Sam in Europe, Part 1: Ticino

(To help follow these adventures, you might want to use the awesome online Swiss topographic map! Zoom in and the detail will increase!)


or, “Mi scusi, questo l’autobus si ferma a Cresciano? Si? Un biglietto, por favore”

So after a few days cruising around Lake Como and the Italian towns on the lake shore, I missed my first train in Europe when I tried to head back to Bellinzona, the capitol of Ticino. As it turns out, the next train was actually faster, so I arrived in Bellinzona with about half an hour before the bus to Cresciano.

I’d hoped to stay at the 1001 Bloc hostel in Cresciano, but it was booked solid. It’s really nice, but also small. They let me leave my pack there and hang around the common room though, which was nice.

So I thought about trying to find a boulder to sleep under, but instead I stayed in the hostel in Bellinzona, apparently an old converted Catholic girl’s college. This was a good choice, as it turned out to be next door to a 13th century castle, and the bus to Cresciano left hourly and only took 15 minutes. I walked past two more castles on the way to the bus stop. I read on UK climbing that it was hard to get to the bouldering villages in Ticino, but that person had clearly owned a car for too long. The buses are good, and the trains attain a standard of perfection that I guess you’d expect from Switzerland.

Anyway, the first day I walked in to 1001 Bloc and asked where the boulders were. They guy was like “Uh there’s only one road, just walk up the hill!” Indeed, you walk up the hill for half an hour, either by the road, or the hiking trail marked with standard painted red-and-white stripes. Then the road ends, and the hiking trail continues up into the forest, marked by a signpost plastered with climbing stickers. Anyway, I found the boulders.

Ganymede 4+

The rock was fine-grained white-grey granite, with a surprising amount of moss in places, and just the right amount of features. I was surprised how well the best stuff in Armidale/Beulah compared. I wandered around climbing random stuff, with just shoes and chalk. I managed to find problems (many marked with white painted arrows) with good landings. A German guy called Oliver turned up, and he had a pad and a guidebook. Ones I remember were a fantastic smeary face problem called ‘Ganymede’ 4+, a crimpy block face called ‘Aria Sottile’ 6a, and ‘Feeling’ 6a+, the emotional crux of the day. After a few attempts I got up the flake to the scoop, and was like “Yes!”, then realised the slab above was 60 degrees and glass smooth, and I couldn’t climb back down, and didn’t have a pad. Good times, good times. I found ‘Dreamtime’ (which has a surprisingly sketchy, slopey, roll-fifty-metres-down-the-hill landing), managed to hang off the holds for the third move, then walked back down as the afternoon thunderstorm broke.

The village of Cresciano

The next day, I wandered around further to a different area, climbed some stuff, same deal. Did one great arete ‘Frogger’s Balls’ 5. I climbed for a bit with a French couple, Pierre and Lou. Pierre tried a beautiful but absolutely brutally razor-sharp problem, 7b or something. I could barely pull of the ground. Pierre told me about the famous slab down the hill ‘Never Ending Story’ 6b+, featured in the movie Chocolate, and which has been known to shut down 8a climbers. Of course I had to have a go. Pierre didn’t really want to touch it for some reason.

Above the crux on “Never Ending Story”

The crux move is off the ground. You run at the wall, try to run up it and into a smear on a really shallow scoop – a ‘slab dyno’? Then it’s a couple of slab moves up and right, until you can latch crimps onto a rail just below the top. Really unique problem, and counts as my send of the trip, and probably one of my hardest boulders to date?

Pizzo di Claro

or, Second couloir to the right and straight on through the morning 

For Thursday and Friday, I wanted to climb a peak, so after extensive browsing on Summitpost I picked out the Pizzo di Claro, one of the most prominent peaks around Bellinzona, with over 2.4km different in altitude between it and the valley. When I first saw it from the window of the train, it had a full on Everest-style flag cloud streaming from the pyramid-like summit, which was exiting. I had three options: do it in a day (a brisk 2.4km of vertical up and back down), stay at the Alp Peurette hut which was unmanned, or stay at the Brogoldone hut which was hosted, had flushing toilets, and a spectacular location overlooking two valleys and the city. I was technically on holiday, so I of course took the easy option.

So on Thursday morning I caught the bus to Lumino and missed the gondola by about fifteen minutes. As the ancient operator explained, pointing at the timetable: “Otto. Nove, Dieci…” “Yeah, uh…Si si. I’ll, uh, come back in half an hour”

While waiting outside the gondola station I was approached by a guy called Danielo. “You go to the hut? Capanna Brogoldone?”

“Yeah, yeah!”

“My girlfriend, she the hut. Could you deliver her this letter?”

“Sure! No problem!” Awesome, now I had a quest.

“Thank you, thank you!”

