Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Descents of Val d’Iragna, Osogna Nala & solitude in the Alpine

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on November 19, 2012

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.

                  – Laura

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.


Memorable down Pontirone Lesgiüna inferiore & at Brissago Island

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on November 12, 2012

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.


Out of the valleys and up into the Alps

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on November 5, 2012

Pizzo Campo Tencia
Lepontine Alps, Ticino, Switzerland
09/02/12 – 09/03/12


We awake on a chilly morning in a campground high up in the Valle Leventina, not far from the trailhead for a two day trek taking us out of the valleys and high up into the Lepontine Alps. Before the trek we warm our bones at the campground restaurant with espresso and freshly baked pastries. The hike begins in a verdant field past cows creating a symphony with their cowbells. The sun is finally out in full force. The air is crisp and vibrant. The blues and greens saturated. We head into the forest and pass religious shrines and a Swiss cowboy. The Val Piumogna, the main canyon that drains the area comes in from below. There is so much water down there it appears un-runnable as a technical descent. The trail takes us past a small village and more cows. Everything is fresh and earthy. Even the cow manure doesn’t smell bad. The trail climbs higher as white ribbons of water dance down the mountainsides in all directions. We arrive above the tree line into an Alpine world of babbling streams, powerful waterfalls, mellow meadows, near vertical grass covered slopes, rock towers and snow covered mountains.

After a short while we can see the Capanna Campo Tencia in the distance. Originally built in 1912 and owned by the Swiss Alpine Club this hut features several bedrooms with dozens of of cots, a bathroom, common area, dining room and a kitchen staffed with a chef that serves up the most delicious regional cuisine. We arrive at the Capanna Campo Tencia, 8.5 miles and over three thousand feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. Breathtaking views are 360 degrees. We meet Franco, the hut master. He is an elite alpine mountaineer having been part of expeditions from the Himalayas to Patagonia. He is short, slight of build, is bald and has a mustache. He whistles the same catchy tune over and over again while preparing food in the kitchen with his partner, Nami. The quiet, small Nepalese man has shared many alpine adventures with Franco during the course of their 20- year friendship. Photos of Franco and Nami atop of some of the most challenging peaks from around the world hang throughout the hut. Nami spends his summers in Switzerland working with Franco at the Capanna Campo Tencia. We are lucky to have them as hosts, especially for their culinary skills.

Franco gives us some suggestions of hikes in the area. With his advice that afternoon we walk to the Lago di Morghirolo, just below the ridge line that separates the Valle Maggia (the same one we were canyoneering earlier in the week) and Valle Leventina (an upper branch valley of the Riveiera where we were canyoneering the previous day). Our high altitude position gives us a great perspective of the geography of Ticino and the earth and water that feeds the canyons below. Eric and I take a short and frigid dip in the lake. Laura and I head back to the hut where we rest in our bunk beds and stare out of the panoramic windows. That evening with Franco and Nami in the kitchen, dinner is very special: minestrone soup, fresh salad, braised rosemary beef and pollenta with gravy. We share the dining room with several other small parties of hikers. Two young Swiss Dads wanted to get a quick hike and a tasty meal in before picking up their kids from school. I have to excuse myself several times during the dinner to run outside to the deck to photograph the glowing mountains at sunset.

After an early morning breakfast we venture out to tackle the summit of Pizzo Campo Tencia, the highest peak of the area at 3,072 meters (10,079 ft). Franco assures us the climb is non-technical that requires just a little use of the hands for some of the more tricky spots. The trail switchbacks through jagged rocks and climbs up steep slopes of grass that one would never be able to gain traction on were in not for the path. We climb higher with great views of the Capanna Campo Tencia below. We reach a tiny glacial lake at the bottom of a small glacier clinging to what remains of its life. Nami would later tell us that in the 20- years he has been summering at the Capanna Campo Tencia it has been frightening how much the glacier has diminished. We climb an exposed ridge and then skirt above the edge of the glacier to a rock strewn face that takes us to another ridge which takes us to the summit. Tibetan prayer flags and giant cairns adorn the summit. After a short break we carefully and slowly make our way back down to the  Capanna Campo Tencia. We say goodbye to Nami and Franco, gather our belongings and head back down the trail to our vehicle. We take a slightly different variation of the end of the hike walking through the larger mountain village of Dalpe as opposed to skirting around it. The trail ends in an alleyway between two buildings in Dalpe with what otherwise appears to be a road sign thats says “Capana Campo Tencia – 3.5 ore” referring to a three and a half hour walk to the hut. Hiking is definitively more part of the culture here.


For information and reservations for the Capana Campo Tencia click here.