Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

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

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