I was joined on the gondola by a group of elderly Italian hikers, and had a sort of halting conversation, with absolutely no comprehension. The gondola took us to 1200m, where I filled up with water and started up the hill following the signposts.

The first part was through a pine forest, situated on the steep slope. Passing the occasional water trough, this gradually gave way to brilliant alpine meadows straight out of a painting of classical beauty. By about 10am I had pushed up the last slope to see the hut, above the treeline and at the end of the spur separating the Valle Leventina and the Valle Mesocina, and the routes over the St Goddard and St Bernard passes.

Location location location.

I met Laura and Theresa, the wardens, and successfully delivered the letter to many smiles. The weather was brilliant, a perfect sunny day, so at about 10:30 I set off again, up the grassy hill from the hut.

After climbing for a while in the heat, I skirted over and around the hill (Piz de Molinera) and onto a razorback ridge. At this point, with the summit pyramid ahead, the awesome views really started kicking in and I thought “as good as the Western Arthurs!” After flying along the crest ridge with a giant smile, I caught up to a party on a boulder slope heading up to the base of the south ridge. It was two pleasant guys, Fabio and his non-hiker friend (whose name I forgot unfortunately, I think it was overshadowed by meeting an actual Fabio) who he was taking up the mountain.

Although the normal route was, as mentioned, to take the second couloir on the right up the south-east flank and then onto east ridge, we followed a line of painted white dots up the south ridge, skirting around all the steps on the west face. There was some 3rd class stuff on rocks and steep grass, with plenty of exposure: the sheep being herded below were dots, and weren’t even a quarter of the way down to the valley! I stayed pretty close on to the ridge itself and got some nice 3rd and 4th class scrambling on straight rock in parts.

The summit was a pile of rocks and boulders, marked with the traditional cross. As I signed the logbook, I was told a legend that on an exceedingly clear day, it is possible to see the sun reflecting off the golden Madonina on top of the great cathedral in Milan. Whether this is true or not, Monte Rosa was definitely visible, with the Matterhorn hidden behind that. North was the glacial lake of the Lago di Canee, and snow patches heading up to the Torrent Alto and the Adula/Rheinwaldhorn, the highest peak in Ticino and source of the river Rhine.

After signing the summit register, I traversed the summit ridge and started down the normal route. Me, Fabio and his friend accidentally started down the first couloir by accident, which was a much steeper and longer talus chute. An hour or so of harrowing talus negotiating followed, with the drip and tinkle of water as the rock walls on either side started to tower overhead. At one point I was kicking steps through a snowpatch over the narrowest part of the couloir. I was finally starting to feel that the helmet I’d lugged all the way up was not silly! Anyway, I made it down, traversed more talus back to the razorback ridge we’d come up, bid goodbye to the others and strolled back down to the hut.

The couloir of death talus

As it turns out, I was the only person staying at the hut that night! It was a Thursday, but it was also apparently the first day of good weather in a long time. We ate outside, with mountains and valleys below us on all sides. Dinner was excellent minestrone soup and gnocci, washed down with beer. Beer definitely tastes better when it’s been flown in by helicopter. After the meal, Laura, Theresa and young Martin (I think, sorry if I remembered the name wrong!) hiked up the hill above the hut to have supper up there, and enjoy the good weather and the sunset – “We’ve been stuck inside the hut in bad weather for weeks!” I stayed behind with the dog and the horses. The dog at Capanna Brogoldone has seriously the best football skills of any dog I’ve ever seen. His ball handling was amazing. Walking down to the hut’s flagpole, I watched the sun slowly set and the light wink on in Bellinzona, twinkling and wavering far down in the valley below.

Laura, Martin and Theresa

Monasteries and Castles

The morning dawned dim, windy, rainy, and misty with poor visibility. Guess Laura was right about the bad weather. After breakfast, I made goodbyes, and followed the signpost down towards the villages of Maruso and Claro. Soon I was back below the treeline, the drizzle falling silently through the pines, as I slammed around switchback after switchback, thighs burning down endless steps and slopes.

I did slightly over a mile of vertical descent that morning, from the Capanna Brogoldone at 1904m to the bus stop in the village of Claro itself at 268m. Towards the bottom, I passed the Monastery of Santa Maria, founded in 1490. It’s still active actually and full of nuns, in fact they have a brand new cable car that goes down the village. It was all locked though, so I only really got to see the walls, before walking down the ancient slippery cobbled path to the village.

Back in Bellinzona, I had time to visit the Castel Grande, the biggest and baddest castle in the town, built on top of a big crag of rock in the centre of the valley, and overlooking a wall that was built across the entire valley Helm’s-Deep style, apparently to keep the Dukes of Milan from invading the Canton of Uri, in their long struggle for control of the St Goddard and other passes through the alps.

I checked out of the hostel and caught the train back to Zurich, beginning to plan the next week. Bern, Interlaken and the Bernese Oberland – I had a pilgrimage to make.


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