Canyoning in Switzerland
Rhys, Jack, Sandeep, Peter
It's easy to book an 8am flight from Stansted. It's harder to make it across London on two night buses carrying 120 metres of ropes at 4am. Rhys, Peter and I met up in Liverpool St Station for the Stansted Express, and did some last minute weight equalisation between our two hold bags. The line at security was ridiculously long, and we only had ten minutes to get to our gate - time to prioritise. Peter got a coffee, I went to the loo and Rhys had a 7am pint at Wetherspoons. Classy.
We met Sandeep in Bergamo, a rather nice budget airline airport north-east of Milan. Firefly, the fly-by-night hire car company demanded an extra 300 euros for the privilege of driving to Switzerland without an 1500 euro excess. We grudgingly paid up after several angry phone calls, and made our way along the fast Italian motorways to our apartment in Viconago, close to Ponte Tresa on the Swiss border.
We'd found the apartment on AirBnB, and it was pretty sweet. Perched in a tiny Italian hill village overlooking a huge lake below, the apartment building looked ancient on the outside, but inside it was exactly like an Ikea showroom. We sat out on the balcony eating bread and olive oil and drinking wine. Canyoning seemed like a bad joke compared to a week of idling and faff.
On Sunday we decided to start easy. Our guidebook was Simon Flower's 'Canyoning in the Alps' - along with the standard ratings for Vertical and Aquatic character, he gave his own green-blue-red-black rating for difficulty. We choose Perlana Inferiore, a green-blue in a town called Lenno by Lake Como, an hour's drive east along some stunning roads. We parked up just below a monastery, filled our water bottles at a tap by the roadside and began the long hike up a road that began to disintegrate as we climbed. The directions seemed really clear, so we stuck with the road a long time. A very long time. It was midday, and relentlessly hot as we plowed on up the hill. Eventually we found a path to the side that we thought must be correct, and plunging down through the forest we did find the canyon. It was far from clear that we were at the right starting point, as we only had a 60m rope we could have found ourselves stranded after the first committing pull. Reluctantly, we turned back.
Backtracking most of the way back down the road we found a far more obvious side path we'd previously missed, which quickly lead us to the correct start point. At this point we couldn't wait to get into our wetsuits and the cool, fast flowing water, and we waded enthusiastically through the first section. I rigged the first pitch, and got to check how our tree training stood up to the real thing - it turns out using a Petzl Pirana is quite different on a wet, thick rope! We swapped round rigging duty until the novelty wore off - Sandeep rigged straddling a huge tree stuck in the canyon. Most of the pitches were wet in the sense that you would abseil through the flow of the water, but the flow wasn't strong and it was easy to keep control.
We were introduced to toboggans, chutes of smooth rock where the water flows quickly through to a deep pool, and the quickest way to progress is to treat it like a flume at a swimming pool. The first toboggan was four metres, which I found terrifying enough, but when we got to the 12m toboggan I really got scared. Rhys kindly volunteered to go first - as a precaution, I rigged a rope from the top so someone could abseil down quickly to help him if necessary. Fortunately everyone was fine, so I derigged the extra rope and went down last. What a blast! I torpedoed into the water with my eyes closed, and stayed submerged for several seconds before my wetsuit dragged me to the surface.
A bit further on we were met by the weird sight of concrete buildings built halfway up the canyon walls. I have no idea how old they were or what purpose they served. The guidebook described the next pitch as a cave, but suggested a headtorch wouldn't be necessary because you could see light through the other side. This is completely wrong. Only Rhys didn't have a headtorch, so I rigged in what was almost complete darkness from the top of a logjam six metres up. I waited in the freezing pool below, training my headtorch on Rhys as he descended. This was easily the scariest pitch of the canyon, which was odd given how used to caves I've become. I don't think we normally abseil through that much water!
The bizarre canyon village continued on the other side of the cave with walkways and staircases and more buildings. The pitches that followed were easy and enjoyable - we became relaxed and confident in the water and with pulling the rope. As the canyon entered the village, we decided to consult the guidebook for the way out - we had taken photos of the relevant pages on our waterproof cameras. It turns out the author is remarkably vague, and just suggests scrambling through some private property to make it to the road. After a bit of searching we found a way out, but an old Italian Granny stared at us until we retreated. Further down the river there was another path which was out of the line of sight of thaat fearsome sentry, and we escaped to the road and a bemused family of Italians whose view was spoilt by four grinning youths in skin tight neoprene.
On the drive back, we had a minor accident which meant the car needed towing. We had to take a taxi all the way back to Milan to pick up a new car. The full extent of how tedious and irritating this process was is too boring to share with you, but I'll summarise with this: never hire from Firefly.
The next day, in our new but identical car (The Unsinkable 2) we decided to check out one of the most recommended canyons in Ticino: Cresciano Inferiore, south of Biasca, Switzerland. Before we set off, we needed to call the dam operator to check no water would be released today. I greeted him in Italian, then asked if he could speak English. He suggested German, so I managed to cobble together a vaguely comprehensible sentence and promised to call him back when we were safely out of the canyon.
