Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Last day – Val Lodrino intermedio & inferiore

Posted in Switzerland & Italy by canyoneering on December 4, 2012

Val Lodrino intermedio & inferiore, V5A5IV
Riviera, Ticino, Switzerland
09/07/12

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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.

Eric wades in Val Lodrino inferiore.

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.

-David

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
09/05/12

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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
09/06/12

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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.

-David

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
09/04/12

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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.

-David

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

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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.

-David

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

 

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
09/01/12

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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.

-David

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
08/31/12

 

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
08/31/12

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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
08/28/12

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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

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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