Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A dreary and quick run down Cresciano Boggera inferiore

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on October 29, 2012

Cresciano Boggera inferiore, V3A3II
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland


Another dreary and damp morning leaves us unsure of where the day will take us. As we travel by vehicle from the Maggia Valley to the Riviera, the next major valley to the east and home to the highest concentration of technical canyons of the area, we are uncertain if a descent is in store for us today. We decide to drive to the trail head of Cresciano Boggera. The lower section, or inferiore in the local nomenclature, is one of the easier, more popular  and shorter routes in all of Ticino. It is a classic European descent. Like other canyons in the area, Cresciano Boggera is dammed for a hydroelectric power station upstream of the route. Though not eliminating the risk for flash floods, these dammed canyons pose a lower risk for flash flood as the sudden precipitation or snow melt would have to be concentrated below the location of the dam. These canyons do however require that you call the power company to ensure they are not doing a release of water on the day of your descent. Speaking on the phone with the power company we get approval for the descent. We arrive at the trailhead to see over a dozen individuals, most of whom were part of commercial guided groups getting their canyoneering gear together. Though the weather is gloomy the rain has stayed away. After factoring in the descent’s short required time, along with its location below a dam and local guide companies prepping for a descent we decide for a run of our own.

As we get our gear together we are greeted by a local resident, a curious and bold goat. We pack quickly hoping to position ourselves in front of the large tour groups also getting ready to start their hike. After passing the remains of a World War II barbed wire fence on the steep approach, we suit up in our neoprene. The canyon is teaming with activity with even more groups, some guided, others not, making their way down the rappels, toboggans and jumps.  A group lets us play thru on their rope on a 60- foot rappel. We then try to pass a group of six local unguided canyoneers. They happily let us pass but then quickly take us, as we rappel the next drop that they all jump. The dust settles and we find our pocket in the descent surrounded by what could have been over 50- other people in the canyon. As billed the canyon is exciting but not terribly difficult as we move ever closer down to the town of Cresciano, which we could see nearly the entire time in the canyon. As if on cue the rain begins as we make our way back to our vehicle. The goat is gone, but a donkey grabs Eric’s neoprene vest hanging on a fence as we change into our dry clothes. After recovering the vest we drive higher up the Riviera. The weather gets colder and the scenery more magnificent. Snow can be seen atop the nearby peaks. We stop to take in the sights at a slow pace, strolling by towering waterfalls coming out of low hanging clouds, a stone church in a verdant field, vineyards and mountain pass villages.


Weather turns, castle tours and down Val di Gei & Val Grande inferiore

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on October 24, 2012

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.

– David

Beyond expectations in Val Bodengo II & III

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on October 18, 2012

Val Bodengo II & III, V4A5IV
Italian Alps in Lombardy, Italy


A narrow paved road winds up a steep mountainside through dense mixed forest. We have been traveling continuously for well over 24- hours and we really don’t know what to expect. The excitement of the unknown is matched with complete exhaustion and jet lag, leaving us in a truly peculiar state of mind. The roar of running water becomes audible as a drainage comes in from the left.  We identify it as Val Bodengo, the canyon we will descend the following day. There is a lot of water down there. A few miles deeper into the mountains, we pull off on the shoulder of the road, less than ten meters above the rushing water of Val Bodengo. Just on the other side of the road is a rustic stone farmhouse. Towering gray mountains rise above in all directions. We pass by a robust vegetable garden and a half dozen wetsuits hanging to dry on a clothes line on the way to the front door.

We are greeted by Matilde, the owner of the Sosta Pincée farmhouse under the Italian classification of Agriturismo. The Italian term refers to rural accommodations where much of the food served is either grown on the property or nearby. Matilde speaks no English but welcomes us into the cozy and rustic kitchen. As we enter the smell of woodsmoke is replaced by the aromas of homemade cooking. Matilde sits us down at a wooden table and serves us cold draught beer. At the center of the table is a wooden bowl of the most vibrant and pungent tomatoes. We sip our beer, play charades and smile with Matilde. My imagination tries to conjure up what food will go with these wonderfully intense smells.

Later that evening, Pascal van Duin, the lead guide and owner of his company, Top Canyon, arrives at the Sosta Pincée. I had been corresponding with Pascal through email throughout the summer but this was the first time we had met. We sit down for dinner together. The food meets every expectation that the smells had presented earlier. We are overwhelmed by the flavors, freshness and care of the food we are served: cured meets, cheese and bread for a first course, homemade pasta with a chestnut cream sauce as a second course and a perfectly seasoned roast with mashed potatoes for the final. All the while drinking subtle yet delicious wine from a bottle with no label on it. Pascal has a warm smile and laugh that would otherwise be completely infectious if it were not for the jet lag. Matilde lights a fire in the wood burning stove in our room and we doze off in the warm soft, light.