We parked up right by the train tracks in the flat bottom of a wide valley, and then hiked up the canyon. It is absolutely beautiful. The route up wound back and forth over the canyon, through deep, clear pools of water and a calm, sun dappled forest. We got a bit lost again looking for the start, but we found it in the end by following a path that seemed to go the right way. We found the rocks were a bit more slippery than yesterday. To speed the abseils up, we began to let less rope down so often the last half metre of the rappel would just be falling into the pool below. We meet some slightly longer pitches which were a nice step up - some of the rope pulls are very hard and require several people to help. One tactic that worked well was one person pulling on the rope with their body weight whilst another pulls them backwards.
We came to our first big jump, a four metre drop into a deep pool. I had no interest in doing this, so I volunteered to rappel into the pool and check its depth first. Peter, Rhys and Sandeep blasted me with water as they bombed into the deep pool, and I began to regret not having a go. I rigged a long pitch from a slippery, exposed spot, and went first, admiring the beautiful banding and striations on the rock as the pitch curved gracefully into a deep, cold pool. The next toboggan taught us to be careful about the depth of the water below - it turned out to be only half a metre, which made for an unpleasant surprise for Peter.
We saw some other canyoneers behind us, and decided to let them pass at the bottom of the next pitch. They had all the equipment - reinforced bums on their harnesses, neoprene hoods, a go-pro on every helmet, and they moved with incredible ease. We rigged a pitch that must have been ten metres high, and descended slowly - they simply tobogganed it, feet close together so they torpedoed deep into the water. A very friendly bunch, and great to see how fast and agile it was possible to become. After this pitch, the weather began to turn and we could hear thunder and then the patter of rain. Quickly the rocks became slick, and we realised we'd only done half the canyon in four hours. A little disheartened, we decided to bail back to car, which turned out to be an excellent idea.
Mount Lema (walk)
On Tuesday the forecast was poor, so we drove a short way to hike up Mount Lema, which has an observatory on the top. A cable car passed overhead most of the way, and despite the overcast weather I was sweating a great deal by the top. There was little to no view, so we descended quickly and drove to Lake Maggiore where the others went for a swim. It was great to have a rest day, but mostly it convinced us that we really wanted to go canyoning again!
The forecast was better on Wednesday, so we packed both ropes and headed out to Val Grande, north of Locarno, Switzerland. The drive was quite tedious as we didn't want to pay for the year pass for the toll roads (the shortest time for sale) but we made it quite early in the day. This time we didn't have any trouble finding the canyon. There was a steep descent from the path into the canyon itself, and we changed in the shade of the high walled canyon. The guidebook recommended going slightly upstream to try out a five metre toboggan, which we all had fun with before setting off down the canyon.
We had decided to take two ropes and split into two teams, leapfrogging each other - one pair would go ahead, rig the rope, wait for the other pair to descend and then derig. This worked very well, and I was happy to see we didn't lose any of the social nature of canyoning. It did lead to a slightly more lax attitude to checking whether the rope reached the bottom of the pitch - after all, the person who rigged it now didn't have to test it! Val Grande was definitely a step up - the rappels were longer and slippier, and the flow of water was much bigger, making it hard to rappel in the flow. Some of the rigging was very exposed, and reached by steep, slippery scrambles - it was a great relief to clip in. We often attached a sling to the rigging point for people to clip into as they made their way to the actual anchor.
At the penultimate pitch, we tried various ways of getting down what started as a relatively gentle slope and ended as a chute ripped through by a strong flow of water. Generally it seems like dropping bags to those below is a good tactic, given the difficulties we encountered. The last pitch was even worse - a long chute with very little to stand on on either side, and very fast water. Rhys bridged the gap admirably, and made a massive leap over the chute to a dry patch to complete his rappel. Peter went into the full flow of water, with his backpack trapping him against the rock, making it very hard to rappel. I had the rope bag on my back, an extra complication, and tried hard to bridge and follow Rhys' example. When it came to the massive leap I slipped and fell into the full flow. At this point I rappelled as quickly as possible to the bottom, the water carrying me down. I think I was in control, but I didn't stop to check! We escaped up the forested slope, a little shaken but quite pleased with ourselves.
The next day we realised we were running out of canyons we could get to and were easy enough for us, so we pushed up the difficulty and chose a blue-red near Cresciano, Val Iragna. We parked in the village square and drew some glances we got our equipment ready. The walk up was straightforwards, and we didn't get lost for once. We snacked on blackberries along the way, and made it into the water just after noon.
We started out with a decent size jump that I again skipped, instead down climbing to check the water level. I rigged as the others splashed happily away. The canyon was colder than the others, with a stiff breeze funnelled by the high walls and a fuelled by the many waterfalls. Many of the pitches were over 20m, and without the base visible from above we rigged conservatively, which slowed us down. Shortly after starting, a tour group was visible from above, and they were rapidly upon us. The first guide we spoke to was friendly and courteous, but it was clear they considered us an obstacle to providing their clients with a proper experience. We offered to let them go first, but they seemed unconcerned. Sandeep went down a pitch only to find the tour group hurling their rope bags down at him and then leaping into the water only a few metres away - really shitty behaviour.
