Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Road tripping Switzerland and Italy: Rock Climbing in the Val di Mello

What do you do when the Swiss Alps are having one of the wettest and coldest summer season's on record?  Do you still plan on climbing your chosen alpine lines despite the extensive amount of precipitation in the forecast?  Or do you look for a drier area and adapt your itinerary? We chose the latter and we ended up exploring one of the most beautiful and lush valleys we had ever seen.
Jonathon and my journey to the Val di Mello began in Brig, Switzerland after we got our rental car at the local Shell station.  After about a five hour drive over narrow mountain passes and dark tunnels, we arrived in the tiny town of San Martino.  This little village is the last town before the Val di Mello National Reserve.  We oriented ourselves to the local bar and pizzeria and then found a cheap but nice hotel.  At the gear store we perused the guidebooks and asked the locals about their favorite climbs.  The guidebooks are only in Italian and German so information was limited but we hatched a plan for the next couple days.

Cragging at the Sasso Remenno boulder seemed like our best option for the next day as the weather forecast looked less than promising and the rock in the upper valleys was likely still wet from the heavy rains of the previous day.  This is supposedly the largest boulder in Europe and it is literally the size of the hotel.  The rock is some sort of granodiorite and is of excellent quality.  There are probably about 100 plus routes from 4a to 8a, mostly about 80 feet but some routes go to the top of the boulder for a full 180 foot pitch.  There are a couple crack climbs but most of the routes are bolted.  We were easily entertained and enjoyed the fun climbing and beautiful views through the clouds of the upper valleys.  

Jonathon climbing one of the few crack climbs at Sasso Remenno
The following day was forecasted to be sunny at least for the first part of the day.  We learned that cars are not allowed into the Val di Mello but there is a shuttle that runs from town starting at 8 am.  In anticipation of afternoon thunderstorms, we wanted to get an earlier start than the shuttle would allow and so we borrowed some ghetto but functional bikes from the hotel and biked the couple miles uphill to the entrance of the park.  We were hoping to climb the uber-classic 380 meter 6b Luna Nascente on the Scoglio delle Metamorfosi.

With our vague directions, we hiked around in the woods for awhile in the general direction of our intended route.  Miraculously, we somehow found the start of the route.  Apparently this route can be very crowded but we did not see any other people and the trail was definitely not very obvious.  The route began with two challenging but short 5.10 pitches characterized by some overhanging fingercracks and slippery laybacks.  The middle pitches of the climb were much more moderate and were some of the best granite crack climbing we had ever done.  The views of the lush valley below, alpine peaks above and hanging waterfalls all around were some of the more inspiring landscapes we had ever seen.  The remaining pitches followed the low-angle slab to the top of the formation about 1700 feet above the valley floor.  While there was quite a bit of fixed pins on the route, there was not a single bolt and the whole route felt very pure and traditional.  We hiked off the dome over very exposed grassy ledges and made our way back to the clear blue swimming hole that we had discovered on our approach.

Following the 2nd pitch on Luna Nascente

Jonathon following the third pitch of Luna Nascente

Luna Nascente mainly follows this skyline

As predicted, it rained that afternoon and the next day.  The next day, we did a couple more pitches at Sasso Remenno, which we learned dries out very quickly.  We also checked out the thermal baths at Bagni di Masino.  While relaxing, the pool reminded me a bit of an old high school swimming pool.  

On our next clear day, we made plans to climb the other classic route Oceano Irrazionale on Precipizio degli Asteroidi. This is "The Line" that you can see from town.  We were stoked to give it a go.  After befriending the owner of the Gatto Roja restaurant in the Val di Mello, he allowed us to park our car in his lot.  We were very glad to avoid the uphill bike ride on our old-school bikes.  The approach to the climb was epic in itself.  We essentially climbed and traversed around a waterfall on a series of very exposed grassy ledges.  There were a handful of old fixed ropes that we used, some with the actual core of the rope exposed.  The rocks and grass were extra slick from the previous rainfall and morning dew.  After two hours of extreme hiking, we got to the base of our route only to discover that it was soaking wet.  It was disheartening to say the least.  We sat around and debated our options, quickly deciding that this route needed at least two more days of sunshine to dry out to at least be somewhat climbable.  Fortunately, we didn't have to reverse our approach hike and we were able to rappel the lower to dome to get back to the valley.  As if we needed another slap in the face, our ropes got stuck not once but twice as we were utilizing a new rappel pull cord system.  Jonathon, being the gentleman that he is, graciously prussiked up both times to fix them.