These watery descents of the Alps are entirely different from the Southwest desert slots we know. Pascal shows us his refined systems for safely dealing with these aquatic obstacles. In addition, Pascal knows nearly every square inch of the canyon and as a result we are able to jump and toboggan obstacles we would never think possible. Almost immediately we encounter such a toboggan that sucks you in and spits you out into a deep pool. This was followed by an even more intense toboggan that Eric later describes like this, “Violent toboggans. Fast. Go in them and a second later you’re in a worm hole on the other side. You don’t know what just happened. Its watery madness.” Swims through football-field-size, bluish-green pools are interrupted by jumps up to 50- feet and rappels down frothing white, pounding water. All the while, the three of us are trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible.

At one point a 20- foot waterfall lies ahead. Pascal takes a step back and follows our lead. I make my way to the front, duck under an overhanging ceiling, wiggle, downclimb to another ledge and than jump 10- feet into a pool, familiar of a move I would make in a  sandstone slot of the Colorado Plateau. As I’m performing the move, Pascal says to Eric and Laura, “Is not a good idea,” as he looks my way. Oblivious to his uncertainty I continue. The route I chose works fine. Eric, Laura and Pascal follow. Pascal later tells me during his near countless descents of Val Bodengo he has never approached this obstacle in that way. It puts a smile on my face.

We barely stop for a break during the entire day. Though not cold in our sufficient neoprene, the abundance of water does not encourage for long rests. Besides, there is no reason to stop to pull out our Nalgenes to hydrate as the water is so clean and fresh, we drink while we swim. The descent gets incrementally more challenging the further down we go.

I am in the lead swimming down a long pool that channels between two narrow walls of rock. The current picks up speed and disappears over the horizon into a large room that extends upwards with lots of air. I swim out of the stronger current to one side of the pool. I can feel the butterflies build up in my stomach and my heart rate pick up. When Pascal arrives he points to a high traverse line on the other side of the lip above this powerful 80- foot waterfall. The traverse line is 15- feet in length along a featureless sheer wall. I think to myself and maybe even say out loud, “I don’t know about this.” I turn to Pascal and say, “This looks really hard.” Pascal replies, “Only hard here,” and points to his head. I understand. Laura also has her doubts, I can see her shaking her head. Pascal crosses the swift current and lunges up with with his 6’4″ reach to clip into the high traverse line. Without allowing passing time to feed Laura’s apprehension he encourages in a directing tone for her to follow. Hanging 100% of body weight off the line, from a three foot safety tether, 80- feet off the deck, alongside the raging waterfall, the two make there way to the rappel anchor. Eric and I follow. Heady indeed. No sense looking for any pictures in the slideshow of this obstacle. Remembering to document the moment was a complete after thought.

The crux is behind us, but the challenges continue with slippery down climbs and a sustained section of stemming over a narrow channel of raging white water. A short hike out of the canyon bottom through the mixed forest and past a religious shrine brings us back to the road we drove in on the previous day. Pascal drives us back to the Sosta Pincée. We get out of our wetsuits along the stone walkway right in front of our room. Inside our room, a fire in our wood burning stove left by Matilde is the perfect antidote to the chill in our bones.

We indulge in another beautiful night of Matilde’s homemade Italian food with great company. This night is even more enjoyable than the previous with a little sleep in the bank and the adrenaline and energy still buzzing from our descent. Into our second bottle of wine, Matilde and her jubilant husband, Guiseppe join the party. Pascal translates probably with his own humorous editorializing mixed in for good measure. Before bed Guiseppe brings out an American Flag for us to autograph. We couldn’t be more touched. The next morning we say goodbye to our new friends and head deeper into the mountains taking with us special memories and knowledge for what lies ahead.

– David

To contact Pascal for information on his guiding services or to stay at the Sosta Pincée, check out his website.

An Adventure of the Ages

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on October 14, 2012


Twelve days in search of a special adventure, exploring the canyons, mountains, culture, cuisine and natural beauty of northern Italy and southern Switzerland. During the next 6- weeks we will report on this adventure of the ages. Above a video that sets the stage and summarizes the posts to follow. If you want to watch it in HD click on the “Vimeo” icon in the video player. Enjoy and stay tuned.

– David & Laura