of the canyon can be used to compare to the current conditions. This helps determine if the water flows are within what an individual would consider acceptable for a safe descent. From a stone bridge spanning the bottom of the canyon we use the photographs and though the flow seem a bit on the high side we decide to go for it.
Passing by a religious shrine in the middle of the forest during the approach the sun pokes through the clouds. We leave the main trail and carefully make our way into the canyon bottom. Armed with the knowledge we learned from Pascal we are ready. We immediately encounter a 40- foot toboggan. Further down canyon the rappels begin. Rappels in high water flow can be extremely challenging and potentially dangerous if not using proper techniques. The bottom of these drops often have dangerous hydraulics that could potentially suck in an unsuspecting individual. It is imperative that the rope is not set long on a rappel. This allows a canyoneer to rappel right off the end of the rope. If the rope is long the canyoneer is forced to tread water to remove the excess rope from one’s descending device and risk getting sucked into the hydraulic. A system of lowering the first rappeler on a contingency anchor is used to ensure that the rope is set to the proper length. In the deafening water, whistles signals are used for communication during this process. A 150- foot rappel in Val di Gei tests all of these skills as Eric lowers me 25- feet while I am pummeled by falling water. Many obstacles but all too quickly we reach the stone bridge we walked across earlier and the canyon ends. Clad in our wetsuits and with big smiles on our faces we walk through the quaint town of Gordevio to get back to our vehicle.
Val Grande inferiore, V3A4III
Maggia Valley, Ticino, Switzerland
With plenty of light still in the day and the weather still clear we go for a descent of neighboring Val Grande inferiore. During the approach we pass by a farmer and his teenage daughter repairing a fence on a hillside. They speak no English. We play charades and they are able to communicate with us the remainder of the route to the canyon bottom via a fixed line down a steep slope. Val Grande is even more beautiful than the previous descent, including a triple streamed waterfall rappel, narrow striated walls, lush vegetation and a 100- foot rappel down a narrow chute under an old stone bridge, as a finale.
To celebrate our first descents of Switzerland we have an amazing dinner at a nearby Grotto. Grottoes are simple taverns that serve regional food often on a fixed menu. In other words everyone eats the same thing and it is delicious. Tonight it is aged cheese, green salad, barbecue spare ribs with an Italian seasoning and German Potato Salad. We drink the local Merlot, Ticino’s specialty, from the small vineyards that you can see everywhere: along hillsides, in the courtyards of the castles, in residential yards, alongside churches, in small pockets in downtown Bellinzona, even at our campground. This was also the night we discovered Nocino, a regional liqueur made of unripened walnuts. The after dinner drink would become a fixture for the remainder of our trip. We returned to our campsite full and feeling pretty good.