On the epic approach to Oceano Irrazionale
When we got back to the car, it was before noon and we new that we didn't want to waste the day.  We re-fueled with cappuccino and cake and made our way to a slabby buttress where we had seen people climbing the other day.  We ended up climbing an easy 5 pitch slab route that was nothing to write home about but it was dry and it was in a beautiful setting.  The scariest part about the climb was the massive, poisonous snake that was hanging out in one of the cracks on the first pitch.  We finished the day with a couple more pitches at the Sasso Remenno and then went to our favorite or rather the only pizzeria for some of the best pizza we had ever had.

The forecast deteriorated for the reminded of our trip and we new that it was time to leave the Val di Mello.  We drove to Chiavenna in search of a multi-pitch sport climb on Dalo, the mountainous formation just outside of town. What we found instead was a very quaint Italian village with tons of rock climbing that was beckoning to be climbed if it just wasn't so wet.  We ended up doing some shopping at the outdoor market and then found an overhanging crag literally in someone's backyard that was miraculously dry.  The local Italians were crushing and provided some good entertainment.  We finished the day with a great dinner at a tasty Italian restaurant that was built into an old castle.

View of Chiavenna
The next day we drove to Ticino in Switzerland, halfway between our current destination and our final stop in Brig.  We cragged at Ponto Brollo  on Setore Est and found great bolted routes on some sort of granitic rock.  After our bodies were sufficiently tired, we made the drive back to Brig and began the journey home.

Downtown Brig
While we didn't complete the objectives that I had planned on, this trip instead centered around being flexible and adaptable, traits that are challenging for me.  I am a planner and I like to stick to my plans.  However, climbing has forced me to work on becoming more flexible and to work on letting go of expectations.  Once again, this funny sport continues to teach me new things about life and I am grateful for these opportunities.  I have learned that when I let go of the shoulds and supposed tos, I can begin to more truly experience the present moment and often that moment is quite good.  In this case, we found ourselves in one of Italy's gems and experienced a beautiful place we likely would have never found ourselves had my initial plans panned out.

Despite the rain, we climbed six days in a row and completed one of the most memorable routes we had ever climbed.  Northern Italy continues to be one of my favorite places to climb and visit.  There are so many beautiful landscapes to explore and climbing venues to check out.  We have only begun to scratch the surface.  The food is delicious, the people are friendly and its relatively affordable.   I have found that climbing internationally, is not entirely about the climbing.  It is about exploring a new country and navigating the logistics associated with climbing in foreign lands.  It is these things that help make the journey complete and climbing is only a means to experiencing different parts of the world.  

Thanks to Patagonia and Petzl for providing me with the best gear out there.


The Val di Mello is located in Northern Italy just past San Martino.  The closest airport is Milan and it is about a 2 - 3 drive from there.  
It has been described as Italy's Yosemite but we did not find it nearly as popular or as crowded as Yosemite.  We did find it every bit as stunning and beautiful.  That being said, it is typically a fall and spring destination as it is usually too hot in the summer for climbing.  There is everything from single pitch sport routes (from 4a to 8a) to multi-pitch trad lines to aid lines.  There is lots of slab climbing and the alpine rock routes are just a day's hike to the refugio.


Fiorelli's Pizzeria is the best restaurant in town.  For 6 - 8 Euros you can get a big, homemade Italian pizza.  The Gato Roja in the Val di Mello is also a great place to get a post-climb meal as its the first restaurant you will come upon after climbing in the Valley.  The food is quite tasty.   Gelato and cappuccino  can be found at a number of cafes in the town center.  Bar Monica and Kundalee are great places to get some drinks.  There is a small market in town but groceries are limited.  We stocked up at a grocery store in Morbego for snacks and other supplies.


We stayed at Hotel Bucaneve for 46 Euros/night including breakfast.  It was clean, quiet and simple.  Although we thought it might be some sort of retirement home as we were the youngest people there.  There is also camping at numerous sites in the general vicinity.

Waterfall in Val di Mello

Hanging out by the swimming hole in Val di Mello

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