Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

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.


One Response

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  1. […] 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. […]

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