Fortunately, they stopped for lunch shortly afterwards, so we pressed on. At the bottom of one long pitch I tried to pull the rope at an angle, but found instead I was pulled into the base of the pitch. Sandeep swam out and got the end of the rope to solid ground, where we could stand and pull more easily. We caught up with Rhys and Peter, who had a rigged an epic looking pitch accessible by a long handline over slippery rock. I'm glad I clipped in as I slipped several times making my way to the anchor. I descended first, into a beautiful chamber where the water had undercut the steep sides. It was great to sit there in the water just look around whilst i waited for Sandeep.
Shortly after that was a very aquatic pitch, like the last one in Val Grande - narrow chute, fast flowing water. To make it worse, getting to the rigging was a nightmare, and the bolts were rusty and worn. I went first as the tour group behind us caught us. As I went down, I noticed to my horror that my shoelace had broken, so I stopped halfway down the pitch to retie whatever knot I could with one hand. Unconvinced by this, I clipped my cowstail into the shoe, figuring that whatever else happened I would still have a shoe at the bottom. I took a big leap halfway down and gained a ledge that I used to edge round the main flow of water, but I slipped off and into the torrent, which dragged me quickly to the bottom. Not exactly fun.
The others decided this pitch looked very sketchy, and followed the tour group round a detour to a jump into the pool. The tour group behaved awfully as before, and we were quite annoyed by the time they had passed us. We were freezing cold, shivering violently and very hungry. We followed the tour group up a traverse line on the right to the top of a pitch we couldn't find on our topo - the last guide down told us it was 35m. We paused here in the only patch of sunshine we'd had all day to warm up and get some food in us. Then we rigged the pitch with two 60m ropes (the longest pitch so far) and I descended first. I may be a coward with the jumps, but I'm never bothered about descending first - the rope is very comforting.
At the bottom we hoped to find an escape. Everyone was a bit shaken and cold. Some were moving quite slowly, others were shivering violently. The only thing we could see was another pitch of indeterminate height, rigged at the end of a really sketchy looking traverse. We debated about trying to scramble out the sides of the canyon, but we couldn't see a safe route, so it was decided to continue. Rhys rigged the pitch - no one else wanted to or had the strength, but he went down first and it all seemed okay. It was slow progress waiting on the ledge, watching the others try and grab the rope safely and clip in their descender, testing and retesting, a bit uncertain of our abilities given the cold and the fatigue. I hadn't told the others that I hate going last on a pitch. When I can't see the rest of the group below, I get a huge hit of fear to the stomach as I watch the last person go and leave me totally alone. I spent a while checking and rechecking my descender. Eventually I plucked up the courage to go and slipped down the 40 metre pitch into a deep, freezing pool, lashed by the ferocious spray coming from the immense waterfall behind. Peter was waiting for me, and we managed to pack the rope as we shivered and fumbled in the cold.
It looked pretty bleak here, without any of the landmarks (stone bridge, escapes) we were told to expect by the guidebook. I clambered up one of the sides, using Rhys' shoulder as a step, and wandered along the rock, hoping to find a way out. Just on the left, up a short rock face I saw signs of erosion. I screamed 'PATH! I found a path!' at the others, who quickly joined me, using Sandeep as a step and then hauling him up last. We laughed, swore, took a photo and quickly left the canyon. It was by far the hardest we'd done, and gave me a real appreciation of the danger involved.
On the last day of canyoning, Peter couldn't join us due to a sprained foot. We went back to Cresciano Inferiore to rejoin the canyon where we had left it on Monday. We made quick progress with one rope and three people, and quickly descended into a pool of nude Belgians. They looked about as disgusted to see as as we were to see them. Whilst it was easier than the previous day, it was still cold and tough going - I wondered if I'd burned off all my energy reserves shivering the previous day, because I started shivering quickly in the canyon. One pool was especially cold, and had nowhere to stand out of the water, with the next pitch just at the lip. We bathed in the sunshine just out of line of sight of the Belgians, and when warmed continued to the valley floor. The view was increasingly industrial as we got lower down, with the trainline, airport and quarry dominating the valley bottom. We drove back to meet up with Peter, cooked a wonderful dinner and got happily drunk.
The next day was our last, so we cleaned thoroughly and set off at 11am to try out a nearby via ferrata. I'd excused myself due to my broken wrist, so I hiked up to the top of Monte San Salvatore whilst the others clipped into the metal cables and swung themselves up the cliff face. Then we drove to Lake Como, ate ice cream and got to the airport in time for our flight to be delayed.
This was our first time canyoning in Italy and Switzerland, and for some, the first time canyoning. There are a few things we'd do differently:
*Instead of getting a house near several canyoning regions, we'd pick one and minimise the driving time. Three hours driving a day is too much.
- We'd buy the Swiss toll pass to avoid all the crazy medieval towns
- Well fitting wetsuits are necessary to keep warm
- Piranas may not be superior to Petzl Go descenders - it's nice to be able to hardlock
- Make sure the apartment doesn't have a carpet so you can clean the floor easily